“Hold up!” Dr. Griffin panted. In the middle of Low Dusk, skirting after Rose between a garbage pit and a pile of rubble that had once been a stack of crates, he collapsed with his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
Rose looked at him, unimpressed. “I ran all the way from the clinic before this, you know.”
“Yeah, well, I was in a fight with a knife-wielding madman,” Griffin managed. “Which I won, by the way. Give me three seconds.”
Rose raised an eyebrow. “One.”
“All right, all right!” Griffin staggered to his feet. “Let’s go. I can do this.”
He caught his second wind as he chased her long coat, its hem flapping through pools of light. Lanterns spilled soft glows, hanging under eaves in the tight alley, swinging in a light and metal-tanged breeze. Rose skimmed left and right through them like she had a map in her brain. Griffin could have made it without following her. Years in Rust Town did that to anybody, even though Rose was relatively new.
Soon they left the warren of pathways behind. The ground sloped more steeply down toward the sea. Low Dusk was drowsy, even with the glow, but behind them, a tide of noise–propellors and shouts and landing gear–was rising in Main Rust.
Ahead, though, was a carpet of seagull cries and waves, a scritch-scritch of talons on rocks. Dr. Griffin went here often. Usually, it made him able to exhale, to breathe in air that wasn’t saturated with steam and soot.
Tonight, though, his thoughts were only on Jenny. He scrambled faster and faster down a dirt trail, kicking rocks down the hillside. A carpet of grass wafted in the wind.
“The dock’s not far,” Rose called over her shoulder. “Do you have a plan?”
“Honestly,” Griffin replied, “I’m kind of assuming she does.”
Jenny was fiddling with a small metal canister.
Karla wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do here, but if it were Kio, she’d probably apologize. She was, after all, basically the entire reason they were both in this mess. Without her, Jenny would be back at…Rust Town? By now.
She shifted closer to the younger girl. “I’m sorry about this. I didn’t think–”
“What? Didn’t think anybody on the surface cared about a magic floating castle?” Jenny didn’t look at her. “Don’t talk to me or they’ll tie us up.”
That wasn’t entirely fair. Karla had looked down at the Big Island for year after year, and had imagined every now and then that somebody was looking back. But could those planes really have been trying to reach Castle Nashido? They must have known they had no chance to get there, right?
And where did this thing about us having treasure come from?
Being sold to some Emperor was bad enough, but being the property of a megalomaniac whose desire for riches she couldn’t satisfy sounded quite a bit worse.
She looked around herself. Ranson’s crew were straining at their oars again, pulling them over the waves toward what looked like solid cliff. Which made sense. A slaver’s secret cave wouldn’t just be sitting out in the open–she and Kio had seen fishing boats around here. One could stumble on it far too easily.
Tracing the cliff the other direction, she saw it slope down into a gravelly beach. A rickety fisher’s wharf was barely visible in the moonlight.
Could they swim for it? Ranson hadn’t tied them up, figuring there was nowhere to go, but Karla had swam enough in the reservoir and was strong enough to make it.
No way, she heard Kio say in her head, though Perfect Karla was already swimming. The ocean is so different from our reservoir it’s not funny. There are waves and it’s freezing and everything is salty.
Hearing his voice hardened her resolve. She’d promised to get him down. She had not come to the surface to get sold into slavery by a guy who wouldn’t even row his own raft.
Jenny had managed to pry the top off her canister by the time Karla slid back over to her, keeping her work hidden between her knees from Ranson and the crew. A bit of greyish-brown powder was leaking from the open lid.
“Look, Karla or whoever you are, I know you’re sorry. Just let me finish this.”
She stopped herself from asking finish what? and sat back hugging her knees in the center of the raft, wishing her first meetings with other people had gone better.
Soon, however, Jenny slid over toward her, and whispered much more quietly than before–so quietly only Karla could hear the words over the wind and waves.
“Do you happen to have a way to make fire?”
Wanting to help, Karla racked her brains. How many ways had she and Kio made fire before? Bowdrills with salvaged wood, matches from sky kingdoms, that one time they pilfered a pipe from the ruins of an old tavern and lit it by sparking an old lump of coal on the wall and took turns failing to smoke it…
A point of glowing light, much closer than the stars.
“The cigar,” she whispered to Jenny.
She nodded, keeping her voice at a muffled hiss. “I’ll distract him. You grab it.”
Karla held up a hand in what she hoped was the universal gesture for wait.
Jenny waited. Though what Karla could see in her eyes was growing murderous. She hoped it wasn’t some sort of vulgar gesture on the surface.
“Why,” she growled as the raft drew closer to the cliff face, “are we waiting?”
“Shut up down there,” one of the oarsmen snapped. Ranson whirled around, tracing a line across Karla’s eyes with the precious cigar flame. Karla and Jenny snapped their hands behind their backs and looked up at him with innocent gazes.
When he turned away again, Karla made a triangle with her fingers, then pointed to their destination on the seacliff, then the pebble beach.
A second later, Jenny nodded. Karla hoped she understood. Ranson was paddling in a wide arc to get out of the bay’s windblown center as fast as he could, into the shelter of the cliff. If the powder from the canister really was some kind of fuel, they had to set it off in the brief window when the raft was closer to the beach landing than the secret lair.
The oarsmen heaved closer to the Big Island’s cliff. The wind died down. Karla stared at the pebble beach, and vowed she’d get there, with Jenny, or die fighting Ranson’s bid to clamp her in chains.
Meeting the emperor could wait. Karla laid her hand over Jenny’s with three fingers extended.
Jenny shoved the oarsman beside her, slapping his oar hard against the ones on either side of it. She ducked while the burly man swung his hand to strike her.
Ranson spun again, his fine coat whipping behind him, to see the source of the commotion. “That’s it,” he said, scowling. “You. Tie their hands. Feet too, in case they get any ideas about–”
Karla surged up. Ranson had removed the cigar to gesture with it while giving his order–all she had to do was snatch it out of his hand.
The short man lunged, tangling Karla in his ridiculous coat. Jenny was yelling, something like “Now, now now now!” With one more mighty yank, the burning cinder was free, and Karla slammed her hand down, praying to Mara she’d hit the trail of powder Jenny had left.
At the bottom of the hill, the path petered out onto the wide crescent of scree where the Rusters had built their dock. Several wharves all stuck out in different directions, all but one made of wood too rotted-through to be useful for much but bird roosts. Several cormorants scattered off into the dusk as Rose dragged Griffin off the path behind a tall upright stone.
“Did you see him?” she asked as they squatted in a pebbly, salt-scented cranny.
“Ranson?” Griffin said. “Yeah. His raft was a few hundred feet–”
A flash lit the night, followed by a clap like a thunderstorm in a bottle. Griffin’s first thought was that some other city council enforcer had let off his canister bomb–but the sound had been too small to be the power they’d bragged about. Unless their bluff had been enormous…
Rose was already around the rock and running for the waves. By the time Griffin caught up, she had shed her apron. He threw off his white coat to land next to hers.
“Come on!” the healer shouted. “She’s in the water!”
Griffin looked up to see a scene he couldn’t have imagined two hours ago. Amid the black offshore night, Master Ranson’s raft was a bright spot, flames licking ten feet up from its deck. Most of the oarsmen were already in the water, some swimming for the cliff wall, some clinging to floating oars and splashing water on the flames. Two of them carried Ranson, who was clutching the side of his face, screaming for them to work faster.
“And catch them! Catch the two girls!” he squealed, when he had spare breath to do so.
Griffin’s eyes darted down to where a pair of long white foamy spots thrashed through the water. He splashed as far as he could, then dove, started to swim. Rose was beside him, hair plastered to her sodden clothes, dragging herself through the waves.
The two white lines moved closer, resolved themselves, as two oarsmen broke off from the burning raft to chase them. “Get to land!” Griffin shouted. “Ranson won’t try his crap in town. He’s too much of a coward.”
The swimmers were near enough that even in weak moonlight, he could tell one of them was Jenny. A brief memory flashed through his mind, of cradling her in this water once before, as a green cloud drifted high above and the town turned to ash.
She closed the distance surprisingly quickly. Her arms flew around his neck and held tight. He grabbed her legs as well, thrashed until his feet found ground again, began to wade.
Rose, beside him, held another girl in a similar grip. She looked older than Jenny, though not yet an adult. Dark-skinned, yet ash-blond, with a face as weathered as any Ruster’s her age. She could have come from anywhere.
But she must have flown far.
Back on shore, he and Rose scrambled to their feet to help their passengers up. “We gotta go,” was the first thing Jenny said.
Griffin held her shoulders. “You can run on your own?”
“Yes!” she replied so quickly he remembered two of Ranson’s henchmen were still on their tail. Rose looked both of them up and down, pronounced them fit to run, and they ran.
“Get back here!” Ranson wailed in the distance. “I rightfully claimed you!”
But as strong as his oarsmen were, rowing, then swimming, then chasing down a quarry would slow anybody. Griffin, Rose, Jenny, and the other girl had crossed the beach before they made it to shore.
“This is Karla, by the way,” Jenny panted. “She’s from nowhere, but we lost your craft, and now…oh. Oh, everything’s messed up.”
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