The air was warm in the pit under the tavern roof, but Karla still felt the temperature drop several degrees.
Calvin covered his mouth, perhaps sensing he’d said far too much, trying to put the words back. The silence rippled through the tavern pit as people whispered the words, then fell quiet, staring at Karla.
The world was faint–she was on autopilot, like Raven wound up. The drinkers multiplied until a few failed pilots nursing jugs of beer became a legion of orbiting satellites staring her down.
What did this guy know about her mother?
A pair of small hands grasped her waist: Jenny’s. “All right, I don’t know what anyone’s talking about,” the girl said, “but my friend and I have had a long night, and we need to crash upstairs. Calvin, does your dad have a room free?”
“I…” Calvin knelt down, gathering his tray, though beer was already soaking into the dirt floor. “She’s here. Rooms can wait…I mean she can have a room…”
He rose, turning pleadingly toward Griffin and Rose. “Tell them. Tell them Mara is back.”
The tavern consisted of two sides on one corner open to the street, raised about half a human’s height above the ground so the drinkers saw people’s legs moving back and forth past their eye level. The other two walls were the bar–just a row of long tables fronting stacks of barrels with beerand wine scrawled on them–and stairways up to the rooms on the second level. Innkeepers kept these for new arrivals to live in while they figured out how to live in the city.
Beyond the bar and the few tables set up on barrels, two stairways led up to street level. In three bounds, graceful as a deer, Rose sprang to the other one, her heavy wrench appearing from nowhere. “Nobody leaves.”
A chorus of leathery rasps whistled through the bar as several people stood from their mugs, drawing dirks and clubs to oppose her. Behind Karla and Jenny, Griffin pulled out his long knife. “Rose,” he asked uncertainly, “is he right?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Rose was somehow holding the entire pub’s gaze at once. “This place is under quarantine, as of right now. We let anyone know anyone who knew Mara is in here, McConnell’s bar gets crushed under the weight of five hundred desperate Rusters. Would your father want that, Calvin?”
The gawky young man, always looking younger and drunker than it seemed like he should be, shook his head.
Karla felt as though she was back in the sky, standing atop Nashido’s high tower without furs on. People’s stares were stripping her bare and she was frozen before them. All this was on her. They wanted something she couldn’t give.
Come on, said Kio’s voice in her ear. This is what I’d expect out of me. You’re a Harpooneer too, even if I’m not supposed to know what that means.
Just like that, the cold began to dissipate. Karla knew the truth: this was on her to defuse.
A tall boy who appeared barely older than her had somehow jimmied an arm of his chair, and stood, hefting it like a club. “Fine, then. We’ll just have to beat it out of her ourselves.”
“Simon, didn’t they kick you out of the city council hideout for being too dumb?” Jenny piped up. “That’s rough, man. They let Finn join.”
“Jenny,” Griff warned.
The lanky Simon wandered close enough for Karla to see the scars pockmarking his face. From rough landings, she thought, or from fights? He had a smell of moldy hops about him.
“How’d you get every single one of your people up to the sphere?” he demanded of her. “And how’d you get back?”
Karla adopted a bearing she imagined her revolutionary mother would have used–tall, expressionless, commanding–and stepped forward to meet him.
“I don’t appreciate being threatened,” she said. “If you want to know how I did it, you could ask nicely.”
“Asking nicely works better when there’s been some hittin’ first.” Simon smacked his chair-leg into his palm. The drinkers were mostly motionless at their tables, though some sat down, realizing this had gotten out of hand.
“You ever heard the story about the golden goose?” Karla asked. It had suddenly flashed into her mind from the picture books she and Kio had pored over as six-year-olds so they wouldn’t forget how to read.
“The hell you on about?” Simon clearly thought he would be beating someone by now.
“There’s a guy who brings home a magical goose that lays a golden egg every day.” Kio had thought a goose was a mythical creature until he found a more scientific illustration of one. “But soon just one lump of gold per day wasn’t enough for him. He knew the goose had to be keeping treasure from him inside its belly.”
She shuddered. The blood-red marks on the illustration for the next part had always freaked her out. “So he sliced it open, and inside, there was nothing but goose guts. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“You got a magic goose on the sphere?” Simon looked less angry and more impressed at this point.
Behind Karla, Jenny smacked her forehead. “No, moron. She means don’t beat her half to death or she’ll never spill her secret. You want to get to the sphere or not?”
A man near him sheathed his knife. Griff exhaled audibly.
“Yeah, don’t screw this up for us, people,” someone near the bar said. “We just got dealt a damn good hand. We start a fight, it sets fire to all the cards.”
“Exactly,” came a voice from the steps along the back wall.
Everyone turned. Grace McConnell, Calvin’s mother, strode down from the upstairs rooms, throwing axes strapped to her back.
“Exactly what?” Rose asked cautiously.
“Cards.” Grace winked and twirled a deck in one hand. “Everyone ought to stay for a round of five-suit and drinks on the house. Contingent on you giving my friends some peace and quiet upstairs.”
There was a long pause before Griff spoke up. “That would be…fine with us.”
Amid a general murmur of assent, Karla felt every one of her muscles relax at the same time, combined with another, pricklier feeling she couldn’t put a name too.
“That was amazing!” Jenny kept saying as they made their way upstairs. “It’s like you channeled her! Like you totally transformed!”
Karla stifled a laugh. Jenny had no idea just how much experience she had with transforming.
Something occurred to her. “Wait, aren’t you twelve? Did you ever meet my mother?”
“No!” Jenny replied. “I was two. But who cares? I feel like I have, now!”
Karla looked to both Rose and Griffin, but neither of them disagreed. A tiny but unavoidable well of grief opened within Karla: she shouldn’t have had to guess at her mother’s demeanor, right or otherwise.
She would never get to see Mara, even the way Jenny just had.
They paused on the stairs as Rose conferred briefly with the patrons sitting around one table in the corner. When she caught back up with them, she shook her head. “No news about the city council. But nothing seems blown up. We have to assume Adam and Sarah have the situation under control.”
The hallway upstairs was cramped but well-lit, with a swept wooden floor and lanterns hanging in brackets. Three doors, two on the same side, opened onto little rooms, each with a bed, a chair, a chamber pot, and a small window set high in the wall. Through the gap, Karla saw several gliders circling on an updraft, perhaps for one final desperate shot at Nashido.
Rose motioned for her to sit on the bed. Griff offered her the chair, and stood with his back to the wall, facing the window. Jenny sat on the floor, cross-legged, watching Karla.
For a while, nobody spoke, everyone trying to figure out how to start the conversation and exactly what conversation needed to be started. Karla took a second to bask in the feeling of not fearing for her life.
Soon, however, her desire to know overrode her need for peace. She looked around at all the faces looking back at her: sturdy, determined Rose, eager Jenny, cautiously fascinated Dr. Griffin.
These were good people. Good people she had found on the surface. And they had known Mara.
“Who was she?” she asked. “Who was my mother to all of you?”
Jenny clapped her hands. “Ooh, tell the story! I’d like to hear it again too.”
“It’s a good one! And then you can tell us yours.”
Sure, Karla thought. In a few hours I might be ready for that.
Griff’s arms stayed folded, but his eyes were awash with something, and it wasn’t all happy.
“It’s our story,” Rose answered at last. “The story of Freetown.”
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