Freetown 1

The door kicked open, and everyone’s head swiveled in unison–but it was just Calvin, bearing such a full tray of drinks that he had to shove his way into the room shoulder-first.

“My dad wanted me to tell you guys they’re combing town for the City Council,” he said as he awkwardly tried to find a spot to set the tray down, settling for leaving it on the floor next to Jenny. The four mugs on it were brimming with a reddish-brown liquid flecked with traces of foam. Jenny reached for one, but at a sharp look from Dr. Griffin, pretended she had been moving to scratch her knee.

“Have they found any of them?” Rose asked.

“Uh-uh.” Calvin’s apron sat funny on his shoulders. “Mom and Dad formed a…a what do you call it. Citizen posse. He’s got the Kalends and Jada and Mr. van Diemen and a few others. But they can’t turn up any of the council guys.”

Rose clamped her eyes shut. “This is always how it goes,” she explained to Karla, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “They harass people for a few weeks, try something flashy, then rush back to their boltholes until people forget. Usually the next glow.”

“But until tonight they had yet to put any plans into practice during the glow itself,” Griffin pointed out.

“Hey Calvin,” Jenny asked, “is anyone talking about Karla down there?”

“Ah…well…” The young man looked at his hands.

Rose swore. “Start without me,” she said to Griffin, and swept through the doorway. “I’ve got to get those people drunker. Promises not to talk only go so far.”

“What’ll you do?” asked Griffin.

“Help Grace run five-suit, most likely. I’ve a decent dealing hand.” And with a quick grin, she stamped downstairs.

Karla started at the word. Promises. She had been thinking about promises. Was it wrong to have made one when she hadn’t been a hundred percent sure she could have kept it? She couldn’t have predicted for transforming into animals, obviously…or could she have? Was there some book she should have read?

What the hell does that mean? she scolded herself. She’d been five. If she wanted to act like Kio, the better time to start was right now. What he would do here would be to get the entire context of the situation. Know all he could.

When Calvin had left–to boil some water at Griffin’s request–she met the older man’s eyes. “Before you get to my mother,” she asked, “can you tell me where this town came from?”

Jenny grimaced, and grabbed one of the mugs before her uncle could stop her, lifting it up to Karla. “You’re gonna need a drink for that story.”

“Jenny,” Griff warned.

“What? There’s clearly something pretty great about that stuff, or you people wouldn’t keep not letting me drink it.”

Wanting to spare Jenny further trouble, Karla took the mug, and sipped tentatively. It tasted bitter, but also dark and sweet, reminding her of the one time she’d scrounged chocolate.

“It’s ale,” Jenny told her. “Water, yeast, barley, and hops. That’s a kind of berry some people grow in their yards here.”

“Drink it slow,” Griff said, then to Jenny, “Where do you learn these things?”

“Where did I learn to build skycraft?” Jenny shot back. “You leave a lot of books around.”

Karla took another swallow. “I thought…” she said with even more care than she’d sipped the ale with, “…something like…that this town was the capital of somewhere.”

Jenny burst out in a giggle. “Rust? Of where?”

The world, Karla would have said yesterday. Instead she ventured, “The archipelago?”

“Aye, I suppose so.” Griffin shifted against the wall, looking up at the sliver of mountain visible through the tiny window. “As all of the other settlements on these islands are smaller. Some have moved to the outlying isles to claim more space for aircraft, but since they can’t see the crystal from there, it becomes something of a wash. Most of them become shepherds.”

A thrill went through Karla at those words. What a wonderful thing, she thought, to be a shepherd on an isle with grass and trees of her own. She’d never leave a life like that to go chasing after treasure.

Jenny, in her corner, was still chortling. “I’m sorry,” she said when she could breathe, “but can you imagine if Rust Town was the capital of the world? What sort of world would that even be?”

“It’s all I knew,” Karla told her, sharper than she meant to.

Jenny’s face quickly sobered. “I really am sorry. It’s just…not something I ever dreamed anybody could think. But I never dreamed anybody lived on the sphere, either.”

With a twisting of the knot in her gut, Karla realized she hadn’t told them about Kio yet. It would have to be now, here, in this room.

Whenever she was ready to admit she’d doomed him to a life alone. A life she couldn’t possibly rescue him from, where he’d grow old on Nashido. Probably would go mad.

“How long has the town been here?” she asked Griffin so she could think about literally anything else.

“Generations,” the engineer said. “But the story starts even before that. Hundreds of years ago, back when the Toral Empire was nothing but a rump state of the Great Confederation, people began going missing from isolated villages.”

Karla’s ears perked up. For the moment, she was able to surface from the cycle of guilt and take a breath.

Griffin continued. “Back in those days the Twin Continents were a lot more like things are here. Fighting on the roads, bandits in the wilds. Citizens expected to be their own police.”

Karla vaguely recalled the term “police” from one of the library’s more lurid books–more sophisticated studies of sky kingdom politics tended to prefer “guards” or other terms that sounded more graceful. “Is that like Calvin’s dad’s citizen militia?”

“Adam’s militia would likely have done a better job than police for the people of these villages,” Griffin said. “If Aiden and Finn can be found, he’ll find them. The villagers, though, had no recourse. No clues. No way to move forward.”

Absently, Karla twisted a handful of threadbare blanket in one hand. She could think of several ways this might lead to Castle Nashido, and none of them were good.

Griffin paced what little floor he had. “Some blamed bandits, but the bandits were losing people as well. Eventually, there was one woman–a priestess of the religion that became the Remedium–”

“The what?” Karla interrupted.

“The league Rose is a member of,” Jenny piped up. “They walk the world healing people in exchange for charity. They’re so freaking cool!”

“They’re the major remaining arm of what was once the world’s dominant faith. Before more enlightened times.”

“Uncle, you can’t call things more enlightened now just because we have better machines! With the Torals running all over the place–”

“Jenny,” Griffin said firmly, “we’re supposed to be helping Karla.”

“What did the woman do?” Karla asked, to forestall an argument it seemed like the two of them had waged before. If anybody knew about having the same arguments for years on end, it was her.

“The woman’s name was Hannah, later called Hannah the Navigator,” Griffin said, finding a tolerable spot of wall to lean on. “She traveled the Twin Continents, gathering stories from places where these disappearances had occurred. She suspected demons, or some strange new infection–nobody’s quite sure what she thought, but the confirmed theory was stranger than what anyone suspected.”

Karla swallowed.

“Hannah discovered that there was, in fact, a single connecting thread between all the disappearances.” He paused, enough to make Karla suspect the engineer was a natural showman at heart. “Strange activity in the skies.”

“What sort?” Karla asked.

“Nothing definite. Some said they saw great winged devils in the sky when their loved one was taken. Others disagreed, claiming to have witnessed some sort of machine. But everyone at length agreed the missing people had been taken to the skies.”

“Wait!” Jenny sprang up. “A flying machine that’s also a monster–isn’t that what I saw right after I rescued you?”

“I…” For the first time, Karla was more interested in the story than distressed, but she still wanted more information before she let those details go. “You said I wouldn’t have to talk about that.”

“Until you’re ready,” Griffin said, not doing an excellent job of disguising how urgently he wanted to hear.

“Fine, you two, but I’m gonna think more about this.”

“Hannah tracked the creatures,” the skycrafter went on. “She made an alliance of others on the same trail, and followed the course of the stories out into the eastern ocean. That’s what got her the name Navigator.”

I want to learn how to navigate by the stars, Karla thought suddenly, and then, I want Kio to learn too.

Jenny cut across the rising lump in her throat by blurting out, “What if the monsters are machines that gained consciousness?”

The timing was so perfect Karla wondered if the younger girl had known. Again, she felt immensely grateful to Jennifer Griffin.

“If that’s possible, I certainly hope nobody in this town stumbles on it first,” Griffin told her. “Anyway. The island they found, as you’ve probably guessed, was this one.”

“And they found the crystal?” Karla craned her neck, barely catching a glimpse of the great gem in the center of the plateau. Its blue glow was fading slowly away.

Griffin nodded. “Exactly. The other members of the expedition wanted to move on, but Hannah convinced them to stay and watch the crystal, and that’s why we remember her name and none of the others.”

“Did she see Castle Nashido?”

Jenny winced. “Gonna have a hard time remembering to call it that.”

“Welcome to my feelings about Rust Town,” Karla muttered.

“Hannah was lucky.” Griffin laced his fingers behind his back and started out the window at the crystal. “Not only did it only take her a few weeks of observation before her first glow, but there was a creature returning to the castle as it neared this island. She and her retinue got the first good looks anybody’d ever had at the beasts.”

Karla’s mind was a wash of debris sloshing back and forth. Could it be true? The bone dragons, her nemeses, had been kidnapping people from the surface for hundreds of years? Could that explain why there was no mention of them in the Rokhshan annals–because the historians had been covering up a crime in which they were complicit?

“Hannah saved them, right?” Jenny’s face was full of hope. “She’s the hero here. She has to have gone up and saved all the people from the castle, right?”

Griffin looked at her for a long moment, as though afraid to deliver the killing blow in a fight whose beginning he’d relished.

“No,” he said at length. “Hannah the Navigator never reached the castle. She never found the slaves.”

Jenny slumped in the corner.

The following quiet left Karla alone to turn yet another indigestible word over and over. Slaves. There it was at last.

She remembered it. Ever since the Inner Citadel, and even before that, from between the lines of her hidden letter. Land-folk are nothing but slaves to them, livestock to be harvested and thrown away. Land-folk are nothing but slaves to them, livestock to be harvested and thrown away.

Of course the House Rokhshan took landling slaves. What else would the Harpooneers have been fighting?

“The first skycraft launched toward…” Griffin paushed and snapped his fingers.

“Castle Nashido,” Karla supplied.

“Nashido. The first expeditions weren’t treasure hunts. They were rescue missions, launched in fleets every time Hannah or one of her associates saw the crystal glow.” Griffin sighed. “But science just hadn’t advanced far enough. They didn’t have the planes. Hannah grew old, waiting to save the people she’d crossed the world to find.”

Jenny buried her face in her hands. Karla looked askance at Griffin. “Haven’t you told her this story before?”

“Not…not this part.” Griffin seemed to have noticed his niece wasn’t taking the ending well. “While she never made it to the sky…”

“She died?” Jenny wailed. “I know she’d be five hundred years old, but–”

“She didn’t make it,” Griffin crossed the room hastily to put an arm around Jenny’s shoulders while the girl sniffled, “and nobody else made it, but–”

Without thinking, Karla made a slash across her throat with one hand, a Kio signal for cut it out. It must have been a surface gesture as well, because something changed in Griffin’s eyes and he hurried on with his ending.

“One of the slaves did come back!” he told Jenny.

“Yeah, I know that bit,” Jenny snorted. “Everyone does. It was Mara.”

The room grew faint, muffled. Somebody called her name. Somebody threw the door open, exchanged confused words with someone else. Karla watched the scene from a faraway ledge in a dream.

Either her family line had been trapped on Nashido for five hundred years before she had been too, or…

She didn’t know which was worse.

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