Rose pushed her way back into the room, a story already on her lips about how Grace’s card-sharp prowess had the regulars so angry they could hardly remember another slave had escaped from the sphere.
She found Jenny sobbing, Karla staring blankly at the wall, and a distinctly guilty-looking Dr. Edward Griffin trying to comfort them both at once.
“What did you say to them?” she demanded.
“You knew what story I was going to tell when you left!” he pleaded, backing toward the window and ceding the room to Rose.
“Did you take any time at all to see if they’d be ready?”
“I thought–” Griffin hissed in a voice he evidently perceived as quiet, “–Jenny can dismantle and rebuild a tail fin aileronater in twenty-five minutes.”
“And that means she’s no longer a twelve-year-old girl?” Rose knew she was rubbing her temples a lot lately, but the night was the sort that called for it. “Let’s stop for tonight. We can finish in your workshop when it’s–”
Both of them turned.
The shout had come from the bed, where Karla, the Harpooneer’s daughter, was sitting rigid as a statue.
“I want to hear all of it,” she told them. “Every bit. Don’t hold back because you think it’ll hurt me or you don’t want to say it or it’s getting late. All of it.”
She pounded the bedspread to punctuate the last three words.
For the first time, Rose took a long look at Karla, taking everything in. She didn’t know yet what the young woman had gone through in the sky–only that it was something she had to work up to talking about.
Yet to survive up there, Karla must have been unimaginably strong. Rose felt an ache inside to look at this indestructible girl with her sunbleached hair and sky-darkened skin. Every day, in her job, she saw people on the worst day of their life. She thought she would have been used to it by now. She hadn’t reckoned on meeting somebody whose entire life had been one big worst day.
In that moment, Rose vowed to give her a better day. Just one golden hour she could give freely that Karla could call her own. Often, too often, that was all her Remedium vows and training could do.
“Let me tell my story,” she said. Griffin relaxed to have the weight taken off him.
“All right.” Karla nodded.
Jenny wiped her eyes. “Yeah, no more ugly surprises for a little while.”
Rose shut the door, and began.
“The vows of a graduate of a Remedium Academy are simple. Spread the light as far as you can, for as long as you can. When I stood up in the sanctum and received my eight-pointed star,” here she touched the emblem sewn onto her breast, almost without thinking, “I knew I wanted to go someplace that had never seen a healer before.”
Jenny dried her eyes on her sleeve with one great, final sniff. “Yeah, but there must be places in the world more remote than Rust, right? At least we have clockwork and…I dunno, wells and stuff.”
Rose pondered for a moment. “I think what intrigued me was more the way this place was forgotten by history. Hannah’s story became a backwater after her death–a ghost tale nobody took seriously. After all, the disappearances had stopped. The people who religiously quoted old books describing sightings of the creatures were laughed off as kooks. But nobody ever mentioned the descendants of Hannah’s followers leaving the island. It didn’t take too much asking around on the Toral coast to learn that people still lived out here. Not only that, more kept arriving.”
Something had seemed to nag at Karla while Rose explained this part. She spoke up when the healer paused for breath. “How could this place still be so remote if everyone on the continent knows where it is?”
“Ah, well, stories don’t pass equally through all groups of people.”
Dr. Griffin half-smiled when she said this. It was a kernel her father had enjoyed, and when she’d first voiced it to him, he’d finished it with the correct metaphor: men and women are not grains of sand, and tales are not water. It had felt strange, so quickly after arriving, to have a hidden joke with a local, like being given her own room the first day of boarding school. But that was jumping ahead.
“I treated broken bones in a fishing village until I had enough to pay for passage, then I hopped a ferry. I can still remember when I first saw the island drawing over the horizon. The crescent around the bay, those sharp drops into the ocean, and then the lights from the plateau…”
For a second she closed her eyes, recalling the scents and sounds.
“You sure she’s got gold, Aiden?” The small man tossed Rose’s bag aside. “Nothin’ in that satchel. An’ it smells funny.”
“A trick,” snapped Aiden, who was holding a hatchet to Rose’s throat. “Didn’t work. Now she’s gonna tell us where the real one is.”
“There is–there is no real one,” Rose said, missing a step as Aiden feinted at her right eye with the blade. “You’re smelling my herbs. I’m a healer.”
Aiden directed his lackey back to the satchel. “Check for a false bottom.”
Rose had never been robbed before. All the way through the voyage, she had remained convinced she was making the right decision. Stepping onto the isle’s creaky, half-eaten dock, startling up cormorants who glared at her as they fled to higher refuges, she only felt more sure. The salt in the air, the sublime snaggletooth of the mountains, the utter sense of being as far as possible from everywhere–every bit of it came together into an atmosphere of destiny.
Wearing that destiny like an amulet, Rose squared her shoulders, and adopted the posture she imagined someone would hold if they were being robbed but taking it really well.
“What makes you certain I’m lying?” she asked Aiden.
“This.” Aiden flung his empty hand wide, indicating the whole street beyond. From the top of the wooden stairs drilled into the cliffs, Rose could see up the whole sweep of the town.
Acres of squat habitations with corrugated roofs reached uphill toward an abrupt end at the sheer mountainside, tumbling down toward an equally steep drop. None of the streets were paved. Lumber and scrap metal piled on every surface. A sunset, filtered through wisps of smoke, cast a red pall over the whole scene.
“In Rust, you either chase the real money in the sky, or make pocket money on the ground.” Aiden tapped the blade against Rose’s chin. “And you ain’t carrying no flying machine in that bag. You must have a stake. Can’t start a business without a loan.”
“It’s not a business.” Despite the cool of the morning, sweat dampened Rose’s forehead. “I’m consecrated to the Remedium. I work for the public.”
“Goodness of your own heart?” Aiden’s eyes narrowed.
“My heart doesn’t enter into it. I took vows.”
A shadow slipped out of a hole in a fence beside her and seized Rose from behind, pinning her arms. She shouted and struggled against the new bandit’s grip–he was built like a standing stone. How had he stayed hidden?
Aiden pointed the hatchet at Rose’s chest. “The gold, healer girl. Or I’ll check your heart myself.”
The smoke in the sky turned from grey to a bright-tinged blue.
Rose felt the clamp-sized hands release her. “Damn it!” Aiden exclaimed. “Not now!”
“How far to the hideout?” the little one asked.
“A few minutes.” The two tore off down the street. “Ranson might not kill us if we run.”
“Hey!” Aiden raced after them, tripping over Rose’s bag. “You can’t launch without me!”
Alone, Rose gathered her kit in a daze. People darted to and fro amid the huts, whose windows glowed as the thuds and clangs of last-minute touch-ups rang out. Behind doors, on roofs and in yards, propellers whipped into life.
Cresting a hill, she confirmed the source of the glow: the crystal, tallest object in town by a factor of three. The important thing was to be in the air when it lit up–lest your neighbor beat you to the sphere. Rose thought about straining to catch a glimpse of it, but staring up at the sky while ignoring the ground seemed a poor idea right now.
The next second, however, she became unable to look away.
Several pilots who were quick on their feet, who’d been lucky enough to be tinkering with their craft when the hue and cry announced the glow, were already in the air. Suddenly, those in the lead of the flock swerved hard.
Rose winced. She had zero aeronautical background and even she could tell the flyers hadn’t been built for hairpin turns. Why would they? The only obstacles in the sky were your next-door neighbors. There were the crescent mountains, but that was a matter of altitude.
She was still thinking along these lines when she saw what they’d turned hard to avoid. A craft was streaking the wrong direction with the speed of a meteor. Years later, Rose would swear it had left a trail of sparks.
The young healer was transfixed. The plane hurtling earthward was a strange enough sight to push the mugging holdup from her mind. Others, strange people with grimy aprons and goggles and children in tow, froze near her.
Someone had the presence of mind to shout aloud. Several people dove into the alley where Aiden’s massive henchman had hidden. Rose nearly followed them. The craft was a missile, and when it landed, it would take out a whole block…
…but it had a pilot. A pilot who would need help.
A voice in Rose’s head, reciting the vows she was to repeat: I swear that no danger, no hardship, no fear will keep me from rendering good to every person I see in need.
The plane was feet from the rooftops now. In the blink of an eye it seemed it had crossed half the sky.
A glint of metal caught Rose’s eye: someone had dropped a long wrench in the dirt street in their hurry to take shelter. She snatched it up, liking the heft of it for protection against further bandits, and strode toward the falling plane.
The next instant, it struck.
Rose had never heard such a loud sound. Had never imagined sounds could be so loud. The single shattering crash rattled every one of her bones and sent a blinding shockwave from her head through her ribcage. Her ears rang.
When her muscles stopped vibrating, she did a head-to-toe self-check as quickly as she could. Nothing broken, bleeding, or ruptured.
Finding her way to the impact site was harder than she’d thought–the town streets refused to conform to any orthogonal system–but by following her memory of its flight path, she discovered a grassy circle, like a dale dug out of the mountain.
Or, at least, the former site of a dale. As she’d expected, the impact had caved in every roof it had landed on, plus some it had just skimmed across. All she saw now was a twisted pile of smouldering wreckage, with a handful of people gawking around its edges.
Rose’s confidence melted away like a summer frost. There was no way anybody was alive in there.
Her wrench hung loosely at her side. Who had she been kidding? She was a scholar, a reader, fantasizing about all the great works she would do in far-flung places. This was her first real experience, and she’d already failed. There was absolutely nothing here she could change.
Just like that, two words pierced the aether. Two words Rose would think of many years past whenever she looked out on the world and saw nothing but smouldering wreckage.
Her head snapped up.
The shout had come from across the pile of scrap lumber. A woman with brown hair plastered to her forehead was pointing into a cockpit Rose couldn’t see. A man was with her, helping her walk: he had dark hair and a well-groomed beard, and was dressed in what looked like a stitched-together labcoat. He took a second to help the woman sit against a wall. When she exasperatedly assured him she was fine, he ran toward the cockpit.
Others were gathering at the edges of the dale. “Let me through!” Rose shouted at them, tying her hair back with trembling fingers to let her eight-pointed star patch show. “I’m a healer! Let me through!”
By the time she maneuvered her way to where she could see the human carnage, the bearded man was already trying to force his way in to the pilot. Rushing in beside him, Rose could see how she might have had a chance of surviving. The cockpit was a fully-enclosed pod fully capable of concealing some technology that would have saved her.
“What are you doing?” she asked the man.
“Trying to find a pressure point,” he replied. “There should be a way for it to pop open, otherwise the whole thing would crumple whenever it–”
“Are you an engineer?” Rose cut in deleriously. He could help her get inside!
The man nodded. “Griffin,” he said, and kept feeling around for–
“Wait!” Jenny shouted at her uncle. “You were there too? Was I the only one who missed this?”
“You didn’t miss by as much as you thought.” Griff and Rose both started laughing again, and this time, it felt easy. Rose recalled being a little girl, knew how aggravating it could be when the adults had one over on you, or were pretending they did. So she understood Jenny’s frustration when she snapped, “I don’t remember this at all!”
“You wouldn’t.” Rose suppressed another laugh, and knelt down to Jenny. “Remember that woman your uncle brought to the scene? That was your mother.”
The younger girl turned beet-red. “She was pregnant with me?”
“She would be, but not for a few years yet,” Griff said, then looked to Karla, who was even more rapt than ever. “The pilot of the wrecked skycraft was your mother. Mara Harpooneer, first person to return from imprisonment on the castle in the sky in five hundred years.”
Karla was stock-still on the bed, hardly daring to breathe. Even Jenny fell silent. Griff said, “A crash so early in a glow was strange enough. But it was what she told us next that we all truly remembered.”
“What did she tell you?” Karla breathed.
“Nothing much.” Rose didn’t feel like laughing anymore. “Just that the world was going to end.”
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