The room contracted. The sounds of drinking and gaming, kicked chairs and pounded tables and songs, wafted up from a different world below, drifting past the ears of four people huddled alone together.
“I used to like this story,” Jenny said shakily. Karla forced out a giggle.
Leaning on the windowsill, facing out, Dr. Griffin sensed he had a duty. He badly wished he were back in his workshop, tinkering with a wing joint while the kettle boiled in the background–or at least that he were certain the city council hadn’t moved in and turned it into a drug den. He didn’t trust McConnell’s gang to search thoroughly enough.
But Rose had taken the burden for long enough. She deserved to breathe.
“Rose,” he began. “You want me to…”
She nodded, sank into the chair. Time for Griffin to shoulder the story again.
“What happened after you and Rose got my mother out of the plane?” Karla asked. “Was she really not hurt?”
Griffin shut the door and leaned against it. “No, she was injured very badly. But she was alive, and Rose thought she could be saved, if enough space and decent supplies could be found. She sent me running off to find water and bandages while Rachel–Jenny’s mother–led her to an abandoned workshop she knew.”
He coughed a bit, not entirely proud of having delayed this task, even years later. “But before I left, I checked inside the cockpit to see what material she’d used. Something that could withstand that kind of impact was nothing short of magical.”
With a strange look in her eyes, Karla interjected, “Were there glowing runes carved all over the inside?”
“Dr. Griffin, it was magical.”
Griffin broke off, perturbed. Was it possible this girl wielded the same power? “Do you have any knowledge of these runes? Could you possibly–”
“Griff,” Rose warned. “Story.”
“No, wait!” Jenny put a hand on the healer’s ankle. “If these things actually work, they could revolutionize engineering. We could put magic and flight together to create something completely new. How do we know that’s not how all these Harpooneer women have been getting up and down in the first place?”
With a visible effort, Karla got up, crossed the room, and sat down in the corner next to Jenny, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll totally tell you everything I know,” she said with a smile, “but I wanna hear the rest first.”
Jenny swallowed and nodded, nearly bursting with excitement. Griff smiled too, to see the change from her tears.
He also didn’t mind the space on the bed. Even he could only pace for so long.
Settling down, with a creak of dust and springs, he launched back into the tale.
There were four in the room when the woman woke up: Rachel, resting on an overturned crate, eyes sharp. Kevin at her back, muscles in a protective tense, hair prematurely white in a mirror of what Edward could expect soon. Edward himself, arms aching from hauing another pail of water back from the rusty old pump in the next yard–he knew he could improve the damn thing given two hours free. Finally, there was the new healer, Rose, with her close-cropped brown hair and sure way of moving, coaxing the woman to drink.
The woman herself was named Mara, and she bore the marks of her story on her skin. When Rose changed her bandages, Edward could see old wounds on her, gashes inflicted with a crop. This woman had fought back and been punished for it.
For a while, there was no sound but Rose tutting and Mara wincing as the healer continued to clean her wounds. At last, Edward’s brother Kevin broke the silence.
“If this is true,” he said, moving closer to his wife, “it will cause riots.”
“It is, and it will kill everyone whether they riot or not,” Mara replied, forcing the words out as though it hurt to talk. Kevin flinched, but Edward appreciated her bluntness.
There was likely no room for mincing words in the sky. Less so if you were stealing an airplane and escaping from slavery.
What sorts of hazards did these people face that in five hundred years none of them had managed the same feat as Mara?
“This thing you’re claiming is coming,” Rachel spoke up. “This…dark cloud.”
“Ash Cloud,” Mara corrected.
“Right. Ash Cloud. You’re certain you can’t forecast it.”
Mara made to shake her head before Rose rushed in to stop her. Any movement threatened to loosen her bandages.
She settled for blinking hard. “Not even the Rokhshan could forecast it. They knew it was coming, knew it would come soon, but they couldn’t pinpoint the day or the season. Even that was better than what the Sky Kingdoms believed–watching Lord Rokhshan struggle to convince them, I could almost feel sympathy for the bastards.”
“Which bastards?” Edward asked.
Rose somehow sensed that Mara was going to shrug, and placed hands on both shoulders. “Rokhshan, SK, who cares?” said the pilot. “They’re all bastards to me. But not even they deserve what’s coming.”
“But…” Rachel ventured. “The Rokhshan know about the Ash Cloud. Can’t they take precautions?”
“They’re taking the wrong ones,” Mara told her. “They think they can ride it out on their castle–some garbage they believe their Benefactor told them. They can’t. There’s only one place on their castle you can safely escape this thing, and they’ve got a sacred prohibition against going in.”
“Unhelpful,” Edward remarked.
“At least they’ve got one.” Mara looked at him, and he felt a strange crackle–as though she’d sized him up and found him wanting.
“Why not warn them?” Kevin asked. “They are practical people, I’m sure, to survive up there. They would have listened.”
“Love, don’t…” Rachel reached up to touch his chin, twinging Edward’s chest a couple different directions, but Mara had already turned her hard gaze toward the elder Griffin.
“Look,” she commanded.
“I…” Kevin tried a smile. “I am looking.”
“Under the bandages.” Mara’s voice grew louder. “At the scars. Trace them with your fingers, I don’t care. I want you to know they did to me.”
“I’d rather not–“
“He’s sorry,” Rachel said firmly. “Aren’t you, dear?”
“Yes.” With the conversation, in his mind, settled, Kevin tried to change tack. “How can we–“
But Mara wasn’t finished. “Do you know how many people have lived and died under the Rokhshan yoke without ever seeing the ground? How many have been thrown off the towers for so-called insubordination without ever having known freedom? They named me a house servant, I waited at table, and I was still whipped when some fat aunt decided I had been stealing.”
She pushed herself to her feet to stare at Kevin, finally forcing her way through Rose’s grip–but the bandages held. Rose breathed deeply, and Edward shared her relief. She’d applied them well.
“I didn’t break out so I could save them,” she told all four of her listeners. “I came down here for two reasons. First, your town needs to fight back against the Ash Cloud. And second, we need to liberate the slaves on Nashido.”
“Liberate them?” Edward asked. “How many of them?”
Mara appraised him again. “All of them. Would I have come down here if I intended anything less?”
“That’s…” Edward fumbled his words. “That’s impossible. Dozens of people go missing every generation. The people of this town can’t get a single plane as high as the castle, and you’re asking us to get a fleet up there, to assault a fortified position on ground there’s no way we can train for…”
He trailed off when he realized Rachel was looking at him–not with the penetrating stare of Mara, just with soft bewilderment.
And, he imagined, disappointment. He sighed.
“It could be possible, right?” Rose the healer asked. “I mean…nobody had ever made it down before. Until now.”
“Falling slowly is one thing. Rising is another,” Kevin said, but thoughtfully, as though he wasn’t discounting Rose’s point.
Mara was still testing her range of motion, Rose following behind her with her hands hovering like a terrified new mother. She stumbled a few times–once on a dust-covered workbench, once onto the healer–but was gaining strength with astounding speed for someone who’d been in a fatal crash two hours ago.
At least fatal to anyone else, Edward thought. Who is this woman?
“I will rescue the others, or I’ll die,” Mara said matter-of-factly when she reached Kevin and Rachel. “But first, we must prepare for the Ash Cloud. It could come tomorrow for all the sky’s soothsayers know.”
“And what will happen if we aren’t ready?” Rachel’s face was pale, but the twist of her hands in her lap hinted at the inner vigor she so often hid.
“The cloud will announce itself with green in the air. The temperature on the island will rise, not catastrophically, but you will notice. Then your people will begin to cough. This means the gas has come, and it has entered your lungs. You don’t need to breathe in its presence for it to harm you. You will hallucinate. You will suffocate.” Mara sat heavily onto the cot where she had woken. “You will be dead within minutes.”
“Why should we believe you?” Kevin challenged. “This magical load of aether coming out of nowhere to kill us all–you could have made it all up. I have no idea why, but you’ve given us no evidence–”
“The Rokhshan have runes that saved me from a ten-thousand foot fall,” Mara replied. “They have crystals that produce a breathable atmosphere for them. They regularly trade with floating rocks the size of cities. Trust them when it comes to magic.”
Another debate broke out between Mara, Kevin, and Rachel, with Rose speaking up. The immediate details escaped Edward. He was distracted by something he had seen as Mara had made her circuit around the abandoned workshop, proving to the surface world that she could walk.
Around the back of her wrist, just under where a splint and gauze lashed the battered extremity in place, Mara had tied a leather cord. Hanging from it was a charm made of a metal he couldn’t recognize, in the shape of an old harpoon: the kind used before Toral ships had depleted whales from all Twin Continent waters. It was a strange thing for such a practical person to carry on a mission with so little room for error.
What did it mean to her? Had somebody given it to her? And if they had, were they still trapped aboard the flying castle she’d refused to name, with all the others she was determined to save?
Karla’s face revealed nothing at this point, save how very much like her mother she’d grown up. The poor girl had learned so much in such a short time that her non-essential mental systems were likely shutting down to cope with the strain. But she still spoke.
“My father. That’s why you mentioned the harpoon charm. She got it from my father.”
Griffin nodded. Speaking of bandages, better to just rip this one off.
Karla, however, beat him to it. “That means that when she told you guys about the Ash Cloud, she was pregnant with me. I was there.”
“In a way,” Griffin said, “you were the sixth. You truly have been a Harpooneer from birth.”
“So…in that room…”
Rose sighed. “On that day, the Harpooneers were born.”
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