Freetown 5

She told all of it.

Telling was a funny feeling. She’d never had anyone to tell things to before, except for her diary. Kio always knew everything she knew–landling secrets notwithstanding. He didn’t just have her whole story by heart, he was her story. And she was his.

To have a story to tell this way, though: it made her more real. That was the strangest part. As she told Jenny, Griffin, and Rose about Raven and the bone dragons, about the sky kingdoms and the Inner Citadel, about learning she could transform into a bird–Jenny stopped her for a quarter of an hour after that one–it was as though she was creating a source for herself, a light that would shine onto the surface world.

It was as though she hadn’t been real, here on this island, before she told this story.

At last she got to the final scene. She flew away from Nashido’s hangar as a raven, and got attacked midair by a bone dragon. Then Jenny diverted the course of her flyer to snatch her out of the sky.

“What about Kio?” Jenny asked. The younger girl was rocking back and forth on her haunches.

Karla armored herself. The question would pierce right through her if she let it.

“I’m gonna save him,” she said.

“No, you’re not.”

Jenny!” Griffin and Rose shouted in unison. The gut-punch had hardly registered when–

“Not alone, I meant!” Jenny shouted. “Not without help. She can’t build a plane in Rust Town, alone, while pretending to everybody that she’s never met Mara. She needs us.”

“Us?” Rose shook her head. “I’m not an engineer.”

“A doctor is useful anywhere,” Jenny urged. “All kinds of doctors.”

Griffin stood up. “I’ve lived in this town for sixteen years. I sent my aeronautics thesis back to the academy, I watched my brother and his wife fly away, I’ve worked and worked on other people’s broken pots and misaligned wings and I’ve tried to get to that sphere. The situation is not going to change just because we’re looking for a boy instead of treasure. Karla’s problem is the same problem facing every Ruster.”

“The situation has changed.” Jenny scowled. “Karla knows things. If we can combine her knowledge with ours we’ll have an advantage over everybody else.”

“Karla needs a realistic sense of her chances! You’re doing her no favors pretending we can warp her into the sky tomorrow.”

“But she can turn into a bird! Why not just have her fly the second half of the way?”

“Because ravens are not meant to live or fly at that altitude! She’ll never make it!”

Humans aren’t meant to live at that altitude!”

Head swiveling back and forth as niece and uncle argued, Karla finally caught Rose’s eye. The healer shrugged, probably knowing from long experience how hard it would be to stop them.

But Karla had an idea. She slid along the bed to get closer.

“The woman downstairs, keeping everyone distracted,” she whispered to Rose. “What was her name?”

“Oh. Grace McConnell?”

“Yeah, her. Do you think she could get me a quill and some paper?”

Grace sent Calvin up with the supplies. Her son looked neither gangly nor boozy as he cleared away their mugs on the tray he brought the paper with–just weary. Karla prayed he’d get to go to sleep soon. Her own eyelids felt heavy.

She set pen to paper, as Rose watched, and as Griffin and Jenny sparred over a new version of their skycraft.

“Before it sank, I was thinking the pilot bar sat too far back. That’s exactly the kind of thing Karla could confirm for us.”

“She’s not a talking book, Jenny! Our priority is keeping her safe!”

The quill was scratchy and the ink didn’t blot right, but Karla managed. After a few runny, failed attempts, she got into the rhythm on a clean corner of the paper.

“What about all the people who think you’re crazy for not building off Mara’s design? Don’t you want to prove them wrong?”

“That is none of your business!”

It took shape: the curves, the dots, the dashes sliding over each other to make a figure like a gossamer wing.

Knowing when she’d finished wasn’t a problem. One final set of dots, in the southwest corner, and the paper took flight. Halfway through a retort, Jenny dove out of the way of what looked in peripheral vision like an enormous bug. Griffin reached out to grab the paper, but it sprang up out of the way, darting toward the ceiling. There, flat against a wooden rafter, it came to rest.

“Karla,” Rose breathed, “What…what even…”

“It’s Kio,” she said, heart thudding. “He had that symbol tattooed on his face.”

***

Gone midnight. Near dawn. Nobody felt like sleeping.

The four of them cleared out of the inn, past tables full of snoring patrons, with a wink from Grace who was pretending to be passed out on the bar. They spilled into a dawn that would shatter at the slightest touch, a misty fall of light that was barely holding onto the world.

Nobody felt tired. Jenny hammered Karla with questions, which the sky-girl answered willingly, a new fire lighting her from within. Rose led the way in silent commitment to keep all the fools in her life safe.

Griffin, in the middle, must have been the only one not at peace with his thoughts. He kept glancing up at the mountains, up to the high crest where he’d taken her that first day, to smell the heather and watch the birds fly over the horizon.

Back when there had been some notion that he and Kevin would compete for her.

Unbidden, the memory of Rachel turned into another.

 

The ash cloud pushed air before it as it rolled on. High winds hurtled away from the purple mass, driving high waves ahead of them. In the middle of it all, Griffin kept one white-knuckled hand on the tiller, his other arm tightly around the little girl wrapped in his oilskin coat.

There was nothing on his mind. All the imperatives that should have been there–protect Jenny, get away from the poison–were edged out by a tiredness that emanated from his bones. He’d been awake for twenty-six hours. Eighteen hours ago, Mara had tested the air and shouted that it was time. Kevin and Rachel had rushed to the planes. Griffin had raced to the boats.

He couldn’t see the others anymore. Those who hadn’t run early had launched together from the ragged docks at the base of the island: fishing boats mostly. He’d taken Jenny into Old Cooper’s dinghy, after they both saw Cooper collapse on the slope and tumble down three stories of rock, clawing at his throat.

The others launching beside him had been skeptics, or had believed there would be more time to prepare. They’d all been wrong. Only Griffin had been right. It gave him no comfort.

There had been a larger, stronger barge leaving at the same time, which he could have taken passage on. He had pushed Rose toward it instead. She in turn had tried to take Jenny, but the girl had clung to Griff, and they didn’t have time to fight the issue out.

The healer was always all right. She would have to be all right.

Chill spray lashed his back. His thin coat was never warm, just damp. In a brief lull he tore it off and wrapped it over the other he’d already given Jenny. The tiny girl was huddled in the bottom of the dinghy, murky water lapping at her. Her lips had turned blue.

Minute after minute, Griff strained to hold the tiller in place. One turn, one buck too far by the storm-tossed craft, would hurl them back into the jaws of the ash cloud.

I can’t believe Mara was right about everything, he thought.

I can’t believe they’re all gone.

The dinghy rushed up a wave, its pathetic little mainsail flapping in defiance. Griffin lashed out from the tiller and took hold of Jenny again, keeping her in place while the fishing boat rushed down into a canyon made of water. She wasn’t even crying.

Griffin thought he might. His arms were ready to tear off. And each time he looked up, every backward glance he spared the Ash Cloud, the purple gas had billowed higher into the air, farther out to sea.

It was rushing toward the sphere. As it got closer, the light changed. Suddenly, the vast wall was shining a pale green.

Griffin couldn’t hold its enormity in his mind. It was taller than the mountains, taller than the sky. It had no limit in either direction.

Was this the end of the world?

Had he really thought to outrun it?

Another blink, and the sphere was engulfed. Griffin howled, hit another wave, and the tiller snapped off in his hand.

He dove for Jenny–the sail whipped around, boom flying with it, and caught him on the head–

 

Rose took them on a shortcut through an alley that the rising sun was just beginning to warm. Karla and Jenny kept chattering excitedly behind him. Griffin looked over his shoulder, briefly, and felt a surge of love for his niece so intense his knees nearly buckled.

He’d awoken in the dinghy, curled around her, on a morning a lot like this one. The breeze had blown softly. The sea was calm. Far off, from the high roosts on the sheer side of the island, he could hear seagulls.

He had cried out. Wordless. Hit the sides of the boat until his knuckles went raw. Sniffed, bawled, until Jenny began sobbing too, and they held each other and wept for Kevin and Rachel and Rust Town.

Am I a coward for not telling this part of the story? Dr. Edward Griffin thought ten years later. Does it make me a coward that I still haven’t let her go?

There were, indeed, questions that even a scientist would prefer the universe not answer.

He followed the little group back to his workshop, where they could begin to set right the sins of the past.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

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