The lanterns still burned around the square, but the music was long gone, and most of the food had been snatched up by opportunists as the crowd around the crystal grew denser. It was a lot like a glow, without the planes, or the hope, though there was plenty of anger to replace it all.
Sandwiched between a wall of soot-stenched blacksmiths and a two-wheeled cart piled with only the scrappiest scrap metal, Jenny reflected that there was a good reason the Rusters held community meetings even less often than they threw parties.
People had fun at the parties. This was…not the opposite of fun, exactly. More like the precise opposite of a nice cup of tea in the afternoon, on a day just breezy enough to blow away all the bugs.
“Who the hell told you you could stand up there anyway, McConnell?” one of the smiths was shouting. “You ain’t the damn mayor.”
Grace McConnell made sure her throwing axes were visible at all times. Beside her on the musicians’ stage, her husband Adam looked unreassuringly nervous.
“Somebody has to be up here or you lot will get absolutely nothing done.” Grace projected her voice across as much of the roiling crowd as she could, but the rabble was growing louder, drowning her out. “Hey. Hey! I said quiet!”
“Shut the hell up, you lot!” Adam growled.
“Come down here and make me, you limp-jawed bartender!” the smith shot back.
The shut-up faction grew to rival the yelling faction, resulting in the minimum possible amount of shutting up. The multitude swallowed Jenny’s groan. She had no idea what could possibly be less effective than this.
Then her uncle stepped onto the stage, dragging Master Ranson by his collar, with Karla following in their wake.
And Jenny had her answer for the least effective meeting: anything that required Dr. Edward Griffin to rely on his leadership charisma.
“Uncle Griff…” she whispered, feeling a surge of doomed affection, “Please, don’t!”
“Listen, everybody,” Griff cried, though everybody wasn’t, “according to this man’s evidence, we have less than twenty-four hours until the Imperial Marines arrive on our shores. We can’t waste that time on procedural matters. The only question is whether to defend ourselves or capitulate.”
“How should we spend the time, then? Listening to you?” shouted a new voice, probably the only person to have heard. “Can’t even build a plane right–”
“He doesn’t build them right, he builds them better,” Jenny muttered.
“–and you think you can lead a Ruster army? An army we ain’t got?”
“John, how does my refusal to use Mara’s blueprints make me wrong here, exactly?” Uncle Griff couldn’t resist asking. Don’t, don’t defend yourself, ignore him, Jenny begged him telepathically.
A chorus of jeers drowned out the end of Griff’s question. He’d lost control in record time. “I’ll take the bartenders over the town nut,” someone yelled.
“We are telling you to listen to him!” Adam looked ready to wade in and start hitting.
“We should run,” Jada Carpenter shouted, and Jenny blessed her for offering the first constructive solution of the night. “Find another island. They won’t keep taking stations if they have their own base to search for the treasure.”
Karla turned white. “Absolutely not. What about…”
Jenny swallowed down a lump in her throat.
“What about the people who need the treasure for a living? We can’t force them to compete against a military machine.”
“We aren’t forcing anything,” Ranson cut in. “It’s the Torals who are–”
“I didn’t say anything about your livelihood, Master Ranson.” Karla turned to him. “Thank you for your warning. Now kindly screw off and starve.”
A chorus of ooohs rippled through the crowd. Jenny wondered at the power Karla had. They were more likely to listen to her than to anybody else. She looked like Mara, and half the town still worshipped Mara, whether they knew it or not.
Grace took advantage of the brief lull. “Not to mention the logistics. Garbage as it is, there’s an infrastructure here. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
“Of course it’s going to be difficult.” Jada swore. “The alternative is our lives! The Torals have no incentive not to bulldoze this place with us inside it!”
“We have no indication they plan to harm anybody,” Griffin said.
“Could we…blockade them somehow? Prevent them from landing? Peacefully,” Karla added hastily, as some of the Rusters in the crowd began hefting weapons and grinning.
Adam shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do that they wouldn’t perceive as an act of war.”
“At least talk to them, then.” Karla seemed to be realizing the power her voice had. “If we send a delegation…”
Jenny looked behind her, then all around. There wasn’t a single channel she could use to escape.
As annoying, and as scary, as this situation was, she was proud of her new friend. And glad, too. If she hadn’t met that girl on the stage, Jenny might have grown up without having any idea what it was like to have a friend her own age.
But Karla was doing her part, and it was different than Jenny’s. The younger engineer had something else to do. In the chaos of impending invasion, everyone had forgotten about the City Council.
Three short hops up the scrap pile brought her to the roof. Looking for the traitor, Jenny thought, and had to giggle. More likely Aiden and Finn and their henchmen were looting every unguarded workshop they could find. And nobody was watching them.
Jenny scampered across one corrugated roop, then leapt across a gap, nearly losing footing before making it to a rooftop airstrip. From there, a dash among spare canvases and oil cans brought her down a ramp to a courtyard, where a squeeze through a short alley took her out into deserted pathway streets.
If Aiden really was leaving a trail of chaos, it shouldn’t be hard to track down. All she had to do was head downhill and follow the smashing noises.
It took even less time than she expected. A snatch of song reached her ears and she flattened herself against an alley wall. The cocky bastards are walking up Dusk in broad moonlight!
She didn’t dare snatch another look, but her first glimpse had given her enough information to be revolted. Eight or ten of the bandits were strolling along, some with arms around each others shoulders. In the front, Finn was huffing and puffing as he rolled a keg uphill, while Aiden strolled along with another councilman who looked strangely familiar. Had Jenny seen him the night of the glow?
“What’s our plan, then?” one of them burped. Jenny shuddered, hoping the inn they had raided still had a living keeper.
“The plan is that you lot don’t make plans,” Aiden said shortly. “Follow me, lads, and I’ll ensure anything ya do is the right thing.”
“Rot in the sea, Aiden,” came a voice from quite close by. “S’my tip we’re working on.”
“And it was hardly the world’s most ground-breaking info, was it?” Aiden said. Jenny inched farther backward into the alley as they drew closer. “Where there’s chaos, you’ll find Doc Griffin, trying in vain to make a difference. Leaving his lab unguarded.”
Jenny’s heart decided beating wasn’t that important for a moment.
A snatch of drinking song from the back drowned out the conversation. Though it made her skin crawl with fear, she had to get a closer look. It might tell her what the Council was planning.
She flattened herself behind a drainpape, and craned her neck around, waiting for the mob to pass by the mouth of the alley.
Finn kept huffing his way up the street, followed by Aiden, still talking to…
…Logan! She knew him.
He hadn’t been with the bombers on the night of the glow–it would have broken his charade. He had been one of Rose’s patients. The one who claimed he didn’t see the point of flying.
Questions chased each other around her mind like eager dogs. Why plant an informant in her uncle’s network of loved ones? Could it really be that the only people who saw the real wisdom of his aeronautical engineering were the town’s most flagrant criminals?
She couldn’t let them get out of sight. Had to work this out while running.
Logan elbowed Finn, muttering to the short man, who gratefully stood his whiskey barrel on its end and left it behind. The City Council was turning south toward the huts suspended off the lower cliff. When the last one had sauntered off Dusk Street, Jenny peeled out of her hiding place, thoughts racing.
They had claimed they were going to root out the traitor who had tipped the Toral Emperor off to the existence of Rust Town and the gold-laden sphere it was chasing. But there was no way a posse of ten unscrupulous and tone-deaf highwaymen could ferret out the mole. Hundreds of people on the island were broke enough to take Toral gold, and Jenny could even imagine someone alerting the military because they might actually have the resources to reach the damn treasure.
No, she thought as she hurried through the chill night beneath the emerging constellations, what the City Council really needed was a marketing coup. They’d overplayed their hand by holding the town hostage with their bombs. Now they couldn’t walk the streets in daylight, barring some sort of crisis.
But if they won their way back into the good graces of McConnell and his posse with an act of justice, and if that act threw her uncle under the landing gear–someone only she and Rose and Karla would really miss…
The pounding cold seeped through Jennifer Hunter Griffin’s entire body. She ran faster.
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