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Now on with Arc 13!
The crystal square had gone dark–far too dark to see the Toral fleet approaching, even if they’d had the slightest idea what to do about it. Dr. Griffin sat in the grass with his back against the musicians’ stage, half listening to another argumentative cascade of tangent after tangent, the other half wondering how hard it would be to get a drink sent up.
Minutes before, the Carpenters had stormed from the park, with a trail of several followers in their wake. Dan had sorrowfully met Rose’s eyes as his mother pulled him along, while Gary had raced to Griffin and begged him to come with them.
“Those crazy planes of yours gotta be able to cross the channel at least, right? It’s not that wide.”
Griffin stared back at the child, then smiled ruefully. “Hasn’t proven true yet.”
“But…” Gary blinked. “I know everyone says you’re crazy, but we always thought you had a plan. You’re weird, but you’re smart, an’ Rose likes you, an’…”
Hot rush of blood at his face. Griffin silenced Gary with a hand on each of his shoulders before the kid could add any more words to that particular sentiment. “Your, um, your mother–”
“I know, she’s callin’ me.”
“Her plane has too much strain on the right wing.” He tried to ignore an unexpected heat at the corners of his eyes. “That’ll be a bigger deal when you’re trying to cross distances. Make sure she looks at it.”
“Gary Carpenter!” Jada shouted. “To the cliff, now! We’re taking all we can carry from the workshop!”
Gary swallowed hard, and nodded. “I will. Thanks, Griff.”
When he had run to his mother and brother, Griffin stood up, listening to his bones pop, and looking to make sure Karla, Rose, or Jenny hadn’t been caught in the tide. More than two dozen of the Rusters in the square had gone with Jada, and others were eyeing the exodus, wondering whether they should take their chances as well. Her message to give up on Rust Town and find another island to launch from had struck a nerve in the crowd–a lot of engineers had muttered that they were barely attached to this rock as it was.
That’s what they think, anyway. See how they feel in two weeks.
Griffin didn’t know what worried him more: that it wouldn’t work, or that it was the only plan anybody had so far. The first was bad enough. He couldn’t believe the Torals would stomach a challenge to their authority anywhere in the archipelago, even if the islands did span hundreds of miles.
And what was the other choice? Trying to fight was futile, no matter what Adam seemed to think. He’d been uncharacteristically upset when the Carpenters had gone, hemming and hawing and stamping out of the meeting for a while. Calvin had followed, leaving Grace to moderate things.
The man was steadfast, but he really did believe he was the mayor.
He turned to see Rose approaching him from a knot of people, Karla at her heels. The group they’d left was deep in a conversation that involved the word “catapults.”
“Where’s Jenny?” Griff asked.
“Back at the workshop,” Karla said. “She caught my eye and made a–y’know…”
She made a surprisingly communicative gesture. Not for the first time, Griff resolved to question the skybound girl about her experience in long-distance signalling.
“Griffin.” Rose’s voice was like a glider on its last flight. “What are we going to do?”
He opened his mouth, but whatever reassurance he was searching for, he didn’t find.
Not that there was anything he could say. They had both been born in Toral lands, under this very Emperor. They both knew how his troops operated.
Every time he tried to tell Rose It’ll be all right or We’ll do what needs to be done or I’ll protect you, he could only see fires. They’d start burning when they landed. To demand control, they’d torch anything they didn’t need, which was everything.
“They’ll bring their military base with them on their backs,” he murmured.
“I hope it breaks them, then,” Rose replied, startling Griffin–he hadn’t meant to speak aloud.
Both the adults turned to Karla. The young woman’s fists were clenched, her jaw set. Even her ash-blond hair seemed defiant in the starlight.
“You two aren’t like the rest of these people. You have something else.”
“What?” Griffin asked.
“Karla,” Rose said gently, “I know this is worrying, but–”
“Worrying, hell!” Karla shouted, then remembered to keep her voice low. “Do you know what I faced up there? Destroyed cities. Dragons. Hurricanes. The first lesson danger teaches you is how to prioritize.”
Her affect was fierce. “What is our priority?” asked Griffin.
“Our job hasn’t changed. We have to get to Castle Nashido. We can’t let the soldiers get to Kio before we do.”
She had a very good point. Even before she’d crash-landed, Griffin and Jenny had the best shot of anyone in the city to reach the sphere. Now, with Karla directing them, their chances had doubled.
They owed it to her to try. Torals or no Torals.
“We could have hours left until they arrive,” he warned. “You, Jenny, and I will need to pull continual shifts. One sleeps, two work. Rose, will you help us?”
The healer sighed. “On a schedule like that, you’ll need me so you don’t kill yourselves.”
“Good.” Karla nodded once, a general approving a command. “I’ll find Jenny and meet you two there. The City Council isn’t our biggest problem right now.”
This is a huge problem, Jenny thought, from her hiding place on the rooftop airstrip across from Uncle Griff’s shed. If only I could figure out what they’re doing in there.
Aiden, Finn, and Logan had entered the house while the other councilors stood guard outside, valiantly protecting the barrel of whiskey. She’d expected smashing sounds and fires to fly out of the windows any minute, but the ruffians were being surprisingly considerate in there.
In fact, as she strained her ears, she thought she heard the sounds of tools striking metal, working over leather.
Hell no! She felt like a dog straining at a leash, knowing she couldn’t go in there to face them all alone. They had better not be messing with our plane! I’ll kill them! I’ll tear their heads off!
She did none of those things. She sat on the airstrip, hating herself, and watching for her uncle so she could warn him not to enter his own workshop.
Griffin and Rose walked through the darkened streets. Rust Town was quiet, save for a Carpenterite or two hoisting a bag of possessions up to a rooftop airstrip. The stars shone out in their familiar shapes, and a light wind whistled in from the sea, carrying a salt scent soft enough to be enticing. Even the air felt warm.
Rose shivered. “It’s enough to make you think you’ll miss the place.”
“Why would we miss it? Where would we go?”
“This could be our last night on the island. If we make it up to the castle, we won’t want to land where we took off.”
While he considered this, Griffin stepped in front of Rose on instinct, protecting her from a shadow carrying a clattering roll of wrenches. The shadow swore at them and climbed a ladder to its roof.
“We can’t be sure what we’ll find up there,” he said. “Could be something that changes the game completely.”
Rose snorted. “I’ll take a magic sword that can give the Emperor a heart attack from a thousand miles away.”
“Might not be as far off as you think.” Griffin laughed too, and suddenly, thinking of his last night in Rust Town–last night alive as far as any Ruster was concerned–he had the urge to say something else.
“Do you think that we should have…talked about things? Sooner?”
In the dark, a sharp intake of breath.
“Well…” Griffin’s certainty was evaporating. If only life could be an engineering problem. He’d heard his niece say that aloud more than once. “Our…our feelings. What there might be…”
“…between us.” Rose finished.
At some point they had stopped walking. He could feel her now, despite not touching her, a palpable presence hovering in the twilight. A bit of starlight shone over the ragged end of her cropped auburn hair.
“You’ve had years,” she said. “Why bring this up now?”
“Because it appears I’m out of chances.”
“The night we start trying to flee the island together to start a new life?”
“There’s no guarantee of any of that.”
“There won’t be, of course there won’t be, if you can’t pay attention,” Rose said, and the words struck Dr. Edward Griffin’s heart like an icy whip. “This is absolutely the worst possible time to have this conversation.”
“Later,” she said, sounding very much like she was finished.
He stood stunned while she walked on. Two streets over, a band of drunkards rambled by rolling what sounded like a cask, oblivious to all these human toils.
At the edge of the circle of homes that surrounded Dr. Griffin’s scrubby backyard and its accompanying air ramp, Karla paused and looked around, startled by a sudden chill. One had to take these things as premonitions.
A second later, a small girl leapt off a roof and barreled into her while yelling an indistinct war cry. So that was that bit of wisdom confirmed yet again.
“Karla?” Jenny whispered, when they were both thoroughly sprawled out in the grass path.
Karla groaned. “You hit all my sensitive bits. I have bones sticking out and you hit them.”
“Sorry!” Jenny sprang back, looking mortified even in the dimmest light, and grabbed her hand. “Here, get inside. It’s safe.”
“Why wouldn’t it be safe.”
“City council was just here.” Through the swinging door, Jenny lit a lamp. Karla held her breath, ready for a scene of ransacked devastation, but found everything in its usual, preliminary state of disarray instead.
“I know, I know it looks normal,” Jenny said, hands outstretched, “but I am 100 percent certain they did something weird. I have to check the plane.”
“Why the plane?” Karla followed her over to the now-familiar leather frame with its two prominent wings.
“I think I heard them working on it. Give me a hand, will you?”
Karla did, while trying to list all the reasons the City Council might want to gift them some free engineering. None of them were good.
They levered off one of the side panels partway, then tensed their muscles to finish dragging it clear. It was a delicate job that could warp the plate if they applied too much force. At a signal from Jenny, Karla pulled.
A horrible clash of frame on panel sent her leaping back. Jenny crashed into the workbench, shouting ever more colorful words.
The body of the skycraft had disintegrated. This was about what she’d expected the Council would do.
What she hadn’t expected was the pile of gold coins that would immediately spill out all over the dirt floor.
“Oh, no. This is not good at all.” Jenny fell to her knees, reaching for the pile. “Karla, help me. We gotta hide this.”
“What?” Karla’s head spun. “What’s wrong with gold? Don’t you use that for money on the surface?”
“Yeah, we do.” Jenny held up one of the coins, letting the lantern light shine on the symbol carved into its face. “These ones get used in the Toral Empire. Can’t find ‘em anywhere else.”
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