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Jenny heard Karla racing through the room, and immediately thought, we’ve screwed up. Then she heard Karla’s footsteps stop short, and thought, all right, she’d dead. What next?
It was an incomplete thought, and an incomplete grief, but something in her mind told her that was all she had time for. Then, as she crouched on the roof, looking all around lest a bandit straggle back to the hideout and catch her lurking, a more sensible thought asserted itself: you have no proof she’s dead. Except for the eerie lack of sounds down there.
Then an even more sensible thought told her to get moving. She was on top of the City Council’s inner sanctum, paces from the evidence of their traitorous scheming. She had her own mission. On top of now having to save Karla.
Jenny surveyed the streets one more time–all clear–and took one more step, which put her foot through a rotten board and plunged her through the roof.
The world turned over. Dust, splinters, air, a spinning light, lights, turned over again…
Half a second later, she slammed into the ground, a force pressed hard against her lungs. She gulped for air. None came.
She looked up, crawling in the rubble as lights exploded in her eyes. People were watching her.
People were laughing.
Logan snickered. Aiden leaned in the doorframe with his arms folded and a small smile playing on his face. A guffawing Finn literally spat out some disgusting brown beverage, splattering drops on Jenny.
Who was. Running. Out. Of air.
“Good thing I never fixed that roof, eh Aiden?” Finn bellowed.
Aiden nodded. “Two shows in one night. This evening just keeps getting better. And without even a glow.”
Jenny tried to speak. Wheezed in response. Her lungs were rebelling. What was this?
“Tell me, girl,” Aiden crossed his arms, “how many more of you are we going to have to deal with? What exactly was this intending to accomplish?”
Good question, Jenny thought, in what she felt sure would be her last moments. But just as the lights exploded once more, just as she scraped her palm open on a jagged bit of wood, her gaze landed on the squat whiskey barrel in the corner.
All at once she remembered. That was–or had better be–full of Toral gold. And this feeling was just the wind being knocked out of her lungs. She’d had that happen before. It came with the territory of being an ornithopter test pilot.
Logan, Finn, and the other startlingly large man closed in. Aiden watched, from the safety of the other room, where he’d maybe just got done killing Karla.
Jenny hauled herself to her feet and growled. She’d never get to the gold this way. As her knees straightened, her fingers closed around a wooden plank.
One shot. The gas lantern sparkled on the wall behind the booze-stained chair where Finn had lolled.
Jenny threw the plank.
Finn yelped. The lantern crashed off its hook, spilling open. Painting the floor around it with sparking liquid fire.
She smelled smoke.
Hanging by all four limbs from the struts driven into the cliff face, Karla thought sourly that she’d gotten part of what she wanted. This is just like home.
Home. She’d felt banished from it just a week ago. Now she realized ruefully that Nashido would never leave her.
Wind whistled and screamed beneath her. Her arms and legs strained. She had no plan, other than to hold on long enough for Aiden to assume she was dead.
When the flames roared up above her, she first thought the heat might be from the still. She’d had no idea how whiskey worked–had joked once with Kio about scavenging some, since teenagers seemed to do a lot of drinking in the library’s bawdier books.
Then a spark leapt to her right hand, scorching the flesh on two fingers. She bit her teeth hard to keep from screaming.
Something was on fire up there. That meant two things–first, that this structure was about seven seconds from collapsing into the ocean, and second, that nobody up there was wasting time wondering if she was alive.
She crawled right, then up the scaffold hand over hand. Each step kept her ahead of a burst of flame that consumed where she’d been hanging and crept farther and farther up the struts. The ocean and the rocks beneath kept churning. Hungry to eat her if she slipped.
A scream from above–a girl. Men shouted as Jenny did, something crashed, and an unidentified chunk of furniture plunged through the floor.
The entire building creaked. Karla’s heart hammered. She’d hit the end of the easy part: now, she’d have to swing around the eave of the City Council hideout, into the room full of enemies, blind to whatever hell had been summoned up inside.
She was going to have words with whoever had decided to set the scaffold on fire.
The eave yawned above her, a daunting slab of handhold-free wood. A burning scrap of planking tumbled free, falling several million miles down toward the shredding rocks.
Karla reached up with one hand, grabbed onto nothing. A second lunge–still nothing.
Feet from her, more of the scaffold collapsed. The entire pier creaked with an immense yawn.
Only one thing for it. Karla took a deep breath, and flung herself back from her hiding spot.
Truth be told, she realized later, she’d been counting on missing, then using the terror of her fall toward the sea to transform. But that hadn’t been what was on her mind when she’d flown.
She was a Harpooneer of Castle Nashido. She’d catch a ledge. And she did: first with one hand, then the other, then kicking a surviving strut with her leg to haul herself up into the room.
The City Council’s inner sanctum wasn’t the inferno she had expected. Instead, the whole place was listing precariously toward the cliff. Flames were licking their way over the floorboards, reducing bawdy posters and scraps of old sacks to ash. Smoke rose over the three people she saw.
Finn, digging in the cask, scooping handful after handful of gold coins into his pockets. Aiden, pointing a sword at the door. Jenny, wriggling in Aiden’s iron grip.
Jenny’s eyes were watering. “Karla,” she choked, “get out.”
Karla let out a high-pitched laugh. “Good idea. Where?”
“Not one more step!” Aiden flicked the sword point up and turned to Finn. “Get the rest of it, man, all of it. It’s Logan’s share you’ll be leaving behind and you’ll answer to him.”
“I’ve had enough of your crap!” Finn looked up, coughing. “This is my gold. Out of the kindness of my heart, I–”
The air oofed out of Finn’s lungs as Karla slammed her shoulder into him. The ache of hanging from the scaffold still burned, but adrenaline muffled it, letting her land a second blow that bowled the traitor into the far corner of the room. He yelped again and again and raced clear of the hideout, leaving the outer door swinging beyond the curtain.
Gold coins skittered out of his pockets. Karla scooped them up, then added more from the cask, ignoring Jenny’s quizzically terrified stare.
Aiden’s head swiveled between the two girls. His dark stare settled on Karla, sending a chill through her that spited the spitting heat.
“That gold,” he snarled, “is mine.”
“Come get it,” Karla replied.
Aiden hesitated only a brief second. He threw Jenny aside and strode forward, raising his sword.
Before he could strike, he passed in front of the door.
“Calvin!” Karla screamed. “There’s your shot!”
The crossbow bolt whistled through the swinging door to the hideout, then through the inner door. Calvin’s first shot had flown unerringly. In the instant Aiden brought the sword down, the bolt slammed into his arm just above the elbow.
The City Councilman didn’t scream. The opposite–he seemed to gag on the pain, his mouth half-open and silent as his blade clattered to the floor. Blood splattered over the gold and over Karla as he clutched his arm in seething pain.
But he was too smart to try and pull out the bolt that was stoppering his blood. Instead, as Karla scurried to keep the cask between them, Aiden reached down with his left arm.
“You’re her,” he whispered. “Her daughter. I should have guessed. You look…so much…like a Harpooneer…”
“Aiden, no!” Jenny suddenly shouted. “That’s not stable!”
Karla kept crawling, dodging the flames, suddenly unable to tear her eyes from the brigand’s face. Why would he say this now?
“Rust Town should be free…” Aiden’s fingers closed around the sword hilt. “Harpooneers…Rokhshan…Torals…you’re all a curse!”
He reared up. Stepped back.
The ledge crumbled beneath him.
Aiden kept swinging the sword as he plunged out of sight, as though he could defeat the whole world and reverse his death sentence. By the time he landed, he was too far away to hear.
Flames licked both the doorways. Calvin was crying out from somewhere far away. Karla crawled to Jenny, tears streaming down both their cheeks.
In the flickering fire, she found the young girl’s hand, squeezed it tightly. Didn’t let go.
Kio will know, she decided. He’ll come down here with Dr. Griffin and Rose and he’ll know we died for something good.
The fire licked the night, turning the horizon orange.
Grace ran full tilt, axes out at her sides. Griffin and Rose kept pace with their own weapons, guilt gnawing at the bottom of Rose’s gut. Had she distracted the cavalry and sent Jenny and Karla to their deaths?
Shadows swept through the moonlight above her, and the guilt blew away like morning fog.
She hadn’t called off the cavalry. She’d sent it in.
The Carpenterite planes wheeled in the sky over the blazing cliffside pier. The fire at the City Council hideout had spread to the nearby shacks, so there was no time to waste. Rose caught a glimpse of Dan and Guy racing each other on their half-sized skycraft, both of them weighed down by heavy buckets sloshing with seawater. Their mother Jada coasted determinedly beneath them, gliding over the target and dumping a whole barrel down onto the conflagration.
The rest of the group that had geared up their planes to flee the island formed a loose conveyer–as a dozen craft buzzed the fire, as many more were landing back at the beach airstrip to reload. It was, Rose mused, Rust Town’s first volunteer fire department.
Yet the building, though steaming more than it burned, was still teetering over the edge of the cliff. And Karla and Jenny were inside, trapped between certain death and the few remaining very angry criminals.
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