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Far above Rust Town, clouds were drifting across the moon. A sharp, ravenous, bony shape wheeled in the sky, too high for anyone on the isle to see.
Stationed on a grassy junction, Dr. Griffin held his breath. Rose held her face in her hands. In the alleyway ahead, Grace was putting the finishing touches on Logan. One more strike with an axe-handle dropped the unconscious brigand to the grass.
The pier creaked and warped. The people who lived there filled the alleys, stood on roofs and in doorways, handing up children too young to walk, passing mewling cats and dogs to safety.
None of them had seen Karla or Jenny. When Griffin asked them, hastening from one to the next, they all shook their heads, and folded their arms more tightly around the small ones they loved.
This has to work. It must. Rose’s idea had been too good not to be the stroke that saved them.
Grace tied Logan’s ankles together with a quick, deft knot. Nearby, Adam prowled between the restrained Council members, glaring without words. Whenever he looked at Griffin, his expression bore a unique mixture of suspicion and weariness.
But even he leapt up at the sound of his son’s voice.
Calvin yelped. A dry twang–the sound of a crossbow misfiring a half-loaded bolt. A squat shadow bolted from a hiding place near the teetering ruin.
Griffin’s knife flashed out. Rose shifted closer to him, bending her knees, ready to swing her wrench.
“Finn!” boomed a commanding shout from the roof of the hideout. “This is where it ends!”
Griffin had frozen. For a moment, all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing.
A black shape shot out of a hole in the half-collapsed roof of the City Council hideout. The raven beat its wings, hovering in place for a moment, then let out a squawk that sent a shockwave through the crowd of onlookers. People turned to pay attention to the black-winged bird.
Dan and Guy Carpenter had just dropped off their buckets of water and were banking in midair to return to the beach for more. But even they were forced to notice the raven. It surged higher until it was on a level with their small planes, and let out a smaller, more empathetic ca-caw. Without even seeming to decide, the brothers were drawn to follow.
The raven plunged. Griffin flinched. A streak blacker than the moonlit sky plunged toward the fleeing shape of Finn.
The twins grinned wickedly at each other. The raven had given them just the right idea.
The two craft raced each other to catch Finn as the City Council’s traitor darted onto a thoroughfare between bartering stalls. Guy landed first, catching Finn in the back of the head with a foot. Dan hit the stumbling bandit with his landing bar, sending him sprawling as the laughing Carpenters raced back up into the sky.
Gleaming gold coins fell from the prone Finn’s pockets, scattering over the dirt road like stars across the sky.
Griffin turned away. He didn’t need to see what the people of Rust Town would do to Finn now, or to know whether this reasonably strong evidence would be enough to exonerate him. With Rose by his side, he ran toward the cliffside deck.
The raven winged over their heads, settled over a rooftop, and transformed into Karla.
“Rust Town!” she shouted. Her voice came from somewhere very far from the foggy otherworld in which Griffin found himself.
Of course he had known. They’d all known that she could turn her body to another form, like in an old folktale. But to see it. To see all he thought he’d known of science squashed into nothing before his eyes…and in front of so many people…
All the Rusters not following Adam and Grace to arrest Finn had turned, or jumped, or run, to somewhere they could see Karla. Their chattering filled the silence. Each was asking the ones they stood beside if they could trust their eyes, if they had seen what they thought they had.
Karla stood defiant. The glow of embers from the deck wreathed her silhouette in cold fire.
“I’m Karla Harpooneer. I am Mara Harpooneer’s daughter,” she said fiercely. “My father died in the sky. I’ve lived my life on Castle Nashido, the island you call the Sphere, and I have come back to the surface to find a way save my best friend in the world. And now I’ve found that way.”
She paused. “What I have to do…is save all of you, too.”
She turned to check on something behind her, and held up a hand to pause her speech. With the other, she reached down to pull a small, struggling shape up by both its arms: Jenny.
Rose choked out a sob. Griffin put his arm out to keep her from falling to her knees. He was, at this point, willing to believe that Karla’s scheme here could work.
If publicly unmasking herself indeed was a scheme, and not just something she’d been waiting to do since she fell to earth.
Jenny knelt on the roof with Karla’s arm around her shoulders. They whispered something to each other that the crowd couldn’t hear. Karla seemed to be trying to get Jenny to get down and go to Rose, but Jenny kept shaking her head. Finally, Karla nodded, and straightened up again to face the crowd.
“The Imperial Navy is coming,” she said. “They want the treasure on Nashido, and they’ll never allow me to save Kio Rokhshan. So there’s only one thing we can do to save this town and the lives you’ve built here. We have to get the castle first.”
“And I suppose you know how?” someone shouted.
“I do,” Karla answered. “You’ve all been using my mother’s aircraft designs for ten years. They haven’t worked, but they’re part of the story. Dr. Griffin has gotten farther than any of you by deviating from the designs, but he doesn’t have the complete story either. But with my knowledge of skyflight, his and Jenny’s innovations, and the work ethic of all of you, we can get a plane to Nashido before those boats arrive.”
Jada Carpenter had returned up the hill with a bucket of water she quickly dumped on the blaze. Now, having settled her craft, she spoke up. “You’re mad. We haven’t been able to reach the sphere for generations, and now you’re proposing we do it in a day?”
“The generations led up to the day!” Karla advanced across her rooftop. “There is no tomorrow without all those yesterdays! But listen: this is only going to work if you all stop fighting each other. You only have two enemies, and neither of them are Dr. Griffin, or Healer Rose, or Master Ranson, or even the City Council. Finn betrayed the whole island, but we have nothing to gain from taking revenge on him now. Our enemies are the Emperor and the sky. Nothing else.”
Griffin clenched his fist in his pocket to silence himself. He couldn’t speak first. This had to come from outside Karla’s circle of allies.
A long silence.
Then: “I’m with you.”
Grace McConnell had started the flood. “Me too,” her husband said, coming to her side. Calvin raced up to join them, crossbow slung over his back, and his father clapped him on the shoulder and drew him close.
Guy and Dan Carpenter landed. “We’re in too!” shouted one of them.
“So am I,” proclaimed their mother.
“Mmph,” said Finn, who was gagged.
The Kalend blacksmiths were next. Then came others. Griffin and Rose joined in when they felt they could, and Griffin locked eyes with Karla, making sure she knew he was there to help. The chants of “Mara!” started from one corner, but soon were overwhelmed by the chants of “Karla!”–chants that made Jenny’s face light up as she grabbed her new friend’s hand, that rose up into the night and overwhelmed the wind. And if there had been any dragons wheeling about in those stars, they would have heard the shouts too.
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