Kio kept his footfalls quiet out of habit as he passed from the statuary stairs out onto the machine deck. In the nine days since he had agreed to partner with the god and his dragons to arm the castle, Raptor had never once objected to his comings and goings. Yet still, since the Benefactor had taken up residence on Nashido, Kio felt like a trespasser in his own home.
Having the Neogah’s fiery eyes on him wherever he stepped didn’t help. Two of them were circling the engines now: one patrolling far off, one hovering near the dark figure of Raptor. God and dragon stared into each other’s eyes, communing in some inscrutable conversation.
The far-away one glared at Kio, sending a shiver through him before winging off higher into the sky. Kio watched it go. The sky was clear tonight, a milky white river standing out against the sea of stars. The dragon headed toward the few dark clouds hovering in the high aether and soon disappeared among the constellations.
Once it was far enough away for the bone to begin to blend in with the sky, the creature was small enough to resemble a bird. Kio missed seagulls. They hadn’t come near ever since the dragons had begun patrolling. Days ago, he’d even tried to become the cat again and sniff out any hidden gulls with heightened senses–for companionship, not to eat. But he hadn’t been able to leave behind his human uncertainties and transform.
The other Neogah finished receiving its orders from Raptor and flew off as well, disappearing around the aft end of the castle. Raptor turned to where Kio stood lost in thought at the bottom of the stairs. “My lord of Rokhshan,” he called. “Come stand with me.”
Kio tried to stride purposefully toward him and nearly hit one of the lightning batteries. The great yawning shapes had looked unfamiliar in the dark.
Raptor waited patiently for Kio to join him at the edge of the deck, just above the propellors. “How has your night been?” asked the deity.
“Good,” Kio answered semi-honestly. He had spent a few hours reading up on aerial weapon systems in the library, a rare peace broken only by one of the gnarled Neogah trying to serve him dinner through the window. “Productive.”
“I’m glad.” The Benefactor resumed gazing out to sea. “Is there a reason you came to me?”
“Ah, there’s…” Kio suddenly felt his nerve faltering. “There’s nothing, really. Just wanted to see if you had any…thoughts. On stuff. No big deal.”
Raptor cut across him. “Look out there, Kio, and tell me what you see.”
That was a request Kio could comply with. He’d been doing an awful lot of it lately. But it still made his heart race: either Raptor had figured out exactly what he had really come to ask about, or…
Painted across the horizon was a thin line of light, as would be thrown by a gathering of hundreds of small torches, lanterns, and glowing forges. The islands Nashido glided over led to it like a trail of breadcrumbs.
The castle was returning to the Big Island. Where Karla was almost surely living now.
Where, if there were any justice, she would stay. Stay and never return to the sky to challenge Raptor.
“What do you see?” Raptor asked.
“The island. The capital of the world.” Please, please, leave it alone!
Raptor chuckled. “Hardly. It’s a spit of mud and gravel on the edge of everything. But it is where our enemies based their last assault, and it is from there the next one will come.”
“You really think…” Kio deliberated. “You think the Harpooneers will attack again? Perhaps they could be persuaded to just stay down there?”
“And accept their own demise?” Raptor shook his head. “It is not that I fail to sympathize with them. Nobody can be fairly asked to sacrifice their nation that the rest of the world may live. But when called upon, we have to prove our mettle.”
Kio wondered if he would prove that sort of mettle. Did the settlers on the Big Island even understand what was happening? Did he?
“No, they will attack,” Raptor went on. “In their shortsightedness they will expose the Heartsphere to the Ash Cloud and threaten all life on the surface of this world. Just the same threat the sky faced ten years ago.”
A shudder ran through Kio. The sky kingdoms. The gardens of bones. There had been so many.
And the places still set at tables, the crumbling temples with sacrifices still moldering on the altars…all leading back to the crushes of people who hadn’t made it out in time.
The books told him there were ten million people living on the surface.
“Look beyond the island,” Raptor said.
“Beyond? To where?”
“Those lights are not the ones that distract me.”
To make sense of that, Kio lifted his eyes.
At first, he couldn’t see anything. But the more he squinted, the more he discerned that another band of lanterns lit up the horizon far beyond the town. “Is there another island?”
“Watch, and they will move closer. That is no island.”
Speaking in riddles–and all Kio could think about was what danger this was going to bring to Karla. Yet it didn’t take long for the Benefactor to explain.
“Those are the ships of a nation called the Toral Empire,” he said. “But a small part of a magnificent fleet. They have been dispatched to take the island.”
“How do you know?”
“That many ships are not necessary to hold a diplomatic discussion.”
Kio looked sideways at Raptor, hoping the god’s set visage would reassure him. It did, a little. Enough for him to ask: “How long do they have?”
“Better to ask how long we have.” Raptor turned to him. “The people of that town will flee to the skies even sooner if the Empire forces them–especially once their glowing crystal tells them we are close. The ships will arrive tomorrow, forcing all the pigeons out of their nests.”
He stalked away. “By dusk, we must be ready to fight whoever comes.”
Kio couldn’t follow him right away. He looked up instead: at the circling dragons, at the massive ballista launchers they had mounted on the battlements, at the net-throwers, the catapults, the glass cylinders and mysterious pipes with even deadlier and more sinister purposes he didn’t even know yet–and wondered how it was that after such a quick arming they still weren’t ready to fight.
If we wield this much force, how can we possibly turn it back if Karla shows up with the Harpooneers?
In his mind, he begged her to come quickly. Swiftly, like the wind, so they could all end this together.
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