Raven 1

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Somewhere around the time the rosy fingers of dawn poked over the top of the crescent mountains, Karla remembered she should probably have been tired by now.

It was a surface thing she’d observed a lot of in the last several days. People on the island always seemed to be tired. They were exhausted already when they greeted each other at morning market, snuck naps against their skycraft in the middle of the days’ work, couldn’t wait to get home to close their eyes.

On Nashido, being tired had never been possible. There was always the next thing that needed doing, or she and Kio would die.

Not that she hadn’t found her moments to mope. But the brooding seemed kind of embarrassing now, with the gift of distance. What she’d lacked in those moments, she knew now, was a mission.

By Mara, she thought, looking around at the mess of people and parts spilled through Dr. Griffin’s workshop and out into the courtyard and street, I’ve got a mission now.

It had amazed her how quickly the town had come together. The night before, half of them had been ready to riot, the other half to debate until spring came. Now, two dozen or more engineers were scattered around five shacks, trading parts, comparing blueprints, setting up a makeshift wind tunnel on the roof that Dr. Griffin was rushing to stop before it blew the ceiling off his bedroom.

Maybe it was stubbornness, determination not to let the Empire take everything they’d worked so many years for. Maybe it was the rush of finally having a decent shot at Nashido. But Karla preferred to believe in something else: in a spirit of the island that had infected its people. In a community they’d built, largely by accident.

Why else stay here, year after year, failing to get anywhere near the treasure, if Rust Town didn’t mean anything to them? Surely there were easier ways to get rich. Piracy came to mind. And some of them were decent engineers.

The day was overcast and grey, muggy with the prophecy of rain. The clang of tools and murmur of discussions drowned out the wind and sea as she watched the street from the workshop door. A messenger had come up carrying a bag of bolts a few minutes ago, rushing so quickly they had everyone concerned.

The dark side of today was that every time someone hurried up the road, she had to wonder if they brought news of a sighting of the Toral ships.

Karla and Jenny had been napping in shifts, so she didn’t expect to find the younger girl awake in the front room, making a pot of tea with shaking hands. She snatched a second tin cup and filled it, offering it to Karla with a wide smile.

“Did you sleep all right?” Karla asked. Jenny had bags under her eyes, but like Karla had apparently forgotten how to be tired.

She nodded. “Well enough. It’s just so exciting. Can’t sleep for long, y’know? I might miss something awesome.”

“Yeah, like a bunch of armored boats coming to kill us.”

Yet Karla understood. As one, their faces turned unprompted out the back door, toward the great shape squatting in the middle of the courtyard.

Fixing the damage the City Council had done to the craft had been the easy part. It was dangerous but straightforward damage that a lot of sewing and riveting was more than enough to correct. The extra gold coins that occasionally fell out helped to keep the volunteers going, too.

The harder part was the list of tasks Karla and Jenny and Griffin had been working through in what she’d privately dubbed Operation Save Kio. The list itself–retrofitting to Karla’s memories of the crafts as written about by the Rokhshan and their friends in the sky–was swiftly finished, but a problem lingered: the design didn’t make sense. Some of the necessary components for lift were there in force, while others were skimped on or scrapped entirely. Just after dawn, Karla had faced the one question she’d wanted to ignore.

These crafts might only have been built for descending, not rising. She might have accidentally directed the Rusters to build the world’s greatest glider, and nothing more.

Thus arose the creature in the garden: a perpetually adjusted, highly experimental bird that nonetheless stirred a deep longing in Karla’s heart. Jada and Grace were at work on it right now. Behind them, Dr. Griffin chewed out the two would-be wind-tunnel builders.

Jenny elbowed her gently. “He wants to name it after you, you know.”

“What? Karla? Karla the Airplane?” It didn’t sound right.

“He hasn’t told you?” Jenny giggled. “Not Karla. Raven.”

Karla swallowed. A memory of many days ago, many years, came back to her: of flying free, heedless of the tether holding her to Nashido, of feeling as though she and her craft ruled the entire sky and the world beneath it.

Here it was again. Her second chance at the clouds. Her new clockwork Raven.

Footsteps outside, and the door swung open. Karla’s heart jumped. Jenny lifted the teakettle like a club.

Rose entered the workshop directly into a storm of questions. “Are they coming?” Karla asked.

“How many?” Jenny asked.

“How much time?”

“Who can hold them off?”

“Can I help hold them off?”

“No, no!” Rose’s eyes looked as raw as everyone else’s. She waved her hands before her chest. “I need to talk to Griff. I don’t expect I’ll be able to stop either of you listening in.”

Karla and Jenny shook their heads in unison.

A moment later, when Dr. Griffin had sent the wind-tunnelers packing and nudged Grace and Jada inside to enjoy a cup of tea, Rose related her news with an ashen face.

“Coughing fits,” she said. “Two patients last night, and we just got a third one. I’ve got the Kalends watching them all for now.”

Griffin rubbed his stubble. “Any similarities?”

“One old lady, one a baby, one asthmatic. They’re all at risk, but something had to fire their symptoms all at once. Two could be coincidence. Three is a conspiracy.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re not asking me for help with a diagnosis?”

“Because you’re the wrong kind of doctor, but you’re right.” Rose laid a hand on Raven, steadying herself. “I think I know what this is.”

Suddenly, it grew quiet enough for them to hear the waves far below after all. The wind whistled above. And four people stared at each other in the fenced-in yard, none of them prepared to speak the words they all held on their tongues.

Speaking it felt like plunging herself back into the darkness of the Inner Citadel. A flash of the bodies she had thrown from the castle shot before her eyes as she spoke. “Ash Cloud.”

“What killed my parents?” Jenny whispered.

“And my father,” Karla said.

“And my brother.” Griffin took a long breath, as though it would be the last he’d get for a while. “Do you have any other proof?”

“None so far. But people get accustomed to the smog around here. I can’t think what else would change the air quality uniformly.” Rose steadied herself against the skycraft’s body. “When you launch her up in the mountains, can you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” Griffin said, a little quickly.

Rose produced a small but bulky device from her vest pocket. Karla squinted at it. It resembled a baster with a beaker attached just below the bulb, with a piece of paper inside. Griffin took it, nodding like he knew what it was for.

“I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get you this data…” he began.

“Bring someone with you and send them down with the results. I need to know this as soon as possible.” She squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Griffin. I’m getting back to the–”

The door banged open. Karla tensed. She was busy enough refusing to believe that the Ash Cloud was returning. How much wronger was this morning planning to go?

Calvin staggered into the yard, his mother and Carpenter trailing.

“They’ve come,” he shouted, as everyone, including those on the roof, turned to look at him. “The Toral ships have been sighted.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

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