For three days, they worked like machines left running at full power. They slept in shifts, ate salt gull and dried roots when they had to, and barely spoke. While Kio hollowed dowels of various lengths, spliced ropes, shaved wooden pegs and hammered them down to hold Raven’s wings in place, Karla hacked off the landing gear. She thought she’d feel more pain, brushing a line of ink along the craft’s four legs and then laying into them with handaxe, chisel, and saw. But it actually felt liberating. Having something to hit did wonders to stabilize her mood, but more than that, Raven seemed to feel freer too–as though it wasn’t a body part but a cancer she was cutting off.
By the time she’d finished scraping the stumps clean, the little craft looked more like a real bird than she had before, despite still lacking a carved beak like she’d really wanted. Her Raven had the grace of the best machines. Like a true engineer, she’d knocked off everything she could. She pounded a launching cart together in a frenzy after that, barely registering the time passing.
Since the weather was clear, they’d worked mostly in the hangar, ignoring the squalls that drifted like far-off armies, once even letting a flock of gulls pass by unmolested. Now it was the fourth sunrise. Kio leaned against a support column, taking in the pink-and-orange cast of the soft aerial light. Nashido drifted through a canyon of cloud whose walls lit up as the sun rose. Wisps of vapor brushed the castle’s sides.
Karla didn’t notice. She stroked her hands over her ornithopter’s wings, checking and rechecking every gear, each rope, the whole line of levers. Raven was perfect.
“Ready?” she called to Kio.
He jerked his head away from the sunrise and began picking his way through the piles of rubbish that had spent the last three days leaking slowly out of the workshop. “Now?”
“Why not now? You have somewhere to be?”
He shook his head, and Karla felt a pain that stabbed through her numbness of the last three days. She’d hurt Kio. She had an awful habit of blaming him for things simply because there was nobody else around to blame. After the test was over, she’d make it up to him.
No matter how it went.
“Who’s going?” Kio asked. “You went up for the water-gathering, it’s probably only fair if I…”
She put a hand over his and laid them both down on Raven’s starboard wing. “Both of us.”
“Are you sure?” His hand tensed under hers. “The landing gear you removed can’t have weighed as much as one of us.”
“It weighs as much as me. I checked. But with the hollow bones she’s gotten lighter.” Their eyes met. “Kio, if Raven doesn’t work for both of us, it doesn’t work at all.”
“How are we going to pull back? We need to be tethered to the castle in case…you know…” He swallowed. “It doesn’t work for either of us.”
She pointed to a pulley block resting on the spine between Raven’s wings. Two screw-on shackles held it in place, and cranks protruted from its sides, port and starboard. Two ropes attached to its two pulley wheels led up through the floor hatch into Karla’s workshop. “Either one is strong enough to bear the weight by itself. In case one of them breaks.”
“What are they attached to?”
“They’re tug-hitched onto the winch at the back of my workshop.”
He colored. “I didn’t know there was a winch at the back of your workshop.”
“There’s a lot in my workshop. But I promise, it’s real, and it’s as sturdy as Nashido itself.”
Kio’s face contorted through a flightpath of emotions: surprise, fear, and then, to Karla’s great relief, resolve. “I’ll take port.”
They checked and double-checked that they had a clear runway out to open sky. A hundred or so paces of flat stone–not that much, now that Karla looked at it–a thick black mark, a few paces more, and then nothing but the canyon of cloud, the rising sun, the blue channel of air. She hoped Kio’s stomach wasn’t churning. Hers wasn’t. The opposite: every part of her was catching fire.
She helped him lock his harness around his chest and arms, then fitted her own. “You remember how to use the levers?”
“Has it changed?” He fiddled with his harness, adjusting the fit.
“Just gotten lighter.” She half-smiled. “Use your left arm to beat the wing, your right to adjust altitude. The rest of it is about learning to feel the updrafts. It’s kind of a pressure differential across your–“
“Karla.” Kio braced himself against the cockpit bar. “Let’s just go.”
His resolve was now starting to worry her a little, but she pushed it away. “On one we start pushing. On…” she did a calculation in her head, “four, we jump. And let the harnesses hold us.”
“One!” Kio shouted, taking her by surprise. They pushed forward together. The cart gathered speed with a symphony of creaks.
“Two!” they shouted together.
Seventy feet. Fifty.
“Three!” Kio’s voice was fainter this time. Karla’s whole body clenched. This was different than swinging around on the pulleys.
If this worked, they could be off Nashido by nightfall.
No castle left. She had to jump forward into control position, lying flat against Raven’s body, with enough time left for the cart to roll to a stop instead of falling after them.
Her shout was the only one.
She was clear of the ground, chest pressed against the bar with her harness tight, before Kio yanked the cart back. Unable to turn, she cleared the edge of the hangar, sailing out between the clouds. Instantly she lurched hard to starboard. Nashido swung around in the corner of her eye. Her head felt like it was being squeezed through a straw.
It’s just pulleys. It’s no different.
You have to stop spinning!
She had to fight her way to port, to create the balance Kio would have, if he hadn’t stayed behind. Why had he stayed behind? What in surface and sky and all hell was he doing anywhere but on this ornithopter with her?
Forget it. Forget him. Raven was cutting a swath down toward a cloud bank. Karla tried to push herself up and left. Didn’t move.
She was caught on something–the straps pressing against her chest. The harness! It was buckled into the vertical starboard strut, to keep her from sliding into her absent co-pilot.
One of the catches would let her free. But which one? Karla fumbled over the straps with her left hand. The damn thing was all catches. And if she hit the wrong one, she’d be done. Unable to point at Nashido, let alone fly there. Nothing to do but dangle until…
The cloud wall rushing up to meet her shocked her back to her senses. If she went in there, she’d lose the castle, lose any ability to tell which way was up.
For crying out loud, she’d made this harness. She knew which catch was right. Fumbling just under her right armpit, she flipped a lever open. The grip holding her in place loosened. She was free to slide.
Raven pitched farther and the cockpit bar went almost vertical. Karla shoved herself to port, but made no headway. The angle was too steep.
A damp chill soaked into her clothes as the world went white. She’d entered the cloud. Immediately, she heard the pulley block squeak.
Kio had been waiting for this. He was reeling her in.
At first, Karla felt relief. Then she realized what rescue meant. Yet another failed test of her failed ornithopter.
No! her mind roared. Not this time!
On her next jump, instead of just pushing, she jumped.
The force of her jerk slid the harness hard, and for a brief instant, she went weightless.
Her left hand closed around the lever that would have been Kio’s. As she settled in the center of the bar, Raven leveled out. She was flying a course through the freezing white fog, with control of both wings.
Now the only thing left to do was fly.
I know this!
She flexed both levers in time. Ropes strained and gears clicked in response to her command. The wings took agonizingly long to pulse, but once they did, Raven shot upward.
“Ha!” Karla screamed. That felt good. More than good–natural. As though she’d been born to wear wings.
Her second wingbeat shot her up out of the cloudbank, back into the relative warmth of the sunrise. The tether on her back had gone slack. So Kio could see her, or feel her, and knew what she was doing.
Knew that this test was working.
Now that she’d pulled out of her first dive, maneuvering was getting easier. Raven’s canvas wings ballooned up, wide and light enough to keep her in a steady glide–but still losing altitude if she sat idle. She soon got the hang of beating her wings in time to gain height, then flexing the wings to drift slowly back down again. Staying above the clouds, within sight of Nashido, kept her level.
But Nashido was in the corner of her eye, and getting smaller. The tether on her back was paying out. Next step: figure out how to turn.
She pulled the wings taut, leaving only a small amount of slack, then shifted her weight to port.
Immediately, she started to plunge once again. Tingling exhileration swooped back into terror. She managed to level out before dunking herself in the clouds again, fighting to keep her thoughts straight amid the rush of joy from flight. She’d weighted too far. Had to figure out how to bank just a little.
Starboard this time. She moved an inch, then another, and at last got the wings to warp without falling. Sweeping right in a wide arc, she found herself on a collision course with one wall of the cloud canyon, and leveled out quickly, flapping her wings hard to rise above the edge of the white.
And suddenly Karla was sailing free through a crystal-blue sky, so bright and so cold she might have been flying through the timeless space that existed before the universe coalesced into being. Peaks and waves of white rolled out beneath her like an ocean flash-frozen at the peak of a storm. Raven was behaving like part of her body, responding to her slightest touch, cradling her as she soared and forgot everything but the soaring. Had she ever not had wings? How long had she dreamed she was tethered to the surface of a flying castle?
Illustration by Grace Pyles.
The castle! She banked farther to starboard, to keep the rope from snapping tight, and caught the first direct glimpse of Nashido she’d seen since taking off. She’d seen the castle from afar before, when she and Kio visited the sky kingdoms, but it had never looked as beautiful as it had today. A fortress alone against the endless sky, one side brightened by the sun, one side pooled with shadow. Towers, vines, pulleys, propellors, even the broken aqueduct, all shone with golden light. It had taken this flight for Karla to see where she truly lived: a castle so beautiful that everything she and Kio did there was a silent prayer to sleeping gods in heaven.
Kio. For the first time, a castlebound thought creeped back into her head. Why isn’t he here? We could be halfway to the surface right now.
He must have known something, had a reason. She didn’t feel betrayed. Just afraid.
Yet what she saw next chased even that from her mind.
The light and shade weren’t falling quite right on Nashido. The sun side was smaller than it should have been if there was only one sun and one isle floating in this aether. Something was casting a shadow on the castle.
Oh, yes. What was the only direction she hadn’t looked yet?
The sky kingdom appeared to be about the size of a plate, through the thin strip of up that Karla could see. Yet it still cast a vast shadow. It must have been many times the size of Nashido–most of them were. Karla banked as hard to starboard as she dared, wheeling Raven around for a long pass across the castle’s face. She didn’t need to ask herself how she and Kio had missed this drifting closer. They’d been so focused on Raven, and on some fight about something she couldn’t even remember, that they hadn’t looked at the sky for days.
The fight. She relaxed the wings and flapped them to stay level with the castle. She’d been worried about bone dragons, Kio had been worried about runes. Maybe the scrap of rock and soil floating however far above could solve both their problems. They never knew what they were going to find when they explored a kingdom–there were so many, and rarely did they encounter the same one twice. Some had useful materials, tools, hides, metal, rope. Other had seeds. Still others had books, to teach them what to do with the things they found. The only ones that weren’t useful were the ones that only had money. But even that she could melt down.
They had to get there. Which meant she had to go–
A wet ripping noise went off close to her right ear. A rush of wind, the wrong direction, slammed into her face, and she felt a hard tug on her back. No, Raven’s back. She’d gotten them mixed up again.
The canvas which had been full an instant ago was flapping now. One wing flailed uselessly. As Karla gawked, not fully back to herself, a place where two wooden bones joined creaked, strained, and snapped apart.
She threw one arm up, trusting the harness to hold her weight, and reached behind the spine for the pulley that could save her. It was a motion she’d practiced, and she found the crank easily.
It didn’t turn. One try, two, not a single one gaining an inch. One person’s strength couldn’t bear this weight after all.
She didn’t feel doomed. She knew she should have. But all she felt was the normal, perpetual fear of someone who lived with a bottomless pit of sky as one of her roommates.
Karla spun hard. She was in freefall. Mutely, with dreamlike slowness, she folded her remaining wing into her body, so she could fall straight instead of spinning.
What had happened? Everything was going perfectly. Now she couldn’t even glide. What had happened to her body? What had amputated her wings?
The soft tugs on her back continued, rhythmically, like someone was pulling hard, then resting, then taking up the task again. Gratitude burst through her. This time, she had no problem with Kio reeling her in.
He could slow down a bit, though. Gravity was taking hold of her. If she didn’t get some slack, she would slam like a pendulum into the side of the castle…
…Nope, he thought of that too. Good old cautious Kio.
That was how Karla, wings clipped, head full of fears about her ornithopter and visions of the sky kingdom, came to be hanging below Nashido without much to do but wait to brace herself against the castle walls. She was there, not far from where she’d done the same for Kio a few days ago, when she finally got a glimpse of Kio’s runes.
They should have been decaying at the edges. But not all of them were. One was dimmer.
Had he said that one entire rune had gone fully dark? Karla couldn’t remember. When she got back to the hangar, she would have to ask.