Kio had his latest apology loaded in the quiver and ready to loose when the sweating, panting heap known as Karla hauled herself over the very edge of the hangar. Immediately, he lost the words. He wasn’t feeling great himself–soaked and red-faced from turning the heavy winch crank in the workshop, a task even mechanical advantage could only make so much easier–but he ran the several steps to Karla and threw his arms around her.
She shook in his embrace. Whether from fear or excitement, he couldn’t tell.
“Karla,” he began, once he’d coaxed her to sit down on the castle side of the hangar, near their calendar, “I’m so sorry, I…”
“You noticed the hairline fracture in the joint right before we set off,” she said, and slumped sideways to rest her head on his shoulder. “And it wasn’t in the solid dowel, it was one of the hollow bones. You figured it would hold one of us, but not two. And there was no time to tell me.”
“Well…yup, that’s about right.” The laugh that came out sounded high-pitched to his ears. In fact, it was not about right. He hadn’t predicted the fracture or the rip in the canvas. He’d just not trusted one block and tackle to lift them back to safety from a dead hang.
Damn you, he scolded himself, grow the hell up and tell her the truth.
“Or, no. Karla, it’s not.” He hung his head. “I was scared. I backed out because I thought I would be more help here, and I didn’t have the guts to tell you, and I’m sorry.”
She paused for a long time, long enough for his shoulder to start itching under her hair. Then she said, “Kio, we are both going to apologize to each other one more time, and then we’ll be done forever, all right? Do you agree we can assume apologies in future situations?”
“I…dunno if this is really a problem that calls for an engineering solution,” he coughed, “but sure. I’m sorry.“
“It’s all right.” She spoke quickly, cutting off what would have been a long explanation of why. “That was your last apology and I accept it. You weren’t scared, you were cautious, and you saved me, so I accept it and maybe don’t even have the right to do that. Now I’m gonna do mine.”
Illustration by Grace Pyles.
His eyes strayed to where Raven lay in a crumbled heap on the lip of the hangar. Beyond, the clouds were burning off, the white canyon evaporating into air.
“I’m sorry for freaking out about the hollow bone burning. They aren’t actually that hard to make.”
“I should know.” Kio rubbed his shoulder, where a ghostly ache was pounding softly. “I hollowed a dozen of the damn things. But, Karla, the problem is we don’t have enough wood.”
“And I’m sorry I didn’t take the rune decay thing seriously. I did, really, I just thought the dragons were more important. I don’t know. Kio…”
Through her head on his shoulder, he could feel her swallow. He gulped too. This was going to be bad.
“…one of them’s fully dark. Just scratches on the stone.”
He hunched reflexively. “What?”
“It’s dark, Kio. A whole lifting rune is gone.”
She lifted her head and looked at him. Like something had burned him, he scrambled back across the calendar, still facing her. For some reason, he couldn’t talk about the runes while holding her. It felt safe, too safe for a conversation about how they were both definitely going to die.
“You have to go,” he said, still on his knees. “Take Raven to the surface. No more testing. We’ll fix the fracture and then you can go.”
“What are you on about?” Karla sprang to her feet, running her fingers through her ponytail. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“We can get Raven ready to fly one of us in time. I don’t know about two.”
“Kio.” She held a hand out to him. “What’s our promise?”
Why would she ask that now? He got the strong sense she was bursting to tell him something else, but he was trying to save as many people as he could. It wasn’t like he was volunteering to die.
Right? “It’s not about that,” he stammered, “it’s, I’m not…“
“Please.” She grabbed his hand and hauled him up without waiting for him to volunteer it. “Just say it.”
“Fine. Neither of us goes to the surface without the other one.”
“Whatever happens to us on Nashido happens to both of us. Karla–“
“Raven flies with two passengers, or she doesn’t fly at all.”
For a second, Kio lost his words. Karla seized the window to jump into the thing he guessed she’d wanted to say all along. “We can fix the runes and find wood before we fall.”
Flabbergasted again. What did she mean? He thought of making a joke about how she’d never wanted to do anything more than work on Raven, but now didn’t seem the time.
“There’s a sky kingdom up there.”
Kio decided he was just going to stop talking. Karla grinned, almost certainly enjoying the way she kept knocking the words out of his mouth. “It changes everything. There might be something we can use to fix the runes. And weapons to set up against bone dragons.”
“We talked about that. We’ve never found any weapons before.”
“Yeah, but what if we just didn’t know what to look for? Besides, you said it yourself. Maybe they just didn’t think the weapons were worth writing about. Maybe sky kingdom people could see them plain as day and didn’t leave us the first clue on how to think like they do. And we don’t have all the books.” She started pacing, shook her head. “I’ll help you research rune decay, spend time in the library if that’s what it takes, and I’ll help you build weapons too so neither one of us has to do it alone.”
Kio rubbed his eyes. That did sound nice. And explained why she’d made him remember the promise. “I suppose you’re going to say the first step to both of those problems is that we need to find a way to get to that sky kingdom.”
Karla nodded vigorously, hair slashing the air behind her. “And find more wood, too. Raven might work if the entire skeleton is flexible, or maybe the hollow bones are a red herring. But we have to keep experimenting.”
The soles of Kio’s hide shoes weren’t thick enough to keep him from feeling the calendar gouges in the floor of the hangar. He looked from his friend, to the half-smashed hulk of their ornithopter, to the brightening blue sky beyond the room.
He really didn’t like the sky kingdoms. They’d explored twelve of them in the ten-ish years he could remember, and each time, it had taken him weeks to recover. Maybe longer–he wasn’t good at weeks. Each one had been too much to take in, too much to see. The height of the buildings, the strange machines, the staircases as wide as Nashido. The vast halls whose purposes he could only guess at from his books. Not to mention the hard labor of making hundreds of trips back and forth for supplies, tossing the loads onto the tops of Nashido’s towers, knowing he and Karla would have to go without for ages if they didn’t scrounge everything they could. He preferred books, which were small and didn’t throw themselves at you.
She’s right, though. No matter what, they had to look. It could keep them in the air long enough to reach the ground at their own pace. Or just kill them faster. But what else was he gonna do?
“How high is it?” he asked.
“Eight hundred feet straight up.”
“How are we going to get up there?”
“We’ll figure it out.” Karla was hunting for a spike, planning to mark the mostly-successful test on the calendar. “We’re all we have.”