Karla’s workshop clung to the forward end of Nashido, between the library and the hangar. Two or three years ago, when she’d begun her serious career building flying machines, she had rigged an elevator to connect the hanger to the missing wall of the workshop that overhung it. It was powered by hauling, and could pull her up just as easily as it could lower down a durable and skyworthy yet elegant flying machine. Lately it had been doing lots of the former, and discouragingly little of the latter.
The platform was still down from last time, but instead of hauling herself up right away, she paced the hangar, trying to pin down what was happening in Kio’s brain. The truth she didn’t want to say aloud was that she felt as uneasy about arming Nashido as he seemed to. If she did say it, he’d never believe she was nervous for the same reason he was–not with the show she’d been making lately about letting go of their past. He took her wishes at face value, believed her when she told him what she wanted. He’d see the contradiction. That would lead to questions, and eventually, to the room near the crest of the inner citadel, with the loose floorboard.
You could just tell him, she thought. Trade secret for secret. Find out why he really gathered all those history books.
And then what? Tell him that while he was adorably new at hiding things, she’d been practicing it for years? That she knew more about year zero than he did, though her mind was still full of maddening holes? Without uprooting his entire world, how could she tell Kio anything that was hidden under that floor?
She sat down, hugging her knees, and gazed around as she turned theories over in her mind. The hangar wasn’t a hangar, as far as they knew. It was just an open platform, consisting of a ceiling, a floor, and columns. Unlike the tower walls, it took more than masonry and gravity to hold this system together: rivets the size of tree trunks bolted the columns to the citadel and the ceiling to Karla-sized braces whose own rivets, so she’d calculated, ran all the way to the heartsphere.
The ceiling and floor were broad and flat and surrounded on three sides by miles on miles of endless sky. Nowhere else on Nashido was so much space so empty, except in the sphere itself. The hangar was also–if everything went quite a bit better than it was going right now–where Karla and Kio would launch Raven, and bid the castle farewell for good.
Tracing her hand idly over the single stone slab of the floor, she found she’d flopped down by chance near their calendar of days carved into the floor. The series of marks would have looked like birdscratch if anyone else ever saw it. She and Kio had given up counting days and weeks early on. They had no basis in any real calendar to start with. Instead, they added notches whenever anything important happened: the ripening of their first crop of vegetables, each sky kingdom they met, their first sighting of the Big Island.
She memorized each line as they gouged it, so that each row told a story, even years later. Some of the smaller and shakier lines sent shivers up her arm as her fingers brushed over them. The greenblight that had forced them to hack a third of their oxygen vines off the castle. The week Kio caught the swan flu. She’d gotten it from him before he got better. For days they lay on their backs in the statuary corridor, crawling to drink the rain, clinging to each other and willing one or the other to recover–for who was going to give them care they couldn’t give themselves?
Longer lines loosely divided the years, as best she could observe the seasons. She counted ten since arriving. Her best guess put her and Kio at fifteen.
Her fingers brushed several excited marks close together, where she’d drawn her first blueprint for Raven. For many sunlit days, each new discovery had seemed the breakthrough of her life, more than worthy of inclusion on the calendar.
The memory jolted to her senses. Far too long ago, she’d last felt that way. Too much sky-gazing. She’d come here to work.
Or not. Right as she stood up on the calendar, Kio thundered down a set of steps from the low tower. “I need to talk to you!” he cried out when they were level on the great hangar floor, his blue eyes darting around like a bone dragon was going to leap out of a cloud to stop him.
“I need to work on Raven,” she said without moving. Right away, in her ears, it sounded harsher than she’d intended, but it was true. The calender mocked her. Two year-lines sat between Raven’s conception and the new line she’d cut for the bone dragon attack. Two years failing to build them a way to the surface. How had she managed to waste so much time?
“I wasn’t reading about bone dragons in the history books,” Kio garbled out in a single breath. “I was reading about sky kingdom runes because I think Nashido is losing altitude.”
“Right now?” she demanded.
“No. Well, yeah, but not fast. It may have been happening for years.”
She strode across the calendar, each footstep echoing. A cloud drifted over the long side of the hangar to shade Kio’s nervous face as she pulled short within inches of it. “Is it going to get faster in the next eight hours?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m reading! I’d like to say probably not. But I have no idea.”
Karla took a step back and studied his face. He’d clearly fought a battle with himself just to come here and tell her this. Plus, however fast this altitude decay was happening, it was a bigger issue than whatever had led Kio not to tell her the truth right away.
And we still need weapons to kill bone dragons. Damn it, I really don’t want to have to hit the books with him.
“Then we can talk about it in the workshop,” she relented. “Come say good morning to Raven.”
The lift led to an antechamber separated from the workshop by a pair of swinging doors. Inside, Karla donned her smithing apron while Kio shed his furs. Her friend had the power to be cold anywhere, and in anything, but the workshop was the only place on the castle either of them were allowed to leave open flames. Which would also have been odd to an outsider, since it housed the only thing aboard made of wood. The fires burned in braziers Karla had hung around the room, both for use in forging when she needed them and to illuminate Raven from every possible angle. Vents in the ceiling let light in and coal smoke out.
The winged skeleton of lumber, paper, and cogs they called Raven ruled the center of the room, a space two and a half armspans wide. Its “cockpit”–the long bar and harnesses where the two of them would lie to pilot it–rested on the floor, while cables stretched out its wings. Two mismatched wheels were riveted to the ends of the cockpit bar. In the wavering light from four braziers, the canvas cartilage on the port wing seemed as gossamer as the bone dragon’s wings, though in truth it was brittle.
Illustration by Grace Pyles.
The craft of his and Karla’s salvation had always put Kio a bit in mind of a dead and decaying bird rewound through time to rest in the workshop with half its living flesh restored. The starboard wing had been stripped down to half its twin’s size, framework and all. Gearwork shimmered in between them, scavenged cog by cog and fit painstakingly together over the raven’s whole midships body. Tail lift to head, only one or two gears were missing, probably slated for oiling on Karla’s workbench. This system connected to a row of levers under where the bird’s eyes would be, which would allow the pilots to warp and flex the wings however they needed to glide.
Still no feathers, Kio thought. Karla always said she’d do that last. She had picked the name Raven, looking over Kio’s shoulder at a book with a picture of a deep-black land bird. You shouldn’t ignore some things, she’d told him later, when they’re trying to talk to you. And that sketched raven had positively squawked at her.
“I’ve been thinking about the dragon’s wings,” Karla said over her shoulder as she laid her tool belt out on her workbench. “Obviously that insect-ish material that filled them out was flexible, but the bones themselves can’t have been rigid. Or else it would never be able to fly anywhere but up, right?”
“I…I guess.” Kio edged closer. Bits of paper and canvas lay scattered across the stone surface, each of them a detail or an attempt to capture the whole dragon in charcoal. “The bones on the one that grabbed me were a bit bigger than this. You’ve got them down like lines here.”
“Thanks!” Karla gave his shoulder a quick squeeze as she dashed over to the workbench, snatched up a piece of charcoal, and made adjustments. “See, what I’m thinking is they must be hollow, like a bird’s bones. That allows for wing-warping, but also makes them flexible enough to bend under acceleration instead of breaking. Remember that one test where gravity snapped one of the wings off?”
“Yeah. I had to pull you back by the tether. It took hours.” Karla reclaiming the table had forced Kio to find somewhere else to stand. It wasn’t easy. They’d kicked a path through the morass of loose bolts, wood shavings, oily rags, canvas scraps, misshapen planks, and crumpled-up designs on the floor, but everywhere else was covered.
“Karla, can we talk about–“ he began, but she was shoving something into his hands. Off-kilter, he turned the wooden dowel over until she looked suitably certain he was impressed. He had to admit it was far lighter than it looked.
“It’s a prototype. If it works out I want to replace the whole frame with these.” She moved lightly over the clutter piles to the empty chunk of the craft where she planned to start. “I hollowed that dowel out with a hammer and chisel. Took me three days. Mara, I wish I had a real drill!”
“That’s great, but–“
“And we don’t exactly have enough of those wooden rods to experiment again, they’re from three sky kingdoms ago.”
“Of course I can’t go ahead until I stress-test it. I was going to do it last night, but the storms came early–“
“Karla!” Kio’s shout hit hard. If this didn’t focus her, nothing would be able to all day. “We have to talk about the rune decay! Do you want us to fall out of the sky or what?”
Her response was slow, like swimming out of sleep. His eyes met hers over the disassembled starboard wing. Then she blinked. “Sure. Sorry. I’m just excited.” She hopped up and sat heavily on her workbench, trapping the end of her apron. “Tell me everything you know.”
With a deep breath of all the soot-free air he could inhale, Kio told her about falling below the heartsphere, and about the fading symbols on the underside of the citadel.
Karla perched on Raven’s pilot harness and listened all the way through to the end. Every now and then she stopped him with a question about what he’d done, or whether he knew for sure something he was claiming. He could answer most of the questions. The actual meaning of those dark shadows on the edges of the runes, though, remained out of reach.
“You want to know how the rune magic works,” she paraphrased, when Kio thought he was finished. “And the two real-life examples we have aren’t helpful. The crystals are maybe shields, maybe magnets, maybe time bombs and maybe fancy lamps. And the runes that make the castle float can’t be inspected without nearly dying. So, books.”
“Right,” Kio replied, relieved he’d been able to communicate. “Maybe on the inside of the heartsphere–“
She cut him off. “Don’t.”
“I know, I’m just saying–“
Karla stood up quickly enough to spill a sack of wosher rings over the floor. “Kio, even if we could get inside, I don’t think you’d see what you’re thinking you would. Runes may be keeping the sphere floating, but the inside is a different magic. Something older. With teeth.”
Karla–oil-stained, overalled, ponytailed Karla in her workshop full of scavenged parts–wasn’t in the habit of saying things she didn’t believe, nor was she in the habit of believing in magic. She had a reason for saying something so unscientific, and Kio knew what it was.
Year zero. Something she remembered differently from him.
Never a good idea to push on year zero thoughts. They didn’t plump the vegetables or keep the air thick. Didn’t do anything at all, so why bother with them?
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, sitting down on a crate covered with rags that didn’t look too irreplaceable. “I’d just rather look for runes than weapons in the library. That’s all.”
“What do you mean, that’s all?” Karla was on her feet again. Her ability to pace in the overstuffed space of the workshop was sort of amazing. “I mean, thanks for telling the truth, Kio. Really. But now we’ve got two potential crises on our hands, where there was only one this morning. How are we supposed to prioritize when the runes could fail or more dragons could attack anytime between tonight and a hundred years from now?”
“What makes you so sure there are more dragons?” Kio wished they weren’t having this conversation in the workshop after all. It was too hot, too crowded, and he was still holding the hollow dowel since there was nowhere to put it. Nowhere else on Nashido was this stuffy. Why did Karla like it like this?
“What makes you so comfy pretending there aren’t?” she shot back. “There’s no difference between how likely the two things are to kill us. It’s nonsense to fight rune decay and pretend the dragon is such a small problem that you being afraid of weapons trumps it. And don’t wave that hollow dowel around.”
He was on his feet again, biting back a rebuke: you hide behind your year zero stuff, I’ll hide behind mine. Instead, he pointed at her with the dowel. “What are you going to do while I research? Hang out in here and tinker?”
“Build the weapons once you learn about them.” Karla’s face was a stone mask. “And this tinkering is going to get us to the surface one day. I said don’t do that with the dowel, I told you we don’t have any extras!”
“If you’d spend more than five minutes in the library and help me–“
The mask broke. “Don’t wave it around!”
By the time the dowel slipped from his sweaty hand, Kio was beyond noticing. He was angry at Karla for resurrecting this fight, angry at himself for not having any rational reason not to want to arm Nashido, angry at Raven for the way Karla jumped at shadows and snapped at gulls whenever she was in deep with the skycraft. His heart was pounding against prison bars.
The dowel landed in the aftmost brazier.
Karla howled and shoved past him. Workshop debris clattered down across her path. She’d upended the whole ecosystem.
Coming back to himself, Kio realized what he’d done. Horror mounted when he pieced together, a millisecond later, what Karla might do.
A lucky lunge brought his arms around her midsection. She hadn’t thought to put on her fireproof gloves. She’d stick her hands into the hot coals to get her labor back, and then there wouldn’t be anyone to work on Raven at all.
She went quiet. Wrestled against his arms. Her first jerk pulled him off his center of gravity, nearly tumbling them both into another brazier. Nearly knocking it onto Raven.
That near miss was a splash of cold water to them both. Karla went limp in Kio’s arms. But when he released her–when he begged her, with words he didn’t remember, to talk to him so they could both see reason–she burst through the swinging door without once looking back. Seconds later, Kio heard the elevator crash to the ground, and footsteps sprint across the stone calendar and away.