Kio found Karla watching the planes.
Since they’d stopped running the propellors, Nashido had drifted back to its favored orbit, following the archipelago a mile below. The islands passed by like distant planets through a telescope, many shades of green mottled through with white chalk. At night, the people on them lit torches, and the line of lights vanished off both sides of the world. From any outer part of the castle he could see them roll away.
One month, Kio had resolved to chart every one of the islands. He’d convinced Karla not to use the engine until he was finished–a void in her life she’d filled by tinkering with the power distribution system–and had let Nashido drift however it would. While he waited for the first island to appear, he wondered what kept Nashido to its orbit. Was it just the caprices of the high sky? The winds whipped around as much the ocean churned. Nobody was in a better position than he and Karla to know they could never be sure what the air was doing.
Or was it something else? Was the wind excuse just a cover to avoid poking something too vast for him to understand, vast enough to poke back if he tried?
Castle Nashido has a heart. Does it have a brain?
A few stairs mostly screened him from the ledge where Karla was sitting. If she turned around, she might see him, might not. He could still go back down and leave her alone, instead of tormenting himself with questions he’d pondered a thousand times to no benefit.
Or he could square his shoulders and go apologize. Instead, though, he retreated down a step, watching Karla watch the planes, thinking about the archipelago.
It was his chart that allowed him to be certain of what she was seeing. He’d used the corridor of the lower citadel as his workspace, just up the stairs from their calendar of years. Another order of business before the castle found the islands for him had been to figure out how fast Nashido moved without propulsion, something he’d never had to think about before. From his books, he knew what a “knot” was, but he also knew that surface sailors tended to measure them by putting a device into the water, a decidedly unhelpful tip. Eventually, he’d found his answer by asking Karla to run the propellors just enough to run against the wind and keep them from moving at all. He set up flags and observed how much wind they indicated when blowing along the castle’s preferred orbit, then had Karla shut the engines off and let Nashido move with the wind. It wasn’t perfect at all–he had to rely heavily on charts that assigned windspeeds to qualitative observations–but in the end he’d settled for assuming the wind blew three knots less strongly when Nashido moved with it.
So, if it took an hour for two islands to cross the same axis on the castle, they were three nautical miles apart. Most of them took longer. None were wider than the channels between them. Kio dutifully marked each one of them on his charcoal chart in the lower citadel hallway. He named each one based on whatever distinguishing feature he could find. If this was the best land the surface had to offer, land must have been a sparse thing in the whole world. The books should have been able to help him, but they didn’t–they were all written by skybound authors, who to a man regarded the surface as a setting for outlandish adventures or lurid tales of horror, not a serious object of scientific study. He’d learned long ago those sources couldn’t be trusted.
But he did know one thing: if the archipelago was the only land on the surface, the big island was the capital of the world. And it was where he wanted to be most of all.
The big island was one-hundred and seven knots away from the south end of the archipelago. They had spotted the tiny island thirty-six hours and thirty-nine minutes ago. So, Karla was watching the planes.
She gave no sign she saw him as he tiptoed up the steps and across the balcony toward her. Maybe it was the desire to see the Big Island that finally moved him. Maybe it was the desire for her not to have to see it alone.
The balcony had a vegetable garden on one side, with fat peppers and broad carrot leaves poking up through a pungent layer of nightsoil. On the other, a trunklike oxygen vine snaked up the wall. Pulley gears clinked and ropes creaked in the wind.
Kio sat down next to Karla on the ledge. His legs dangling over open sky always put his heart in his throat. He willed the shaking to stop.
A dark stratus cloud had moved over the big island–a frigate bird winged into it, then flew out the other side. Kio looked sidelong at a silent girl he barely recognized, without her hair tied back or her wrenches belted on.
He had to say something. He came up with, “Remember when we first saw them?”
He fancied he could hear the planes far under the cloud–beating canvas wings, clicking gears, pilots shouting signals–but knew he was just making up the noise. Karla didn’t respond.
“We were trying to knock birds out of the sky with that spear-throwing thing you came up with. I think you actually hit one. It just didn’t land on the castle.” Kio let out a weak giggle. Karla looked at him once, then turned back out to stare at the island beyond the cloud.
“And we followed it down,” he went on. “That’s how we could see how many skycraft were buzzing around the big island. Do you know, every time we pass by, they’re different. No two are alike, and sometimes old ones get replaced by new ones and they’re still completely unique.” He shook his head, something he never did. “The city on that island must be the biggest one in the world. On the surface, I mean.”
I’m not a very good Rokhshan.
One hair blew over Karla’s face. She brushed it out of the way.
“I hate that I can’t be mad at you,” she said.
Her outer fur was unbuttoned, exposing leather underneath, but she wasn’t shivering or noticing the cold at all. Kio wished the cloud would move. He didn’t know how to answer her.
“You can be mad at me,” he said lamely. “If you want to.”
“No, I can’t.” She turned to look at him, brown eyes fixed onto his. “I could for a while, sure. Like that time you accidentally stitched all our sleeves shut. Or like you did when I jettisoned all our cabbage. But then there’d be a squall, or a cyclone, or we’d have to shoot a gull because we’re always running out, or there’d be a…” She waved her arms, forcefully, yet not pointing at anything. “…bone dragon, or whatever the hell. And we’d have to forget about whatever we were fighting over because if we didn’t, we might lose vines, we might lose gardens, we’ll suffocate, we’ll die. We don’t get to have fights.”
“Doesn’t that help keep us alive?” asked Kio, who rather liked not having the fights. Though he had been really upset about the cabbage incident–so upset he’d spoken to her in two-word chunks for hours while they’d oiled the propellors and cleaned out the reservoir. He’d wished to the Benefactor those hadn’t been two-person jobs at all, that he could have just been alone for a moment…
He was starting to see what she meant.
“We can’t be friends like normal people can.” Karla stared out at the sky again. The frigate bird wheeled around once more, shooting under Nashido. “If we were down there, on Big Island or Green Island or Sheep Reach or wherever, we could stalk off without worrying that we were putting off building weapons and researching rune decay like we should both be doing right now. We could come back after a while, and know…know…”
More gesturing. Kio supplied the words. “Know we were friends because we wanted to be. Not because we had to be.”
Kio shifted his weight, shivered, wished he’d worn more layers. The warming reaction in the citadel was a bit far below.
“We didn’t have to make our promise,” he said. “We could have just said it was a truce until one of us found a way off.”
Karla shook her head hard. “We had to, Kio, and you know it. We weren’t gonna leave each other to die. I wasn’t gonna build Raven for only one passenger. The promise is just another way to survive.”
She flung herself backward to lie on her arms with her legs still dangling. “Which is all we ever do.”
That’s not fair, Kio thought. After all, if one of them had a way off, there was nothing to stop them from using it. The fact that leaving alone would be like severing part of themselves–didn’t that mean they were normal, like surface friends? Didn’t it mean something that if he left Nashido with Karla still on it, his thoughts would remain rooted to the floating castle no matter what wonders the Big Island held?
He rubbed his eyes. What did he know about surface people? Surface people didn’t need promises. Their whole lives were promises.
The stratus cloud had broken, giving him a clear view down to the isle. He glanced at Karla, hoping she’d get up to see, but she lay silently, staring up at the top of the tower.
The Big Island had two sides. The far end from where Kio watched, twenty-thousand feet up and a little to the north, was a sheer wall of craggy limestone–layer on layer of dark grey mud rising up so high he could make out the ripples cast by the wind over the mountain grass. Viewing from that side, he could clamber up the cliffs from ledge to ledge, nimbly finding footholds on the jagged face. In his mind he roamed up to roll in the mountain heather, then down to the pounding surf, unafraid of the wind. Maybe a little afraid of the water. He still wasn’t sure what that much water in one place could do.
The north side was a gentler slope that tumbled down in three distinct tiers. At the top of the cliff was a broad crescent of land that had mostly been left to heath. Purple alpine flowers and standing stones dotted the lagoon of pale grass. Starting at the south of the island, the crescent rose up to a lofty, sun-warmed pinnacle that always reminded Kio of the high seat of some sky king. Maybe a surface king, or whatever they had instead, would hunt for gulls up there.
Several treacherous-looking switchback paths up a steep hill were the only ways to reach the heath. The cuts snaked down a plunge to the second tier, then vanished–only to emerge again on a tumble-down tree-lined slope toward rocky beaches at sea level. Long docks branched out from these in all directions save for right under the cliff. They were forever covered in bobbing boats of all sizes, under mast or oar, but nobody ever seemed to be out fishing.
Not that Kio ever spent very long looking. It was the second tier that mattered: the broad, flat landing of the island’s stairway. The great city.
Roofs of metal crowded together around yards and lanes that twisted across each other, merged, broke again. Every corner blazed with light that seemed to come from under the ground itself. The paths wound back and forth but all, in the end, reached the great central square, the widest open space in the whole city. Set against the steep mountain rise, the square was anchored by a great pillar that glowed blue. It was bright enough to see in the daylight. By night or day, Kio was sure it was the brightest light in the whole city.
The streets were barely wider than Nashido’s hallways–none of it was as fine or as plush as what the castle had been once–but somehow the smoke pouring from chimneys, the million lights shining from every surface, the corrugated walls and the great square, were more beautiful to Kio than all the Rokhshan legacy. As for the sky kingdoms, they had never managed anything like this in his lifetime.
Every roof was flat, and they and the streets were strewn with bits that could have come out of Karla’s workshop, if she’d had infinite resources and nothing but time: wings and frames and gears. They must have been beautiful, but Kio could only begin to make them out if he strained his eyes in good sunlight. So much of the city was faint–he could hear no noises, couldn’t see what any of the buildings were for, could only make out people like pebbles against the rock beaches–but the planes themselves brought the islanders’ work near enough to see.
Kio was painfully aware of the silence between him and Karla stretching out toward the blue horizon. But at least she hadn’t moved. He kept breathing through the sharp feeling in his guts.
Every time they saw the big island, the air above it was thick with skycraft. Once, in a book of illustrated sky kingdom fables, Kio had read about wasps–angry small animals that swarmed to defend their nests. The picture showed them whizzing to and fro in a great cloud. It had reminded him of the Big Island, with the skycraft setting off for all corners of the archipelago, or returning home from those far places.
Most were tiny flyers, even smaller than Raven, meant to hold one pilot. Some of these beat luminescent wings whose metallic struts shone like threads of sunlight. They flexed and soared around the bigger fixed-wing craft, great lumbering workhorses that glided sedately with props to provide thrust. Some were pedal-powered, some covered with feathers, some had four or six or eight wings that buzzed like a dragonfly’s.
For all the hundreds in the air, there were as many on the ground. Their owners raced along the streets on wheeled landing struts. Several congregated in the square by the glowing crystal, swarmed by pilots the size of sand grains. As Kio watched, a craft hurtled across the square, briefly washed in the blue crystal’s light.
Someone yanked back its wheels, and Kio gasped. It was a cart, not a landing frame. Freed from earthly restraints, the plane beat its wings and rose above the rooftops.
“Karla,” he said before thinking. “Look!”
Something in his tone reached her. She shot up before remembering she was supposed to be mad at him. “What is it?”
Since the Big Island planes had given her the idea for Raven, Karla had been vigilant about watching them. Usually. Kio pointed at the craft that had just launched from the cart, now winging its way toward open ocean. Its wings were made of flexible steel plates fit together like scales.
“I’ve thought about that,” Karla murmured, “but we never have enough metal, and I don’t have a proper forge…”
“Not that,” Kio said, eyes flitting between his friend and the view an agonizing plummet below. “There was a cart–you can’t see it now, they pushed it under something–but they were using detachable wheels to accelerate the craft. You could remove the landing gear from Raven and make it light enough.”
“Her,” Karla corrected. “Kio, I’ve thought of that before. It makes sense for takeoff, but how would we land?”
“Eject.” She should be the one saying this. But sometimes, to live, they had to take up one another’s parts. “Build Raven to crash. It’s going to be a one-way flight anyway.”
She was staring at him again now. Her eyes made it clear this was so obvious she’d never thought of it.
“I know what you need to feel better,” he blathered on. “You feel locked in a cage. Sure. So do I, every day, it’s why I read so many books. But we’re gonna pick that lock for you, right now.”
He sprang to his feet. Karla pushed herself up. “We need to test Raven again, and not give up until she flies. We’re the only things standing in our way. We’re the only things we have.”
Kio realized he was panting a bit. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to prod Karla out of a funk–her highs always came with lows. It was the first time in a while it had been his fault, though. He was definitely gambling here, and not just because Raven was about the riskiest way to solve their bone dragon problem.
He waited. Twenty thousand feet below, the skycraft traced their winding airborne paths.
Karla nodded once, tightly. “Let’s do it.” Without a word more, she stalked back into the tower.