Authors: Megan E. O'Keefe
he downcrust levels
of Aransa were hotter than a draw on a jug of spicewine. Ripka had set Detan free just a mark or so after sunrise, and already the streets were baking. Â He tugged his shirt-ties loose as he wandered down the cramped streets to where he'd left Tibs with the flier, winking at ladies as he passed.
Not that there were many ladies with a capital “L” this far down in the city. The real desert flowers liked it up top where parasols and shade trees were plentiful. He figured the women down here were more fun, anyway. At least they weren't shy with their hand gestures.
He found Tibs lying under the fronds of a reedpalm, his hat pulled down over his eyes and his back propped up against the carcass of their six-man flier. Tibs was a scrawny bastard, long of limb even when he was slouched. Last night's clothes clung to him in disturbing pleats of grime and sweat, and his boots were beginning to separate from their soles. Hair that Detan suspected had once been a pale brown stuck up in strange angles from under his hat.
Detan crept up on him, squinting down into the shadow that hid his sun-weathered face. Tibs was breathing, slow and even, so he turned his attention to the flier.
It was long and flat, maybe a dozen and a half long paces from end to end, crafted in the style of old riverbarges. Its sel sacks, which would normally be ballooned up above it under thick rope netting, lay crumpled on the deck. Though rectangular of body, Tibs had worked up a neat little pyramidal bowsprit to make it a tad more aerodynamic, and Detan had made blasted sure that the pulley-and-fan contrivance of its navigational system was made of the best stuff he could afford. Or steal. Even its accordion-like stabilizing wings, folded in now, were webbed with leather supple and strong enough to make a fine lady's gloves feel coarse and cheap.
Midship, right behind the helm, rose a plain-walled cabin just wide and long enough to house two curtain-partitioned sleeping quarters. It was a good show for guests, but the real living space was hidden in the flat hold between deck and keel. Though the space was not quite tall enough for Detan to stand straight within, it ran the length of the ship â a sturdy little secret placed there by the smugglers who had originally built the thing. To Detan's eyes, it was the most beautiful thing in the whole of the world.
Unfortunately, the buoyancy sacks lay flaccid and punctured and the right rudder-prop was cracked clean off, rather ruining the effect
Detan glowered and kicked Tibs in the leg. He squawked like a dunkeet and flailed awake, knocking his hat to the black-tinged dirt.
“The pits you doing, Tibs? You haven't even touched the old bird.”
Tibs reached for his hat and picked off a spiny leaf. “Oh I touched it all right, just couldn't do a damn thing for it. What you think I am, a magician? The buoyancy sacks are as airtight as pumice stone and the mast is as stable as mica on edge, lemme tell you.”
tell me, old chum, because I sure as shit don't understand your miner-man rock babble.”
The lanky man rolled his eyes as he hoisted himself to his feet, and to Detan's never-ending consternation took his time about brushing the dust from his trouser legs. Damned funny thing, a mechanic with a fastidious streak.
“Simple-said, there's no repairing either of the buoyancy sacks. They were half-patches long before they took this latest damage and that mast is about as stable as aâ well, uh, it's just fragile, all right?”
“Was that so hard?”
Tibs grunted and wandered over to the flier. He gave one of the sacks a nudge with his toe and shook his head, tsking. “Got no imagination, do you?”
“I got enough imagination to figure out what to do with a lippy miner.”
“I'm your mechanic.”
“Mechanic miner then.”
Detan snatched Tibs's hat off his head and put it squarely on his own. Tibs plucked it back with a disappointed cluck of the tongue. “Tole you to bring a spare.”
“Well, I didn't think I'd be doing barrel rolls over the Black Wash last night. Sweet sands, Tibs, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I'd like very much to get away from the ship shooting spears at us. Sirra.”
Detan ignored his smirk and took over his old chum's spot under the reedpalm. He sank down onto the black dirt and tipped his head back against the tree's rough trunk. In the shade, the breeze didn't feel like it was trying to steal his breath away. His eyes drifted shut, his muscles unknotted.
Tibs kicked his foot.
“What?” Detan grumbled.
“You win us enough to fix her up?”
“Better.” He wrestled with his belt pouch and tossed it up to his companion. Tibs poured the contents out in his wide, flat hand, barely able to contain all the fingernail-sized grains of copper and silver. He whistled low. “Mighty fine haul, but may I ask who's going to be hunting us down to get it back?”
“You lack faith, old friend. That there is a genuine upfront payment from Watch Captain Ripka Leshe herself.”
Tibs did not look as impressed as Detan would have liked. “Payment for what?”
“She's hired us to steal Thratia's lovely new airship, the
, of course. Seems the ex-commodore is getting a mite too comfortable here in Aransa, and needs to be shown her place.”
He beamed up at Tibs, relishing the slow shock that widened his eyes and parted his lips. It was good to surprise the shriveled smokeweed of a man, but it didn't last. Tibs's eyes narrowed and his shoulders tensed. “That doesn't sound much like the watch captain.”
Detan frowned. “No, it doesn't, does it? But that's the way it's been played to us. We just have to get a step ahead.”
Tibs sighed and cast a longing look at their downed bird. “Sounds like a mess. Maybe we should just take the money and move along. Thratia isn't known for her forgiving nature, you know, and monsoon season's coming. Wouldn't want to get stuck in a sel-mining city come the rains, would we?”
Detan flinched at the thought of being stranded here, so very close to the Smokestack. All that tempting selium being pumped out from the bowels of the world no more than a ferry ride away. It was hard enough keeping his sensitivity to himself when they were in the sel-less reaches of the Scorched. Stuck in a city full of it? He'd give himself away in a single turn of the moon.
For the barest of moments he considered writing to Auntie Honding for enough grain to get the flier airworthy again. But any response from his dear old auntie would come with strict instructions to return home at once for a lengthy stay, complete with brow-beating. And he knew damned well that lingering at Hond Steading, with its five selium-producing firemounts, would make hiding his sel-sensitivity from the proper authorities a sight more difficult than managing Aransa's single mine.
Detan squared his shoulders, forcing his body to display the confidence he wished his mind held. They had time before the rains came. He was sure of it. “Make off with Ripka's money? She'd have us hanged if we ever showed up here again!”
“More like have our heads lopped off.” Tibs grimaced and spat into the dust.
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“City's all worked up over it. Seems a doppel got caught impersonating some puffed-up mercer. Our new benefactor took his head clear off at sunrise. Not a friendly town for sel-sensitives of deviant abilities, you understand.”
He glanced up the city toward the station house, and though he couldn't see it from this vantage he imagined all the little watchers returning to it after a good morning's work.
Takes some time, to lop a man's head off and clean up the mess. Enough time for Ripka to make it back to the station, little more than a mark after sunrise, to question him then kick him loose? And what of those who had arrested him â they'd said they were acting on the captain's orders. Where had she been, to see him and order his arrest at the Blasted Rock in the wee hours of the night while preparing to execute a man? He'd never seen her at the inn, true, butâ¦
Detan cleared a sudden hitch in his throat, and Tibs narrowed his little lizardy eyes down at him. Stranger yet, in all her talk of doppels Ripka had failed to mention that she'd done one in just that morning.
He decided not to mention the watch captain's lapse of memory to Tibs. It was usually best not to worry the man with silly things like that. Ole Tibs liked straight paths, and dithered at forks. Tibs would spend his life wasting away at a crossroads if Detan wasn't there to push him along. He smiled at what a good friend he was.
“Don't worry yourself overmuch, Tibs, it'll give you wrinkles. Now, the watch captain has asked for our help and on my honor I won't be leaving the poor woman without assistance. Could you do that? Just leave her here with Thratia itching to take power?”
Tibs gave him a rather ungentlemanly look, but Detan fancied himself too well bred to be given a rise by that sort of thing.
“I suppose we must help the watch captain,” he grated.
“Splendid!” Detan clapped his hands as he sprang up and strode over to the downed flier. “Now we have to get this old bird airworthy again.”
“I thought we were soon to acquire a much finer vessel?”
“Have you no sentimentality? We can't just leave it!”
A little smile quirked up the corners of Tibs's dry, craggy face. “I suppose not.”
“Brilliant! One step ahead already!”
a cart to help them move the flier up a few levels to the inn Detan had scouted on his way through the city. It wasn't upcrust by any stretch of the imagination, and he figured that made it the perfect place to lay low. Thratia never came down this way herself, and Ripka only when there was something that needed cleaning up. It was a nice bonus that the innkeeper didn't know him, and that he was less likely to run into any of the uppercrusts he'd swindled in the past.
Their room had a half-door in the back that swung open into an old goat pen, just big enough to stash the flier in. Wasn't likely anyone would steal it, but he felt better about having it close. From the edge of the pen they could see the sweep of Aransa, or at least all those levels that tumbled out below their room.
The downcrust levels were a hodgepodge of daub and stone construction with a few brave souls throwing up the occasional scrap-wood wall. The houses huddled up the side of the mountain, clinging to the good stable rock beneath, and the city was a mess of switchbacking streets. Glittering black sands reached across the distance between Aransa and the Fireline Ridge, the firemount they called Smokestack spearing straight up through the center of the ridge, belching soot and ash. The winds were in their favor today, and so the greasy plume drifted off to the desolate south instead of laying a film of grime over all Aransa.
Blasted dangerous place to stick a city.
From this far away, the glint of metal holding leather-skinned pipes to the Smokestack's back was the only evidence of the firemount's rich selium production. Dangerous or not, there'd be folk settled here until the sel was gone. Or until the whole damned place blew.
“Enjoying the view?” Tibs slunk up beside him and wiped his hands on the filthiest rag Detan had ever seen.
“Hasn't changed much, has it?”
“Don't suppose it has a need of change. Anyway, bags are stored and the flier's tarp-tied. Smells like goat piss in there so don't come whining to me when the whole blasted contraption stinks of it later.”
“I'd never blame the odor of goat on you, old chum. Your bouquet is entirely different, it'sâ¦” He waved a hand to waft up the right word. “It's
Tibs ignored the slight and kept his eyes on a brown paper notebook clutched in one hand. Somehow he'd rummaged up a bit of pointed charcoal and was using it to sketch broad strokes that eventually came together to form their flier. Or, what would have been their flier, if it were in one piece. New formulae appeared around their cabin, and Detan went cross-eyed.
“You can't possibly know what you're doing there.”
“Just 'cause you're an idiot doesn't mean everyone else is. Sirra.”
“We're gonna need something to wreck,” he said, anxious to be of some use, “a decoy.”
Tibs just grunted.
Detan grinned. Couldn't help himself. Some sense was emerging from the mist of numbers and angles, familiar shapes made bigger, stronger. Their tiny little cabin adapted for an entirely larger vessel altogether. Adapted further to be modular, easy to piece apart and slap back together again. Easier still to wrap around their current cabin until the time it would be needed.
It was perfect, really. This way they didn't need to know what Thratia's ship looked like ahead of time â all ships had cabins on their decks of some kind or another. Once the ship was in hand, he and Tibs could break off a chunk of Thratia's original and leave it as a wreck somewhere in the scrub beyond the city. Work up a good fire around it and no one would go looking for the rest of the ship; they'd assume it'd all burned up and give up the trail.
Then he and Tibs could shift the knock-down cabin from their flier onto the deck of Thratia's ship to cover any holes their hasty carpentry might leave behind. Nothing more suspicious than a big ole ship trundling around the skies without a cabin.
“Oh, that's clever!” he blurted as Tibs's plan crystallized in his mind.
“One of us has to be. I'll need to get a look at the real bird to make sure it all connects, but it should work well enough for a quick switch.”
He gave Tibs time to work out the finer details, then watched in admiration as the crusty man ran his charcoal bit back over all the salient points, thickening the lines as he committed them to memory. When he was finished, Tibs tore the page out, crumpled it, and shoved it in his pocket.