Askaro of the Falcon
by Lady Li Andre
Published by Lady Li Andre at Shakespir
Shakespir Edition Copyright 2017 Lady Li Andre
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Askaro spooned the hot gruel in as fast as he could without burning his mouth. He’d seen clouds on the horizon on his way to breakfast and he wanted to have a little time before duty to study them. A loud shout from across the room distracted him. He looked up. Master Gilus was leading some of the new slaves into the mess hall. Their chains clanged as they stumbled forward.
Kelor moved to intercept them. “It’s about time. Breakfast is almost over.” He took the lead chain and led them to the benches across the narrow board from Askaro.
Master Gilus smacked one who tried to sit down before the others in the line. “Had no end of trouble with this lot. These Grasslanders have nothing but stuffing between their ears.”
Kelor got the bunch seated. He rapped on the board to get their attention. “You’re already on short time. Behave or you’ll go without.”
A slave across from Askaro huffed quietly. “Considering the slop they feed us, that might be better.” He pointed at Askaro’s bowl. “How can you stand to eat that?”
He finished his last spoonful. “It’s food.” Askaro got up.
Kelor chuckled. “I still says ship-born make the best slaves.” He patted Askaro on the shoulder and turned to the newcomers. “You should learn from those already here. This is a good life. You’re fed three times a day, you’re clothed, and you have a dry place to sleep. From what I saw of where you lived before, that’s a big improvement.”
Askaro waited for the crewman to finish speaking. “May I go now, sir?”
Kelor nodded and Askaro took his bowl to the bucket, washed it, and added it to the drying rack. He looked back as one kitchen slave set bowls on the board and another ladled the gruel into them. He had never really eaten much else in his life other than a few meals while on collecting parties or occasional things his mother passed to him quietly. He knew what was in the gruel because he’d worked in the kitchen when he was younger. It was just the scraps of what the crew and officers ate with congealed fat added. Slaves needed the extra energy. His mother told him that it was cooked down into a gruel so the fat mixed better.
Askaro peered into the galley but his mother wasn’t seated at the counter where she usually ate her breakfast. She must have finished early as well. She had talked about making rolls for the Master’s Mess while they walked to breakfast that morning. Maybe that’s where she was now.
He climbed several flights of stairs until he came out onto the main deck. The sun was just cresting the horizon. The yellow glow reflected downward from the massive dirigible over head. A stiff breeze ruffled the coarse fabric of his tunic. He tightened his belt. The deck was damp with morning dew but his bare feet were used to the cold dampness.
He moved to the starboard railing and scanned the clouds piling up on the northern horizon. He pulled in a deep breath, smelling the tang of the salty sea but also the sweeter touch of fresh water. The clouds held rain. He glanced down at the waves far below and could make out white caps of foam on their crests. The ocean was restless.
They were still on a westerly heading. He looked across the shrouds and noticed the men scrambling through the riggings, adding sail to take advantage of the wind from the north. He missed sail duty, especially when the weather was fine. He loved the feeling of freedom when he moved across the riggings. He stretched his fingers, preparing them for a duty shift with rope. The warning bell for watch change rang. The last thing he wanted to be was late. He turned and started walking toward the bow.
The sudden whirl of a pulley startled him. He followed the sound upward. The main course sail top rope was loose. He could see the end headed for the pulley attached high on the side of the dirigible almost 60 units above. Askaro jumped to the railing, gauged the distance of the moving rope, and launched toward the trailing end.
He focused on his hands reaching for the rope. The wind pushed against him but his aim was true. His fingers wrapped around the rope. He was less than an arm’s length from the pulley. Gravity pulled him downward. He felt the jerk of the rope as the slack hit the pulley. His arms strained against the sudden yank. His fingers slid on the rope. He tightened his grip.
Men shouted from the riggings. His weight and the angle of his leap carried him outward, away from the deck, and toward the main mast yard platform almost 40 units away. He could see the canvas rippling as his passage pulled tension into the sail.
Askaro adjusted his decent with a twist and landed on the platform. The heavy sail battled with him for control of the rope. Master Elvarian was calling orders and others came to join the fight. They got it temporarily belayed to a cleat until it could be hauled back to it’s proper place.
Askaro took a moment to breathe. The men around him, all slaves, were staring at him. Master Elvarian came down the riggings and called the others away. He put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “Get air back into you. Now let me see your hands.” Askaro held them up as directed. The Master let out a deep sigh. “No burns. That’s luck for sure.”
Yarnel, the second watch main starboard mast crewman, appeared next to him. He saluted the Master. “The watches have changed, sir.”
Master Elvarian looked up and waved to Master Soret who stood on the sky deck then patted Askaro on the back. “That was damn crazy, boy, but a good job none the less. Saved us all kinds of grief. We sure miss you up in the riggings. These boys just don’t have the knack that you do.”
Askaro watched the next duty shift taking their places on the ropes. “Thank you, sir, but with your permission, I do have to get to my duty station.”
A shrill whistle called their attention to the main deck. Master Bruvano stood there with his hands on his hips.
“Ass! Get over here now!”
Askaro gritted his teeth. Only Bruvano could get away with calling him that. He sighed. “I’d better go, sir.”
The Sails Master chuckled. “One of these days the Captain is going to catch him calling you that and he’ll be going to hell in a hand basket. Let’s go.”
Askaro jogged down the main mast toward the deck. He could hear the Master’s footsteps behind him. He got to the deck and stopped in front of Bruvano. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”
Master Bruvano scowled at him. “You’re late for your duty shift in the rope pit.”
Master Elvarian put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “Asko was otherwise detained. You may not have heard, but he saved the main course sail top rope.”
“I don’t give a rat’s balls what he was doing. He’s late for his duty shift.”
Askaro stared at the deck boards. He’d made a promise to his father to never let his temper get the better of him but he was challenged at the moment. He swallowed down his hatred of the Slave Master. “With your permission, sir, I’ll be on my way to my duty shift.”
“You have more freedom than you deserve. You should be locked up in the pens with the others.”
“Bru, that’s quite enough.” Master Elvarian’s voice was quiet but stern.
Bruvano’s face darkened. “Mind your own!” He grabbed Askaro by the shoulder. “Maybe a shift in a hot room will remind you how a slave is supposed to behave.”
Askaro had no choice but to let Master Bruvano drag him toward the mid-ship stairs. The ropes that held the stairs in place between the deck and the dirigible swayed slightly under the Master’s bulk. Askaro was dwarfed by the muscular man.
They reached the top edge of the dirigible opening. The darkness inside momentarily blinded Askaro but his eyes quickly adjusted to the dim lantern light. They continued up the stairs, now solid under their feet, until they reached the midway. Crewmen and a few slaves hurried by, casting curious glances in his direction but no one spoke to them. They arrived at the ramp to the upper forward port hot room. The vast hot air chamber glowed slightly from the fires within. Waves of heat rippled outward.
Several crewmen and a squad of slaves were pulling dried sails from the lines strung across the interior of the dirigible in front of the hot air chambers and another group was carrying the collected canvas toward the sail loft. Askaro could hear Master Goswin directing them where to place each sail for inspection.
Bruvano pushed open the door of the hot room and dragged Askaro in, closing the door behind them. Master Calari was half way down the front row of burners, pointing at a unit and talking very slow and loud to the slave chained to that post. His voice was tinged with annoyance. Bruvano whistled to get his attention.
Calari looked up, told the slave to get to work, and made his way down the narrow row toward them. “What do you need, Bruvano?”
The Slave Master pushed Askaro toward Calari. “I brought some extra help. Make him work hard. Useless brat. He gets away with too much.” Bruvano surveyed the room then left.
Calari chuckled. “On Bruvano’s bad side early this morning. Not a good sign. But I’m glad you’re here. I could use your help.” He motioned for Askaro to follow.
They walked down the row back toward the slave who was now sitting on the fuel box, arms crossed, staring at the burner. Askaro recognized him as one of the slaves who had been part of the late breakfast troop. He glanced around, looking to see who else was working this shift and found a few familiar faces. Several nodded at him and he nodded back. Many of the slaves were new. They had been captured during the last raid a few weeks ago. That wasn’t uncommon. The hot rooms were usually the first place a new slave worked as they could be chained to the wall. Captured slaves had to earn their freedom from the chains.
Askaro recognized the slave working at the next station beyond. He’d been aboard several months now. Askaro had worked with him at other duty stations. He was surprised to see him in the hot room. He was one of the few not chained to the wall. The slender metal ring around his neck reflected the red glow of the burner.
Master Calari grabbed the chain of the sitting slave and pulled him off the fuel bin. “You will work or Master Bruvano will take it out of your hide.” The Master looked at Askaro. “I’ve been trying to get through to him for weeks but he’s either too dumb or too stubborn to learn to read the flame.”
“I understand, sir. I’ll do what I can.” He turned to the slave. “What’s your name?”
The man scowled at him. “Tolok. What’s it to you?”
The accent was thick but understandable. Askaro pointed at the low flame in the burner. “Do you know why these burners need to all burn with equal flames?”
“Why should I care?”
Askaro dug some chunks of peato out of the fuel bin. “Because if this hot air chamber fails from uneven heating, it will collapse down into this room and kill you. I think that’s a pretty good reason.”
The man’s eyes went wide. He looked up at the thick glass panes in the ceiling of the room that not only served as light but also as a way to monitor the inside of the hot air chamber. “This magic is evil.”
Askaro shook his head. He’d given up arguing with the captured slaves over their notion of magic. He supposed to them it did seem mystical but he knew better. It didn’t help that the captains of the airships of the Sky Realm were called Sky Wizards. He pointed to the chart on the wall that showed the current height the burner flame was supposed to be. “I don’t really care what you want to call it but right now, we need to make sure all the flames in this hot room are the height of the one in that image.”
“It was different yesterday.”
Calari shook his head. “Good luck with this one, Asko. He’s as dumb as a rock. I have to go do a flame check. Get this one up to where it should be.” The Master began working his way down the row, looking at each burner.
Askaro broke apart the cube of peato and carefully fed the flame. “The Master can easily change the picture by turning a roller that pulls a canvas up or down. The image is painted on the canvas so the height of the flame seems to change.”
Askaro pointed at the fuel bin and Tolok passed him another cube. “Why does it need to change?”
Askaro broke the cube in half and placed the pieces on either side of the fire. The flame lapped across the black material and began to grow. Askaro studied it. “The additional heat makes the ship rise higher.”
Tolok backed away as the extra fuel increased the flame. “The magic is powerful indeed if it can raise this massive creature.”
Askaro had heard others call the Falcon a creature. With the brightly painted bird’s head at the bow and the sails outstretched on either side it did resemble some strange bird. He turned back to the burner. “After you do this for awhile, you get a feel for how much fuel it takes to keep the flame at a consistent height.” He decided it needed just a little more and had Tolok grab another. He showed him how to break it apart and feed it correctly.
Tolok brushed the crumbs off his hands. “What is this crap? It stinks.”
Askaro was satisfied with the flame for the moment. “This is peato. It’s made from a special type of black mud that is only found in a swamp. We dig it up, press it into cubes, and let them dry. My father told me the mud used to be plants but they got buried in the swamp. If they stay there long enough, they turn into something that will burn.”
“More magic. And what do you know of the work that goes into making it?”
The slave from the next unit over laughed quietly. “I bet Asko has made his fair share of peato in his life.”
Askaro didn’t want to even try to calculate how much he’d made. He grinned. “And what are you doing back in the hot room, Lorin? I thought you had moved on to different duties.”
Lorin fed his flame. “I had but I discovered I don’t care for heights so the riggings are not my friends. But the Masters didn’t care. When I refused to climb the ropes, I was sent back here. Which is just fine as far as I’m concerned. I grew up in the marshes. The smell of the peato doesn’t bother me at all.”
Tolok pulled out another cube and broke it up as Askaro had taught him. He looked over at the neighboring slave. “How long have you been in this hell?”
Lorin shrugged. “I don’t know. I stopped counting after they took off the chains.”
Tolok leaned toward him. “Then why don’t you escape?”
Lorin laughed. “And go where? We’re hundreds of units above anything. Besides, I’ve gotten used to this. It’s not all that bad really. I have two duty shifts in the hot room, a duty shift in the scullery, and a duty shift in laundry. I eat more than I ever did back home and I don’t have to worry about freezing to death or starving in the winter or being attacked by war parties the rest of the time.”
Tolok pulled his lips back from his teeth. “But we’re slaves! All except for him.”
Askaro was surprised when Tolok pointed at him. Lorin chuckled. “He’s a slave, too. He’s just ship-born. That’s why he wears a leather collar instead of a metal one.”
Askaro didn’t say anything. That wasn’t exactly true. The other ship-born slaves also wore metal collars. He wore a leather one like his mother did. Askaro was distracted by a pipe call over the tube. He watched Master Calari rush to the front and pick up the listening end. After a short conversation, the Master turned the dial of the flame image up. Some slaves groaned. Askaro pointed to the fuel box. “Pull out another cube, Tolok. Let’s see if you can get the flame to match the image.”
Tolok grumbled but complied. Lorin leaned toward Askaro. “What do you suppose is going on?”
Askaro shrugged. “There were clouds on the horizon this morning. Could be a storm brewing. For whatever reason, we’re going higher. Maybe there are better winds for the sails. I can’t tell from here.”
“More magic.” Tolok broke another cube and fed the flame.
Askaro sighed. “It looks good. See the grooves in the metal at the side of the door? They can help you gauge the height.”
They worked quietly for awhile. Tolok began tending the flame on his own. Askaro looked up through the window into the chamber above. The glow was even across the compartment.
Calari came back and watched Tolok work. He nodded at Askaro. “Good job. I should have requested you for a trainer.” He pointed at Askaro’s soiled tunic and breaches. “I’d better let you go early so you can get changed. I seem to recall you go to mending next watch. The Master would never let you near the sails looking like that.”
“Yes, sir.” Askaro left the hot room and headed for the mid-ship stairs. He liked Calari. He was one of the better Masters on the ship. Askaro didn’t see anyone on the midway or the stairs until he left the dirigible. Outside was a different matter. It looked like they had called extra squads to help add some canvas and the deck was crowded with busy men.
Askaro wove his way through the group and headed for the stern. He slipped in the doors and paused, listening. He didn’t hear anything. He peered around the salon. The upper windows were still shuttered. The officers normally took their morning meal in their private suites. He was relieved and moved quickly to his family’s suite. He went in and was surprised to hear his parents. They were in their room but the door was slightly ajar. He moved quietly through the sitting room and went to his own bedroom. He glanced out the window. His room faced the port side. The sky looked pale blue. He pulled clean clothes from a drawer.
Askaro stripped out of his soiled clothes. He wondered what his parents where doing here. Mister Norad must have relieved his father early but he couldn’t imagine his mother being out of the galley at this hour. He listened closer to hear what they were talking about.
His father’s voice sounded excited. “But it was so incredible, Tralora. Cullans said he must have leapt at least 60 units into the air to grab the end of the rope. And his landing was perfect.”
His mother trilled softly in her throat. “Many of my people do that without even thinking about it but we are in the trees where there are plenty of lower branches to catch a fall. If Askaro would have misjudged the distance or the rope slipped from his hands, he could have been killed.”
The wooden frame of his parents’ bed creaked. “Tra, you worry too much. Besides, everything is going to change. I talked to my father this morning. The fall storms are moving south earlier than usual so we won’t be making a run to the north. We’re headed to Rokathalon.”
His mother gasped. “To the Capital? Why now? The Falcon hasn’t been there in the seventeen years that I’ve been aboard.”
His father sighed. “I know. It’s a long story for another day. But the holds are full. I can hardly believe it. When this ship was being built, other Sky Wizards laughed. No one believed we’d ever make use of so much space. But it has allowed us to go to places that few Sky People have ever seen.”
“And what of Askaro? What will happen to him when we reach Rokathalon? At least here on the Falcon he is treated with some respect, by a few Masters anyway.”
Askaro pulled on the clean tunic. He was concerned by the tone of her voice.
His father shushed her. “We’ve already given that a great deal of thought. We will all be very rich when the cargo is sold. Father is going to buy citizenship rights for Askaro and I am going to buy them for you. Then I can marry you formally and no one can say anything.”
Askaro tied the laces of his clean breaches and buckled the belt around his tunic. He didn’t know about the things his father spoke of. His lessons so far hadn’t included anything on citizenship. He knew Rokathalon only as a name on a map in a region they had not sailed into in a very long time – before his birth and before his mother had been captured.
The warning bell for change of duty rang. Askaro was determined not to be late again. He slipped out of his room, through the sitting room, and out of the family suite, shutting the door quietly behind him. And ran right into Ranith.
Ranith scowled at him. His face looked eerie in the pale light of the shuttered room. “What are you doing here? This is supposed to be a duty shift for you.”
Askaro could feel his heart beating in his throat and struggled to swallow the feeling. “I needed a change of clothes before going to my next shift.”
The boy backed up a step. “I don’t understand why a slave is allowed to live on the Officers’ deck. I don’t care who your father is. You should have to stay in the pens with the rest of them. It’s bad enough that your father’s personal pleaser gets to share our space. Disgusting.”
Askaro knew better than to respond to any of the derogatory comments. Ranith was no doubt repeating his own father’s sentiments. The First Mate certainly didn’t hide his disapproval of his mother or Askaro being there. “I have to get to my next duty station. Excuse me.”
Ranith leaned towards him. “I didn’t hear a ‘please’ or a ‘sir’ in that statement.”
Askaro didn’t want a confrontation or to be late. He was already counting time in his head and calculating how long it was going to take him to get to the sail loft. He was tired of the younger boy’s attitude. He had wanted Askaro to start addressing him as ‘sir’ ever since Carton, the Second Mate’s oldest son, had turned 16 and been given a deck watch position. Askaro had to address anyone with a position on the ship as ‘sir’ but Ranith wouldn’t hold a position for another six months.
A door across the salon opened. Galina, the Second Mate’s wife, shoved her three younger children out into the salon. “Now be quiet. Heaven help you if you wake your father and brother. They got in late as it was.”
After Galina closed the door, Ranith turned to look at the other children. “Look who I found sneaking around when he should be at a duty station. Shall we really get him into trouble and make him late?”
Yalina, who was a few months older than Askaro, came toward them. “Oh, do grow up, Ranith. Let Asko be.”
Ranith’s face reddened. He started to turned back but Askaro slipped away from him. He’d had enough. He wasn’t going to deal with Ranith’s jealousy. For some reason, the boy believed Yalina liked Askaro better than him.
Askaro escaped out the door and raced across the deck. He ran up the mid-ship stairs taking the rungs two at a time, and flew down the midway toward the bow. He reached the sail loft as the watch bell rang.
Master Goswin and Master Zeroci were discussing what the First Watch had finished and what still needed to be done. Master Zeroci turned and grinned at him. “Ah, there you are Asko. Right on time. Thanks to you we don’t have nearly as much work as we might have had. Good job saving the Main Course! That could have been bad with the winds so fickle this morning.”
Master Goswin sighed. “I thought Mister Jakaro was a bit mad to keep a tree woman and call her wife.” He patted Askaro on the shoulder. “But Asko is a worthwhile bonus.”
Askaro wasn’t sure what to say. He looked around the loft. “What sail am I assigned to, sirs?”
Master Zeroci chuckled. “Good lad. He doesn’t let praise go to his head.” He pointed toward the upper loft. “There’s a jib up there with a nasty rip. You’ve got a good steady hand. I know you can mend it so it will be reusable.” He turned back to Master Goswin as Askaro hurried away. “Enjoy your rest. We should have most of this finished up before Third Watch. Your Fourth Watch crew can scrub the floors.”
Master Goswin nodded. “Good. I’ve got a lot of new menders. I may also have them do some practice work.”
Their conversation faded into the background as Askaro climbed the stairs to the upper loft. He found the jib sail stretched out on the floor. The rip was near the top of the triangular sail. It must have been rigged too taut in a strong wind.
He went to the work bench and got the appropriate needle and thread. He pulled his wrist bands out of a pouch on his belt and tied them on. The leather would protect his arms from the needle. He sat on the floor, took up the sail, and began mending.
His hands were well-practiced at the task so his mind wandered over what his father had said. They were headed for Rokathalon. He’d heard some of the older crewmen talk about the city. It was supposed to be massive and located high on a series of mountains.
Askaro had never been in a city before. Slaves were not allowed to leave the ship when it was in an official port. Unless they were being sold. He didn’t want to think about that. He’d lost several good friends that way.
The largest city the Falcon had docked in that Askaro could remember was Perath on the southern continent. That had been a couple of years ago. He’d sat at the prow of the sky deck with several other boys, their feet dangling through the railing posts. They had tried to see as much of the place as they could, which wasn’t much from such a distance.
The Falcon was huge compared to other sky ships. She barely fit into the largest docking cradle at the far edge of the docks. He remembered his father’s worry over damage to the ship from such a small berth but none had occurred. The city of Perath had seemed vast to him but several crewmen had remarked at how insignificant the place was compared to the Capital. He could only wonder what the great city would be like.
He heard an all too familiar voice mention his name. He looked down from the upper loft. Bruvano was talking to Master Zeroci. His deep voice echoed across the sail loft. “You’re sure he was here on time? That brat has too much freedom for a slave. It’s a luxury he shouldn’t have. He gets into too much that isn’t his business.”
Master Zeroci frowned. “You’re ignorant, Bru. What that lad did this morning was amazing. I’ve heard several who saw it themselves. He leapt nearly straight up over 60 units to grab that rope. Do you have any idea how much damage the sail could have taken if it had gotten loose? The Main Course is the largest sail on the ship. Free in a wind like this, it could have fouled the entire starboard main mast and foremast sets and been ripped to shreds in the process. Not only that, but Port could never have compensated fast enough to keep us from going into a spin. It could have been a disaster.”
Bruvano growled. “It had to be that brat. I’ll be glad to be rid of him.”
“Are you planning on leaving the ship? Rumor has it that we’re finally headed home. Not that I have anything to look forward to. My wife denounced me when I signed on and I’m sure she’s well established with someone else by now.”
Bruvano lowered his voice but Askaro’s keen ears still heard the Master’s words. “I’ve looked at the log books. Ass will be 16 tomorrow. That means he’ll belong to me. And I plan on selling him for as much as I can get at the market. Let the rumors of his feat run. They may boost up his value.”
Master Zeroci gasped. “You can’t be serious. Mister Jakaro will never allow it, to say nothing of the Captain.”
“It won’t matter what they think. It’s in the charter, in black and white. He’s mine tomorrow to do with as I please.”
Askaro’s hand’s shook. The needle seemed to freeze halfway through the stitch. All of his father’s plans meant nothing. Askaro had read the ship’s charter. He knew what Bruvano said was true. Any boy born to a slave while underway belonged to the Slave Master when he turned 16. Askaro felt cold.
Bruvano laughed and headed for the midway. Askaro managed to force his hands back to work. They seemed to move independently. His mind whirled. Sold as a slave in the Capital? He couldn’t imagine a life away from the Falcon, away from his family.
The warning bell rang for watch change and startled Askaro out of his contemplation. He finished off the last stitch. The rip was gone, neatly closed with a tight, even pattern of crossed thread.
Master Zeroci climbed up the stairs to the upper loft. “Nicely done, Asko.” He pulled on the canvas around the mending. “This will surely hold.”
Askaro felt numb. “Yes, sir.” He got up and put away the needle and thread.
Master Zeroci followed him to the bench. “I’m guessing you heard what Bruvano said. I wouldn’t pay it much heed. Your father will surely have something to say about it, and the Captain…”
“Will have to follow what is written in the charter, sir.” Askaro turned to face the Master. “That is the purpose of that document. It’s a contract that all the paid men on board signed. It governs their actions and assures them profits, both in visiting ports and at the end when the final cargo is sold and the proceeds divided.”
Master Zeroci sighed. “That’s been part of your studies, no doubt. I would have expected nothing less. But surely your father’s rank as Chief Engineer, to say nothing of your grandfather…”
There was a shout from the lower level of the sail loft. Master Jotorik stood facing a slave. He looked up at them. “Zeroci, did you see the mess this boy left at his work station?”
Master Zeroci put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “Don’t give up hope. Speak to your father and grandfather about it.” He went down the stairs to deal with the situation.
Askaro finished cleaning up his area and hung the jib from a line. It would have to be wetted and stretched to cure the thread but that would be the job of the next watch.
The Masters dismissed the Second Watch crew at the bell. Askaro followed the others to the mid-ship stairs and down into the open air. The sharp wind pulled at Askaro’s sleeves. He tucked them under the wrist bands.
Askaro paused on the deck for a moment and looked toward starboard. The clouds were slowly catching up. He could hear the sails straining under the crosswind. Having worked the riggings for several years, he knew how challenging it was to balance starboard and port in these conditions. The sun seemed to be straining to keep ahead of the clouds as well. It had passed its zenith but the deck was still under the shadow of the dirigible. His stomach grumbled, reminding him of his destination. He continued down the main stairs into the ship.
The mess hall was already crowded with others who had been released for mid-meal. Chained slaves were being brought in from various duty stations. Askaro filled his bowl and found a place to sit at the board.
“There you are!” Askaro looked up from his food as Chitano squeezed in across from him. He had a plucky grin. “How was your duty in the hot room?”
Askaro groaned. “Does everyone know all the details of my life?”
Chitano laughed. “Master Ofalo was furious when you were late. That is, until Mister Cullans came to tell him where you were.”
Askaro tried to focus on his meal. “That is the Boson’s job, telling Masters when their slaves are temporarily reassigned by the Slave Master.”
Chitano leaned across the board. “But Master Ofalo wasn’t angry anymore when Mister Cullans told him what you did. Did you really jump over 60 units to grab the rope?”
He took a bite of food and contemplated the distance. “I suppose it was close to that.”
Askaro dropped his spoon into his bowl. “Because it was necessary. Do you have any idea how dangerous a loose rope is? I’ve seen a man killed by one.” He considered what Master Zeroci had told Bruvano. “And having the Main Course foul both the Main and Foremast sets on the starboard side could have endangered the entire ship.”
Chitano’s eyes were wide. His spoon had stopped inches from his mouth and was dripping gruel onto the board. “For real?”
Askaro nodded and went back to eating. He felt someone pause behind him and a soft touch on his shoulder. He looked up. “Mother?”
She smiled at him and passed him a roll. “Your father is proud of you.” She let him go and hurried toward the door that led to the Masters’ Mess.
Askaro broke the roll in half and handed part of it to Chitano. He ate his in silence then took another spoonful of his gruel.
Chitano sighed. “Your so lucky that your mother is kitchen staff.” He pulled at the metal collar around his neck. “At least you know who your father is.”
Askaro studied the wood grain of the board. Chitano’s mother had been a pleaser, kept to keep the paid crew happy. “Did you ever find out what happened to her?”
“Doctor Hodrel told me she was in good health when she was sold. Part of his job, you know.” His voice was toneless. He got up. “Well, I’ll see you in the pit Fourth Watch.”
The small bell in the mess hall rang and a quiet groan echoed across the room. Askaro looked down at the last few spoonfuls in his bowl. His stomach turned. He got up and dumped the remains into the pot, washed his bowl, and headed for the workroom.
Master Sulakor was wiping crumbs from his bristly mustache and looking over the list left by the Second Watch. “Ah, Asko. Grab a rag and polish.”
Askaro went to a cabinet and got the ordered items. “Where am I assigned, sir?”
The Master smiled at him. “I wish all slaves had your attitude. It would make for a nicer day, don’t you think?”
Askaro considered Tolok’s conversation with Lorin that morning. “I think with time, sir, the new slaves come to realize how good a life they have here on the Falcon and begin to take pride in what they do.”
“Not all of them. The slave assigned to polish brass in the Control Room during Second Watch did a poor job. But you always do good work. You’re a credit to your father. The sky knows your grandfather thinks the world of you.”
Others had begun filing in for their assignments. Askaro didn’t like receiving praise in front of others. “Yes, sir. Then I’ll be in the Control Room, sir.” He slipped out of the room, not looking at anyone else.
He went back up into the dirigible and took the midway toward the stern. The hot air chambers on either side hissed slightly. He’d worked in all eight of them at one time or another. The midway ended at the Control Room door. He knocked, according to protocol, and waited.
Master Yoland opened the door. “What do you want?”
Askaro ignored the tone of the Master’s voice. “I’ve been assigned to polish the brass, sir.”
“Well let’s hope you do a better job than the slave last watch.” Master Yoland let him in.
Askaro moved to the first bank of meters and applied polish to the rag. He could see the smudges left by the previous slave. He set to work, carefully buffing them away.
Master Yoland came up beside him. “Be careful. That’s a delicate instrument.”
“Yes, sir.” Askaro didn’t need to be told that. He knew what all the instruments did in the Control Room. He’d spent many hours with his father here. This was where the Engineer on duty usually stayed unless there was an issue elsewhere on the ship. He wondered where Mister Kestlen was at the moment.
Master Yoland leaned closer as if looking for some mistake in his work. “I heard about what you did this morning, boy. Most likely just a stunt to impress the Old Man.”
“And the Old Man was impressed.”
Askaro swallowed hard as the Captain strode into the room. Yoland’s face went pale. He grabbed the whistle on a chain around his neck and piped attention. “Captain on the deck.”
Askaro and the other men in the Control Room scurried to form a line and stand straight.
The Captain, with his hands held behind his back, strolled around the room, observing all the monitors, then stopped facing Master Yoland. “All seems to be in order.”
Yoland saluted smartly. “Yes, sir. All systems are functioning at peak performance, sir.”
The Captain nodded. He turned to Askaro. “When you’ve completed you’re duties here, report to my Ready Room.”
Askaro felt a chill at the Captain’s stern tone. He nodded. “As ordered, sir.”
The Captain gave a final glance around the room, and sighed. He studied the assembled men for a few moments. “Carry on.”
Everyone waited until his footsteps faded before returning to their duties. Askaro remembered to breathe. Was the Captain angry with him? His tone had certainly indicated that was the case. He dipped the rag into the polishing cream and began working on the brass of another monitor.
Master Yoland came up behind him snickering. “Looks like you’re in hot water for sure. Better finish up double time. Don’t want to keep the Captain waiting.”
Askaro rubbed the brass harder, working out the smudges. He thought about the task of each monitor as he worked on its surface. Some monitored hot air chambers, others monitored tension on the masts. There were gauges for pressure inside the dirigible and one to compare that with the outside pressure. At last he came to the magnificent ship’s clock. His grandfather had told him it was the most accurate time piece in the world. The Falcon had its own horologist to care for it. Askaro glanced at the intricately fashioned dials on the face. It was still more than a turn before Fourth Watch.
Master Yoland looked over his work and gave up trying to find a missed spot. “Better be on your way. You’ve kept the Captain waiting long enough.”
Askaro hurried down the midway and mid-ship stairs back to the workroom. Master Sulakor looked up from the list he was writing. “Finished your work? Good. Did the Captain find you?”
Askaro put away the polish and added the rag to the laundry box. “Yes, sir. I was to report to him when I finished my work.”
The Master nodded. “Very good. On your way then.”
Askaro went back up on the deck and moved toward the bow. The winds buffeted him as he crossed the deck. The starboard sky was dark gray, made even more so by the late afternoon sun. He could hear the shouts of the mast crewmen as they tried to keep even tension on both sides of the ship. Master Elvarian was probably on the sky deck directing everything from that vantage point.
He entered the center doors of the Forecastle Deck. Mister Kestlen was talking with several crewmen in the main hallway. He held a roll of diagrams. “I’m more concerned about these spars on the starboard main mast. They are taking a lot of tension. We may have to add additional lashing to them.” He looked up at Askaro. “Ah, the man of the hour. Good job, Asko. Your father’s quite proud of you.”
The two crewmen stared at him with unreadable expressions. Askaro nodded at the Officer. “Yes, sir. The Captain ordered me to his ready room, sir.”
Mister Kestlen chuckled. “Go on. Don’t keep the Old Man waiting. I’ll see you later.”
Askaro got to the intersection by the main bridge doors and turned down the hall toward the Captain’s Ready Room.
As he approached the door, it opened. Master Chief Arlan stepped out into the hall. He frowned at Askaro and looked back into the room. “Slave Asko is reporting as you ordered, sir.”
Askaro didn’t miss the emphasis on the word ‘slave’. He came toward the door. He could see the heavy lines of annoyance on the Captain’s face. He pulled in a deep breath of air and prepared to face the Old Man of the Falcon.
The Captain frowned. “Well, let him in then.”
Master Chief Arlan stepped away from the door. “Aye, Captain Delkaro. I’ll be returning to my quarters if you need me for anything else.” He gave Askaro a slight shove toward the door.
Askaro entered and the Master shut the door behind him. He wasn’t sure what to do or say as he’d already been announced.
The Captain stood up. His expression was serious. “I have now heard all the various reports of what occurred this morning at the end of Sixth Watch. All those except yours. Explain your actions, young man.”
Askaro swallowed down his fear. “I had paused on deck on my way to the rope pit to examine the clouds on the horizon when I heard a rope slipping through a pulley. I looked up and saw the loose end of the Starboard Main Course sheet. Knowing the damage a loose rope could cause, I leapt from the deck railing and grabbed the rope. I landed on the main yard deck and the rope was belayed. That is all, sir.”
The Captain’s right eyebrow arched. “That is all? Did the consequences of your actions occur to you?”
Askaro felt his chest tighten. “I’m not certain to what you are referring, sir. I knew that the sail and riggings could be damaged and that men in the riggings could be hurt.”
Captain Delkaro leaned forward and planted his hands on his desk. “And what of your safety?”
Askaro’s heart seemed to be beating in his throat. “I’m just a slave, sir.”
The Captain’s face darkened. “That may be how some aboard this ship feel but I do not share that view and neither does your father. You are my grandson. The only one I have. The ship be damned! It can be repaired.”
“With all due respect, sir. The Falcon is your ship. Not only is it the only one you have but it is the only thing supporting the crew above an open ocean many miles from land. A loose rope could not only damage sails and rigging but it could rupture the dirigible and damage a hot air compartment.”
The Captain’s cheek twitched and one corner of his mouth turned upward. “Spoken like the grandson of the Captain.” His face softened into a sea of wrinkles. He came around the desk and put his hands on Askaro’s arms. “You will be a great Sky Wizard in time.”
His knees trembled and his throat felt raw. “How can that be, sir? I’ve read the charter. I know the laws. According to Master Bruvano, he’ll own me tomorrow.”
Delkaro pursed his lips. “The ship’s charter is not the same as the laws of the Sky Realm. When your father claimed your mother as a prize bride, that changed a few things not written in the charter. I know Bruvano thinks he owns you. By the ship’s charter, it may appear that way. However, by the laws of the Sky Realm, because your father took your mother as wife, and has been faithful to her all these years, you are his legal heir, not ship’s property.”
Askaro nodded, not daring to argue with his grandfather. “What will happen when we reach Rokathalon?”
Delkaro grinned. “So you’ve heard. I was wondering how long it would take that rumor to get around.”
“Actually, I heard father telling mother about it. I haven’t said anything to anyone else and I won’t.”
The Captain chuckled. “It doesn’t matter. The news will spread fast enough on it’s own.” He pulled Askaro toward the chart table in the corner of his Ready Room. “Have a look at where we’re headed.”
Askaro was familiar with sky charts but he’d never seen a map like the one his grandfather rolled out on the table. It was all small rectangles surrounded by lines. “Is this the city?”
Delkaro smoothed the map with his hand. “Ah, fair Rokathalon, the crown jewel of the Sky Realm. How wonderful it will be to walk in the hanging gardens again.”
Askaro studied the map, trying to make sense of what he saw. He noticed names on many of the rectangles and realized they were buildings. The lines must be roads. “Where do we dock?”
His grandfather pointed to the edge of the map. “This is the port. Because of her size, the Falcon will dock at the Grand Portal.”
Askaro found the contour lines he was familiar with from sky charts. “This isn’t a series of docking towers like Perath. The dock seems to be built at the very edge of a steep cliff.”
“Indeed. The city is built at the top of a mountain range and covers several peaks. The Capital of the Sky Realm is built for defense. It has never been conquered.”
“I’ve read about the King in my studies. Where does he live?”
Delkaro pointed to a large rectangle that contained others on the opposite side of the map. “This is his castle. He wasn’t much older than you when the Falcon left. His father had recently died and left him a vast kingdom. Laharas has grown into the role by now, I’d imagine. He was quite impressed by the Falcon. He came by many times while she was under construction. I think he wished he could have sailed away with us instead of staying behind to deal with all his royal affairs.”
Askaro couldn’t imagine a king wanting to be an airman. Why would he want to leave such a grand city? He studied the labyrinth of streets, none of which seemed to be straight. “How does anyone manage to find their way?”
His grandfather laughed. “A question I often asked myself when I was bewildered in the maze. Oh, give me the open sky aglow with stars.” He sighed. “When we were building the Falcon, I often had to navigate the city. The trick, I discovered, is to use the towers.” He pointed to them on the map.
Askaro read some of their names. “Sunrise Tower, Garden Tower, Cloud Tower. There are quite a few.”
“And each one is different. The other advantage is that they are tall enough to always have sunlight on them during the day where as in the narrow streets, shop lights can cast confusing shadows. As long as the sun is shining, the towers act as a set of reflecting compasses.” The Captain paused and looked at him. “And why would that be?”
Askaro grinned. “The sun would shine on the east face of the tower in the morning and the west face of the tower in the evening.”
“Exactly! And in the winter, with the sun low on the southern horizon…” There was a demanding rap on the door that connected the Ready Room to the Bridge. Delkaro’s brow wrinkled. He turned to face the door. “Enter.”
Mister Carton walked in a few steps. “Begging your pardon, sir, But Mister Rickton requests your presence on the bridge. He says it’s urgent.”
“Very well. Inform him that I’ll be there in a moment.”
Carton saluted and shut the door. The Captain rolled up the map and tucked it back into its slot. “We’ll be there by tomorrow if the wind holds.” He put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “You’re close enough to sixteen. It’s time you started learning your new duties. Come along. Let’s go see what has ruffled Mister Rickton’s feathers.”
His grandfather opened the door to the bridge and pulled him in. Askaro had never been allowed in the room before. Only Officers and assigned Masters and Crewmen were allowed on the Bridge.
The Second Mate stood by the port side window. He turned toward the Captain, started to say something, but paused. He stared at Askaro for a moment then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but those clouds we’ve been watching to the north have advanced quickly and are building.”
The Captain frowned. “I’d hoped to outrace it but the crosswinds have slowed our progress.”
The main door to the bridge opened and Helmsman Fantori entered. “A man can’t even take a few minutes of rest. This had better be important. Why did you…?” His face contorted slightly. He managed to get it under control and straightened to salute. “Captain.”
“I’m glad Mister Rickton had the foresight to call you back to the bridge early. Not that I don’t have confidence in Master Geldon but I’d prefer to have the Helmsman at the wheel if a storm is threatening.”
Mister Fantori nodded and went to the wheel to relieve Master Geldon. The muscles of his back tensed under his cotton shirt. Askaro remembered to breathe. He knew the Helmsman hated him as much as the Slave Master did. He was startled when his grandfather pulled him toward the port side forward door.
“Let’s go out onto the weather deck and get a closer look at these clouds.”
Askaro followed the Captain out onto the narrow deck that ran across the bow of the ship between the tall bow sprit above and the colorfully painted falcon’s head below. They were sheltered from the worst of the winds except for the breeze created by their forward movement. It was a dizzying view with the vast rolling ocean several hundred units below. The sun was about a hand’s width from the horizon. It was only coming on Fourth Watch but summer was nearly over.
Delkaro walked around toward the starboard side motioning for him to follow. Mister Fantori sneered at Askaro as he passed the large starboard side window. The north wind tugged at them as they moved beyond the shelter of the hull. The Captain leaned on the railing. “Were these the clouds you had stopped to observe this morning?”
Askaro looked toward the north. The sky was now filled with a mass of dark billowing clouds. Occasional streaks of lightening danced between them accompanied some time later by low rumbles of thunder. Askaro gripped the railing. The storm was almost upon them.
Captain Delkaro put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “Look at those clouds carefully and tell me what you see.”
Askaro studied the rolling clouds. He’d seen many storms in his lifetime and knew from his lessons how they worked. He looked for patterns that indicated the flow of the wind within the storm. He found what he was looking for. “There is an updraft in the clouds to the right of the oncoming front.”
His grandfather chuckled. “Well done! I’m glad to see you paid attention to your lessons. Now I’m going to show you how the Falcon can take advantage of that updraft. Right now, the winds pushing the storm are stronger than the winds in front of it. That is what causes that updraft. The air in the storm is colder than the air here. The warm air is rising over the front.”
Askaro looked toward port. “The sky is clear to the south. Shouldn’t we change course to avoid the storm?”
“In other circumstances we might but our destination lies to the west not the south. There are even taller mountain ranges south of the Capital. If the Falcon were to go too far south and west, we’d have to tack against the fall winds all the way back to the ocean. It would be difficult and dangerous because we are fully loaded. The hull sits heavy. Our peato reserves are getting low. We have no choice but to weather the storm and head for Rokathalon.”
He motioned for Askaro to follow. They went back in. Other Officers and several Masters had come to the Bridge. The bells for Fourth Watch rang. Askaro wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t want to interrupt the Captain to ask to leave so he remained quiet and stayed behind him. He listened to the conversations of the worried men.
The Captain stopped in front of the massive chart that hung between the two large forward windows. “I know this looks bad but we’ve spotted an updraft in the wall of the front. We’re going to adjust course to take advantage of it.”
The First Mate cleared his throat. “Sir, with all due respect, this is a large storm. With the Falcon so heavy, if we misjudge the updraft, the dirigible could be torn free of the hull.”
The Captain’s face tightened. “I’m aware of the risks, Mister Osalith. I will note your concern in the log. But we are too close to the coast to correct south any farther to avoid the storm.” He turned to face another man. “Master Thorson, please give account of our current peato stock.”
The Quarter Master glanced at the others. “We’re running low. The Captain and I have discussed this problem already. We have no choice but to make for the Capital. With the weight of the ship, we’d be out of fuel before we could reach the Savasa Marshes to the south.”
There were concerned whispers among the assembly. Askaro’s father stepped forward. “How much time do we have to prepare the ship before the storm is upon us, sir?”
The Captain glanced out the window. “By the advance of the front, a turn or less. I might be able to buy us a little more time. Askaro, grab the instrument case and come with me.”
There was a collective gasp from around the room. Several men frowned. His father grinned and pointed for him to follow the orders he’d been given. The Captain had already turned away from the group and was headed for the door.
Askaro took the case from the shelf and followed Delkaro back out onto the Weather Deck. He’d only been allowed to use the instruments at his grandfather’s desk before. He was secretly excited to see them used for their true purpose but wished the circumstances were different.
The Captain stopped at the forward rail. “Begin with the compass. Get a true heading for the ship.”
Askaro swallowed hard. “Me, sir?” His grandfather nodded. He knew better than to argue. He opened the case and pulled the compass from its spot in the padded velvet interior. He lined up the compass with the bow sprit. “Three units south of due west, sir.”
“Very good. Now we need to determine our position related to that of the updraft.” The Captain moved to the starboard rail of the Weather Deck and Askaro followed with the instruments. “Get a compass bearing on the center of that updraft.”
Askaro carefully balanced the compass and sighted along the line. “The updraft is eighteen units north of northeast.”
“Now use the oculometer to get a reading of our distance from it.”
Askaro replaced the compass in the box and took out the oculometer. He extended the barrel and focused on the center of the rising clouds. He turned the outer barrel until the image was perfectly clear and read the dial on the side of the barrel. “Fifteen leagues.”
The Captain gripped the railing. “Damn. This will be close.” He looked down toward the angry ocean below. “What’s our height?”
Askaro focused the oculometer on the water and read the dial. “Four hundred and twenty units.”
“And now we need the height of the center of the upwelling. Use the sextant. Set the main sight on the horizon and angle the tube at the top of the updraft.
Askaro swapped instruments and followed the directions. He read the angle. “Thirty seven units, sir.”
“Make the calculations for a jib course based on those readings.”
Askaro went cold. He’d done such calculations in lessons but never when the fate of the ship depended on it. He closed his eyes and focused on the numbers. His palms became sweaty and he put away the sextant so he didn’t drop it. He finished the calculation and swallowed down the lump in his throat. “With a full jib set, we’d have to correct northward by eleven units.”
Delkaro grinned. “Well done again. We’ll also need to rise to get any advantage from that updraft. Let’s go make our course correction.”
Askaro carried the instrument case back onto the Bridge and returned it to the shelf. The Captain gave the orders for the jibs to be added and for more heat to rise. Everyone grew quiet. Askaro turned around.
The Captain was looking at him. He pointed toward the Helmsman. “Please inform the Helm of the needed course correction.”
There were several muffled gasps around the room. His father smiled and nodded at him. Askaro pulled in air to steady himself. “Mister Fantori, please correct course eleven units to the north.”
The Helmsman’s body went stiff. His hands clenched the wheel spokes. He didn’t look at Askaro. “Is that the course the Captain wishes to take?”
Delkaro’s face wrinkled as he frowned. “It is, Mister Fantori. Are you having difficulty making that correction?”
The Helmsman turned the wheel slightly, watching the large bubble compass mounted in front of him. “Course corrected as the Captain requested.” He emphasized the title.
Delkaro shook his head and turned to the other men. “Secure the ship. This won’t give us much more time. Master Elvarian, please set extra lashings on all sails and have more canvas ready if needed. All men on safety lines.” The Sail Master nodded and hurried out.
Jakaro stepped forward. “Sir, I’d like to set extra rope between the Sky Deck and the masts for added support.”
“My Chief Engineer knows his ship. Make it so, Mister Jakaro.” Askaro’s father gave him a brief nod and left the Bridge.
The Captain turned to the Boson. “Mister Cullans, have all watch crews at the ready. We may need all hands when the storm catches up.”
“Yes, sir.” He nodded smartly and left.
The Quarter Master looked grim. “We can’t make a mistake on this, sir. There’s no going back. If we have to rise again in the storm, it’s going to take most of our remaining peato.”
“I realize that, Mister Thorson. Make sure there are extra crews on hand to dispense the peato to the hot room bins. Divide up what’s left. Only hold back what we’ll need to bring us into port.”
“Sir, if we use it during the storm we won’t have any to spare for contingencies.”
The Captain walked forward and put a hand on the Quarter Master’s shoulder. “Thor, if we don’t use it to get through this storm, we’re sunk anyway. How sad it would be to get this close to home and fail.”
The Quarter Master nodded. “Understood. I’ll also have crews standing by the water tanks in case we need to dump for ballast.”
The captain nodded. “Only on my word. You and I both know the price of water in Rokathalon.”
The Quarter Master saluted and left the Bridge. Many of the other Officers and Masters had also scurried away after hearing the Captain’s plan. Only a few remained.
The First Mate finished giving directions to several Masters and turned to the Captain as they departed. “I’ve directed extra details to the sails and ropes. I’m going to keep Mister Hadley on the Bridge and station Mister Mickels in the Control Room. Where do you want Mister Jonad?”
“In the Beak. Make sure he’s well secured. We’ll need good communication during the storm. If the winds blow us all the way to the coast, Mister Jonad will have to warn us as we approach the Teeth.”
The First Mate glanced at the chart. “Heavens above help us if we are still pressed by the wind when we reach them. I was young when we sailed away from Rokathalon but I’ll never forget the passage through the Teeth.”
Askaro looked at the chart, wondering what the Teeth might be. He found them at the western edge of the map, not far from the coast. They appeared to be tall jagged rocks that bordered the mainland.
His grandfather pulled him gently toward the Ready Room door. “You did well. I have something for you.”
Askaro was relieved when his grandfather shut the door. He’d purposefully avoided looking at the Helmsman. He knew how Mister Fantori felt about him. He’d seen the hatred in the man’s eyes after he’d been given the course correction. “Sir, I know you want me to be more than I am but I don’t wish to cause a problem among the Officers.”
Delkaro went to his desk and opened a drawer. He searched through the contents. “Your father wasn’t much older than you are now when the Falcon left Rokathalon. I’d made him Third Watch Engineer. Many thought that he was too young for such responsibility but he’d been by my side from the very first plans through the building of the ship. He knew it better than Mister Yan, the first Chief Engineer.” Delkaro looked up at him. “You have been aboard this ship your whole life. Both your father and I have been training you since you were a babe in arms to one day become a Sky Wizard in your own right.”
Askaro chewed on his lower lip. “I understand that, sir, but too many of the Officers and Masters see me as a slave.”
The Captain came around his desk. He opened a small box and withdrew a pendant on a chain. “I was going to wait until tomorrow to give this to you but you earned it today.” He placed it around Askaro’s neck and rested his hands on his shoulders. “You are my grandson. I don’t care what any other man, be he Officer, Master, or Crewman on this ship, says. I am the Captain and I have final say on all matters, even the charter. That’s what the last clause means. ‘By the Captain’s judgment.’ I can change the charter if need be. But it’s irrelevant. Your father made it clear when he took your mother that she was to be his wife. She was the daughter of the highest chieftain of the Tree People. He refused to see her as a common pleaser.”
Warning bells began to ring. Askaro nodded at his grandfather. “With your permission, sir. It’s well into Fourth Watch and I should be helping Master Ofalo with the ropes. I know my father requested additional lines be set. The Master will need all hands.”
The Captain leaned close and moved his hands to Askaro’s cheeks. “Promise me you will work with caution and heed your safety.”
“I will, sir.”
Delkaro sighed and let him go. “I’d rather have you by my side but you’re right. The Master will need all hands. You are dismissed to go to your duty station, Mister Askaro.”
He caught his breath at the added title, saluted sharply, turned and hurried from the room. The pendant swayed across his chest. He didn’t want it to be in the way or get lost. He pulled it off, removed a wrist band, looped the chain around it securely, and retied the leather cuff to his wrist with the pendant tucked between the leather and his skin.
He stepped out of the Forecastle onto the main deck. Work crews were everywhere, some belaying lines from added sails and others adding rope and tackle to the braces between the metal framework of the sky deck that capped the dirigible and the wooden hull of the ship. He headed for the rope pit.
Master Ofalo was giving orders to crewmen and slaves working together to keep the ropes from getting tangled in the increasing wind. He looked surprised when Askaro came up to him. “From what Mister Cullans said, I didn’t expect to see you. I figured the Captain might keep you on the Bridge.”
“I thought you might need me here more and the Captain agreed. Where do you want me, sir?”
“Go give Chitano a hand belaying that rope. The winds are picking up. Once you have that secured, make sure the two of you get safety tethers on.”
“As ordered, sir.” Askaro ran across the deck to help the struggling boy.
Chitano was leaning into the rope, trying to take the slack up. He glanced up as Askaro grabbed the rope and pulled. “Glad to see you decided to make this duty shift. We’re almost half a turn into it.”
Askaro helped him secure the end. “Don’t expect a regular watch routine. We’re on Storm Watch now. All hands have been called to duty.”
Chitano took a moment to catch his breath. “You don’t say. I would have never guessed. Why aren’t we changing course to head out of the storm?”
Askaro grabbed his arm and headed for the tether locker. “We’re too close. If we headed south out of the storm the wind would blow us past our destination.”
They were almost to the locker when the ship lurched. Askaro heard the snapping of timber. He looked up in time to see a broken spar headed right for them. He pulled Chitano aside. The ship leaned. The added angle knocked both of them off their feet. They skidded across the deck.
Askaro tightened his grip on Chitano’s arm. He tried to slow their progress with his other hand. There was nothing to grab on to. He heard Chitano cry out. They were spinning now but he managed to get a glance in the direction they were headed. The port side railing was only a few units away.
Askaro twisted to get his feet pointed toward the railing. He felt them make contact and allowed his knees to bend. He pulled Chitano closer. “Hang on!” He pushed away from the railing. They shot back toward the center of the ship’s deck.
Chitano gasped for breath in Askaro’s tight embrace. “What are you doing?”
Askaro was too busy watching where they were going to answer. The deck was a maze of splintered wood and tangled rope. He grabbed one of the dangling ends. His arm burned under the strain of the sudden stop. He let go of Chitano and lay panting on the deck.
There were shouts all around them. Master Elvarian’s face came into focus above his own. “Asko! Can you move?”
Askaro flexed his limbs and managed to roll to his side. “I’ll live.”
“Blazing thunderheads, boy. I thought the two of you were gone for sure.” He held out his hand and helped Askaro to his feet. He shouted to get the attention of a Crewman. “Get a couple of tethers on these boys and lets get this mess cleaned up.”
Yarnel came running with the tethers. “Ye tree folk be half cat for sure. Wished more of your kind had survived longer. There be only a handful of ye left.” He slipped the tether around Askaro and went to help Chitano.
Askaro made sure the younger boy was safe then went to help clear the deck. Master Elvarian called for extra hands to help lash a new yard in place. Bruvano pointed at Askaro. “Get up there and help with that!”
Askaro dropped the splinters he had collected into the barrel. “Yes, sir.” He ran down the starboard main mast to the gallant platform where Master Soret stood, directing the work. “What can I do to help, sir?”
The Master glanced at him. “Get up the shrouds and help steady the topside of the yard. We’re fighting against the wind. If we drop this yard it will be hell to pay. We don’t have another gallant spar to spare.”
Askaro scrambled up the swaying ropes toward the men struggling to hold the top of the long wooden spar in place while the blocks were set around it on the platform below. He noticed one of the slaves didn’t have his tether line attached. “Mostek! Get clipped on, right now!”
Another slave turned to look at him. “Asko, what are you doing up here?”
Askaro took Mostek’s place on the spar so the man had both hands free to connect his tether line. “Hey, Kijo. You know Master Bruvano. He’ll find the most dangerous place to put me every chance he gets.”
Mostek returned his hands to the spar. “He’s sure hopping mad today. Heard him say you was on the Bridge. Is that true?”
The wind gusted and Askaro fought with the others to maintain control of the heavy spar. “I follow the Captain’s orders, just like everyone else.”
Kijo frowned. “And why would the Captain order you on the Bridge? From what I heard, that’s a no zone for slaves.”
Mostek stared at the other man for a moment. “How long have you been on the Falcon? Don’t you know who Asko is?”
Askaro shifted his grip. “It doesn’t matter, Mostek. Right now we have a job to do. Stay focused.”
Master Soret called up to them. “The parrel is locked. We need to get the braces and brail line in place so we can get canvas on her.”
Askaro watched the men climbing up with the various ropes. “Mostek, you and Kejo tend to the upper brace line. I’ll start on the brails.”
The men with the ropes reached them. Mostek took the rope for the upper brace line that would connect the top of the gallant spar to the mid-sail platform. “Just like you, Asko, to give us the easy job and take on the hard one yourself. Come on, Kijo. Let’s get this brace set. I can see Master Goswin coming out with the new canvas.”
Askaro took the brail set. “Tell Master Goswin the brails will be ready for canvas as soon as he can get it hauled up.” He moved his tether clip to the spar and began lashing the brails that would hold the side of the sail to the yard. By the time he reached the end of the upper brail set, the team with the new canvas had hauled it up into place. The slave working the lower half of the yard below the main mast was only half finished with his set.
Master Soret called down to the man. “Hurry up! We need to get this canvas secured. Port is struggling to compensate.”
The slave raised his hand to acknowledge the order. The wind gusted. He lost his grip. He fell, the tether pulling taut with the weight of his body.
Askaro was down the yard before Master Soret could give the order. The slave’s limp body swung wildly in the wind. Askaro got to the point where he’d been lashing the lower brails and looped his tether through a brail bolt. He gave himself just enough slack to be able to push outward from the spar, as if standing on it. He grabbed the man’s tether and hauled up the body.
The men who had been fastening the lower brace lines climbed up the shrouds to help. Unet, a longtime friend, reached out. “Hand him to me, Asko.”
He passed the man to the others. “Get him up top. I’ll finish the lower brails.”
Unet looked up toward the platform. “Be watchful. They are already lowering the bottom of the sail.”
“Just see to the man. I have to get this finished.” Askaro worked as fast as his fingers could secure the lashings. He finished the last one and climbed up the remaining few units that accounted for the arched opening in the middle of the sail that allowed it to clear the mast.
Master Soret grabbed him as he pulled up onto the platform. “Good work, Asko. Go to the mid-sail platform and be ready to set the top rope.”
Askaro finally managed to pull in enough air to talk. “Sir, how is the man?”
Master Soret shook his head. “You did all that you could for him. Looks like his back snapped when he hit the bottom of the tether. He was already dead.” He put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “You’re a credit to this ship.”
Askaro felt numb. He focused on getting from the gallant platform to the mid-sail platform without falling off the mast.
Crewman Yarnel was working there, shouting orders to the men preparing to haul the sheets of the gallant sail to their tackles on the mid yard. “Are you ready to run rope?”
Askaro pushed his thoughts of the dead man away. “Aye, sir. Master Soret assigned me to the top rope.”
Yarnel chuckled. “No extra fun this time, Asko.”
“No, sir.” Askaro climbed back into the shrouds. He caught the end of the gallant top rope and fed it through the pulley of the tackle set next to the top brace bolt of the mid-sail. A slave had climbed up to receive the end. Askaro passed it to him. “I’m right behind you.”
The slave’s face was pale in the darkening night. “Does this storm not frighten you?”
Askaro looked toward stern where the updraft was quickly catching up with them. “This isn’t even the storm yet, just the forward winds.” Lightening streaked across the clouds. Askaro counted only six units before the deafening roll of thunder shook the ship.
The slave had looped his arms through the lanyards of the shrouds so he could cover his ears. His eyes were ringed with white when he looked back at Askaro. “The gods are surely angry with us.”
Askaro took the rope and helped him untangle his arms. “Gods have nothing to do with it. It’s just a storm. Lets get this line down so it can be secured.”
They climbed down together. Master Soret had joined Crewman Yarnel on the mid-sail platform. “Asko, pass off that rope to Unet. Master Ofalo wants you in the rope pit.”
Askaro did as ordered and headed back to the ship. He climbed the Forecastle stairs to the top deck. He felt weary but knew there would be no rest anytime soon.
Master Ofalo was standing at the open hatch of the starboard rope pit, shouting down at those inside. “You idiots! Now you have the mizzen sheets tangled! What if we need to replace any of those lines in a hurry?” He noticed Askaro. “Thank the stars you’re here. Go down there and get everything untangled and organized again. We could need any rope at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, sir.” Askaro scrambled down the stairs and took charge of the chaos. Rain began pouring down into the open hatch. Ropes were called for and he quickly got the orders filled. He vaguely heard the bells for Fifth Watch ring but he was too busy to even think about it. His stomach grumbled in protest.
Master Bruvano came in the lower door of the rope pit sometime in the middle of Fifth Watch. “I’ve told Master Ofalo that I’m reassigning you. Report to Master Danul on the Sky Deck.”
“Yes, sir.” Askaro forced his weary body forward. He retrieved his tether from a hook on the wall and went out the lower door of the rope pit. He could hear the commotion of orders being given on the Bridge. He hurried out the starboard door of the Forecastle. Crews were scattered across the deck, changing tension on various ropes as the storm tried to tear the Falcon apart. He clipped on to the weather line that ran down the center of the main deck to the mid-ship stairs and hurried along it. He climbed the stairs, passing through the interior of the dirigible. The heat of the hot air chambers relieved some of the chill that had crept into his body. He continued upward and came to the top door of the stairs.
Crewman Ocala met him at the door. “It’s about time. Master Bruvano went to find you nearly a half turn ago. Master Danul is waiting by the forward rail.”
Askaro stepped out onto the Sky Deck. The storm winds tore at him and the driving rain stole all the warmth he’d collected while inside the dirigible. He clipped his tether to the weather line of the Sky Deck and hurried toward the Master. Of the Falcon’s three Sail Masters, Master Danul was the least liked. He was stiff and harsh. No slave wanted to work under him. Askaro stopped beside the Master. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”
The Master’s face was shrouded by the hood of his oilskin jacket. “You took your time in getting here.” Askaro said nothing. The Master pointed toward the heavy lines that ran from the forward point of the sky deck to the end of the bow sprit spar. Four jib sails twisted and snapped in the wind on each side. “The clew of the forward port jib is fraying. I sent a slave out to repair it but he failed. Go out and do the job correctly.” The master kicked a leather tool bag toward Askaro.
He picked up the bag, reset his tether line to the stay of the forward shrouds, and carefully worked his way toward the damaged sail. The winds howled around him and the rain beat on him hard enough to welt his skin. He clung to the soaked ropes. Lightening streaked across the sky, blinding him and the immediate clap of thunder made his ears ring.
He got to the jib, released the sheet line and clipped it to a stay. He cut away the damaged clew and sewed a new one into place. He replaced the sheet clip and signaled the line man to put tension on the rope. He made his way back up the forward shrouds. A hand reached through the gap in the railing of the Sky deck. He took it.
In the dim light of the madly swaying lanterns, his father’s face looked ghostly. “The Captain has ordered us dismissed from extended watch.”
Askaro turned to Master Danul, who stood a few paces behind the Chief Engineer. “The clew is replaced and tension is back on the jib, sir.”
The Master’s face seemed to crawl. “So I see.” He glanced at Jakaro then back at Askaro. “It seems you are dismissed.”
Askaro followed his father along the weather line to the mid-ship entry. Crewman Ocala was still there. He saluted Jakaro and let them pass. His father paused at the midway landing and turned to Askaro. “Are you all right?”
“I am. I should return these tools to the sail loft in case they are needed again.”
Jakaro whistled to get the attention of a Crewman coming down the midway from the Control Room. He hurried forward. His father took the tool bag and handed it to the man. “Crewman Akner, please take these tools to the sail loft.”
“Yes, sir, Mister Jakaro.” The man took the bag and hurried on along the midway toward the bow.
His father pulled Askaro toward the stairs. “Your mother has food put out in the salon. We’ll grab a few bites and get cleaned up.”
He was too tired to argue. They came back out into the storm as the stairs descended out of the dirigible. The wind seemed less intense. Lightening flashed and Askaro counted. It was over ten counts away. “Are we out of the worst of the storm?”
Jakaro clipped their tethers to the weather line that ran sternward to the doors of the Officers’ Deck. “It is moving past us. We’ve seen the worst. It should be just rain now.”
Askaro could hear running water. “Are the collectors open on top? I thought the Captain was worried about weight. Why are we taking on more water?”
They reached the end of the weather line and his father unclipped them. “We want full water tanks when we come into Rokathalon. Water is a commodity there. Being at the top of a mountain has its drawbacks. They are dependent on what falls from the sky or melts from snow.” He opened the door but paused. “Say nothing to your mother of what you just did. Understand?”
He nodded and they went in. Tralora sighed when she saw them. “There you are. I was beginning to worry. You’re both dripping wet and shivering. There’s hot water in the boiler. I’ll bring some food in for you.” She pushed them toward the doors of the family suite.
Jakaro pulled the tether off of Askaro. “You go first. You’ve been out in the storm more than I have.”
He went into the bathroom between his parents’ room and his own. He stripped out of his wet clothes and stepped into the shower. He pulled the chain to release a spray of water from the boiler tank above. This was a special luxury that only the officers were allowed. Masters and Crewmen only had basins. Slaves were given wet rags once a day. The hot water drove the chill from his body. He didn’t want to use it all. He pushed up the lever to stop the flow.
Askaro toweled off and dressed. He added more water to the boiler tank and made sure the fire was still lit. He went to the door and started to open it but stopped. His parents were entwined, sharing a deep kiss. He waited, not wanting to interrupt them.
His mother slowly drew back. “Will we truly be in the city soon?”
Jakaro ran his fingers through her long black hair. “Very soon. Probably by Second Watch tomorrow.” He kissed her forehead. “Does this mean you’ll stop drinking the tea and grant me another child?”
Her face seemed to fade. “I am sorry.” She dropped her head. “Look what they have done to Askaro. And what if it had been a girl?” Her voice broke and she buried her face in Jakaro’s chest.
Askaro couldn’t see his father’s expression but the muscles of his back tensed. He whispered into her hair. “When you are officially my wife, you will have nothing to fear.”
She looked up at him, tears streaming down her cheeks. “One of the pleasers killed herself a few days ago. I heard the Doctor talking about it. She had delivered a baby girl and they tossed it overboard.”
Jakaro pulled her close again. “This ship is a rough place. Even the Officers’ wives and daughters are forbidden to leave the Salon unless they are in port. You have more freedom than they do. A woman, or especially a young girl, would be at risk among so many men. That’s why there are pleasers for the crew.”
She nestled against him. “The only reason I leave this deck is because Bruvano insists I work duty shifts in the kitchen to remind me that I’m still a slave.”
Jakaro lifted her chin and kissed her. “Actually, I think it’s because you cook better than Master Repri.”
She managed a quiet laugh then leaned against him again. “Will we stay aboard the Falcon once we reach Rokathalon?”
His father sighed. “I don’t know. My father had a fine house in the Capital but after my mother died, he could hardly stand to be there.”
The bells rang. Askaro had lost track of time. He cleared his throat and left the bathroom. His parents turned to look at him. His mother smiled. “Well, you don’t look like a drown rat anymore.”
“Thanks, mother. I added more water to the boiler for you, father. Considering all the rain water we’re adding to the tanks, I doubt it will be missed.”
Jakaro let go of Tralora. “I guess that means it’s my turn. Those were the Sixth Watch bells. Grab a few bites to eat and get a little sleep. We’ll have three and a half turns before the breakfast bell.”
Askaro wished them good night and went to his room. He added his dirty clothes to the laundry bin and laid his belt and wrist bands on his trunk. The pendent clanked against the lid. He picked it up and looked at it. There was an embossed image of a Falcon with outspread wings on one side. He turned it over. On the back was a symbol he didn’t recognize and an inscription carved into the metal in tiny even letters. Askaro held it close to the lantern and read it out loud. “For my grandson, Askaro, my greatest gift. Sky Wizard Delkaro.”
There was a slight rap on his door and his mother peered around it. Her face was taut with concern. “First Mate Osalith was just here. We are expected to be in the Salon promptly at the breakfast bell. Your father has to be in dress uniform and we are to be…” She looked down at her simple tunic. “Presentable.”
Askaro heard the morning bell ring. His body didn’t want to move and his mind felt sluggish. A soft tap on his door forced him upright. “I’m awake.”
The door opened and his mother entered. She was carrying a wrapped parcel and a box. “Happy Birthday, my son.”
Askaro blinked the sleep out of his eyes and turned up the lantern. He stared at his mother for a moment. She was dressed in a fine lacy formal. Her hair was braided and arranged nicely. The only thing that detracted from the ensemble was the leather band around her neck. He sighed. “You look pretty.”
She laid the packages on his bed. There was a slight blush to her cheeks. “It was Sabora’s idea. She gave me the dress to wear. The doctor and his wife have always been kind to me.” She moved the packages onto his lap. “You should open these.”
Askaro untied the string that bound the paper around something soft. Inside was a white cotton shirt like the Masters and Officers wore. There was also a pair of dark blue pants. Askaro swallowed hard. “These are Officer’s clothes.”
“Your grandfather insisted. He requisitioned them from stores and had me wrap them for you.” She pointed to the box. “That is from your father.”
He slip the lid away and pulled out the shiny black boots. He could almost see his reflection in the polished surface. There was also a pair of socks. “I’ve never worn anything on my feet.”
“It will take some getting used to.” She held up the hem of the dress to reveal her own feet. “At least these shoes are practical. Sabora said they are made from goat kid leather.”
Askaro reached down and felt one. “They are soft.”
His father started grumbling to himself in the sitting room of their suite. Tralora got up and peered around the door. “He’s having trouble with his collar. I’d better go help him. Get dressed now. We’re expected in the Salon very soon.”
When she left, he got up and put on the new clothes. They were much softer than his regular tunic and breeches. The boots felt uncomfortable but he managed to walk in them. He looked at his face in the glass and did his best to tie back his unruly black hair.
The pendent was still on his trunk. He decided to keep wearing it under the wrist band. It was safer there than around his neck.
He left his room and found his mother still struggling to help his father with the formal uniform. Jakaro finally managed to get all the buttons into the correct slots. “This is a nuisance. I’ll be up on the Sky Deck. The wind will treat this bulky coat like a sail. How am I supposed to do my job if I have to mind my own clothing? I’m worried enough about getting the Falcon into the docking cradle.”
Tralora smoothed out the last of the wrinkles. “You’ll do fine. You said the Falcon launched from this dock. Why would she not fit now?”
“We’ve been gone seventeen years. It was a tight fit then. If they have made any changes along the quay, we’ll be hard pressed to get her in without damaging us or the port.” He noticed Askaro. He came forward, his frown changing to a grin. “You look like a fine young Ensign.”
Askaro’s heart seemed to miss a beat. “An Ensign?”
Jakaro put his hands on his son’s shoulders. “You are sixteen now. As the son of an Officer, it’s your responsibility to take on the duties of an Ensign, just as Carton did several years ago.”
His mind struggled with the idea. “But what about Master Bruvano?”
Jakaro sighed. “You are my son and heir. Once we reach Rokathalon we will get any doubt of your citizenship reconciled and it won’t matter what Bruvano thinks.”
His mother reached for the collar around his neck. “You no longer need this.”
He caught her hands. “No. I’ll wear mine until you can remove yours.”
His father kissed his mother’s cheek. “I will take great pleasure in that duty.”
There was a knocked on the outer door. Tralora hid her tears by turning away from them. She dabbed at her eyes and reached for the door knob. “Come on. The Captain wants everyone to be prompt.”
They went out into the Salon. It was crowded with all the Officers and their families as well as slaves setting dishes on the table. The mood was festive. All the ladies and girls were in their best dresses and all the men were in formal dress uniforms. The younger boys all wore fine suits.
The Captain was talking to Mister Osalith off in a corner. The First Mate’s face was drawn with concern. Askaro leaned slightly in their direction to hear what the man was saying. “I realize how you feel about the boy, sir. I just think you shouldn’t make a public display of it this morning. You know how some of the others feel about him and Tralora.”
The Captain had his back to Askaro so he couldn’t see his grandfather’s face but he could hear the controlled anger in his voice. “I don’t bloody care what they think. It won’t matter after today. They can leave and never come back as far as I’m concerned. This is his birthright and I won’t have it denied him.”
“You said you gave him the pendent already. Let that be enough for now. Explain it to him after we’ve docked.”
Tralora pulled Askaro toward the table and he lost the conversation. Sabora and Doctor Hodrel came toward them. Sabora smiled warmly. “You look absolutely lovely, Tra. And look at Asko. How grown up you’ve become.”
Their daughter, Valisa, and Yalina, the daughter of the Second Mate, came over and curtsied to Askaro. Valisa laughed lightly. “Happy Birthday, Asko. You’re our age now.” She turned to Yalina. “He looks good in uniform.”
Yalina frowned. “He’s missing his jacket.”
Tralora put an arm around his shoulders. “Mister Thorson couldn’t find one his size in stores.”
Yalina put her fingers out and sighted along them. “He looks about the same size as my brother.” She waved and called Carton over. “Would you have an extra jacket for Mister Askaro?”
Carton grinned and extended his hand. “I heard it was your birthday. Quite a present, hey? To dock in the Capital.” Yalina nudged him with her elbow. Carton cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I wish I did. The Quarter Master already asked me.”
Askaro was still recovering from the shock of Yalina calling him ‘mister’ and Carton shaking his hand. “That’s all right, but thank you for the thought, sir.”
Carton laughed. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ anymore, Asko. As a matter of fact, others will have to call you ‘sir’ now.”
Askaro followed Carton’s glance and saw Ranith standing alone in a corner. The boy’s arms were crossed and he scowled at them.
The Captain came to the head of the table and tapped his fork against his wine glass. “Come now, my friends. Several Masters are watching our posts so that we can enjoy this last meal together.”
Everyone came to the big table. Askaro didn’t know where to go. Jakaro called to him and Tralora. “My father has rearranged the table order.”
He led them to the head of the table and stood next to the Captain. Askaro stood by the chair next to his mother. Mister Osalith stood next to the Captain on the other side and his family followed. The Second Mate came toward the chair next to Askaro. He nodded but said nothing.
Once everyone had found their spot, the Captain raised his wine glass. “To the Falcon, the bounty that we carry, and her faithful crew.”
Everyone picked up their wine glass and shouted, “Harrah!” Askaro followed his father’s example. The wine tasted bitter to him but he managed to swallow a sip.
The Captain sat and everyone else took their seats. Master Repri, the Head Cook and Master Peater, the Head Baker, began placing plates of food at each place. Master Peater paused beside Tralora as he set her plate down. “It’s about time you sit where you should for a meal.”
Askaro was confused by the array of silverware on either side of his plate. He’d washed plenty of them when he served a duty position in scullery but he had no clue what to do with them. He watched his grandfather and father to see how they used each one.
The foods were new and different. He’d had the occasional roll and cooked game while on collection duty but this was the first time he’d eaten most of what was on his plate. He didn’t even know what some of it was.
There was quiet conversation around the table as people enjoyed the meal. Jakaro and the Captain were discussing his concerns about the docking. His father moved a few things around on the table and pointed at a bowl he’d placed between them. “The docking cradle of the Grand Portal is at the very center of the port. We’ll have to trim sails and let off steam at just the right moment to set her down. We need enough heat to clear the Teeth and Beacon Rock.”
The First Mate had been listening on the other side. “I seem to recall it was a tight fit when we left. I just hope they haven’t constructed any new buildings along the quay.”
The Captain moved a few of the items. “I spoke to Captain Berand when we docked at Kells a few months ago. He said it hadn’t changed too much. And the Magnificent should have returned to port last month. He said he was headed back. So they know we are coming in. I sent a notification with him.”
Jakaro leaned toward his father. “I still think we should pull the pennant bars in on the Main Masts. It’s going to be tight as it is.”
Delkaro shook his head. “This is a day of triumph for the Falcon. I want all her flags flying. We’ll manage, just like we did at Valenhall.”
Mister Rickton, who had been quietly eating next to Askaro, coughed and muttered to himself. “I wonder if they have all their towers replaced yet.”
Askaro had finished all the food on his plate, as had most others. The Captain stood and the room became quiet. “Today will be a great day in the history of the Sky Realm. The Falcon, the largest Sky Ship ever built, will return to Rokathalon.” He waited for the applause to stop. “This is the last meal we share together as a company and I wish to show my appreciation to the dedicated Officers and their wonderfully patient families on this long journey.”
The First Mate raised his glass. “To the crew!”
Everyone repeated the toast and drank some wine. Askaro had barely touched his and only took small sips. He didn’t care for the taste.
The Captain motioned to several Crewmen who had been waiting along the wall and they began wheeling in carts. “This has been a long journey but we return with holds overflowing. I wish to share some of that bounty with you now, beyond your standard commission.”
The crewmen began passing out leather bags to everyone seated at the table. Each one had a tag with the name beautifully scribed on it. Askaro wasn’t sure what to do with his. He looked around and noticed others were opening theirs. He released the tie and pulled out the contents. There was a leather-bound journal, a fine quill pen, a bottle of ink, and a small bag of coins.
He glanced over at his mother who was holding a necklace with a clear crystal pendent. She also had a small bag of coins. This seemed to be the standard fare around the table.
Lady Desora, the First Mate’s wife, held up her necklace. “These are very beautiful, Captain.”
Delkaro smiled warmly. “The diamonds are from a raid several years ago. I had them mounted and fitted on chains while we were in Kells.”
The younger girls were giggling as mothers helped them with the latches. Several of the boys were busy counting their coins and planning how they would spend them.
Delkaro cleared his throat and Mister Osalith tapped on his glass. The room quieted again and everyone turned their attention back to the Captain. He began walking around the room, shaking hands with his officers. He made the rounds and returned to his place. “It has been an honor to serve with all of you. I am planning on retiring after ship’s matters are dealt with.” There were small gasps of surprise from various people at the table. Delkaro turned to his son and pulled him to his feet. “As is the tradition among Sky Wizards, I am passing command of the Falcon to my son, Jakaro.”
Jakaro embraced him. “I won’t let you down, father.”
Delkaro chuckled. “I know. I trained you for this moment. I just hope the new Captain will let this old man tag along for awhile.”
Jakaro released him. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Delkaro faced the table. “I hope others will return for the next voyage but I’ll understand if you have other plans. You have already given seventeen years of loyal dedication. Whatever you choose, I wish the best to all of you.”
Mister Osalith stood and raised his goblet. His eyes were glassy. “To Captain Delkaro, the greatest Sky Wizard of the Realm!” Everyone else stood and joined in the toast. “And to our new Captain Jakaro, may his future on the Falcon be as prosperous as this journey has been!”
After the toast, everyone cheered and applauded. Delkaro slapped Jakaro on the back. “Well, Captain. I think we should let the Officers get to their duty stations. I’ll meet you, Mister Osalith, and Mister Rickton in the Ready Room for final docking consultations.” He bowed and left the salon before the tears at the corners of his eyes could fall.
Askaro noticed that many of the women and even a few of the men were wiping their eyes. Mister Rickton moved to Mister Osalith’s side. “I thought the Old Man was going to bring up the other issue.”
Mister Osalith relaxed his shoulders. “I convinced him not to. He’s already presented the boy with the pendent. The rest can wait until we reach Rokathalon.”
The Second Mate frowned. “It seems wrong to break with tradition. The pendent should be publicly given and displayed.”
Mister Fantori joined them. “Presented a pendent to who?”
Mister Osalith pointed at Askaro. “To the boy.”
Mister Fantori laughed. “Won’t do him no good where he’s headed. Old Bruvano plans to get a pretty price for that one.”
The First Mate pulled the Helmsman toward the door. “I’d belay talk like that if I were you or the new Captain will have you hanging from the tip of the bow sprit when we come into port instead of at the wheel.”
Askaro trembled. His mother came to his side and put a hand on his shoulder. “The families will all be on the Sky Deck as we come into Rokathalon. Your father expects you to be there as well.”
He glanced at the clock on the wall of the Salon. “It’s already well into First Watch. I should really be at my duty station in the rope pit.”
His father came over. “That’s no longer your duty station. You’re an Ensign, now. I expect you to join me on the Sky Deck. I know my father passed on his position to me, but I’m still technically Chief Engineer until we dock and I want to be where I can see the entire ship as we come into port. I will not make the same mistake Mister Yan did in Valenhall.”
Askaro looked down at the bag that held his gifts. “I should put these in my room. And to be honest, I may leave my boots and socks there as well. My feet hurt. They aren’t used to being contained.”
Jakaro laughed. “Very well. Break them in slowly. There’s nothing that says an Officer has to wear anything on his feet.” He kissed Tralora. “I’ll see you later on the Sky Deck. I have to get to a meeting.”
Askaro put his new things away in his trunk and removed his boots and socks. He wiggled his toes to get feeling back into them. He was relieved that they hadn’t found a jacket for him. That would be just one more change he would have to get used to.
When he returned to the Salon, his mother was talking with several other women. Ranith came over to him. “Don’t expect me to call you ‘sir.’ They might dress you up but nothing has really changed. You’re still a slave.”
Carton broke away from the conversation he’d been having. He grabbed Ranith’s arm. “Enough of that. Whether you like it or not, Askaro is now an Ensign, just as I am. You must treat him with the same respect as you treat me.”
Ranith pulled away. “I can’t wait to get off this ship, sir.” He hissed the last word and escaped to his family’s suite.
Carton frowned. “Ignore him. It won’t matter tomorrow anyway. From what I’ve heard, Mister Osalith plans on leaving the Falcon.”
“What about your family?”
Carton pulled him gently toward the door. “My father couldn’t imagine being anywhere but the Falcon. I’m certain he’ll stay on. My mother plans to send Yalina to finishing school in the Capital but Falina and Elton will remain with her here on the Falcon. Even though he’s only eight, Elton is already dreaming of becoming an Officer.”
Askaro reached for the handle of the main door to the deck. “If Mister Osalith is leaving, maybe my father will make yours First Mate.”
The knob was pulled out of Askaro’s fingers and the door swung open. Master Bruvano stood on the other side. “There you are. You’re late for your duty shift. If I didn’t have a task waiting for you, I’d dump you in a Hot Room.”
Carton stepped forward. “Bruvano, Mister Askaro is no longer under your charge. We are expected…”
The Slave Master raised his hand as if to strike Carton. The young man backed up a step in alarm. Bruvano sneered at him and grabbed Askaro by the arm. “This cruise ain’t over yet and Ass is still mine to do with as I please.”
Askaro saw the gleam in the Slave Master’s eye. He swallowed down his fear as the large man pulled him away from the startled Ensign.
Master Bruvano hurried him across the main deck toward the mid-ship stairs. They went down several flights before turning toward the bow again. Askaro was familiar with this hallway. It led toward the Hold. Was Bruvano planning to assign him to cargo duty?
They moved into the Main Hold. Quarter Master Thorson was shouting orders to crewmen. “I want everything secured until we are settled into the cradle. Nothing goes off this ship until the purchase is confirmed. I don’t care who asks you to retrieve an item. It all goes through me.”
Bruvano looked around the deck. “Is Natib still here?”
Master Thorson turned away from the busy crew. “He’s out in the Beak.” He looked at Askaro. “What are you doing here, Mister Askaro?”
Bruvano dug his fingers into Askaro’s shoulder. “He ain’t nothing but a slave and he’s going to do his assigned duties.”
Master Thorson started to argue but Bruvano pulled Askaro away. They passed through the Main Hold doors into the Head of the Falcon. Here ramps from the decks above and below all converged into a main staging area for cargo transfer.
Askaro felt the breeze from the open doors. Crewman Natib stood on the platform within the Beak, looking forward. The view was amazing. Stretched before them was a rugged coastline. Sunlight gleamed from distant surfaces directly ahead.
Bruvano pushed Askaro onto the platform. “Here’s the other one.”
Natib turned. His brow creased. “Mister Askaro? Bruvano, have you lost your mind? The Captain will have your hide for this.”
Askaro noticed Chitano huddled in the corner on the other side of the elder Crewman. “What are we supposed to do, sir?”
Natib’s eyes went wide. “You got that wrong, lad. I be calling you ‘sir’ now. It’s just Natib.”
Bruvano growled deep in his throat. “I don’t care what delusion everyone seems to be under. The brat is still mine to do with as I see fit. And he’ll post us up, along with the other one. The Captain be damned.”
Master Ofalo appeared through the main doors. He stopped abruptly. “What’s going on here?”
Bruvano swung around. “What’s going on here is everyone seems to be questioning my orders. I am the Slave Master on this ship until she docks and Ass is still my slave until then. He will do the duty he’s assigned. That’s final!” His voice had risen to a roar that echoed through the Head.
Master Ofalo backed up a step. He glanced at Askaro then back to Bruvano. “I ain’t arguing with you, Bru.”
“Good! See the slaves know what they are supposed to do. I’ll be watching them.” He turned and disappeared into the Hold.
Master Ofalo laid a shaky hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mister Askaro. He’s not someone I care to tangle with. But you can be sure the Captain won’t be giving him any bonuses.” He turned to Natib. “Have you explained the duty to Chitano?”
“Nah, sir. I was awaiting for the other one.”
Master Ofalo motioned for the frightened boy to join them. “When we come into the cradle, there will be two docking posts on either side of the bow. Each of you will be assigned a rope. Natib will extend the ramp and you will have to jump to the post and belay the rope.”
Askaro had watched the Falcon dock at Kells. “That’s a forty unit distance with a heavy rope, sir. I’m not worried for my part but for Chitano.”
Master Ofalo frowned. “First off, don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore. Bruvano may not have his head screwed on tight but I know better. You’re an officer now, Mister Askaro. It’s my place to be calling you ‘sir’. As for Chitano, he would not have been my pick for this duty. He doesn’t have the strength for it. But I dare not argue with Bruvano about that. Chitano is still a slave and Bruvano is the Slave Master. But for you…”
“No. If Chitano has to do this, I will stay as well.” He almost said ‘sir’ but stopped. It felt odd.
There was a shrill pipe through the tube. Natib went over and picked up his end. “This is the Beak. Go ahead.”
Mister Rickton’s voice sounded odd through the tube as he confirmed the connection. “We’re coming up on the Teeth. Drop a sounding line for safe measure.”
“Aye, sir.” Natib replaced the tube in its holder and went to a cabinet. “Come, Chitano. Give me a hand with this.”
Askaro watched as the old Crewman lowered the long rope strung with bells of different sizes over the edge of the platform. He looked ahead at the line of rocky monoliths arranged along the coastline. “I can see where they get their name from now.”
Master Ofalo pointed to one straight ahead. “That is Beacon Rock. It’s hard to see in daylight but a fire is kept burning in a vast pit at the top of that pinnacle. It’s the tallest of the Teeth and it lines us up with the Grand Portal.”
Askaro glanced over the side at the dangling rope of bells. “I’m guessing we don’t want to hear any of them ring.”
Natib chuckled. “Nah, sir. Not unless we want to be scraping the keel on the Teeth.”
Askaro sighted along their path and tensed. “Then I think we need to rise a little more.”
Master Ofalo retrieved a sextant from the cabinet and took a reading. “Mister Askaro is correct.” He went to the tube and whistled for the Bridge. “We need another seventy units to clear the Beacon.” Mister Osalith acknowledged the request.
Askaro heard the increased hiss as more heat was applied to the hot air chambers. The Falcon slowly began to rise. The Teeth took on more definition as the Falcon drew closer. They were made of jagged black basalt that could do serious damage to the hull if the height was misjudged.
Master Ofalo whistled. “And there she be.”
Askaro had been so intend on the rocks that he hadn’t been paying attention to the details of the mainland. The breath caught in his throat. Sunlight gleamed from windows and even some rooftops. The colorful buildings clung to the top of the mountains, a few clusters even extended down the sides. “It’s amazing.”
Natib wiped the corners of his eyes. “Didn’t think I’d live to see Rokathalon again.”
Askaro heard the slight tinkle of a bell and glanced down. The end of the line bumped along the surface of the tall rock. He could see the men tending the fire all staring upward as the shadow of the Falcon passed over them. “We could really use a few more units.”
Master Ofalo quickly relayed that to the Bridge. When he returned to the rail his face looked pale. “That’s all we’ve got. All the peato is gone.”
Natib shook his head. “This is going to be tight. There won’t be any room for error.” He put a hand on Chitano’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get you ready for the jump.”
Master Ofalo seemed to be rooted to the spot. “We’re barely going to clear the cradle coming in. You’ll have to jump upward to get to the top of the posts where the pegs are.”
Askaro could see them now. This was the first time he’d ever seen a docking cradle from this angle. He could see the track where the keel would rest. “We normally come in higher so we have room to maneuver, don’t we?”
“Aye, sir. That’s the preferred way for certain.”
Askaro could hear the rails of the wind rudders groan as the helm adjusted their course slightly. The large wooden paddles were both thrust outward to act as a brake against their forward motion so it took greater pressure to alter the flow of air enough to affect the angle of the large ship.
Natib came up beside them. “We’re coming in too fast.”
Master Ofalo looked down at the bell line. “We have no choice. If we go any slower we won’t have enough heat to make the altitude of the docking cradle.”
Natib grabbed Askaro’s arm. “Be fast with the belay. With this speed, the lines will pull taut quickly.”
Askaro could see the gleam of the large pins at the top of each post. He had a much better idea of what needed to be done. He pulled Chitano forward onto the ramp. “With the winds still from the north, the ship will naturally pull toward port. You take that side. It will be easier. “I’ll take starboard.”
Chitano glanced at him. “You shouldn’t even be doing this. You’re an Officer now, sir.”
Askaro shrugged. “The job needs to be done and I’m here.”
The Falcon was quickly approaching the cradle. Askaro could hear the multitude of orders being shouted through horns from the Sky Deck. He moved to his position as Natib extended the ramp. The Crewman saluted him. “May the stars guide you, sir.”
Askaro watched the bow glide toward the two posts. They were slightly off. “Natib, we need more to port!”
The Crewman hurried back to the tubes and whistled the Bridge. Helmsman Fantori responded. Natib relayed the request. They were almost to the posts. Natib hung on as the Falcon adjusted. “All right, Mister Askaro. Make the jump!”
He could hear Mister Fantori’s grumble. “Is that brat posting us?”
Askaro didn’t have any more time to think about it. The post was there. He adjusted the heavy loops around his shoulders and prepared to leap. The Falcon lurched even farther to port. He had only a moment to readjust his jump. He flew through the air toward the post. He was going to be short.
The top portion of the post was covered in netting. His fingers caught the cross-lines. He ignored the pain and scrambled quickly up the side. The hull of the Falcon was almost on top of him. He wrapped the rope around the peg, twisting the last loop to belay it. The rope snapped taut.
He could see Chitano on the other post struggling to get the rope belayed. The unexpected last moment twist of the ship must have thrown him off, too.
There was a sharp bang. The Falcon jerked toward starboard without warning. The line snapped tight. Chitano screamed. He was caught between the heavy line and the large metal pin.
Askaro gauged the distance between the posts and calculated the forward motion of the bow. He crouched and leapt. He felt the brush of the hull as he passed it. His fingers found the netting. He scrambled to the top.
Chitano was still screaming and vainly pushing at the rope that held him against the pin. Askaro ducked under the rope, put his foot against it close to the boy’s body, and pushed as hard as he could. It gave just enough that he could pull Chitano’s body away. He collapsed into Askaro’s arms, panting. Blood stained his tunic and dribbled from the edge of his mouth.
The Falcon groaned as she settled into the docking cradle. Everything was still for a moment then the scrape of wood caught his attention. Askaro looked up as Master Ofalo and Natib crossed a ladder that now stretched from the side of the Beak to the top of the post. The Master knelt beside them. “I’ve called for the Doctor.”
Askaro shook as he held Chitano. He’d never felt such rage. “That was meant for me.”
“Nay, Askaro. It was just the way we came into the cradle.”
Askaro looked up toward the Bridge. From this angle, the windows were hidden by the Weather Deck. “No, that last pitch happened before we hit the cradle. That was Mister Fantori, trying to make it harder for me to make the jump.” He looked down at Chitano. “But it changed the jump for him, too. And it took him longer to make the wrap. When the Falcon did hit, it straightened the ship and he was caught between the rope and pin.”
Natib stood behind Askaro, wringing his hands and trying to muffle his sobs. The Master looked up at him. “It wasn’t the lad’s fault. He did his best.” The old airman nodded.
Doctor Hodrel called to them from the Beak. “Hang on, I’m coming!” Master Ofalo rushed to help him cross the ladder. The Doctor dropped to his knees beside Askaro. “This looks bad.” He raised the bloody tunic and shook his head. “The rope has broken bones and crushed his gut. I don’t know how much I can do for him.”
Askaro looked down at the boy. “Isn’t there anything?”
The doctor began gently probing the broken body. “I’ll do my best, Mister Askaro, but I can’t make any promises. If his innards have been ruptured, he will probably die. Things like that are beyond repair.”
Chitano coughed and shivered. Askaro held him still as the doctor continued his exam. “Hang on, Chitano.”
Doctor Hodrel looked up at the Crewman. “We should get him inside.”
Natib’s face was solemn. He knelt beside the boys. “If I may, sir. Let me have him.” His voice broke. He gently took Chitano’s body into his arms. “Poor lad, I’ve got you.” He stood. Chitano’s body went limp in his arms. “No, not like this.”
The doctor touched the boy’s wrist. “We must hurry if there’s any hope at all, Natib.”
Master Ofalo helped Natib carry the body across the ladder. “Get going. I’ll help the Doctor along.”
Doctor Hodrel reached down and helped Askaro to his feet. “Poor Natib. This is hard on him, I’m sure.”
Askaro felt numb. He looked at the Doctor. “Natib?”
“He was most likely Chitano’s father. No one else wanted to spend much time with Chitano’s mother as she had been scarred badly when she was caught. That’s why Bruvano ended up selling her.”
Something seemed to snap inside Askaro. He felt hot anger rushing through his veins. “Bruvano will pay for this.”
The Doctor put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “He will have to answer to the Captain. Let your grandfather deal with this. Bruvano is a big man. I’ve seen what he is capable of. This needs to be handled in the courts, not with physical violence. You’re no match for him.”
Askaro released his breath. “No, I’m not.” He looked around. “Let me help you across.”
The Doctor accepted his help. Master Ofalo reached out his hand to help the Doctor step up onto the ramp, which now extended to the dock. There was a wall of people waiting at the gate. The rope Master glanced at the noisy onlookers. “I dare say you gave them quite a show today. I doubt any of them have ever seen a jump like that one.”
A familiar voice made Askaro’s skin crawl. He turned away from the waiting crowd as Bruvano came through the main doors. He was scowling as he stalked toward them. “You call yourself a Doctor? Why is the boy dead?”
Askaro drew in a sharp breath. “Dead?”
The Doctor stiffened. “I didn’t know you cared.”
The Slave Master stared at Askaro. “These slaves are worth a lot.” He grabbed Askaro’s arm. “At least I can still get a good price for this one.”
Askaro looked up at the Slave Master. “My grandfather will never allow you to sell me.”
Master Bruvano’s face twisted. He pushed Askaro toward the gate that held back the wall of people. He called out to them to get their attention. “You saw what this slave did. Who will give me the highest price?”
Askaro tried to twist away. “You can’t! It’s against the charter. All sales have to be approved by…”
Bruvano’s hand smacked into Askaro’s face. “Be silent and know your place.”
Men were shouting out bids, trying to outdo the others. A man in bright red merchants guild attire leaned far over the gate. “Two hundred gold pieces.”
There were astonished gasps from the others and the crowd became quiet.
Bruvano chuckled softly. “Now there’s a man who knows the true value of a good slave.” He pulled Askaro toward the gate.
The man was waving a purse above his head. “For a slave who can leap like that, it’s worth it.”
Askaro curled and twisted away from Bruvano’s grasp. “I’m not a…”
Bruvano punched him harder. “No more back talk from you.”
The blow made him dizzy but it had been strong enough to land him a few paces away. Askaro rolled and scrambled to his feet. He started down the ramp back toward the doors of the ship.
Mister Fantori came through the doorway. “I heard there was a complaint about my steering.”
Bruvano whistled. “Grab the boy. I’ve got a buyer waiting for him.”
Fantori grinned. “It’s about time.” He grabbed for Askaro’s arm.
Askaro swerved but there was no way to get around the Helmsman. He jumped for the ladder that was still balanced between the rail of the ramp and the port-side docking post. He lightly scrambled across while Fantori cursed behind him. There was another post between that one and the dock. Askaro didn’t even pause to calculate the distance. He flung himself across the gap.
The crowd on the dock seemed to gasp in unison. Bruvano yelled at Fantori. “Grab a gaft hook and snag him!”
Askaro glanced back as the burly Helmsman retrieved the long pole. He estimated the distance and realized he wasn’t safe on his perch. He looked toward the dock. It was almost eighty units away and there was nothing below but the framed supports of the docking cradle before an unimaginable drop.
Fantori swung the double-ended hook toward him. “You’ve got nowhere to go, Ass.”
Askaro glanced upward. The Sky Deck was hidden by the mass of the dirigible and no one stood on the Weather Deck above the Head of the Falcon. The hook swung close to his shoulder and he ducked.
Fantori growled. “Come on you stupid brat. You’re worth nothing to anyone dead.” He swiped again.
There was no way to get away from the hook this time. Askaro bunched up all of his muscles, focused on the railing of the dock, and sprang away from the advancing hook. He could see the startled looks on the faces of the people along the dock. Those near his target tried to back away but were held by the press of the mass behind. He’d purposefully over-calculated the distance. His momentum landed him in a cluster of startled onlookers.
Bruvano roared from the other side of the crowd. “Move aside. Let me through!”
Askaro untangled himself from the struggling people he’d taken down with his landing. They were all shouting at once. He rolled free and scooted between the legs of those trying to help the others right themselves.
Bruvano’s voice rose above the crowd as he called to Fantori. “He’s on the quay. Find him!”
Askaro ducked and twisted around legs and swiveled away from grabbing hands. He could hear the protests of men and women as Bruvano and Fantori plowed through the crowd after him. He saw a break in the sea of legs and made for the opening. He was finally able to get to his feet. He glanced behind him. The path of the Slave Master and Helmsmen was marked by the shouts of displaced people.
A man in a dark blue uniform blew a whistle. “You there, stop where you are!”
Askaro didn’t know what the man intended to do. Bruvano and Fantori were too close for him to risk it. He changed direction and tried to move back toward the gate. He could see Officers on the Sky Deck of the Falcon. If he could reach the ramp before The Slave Master and Helmsman, he’d be safe.
Fantori emerged from the crowd a few steps ahead of him. “I’ve got you now!”
Askaro ducked to the side, avoiding the grasp of both the Helmsmen and others from the crowd. He saw an opening in the wall of buildings that backed the quay and dashed toward it. A stairway crowded with even more people rose between the buildings. He slid between the startled people and went upward. He came to an intersection. Several men in blue uniforms were pushing their way down the stairs that led to the next level. Askaro wasn’t sure which way to turn. Both directions of the narrow cross street were packed with pedestrians.
A man to his right shouted at him so he went left. The street was lined with shops. The buildings to his right were taller with several stories of windows. Those to his left were only one story. The sounds of a commotion echoed from the intersection behind him. Master Bruvano’s shouts rose above the others.
Askaro was struggling to make headway through the crowd. He glanced upward at the red tiled roof of the lower buildings. There was a crate full of fruit in front of a shop. He used it as a step and bounded onto the rooftop. He looked down in the direction he’d come. More of the men in blue uniforms had appeared. Bruvano was talking to them and pointing.
Fantori was pushing his way through the crowd. He looked up at Askaro. “You’re in for it now, Ass. The Authority will have you in shackles.” He moved toward a stack of crates at a different shop and began to climb them.
Askaro ran along the tiled roof. There was a considerable drop on the other side of the building where it faced the quay. The mass of people crowded together below swayed like a rolling sea. He could see the Falcon but at this distance, the figures on the Sky Deck were indistinguishable. He now understood his father’s concern about the tight space. The tip of the port foremast seemed to be jammed against a building. Crewmen and Masters stood at attention along the length of the mast. If he could reach that building, he might be able to jump across to the mast.
Askaro glanced behind and discovered Fantori had managed to climb up onto the roof. He was shouting at people below in the street and pointing in Askaro’s direction. The Helmsman started toward him but his boots slid on the clay tiles.
Askaro saw more buildings rising ahead of him. There was a gap between the roof he was running on and the next. He easily leaped across the opening between the row of buildings. Men clasping mugs of ale shouted at him from the street below. He glanced behind. Fantori was struggling. A loose tile gave under his weight. He slid downward and landed on a group of bystanders in the street.
Bruvano and the uniformed men were still headed in his direction. Askaro looked toward the Falcon, trying to judge which building was the closest to the port foremast. This roof was flat for a span then angled sharply upward in the direction he’d been going. He changed course, making use of the even surface to run toward his goal. Ahead of him was a slightly taller building that appeared to be the end of that row. A bright beacon glowed from the top of the structure. It must be the Harbor Master’s watch tower.
Bruvano’s voice echoed from the street below. “He came this way. I’m sure of it. That slave has always been trouble.”
Askaro glanced down and saw a sizable collection of the blue uniformed men pushing through the crowd ahead of his pursuer. Askaro considered his dirty, tattered clothes, stained with blood. Who would believe him over the word of the Slave Master?
The street below ended at the taller structure. Askaro could see the symbol of the Port Authority above the door. The roof he had been running across came to an abrupt end beside the second story of the building. The port Foremast was directly in front of him. The Crewmen and Masters were gone. But the distance was immense. It had to be more than 200 units. There was no way even he could make that leap. He looked down from the edge of the roof. There was nothing but clouds and a hint of sunlight glimmering on the ocean far below.
Voices from the building beside him warned Askaro that the Slave Master had convinced the Harbor Master to help him. An older man with a tight-cut white beard came out onto the balcony that was even with the rooftop. He leaned on the metal railing. “Come here, boy! You’ve no where else to go.”
Askaro glanced back the way he’d come. Fantori and a group of uniformed men were running toward him. He turned toward the steeply slanted roof and began scrambling up the incline. His bare feet gave him purchase on the slippery tiles. Fantori tried to follow without success. Askaro came to the peak and paused. A vast sea of buildings spread out before him, their roofs separated by narrow gaps.
Bruvano whistled to get Fantori’s attention. “Get down and go around the block to cut him off! I’ll be right behind you!”
Not knowing what else to do, he moved forward down the ridge line of the roof that intersected his perch. He noticed at once that the tiles of this roof were different. Not only had the color changed to a drab tan but the tiles were crumbling. The buildings also looked different. These had not been covered in colorful plaster. The structures were supported with mortared stone and filled in with brick. Many of the roofs had gabled windows.
Askaro risked coming to the edge of the roof and looked down into the narrow streets. There were fewer people here and their clothes seemed shabbier. He caught a drift of conversation. Their accents seemed heavy to his ears but the words were clear enough. They knew the uniformed men were looking for a run away slave. He backed toward one of the gables and discovered a narrow gap where the gabled roof overhung the main one. He crawled into the space and hoped the shadows would hide him from searching eyes.
He was exhausted. The hard labor through the storm coupled with the short sleep shift only made it worse. His body ached. Askaro wrapped his arms around his folded knees. He wanted to cry but couldn’t afford the distraction. He looked across the rows of rooftops. In the distance he saw a tall white tower rising into the sky. He thought back to the map his grandfather had shown him. It must be Cloud Tower. If he could get back to the ship his family could help him. Surely his grandfather, being a great Sky Wizard, could do something.
Bruvano’s voice echoed down in the street below. Askaro leaned back as far as he could into the small space. Fantori grumbled and coughed. “We’ve been all over these streets. We’ve lost him. We should just go back to the ship.”
“And tell the Captain? Do you think he’ll be happy with us? You idiot! That old fool dotes on the brat. He was mad to let his son bed a slave and even madder to think the spawn of that was his heir. Pure insanity.”
Fantori huffed. “We have to tell him something. If we don’t go back we don’t get no pay. I spent seventeen years on that ship. I ain’t walking away without my rightful funds.”
Bruvano growled deep in his throat. “Then you’d better figure out what to tell the Old Man.”
“We tells him the boy went crazy after the death of the other slave and jumped over the side. We tried to get him back. Didn’t we?” Fantori stepped out into the street beyond the edge of the roof and looked both ways. “In these slums, he’ll never survive the night. He’ll be dead by morning.”
Askaro watched a lean man dressed in leather armor move toward the Helmsman. He had advanced slowly at first but quickened his pace when Fantori turned in his direction. He came to a stop facing the Helmsman and bowed slightly. “Good day to you, my fine sirs.”
Bruvano moved forward. Askaro could see his sweat-soaked shoulders and the back of his matted hair. “What do you want?”
“I heard you have a problem and I’m here to solve it for you.”
Fantori leaned toward the man. “Who are you? How do you know what ails us?”
The man laughed lightly. “Forgive me. I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Golarin. I’m a tracker, the best on Rokathalon. Ask around if you don’t believe me. I always find what I’m looking for.”
Bruvano surveyed the street. “And what makes you think we’ve lost something?”
Golarin laughed again. “News travels like the wind, especially since it has something to do with the Falcon. The city has been abuzz ever since the Magnificent returned with news of Her eminent arrival.”
Fantori snorted. “And what makes you think you can find the brat when we can’t?”
The tracker shrugged. “This is my town.”
Bruvano paced back under the overhang. “And what do you expect to get out of it?”
“The winds tell me this particular slave is worth 200 pieces of gold. So I hand him over to you and you hand over 80 gold divits to me.”
Fantori gasped. “What? That’s robbery!”
Golarin studied his fingertips. “Right now it looks to me like you are empty-handed.” He matched his gaze to the Helmsman’s. “Seems to me 120 divided between you is better than empty pockets.”
Fantori started to argue but Bruvano put a hand on his shoulder. “It would be best if this wasn’t mentioned to the Authority. We’ll have enough grief from our Captain because of this.”
Golarin smiled. “Not a problem. They tend to stay out of my way.”
Fantori put his hands on his hips. “And how do we know that you won’t just turn around and sell him yourself once you grab him?”
The tracker took a step back. “Gentleman! I have a reputation to keep. One doesn’t succeed in my business by cheating customers.”
Bruvano came back out into view. “Fine. How will we know when you’ve got him? We can’t exactly go back to our ship with nothing to show for it.”
Golarin tapped his chin with a finger. “There are rooms available on Low Street across from the Red Cloud Pub. The lady who runs the establishment is called Glory. Tell her you’re one of my customers and she’ll put you up. It shouldn’t take me long.”
Fantori snorted. “Hah! What makes you say that?”
Golarin smiled. “Because my men are already tracking him.”
Askaro heard the slight squeal of the window hinges a moment before the shadow blocked the light. He didn’t hesitate. He kicked out with both feet and felt them contact with a leather chest plate. The man gasped in shock and went flying outward. Askaro slid out of the hole and scurried toward the ridge line of the main roof. Several other men were crawling around the edge of the gable. Askaro began to run as fast as his tired body would allow.
Movement at the edge of his vision alerted him to danger. He instinctively ducked and slid part of the way down the roof on the other side. Something clattered across the tiles where he’d been a heartbeat before. He glanced back at the heavy net. That was a new consideration. Out in the open on the rooftop, he was vulnerable. He scrambled back toward the ridge line and peered over the cap tiles.
Several men stood on the rooftop across the street. One of them pointed at him. “The net missed. Dagal, he’s on the other side not far from you. Grab him!”
Askaro saw the man coming toward him, stepping carefully across the old clay tiles. He looked in the direction he’d been headed. The roof appeared to end at a lower building whose roof was less slanted. That roof ended at a wall of a slightly taller building. It was time to get down. He sprinted toward the lower roof. He saw several men down in the street begin to follow. They had to run up a set of stairs and dodge around pedestrians. He was ahead of them by the time he reached the lower section. He jumped down and didn’t stop.
The street teed. In front of him was a gabled building above which rose a wall. A multistory house was hidden by the stonework but it seemed to rise up the side of a mountain. The street to his right appeared to dead end quickly so he turned to his left.
The buildings on either side of the street were still stone and brick with gabled roofs but most of the shops were closed. Some had boards nailed across their windows. People crouched in the doorways, their tattered clothing barely better than his own. The streets turned and intersected. He was soon disoriented.
Shouts echoed up the streets. The men must have split up to look for him. His body was shaking. He desperately needed a place to hide. He looked down another cross street, seeing the dead end made him worry. What if there was no way out?
Askaro paused at the corner of a building. All the streets looked the same. He remembered his grandfather’s lesson and looked up. He could no longer see Cloud Tower. It was hidden by the mountain top that rose to his right. A flash of light caught his attention. Ahead of him rose a tall circular black and white banded column. He thought back to the map. It must be Bright Tower. That meant he was close to the original harbor. The other Sky Ships should be docked there. If he could find a Captain that he knew, he might be able to convince him to take him back to the Falcon. His fingers rubbed the chain of the pendant pressed into the skin of his wrist by the leather band. Would it be enough?
He saw the men come around the corner at the far end of the street. He had to make a dash for it. Askaro ran down the street that led toward Bright Tower. He had to take several more turns before the street lined up with the massive lighthouse. He pushed his muscles harder. The narrow street opened into a stone-paved plaza in front of the lighthouse. He didn’t pause but ran to the stairs that led down to the docks.
He glanced along the row of smaller Sky Ships and recognized one. It was the Magnificent. He’d never met the Captain but this was the ship that had carried the news of the Falcon’s coming. Captain Delkaro had talked to him in Kells. Perhaps he could help.
The trackers were catching up. He needed a way to lose them. He noticed a wagon a short distance down the dock. It had lost part of it’s load of straw. The draft animals stood flicking their long tails while men used hay rakes to reload it. Their bare backs glistened with sweat. Askaro raced toward it. He slid under the wagon and his momentum buried him in the hay. He rolled out the other side and crawled between two men who were heaving recaptured straw back into the wagon. Several shirts had been tossed over barrels stacked against the wall. Askaro grabbed one and scurried toward an open doorway beyond the wagon and working men. He ducked around the corner and looked back.
The first of Golarin’s men arrived and pointed at the pile of hay. “He went in there!” There was a commotion as the rest of the trackers caught up. They grabbed the hay rakes and began stabbing at the pile.
Golarin and another man were the last to show up. Golarin went up to one of the men and grabbed his arm. “What are you doing? You idiots! We need him whole!”
There was no way to get closer to the ship without being seen. Askaro looked into the building where he’d taken shelter. No one seemed to be inside. Sheets of canvas hung in the wide open space at its center. He grinned. It was a sail loft. He found the stairs to the next level up. Large windows let in light. He glanced around the first level balcony. More sails lay on workbenches and over lines attached to the walls. He saw a water casket and rushed to it. He dipped his finger in. It tasted slightly of thread and canvas but was otherwise fresh. He quenched his thirst.
Shouts from outside drew him toward the window. A Master had joined the group outside and was faced off with Golarin. The workers had retrieved their rakes and stood leaning on them, watching the scene. Askaro looked down at the shirt he was carrying and felt bad. He hoped the man that it belonged to wouldn’t get in trouble.
Askaro looked upward at the riggings that held the canvas suspended. There was a narrow catwalk at the very top. It was in shadows. It should be a good place to hide. He ascended the stairs to each level, finding more work benches and hanging sails. He discovered a set of closed doors on the third level but they wouldn’t budge. He went to the window next to the doors and looked out. It was a street like all the others he’d just run down.
He continued upward until he found the ladder that led to the narrow catwalk. He walked the entire length back toward a large window that faced the docks. He could still see them from here but could no longer hear them.
Askaro undid his belt and pulled off his shirt. The blood had dried to a dark brown and numerous stains and rips marred the once white fabric. He pulled on the other shirt. It was much too big for him but he crimped it at his waist with his belt. He laid his original shirt down on the catwalk and curled up on it. His body shook and he closed his eyes.
The screech of metal hinges startled him. He looked around in confusion until the dim interior came into focus. Someone was closing the main doors below. The building was dark except for the flickering light of the lamps along the edge of the dock that filtered in through the windows. He peered out into the darkness. A few people still moved along the dock but there was no way to tell who they were. He was probably safe for the night. He closed his eyes again and drifted off into nightmares.
A ringing bell woke him. He looked out but saw only gray. The clouds had closed in. He got up and went to the nearest workbench. The water keg there was a little fresher. He used a corner of his old shirt to clean his face. He went back to the window. He could just make out the rotating beacon of Bright Tower. By the lightness of the fog, it must be morning. He turned slightly and caught his own reflection in the glass. He reached up and touched the collar. Golarin and his men were looking for a slave. He reached behind his neck and undid the buckle. He took it off and held the leather in his hands. He’d worn a collar forever. A slight breeze tickled the bare skin. He shivered. He tucked the collar into one of the pouches on his belt.
He didn’t want to be discovered. He crept down. The doors on the third floor were still locked. He continued down to the dock level. The main doors were closed. He pushed on them but they didn’t budge. He was trapped.
He ducked under the workbench closest to the doors and dozed. The squeal of the hinges woke him. A man in tunic and breaches walked by him and went up the stairs. Askaro quietly crept from his hiding place and moved to the door. He looked both ways down the dock. The swirling mist made it hard to see. He slipped out and stayed close to the wall, making use of the crates and barrels stacked there. He worked his way down the dock, hopefully toward the Magnificent.
Dark shapes appeared in the fog ahead of him. He ducked behind a barrel. Several men walking together passed only a few units away. They all wore leather armor. One of them paused. “Did you hear that?”
Another man ran into him. “Will you stop that! It’s soup out here, damp and cold. Quit making it worse. Just keep going.”
The third man leaned on a crate only a few steps from Askaro. “Dagal, we’ve been up and down this dock all night but ain’t seen nothing. What makes Golarin so sure the slave is still here?”
The second man shrugged. “He didn’t come out at either end. So he must still be here.”
The first man laughed tightly. “In this mess, he could have walked right by us and we’d been none the wiser.”
Dagal took a seat on a barrel. “He ain’t going to get by the men at the stairs. They got both ends covered. All we have to do is wait.”
The bell rang again. The man sitting on the crate got up. “That’s the second morning bell. Things are going to get busy here soon. We should probably keep moving.”
Dagal got up. “I suppose. Sure hope this one is worth all the trouble. Don’t recall ever taking this long before to wrap up one slave.”
The men moved off together down the dock. Askaro drew in several deep breaths to calm his shaking limbs. He began moving again. A large door right in front of him swung open. He had to back peddle to keep from getting crushed. A man wearing a heavy leather apron stepped out. “What are you about?”
Askaro swallowed down his fear. “I’m looking for the Magnificent.” He thought fast. “I have a message to deliver to the Captain.”
The man eyed him. “You ain’t wearing yellow. You don’t look like no messenger to me.”
Askaro wasn’t sure what the man meant but he had to respond. He didn’t want to lie. “I’m from the Falcon, sir. I need to get a message to the Captain of the Magnificent.”
The man shook his head. “Doubt the Captain is on the ship. He’s most likely up at his house.”
“And how can I find that, please?”
The man laughed coldly. “You can’t. He lives up on Snob Nob. The bridge guards would never let you pass. You best go back to your ship and tell your Captain to use a messenger. That’s why we have them.” He turned and went back inside. He began to push on a bar. Red light glowed from a large forge.
Askaro leaned against the wall. What was he going to do now? If Golarin did have men at all the stairways, he’d never get back to the Falcon.
The fog swirled as a group of men carrying a long rolled canvas walked by. They must be headed to the Sail Loft. Askaro remembered the doors on the third floor. He’d seen a street outside the windows at that end of the building. Were Golarin’s men watching that, too?
The line of men was almost past him. He heard a curse in the direction they were going. “Hey! Watch it! Golarin, how long are we supposed to stay down here? No one has seen anything since yesterday afternoon. Maybe he’s already slipped through.”
Golarin and another man were walking down the dock on the other side of the rolled canvas! Askaro saw a drooping section and jumped into the line, lifting up the sag. The roll rested on his shoulder, hiding his face from their view.
Askaro stayed with the line until they reached the third floor. He ducked away from the row as they went up the stairs. He turned and ran into a solid body. He looked up at a stern face. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t realize you were there.”
The man squinted his eyes. “You’re not a member of my crew. What are you doing in here?”
“I saw a sag in the canvas as it was being carried. Master Elvarian always told us we should never let a canvas sag or it will stretch.”
The man’s thick eyebrows went up. “Elvarian? How is it you know him?”
Askaro struggled to swallow. “From the Falcon, sir. He’s one of the Sail Masters.”
The man chuckled. “So he is. Met him when I was still on the Endeavor, I did. I heard the Falcon had come in. What brings you down here, lad?”
“I was supposed to get a message to the Captain of the Magnificent but a smithy said he wasn’t on the boat so I’m headed back to the Falcon.”
The Master put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “Good of you to lend a hand on the way. When you see Elvarian tell him that Gustav sends his greetings. He should come round the shop and pay me a visit.”
Askaro’s stomach rumbled. He ignored it. “Yes, sir. I’ll pass that message on when I see him.”
Master Gustav pulled him gently toward a workbench. “You shouldn’t be out on a damp morning like this with an empty stomach.” He pulled a roll from a cloth covered basket and handed it to him.
Askaro took the warm bun. “Thank you, sir!”
The man smiled and pointed to the big doors. “I’ll let you out the top side. It will save you the run around the stairs.”
Askaro followed him to the entry of the third floor. The Master reached up and released a lever. They swung open. “Thank you again, sir.”
Master Gustav patted him on the shoulder. “Mind you don’t get lost in this fog. Go to the corner then straight up that street and you’ll run into Fouler. You no doubt came in on that one. Off with you now.”
Askaro waved and hurried into the swirling mist. He heard the doors close and lock behind him. He hoped that if any of Golarin’s men were in this area looking for him that hearing the Master give him directions might throw them off.
He bit into the soft roll as he hurried down the street. Lanterns glowed under the eves along the narrow passage. No doors were open but dim light shown from some of the windows on the ground floor of the buildings he passed. A few people moved in various directions but no one got close enough to recognize or to grab him.
He’d eaten half the bun by the time he reached Fouler Street. He tucked the rest of the bread into a pouch on his belt and studied the buildings around him. Askaro had no idea if he’d been this way before. Everything looked the same in the mist. He tried to remember all the street names he’d seen on the map but there had been too many. He’d been more interested in the buildings. He came to what he thought was the teed intersection. He looked up at the roofs of the buildings. There were gables on the one to his left but not the other. He turned and went down the street. He was relieved when he saw the lower roof he’d jumped down from.
Askaro followed the street as it curved around. It ended at Low Street. He looked up at the building beside him. He couldn’t see the roof at all. As he turned down Low Street, he realized the roof slanted sharply downward and then leveled off. He knew where he was! He picked up his pace and began to jog.
Two figures came out of a door ahead of him. They paused and one turned to the other. “What do you suppose is taking that tracker so long?”
Askaro’s heart missed a beat. He knew that voice all too well. He quickly turned around, hoping Mister Fantori hadn’t seen him. He knew that the next street led to the Harbor Master’s building. It was a dead end. He didn’t want to risk getting trapped there. He went back to the corner and turned down Fowler Street. A group of people were coming in his direction. He could hear the slight slap and squeak of leather and buckles.
He turned down the side street between him and the trackers. There was a shop beside him. Light from the windows made faint brighter patches on the walkway that ran along the building. The door was open. He ducked inside. Lamps along the edge of the ceiling lit rows of bins. Each contained different objects that he supposed were some kind of food. He slipped past the busy shopkeeper and moved toward the back wall where windows looked out into the mist.
Voices caught his attention. He’d heard them before. He peered over the bins. Two men in leather stood by a bin filled with purple and white lumps. The trackers had their back to him. They were picking up various pieces and smelling them. The taller one made his choice. “Come on, Bor. We’d better catch up with the others.”
Bor held one in each hand. “Which rutabaga do you think is riper?”
“Those are turnips, dunce, and they both look fine. Just pick one and let’s pay and get out of here. Golarin will have our hides if he notices we ducked out.”
Askaro watched as the two men moved toward the shopkeeper at the other end of the shop. He relaxed slightly. Something brushed his leg. He reached down and his fingers made contact. They curled around something warm. Askaro looked down. It was a hand.
Askaro looked under the bins. A grubby face topped with unevenly cut, matted hair glared back at him. “Let me go!” The whisper was harsh and demanding.
Askaro didn’t want to draw the attention of the men. He crouched down but didn’t release his hold. “Who are you?”
“Blin. Now let go.”
Heavy boots shuffled in their direction. “I thought I heard something back here, Drew.”
Askaro tensed. He glanced into the shadows where Blin was huddled. There wasn’t enough room for both of them. He didn’t want to endanger anyone else. “Stay hidden.” He let go and dashed down the central isle for the door.
The tracker was startled and lost his balance, falling backward into a stack of small boxes. He cursed loudly. “Drew! It’s him!”
Askaro darted past the other tracker and ducked around the corner of the doorway. He could see figures in the fog moving along Fowler Street and went the other way. He could hear the sounds of boots running and shouting behind him. They must have alerted the rest of Golarin’s crew.
The street turned. All the buildings along it were tall, their rooftops lost in the mist. Askaro had no choice but to continue down the street. It ended at Fowler. He looked to his left and saw men running toward him from the sharp corner where Fowler turned. He went the other way and raced up the stairs. He considered jumping up onto the low rooftop as he got close but the fog frightened him. There were too many sheer drops on the other side of those buildings. He got back to the intersection and went left. Instead of staying on the main street, he took the first street that went right.
The building to his right only had one gable above the shops. Eves hung over the narrow walkway beside the building. He judged the distance. It was about seven units to the edge of the roof. He’d seen a stone wall above that roof the day before. There was nothing to use as a step. He leaped toward the roof. His fingers grabbed the crumbling tiles. He started to slip.
Muffled voices warned him that he was out of time. Askaro readjusted his grip and swung his legs upward, catching the edge with a foot. He struggled but finally managed to squirm onto the tiles. Men ran down the street below him. Askaro laid still. They came to the corner and almost ran into a couple of their companions. “He must have gone the other way. Come on!”
Askaro waited until the sounds faded. He carefully got to his hands and knees, cautious on the wet tiles. The roof slanted upward beside the gable. He slowly made his way up the incline. He got to the top. Instead of a peak, the roof ended at a stone wall. He couldn’t see much in the mist so he began running his fingers along the surface, trying to find any kind of purchase. A noise startled him. Askaro froze.
There was a soft whisper. “Come this way.”
Askaro turned and found Blin beside him. “How did you get here?”
Blin grinned. “The same way I always do. Climbed up the vines growing by the old hotel.” He pointed down the wall. “Follow me.”
Askaro stayed close to the wall, minding each footstep on the slick tiles, and kept the shadowy form in sight. They passed several gable peaks before coming to a corner in the wall. There was a narrow ledge beyond. The wall beside the ledge was rock. Askaro looked upward. The wall of rock was a black mass that disappeared up into the fog. “Is this the mountain top?”
Blin pulled him back toward the stone wall. There were pieces missing from it. His guide climbed over the broken section and looked back. “Well, are you coming or not?”
Askaro looked down at the little bit of rooftop he could see below. If he couldn’t see the streets then the men looking for him couldn’t see him either. He sighed and went to the gap. Blin moved back to let Askaro climb over the rubble. Askaro was surprised when his feet felt something different. He reached down and touched the ground. “This is grass. Where are we?”
Blin moved toward a lighter spot in the wall of fog. “One of the few places you can find water. Come on. I don’t know about you, but I’m thirsty.”
As they moved toward the brighter area, Askaro could hear a soft trickle. The mist swirled around something bright. He’d never seen anything like it. Water flowed from some kind of twisting white structure and splashed into a lit basin. He looked down into the water and could see flickering candles just below the surface. It didn’t seem possible. He reached into the water and his fingers made contact. “Oh, it has a glass bottom.” He glanced over at Blin who was scooping water out of the basin and drinking it. “What is this?”
Blin stopped and looked at him. “It’s called a fountain. Took me a while but I figured out how it works. There are little buckets on a cord inside the center post. You can see them in the gap at the bottom. The cord keeps moving all the time so that the buckets scoop up water and take it to the top where it gets dumped and runs back down. I don’t know what makes the rope move. Can’t see past the candle shelf. I’ve watched the servants change the candles though.”
Askaro tasted the water. It wasn’t too bad so he drank his fill. He noticed Blin was watching him. “What did you want back in that shop when you tapped me on the leg? Were you trying to warn me about the trackers?”
Blin looked away and sighed. “I was looking to see if you had a purse. Most folk around here tucks their purses under their shirt tails.”
“I’ve never carried a purse. When I need to carry anything, I just put it in one of the pouches of my belt.” He thought about what he’d tucked away. “Are you hungry?”
Blin looked back at him. “Ain’t everyone?”
Askaro pulled out the half-eaten roll, broke it in two, and held out a piece. “Master Gustav gave me this. You’re welcome to share what I have left.”
Blin slowly reached out, as if afraid the offered bread would be withdrawn. He took it and began to eat. When they’d finished, Blin looked up. “Why did you help me back there?”
Askaro picked at the crumbs that had fallen on his shirt. “They are after me, not you.”
Blin’s eyes went wide. “I know those men. They work for Golarin, the Slave Tracker. You don’t look like no slave. You got no metal ring around your neck.”
Askaro pulled his knees up and rested his chin on them. He wasn’t sure how to explain his situation. “My mother was captured in a raid but my father claimed her as a wife. There are some people that think I’m a slave because of that. A man who doesn’t like my family grabbed me and tried to sell me but I got away. Now Golarin and his men are chasing me.”
Blin whistled. “Bad deal. Can’t you just go home?”
Askaro closed his eyes. “I’ve been trying to get back there but I don’t know my way around. The trackers always seem to be ahead of me.”
“I could help. I know my way around. What part of the city do you live in?”
Askaro heard a sliding noise. In the fog, it was hard to be sure where it was coming from. He put his finger to his lips and pointed toward the wall. He saw Blin tense and nod. They quietly crept toward the wall and made their way back along it. A commotion broke out behind them. Askaro glanced back.
Two shapes were slowly walking around the fountain. One turned to the other. “Are you sure you heard voices up here? There’s nothing.”
The other stooped and began feeling along the ground. “I tell you I did. I heard them talking as I was changing out the candles. Look. See how the grass is pressed down here?”
The other man scoffed. “Or those could be our footprints from dancing around this fountain in the damp fog. You’re an idiot. I don’t know why the Master keeps you on. Let’s go back in. We’ve got plenty of work waiting for us.” They disappeared from the light.
Askaro heard the sliding sound again and realized it must have been a door. He leaned against the wall and relaxed. “That was close.” He kept his voice down. “Who lives here?”
Blin shrugged. “Some uppity rich family. They don’t calls it Snob Nob for nothing.”
Askaro looked up again. Lighter places in the fog defined windows somewhere above them. The Captain of the Magnificent lived up there somewhere. “Is there any way to get up to the top?”
Blin moved forward and went through the crack in the wall. He motioned for Askaro to follow then settled on the ledge. “Not unless you can get across the bridge. The guards won’t let anyone cross unless they live there or have a special pass.”
Askaro sighed. His best chance was still getting back to the Falcon. He leaned his head against the cold rock. “I seem to be going in circles. Isn’t there any other way out of this part of town besides Low Street?”
“That’s a real bottle neck. I’d imagine Golarin is watching it close.”
“To say nothing of the man who wants to sell me. I almost ran into him in the fog. That’s how I ended up in that shop. I ducked in to take cover.”
Blin stood up. “We should get down from here before the fog clears. I’ll show you how.”
Askaro followed him down the roof to where it intersected another. A vine grew along the wall at the corner. He watch Blin climb down then followed. He looked down the street to a dead end. The doors in the building ahead were ornate. There were tall windows on either side of the doorway. The area was well lit. There were numerous doors and windows in the connected buildings on either side of the street. “What is this place?”
Blin started down the other street. “Used to be a fancy hotel. People from all over the realm once stayed here. But no more. They built a newer one on the other side of the harbor. No one respectable wants to come to Old Town. Now I guess they rent out the rooms to who ever has the coin to pay.”
They got to an intersection that Askaro recognized. “This is where Fowler turns to go down the stairs.”
Blin pointed in the direction of the big stairway. “The shop we was in is that way. Ahead of us is the Maze. There’s still some shops there for regular folk. Most of the others are either empty or have been broken into and are used by the likes of us.” He glanced at Askaro. “Or me anyway.”
Askaro saw someone wearing a long cloak approaching from the stairs. Blin grabbed his arm and pulled him down the street. He got turned around as Blin led him through the narrow passages between the buildings. They finally ducked into a doorway. Blin crawled in through a broken corner of the door. Askaro followed.
The interior was nearly dark. He couldn’t see anything. He heard movement and Blin’s soft whisper. “Over here.”
Askaro followed the sound. He found Blin behind an overturned table. “Is this where you live?”
“If you can call it living. It’s where I usually sleep anyway.”
His eyes had adjusted to the gloom. There were other tables and lots of chairs. The windows were covered over with boards. “What do you do the rest of the time?”
Blin settled back against the wall. “Roams around the streets, looking for the right ones.”
Askaro made himself comfortable. “The right ones?”
“The ones who might have a purse full of coins tucked away in a place I could reach.”
Askaro gasped. “You’d steal it?”
“Course I would. I’m a thief.”
Askaro stared at Blin in the weak light penetrating the boarded windows. “You steal from others?” His whisper seemed to echo in the dusty room.
Blin returned his gaze. “If you don’t steal, you starve. There ain’t no handouts and no jobs, at least not for me. What other choice have I got? You had a home and family to provide for you. I ain’t had nothing since me mother died and I was kicked out.”
Askaro closed his eyes. Even the slaves on the Falcon had a better life than that. “I’m sorry. I have no right to judge you.”
Blin didn’t say anything. After awhile, Askaro looked over at his host. Blin appeared to be asleep. He didn’t know what to do. He had to find a way to get around Golarin and his men. He looked up at the cracked and peeling plaster of the ceiling. The men on the dock had talked about another stairway that led up from the old harbor. He hadn’t seen another stairway so it must come up in a different part of the city. He wondered if there might be other buildings like the Sail Loft that had entrances on different levels farther down the dock. He closed his eyes again and tried to picture his grandfather’s map.
Askaro woke with a start when something grabbed his arm. Blin shook him gently. “The fog has cleared off. Folks are about. We can blend into the crowd now. It will be harder for the trackers to spot you.”
He could hear the murmur of voices from beyond the walls. Blin motioned toward one of the boarded windows and Askaro followed. He peered out through a crack. The street seemed packed with people. “Where did they all come from?”
Blin moved to the broken door. “Some live here. A few rent a real place but many use old shops like this. Some folks from other parts of the city come to the shops that are still open. I hear them talking. Things aren’t as expensive and you can find stuff here that you can’t elsewhere.”
Askaro waited while Blin surveyed the feet of the passing pedestrians. There seemed to be a gap in the foot traffic. Blin nodded and they slipped out into the street. There was nothing to hide behind. There were groups of people resting along the narrow walkways under the eves of the buildings and more moved along the street in both directions.
The buildings on both sides of the street were solid two story structures with gables in the roof adding a third story. They all had rough mortared stone framing with brick walls. “All these buildings look the same. How do you know where you are?”
Blin pointed to a sign that hung at an awkward angle from the overhang by a door. “Even if the shops are closed down, many left their signs behind. No use for them, I guess.”
Askaro looked up, hoping to see a tower. Instead the top of what Blin had called Snob Nob rose beyond the stone and brick buildings. Large multilevel structures draped down the side, their colorful walls a stark contrast to those around him.
Blin paused and Askaro bumped into him. He turned around and pushed Askaro back behind the corner of the building. “You have to pay attention. There’s more than just trackers to worry about.” He leaned around the corner and pointed to a couple of men in blue uniforms who were making their way down the side street. “Them is Authority. You can’t trust them. Some take coin from Golarin. They’d turn you over without a shed tear.”
Askaro watched the two men moving slowly through the crowd. They occasionally stopped people and asked them questions but Askaro couldn’t hear the individual conversations over the general drone of voices.
As they drew closer, Blin tugged on his arm. “Let’s go have a look in this shop.”
Askaro glanced at the window next to them where an array of gears were displayed. “What are we looking for?”
Blin led the way into the shop. “An excuse to be off the street.”
The shop keeper was working on something at a bench. He wore strange spectacles that reminded him of tiny telescopes. The man didn’t seem to notice them. Askaro followed Blin toward the back wall where a row of bins held small pieces. Some were gears and others were unlike anything he’d ever seen.
Blin paused at a bin but his gaze was focused toward the large windows at the front of the shop. The two officers passed by and he relaxed.
Askaro turned his attention to the old man who was still tinkering with an object at his workbench. “What do you think it is?”
Blin leaned over the bin and watched the man for a moment. “Probably a clock or some kind of timer. That’s what this shop specializes in.”
He wanted to get a closer look but Blin pulled him out of the shop. After watching the crowd for a few minutes, they turned down the side street. The buildings looked the same but more of these shops appeared to be open for business. Askaro looked at the various goods for sale visible in the windows on their side of the street. There were clothes, foot wear, tools, and even a shop with musical instruments.
Blin crossed the street and paused at the corner of a narrow walkway that intersected the first story of that building. Two men stood near an open door. The older of them was shouting at the other. His accent was so thick, Askaro had difficulty understanding what he was saying. The younger man tried to say something.
The older man threw a piece of white fabric at him. “Enough of your excuses! You’re fired!”
The younger man’s face wrinkled. “But Master Jestro, I swear it wasn’t me. I haven’t taken anything from the pantry except what you requested.”
“No more words! Look at how plump you are, fattened off the goods from my shelves. Go away! I don’t want to see you again in my establishment.” The older man went inside, slamming the door behind him.
Blin sighed and looked away. Askaro gasped. “You didn’t!”
Blin turned and faced him. “Do you know what it’s like to be starving? Not just hungry, but so desperate for something to eat that you’re ready to chew on your own fingers. You’ve tried everything, even begging, but no one will give you a scrap. You learn to steal to survive.”
The young man was leaning against the wall crying. Askaro felt sorry for him. “And what about the people you steal from? Or that man who just lost his job?”
Blin looked away. “In this city, you fend for yourself or you die.”
“Then why are you helping me?”
The young man threw the white fabric to the ground. The apron was stained with grease. He staggered in their direction. Blin pulled Askaro away from the opening. The man walked by them without seeming to notice. He started down the street.
Askaro backed away from Blin and followed the man. Blin caught up with him. “What are you doing?”
He ignored the question and concentrated on keeping the man in sight without stumbling into a tracker or a uniformed officer. Blin sighed loudly but kept up.
The man stopped in the doorway of a small shop. The sign above the door labeled it as a bakery. A woman came up to him. “What do you want?”
He bowed slightly. “My name is Zane. I’m looking for a job. I was schooled by Master Apegio in the art of baking.”
The woman shook her head. “I do all the baking myself. I don’t have enough business to hire another.” She turned away to help a customer inside the shop.
The man continued on. He tried numerous shops with no less luck. As they followed him through Old Town, Askaro started to get a feel for the layout. He caught occasional glimpses of Bright Tower and Snob Nob that helped him orient himself within the maze.
After yet another dismissal, Blin tugged on Askaro’s sleeve. “How long are you going to follow this guy around?”
“I don’t know.” They turned down another street that teed and Askaro was surprised to see a building that looked totally out of place at the intersection. It had wood framing with plastered walls. The second story hung out over the first and it looked like there was at least one more story above that if not more by the gables on the roof. He couldn’t see the sign as it faced the other street. “That is an odd looking place.”
Blin laughed quietly. “That is the Dockside Pub. The new one. The old one burned down a couple of years ago with nothing but the fireplace left of it. They kept it and built a new pub around it. I wonder how long this one will last with all that wood framing.”
The man opened the door to go inside but a heavy swaggering brute blocked his path. “What do you want, boy?”
“I’m looking for a job, sir. I’m a cook and a baker.”
The man laughed loudly and turned to someone inside. “Do you hear that, Munali? This plump blodger is looking for work!”
Laughter echoed out from within. Zane put up his hands and backed away. “I meant no offense.”
Askaro could now see the long black coat the drunken man wore. “He’s an airman, a Second Officer by the stripes.”
Blin pulled him closer to the building beside them. “How do you know?”
The airman took a loose swing at Zane, who easily got out of the way. His grandfather would never have allowed his crew to become so inebriated. It was a bad mark against the ship. “My father is an Officer.”
“Hmm, that would explain how your mother was stolen during a raid.”
Askaro ignored Blin’s derogatory tone. “My mother was the daughter of a chieftain of the Tree People. My father was protecting her.”
“By dragging her away from her own people and bringing her to this hell? How nice of him.”
Askaro glanced at Blin. “It’s not my fault. I wasn’t born yet. There’s nothing I can do to change it. Besides, my mother loves my father. He once offered to let her go home but she didn’t want to. She wanted to stay with him.”
Blin said nothing but quickly crossed the street. Askaro hurried to catch up. He noticed that the young man had moved off and was headed for the open space in front of Bright Tower. Blin was staying as close to the building as other pedestrians would allow. They crossed the street and stayed close to another building that ended a short distance from the door of the lighthouse.
Zane went up to an old man who had a pushcart. He was selling hot pies to people coming and going from the lower docks. He began to talk to the old man, who turned away from his cart to face Zane.
Blin grabbed Askaro’s arm. “Stay here. Whatever you do, don’t follow me.”
“What are you doing?”
Blin didn’t look at him. “Watch and learn.” He started moving through the crowd toward the pushcart.
Askaro leaned into the wall of the building and watched as Blin ducked around people and ended up behind the cart. Askaro lost sight of him but noticed him moving away a few moments later. He cautiously made his way back with something held close to his body.
Blin grinned as he came back to where Askaro was trying not to faint. There was a good smell coming from the cloth bag that the boy held. He patted it. “That was too easy.”
Askaro looked toward Zane who had moved away from the vendor. He was walking on the other side of the street. “Doesn’t look like he got anywhere with that one either.”
Blin nudged his arm. “Take a look at what we’ve got.”
Askaro looked down into the bag that Blin held open in front of him. There were several good sized steaming pastries. He glanced at Zane. “That’s a lot of food for just the two of us. We should share some with him.”
He grabbed Blin’s arm for a change and followed Zane. “Well, he did loose his job because of your pilfering and he did distract the seller so you could get close to the cart. Don’t you think we at least owe him some food?”
Blin plodded along beside Askaro. “I suppose. But I’m not telling him anything and you better not either.”
“Fine. It looks like he turned down that street up ahead.”
Blin tensed. “I don’t like that street. It’s too easy to get trapped there. It swings around that building and turns back to this street by Gable Tower. Why don’t we just wait for him to come around?”
“And what if he doesn’t?” Askaro didn’t wait for Blin’s answer. He turned down the street. He quickly understood what Blin had been saying. The street turned again at the corner of the building. The buildings on the other side of the street must face the ocean. There were no openings that indicated more streets on that side. He noticed Zane about halfway down the block.
Blin was looking everywhere else. “Have you forgotten that Golarin is looking for you? His men could be anywhere. Coming this way is inviting trouble. We could easily get trapped back here.”
Askaro looked down the street. He could see the buildings at the end that forced the street to turn back toward the one they had left. Gable Tower rose above the rooftops in the very corner. Both the building across the street and the one at the far end had lower roofs. “If we get into trouble, we’ll jump up onto the roof.”
“Are you crazy? How are we going to do that?”
“I’ll help you. I can make that leap without a problem. I’ll boost you up first then follow.”
Blin put a hand on Askaro’s arm. “I have a better idea. It looks like our boy has been rejected again. He’s moving off toward the corner. Let’s go back to the other street and wait for him.”
Askaro could hear the note of fear in Blin’s tone. Had he been trapped here before? Maybe it was better to trust Blin’s experience. “All right.”
Blin turned and almost ran back to the other street. They hurried toward the far corner. Blin stopped before he reached it and pointed through a shop window. Askaro could see Zane inside talking to a man wearing an apron. He looked at the colorfully wrapped tiny parcels displayed in baskets. “I wonder what those are.”
Blin gasped. “Are you serious? You really don’t know? Remind me to grab a handful for you sometime. Candied fruit is wonderful.”
Zane left the shop. Askaro moved toward the corner. He cleared his throat as the man passed. Zane whirled and took a defensive stance. “If you’re out to rob me, you’re wasting your time. I have nothing.”
Askaro backed up in alarm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Zane relaxed slightly and tilted his head to one side. “You’ve been following me all afternoon. If not to rob me, what then?”
Blin leaned into Askaro’s side. He was shaking. Askaro thought fast. “We saw you were having a rough day. We just wanted to…”
A large hand clamped tightly down on Askaro’s shoulder. Zane’s eyes went wide. The hairs on the back of Askaro’s neck stood up as someone exhaled behind him. “I’ve got you now, boy.”
Askaro recognized the voice. It was the man who had been with Golarin on the dock. The man suddenly gasped with pain. His grip loosened and Askaro twisted out of his grasp. Blin pulled him away. “Come on!”
Askaro glanced back at the man. He was doubled over. “What did you do?”
“I kicked him. Where it counts.”
Zane caught up with them and matched their stride. “What does Otho want with you?”
Blin’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know him?”
Zane dodged around a woman coming out of a shop. “He comes into the diner with Golarin a lot. He’s like his right hand man.”
Blin glanced around. “The other trackers could be anywhere. We need to get to the hole.”
Askaro saw a group of armored men pushing through the crowd down the next street. “There’s some of the trackers!”
Blin groaned. “Great. We’ll have to go around. Maybe that will confuse them.”
Zane tugged on Askaro’s arm. “I have a better idea. Follow me.”
Blin looked uncertain but Askaro decided to trust the out-of-work cook. “Lead on.”
They came to the crowded street where most of the shops were open. Zane dashed across the street and ducked through the gap where they had first seen him. They came out the other side and he turned back toward the street they’d been on. “Maybe they will think we’re headed the other way.” He turned several more corners and led them down a narrow walkway between buildings toward a door in a tall wall at the end.
Blin tensed. “We’re trapped here!”
Zane pulled open the door. “But we have a place to hide.”
Askaro didn’t argue. Blin looked back toward the street. “I hope there’s another way out of here.”
Zane closed the door and pulled a bolt across it. “There is. It’s a secret exit.”
Blin moved slowly into the large room. “How did you know the door would be open?”
“Because I sleep here.”
Askaro let his eyes adjust to the dim light. There were rows of seats near the door. He could see part of a raised area but a stairway that led upward blocked his view of the rest of the room. “What is this place?”
Zane leaned against the stone wall. “It’s an old theater. The Great Kunari used to perform here. But that was a long time ago.” He looked glum.
Blin put a finger to his lips. “Listen.”
Askaro could hear a soft twang. It changed slightly. “Sounds like it’s coming from the other end of the room.”
Zane motioned to the stairs. “Let’s see who’s here.”
They crept up the stairs. The second floor had more rows of seats but these were at different elevations with the ones in the back, being higher than those in front. He followed Zane toward the railing that stretched across the balcony.
There was a series of twangy notes then a sigh. Zane peered over the edge. “Looks like we have a musician on stage.”
Blin sat down on the floor and pulled out the bag. “They are still warm.”
Zane turned around and looked at him. “What are?”
Askaro motioned to Zane and sat next to Blin. “That’s what I was trying to tell you. We thought you might be hungry.”
Zane accepted one of the pies from Blin. “These are the meat pies that the street vendor was selling by Bright Tower.”
Askaro bit into his. He’d never tasted anything like it before. The juice dripped down his chin and he licked at it with his tongue. “It is good.”
There was a sharp snap from below. The musician cursed. “Stupid strings!”
Zane snickered. “Sounds like his lute is a little worse for wear.”
The musician strummed his instrument, now down one string, and sighed. He played a few chords and hummed a tune, then began to sing. “I knew a lady on harbor street – claimed she was the belle of the town. When I went there this lady to meet, She wore an old sail for a gown. Said she’d hoist up her sail for me if I would lay down a few coins. We bounced up and down on the rolling sea and now I’ve a fire in me groins.”
Zane got an odd look on his face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The music stopped. “If you’re going to criticize my work, the least you could do is throw food at me.”
Askaro started to laugh and almost choked on a bit of meat pie. He looked over at Blin. “Do we have any left?”
Blin looked in the bag. “A few. I was going to save these but they aren’t as good cold. We might as well.”
Zane led the way down the stairs and went to the front of the theater. The musician sat on the edge of the stage, his feet dangling over, with an instrument in his lap. He smiled at them as they approached. “Greetings, my honored audience. I am Marlo the Magnificent.” He bowed slightly at the waist and waved his free hand with a flourish.
Zane scratched his head. “That’s a fancy title.”
Marlo slumped a little. “Well, I’m still working on that. I used to be part of the Ranulo Ramblers but Master Ranulo kicked me out.”
Zane finished off his meat pie. “Why? You have a good voice.”
Marlo set his instrument down and accepted a meat pie from Askaro. “The Master accused me of having my way with his daughter.”
Blin gasped. “Did you?”
Marlo swallowed his bite. “Of course not! That was her issue. She wanted me to but I refused. She was a horrid creature.”
Zane laughed but Askaro saw the sad look that Marlo hid behind the pie. It must have been hard for him to loose his place in the musical group. “I don’t have a lot of experience with music but Zane thought your voice was good. Your song was a little crude but you should be able to find another place to sing.”
Marlo looked down at his half eaten pie. “There are no jobs for musicians in this city.”
Zane huffed. “There are no jobs of any kind. Too many people are out of work. Even if you manage to get a job, you don’t get paid enough. That’s why I sleep here.”
Marlo finished off his pie and licked his fingers. “I’m sorry, my friend. I didn’t know I was intruding on your humble abode.”
Zane looked down. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not like I own the place.”
Marlo and Zane began talking about the different shops and pubs where they had been looking for work. Blin wandered off. Askaro looked up at the bars above the stage. There were ropes and pulleys strung between them. Long rolls of what looked like canvas sails hung suspended from some of the bars. He tapped Zane on the shoulder. “What is all that?”
“Those are various backdrops that can be rolled down behind the actors on the stage.”
“They remind me of riggings on a ship.”
Marlo grinned. “You know something about ships! What’s your history?”
“My grandfather is…”
Blin came running down the center isle. “They found us!”
Marlo looked confused. “Who did?”
Zane slid off the edge of the stage. “Where are they?”
“Just outside the door.”
Zane moved toward the stairs. “Follow me.”
Askaro and Marlo started up the center isle but Blin didn’t move. Askaro looked back. “What’s wrong?”
Blin looked up at the balcony. “What if we get trapped up there?”
“I trust Zane. He knows this place. Stay down here if you want but I’m going to see what he wants to show us.” He jogged to catch up with the others.
Zane went to the top of the balcony along the back wall and pulled aside a curtain. Light filtered in through a dirty broken window. He looked down. “It’s them all right.”
A group of men in leather armor were clustered around their leader. His face was hidden in shadow from their vantage point but Askaro knew who it was. The man was faced off with another. “Are you sure it was the boy from the ship?”
“Aye, it was. He was with another boy and a man.”
Marlo came up beside him and looked out the window. He gasped. “It’s Golarin!”
Zane looked at him. “You know him, too?”
“Doesn’t everyone? He’s only the best slave tracker in the city. Who is he looking for?”
Askaro backed away. “For me.”
Zane and Marlo both looked confused. Zane pointed down to where Blin was still standing by the stage and dropped his voice. “If anything, I would have thought he was after that one.”
“It’s a long story. My mother was captured as a slave but my father took her as a wife.”
Marlo whistled. “Your father’s an airman!”
“He is a Chief Engineer.”
There was a loud bang and the pieces of broken glass rattled in the window frame. Zane looked out to see what was going on. “They got a board from somewhere and they’re trying to break down the door!”
Blin called up to them. “Did you say something about another way out?”
Zane let the curtain fall back. “He’s right. Time to make a magical exit.”
Askaro followed him toward the stairs. “Magical?”
Zane led them back to the stage. “The Great Kunari always magically disappeared into a cloud of smoke at the end of his shows.”
Askaro looked up at the riggings above the stage. “Was he hoisted up above the curtains?”
Zane went to the back of the stage. “Nope. He went the other way.” He tapped his foot on the floor and a section of the wood rose slightly.
There was another loud boom accompanied by a slight cracking noise. Blin moved forward. “That door frame isn’t going to hold much longer. Let’s make use of your magical exit and disappear.”
Marlo grabbed his lute. “I’m all for that. I never cared much for Golarin or his men.”
Zane opened the hatch. A ladder went downward into the darkness. “Better let me go first. I know where the lanterns are.”
Marlo insisted that Askaro and Blin go next. He brought up the rear. “Is there any way to secure this hatch?”
Zane held up a dusty lantern. “See the knob in the trapdoor? Pull it down tight.”
Marlo did as directed and the door snapped shut. He climbed down and joined them. “Quite a neat trick. So we just have to sit down here and wait for that lot to clear out.”
Blin had lit another lantern and was surveying the small room. “What is all this?”
Askaro looked around. There were numerous trunks, all covered by a thick layer of dust. “Must be some kind of storage area.”
Zane moved toward one of the trunks. He handed the lantern to Askaro and opened the lid. The trunk was filled with colorful clothes. “These are costumes and some of the other ones contain props for magic tricks or plays.” He pulled a picture from a metal frame in the lid of the trunk.
Askaro moved the lantern closer to see the image. There was a man in a black suit with a shiny red cape and a woman in a short beaded dress. He looked at the man’s face. “That man looks a lot like you.”
Zane took a deep breath. “He should. That’s my father.”
Blin and Marlo came over to look, too. Blin’s face softened. “And I bet she was your mother. She was pretty.”
Marlo’s eyes had grown large. “Your mother was the Lady Melody?”
Zane nodded. His eyes became glassy. Askaro had a sinking feeling. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “What happened to them?”
Marlo looked at him. “Are you kidding? You really don’t know?”
Blin had turned away and was studying the dust on the floor that he pushed around with his foot. “There’s a lot of stuff he doesn’t understand.”
Askaro felt awkward. “I’m sorry. I don’t. I haven’t been here very long.”
Zane tucked the picture into an inner pocket of his vest. “My father discovered my mother was having an affair with the Regent. He killed her.” His voice was flat.
Askaro gasped. “That’s terrible. And what happened to your father?”
Blin shivered. “The Regent tossed him into the bottomless pit under the castle.”
Askaro almost laughed but he didn’t want to offend Zane. “I’m sorry, Blin, but it can’t be bottomless. Maybe it’s just really deep.”
Blin shook his head. “And how would you know?”
“Because if it were bottomless it would have to pass through the entire planet and come out on the other side. There’s no such hole like that. I know. I’ve sailed around the entire world.”
All three turned and stared at him. Marlo lightly touched his arm. “For real? There’s only one ship that’s done that.”
Askaro nodded. “The Falcon.”
Footsteps echoed above their heads. Zane looked up. “They’re walking around on the stage.”
Blin began searching the corners of the room. “There’s no where to hide.”
Zane looked thoughtfully at Askaro. “So those men up there know what you look like? Maybe we can change that.”
Askaro followed Zane toward a different trunk. “How?’
Zane opened it and pulled out a small bag. “By changing the way you look, of course.” He pulled what appeared to be blond hair from the bag and fitted it on Askaro’s head like a cap.
Blin chuckled. “Yah, that’s different all right.”
Zane rummaged through the trunk and pulled out a couple different pieces of clothes. He handed them to Askaro. “These should fit you. Put them on.”
Askaro slid the brown breeches over his own and pulled on the dark blue jerkin. He let Zane straighten everything. “Do I really look different?”
Marlo walked around him. “From a distance, especially. Unless they know your face well enough. Your black hair is totally covered. The wig was a dandy idea, Zane. He looks just like a shop apprentice.”
The stage boomed above them. Blin looked up. “That’s not going to be much help if they manage to find us down here.”
Zane closed the trunk and picked up the lantern. “Then I guess we better not be found down here.” He moved to the wall farthest from the ladder and pressed on a stone. There was a soft click and part of the wall moved.
Marlo grinned. “Now that’s magical for sure.” He put a hand on Zane’s shoulder. “Very impressive.”
Zane pushed on the wall panel. “And now for my next trick.” The panel slid aside revealing darkness. “Follow me closely and watch your step on the stairs.”
Askaro followed Zane and Marlo followed Blin. Marlo paused at the opening. “Is it like the other one?”
Zane looked back. “See the handle? Just pull it closed and the latch will catch.”
Marlo did. There was a soft click as the panel locked in place. “That is a neat trick. Do you know how these work?”
Zane moved his lantern to see the stairs better. “Sort of. I watched my father fix one but I’ve never worked on one myself.”
The stairs ended. Askaro felt damp cold stone under his feet. He could hear the sound of moving water but it echoed over an unknown distance. “Where are we?”
Zane moved slowly, following a series of dimples in the rock floor. “This is one of the collection basins for storm water. When we get rain or snow melt, the water from the streets runs into channels under them that empty into basins like this one. There are several of them around the city.”
Blin swung the lantern he was carrying in a slow arc around them. “What happens to all the water?”
Zane stopped by an opening in the wall. “It gets purified and pumped through the service pipes for people to use. That’s where most of the city’s water comes from.”
Askaro could hear the muffled sound of people talking. “Where does this tunnel go?”
Zane moved into it and dropped his voice. “The Fowler Street Stairs are above us.” He stopped at a wooden door, felt above the frame, and pulled down a rusted key. It turned in the lock. He opened the door and replaced the key.
Marlo was the last to enter the room. “I’m guessing there isn’t one of those nice latches on this door.”
Zane closed the door. There was a key hanging on a hook attached to the back side. “Nah. He never got around to doing this one.”
Blin was moving through the room. “All the shelves are empty.”
Zane led them to a stairway and sat down on one of the steps. “These stairs lead up to the rooms my family used to live in. This was the store room for my uncle’s shop which is on the other side of that door over there.”
Blin moved toward the door and opened it slowly. A narrow crack of light illuminated his face. “It’s empty, too. There are heavy curtains across the windows. Can we get out through the door?”
Zane leaned back and closed his eyes. “Yes, I know where the key is. The question is, where are we going?”
Blin closed the door. “Askaro needs to get home. Do you think that disguise is good enough to fool Golarin’s men?”
Marlo adjusted the wig. “I’d think so. It’s almost evening so the streets are in shadows.”
Zane got up. “Great. It’s always better when you know where you’re headed. So where do you live, Askaro?”
Marlo laughed quietly. “Weren’t you paying attention, my friend? Our boy here is from the Falcon.”
Zane gasped. “The Falcon, as in that really big ship that came in the other day?”
Askaro wondered about the look on Blin’s face. “I was trying to tell you.”
Blin didn’t say anything. He walked back to the door, opened it a crack, and turned his attention to what lay beyond it.
Marlo slung his lute over his shoulder. “Shouldn’t be too hard. She’s sitting in the Grand Portal. There will be plenty of people moving through the streets at this hour. With that outfit, we’ll have him home in no time.”
Zane moved to Blin’s side. “What about you? Where do you live?”
Blin didn’t look at him. “Where ever I can find a hole.”
Zane looked at Marlo. “Sounds like the rest of us are all in the same lot.”
Askaro came up to Blin. “Maybe my grandfather can help find you a job.”
Blin snorted. “Right. Doing what? It’s not like I have any real skills. I’m no cook or musician.”
Marlo put a hand on Blin’s arm. “Well, the sooner we get this chap home, the better. We don’t want to wait too long or Golarin’s crew might get wise that we slipped away.”
Zane pushed open the door to the empty shop and moved past Blin. He found the key on a shelf and went to the front door. A black drape hung over the small window in the upper half of the door. He drew a corner of the drape aside. “Looks like we could be getting a break in traffic. Let’s get ready to move.”
They followed Zane out of the shop and he locked it behind them. Askaro looked around. They were at the base of the tall stairway. Marlo took up the lead. “Just stay close behind me.” He led them to the corner where Fowler turned onto Low Street. They went down the short set of stairs beside the building with the steeply slanted roof. There was a knot of people near the intersection of the street that led to the Port Authority.
Zane swore and motioned for Marlo to move closer to the building beside them. Askaro tensed. Men in armor were questioning everyone who was trying to get down the street.
Blin struggled to breathe. “It’s the bottle neck. We can’t get passed it.”
Askaro looked up. “We could if we were on the roof. That’s how I got to this side of town in the first place.”
Marlo studied the crowd. “They don’t look happy about the wait. Maybe we could drop a few good words here and there and get the lot of them to work in our favor.”
Zane grabbed his arm. “Make sure our friend is behind you.”
His whispered warning made the hairs on the back of Askaro’s neck stand up. He peered around Marlo’s shoulder.
Golarin and several of his men pushed through the crowd to the check point. “Well, have you found him?”
One of the armored men stepped away from those being questioned. “No one has seen anyone matching the description of the boy.”
Two familiar figures emerged from the other direction. Askaro felt weak. “Oh, no.”
Zane looked over at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Those two men are from the Falcon. They are the ones trying to sell me.”
Bruvano looked angry. He pushed his way toward Golarin. “So where is he? This is taking too long. The buyer isn’t going to wait forever.”
Golarin put up his hands. “Take a breath, mate. I’ve never lost a catchling in my life. I’ll find him. This isn’t just about coin, you know. This is my reputation. I will get him. Count on it.”
Bruvano clenched his fists. “I’m done waiting. Either you let me work with your men or this deal is finished.”
Golarin stroked his short beard. “That actually might be helpful as you know what the boy looks like better than we do. I’m certain we have him pinned in Old Town. It’s just a matter of time. There’s no way he can get past my men.”
Askaro saw another group of trackers led by the man Zane had called Otho. He could feel Blin shaking beside him. “We’re in a bad spot. We need to get out of here. Does anyone know another way out of Old Town?”
Blin leaned close. “From the docks. You have to get around Snob Nob then there are stairs on the other side.”
Marlo hummed. “And if Golarin’s men are watching the stairs?”
“Then we use a different set of stairs. There are ways through the old warehouses.”
Zane moved slightly to block Askaro and Blin from view as several of Golarin’s men moved passed. “We need to get out of this mess first. What we need is a distraction.”
Marlo grabbed Blin’s arm. “Are you sure you can get Askaro up the stairs?”
“Yah, what of it?”
Marlo glanced at the crowd, which was moving again. “We’re going to split up but we need a place to meet you.”
Blin looked thoughtful. “Do you know where the trees grow in the Hanging Gardens?”
Zane’s eyebrows went up. “You can get him all the way over there?”
“I can but it may take us a while.”
Marlo looked over at Zane. “You used to be an actor, didn’t you?”
Zane grinned. “A little improv on tap?”
“That’s the plan. We need to give Blin and Askaro enough time to slip away.” He turned to Askaro. “Good luck. We’ll be waiting on the other side. I know how to get you home from there.”
Askaro nodded. “Just don’t get in trouble, or worse.”
Marlo twisted his armband around. “We’ll be fine. You two just look out for each other.” He tapped Zane on the shoulder. “Can you play a good drunk?”
Zane twisted his face into a goofy grin. “Need a pint?”
Askaro watched them blunder through the crowd. People began noticing their strange behavior. Marlo grabbed Zane around the shoulders and swung him toward several of Golarin’s men. “The Red Cloud is the best Pub in the whole city.” His words were slurred.
Zane tumbled into the trackers. “No! You’re wrong! It’s the Winged Horse!”
The armored men that had been behind them, moved toward Marlo and Zane. Blin grabbed Askaro and pulled him away. They cut down the short street that ran past the shop where they had met that morning. They turned the corner and found themselves back on Fowler Street by the stairs.
Askaro let Blin lead. They swerved through the people and turned left at the teed intersection. He was caught off guard when Blin suddenly grabbed him and pulled him into the walkway that led to the theater. “What is it? More of Golarin’s men?”
Blin looked pale. “No.”
Askaro peered around the corner. A figure in a long gray cloak was moving with the people in their direction. “That doesn’t look like one of the trackers.”
Blin joined him at the corner of the building. “It’s not.” He pointed to the street across from where they hid. Askaro recognized it as the place where he’d climbed the roof that morning. Blin grabbed his arm. “Be ready to run.”
The cloaked figure turned to talk to someone and Blin shot across the street. Askaro followed. They ran around the corner and came to another intersection. Blin clung to the stone framing at the corner of the building and looked towards Fowler. The cloaked figure came into view.
Blin was breathing hard and began chanting under his breath. “Keep going, keep going.” The figure moved beyond the building they were hiding behind. Blin turned to Askaro. “Now we run.”
“Straight down Hay Street. Just stay behind me.” Blin gave a final look then darted into the street.
Askaro did his best to keep up. He was impressed at how fast Blin could run. He realized the street ended at a large building with wide stairs that disappeared inside. Blin paused for a moment before crossing the street. Askaro noticed the Sail Loft was only a couple buildings to their right. The building straight ahead of them must also have a level on the docks.
Blin drew in a sharp breath. “There’s a tracker by the Dockside Pub. He’s not looking this way. We have to go now!”
Askaro followed Blin up the stairs. The entire area was filled with bundles of hay. Blin ducked around the corner and went to the wall. Wide cracks, which allowed air to flow through the barn, provided a narrow view of the street below. “What do you see?”
Blin gasped. “I think he saw us. He grabbed a friend and they’re headed this way. Come on.”
Askaro didn’t have time to ask what Blin intended to do. Blin stopped at what looked like an open wooden cage without a top or bottom. Voices echoed from the stairs. “They’re here.”
Blin took his hand. “Jump!”
Askaro didn’t have time to wonder what was at the bottom. They fell into a pile of hay deep enough to absorb most of the shock. Blin groaned. Askaro began fighting his way out of the scratchy pile.
Blin shushed him. “Stay covered and be still.”
Askaro did as he was told. He could hear the men talking above. A voice he’d heard before grew louder. “I’m sure it was the boy. He was with another. Get more help. We’ve got a needle to find.”
Blin sighed and slowly rolled out of the hay. The sleeve of his shirt caught on one of the wooden braces. The cloth ripped. He cursed softly.
Askaro shook free of the dried stalks and scrambled out of the chute. Blin hastily tried to pull his shirt back together but he couldn’t hide the pale bandage wrapped around his skinny torso. Askaro touched it. “Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?” His whisper sounded loud in the long dim room.
Blin swatted at his hand. “Don’t touch.” He scooted farther from the hay chute. “We have to get out of here before they get wise.”
Askaro jumped up and held out a hand to Blin. “Let me help you.”
Blin looked at him with an odd expression and rolled the other way. “I don’t need any help.” He got up and the tattered shirt slid off. Blin reached for it. Part of the bandage slipped.
Askaro gasped. “You’re a…”
Blin glared at him. “A girl.” She managed to pull the wrapping back up over her partially exposed breast.
Askaro stared at Blin as she struggled to get the torn shirt to cover the wrapping. He looked down at the clothes Zane had given him. He still had the other shirt on under the costume. He pulled off the blue jerkin and handed it to Blin. “Here. I still have my old one. You can use this one.”
Blin took the offered shirt but didn’t meet his gaze. “You lost your hair.”
“I what?” Askaro touched his head. The wig was gone. He looked back toward the pile of hay.
“We don’t have time. It doesn’t matter anyway.” Blin finished tucking in the shirt and shoved the ripped one behind a barrel. She moved aside the lid. “Well, that’s a bonus.” She pulled out two red objects and tossed one to him.
Askaro caught it. “What is this?”
Blin bit into hers. “It’s an apple. Are you trying to tell me you’ve never seen an apple before?”
He followed her example. It was tangy and sweet at the same time. “I haven’t. I guess I was never on collection duty where these grow.”
Blin moved toward a wall with a row of odd looking doors. The top half of each large door consisted of metal bars. She began looking in each one. She stopped at the last door. “Ah, there you are.”
Askaro could hear the heavy breathing on the other side of the door. He peered through the gaps. A draft animal stood dozing in a pile of hay. “Doesn’t look like he heard you.”
Blin snorted. “That’s the point.” She pulled at the door and it slid to the side. “Come on. Pokey won’t hurt you. He’s deaf and mostly blind.”
Askaro entered the stall and Blin pushed the door closed behind them. The draft animal’s head came up and its nostrils flared with deep breaths. It made a soft sound. “I think it noticed us.”
Blin ignored him. She walked over to the beast and patted the thick brown neck. “It’s okay, Pokey. You can have my core when I’m done.” She went back to munching on the fruit.
Askaro stayed in the corner of the stall and finished his apple. He looked around the small enclosure. “Now what? We hang out with your friend all night?”
Blin took a final bite and held the remains under the creature’s mouth. Lips gently removed the offering from her hand. “For someone who’s lived aboard a ship his whole life, you don’t seem to know much about the docks.”
Askaro leaned against the rough wooden wall. “We weren’t allowed off the ship if it was in an official port. I’ve never been on a real dock before we came to Rokathalon.”
She pointed at his hand. “You done with that?”
He handed her the seedy center. Blin fed it to the draft animal. The deeper question burned in his mind. He looked down at the straw on the floor. “So, can I ask?”
Blin moved toward the other side of the stall and leaned against the wall. A slight crack appeared. She peered out. “We’re waiting for the night watch bell. This time of year, with the ships in for the winter, the docks pretty much clear out at night. When it’s fully dark, we’ll slip out and head for the warehouses.”
Askaro moved to the wall and examined the wood. It wasn’t a wall after all but two large doors. He looked over at Blin. “That wasn’t what I really meant. Why do you dress like a boy?”
Her face went taut. “You really are dumb. Don’t you pay attention to anything? When we were out and about on the streets, did you see any girls?”
Askaro leaned into the corner and closed his eyes. “I don’t think so. But I wasn’t really looking for any. I was more focused on looking for trackers and Authority officers.”
She leaned into the corner on the other side. “Yeah, well, there aren’t any. Let’s just say that it’s not a good thing to be a girl on the streets. As a boy, not many pay me much attention. It’s better that way.”
He considered his parents’ discussion about girl babies born to slaves on the ship. He felt cold. He dropped his voice. “What happened to your mother?”
“She died.” Her words were flat.
Askaro didn’t want to press. He tried to put the day’s events in order. “What about the guy in the cloak? Who is he?”
Blin shivered. She was quiet for several long moments. “He’s a Seeker.” When Askaro remained silent she sighed loudly. “Oh, you really don’t know anything, do you. Seekers are Knights of the Realm. They used to be loyal to the King.”
“They aren’t any more?”
Blin crossed her arms and glared at him. “Seriously?” She sighed again and relaxed. “No, of course you have no clue. The King has been dead for almost fifteen years. He had a son and all but he was only a baby and the people didn’t want just the Queen so the Regent took over. He rules until the Prince is old enough to be crowned King.”
Askaro heard the anger rising in her voice. “I get the feeling you don’t like these people.”
“The Queen is nice enough but the Regent is cruel. No one likes him. Everyone says it’s his fault that the city is falling apart, no jobs, no water, no food. As for the Prince, he’s a spoiled brat.”
A clang echoed beyond the doors. There was a sound of footsteps and muffled voices above them. Blin put a finger to her lips. Askaro looked up, trying to make sense of the words but none of them were clear enough. After a while, everything became quiet. The only things he could hear was the soft breathing of the draft animals and his own heartbeat.
Blin reached up and undid the latch of the double doors. She opened one just a little and peered out into the night. She finally motioned for Askaro and they slipped between the doors into the darkness. She slid the latch back into place on the outside.
Askaro followed her in silence. They stayed close to the buildings, making use of barrels, crates, coils of rope, or any other object that provided shadows from the row of lanterns that hung along the docks. Askaro recognized the Smithy he’d seen previously. Just beyond it was a stone stairway that led upward.
Blin paused at the corner of the Smithy. She leaned close and whispered. “Looks like several men are watching the top of the stairs.”
Askaro could see their shapes in the light cast by the lanterns hanging at intervals along the stairway. “What now?”
Blin studied the shadows. “We keep going. Stay as low as you can and follow me closely.” She crouched and scurried across the open area by the stairs.
Askaro followed. They kept moving down the docks. Blin obviously knew the area well. Distant spots of light became lanterns hanging at the end of the docks.
Blin stopped and leaned against the wall. It creaked slightly and gave. She slid it aside only far enough for them to slip through the gap. “Help me push this closed.”
Askaro was surprised at how easily the large door moved. He glanced around the dimly lit room. It was massive. Rows of shelves many units high were occupied by crates, barrels, and mysterious bundles. “This must be one of the warehouses you spoke of.”
She motioned for him to follow. “This is only part of it. I’ve explored a lot of this place. They don’t store any food here.”
Askaro followed Blin down a row to a set of stairs that went upward. They traveled through several tiers of the warehouse. “Where are we going?”
They came to a brick wall and Blin turned to follow it. “Here’s the door.” She tested the latch. There was a soft click. “And it’s still open.”
Askaro’s eyes protested the sudden brightness. He blinked as they moved into a well-lit hall. There was a distinctive hum that vibrated through the floor. A faint, all to familiar, odor drifted on the air currents. “That smells like peato. Where are we?”
Blin closed the door and leaned against it. “Service access of Cloud Tower. Their hot plant is beyond that metal door.”
He remembered seeing the tower as he fled Golarin’s men. Had it only been just the day before? He felt weak. He studied his companion. Her eyes were closed but her breathing had returned to normal. “We should find some place to rest.”
Blin looked at him. “My thoughts exactly.” She pushed off the door and headed toward a stairway. There was a rough wooden door at the top. Blin opened it carefully then proceeded through. She stopped at another door with a small window. Blin stood on her tip toes but couldn’t see over the frame.
Askaro leaned toward her ear. “Let me lift you.”
She glared at him but then her face softened. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Boost me up.”
Askaro laced his fingers together and Blin stepped into them. She balanced on his shoulders for a moment before quickly jumping down. She grabbed his arm and pulled him down the hallway. They came to a door, she listened only briefly, then opened it and dragged him inside.
Blin groaned. “Well, I guess the servants need to be clean.”
Askaro looked around the room. There was a large sunken tub in the floor, a small pedestal sink, and a lidded sanitary basin. “Okay. What happened?”
Blin sank to the floor. “They added a night guard to the servant entry.”
Askaro sat down beside her. “Maybe there’s another way out.”
Blin sighed. “We’re on the level of the servants’ quarters. The people who live in Cloud Tower are just as bad as those on Snob Nob. Some say that those at the very top never come down at all. They have their own gardens up there and servants bring everything else to them. They only enter the building from High Street. The main entry has a doorman.”
Askaro leaned against the tiled wall. “And there’s only these two doors in or out of this building?”
Blin bolted upright. “No! There are others. There are small grassy areas next to the building along High Street. I saw someone come out of a door into one of those gardens once.”
Askaro got up. “So all we have to do is find a door that opens out into a garden. Where do we look?”
Blin opened the door and led him out. She put her finger to her lips and pointed up the next stairway. He nodded and followed. They moved through a common eating area and passed several doors that all looked the same. Another flight of steps ended on a landing with another rough cut door.
Blin listened carefully before opening it just a crack. She sighed and closed it. “Looks like utilities and storage. Let’s try the next level.”
At the next landing, there were two doors. Askaro heard voices coming from one of them. “There are people on the other side.”
Blin grabbed his arm and pulled him up the stairs. The door opened as they turned the corner to the next landing. She glanced back. Footsteps on the wooden stairs faded as the pair of men descended to the lower levels. She let out her breath slowly. “Just a couple of servants.” She pointed to the door on the landing. “Let’s see where we are.”
Askaro was closer. He opened it slowly just enough to be able to see out. “Looks like a fancy hallway. I don’t see or hear anyone.”
Blin nodded and they slipped out into the hall. The floor was covered in soft thick cloth of some kind. Their footsteps made no sound. She stopped at a corner and looked both ways. “I see a glass window with a door next to it. I think we’ve found a way out.”
They moved to the window. Plants grew next to it. Askaro couldn’t see anything beyond that except darkness.
Blin pulled on the door. It opened. She motioned for him to follow. She moved slowly. “This is odd. It’s too warm.”
Askaro’s nose twitched. “I smell water.”
Askaro led the way through the foliage to a long narrow track of water. He knelt and touched it with his fingers then tasted it. “It’s fresh.”
Blin was looking around. “I don’t think we’re outside at all.”
The quiet voice made Askaro jump and whirl. Blin had crouched in a defensive posture. A small girl stood on the path they had been following. Blin began scanning the area. Askaro relaxed. “Who are you?”
The girl smiled slightly. “My name is Derry. What’s yours?”
“I’m Askaro and this is my friend Blin.”
The girl curtsied. “It’s very nice to meet you. Are you fairy folk?”
Askaro sat down so he was eye to eye with her. “I don’t think I’ve heard of them before. My mother’s people were Tree Folk.”
Blin’s face contorted. She couldn’t contain her laughter. “Of course you have no idea what fairies are either.”
He shrugged. “I’ve met a lot of different people while on the Falcon but maybe we visited their land before I was old enough to remember.”
Blin covered her mouth to contain her mirth. She finally had to breathe. “Oh my, you have obviously missed a lot.”
The little girl smiled. “I come here at night sometimes to look for them. Nana says that’s the only time you can really see them.”
Blin controlled her face. “Does your Nana know you’re out here by yourself?”
Derry looked down and shuffled her shoes against the path. “No. I have to sneak out. This is the only chance I have to look for the fairies.”
Blin knelt by the girl. “We’ll keep your secret if you keep ours.”
Derry looked at her. “You have a secret, too?”
Blin pointed at him. “This is Askaro, the famous explorer. There are some bad men trying to catch him. I’m trying to help him escape and meet up with his brave companions who are waiting for him in the Hanging Gardens.”
Derry’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, that sounds very exciting.” She smiled. “I could help you!”
Blin put a finger to her lips. “We have to be quiet.” The little girl nodded. “How could you help us?”
Derry leaned forward and whispered into Blin’s ear. “Nana takes me to the Hanging Gardens sometimes. I know you have to leave the Tower. I could distract the man that stands at the door so you could sneak passed him.”
Blin hugged her. “You are amazing!”
Derry’s smile got even bigger. “I’ve always wanted to have an adventure.” She looked over at Askaro. “What kind of wonderful things have you seen?”
He thought about the sights that had moved him to awe. “On the other side of the world, there is a place where water shoots high into the sky but it’s so hot, if a bird flies through it, it’s sure to die. The people that live near this place, collect the eggs from birds and cook them in boiling pools in the ground.”
Derry put both hands on her cheeks. “Oh, that’s incredible!”
Blin took one of her hands. “Now you see why it’s so important to keep Askaro away from the bad men.”
Derry nodded. She pulled Blin toward the door and motioned for Askaro to follow. He wished he had a way to carry some of the water. He didn’t want to risk distracting their little helper. He fell in line behind the girls.
Derry led them to a different stairway. This one was made of polished wood and was much wider than the servants’ stairs had been. She stopped at the top. She took his hand and tugged both of them down to her level. She hugged each of them then leaned towards Askaro’s ear. “I’ll keep your secret.”
He smiled at her. “Thank you, Derry. And if I ever do find any of the fairy folk on my journeys, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
Derry’s smile seemed too large for her small face. She let them go and proceeded down alone into an open area surrounded by tall windows. A man in a tight black suit approached her. She looked up at him. “Good evening, Mister Grent.”
He grinned and saluted her. “Well, good evening to you, Miss Derry. What are you doing down here at such an hour?”
“Nana said I could come down and see if I left my favorite doll at Ania’s house but I can’t reach the bell. Could you help me please?”
He bowed. “Certainly. Follow me.”
He disappeared from view. Derry looked back for just a moment and winked at them then skipped off after the man.
Blin let out a sigh. “That’s our cue. Come on.”
They hurried down the stairs, across the lobby, and out the doors. Askaro felt the cool night breeze on his face. “We’re outside!”
Blin laughed. “And we’re on High Street! This makes it even easier!”
They passed numerous shops. They were closed but light glowed from the windows of upper stories. While the architecture was similar in style to the buildings of Old Town, the materials were different. The framing was cut stone, carefully placed and mortared. The walls were plastered and some of them were brightly colored like those near the quay where the Falcon was docked.
Askaro looked up and caught a glimpse of a glowing tower over the tops of the roofs on their left. “What tower is that?”
Blin paused to see what he was looking at. “That’s Garden Tower. Most of the food for everyone in the city is grown there.” She tugged on his arm. “We have to keep moving. If Authority sees us out at this hour, they’ll ask questions.”
They came to a cross street. To their right was a wide square filled with small booths that had colorful cloth roofs. Blin went the other way down a street lined with more shops. They made a couple more jogs. Blin paused at the corner of a building. Askaro caught his breath. The street dropped down a series of steps and traveled through a vast patch of green that appeared to be suspended in a dark void. “So this must be the Hanging Gardens.”
Blin moved cautiously forward and dropped her voice. “It’s one of them. There are several. Zane and Marlo should be waiting for us over there.” She pointed toward a darker shadow given definition by a row of lights. “This is Garden Street. It goes through the gardens and ends up at Garden Tower.”
They passed quietly through the first set of gardens and went down more steps to the next level. They passed a side street that led toward Garden Tower. As they neared the edge of the second garden, Blin pulled him off the main path, careful to stay on a narrow raised pathway that ran between rows of vegetables. A wall ran beside the last row. She stopped and pulled Askaro down.
He could hear voices and recognized them. “It’s Zane and Marlo.”
Blin nodded. “But we have company.” She pointed at two men in blue uniforms who were walking casually down the street from the tower. They paused for a moment then turned down the street that was only a handful of units from where Blin and Askaro were hiding. Blin squeezed his hand. He didn’t move. The men passed them and continued down some steps to the next garden. Trees blocked them from sight as they progressed.
Askaro felt cold. He could barely whisper. “Those are Authority, aren’t they? What if Zane and Marlo are discovered?”
Blin grabbed his arm and kept him from rising. “Stay down. There’s no cover except for this short wall.”
Askaro faced her. “It’s me everybody wants. Not you, or Zane, or Marlo. If they see me and I run, they’ll chase me and you and the others will be safe.”
She shook her head. “Just like in the shop. That’s very noble but you don’t know where you’re going.”
“I didn’t back there, either.”
There was a loud shout from the garden below them. The officers had stopped and one was pointing into the man-made forest. “You there! Come out into the light!”
Zane and Marlo emerged from the trees. Askaro braced himself to make a dash for it.
Blin tightened her grip on his arm. “Wait and see what happens first.” She pointed over the wall.
Zane and Marlo were both holding out their arms to the officers. One of them nodded. “So what are you two gents doing out here in the dark?”
Marlo put a hand on Zane’s shoulder and pulled his lute into view. “Well, you see, sir, there’s this girl that my friend here really likes but he’s too shy to say anything to her so we’re out here composing a love ballad to sway the beautiful damsel’s heart.”
Zane pointed back toward the grove. “We didn’t exactly want to work on it where it might bother anyone else. This seemed like a spot far enough away that we wouldn’t disturb folks trying to get some shut eye.”
The other officer chuckled and patted Zane’s arm. “Good luck to you, lad. Hope you can win her over. I know how hard I worked to catch the eye of my wife.” He turned to his companion and began telling him about his attempts to win his true love.
Blin pointed to the paving stones they were crouched on and laid down. He followed her example. He could hear the trickle of water below them and wished he’d been able to quench his thirst back at Cloud Tower.
The officers walked past them. Blin waited until they were out of sight before rising. She looked toward the trees. “I hope Zane and Marlo are still there.”
Askaro got up and walked with her down the steps into the lower garden. He couldn’t tell what kind of trees were growing here. There were also flowering bushes that hid the low stone wall. He caught his breath. “I hear water.”
Blin grinned. “Why do you think I chose this spot. Not only is it hard to see through the trees but this is another of those rare places where you can find water.”
There was a soft whistle. Marlo and Zane strolled out of the grove. Marlo waved. “Glad to see you two survived.”
Zane frowned. “Did you run into trouble?”
Askaro realized what the issue was. “I’m sorry I lost the wig. And Blin’s shirt got torn. Since I still had mine on under everything…” He saw Blin tense. “I gave him mine.”
Blin relaxed. “We came up through the warehouse and Cloud Tower.”
Marlo backed up a step. “Whoa ho! Getting up in the world, are we?”
Blin sighed. “Why didn’t Authority give you more grief?”
Zane and Marlo both held up their forearms. Zane tapped the leather band at his wrist. “We’re citizens. What are they going to say?”
Blin looked away. “Lucky you.”
Zane’s grin faded. “I’m sorry. I should have realized.”
Askaro looked between Blin and Zane. “I don’t understand.”
Marlo pointed at the leather band that Askaro had wrapped the chain of the pendant around. “But aren’t you a citizen?”
He looked at the band. “Because of this? No, this just protects your arm when your sewing canvas.”
Blin tugged at the chain. “How does this have anything to do with sewing?”
Askaro shook his head and undid the straps. He held up the pendant. “My grandfather gave me this for my birthday. It’s just a necklace.”
Marlo reached out and held it so he could see it better. He whistled. “Far more than just a necklace. This medallion is your contract status. You’re an Officer.”
Askaro gasped. “How do you know that?”
Marlo grinned and pointed to the small symbol in the center of the inscription. “That, sir, is a symbol of station. Those bars indicate that you are a ranked Officer. Every paid airman gets a ship’s pendant. That’s how they can go into any city without issue. It’s kind of like your writ of citizenship to your ship.” He looked at it again and his breath caught. He looked up at Askaro, his mouth open. “You’re the grandson of Captain Delkaro.”
Askaro was confused by Marlo’s change of tone. Zane and Blin had both backed up a step. “What of it? My grandfather is a good man.”
Zane bowed slightly. “No doubt of that. He’s a legend, the greatest of all the Sky Wizards.”
Marlo cleared his throat. “You probably don’t understand.”
Blin coughed. “There’s a lot of things he don’t understand. Like apples and fairies.”
Marlo released the pendant. “You should be wearing that around your neck, not hidden up your sleeve.”
Zane chuckled. “Now that’s a trick my father would have appreciated.” He went serious. “So why is Golarin so hot to get his hands on you?”
Askaro felt tired. He looked at Blin. “Did you say something about water being here?”
Blin nodded. “This way.”
He followed Blin and the others fell in behind him. They moved toward the center of the grove and came out in a small clearing where a stream of water trickled down a pile of rocks into a basin surrounding them. Askaro knelt beside Blin as she scooped up water. “Let me guess. This is another fountain.” She nodded but kept drinking.
Zane sank to the ground and leaned back against a tree. He patted the grass beside him. “Might as well have a seat while they catch up.” He started pulling carrots out of his pockets. “When you’re done there, I’ve brought something to munch on. Not nearly as good as those meat pies but it’s something.”
Askaro wiped his face and backed away from the water. Zane tossed him a couple. Blin finished and sat down next to him. She held up the carrots Zane tossed to her. “And I don’t suppose you know what these are.”
Askaro swallowed a bite. “Of course I do. These are carrots. We grow them in our garden on the ship.”
Blin paused with a carrot not bitten. “You have gardens on your ship?”
Askaro finished the first one. “Yes, in beds similar to the ones we hid in except we don’t cover the watering ditches. The gardens are above the Officers Salon where my family lives so my mother and I often tend them.”
Marlo tossed the carrot tops back to Zane who put them in his bag. The musician looked up at the leaves above them. “So how is it that the grandson of Captain Delkaro is being tracked by Golarin?”
Askaro did his best to explain the circumstances surrounding his mother and himself. Zane and Marlo asked questions to fill in gaps. By the time they had finished, he was certain they understood his situation. He looked over at Blin. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing softly. He lowered his voice. “How can he sleep when it’s so cold out here?”
Zane wrapped his arms around his body. “This isn’t cold. Wait until winter. Now that’s cold. We get loads of snow. This is just autumn and the beginning of the rainy season.”
Marlo looked around. “As tired as I’m sure everyone is, this really isn’t the best place to sleep, especially for Blin. Zane and I are citizens and you have a ship’s pendant, but he doesn’t have anything.”
Zane looked down. “Not a good deal. My aunt and uncle couldn’t afford to buy citizenship for their son. One day soldiers just came and took him away. There was nothing anyone could do about it.”
Askaro frowned. “Wasn’t he born here?”
“Oh, he was born here all right, only after the King died. That was the problem. My parents didn’t have to buy my citizenship and I’m betting Marlo’s parents didn’t either. That didn’t start until the Regent took over.”
“No one seems to like this Regent. Why is he still in power?”
Zane shrugged. “That’s just the way it is.”
Blin moaned in her sleep and woke with a start. She looked around. “Why are we still here?”
Marlo got up and offered a hand to Zane. “We were just discussing that very topic.”
Askaro rose and held out a hand to Blin. “Come on. The sooner I get back to the ship, the better. There’s a lot I need to talk to my grandfather about.”
Blin let him pull her up then pulled her hand free. She turned to Marlo. “You said you could get Askaro back to his ship from here.”
Marlo swung his lute over his shoulder. “Quite easy really. We just go through Garden Tower, down Flower Street, and then straight down the Boulevard. That leads right to the Grand Portal.”
Blin went pale. “You’re just going to waltz by the main castle gate? Are you mad?”
Marlo grinned. “The way to outsmart your enemy is to be in the place he least expects you to be. Golarin thinks he’s looking for a run away slave. He won’t be expecting us to use the Boulevard. As far as the castle goes, it’s almost morning. There will be plenty of people coming and going on Flower Street and the Boulevard by the time we get there.”
Blin was shaking. “Why not just go back to High Street and take that to the Boulevard?”
Zane slung the bag strap over his shoulder. “Because as we were coming up the Boulevard yesterday, we saw some of Golarin’s men headed down High Street toward the Winged Horse.” He chuckled. “I must have been pretty convincing.”
Marlo started off through the trees. “Don’t worry, Blin. I have an idea. Let’s see if we can get into Garden Tower before the shift change.”
Askaro was concerned about Blin. “I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.”
Blin scowled at him. She didn’t say anything but followed Marlo toward the street.
The eastern sky was glowing with radiant color by the time they reached Garden Tower. The glass surface reflected the dazzling display and made it appear even more breathtaking. Askaro looked upward. He could see many floors as it rose into the sky. “This is all a garden? All inside?”
Zane held the door open for him. “I have to admit, it is an impressive structure. I wish we had time to take you to the top floor. That’s the most amazing of all and the view, well, that’s the best part. You can see the whole city from there.”
They walked past several rows of plants before the pathway teed. Straight ahead of them was a circular stairway that went both up and down from the landing. Marlo turned down the side path that led to another door. A man stood there, looking outward expectantly. The musician walked up to him. “Excuse me, sir. I was hoping you might be able to help us.”
The man glanced at him. “What do you need?”
“My younger brother was working down on level two yesterday and he lost his identification bracelet. I was wondering if anyone turned one in. You know how Authority gets if you go anywhere without it.”
A bell rang somewhere in the building. The man sighed. “Look, I haven’t heard of one being turned in.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow band. “Have him wear this for now and have him check in with his shift manager later. Sometimes they end up in the drain baskets. Have a good day.” He opened the door and hurried down the street.
Zane’s eyes were wide. “You are so amazing. My father would have hired you in a heartbeat.”
Marlo grinned and gave the yellow band to Blin. “Put this on. It’s a temporary bracelet. They’re color coded so that one is only good for today but it will get us past any guards who might question us.” He turned to Askaro. “If any guard or Authority comes towards you, just hold up your pendant.”
Blin’s hands were shaking as she snapped the bracelet closed. “How did you know he would give you this?”
Marlo went out the door. “Well, I happen to have a younger brother who works here who did lose his bracelet once. Experience is a wonderful teacher.”
Zane sighed as they walked down the street. “The flowers still look pretty this time of year. It won’t be too long before the snows come and there won’t be any flowers on Flower Street.”
Askaro was more interested in the view beyond the flowers. To their right was a sheer drop after the wall that bordered the rows of flowers. He could see part of the forest where they had spent the night.
Blin bumped into him. She was staring in the other direction. He turned and gasped. There was a massive castle surrounded by a wall. The wall was well placed cut gray stone. The castle was bright white with a red tiled roof. It was stunning.
Zane leaned close. “They say the corners of the castle walls are studded with diamonds and the walls of the Great Hall are lined with gold.”
Marlo looked back at them. “We’re going to stay on this side of the street. There’s plenty of traffic going both ways. I doubt anyone will notice us.”
Flower Street ended in front of the entrance to the castle grounds. They moved with the flow of people that turned down the street away from the castle. Askaro had seen the row of buildings that extended across the chasm between two mountain peaks. Now he was walking across it. “This is amazing. How did they build it?”
Zane looked around. “Who knows. There’s a lot of bridge streets like this in the city. They were all built before I was born but it must have been something.”
The street turned and curved upward past more shops. The view changed abruptly as they crested the top of the hill. The Boulevard dropped by levels, down a long steep set of stairs, that stopped at intervals for landings to cross streets.
Askaro’s view was drawn upward. The long forward bowsprit of the Falcon appeared to be almost overhead. The large dirigible blocked the rising sun. The hull rested beyond the edge of the quay. The ramp extended between the Beak and the main gate.
Zane exhaled loudly. “That is amazing.”
Blin gasped and grabbed Askaro’s arm. “It’s the Seeker!”
Askaro followed Blin’s gaze. He was coming up behind them. He moved with the flow of other pedestrians. “I don’t think he’s seen us yet.” He tapped Marlo on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Marlo started down the stairs. Zane held back. “You and Blin go next. Let me go last.”
Askaro didn’t argue. He and Blin hurried down the stairs. They reached a broad landing with a busy intersection. Askaro glanced back to make sure Zane was safely following.
“There he is!”
The shout startled Askaro. He swung around and studied the crowd on the stairs below them. He already knew Bruvano was there. That was a voice he’d never forget. But so was Golarin and several of his men.
Askaro looked at the cross street. Both directions were narrow rows of shops with homes above them. The rooftops were too high for even him to make the leap. He looked at the others. “Which way?”
Blin was staring back the way they’d come. She was shaking. “We can’t go back!”
Zane pointed to the left. “We have to go towards Red Top. The other way is a dead end.”
Askaro grabbed Blin. “Let’s go.”
Marlo led them in the direction Zane had chosen. “This is going to put us out in the open. It’s a considerable distance to Red Tower with no cover. We’re going to need a diversion.”
Askaro glanced back toward the intersection. Golarin and Bruvano were matching strides with a good number of the trackers trailing them. “There’s no way we’re going to outrun them. What’s the plan?”
There was a commotion in the street ahead. A large burly man wearing a long coat stepped toward them. “You there, stop!” He grabbed Marlo’s arm.
Marlo gasped. “Please sir, let us go. That man is trying to grab my little brother. He lost his bracelet while working in the gardens. I got him a replacement but that man wants to take him as a slave.”
The shopkeeper scowled. “Filthy trackers! Now they’re stalking citizens. It’s bad enough that we have to pay the Regent for our own children.” He let him go and whistled to a man across the street. “Charen, let’s move that load of boards over to my shop now.” He winked and motioned for the group to move on. “This will slow that lot down.”
Marlo nodded to the man. “Thank you, sir!” He resumed his course down the street.
Askaro made sure Blin was ahead of him. He glanced back toward Zane and noticed the shopkeepers had blocked the street with a cartload of planks. He could hear Bruvano’s deep roar of anger. “That’s not going to stop them for long.”
Zane caught up with him. “As long as it gives us time to get to Red Tower. Marlo’s right. There won’t be any cover once we get out of the shop district.”
Askaro looked ahead. He could see the faint form of a tower rising above the other buildings. The shops ended abruptly. To their right was a vast view of distant clouds on the horizon with more buildings a few hundred units below them. Between the bridge and buildings was a deep chasm. The Starboard Foremast of the Falcon seemed to float in midair above that section of the city. There were no crewmen visible. “If I could get close enough, I could leap right onto the mast.”
Zane chuckled. “Distance is an illusion. The mast is hundreds of units from anything.”
As they moved into the open area of the street, the rest of the ship came into view. They were almost level with the bottom of the dirigible. Zane was right. There was no way to make that kind of leap.
Blin had slowed enough to drop back to Askaro’s side. “I’ve never been to this part of town.”
“I trust Zane and Marlo. They won’t lead us wrong.” Askaro noticed the group of connected buildings that spread upward on the hillside to their left. “That must be one rich family to have a house that large.”
Marlo reduced his speed. “That’s not a house, my friend. That’s the University.”
Blin frowned. “What’s that mean?”
Zane sighed. “It’s a place the likes of us can’t afford to go.”
“Actually, that’s not the case.” Marlo readjusted his lute. “I went there for awhile. You can get a pass if you have a certain level of skill in a given field of study.” He looked back then dropped to a walk. “We need to catch a breath. Exhausting ourselves won’t help. I don’t see them behind us.”
Askaro was studying the collection of buildings. “So you went to this school to study music?”
Marlo seemed lost in thought for a moment. “No, I was there because my father wanted me to study law. My uncle was a lawyer and it seems I had a knack for understanding his cases. He was the one who got me the pass so I could attend. I turned out to be a big disappointment to my family.”
Askaro moved up beside him. “Were the classes too hard?”
“No. But the more I learned about the laws of Rokathalon the more I realized how unfair they were. I didn’t want to serve a system like that. I’d met Arin, the son of Ranulo, in one of my classes and we sang for fun in the evenings. When he learned I was planning to leave the University, he mentioned me to his father and I became a member of the troupe.”
They were slowly approaching Red Tower. It rose into the sky, beginning narrow at the base, widening for a distance, and becoming narrow again as it reached into the clouds. Askaro couldn’t see the top. “Do people live in this tower like they do in Cloud Tower?”
Marlo grinned. “That they do. There are too many people in this city for even all the rich folks to have their own home. Only the highest elites have estates. The average person lives in a townhouse. Shopkeepers usually have a home above or next to their shop. Servants sometimes get a room in the place they work.”
Askaro glanced at Blin. “Like those who work in Cloud Tower.”
She nodded. “And the stable hands in the livery. Them is who we heard talking last night a’fore the night watch bell.”
The street led into the base of Red Tower, which was open and contained an intersection of streets. Askaro noticed most people seemed to be moving down the street they were on or the one that turned to the left inside the tower. “Which way do we go?”
Marlo pulled them into a corner to get out of the heavy traffic. “To the right is North Island. Straight ahead just goes to some town houses. Our only option is to go with the flow and turn toward Steep Street.”
Zane grinned. “Then let me take the lead. I used to work down at the bottom end.”
Askaro had been watching the bridge behind them. “They got through. They are on the bridge.”
Blin motioned to Zane. “Lead on, then.”
Zane headed out of the tower with the others falling in behind him. The short street curved and disappeared between shops. As they rounded the corner, Askaro caught his breath. The entire street along with the shops that seemed to cling to it, dropped below them in wide steps. “This certainly is quite a city.”
Zane chuckled. “Now this is one that I’d give my front teeth to know how they did it. This is a bridge street between Red Top and Sunset Isle. That tower over there is Sunset Tower.”
Askaro looked across the rooftops to the tower that rose into the clouds in the distance. He couldn’t see much of the detail but he was still impressed by the size. “So many amazing things.”
Blin tugged on his arm. “There are Authority coming our way up the street.”
Marlo put a hand on Blin’s shoulder from where he walked behind her. “Just make sure the yellow band is visible. Remember what I said about the pendant, Askaro.”
He felt it with his fingertips and pulled it out in front of his shirt. He looked in various shop windows but also watched the blue uniformed officers making their way up the broad stone stairs. Askaro looked back the way they’d come. His throat tightened. “We have company coming behind us.”
Blin looked frantically from one side of the narrow street to the other. “There’s no where to go!”
Marlo stopped. “Keep going. I’ll see what kind of diversion I can create.”
Askaro’s fingers curled around the pendant. He whirled around. “No. I’m tired of running. Are you sure about this pendant?” Marlo nodded. “Then there is no reason for Golarin to want me. I’m a member of the crew, not a slave.”
Blin called to him from the doorway of a shop. “What are you doing? Come on!”
Askaro focused on the group of men quickly advancing. “You should go with them, Marlo. In case things get ugly. Keep Blin safe.”
Marlo held out his hand and Askaro shook it. The musician grinned. “So the mouse faces off with the cats.” He winked and jogged toward the door of the shop where Zane and Blin both waited.
Askaro checked the progress of the Authority in his direction. He was depending on Marlo’s assurance that the pendant was sufficient proof. He turned back to face Bruvano and Golarin, who were now advancing toward him, pushing others out of the way. A stream of leather armored men followed in their wake.
Bruvano pointed at him. “Stop, slave!” His roar echoed between the narrow buildings. The drone of conversation ended abruptly.
Askaro stood his ground. “I’m not moving and I’m not a slave. I’m sorry, Golarin, but this man has deceived you.”
Golarin laughed. “I don’t know who you think you’re fooling. Plenty of people saw the merchant offer coin for you at the Portal.”
Bruvano was only a few paces away. His face was bright red and curled into a vicious snarl. “I’ve got you now, Ass. There’s no where to run.”
Askaro held up the pendant. “I’m not running. I don’t need to. I finally found out what my grandfather’s gift meant.”
Golarin stopped so fast that Otho, who had been only a few steps behind, slammed into him. Both men tumbled to the ground. The slave tracker pushed at his second. “Get off of me, you oaf!”
Bruvano lunged toward Askaro, reaching for the pendant. Askaro leaped to the side at the last moment. Bruvano couldn’t compensate for his forward motion on the stairs. He hit the paving stones with a thud that shook everything around them. He rolled quickly to his feet and whirled to face him. “I’ve had enough of your games, brat! Your grandfather is a fool but I’m not. You belong to me!”
Askaro watched the Authority pushing their way through the crowd that had surrounded him and the trackers. He held up the pendant. “This says otherwise.”
Golarin moved slowly toward Askaro. “May I see that?”
Askaro held it toward the tracker so he could read the pendant. “This was a gift from my grandfather, Captain Delkaro, for my sixteenth birthday.”
Bruvano clenched his fists. “Lies! You stole it!”
Golarin’s face had lost some of its color. He cleared his throat. “I beg your most humble pardon, Sir. There has been a grievous misunderstanding.” He turned to Otho. “This is no slave at all. This is Ensign Askaro of the Falcon.”
The Authority officers moved forward. One of them grabbed Golarin’s arm. “What’s going on here, tracker?”
Golarin bowed to Askaro. “I was apologizing to Ensign Askaro. I had been given faulty information and thought he was an escaped slave.”
The other officer looked over at Bruvano. “And who are you?”
“I am Bruvano, the Slave Master of the Falcon.” He held up his pendant for inspection.
The officer examined it and nodded. “So you lost a slave in the city?”
Bruvano pointed at Askaro. “He is the slave I lost!”
The officer next to Golarin turned to Askaro. “Can you explain this, Sir?”
Askaro held up his pendant. “Because of certain issues on the ship, I was assigned to Master Bruvano until I turned sixteen. My grandfather, Captain Delkaro, gave me a ship’s pendant for my birthday.”
Bruvano snarled. “That’s a lie!”
The officer closest to the Slave Master put himself between the angry man and Askaro. “That’s quite enough.” He looked over to the other officer. “What say you, Lentran?”
Officer Lentran examined Askaro’s pendant. “Looks official to me. I guess there’s one way to settle it for sure. We take them both to Captain Delkaro and let him settle it.”
Askaro sighed. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to get back to the ship for several days now.”
Bruvano roared and pushed the Authority officer out of the way. “If I’m going down, you’re going first!” He surged toward Askaro.
A gray shadow landed between them. Askaro was startled by the sudden appearance of the Seeker. The man grabbed Bruvano and held him back. Bruvano screamed. “This isn’t over, you lousy piece of gutter trash!” He pulled free and swung the cloaked man away.
Askaro was moving toward the shop before he consciously knew it. Bruvano’s heavy footfalls echoed in the narrow street. Blin and the others were all staring. He pointed down the hill. “Run!”
Askaro darted around confused people. He watched the others moving down the street ahead of him. Running down the broad stairs was tricky. They were wide with angled front edges. He saw a draft animal pulling a wagon up the street and realized why the steps were shaped that way.
The others had to pause with the rest of the pedestrians near the wagon, which took up half of the street, while a few men unloaded a large crate. It allowed Askaro to catch up with them. He glanced back. Bruvano wasn’t far behind. “We have to go now!”
Blin grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the wagon. “Maybe we can get around it.”
They moved through the crowd and approached the draft animal. It was standing quietly, moving its mouth as if thinking about a tasty snack. Zane looked past the animal. “The wagon is tight up against the building. There’s not enough room to get by it.”
Blin patted the animal’s side and walked passed it. “Then we go under.”
The cook leaned down. “That looks pretty tight, too. I don’t know if I’ll fit.”
Blin sighed deeply. “Lay down and we’ll roll you.”
Marlo put a hand on Zane’s shoulder. “Blin’s right. You can do this. We’ll help you.”
Zane laid down. “Please don’t let me get stuck under here.”
Askaro moved to his head and Blin took his feet. Marlo pulled off his lute and slid after them. There was more room after the first step because of the angle of the street. Askaro made sure Zane’s head didn’t connect with the undercarriage of the wagon. “Don’t worry. We’re out.”
Marlo scurried to his feet and helped pull Zane to his. “Well done. I bet your father would be proud of that trick.”
Zane grinned. “I bet he would. Let’s go. We’re almost to Bottoms Up.”
Marlo readjusted his lute. “Ah, my favorite pub on this side of town.”
Askaro could see the bottom of the street now. The breath caught in his throat. “I was wondering where he was. Just our luck. We’re trapped.”
Blin’s brow creased. “What? How so?”
Askaro ducked behind a group of people watching the progress of the workers, hoping that he hadn’t been recognized. “That man leaning against the corner of the building down there is Mister Fantori, the Helmsmen of the Falcon.”
Marlo stepped in front of Askaro to shield him from anyone below. “He was with the other chap yesterday at the Red Cloud.”
Askaro glanced back up the street. It was still blocked by the men handling the crate. He could hear Bruvano’s angry shouts. “They are in it together. And I don’t see any Authority officers anywhere.”
Blin pointed to the door of the shop. “So we duck in and let him pass.”
Zane motioned for them to follow. “Not this shop, Blin. If we can just get a few more doors down, we’ll be better off.”
They followed him. Marlo made sure Askaro and Blin stayed close to the wall behind Zane. He brought up the end, blocking them from the sight of anyone uphill. He put a hand on Askaro’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, my friend. We won’t let these brutes get their hands on you.”
Zane stopped by a door and rapped twice. The door opened. Zane smiled at the man. “How’s life at the bottom these days?”
The man laughed loudly. “My dear Zane! Come in!”
Zane motioned to the others. “I hope you don’t mind I brought some friends.”
The man swung the door open wide. “Any friend of yours is a friend of mine. Come, come!” He turned away. “Stella! Come and see! It is our dear Zane!”
Zane pulled the others inside and closed the door. “We’re safe now.”
Askaro looked through the small curtained window beside the door. “Bruvano has gotten passed the wagon.”
A well-rounded woman appeared through a doorway. She gasped loudly, rushed forward, and threw her chunky arms around Zane. She nearly swallowed him in a hug. “Oh, my Zane! Where have you been? Why have you not come to see Apegio and me, eh?”
Zane managed to pull free. “I’m sorry, Lady Stella. Things have been a little,” he looked at the others and shrugged, “crazy lately.”
Askaro felt that was an understatement. He turned back to the window and watched Bruvano coming down the street. Fantori moved into view. He tuned out the reunion behind him and concentrated on the two men. They were close enough that he could hear most of what they said.
Bruvano’s face was twisted and the muscles in his neck bulged. “Did you see him?”
Fantori straightened. “Was he here? I watched The Old Man’s place all night and he never showed up there. The Captain has had plenty of business though. From what I heard, he’s hired someone to look for the brat.”
Bruvano’s jaws clamped shut. “That rotten piece of trash has cost us everything! He showed off his pendant to both Golarin and the Authority. The trackers are done with us.”
The Helmsman glanced along the street. His face tightened. “If the Authority is on to us, we’re sunk. There aren’t any ships going out this time of year. We’re stuck on this rock.”
“That’s not the case. I made a few friends and one of them happens to be the Bosun of the Avenger. They are headed south in two days. They have a full ship’s compliment already but he said he’d get us on if we lined his pockets enough.”
Fantori put his hands on his hips. “And how are we supposed to do that? We’ve lost out on our cut because of all this!”
“That brat is going to pay, one way or the other. Better yet, the Old Man can pay. I says we find him and ransom him back to the Captain. If he wants that tree spawn so bad, he can bloody well pay up.”
Fantori looked around. “That’s all well and good, if we had him, but we don’t.”
“You didn’t see him pass and I know he didn’t double back. He must be hiding in one of these shops. You stay here and keep watch in the street while I turn this place up-side-down. He’s here and I’m going to find him.”
Askaro jumped when Marlo put a hand on his shoulder. He spun around. “We’re out of options. I can’t endanger you any longer. My only hope is to run past Fantori while Bruvano is in a shop and hope I can slip by him.”
Marlo held out a sandwich to him. “Master Apegio said we can stay as long as we need to. Zane told him who you were and he’s going to send a runner to find your grandfather.”
The steam from the warm meat-filled roll teased his nose. “We don’t have time. Bruvano is searching every shop and has Fantori watching the street. He won’t stop until he finds me. I don’t want to endanger Zane’s friends either.”
Blin had taken Askaro’s place at the window. She almost choked on a bite. “He’s headed this way!”
Zane shook the old man’s hand. “Looks like we can’t stay but I’d appreciate if you could distract him while we slip down the alley.”
The woman looked ready to cry. “You must be careful so that you can return. We miss you so much. If we would have known what happened, you know that we would have taken you back. You are a fine chef, so much better than Darion.”
Master Apegio had moved deeper into the busy kitchen. He returned carrying a sack. “At least take this with you. I will do what I can to delay him and get word to the Captain. Return when you feel it is safe and we will get this wayward son home.”
Blin grabbed Askaro’s arm. “He’s at the door!”
There was a resounding boom against the door they had entered. Zane pointed to a narrow passageway. “Follow me.”
Marlo made sure Askaro and Blin went next. He waved to the couple. “Until we meet again, fair skies!”
Stairs led downward. Askaro put a hand on Zane’s back. “Where are we going?”
Zane’s voice sounded muffled in the tight space. “Down the alley. We’re at the flats of Steep Street. All the shops along the rest of the street have storage space below them. This alley runs along the back of the storage rooms.”
The stairs ended and they turned a corner. Askaro was surprised by the brightness until he realized there were small windows evenly spaced on one wall. Bruvano’s demanding voice above pushed him forward. “Lead on, Zane.”
They hurried down the alley, passing several rough wooden doors. The alley ended at another door. This one was made of metal. Zane reached for the handle but stopped. Marlo started to say something but Zane spun around with a finger to his lips. He pointed toward the last wooden door they had passed.
Marlo went to it and tested the handle. It opened. He peered inside. “Looks like a storeroom.”
Zane shushed him and herded everyone inside. He shut the door and leaned on it. His body seemed to sag. “Someone is in the water way. I could hear voices.”
The only light filtered down from a stairway. Askaro could see shelves filled with various boxes and bottles. He could hear the murmur of voices above. He moved closer to the others. “Someone is upstairs, too.”
Zane moved toward one of the walls and leaned an ear against it. “Maybe it’s just a work crew.”
Askaro moved to the wall and followed Zane’s example. He could hear the muffled sounds of conversation on the other side. At least two men were talking.
One man sounded annoyed. “I still don’t understand why we had to meet down here.”
Another man swore. “You’re an idiot. Do you have any idea what will happen if this is discovered?”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea. How do we know he won’t go back on his promise and just have us tossed into the pit?”
“He paid in advance, didn’t he?”
“You can’t spend it if you’re dead.”
“Quit whining and pay attention. Did you find out if your friend can do the job, or not.”
There was a slight pause. “His price is pretty high.”
“It doesn’t matter. Vancent will pay. He’s waited too long for this day.”
There was a gasp next to him. Askaro opened his eyes and noticed Marlo also had his ear to the wall. His eyes were wide. He felt Blin move to a space behind him. They listened as the first man continued to assure the other that his friend was more than capable.
The man finally accepted it. “Fine. I’ll have Tibs bring the part by around midday. Lashen will sadly follow the footsteps of Laharas.”
Blin sucked in her breath. Askaro turned around. She had her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were wide. He leaned toward her face. “What’s wrong?”
“They are going to kill him.”
Askaro felt like he’d heard one of the names before but he couldn’t remember where. “Who?”
Blin slid to the floor. “The Prince.” She covered her face completely.
Zane sounded like he was choking. Askaro turned as the cook stumbled away from the wall. Askaro caught him. There was no furniture in the small room so he led Zane to the stairs and helped him sit. In the slightly brighter light from above, the cook’s face looked pale. He stared back at the wall as if he could see through it.
There was a groan and squeal then a quiet boom from the alley. Askaro moved to the door. He could hear footsteps retreating then another door being opened and closed. He looked back at the others. “One of them left.”
Marlo had moved away from the wall. He was slowly pacing the room, rubbing his chin with his fingers. “This is bad.”
Blin was shaking. The dim light reflected off the trickle that dripped down her face. She brushed at the tears. “Why would they want to kill Lashen? Who wants him dead?”
Marlo came to a stop and rested his shoulder against the stair support. “Vancent does.”
Blin gasped. Askaro rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You know this person.”
Marlo put a hand on Askaro’s arm. “I realize there’s no way you could know. Vancent is the Regent of Rokathalon.”
Askaro sighed. “Well, that could explain why people don’t like him. But why would he want to kill the Prince?”
Blin looked up at him. “So he can take the throne for himself.”
Askaro rubbed his head. “I’m confused. He’s already Regent. Isn’t that the same thing?”
Marlo drummed his fingers on the wood. “I’ve lost count. How old is the Prince now?”
Blin studied her hands. “He’s almost sixteen.”
Marlo turned to her. “Wow. Are you a fan?”
She looked away. “Hardly. I just happen to be the same age.”
Marlo began pacing again. “They were talking about food as well. Something is happening tomorrow night that requires an extensive menu.”
Askaro intercepted the musician. “We have to do something. This is important. We have to warn someone.”
Blin almost choked trying to laugh. “Warn who? All the guards are loyal to the Regent. Besides, no one would believe the likes of us.”
Marlo looked over at Blin. “Take it easy, my friend. Don’t take your anger out on Askaro.” He turned back. “But there’s another issue. We don’t know when, where, or even what they are planning.”
Askaro thought about the conversation. “We might be able to. They spoke of something being delivered to a shop. If we could figure out which shop, we might discover what they are up to.”
Blin frowned. “And then what? Who can we even tell?”
“We could tell the Seeker.”
Blin shrunk back against the wall. “No!”
Askaro was puzzled. “Why not? I thought you said they were loyal to the king. Knights of the Realm, right?”
Marlo put his hand on his chin. “I’m still surprised by that appearance. I don’t even know where he came from. It’s not like you see a Seeker everyday.”
Askaro hadn’t had time to consider it. “I’ve seen him, or maybe there’s more than one. It’s hard to tell with the cloak. Anyway, one has shown up at least a few times in just the past couple of days. I thought he was after me but he kept Bruvano from attacking me.”
Blin sniffed. “He’s not after you. He’s after me.”
Marlo spun to face her. “Why? What did you do to attract that kind of attention?”
Marlo’s eyebrows went up. “Escaped from where?”
Blin covered her face and cried softly. Askaro put a hand on Marlo’s chest. “Don’t press. We need to stay on topic. Time is short. Whatever the part is they spoke of is showing up around midday at a shop. We need to find out what’s going on.”
Marlo pulled at his lute strap. “That could be hard. There are hundreds of shops in Rokathalon. Where would we begin?”
Askaro considered the scale of the city. “Well, you said they were talking about food. There must be a connection. And since they met here, the shop might be nearby.”
“There are a limited number of markets and eateries in this area.”
Blin pointed toward the door. “How about the one we passed through on the way down here? Maybe he works in the kitchen.”
Zane finally stirred. He sighed deeply and looked up at them. “He doesn’t. He works for Rok Catering.”
Askaro sat down on the step below Zane. “How do you know?”
“I know who he is.”
Zane struggled to his feet. “It’s almost midday. Askaro is right, time is short.” He pushed away from the wall and lurched toward the door.
Askaro caught him before he could fall. “Zane, what is wrong?”
The cook’s eyes were filled with tears. “I knew he was a little twisted but how could he have fallen so low?”
Marlo came forward and put a hand on Zane’s shoulder. “Who is this man?”
Zane pulled in a deep breath. “It’s a long story. Come on. The other one has probably cleared out by now.”
Blin joined them. “Maybe we should go back to the kitchen and have your friend send a warning.”
Askaro opened the door and looked down the hall. “That’s a good idea.” He heard a familiar voice. “Or it would be if Bruvano wasn’t still there, yelling at the top of his lungs.”
Marlo chuckled. “Maybe Authority will come and haul him away. Sounds like that would benefit everyone.”
Zane pushed passed them. “We don’t have time to wait and see. Follow me.” He moved down the hall to the metal door. He listened for a moment then opened it. “Sounds like he left. Step through and let me close it. Darion never did get it right.”
Askaro led the way into the dim echoing chamber. He could hear dripping and smell the water. He watched Zane close the door quietly. “Is this another one of the water storage areas?”
Zane started walking along a narrow stone ledge. “It is. They’ve had a lot of problems with this one because it’s in a bridge.”
Blin pointed toward the dim light. “Them is the drains on the street. It’s just like the one over the Boulevard.”
Marlo hummed. “Don’t think I’ve ever taken that tour. How is it you know about that?”
Blin shivered. “When you live on the streets, you have to know how to get out of sight in a hurry.”
Zane stopped at another metal door. “This goes up to the texmill. There will probably be people working at the looms but they see work crews come through here all the time. Just don’t stop and chat. Their bosses don’t like that.”
Askaro followed Zane up a stone stairway that ended at a wooden door. He could hear rhythmic swooshing. He also caught the loamy smell of peato. “They must have a steam plant.”
Zane led them down a hallway. “That’s how they power the looms.”
The hallway ended at a door. Askaro could hear people talking beyond it and grabbed Zane’s hand. “I thought you said the workers here weren’t supposed to talk.”
Zane put his ear to the door. “Sounds like one of the Masters isn’t happy with the work. We’ll have to wait until he leaves.”
Marlo leaned against the wall. “So who is this person?”
Zane looked down. “His name is Darion. We both worked under Master Apegio as apprentices. We even shared a room together. When Gevoni, the Master Chef of Rok Catering came to Master Apegio for a new junior chef, the Master presented both of us with the challenge to create our best dishes.”
Marlo shook his head. “I’m guessing Darion won.”
Zane continued to study the floor. “He did. But afterwards, Master Apegio admitted that my work had been far superior to Darion’s.”
Askaro didn’t understand. “So why did Darion win?”
“It turns out his father was a royal guard and managed to convince Master Gevoni to hire Darion. The contest had been Master Apegio’s idea. He wanted to give me a chance to prove my abilities to Master Gevoni. But his mind had already been swayed.”
Blin frowned. “So why did you leave Master Apegio’s kitchen. Sounded to me like they wanted you there.”
Zane put his ear back to the door. “I was an apprentice there. Master Apegio already has many chefs. I wanted to move up.” He looked back at the others and put his finger to his lips. He opened the door.
The swooshing sound was dramatically amplified. As Askaro followed Zane along the wall of the massive room, he looked at the looms and the workers scurrying to keep up with the moving bars. He caught a gleam from the neck of one of the workers. He felt cold. They were slaves!
Zane led them up another stairway and out a door. The street looked like all the others on this side of town, whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs, and tidy shops with second stories that were probably living areas. They turned to the right and proceeded up the street.
Askaro and Blin were both looking around. He assumed she was keeping an eye out for Authority. He was fascinated by the view beyond the rooftops. This section of town was lower. A mountain rose to their left, it’s sides dotted with houses. In front of them, to their right, the castle towers rose above the gray stone walls. “We’re on the other side from where we started this morning.”
Marlo pointed to a line of buildings that were suspended across the peaks. “That’s the Boulevard.”
They came to an intersection and Zane turned to their right. A giant set of colorful stairs seemed to be plastered to the side of the mountaintop that held the castle. The top tier shot upward into the clouds. “Is that a tower?”
Zane paused at the corner of a building. “It is. That is Step Tower. Fits it’s name, don’t you think?”
Askaro noticed that Zane was focused on a building across the street. The windows were filled with shelves of different food items. “So why is Rok Catering so special?”
“It’s the biggest in the city. All the high ups get their special dinners catered by this business.”
Blin looked at the sky. “It looks like it’s past midday. What if we’ve missed it?”
Zane motioned for them to follow. He wove through the people on the street and went into the door of the building across from Rok. The room was crowded with people sitting at tables. He moved to an empty table near a window. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Marlo looked around. “I don’t know about you but my purse is empty.”
Zane held up a small bundle. “Master Apegio slipped it into the bag of food he gave us.”
They all sat down. Askaro was used to eating in the mess with many other people so it didn’t bother him but he could tell Blin wasn’t happy about the place. She kept trying to watch everyone around them. Askaro found her hand under the table and squeezed it. “Relax, Blin. You don’t want to stick out.”
Marlo ordered drinks for them and they sat sipping them, watching the flow of traffic in the street between them and the catering shop. Askaro had just finished his when Zane tensed. “Darion is at the door with someone.”
They left the table and moved to the door. Darion and another man were walking down the street. Marlo took the lead. “Better let me go first, especially if your old friend might recognize you.”
They followed them to a small shop. Askaro was intrigued by the display in the window. “Look at all the gears. I recognize some of them. We use parts like that on the Falcon.”
The men went in. Marlo looked back at the others. “Well, what now? How are we going to find out what they are up to?”
Before anyone could respond, the two men came back out. Blin narrowed her eyes. “Looks like he left his package in the shop.” She grinned at Askaro. “I seem to recall you like browsing in shops like that. How about we go have a look?”
Askaro saw the frown appear on Zane’s face. “Blin is right. The two of us won’t look as suspicious as all four of us might. You and Marlo keep watch for either your friend or Bruvano.”
They agreed. Askaro and Blin went into the shop. Blin moved toward the wall lined with bins and began poking through them. “This shop has a much better selection than the ones in Old Town.”
The shopkeeper looked up from his work. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
Blin went pale. Askaro thought about all the parts that went into the mechanisms in the Falcon. “I’m looking for a small timing wheel.”
He pointed with a tool. “Try the second bin there.”
Askaro pulled Blin in that direction. “Thank you.” He caught himself before saying sir.
Blin sighed. “Glad you know something about all of this.”
Askaro began digging through the parts but kept an eye on the shopkeeper, trying to determine what the man was working on. He recognized some of the tools the man used and was puzzled. He leaned closer to Blin. “That’s odd.”
Blin held up a part. “What is?”
“He just cut a spindle most of the way through.”
Blin tapped on his arm. “Marlo is waving at us.”
Askaro dropped the piece he’d been rolling around in his fingers. “Looks like you don’t have the right size. I’ll have to try somewhere else.”
The shopkeeper looked up. His magnalens still in place made his eyes look huge. “Sorry about that. I don’t have too many customers looking for timing wheels here. Try the clock shop on High Street. I’m sure Renar carries a better selection.”
Askaro moved toward the door. “Thank you, I will.”
Blin almost ran across the street. Askaro hurried to catch up with her. She was panting when they stopped next to Marlo and Zane. “I don’t want to go look in a different shop.”
Askaro grinned. “Not planning on it. I just didn’t want him to wonder why we left.”
Zane pointed down the street. “Darion and his friend have been talking to Master Gustav. Looks like you got out of there just in time. His friend is coming back to the shop.”
They watched the man go in and come back out with a parcel tucked under his arm. Zane looked at Askaro. “Now what? Did you figure out what it is?”
“I couldn’t see what the part was but it has a spindle. that’s all I could tell from watching him. Maybe we should follow the guy and see if we can learn any more.”
Marlo took the lead. “That’s our best shot.”
They stayed close enough to keep him in view without drawing attention. He moved through the shop district, climbed some stairs and turned down the street that bordered Step Tower. Walking beside the building, Askaro realized just how big it was. “A lot of people must live in this tower.”
Zane huffed. “Hardly. From what I’ve heard, each main floor is shared by four families until you get to the tall section. Then it’s just one family on each floor. Some pretty rich folks live here. Most of them are connected to the royal court somehow.”
The road turned and then turned again, right into the tower. They began ascending a long, wide stairway, similar to the one on Steep Street. The interior walls were not colored like the outside of the tower. They were white stone blocks, perfectly fitted and aligned.
The street finally leveled off at the top. Askaro could see gray walls beyond the opening. Blin bumped into him. She was wide-eyed and looking everywhere at once. He squeezed her arm. She leaned closer. “This is the back gate of the castle. If we’re caught here, we’re dead.”
Marlo stopped at the corner of the building. “I have to agree with Blin on this one. This isn’t the safest place to be without a reason.”
Askaro was more interested in what was happening by the gate. The man had stopped and was talking to a boy dressed in bright red clothes. He gave the boy the parcel. Askaro leaned forward to hear what the man was saying.
He patted the boy on the shoulder. “Just put it on my workbench. I’ll replace it when they lower the chandelier for evening candle change.” The boy nodded and disappeared through the castle gate.
Another man in a long brown robe hurried toward the first. “Tibs, there you are. The Queen wants to know if everything will be ready for the ball tomorrow night. She had some concerns about the changes you made to the floor plan.”
“I just wanted to make sure the Prince could be visible by everyone. After all, this will be his last birthday as a Prince.”
The robed man smiled. “So true. Hard to believe he will be crowned in just two days. We have waited so long for this day. Well, thank you for your dedication.” He bowed slightly and disappeared back into the castle grounds.
The man they had been following also went in but headed in a different direction. Marlo pulled Askaro back into the shadows of the tower tunnel. “That wasn’t very helpful.”
Askaro was struggling to put all the pieces together. “What is a chandelier?”
Blin stared at him. “You may have been around the world but you sure are a dumb when it comes to it. It’s a big rack that hangs from the ceiling and holds candles.”
Zane began leading them back down the street. “And they hoist it up and down a couple times a day to swap out the stubs with fresh tapers.”
Askaro finally realized what the man had been working on. “And is there a really big one in the castle?”
Blin looked back the way they had come. “There’s a really big one in the Grand Hall.”
Zane stopped so fast that Blin tumbled right into him. Zane grabbed her arms. “How do you know that?”
Blin trembled. “I used to live there.”
Zane stared at Blin. “You lived in the castle?”
Marlo cleared his throat. “This is not the best place for this conversation.”
Askaro remembered to breathe. “Marlo’s right. We aren’t far from those guards at the gate. Let’s keep moving.”
Blin pulled away and stumbled. Askaro caught her. She met his gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I just couldn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter right now.” He turned to Marlo. “Where are we headed?”
“Somewhere we can talk.” He turned to Zane. “Maybe we can go back to Bottoms Up. That brute has surely moved on by now.”
Zane blinked and focused on Marlo. “That’s a good idea. Master Apegio will be able to help us.” He began moving down the stairs.
Marlo held out his hand. “After you.”
Askaro encouraged Blin to move forward. There were very few people on Step Street. Once they left Step Tower and moved back into the shop district, the flow of pedestrian traffic increased. There were even a few wagons pulled by draft animals pushing through the people.
Zane paused at the corner of the building across from Rok Catering. “Askaro, I got the feeling that you figured something out back there.”
Askaro had been thinking about Blin. It took him a moment to pull his thoughts back together. “I think the part was a pulley. It would make sense that he would swap it out while the chandelier was down on the ground.”
Zane’s face wrinkled. “I don’t understand. What does changing a pulley have anything to do with killing someone?”
“While Blin and I were in the shop, the shopkeeper was sawing part of the way through a spindle. The rope that holds the chandelier passes over that spindle. I just don’t know how he can control when it fails.”
Marlo looked at Blin. “I’m guessing that large chandelier is heavy.”
“It takes several men to haul it back up.”
Marlo nodded. “And if that fell on anyone, they would certainly be crushed. I would say that fits with killing someone.”
Zane wiped his face. “It certainly does. Let’s go see what Master Apegio can do.”
They turned down the street that would take them back to the pub. Askaro glanced at the shop windows they passed. He didn’t recognize many of the things he saw. Blin was right about that. He didn’t know about many things in the city.
He heard the voices before he saw them. He grabbed Zane and Blin and pulled them toward an open shop door. “We’ve got trouble.”
There was a commotion ahead of them on the street. Marlo shouted. “Too late. I think they saw you. We can’t risk getting trapped here. Unless Zane knows a magic way to get us out of this shop.”
“Not here. These shops don’t have lower storage rooms.”
Marlo pointed back the way they had come. “Then I think we need to go back.”
They began to run, making their way through the slower moving people. Askaro could hear Bruvano behind them, screaming at the people to get out of his way. “They are closing the gap.”
Blin was struggling to keep up the pace. “We can’t go back to the castle. No one there would believe us.”
Marlo turned the other way when he came to the intersection. “Not planning to. We’re headed up Spiral Tower.”
Zane groaned. He was struggling as much as Blin. “We’ll never make it before they catch up to us.”
“Ah, but we’re going to get some help with that.”
They turned another corner and Spiral Tower came into view. Askaro could see people moving in both directions along a stairway that spiraled around the tower. He struggled to see the top of the stairway. “That’s a lot of stairs.”
Marlo came to a stop next to a man who stood by the entrance of the stairway. “We’re late for class! Can we get a lift?”
The man grinned and whistled. “I think he can take all four of you in one load.”
The quick clip clop of hoofs caught Askaro’s attention. He turned to see a slender draft animal pulling a narrow cart coming toward them. A man rode on its back. He stopped the beast at the foot of the stairs and saluted. “Reporting as requested.”
The man by the stairway pointed at Marlo. “These students need to get up to University for their class.”
“Hop on, kids. I’ll get you there in no time.”
Marlo pushed them toward the strange cart pulled by the draft animal. There was a narrow board suspended between two sets of tall, narrow wheels. He swung one leg over the board and turned to them. “Leg up and hang on!”
Askaro helped Blin and Zane get on then turned to Marlo. “We’re ready.”
The rider kicked his mount and they started up the stairs. The rider blew a piercing whistle to warn the pedestrians ahead of him. They jumped aside to allow them to pass. The animal trotted rapidly up the stairs.
As they came around the front side of the tower again, Askaro looked down and saw Bruvano and Fantori in the flow of people headed for the stairs. “They are still following us.”
Marlo grinned. “Don’t worry. This will give us an edge. They are probably as tired as we are. It will take them awhile to get up these stairs.”
They went around the tower stairs several more times. Askaro had recovered by the time they left the stairs. The rider kept going. They turned a few corners and a large red brick building came into view. He stopped by the pathway that led to the building. He looked back at them. “Here you go, kids. Good luck in your class.”
Marlo pulled his leg over and jumped down. He helped the others down and waved to the rider. “Thanks, chum. Good day to you.” He pulled them toward the brick building. The cart clattered away.
Zane rubbed his hands. “That was a neat trick. I’m guessing you’ve done that before.”
Marlo led them around the side of the building to a small courtyard where people sat in groups around tables. “Indeed I have. I used to live in a small flat down there. When you accidentally sleep in, it pays to know how to get to class on time.” He went to a basin on the side of the building. Water flowed into the basin. “Need a drink?”
They each took a turn at the small fountain. Zane opened the sack and handed out more of the meat-filled rolls. “They are better warm but they are still good.”
Blin bit into hers. “Food is good anytime.”
Marlo took a few bites of his. “We can’t stay here for long. Those two looked pretty determined. Where do we go now?”
Askaro was tired. He couldn’t remember when he’s slept last. “We need a place to rest. I don’t know where my family is now. From what Fantori told Bruvano, they have left the ship.”
Zane finished off his roll. “We need to stop these men. Blin’s right, no one is going to believe us. We have to find a way to get into the castle.”
Marlo turned to Blin. “That’s where you escaped from. Is there a way back in?”
Blin looked back toward the castle spires that rose above the nearby buildings. “Yeah.” She sighed and finished her food. “I guess we can get in the same way I got out.”
Zane pulled the strap of the bag over his shoulder. “Where do we go?”
“We head for the Boulevard. We can get in by the stairs.”
Zane grinned. “So that’s how you knew about the water storage in that bridge.”
Marlo pointed toward the street. “Your turn to lead, Blin.”
Her face creased. “I don’t know where we are. If you can get us to the Boulevard, I can take it from there.”
“Deal.” Marlo led them down the street. They passed more shops and came to a street that Askaro recognized. “We’ve just gone in a big circle today.”
Blin took the lead. “Fraid so. It’s not far. And there’s a place we can rest, too. A few hours of sleep will do us good.”
They faced the castle. The walls glowed red from the sun setting behind it. They went down the stairs toward the bridge. They left the street and moved toward the wall. Askaro could see a door. He looked at the people passing above them. “Doesn’t it bother anyone that we are down here?”
Blin opened the door. “Doubt they even notice.” The water storage area was similar to the one Zane had led them through. They followed her to a wide ledge above a pathway that disappeared into the darkness. She collapsed on the rough ground. “We should sleep for now. The morning watch change will wake us.”
Askaro didn’t argue. He didn’t question how she could fall asleep so quickly on the hard, cold stone. He didn’t even remember falling asleep. He couldn’t recall if he dreamed.
Blin woke him with a gentle shake. Zane and Marlo were also rubbing the sleep from their eyes. The rumble of foot traffic above echoed through the chamber. She stretched. “Sounds like the morning shift.”
Marlo rolled to his side and propped his head up on his arm. “Can I ask now?”
Blin didn’t meet his gaze. “It’s no big deal. My mother was a servant in the castle. When she died, I left.”
“But you said you escaped and now a Seeker is after you.”
Blin didn’t answer. Zane pulled out the last of the rolls and passed them around. “At least there’s no shortage of water.”
Askaro could smell it. “To think my father worried about the cost of water here. There certainly is a lot of it.”
Zane finished his food. “No, he was right to be worried. There may be a lot of it here but it still costs a lot. The Throne controls all of the water in Rokathalon.”
Marlo plucked at the remaining strings of his lute. “Too true. Working the pubs, it’s one of the things you hear everyone complain about. The Regent doesn’t care about the people. He just wants to get rich. I’m sure he made quite a profit from the goods that your ship brought home.”
Askaro was surprised. “How would he benefit from our cargo? The proceeds go to the ship and crew according to the charter.”
Marlo got up. “But the Regent will get his share in the form of taxes. I’ve heard a lot of captains grumble over the high import taxes they have to pay.”
Zane let Marlo help him to his feet. “I’ve heard the same from the crews who ate at the pub where I was working. They got taxed when they got paid. The Regent’s tax collector was standing right next to the dock stairs as the airmen left the harbor.”
Askaro got up and offered a hand to Blin. She accepted it. He was quietly pleased that she didn’t complain. “Even more reason to stop the Regent from killing the Prince. Where to from here, Blin?”
She pointed down the walkway that ran along the basin. “We head for the castle.”
Dim light now filtered through the drains along the street. It was enough light to allow Askaro to see the dark water below. As they walked, he began to hear the sound of voices over the rumble of footsteps above them. He caught the movement and flicker of torches ahead. He pulled Blin to a stop and leaned close to her ear. “There are people ahead.”
Blin leaned against the wall. “What are they doing down here?”
Marlo came up behind them. “Who are they?”
“By the way they are dressed, members of the royal guard. I’ve never seen them down here before.”
Askaro was struggling to understand what the men were saying. Their voices were dulled by the distance. He turned to the others. “Stay here. I want to get close enough to hear what they are saying.”
Marlo frowned. “At least take Blin with you. He may understand what they are talking about better than you.”
“All right. Come on, Blin. Let’s go see what we can learn.”
They moved forward quietly. Askaro stopped when they got close enough to hear the men talking above the other sounds in the chamber. Blin leaned into his ear. “I don’t recognize any of these men.”
The men were clustered in a group, talking among themselves. Another man entered and they all straightened and faced him. His face was lit by the torch on the wall. A long scar ran down the side of his face. He stopped in front of one of them. “Is everyone here?”
“Aye, they be here.”
Scarface nodded. “Good. You will all be well paid for your loyalty. The Regent doesn’t want to take any chances. If things go wrong, you will be called in as reinforcements to the royal guard. The Queen won’t be any wiser.”
One of the men stepped forward. “What if a guest gets in the way?”
“Are you seriously asking? Kill them, of course. The Regent can’t have anyone around him that doesn’t support him completely.”
Blin chewed on her hand. Askaro tugged on her arm and pulled her back. By the time they got back to Zane and Marlo, she was shaking. “What are we going to do?”
“We need to find another way into the castle.”
Zane tilted his head. “What happened?”
“Those men aren’t real guards. They were hired to support the Regent.”
Zane gasped. “How do we know who to trust?”
Marlo fingered the stubble on his chin. “Surely not everyone supports the Regent in this endeavor. That man at the back gate sounded loyal.”
Askaro looked up, wondering about the people who lived in this city. “We have to do this ourselves.”
Zane’s eyes seemed to grow. “How? Just the four of us against a paid force and the Regent?”
“We’ll think of something but first we need to get in.”
Zane leaned against the wall. “Maybe we could get on with Rok Catering. If this is a really big banquet, they often hire extra servers.”
Marlo sighed. “Not that I wouldn’t mind serving food but I’m not sure that would be the best idea for either Blin or Askaro. They don’t have proper IDs. Any reputable business wouldn’t hire them.”
“Oh. I forgot about that.”
Blin wrapped her arms around herself. “There might be another way.”
Marlo leaned forward. “Might?”
“There’s a servants access to the lower garden. I used to help pick vegetables for the kitchen staff. The passage comes out in the kitchen.”
Askaro motioned for them to head back toward the door. “Let’s try it.”
As they walked along the pathway, the sounds from above increased. Zane looked up at the ceiling. “Wonder what that’s all about?”
Marlo stopped. “You noticed it, too? I thought it was my imagination. Askaro, maybe you and Blin should wait down here while Zane and I go have a look. It might be safer.”
Askaro agreed. He and Blin went back to the ledge where they had spent the night. He couldn’t see her well as the ledge was in darkness. “I’m sorry about your mother. Was she sick?”
“When she died, was it because she was sick?”
Blin was quiet for a moment. “No.”
Askaro found her hand and squeezed it. He was surprised when she didn’t pull away but held his in return. He softened his tone. “What happened to her?”
“The Regent killed her.”
Blin’s whisper had been so soft that Askaro wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. “The Regent? Why would he kill your mother?”
“Because he thought she was keeping some secret treasure from him. It was stupid. My mother was just a servant. She didn’t have anything of value.”
Askaro put an arm around Blin’s shoulders and hugged her. “I truly am sorry. I know how much I love my mother. You must miss yours a lot.”
Blin buried her face in his shoulder and wept silently. She didn’t move until Marlo whistled quietly to announce their return. She pulled away from him then and wiped her eyes. “What did you discover?”
Zane snorted. “Just like the royals. They are having a parade! Can you imagine that?”
Marlo chuckled. “Well, it is the Prince’s birthday and, if what I heard in the crowd is true, he’s to be crowned King tomorrow. I’d think that would be reason enough to parade him through the streets.”
Askaro scooted forward far enough to dangle his feet over the ledge. “Please don’t laugh at me when I say this.”
Blin snorted. “Let me guess, you don’t know what a parade is.”
Zane coughed. “Well, all that noise is coming from a whole lot of people who are packing the side of the streets so that there will be just enough room for the royal carriage and a row of guards to get through. Needless to say, there are Authority officers everywhere, along with plenty of guards.”
Blin joined Askaro at the edge. “This could work in our favor. We could move through the crowd and it would be harder for the rats after him to spot us.”
Marlo pulled off his lute. “If you could actually move through the crowd, that might work. Right now, everyone is packed tight on the Boulevard. The only way to move would be down the street, which would put us in the open.”
Blin sagged. “Wonderful. So now what?”
Zane opened his sack and pulled out a package. Askaro’s stomach rumbled. Zane laughed. “Askaro, my boy, you have a good nose and a loud rumbler.” He began passing around the warm meat pies. “I still had some coin left. Figured might as well make use of it.”
They ate and listened to the crowds above them. Askaro dozed and woke with a start. The chamber seemed to be roaring. Blin had her hands over her ears. Zane and Marlo were grimacing. There was no way to even ask. It finally passed. Askaro’s ears were ringing. “What was that?”
Zane slid off the ledge. “That was a lot of marching feet, stomping hoofs, and cheering people. But the good news is that the parade has passed, which means we can now make use of Blin’s excellent plan.”
They went up the stairs and slipped out of the door. Askaro had never seen so many people in his life. “This is more than all those who turned out to see us at the quay.”
Marlo held his lute rather than slinging it. “I do believe the entire city must all be out and about.”
Blin looked toward the castle. “There’s no way to get to Flower Street now. We’ll have to go around on High Street and down through the gardens.”
Zane looked at the sun. “It’s already well past midday. It’s going to be tough getting through this with any speed.”
Marlo agreed. They joined the flow of traffic on the Boulevard. They were almost to High Street when Askaro felt the hairs of his neck rise. He leaped to the side.
Fantori’s grab missed. He growled. “No more disappearing acts!”
Askaro crouched and faced the Helmsmen. “Leave us alone!” His shout made everyone around them stop and stare. He hoped that there were Authority close enough to reach them.
Blin’s scream was muffled. Askaro looked back at her. Bruvano held her with his hand clamped over her mouth. His smile was twisted. “Either you surrender or I’ll squash your little friend.”
The people around them backed up in alarm, creating a clearing. Blin struggled against Bruvano’s hold. “Stop squirming, urchin, or I’ll snap your neck right now.”
Askaro ignored Fantori and faced the Slave Master. “Let him go!”
Bruvano sneered. “Not until you let Mister Fantori lock some bracelets on you.”
“I am an officer of the Falcon, not a slave.”
Blin withered in Bruvano’s grasp. “You obviously care nothing for this wretched piece of gutter trash.”
Askaro was in motion without consciously realizing it. His mind had already calculated the distance between him and his target. The pent up frustration and anger charged his muscles. His leap was well-aimed. His feet struck Bruvano in the center of his chest.
The Slave Master gasped. Marlo grabbed Blin and pulled her away as the large man toppled to the ground. Askaro rolled away. He curled and came back up in a crouch. Bruvano didn’t even try to rise. He laid there groaning.
The sliding metal alerted Askaro a moment too late. Fantori held the blade to his neck. “I worked too many years to be denied my just rewards.”
Askaro’s roll had put him in a bad spot. He was backed into a corner with a roof overhang blocking him from above. The blade cut into the skin of his neck. “My grandfather will never allow you to escape.”
Fantori’s arms bulged. His lips pulled back from his teeth. “You won’t be here to find out.” He pulled the blade back slightly.
The blur of gray swept the Helmsman off his feet. They slammed into Bruvano, who had been trying to get up, flattening him again. The Seeker ended up on top of both men. Fantori struggled. The Seeker slammed his fist into the Helmsman’s face.
There was a collective gasp from the surrounding crowd. Askaro looked toward the others. “Is Blin all right?”
Marlo tipped his thumb upward. “And you?”
He felt the wetness on his throat and came away with blood in his fingertips. “Well, it’s a little loose but still attached.”
The Seeker looked up at him. “Your family will be happy to hear that.”
“How do you know?”
The Seeker started to answer but was drowned out by the clamor of bells. They seemed to be ringing all over the city. Askaro looked toward the others. Marlo was pointing at the sun. He had a sinking feeling. Time was up.
“Sorry, I have to go. The Prince is in danger!” He didn’t know if the Seeker heard him or not. He dashed away and joined the others as they bowled through the crowd.
Zane led the advance, jostling people aside. “Excuse us, sorry, coming through.”
The bells continued to ring but as they rushed down Garden Street, they moved away from most of them. Marlo held the door of Garden Tower open for them. “Where to, Blin?”
“Down.” She took the lead. They hurried down the circular stairway. Blin only went down a level before sprinting off down a path that led to a door. She opened it. “This is one of the castle’s gardens.”
Askaro followed her down the paving stones to the far wall. “Where is the way in?”
Blin went to a wall of ivy and pulled back the vines to reveal a wooden door. She pulled on the handle. It didn’t budge. “No!” She slammed her back against it and covered her face.
Zane and Marlo began looking around. Zane concentrated on the wall near the door. “Maybe there’s a hidden latch.”
Marlo backtracked a short distance and called back. “What about the next level down?”
Blin looked up. “What next level?”
They all moved to where Marlo stood, looking down over the stone wall that bordered the garden. “Look. there’s another door on the next level down. It comes out on that pathway. Where does that go?”
“To the farms.” Blin pointed at the hillside and Askaro realized that animals were grazing there. She bit her lip. “I’ve never been there but it might have a way to connect to the kitchen, too.”
They went back into the tower and down another level. Blin took the lead again. They ran down the pathway, which wound around a large animal enclosure. Askaro could see several more on different levels higher on the hillside.
They came to another door. It opened as they approached. Blin gasped and dashed forward, flinging her arms around the man. “Yavin! You’re still alive!”
The man’s white eyebrows went up. He sputtered as he gently pushed her back far enough to see her face. His mouth opened and he staggered. “Blin? Is that really you?”
Zane went forward and steadied the old man. “No offense, but we are pressed for time.”
Blin pulled away. “Right. Yavin, the Prince is in danger. We need to get to the Great Hall quickly.”
His face wrinkled in confusion. “The Prince? He should be in the Great Hall by now.”
“Yes! We need to get there, too!”
He scratched his head. “We’re not allowed in there, you know. You’ll have to use the servant passage.”
Blin put her hands around his face. “Yavin, this is important. The Prince is in danger. Can you at least get us to the back stairs?”
His eyes seemed to clear a little. “Oh, the servant stairs? Of course. Follow me.”
Marlo closed his eyes. “Oh, what a grand rescue party we are. Four lost souls and a half dead fool.”
Yavin led them through a maze of narrow hallways carved into the stone of the mountain. They smelled strongly of animals and hay. He struggled up stairs, hobbled down more passages, and finally arrived at the base of a wooden stairway.
Blin looked around. “I know where I am now. Thank you, Yavin.”
He hugged her. “Tell your mamma I miss seeing her. The two of you should come to tea more often.”
Blin caught her breath. She patted his arm. “You take care.” Her voice broke. She blinked her eyes and motioned to the stairs.
No one said anything as they climbed several flights. They emerged at the top. Blin had recovered her composure. “This way.” She started to run.
She turned down a long plain hallway lit by candles nestled in evenly spaced nooks. As they progressed, Askaro began to hear snatches of music. “I hope that means we’re not too late.”
The hallway dropped down a set of stairs and ended at a door. Blin turned to them. “This opens out into the hallway that leads to the upper deck of the Great Hall.” She opened the door and peered around the edge. “No one in sight.”
Askaro blinked to adjust to the brightness. Music mingled with the murmur of voices. “That sounds promising.”
Blin led them forward. The hallway ended and they emerged onto a broad railed deck that looked down on a sea of people. She pointed into the crowd. “There’s the Prince!”
To Askaro, all the people in their fine clothing looked the same. A familiar laugh echoed across the room. He grabbed the railing and scanned the crowd. “My grandfather is down there somewhere, too.”
Zane tapped him on the shoulder. “And there is the chandelier.”
Askaro gave up his search and looked up. Hanging above the center of the room was a massive round metal structure with elegant curved braces that supported a vast array of candles. He followed the chain that held it upward. “And there is the pulley.”
Marlo leaned next to him. “It looks like it’s working just fine. Maybe he changed his mind.”
Askaro looked closer. He moved down the railing. A shadow moved on a narrow platform higher on the wall across from them. He could see a thin line strung between the platform railing and the pulley. “Afraid not. I found him. And I also have an idea of how he’s going to make the pulley fail.”
The music stopped and a tall man dressed in a white suit with gold accents stepped up onto a raised platform in the center of the room. “Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow citizens of Rokathalon and distinguished guests of the Sky Realm, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here tonight.” The crowd applauded.
Zane motioned for Askaro to rejoin them. He pointed between the chandelier and the central platform. “It looks to me like that dais is right under the chandelier. I’m guessing the Regent is going to call the Prince to center stage. For his final act.”
Askaro agreed. Movement at the other end of the room caught his attention. He recognized one of the men. “We have another problem. Scarface is here.”
The crowd cheered and applauded. A young man began moving through the crowd toward the platform. Blin gripped the railing. “It’s Lashen! We have to do something!”
Askaro saw the man emerge from the shadows on the platform. It was Tibs. He turned to the others. “Blin, can you get Zane and Marlo down there fast?”
“Zane, you need to stop the hired help from getting into the room. Blin, you and Marlo take care of the Prince.”
She grabbed his arm. “And you?”
“I’m going to try to stop Tibs. Now run!”
Blin directed Zane toward a stairway at the other end of the deck and she and Marlo dashed for another. Askaro started around the deck toward the platform. There must be a way to reach it.
The Prince was making his way through the crowd slowly, pausing to shake hands. The Regent was smiling, but his cheeks were shaking. A woman with a crown also came forward. She walked up the steps and stop beside the Regent. He bowed and stepped down a level. If the chandelier fell, he would be out of harms way but the lady would be crushed.
Askaro came to a circular stairway at the corner of the deck but it only went down. He could see Zane at the far end of the room, grappling with Scarface. The Prince was almost to the platform. There was a disturbance in the crowd and he saw Blin and Marlo pushing their way through. Tibs was watching the Regent.
Askaro gauged the distance between his position and the upper landing. It was about 50 units across and at least 20 units up. There was no other option. He balanced on the railing, aimed for his target, and launched across the space.
Tibs was focused on what was happening on the dais. He gasped in surprise when Askaro plowed into him. “What are you?”
Askaro smacked down hard on the man’s hand that held the line. He cried out in pain and released the rope. Askaro looked down. Many eyes had turned upward to see what was going on. Loud banging from the other end of the room made everyone turn away. Zane was preventing the servers from removing whatever he had jammed in the handles of the doors. They shuddered with every boom.
Blin and Marlo had reached the platform where the Prince now stood with the lady. The Regent’s face twisted into a snarl. He reached behind his back. Askaro saw the gleam of metal. He leaned over the railing. “He’s got a knife!”
Blin shot forward as the Regent swung for the Prince but Blin’s momentum tackled the boy to the floor. The knife missed its target.
The Regent swore. “I’ve waited too long for this!” He raised the knife.
Marlo dashed forward and planted his lute in the man’s face. It shattered. The Regent was knocked backward off the platform and hit the floor. Guests scattered in all directions.
A boy dressed in colorful clothing appeared at the top of the stairs that led to the landing. A gray shadow followed in his wake. The Seeker called down behind him. “All is well. Have the guards come and retrieve Master Tibs.” he looked back at Askaro and grinned. “Your grandfather told me you were quite amazing. I’m beginning to understand why he feels that way.”
There was a splintering of wood and the doors burst open. Men poured in. Askaro pointed at them. “They might not be the real guards. A man with a scarred face hired a mob and dressed them up.”
The Seeker moved to the railing and whistled. A man in a fancy uniform looked up. The Seeker pointed to the new comers. “Check the men for infiltrates.” The man below saluted. The Seeker turned back to him. “Shall we go down by the stairs?”
Askaro looked back at the platform where the woman was leaning over the Prince. Blin was backing away. The woman was sobbing. “Thank you for saving my son.” She looked up and her eyes widened. “Blin?”
Blin froze. The Prince reached out and grabbed her hand. “Blin, is it really you?”
She tried to pull away. “Let me go.”
The Prince hung on. “No, Blin! Please don’t run away again. I’m sorry I was so mean to you. I was just a dumb kid. Can’t you forgive me?”
The Lady recovered and took Blin’s other hand. She gently pulled her close and embraced her. They both shook.
Askaro turned to the Seeker. “I think you’re right. Let’s take the stairs.”
The man grinned and extended his hand. “My name is Unoli.”
Askaro shook it. “I’m Askaro, of the Falcon. But you already knew that.”
Unoli chuckled and led the way down the narrow stairs. “Indeed I did. Your grandfather has been very worried about you.”
They emerged in a servant hallway. An open door led into the Great Hall. All of the guests had been ushered out. All that remained were the guards and those by the central platform. As they approached the dais, Zane and the man in the fancy uniform approached from the other side. Zane went over to Marlo, who was sitting on the steps of the platform with the remains of his lute. “Sorry about your instrument.”
Marlo sighed. “Master Ranulo always said my music could bring down the house.”
The man in uniform hid a smile. He saluted the Seeker. “All of the insurgents have been culled from the ranks, Sir.”
“Thank you, Captain Taren.” He bowed to the people on the dais. “May I present Ensign Askaro, of the Falcon, Your Majesties?”
The Lady looked up and smiled at him. “Blin has been telling me all about you. It is a pleasure to meet you, Askaro. I am Queen Doshea. This is my son, Lashen.”
Askaro bowed. “The pleasure is mine, my Queen.”
Blin’s eyebrows went up. “When did you learn how to speak so formally?”
He grinned. “My grandfather and father schooled me in many things.” He looked between her and the Queen. “When did you get to know the Queen so well? I thought you were just a servant.”
Blin looked over at Lashen. “Because we were the same age, I was forced to be this brat’s playfellow.”
The Prince laughed. “Was I really that bad?”
Blin scowled at him. The Queen smoothed back Blin’s hair. “There was more to it than that. Your mother and I made the decision after Laharas died not to tell anyone, even you, until you were older.”
Blin frowned. “Tell me what?”
The Queen looked down. “There is a great deal that most do not know but I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore.” She sighed and focused on Blin. “Your mother was more than just my handmaiden. She was also the King’s mistress. Laharas married me because he had to, not because he loved me. He loved your mother but she was just a servant of the house, with unknown lineage. Laharas and I had been betrothed when we were children. I had never met him before our wedding. When he gave me Darina, your mother, as a personal maid, I had no idea why. It wasn’t until she discovered that she was pregnant with you that she begged Laharas to tell me the truth.”
Blin looked pale. “You mean King Laharas is…”
“Yes, he’s your father.” The Queen looked over at the Prince. “I became pregnant a few months later and the King was relieved. He needed a child from me to be his heir. I have to admit, when you were born, Blin, he was a little worried. But Lashen turned out to be a fine healthy boy.”
Blin looked at Lashen. “So he’s my brother.”
The Prince grinned. “Your little brother as you were born before me.”
Blin shook her head. “The Regent kept demanding my mother tell him where the secret treasure was.” Her bottom jaw trembled. “It was me.” She covered her face and wept. The Queen pulled her close and held her.
Zane and Marlo both looked stunned. Zane dropped to the step beside the musician. “Well how about that. Blin is a royal.”
A guard came in and spoke quietly to the Seeker. Unoli nodded. “Your Majesty, Lord Delkaro and his family have been greatly worried about this young man. May they come in now?”
The Queen looked up. “Yes, of course.”
Blin looked at Unoli. “It was you the whole time that was following me, wasn’t it?”
The Seeker bowed to her. “Indeed it was. The Queen had instructed me to bring you back. When you continued to evade me, she finally relented and changed my orders to that of protection.”
Her eyes narrowed. “That was you that night, by Gable Tower?”
“I would not allow that ruffian to do you harm.”
He turned at his mother’s voice and rushed forward. “Mother!”
She hugged him tightly. “We were so worried.”
His father encircled both of them. “Are you well?”
“Nothing that a good hot shower wouldn’t cure.”
His grandfather laughed. “Ah, that’s my grandson!”
Someone else peered around Delkaro. “Can I come forward now?”
Askaro felt as though the world stopped for just a moment. “Chitano? You’re alive! But I saw Natib and Doctor Hodrel carry you away as though you were dead.”
The boy grinned and stepped forward to embrace Askaro. “I would have been had you not saved me. I’m still bruised and sore but Doctor Hodrel says I’ll live. Your mother has been kind enough to care for me. It was she who insisted I come tonight. She missed you so much. And here you are, saving the day again.”
Delkaro patted Askaro’s back. “And a job well done, my boy! Splendid leap. I’d say you really know how to make an entrance.”
Zane chuckled. “Oh, my father would have hired him in a heartbeat.”
The Queen turned to them. “Why, Captain Taren, you haven’t introduced our other rescuers.”
The Captain bowed. “Forgive me, Your Majesty.” He walked over to the cook. “This fine young man is Zane, son of Kunari.”
The Queen covered her mouth with a hand. “Oh my! As in the Great Kunari?”
Zane bowed. “At your service, My Queen.”
Her face softened. “I am so sorry about your family. When I heard what Vancent had done, I was shocked. I offered to make amends to his brother. I didn’t realize Kunari and Melody had a son.”
Zane didn’t look up. “The soldiers came and took my cousin away.”
“Yes, he’s here.” She called to one of the guards. “Please ask Donal to join us.”
Zane looked confused. “You knew?”
“Of course I did. I’m the one who had him brought here. Vancent wanted him killed because the poor boy had seen something he shouldn’t. I brought him here to protect him.”
The doors opened and a tall young man in fine clothes entered. He bowed to the Queen. “You sent for me, My Lady?”
Zane gasped. “Donal?”
The man turned. “Zane?” He rushed around the dais and embraced him. They both laughed. “What happened to you? You just disappeared.”
“It’s a long story. I ended up as an apprentice to a chef at Bottoms Up.”
Askaro turned to his grandfather. “I’m told Zane is quite an impressive chef. Do you think we might need one aboard the Falcon?”
Delkaro looked at his son. “Well, Captain Jakaro, what do you think?”
“Since our previous Master Chef is retiring, we seem to have an opening. Would you be interested, Master Zane?”
“Really? A chance to sail on the Falcon? I’m yours!”
Marlo raised an eyebrow. “I don’t suppose you’d need a minstrel?” He lifted the pieces of his lute. “I’d have to ask for a bit of an advance though.”
Delkaro rubbed his chin. “Don’t know that we’ve ever had one of those on the ship. Do you know any good songs?”
Marlo cleared his throat. “I know a lady on Harbor Street…”
Askaro held up his hands. “No, Marlo, not that one. Not here!”
Marlo stopped but Delkaro clapped his hands and laughed. “That’s one of my favorites!”
Jakaro grinned. “Looks like you’re hired. What shall we call you?”
Marlo sat up straight. “Marlo the Magnificent.”
Askaro, Zane, and Blin all laughed. Zane slapped him playfully on the back. “And I will serve up the finest meat pies for you.”
The Queen looked amused. “Are you from Rokathalon, Master Marlo?”
He blushed. “Yes, My Queen. Unfortunately my parents and I had a bit of a falling out over my occupation. They wanted me to be a lawyer.”
Delkaro put his hands on his hips. “A waste of good talent. This town doesn’t need anymore lawyers. It needs better laws. The place fell apart after we left.”
The Queen’s smile faded. She looked down. “It fell apart when Laharas died.”
Blin stiffened. “You mean when the Regent killed him. He tossed him into the pit. I know. I saw him do it.”
The Queen gasped. “What?”
Blin pulled away from her. “My mother never told you, did she.”
“No. Whatever do you mean, Blin?”
“She refused to believe me when I told her. She didn’t know about the pit then. She’d never been there. Thought it was a made up story to scare little kids. But it’s a real place. I’ve seen it.”
The Queen’s face drooped. “Blin, you were very little when he died. He was killed in an accident. Plenty of people saw it happen.”
“That’s what they told you because the Regent threatened to toss them, too, if they didn’t.”
Askaro looked at the others in the room. Most looked shocked. Unoli looked thoughtful. The Seeker leaned toward the Captain and said something quietly. The Captain left the room. Everyone else looked very tense.
The Seeker turned to Jakaro. “By the way, Captain, I regret to inform you that I have incarcerated two of your crew members.”
Jakaro looked surprised. “You have? Which ones?”
“Mister Fantori and Master Bruvano. They were engaged in illegal activity within the City.”
Delkaro frowned. “You don’t need to sugar-coat it, Sir. I’m well aware of what those louts did to my grandson. Trying to sell him! At least Golarin is an honest man. He came to me personally and begged forgiveness. He had no idea who Bruvano had been looking for.”
“I will make sure that is applied to his credentials. But what would you have me do with your men? They are not citizens of Rokathalon. Their only writ of identification belongs to the Falcon.”
Jakaro’s brow furrowed. “Didn’t they leave with us from here?”
“I’d have to check the ship’s logs. Mister Cullans might know. He was ship’s Boson for the entire journey.” He turned back to Unoli. “Please detain them for the present until Captain Jakaro can call a tribunal.”
The Seeker bowed. “As you request.”
The doors opened again and the Captain led Yavin into the room. “Here he is, Sir.”
Yavin blinked and looked around. He saw Blin. “Oh, we’re not supposed to be in here.”
Blin took his hand. She looked over at Unoli. “How did you know?” The Seeker said nothing. Blin led the old man toward the Queen. “Yavin, do you still remember the day we met?”
His face crumpled. “Sad day. Yes it was. My good King. Over the edge and down into the darkness he went.”
The Queen gasped. “You saw it happen?”
Yavin covered his face with his weathered hands. “I can’t tell. He’ll kill me, he will. But I never broke my promise.” He dropped his hands and took Blin’s. “I wouldn’t. She was just a wee little thing. But his heart is all black. He would have tossed her, too, if he knew.” He frowned and looked around. “Where is he? This wasn’t a trick on old Yavin, was it?”
Blin patted his hand. “No, Yavin. It’s all right. Vancent isn’t here.” The old man relaxed.
The Queen closed her eyes. “I’m sorry I doubted you, Blin.”
Marlo was staring at Blin. Askaro realized what the old man had said. He cleared his throat and turned to the Prince. “I’m afraid your birthday party has been ruined but please let me offer my congratulations, My Prince.”
Lashen grinned. “I hate formal affairs anyway. Tomorrow will be even worse, I imagine.”
The Queen looked around the room. “Oh my. I hope everyone is well. Lady Bes looked like she was going to faint.”
Captain Taren coughed. “All the guests have been seen to, My Lady. They are all relieved that both you and the Prince are well.”
Askaro looked at his friends. “We did it.”
Zane laughed and put an arm around Marlo’s shoulders. “You’ll have to compose a good ballad for us.”
Delkaro nudged Askaro. “Well, you’ve brought us and new chef and a minstrel. What about this one?”
Askaro looked at Blin. “That will depend on her answer.”
She narrowed her eyes. “To what question?”
“Will you be my wife?”
“Well, heave and ho! And away we’ll go; All sails to the wind and heat up the air! For the Falcon is ready for the winds that will blow; And her crew is prepared to go anywhere.”
Askaro let the final note fade before he clapped his hands. “A fine tune, Marlo. I’m sure everyone will love it.”
The musician leaned back in the chair and rested the lute in his lap. He ran his fingers along the polished neck. “This is a very nice piece of work. Your grandfather was generous.”
Askaro looked around his new office. “He certainly has been busy these past few months. But the spring winds are blowing strong. And your song is right – the Falcon is ready.”
Marlo got up. “So how does the new Chief Engineer like his job?”
Askaro chuckled. “I’m fine with it. I grew up in the Control Room. That’s where my father spent most of his time when he wasn’t elsewhere on the ship.” There was a rap on the door. “Come in.”
Ensign Carton looked around the door. “Mister Askaro, the Captain and the Adviser are waiting for you on the Bridge.”
“Thank you, Mister Carton. I’m on my way.” The Ensign saluted and left. “At least Mister Rickton is staying on. He’s a splendid First Officer.”
Askaro and Marlo walked down the hall toward the Bridge. Marlo laughed quietly. “Adviser. That’s some title.”
“Well, even though he retired and turned the ship over to my father, my grandfather just can’t let go of it. The Falcon was his dream, his determination, and his life for too long. So we had to give him a title. I think it’s fitting.”
Marlo nodded. “See you later. I have a few more songs to practice. I want everyone to enjoy tonight’s first big performance.”
“I’m sure you’ll be magnificent.” Askaro moved through the doors. He saluted. “Engineer Askaro, reporting as requested.”
Jakaro pointed to Delkaro. “The Adviser wanted to see the changes you made to the heat controls.”
Delkaro grinned at him. “Ah, the youngest Chief Engineer ever. I knew you had great potential.”
“I just had great teachers.” He pointed toward the doors. “After you, Sirs.”
They walked out onto the main deck. Crewmen were busy bundling rope and checking over spare canvas lashings. Master Elvarian matched strides with them. “Captain, just wanted to let you know that the last load of canvas has been received.”
Jakaro smiled at him. “Excellent. Make sure Quarter Master Thorson checks that off his list.” The Sails Master hurried away.
Delkaro looked at both sets of riggings. “It was a good call to promote Elvarian up to First Watch. He’s a good man.”
Zane came out of the Aft Deck door. He saw them and called out. They paused at the mid-ship stairs and waited for him. “Ah, good. I wanted to catch you before I started preparations. What did you want for the dinner tonight, duck or lamb?”
Delkaro raised his brows. “Oh, we should have found this one sooner.”
Jakaro laughed. “The duck sounds wonderful, Master Zane. I trust everything in the galley meets your satisfaction?”
“Yes, Captain. And we are well stocked for at least the first six weeks.”
Jakaro looked at the wind flags tied to the frame of the dirigible. “If these winds hold, we’ll be in Gaston well before then.”
Zane turned to Askaro. “Who would have ever thought I’d get to see the world. This is so amazing.”
“Your father would have appreciated this ship, don’t you think?”
Zane looked around. “He certainly would have.” He looked at them and cleared his throat. “Sorry, Sirs. I don’t mean to keep you.”
Jakaro patted him on the arm. “That’s okay, Zane. We’ll see you at dinner.”
Zane went down the stairs and they ascended into the dirigible. The midway was busy with crewmen hurrying to complete their tasks. They all stopped and saluted as the three men made their way aft.
Delkaro was impressed. “Considering how many of these crewmen are new, they are very well-trained.”
Askaro opened the door of the Control Room. “I think Master Natib has done an excellent job with them.”
Lorin turned toward the door and caught his breath. He blew his whistle. “Captain on deck!” The other crewmen hurried to fall into line. They stood straight at attention.
Jakaro nodded to them. “Thank you, Master Lorin. At ease. We just came to show Adviser Delkaro the modifications to the heat controls.”
The crewmen relaxed and went back to work. Askaro motioned for Lorin to join them. “Did you talk Tolok into joining us?”
“I’m afraid not. He’s grateful to be released from his bonds but he never cared for ship life. He’s quite happy now working in the gardens.”
“That’s good enough then.” Askaro turned to the equipment he’d installed and began explaining the system.
The communication tube whistled and Lorin answered. He called over to them. “It’s the Bridge. The King and Queen are here for their tour.”
Jakaro sighed. “I almost forgot about that. Thank you, Master Lorin. Please inform the Bridge that we’ll meet the royal family in the Beak.”
They hurried back to the other end of the ship. They found the King looking around the hold as Mister Thorson listed many of the unique items they had brought back on the last voyage. The Quarter Master straightened when he saw the Captain. “Begging your pardon, Sir, but I didn’t want them to stay standing in the Beak until you arrived. There’s a ripe wind coming from the west.”
Jakaro stepped forward and bowed to the Queen and her son, the King. “I apologize that we kept you waiting. We were examining some newly installed equipment in the Control Room.”
The Queen smiled warmly. “That’s quite all right, Captain. Mister Thorson did an excellent job of entertaining us. I do so hope you won’t be gone quite as long this trip. I’d love to see some of the things he was describing.”
Jakaro thanked the Quarter Master again and began his tour. The Prince fell in step beside Askaro. “You’re so lucky. You get to go off on this grand adventure and I’m stuck here.”
Delkaro laughed. “You sound just like your father. He said almost the same exact thing to me before we left the first time.”
Lashen grinned. “Well, maybe I am a little like him but I don’t plan to make the same mistakes he did. I’ve already changed a lot of the laws that the Regent enacted. Now I’m starting to go through the older ones that my father, and his, put on the books.”
They climbed the stairs to the interior of the dirigible. Delkaro pointed out the improvements to the structure. They continued along the midway. The Adviser walked beside the new King. “And what will you do about a wife?”
“There happens to be a young lady that I met at the University. She’s very sweet and quite smart. I’m hoping that she might agree to be my wife someday. But I don’t want to rush her. I want her to feel ready.”
The Queen put her hand on his arm. “When she is, I hope you’ll introduce me. All you do is talk about her.”
Lashen’s cheeks reddened. “When I finally get around to telling her that I’m the King, I’ll bring her by.”
Askaro laughed. “That must come from your father’s side of the family.”
Jakaro stopped at a Hot Room door. “We won’t actually be going in but I thought you’d like to see the changes we’ve made.” He tapped and the door opened.
Master Gilus looked out. “All are behaving themselves, Sir.”
The Queen peered in the doorway. “I thought you said you had eliminated slave labor on the Falcon.”
“We did. These aren’t slaves, they are criminals. Why let them waste away in a prison cell when they can be useful?”
Askaro hadn’t paid much attention to the men brought on board for Hot Room duty. He saw a familiar profile. “Is that Bruvano?”
Delkaro leaned down to see better. “I do believe it is. Well, isn’t that fitting.”
Lashen moved away from the Hot Room. “And how are the new crew arrangements working?”
Jakaro glanced at Askaro. “I have to admit, better than I expected. When Askaro made the suggestion of letting women join on as crew, I thought we’d have nothing but grief. But it turns out they are better than men at some of the tasks because of their lighter weight. And they tend to be more agile so they can move through the riggings faster.”
The Queen’s face betrayed her concern. “And what about when they aren’t on duty?”
The Captain led the way back toward the mid-ship stairs. “Even that has worked out. Over the past month, as the new crew got to know each other, relationships formed and everything balanced out.”
Delkaro led the way up the winding stairs toward the Sky Deck. “And no more Pleasers. We’ve done away with all of those old rules. If the crew want to have families, they can. They are all happy about that.”
They stepped out onto the metal deck and Jakaro pointed at the ropes. “It’s a bit windy up here. I’ve got weather lines up. Feel free to make use of them.”
They moved toward three figures standing near the railing watching a training exercise with the sail crews. Lashen quickened his pace. “Blin!”
She turned to him and waved. “You’re finally here. So what do you think of my new home?”
He hugged her. “Very nice, sister dear.”
Tralora’s hands rested on her extended abdomen. The Queen hugged her. “And how are you feeling today?”
“Quite well. This baby is so active already. He will be born ready to climb the riggings.”
Jakaro kissed her cheek. “Or she will be dancing all over the ship.”
Tralora’s smile widened. “Either way, I can hardly wait. I still have several months to go.”
Lashen looked over at the Seeker. “So, Unoli. What do you think of your new duty station?”
“I will finally be a true knight of the realm, Sire. After all, are we not called the Sky Realm? And what better way than to take to the skies aboard the Falcon, the greatest of all the ships of our realm.”
The Queen hugged Blin. “I will miss you so much.”
“Don’t worry about me. If I can stand on my own in the streets of Old Town, I can master the sky as well.” She took Askaro’s hand and pulled his arm around her. “Besides, my husband has lots of experience. He was born and raised on this ship, just like our children will be.”
The Queen hugged both of them. “Just don’t wait another seventeen years to bring my grandchildren for a visit.”
Jakaro motioned toward the stairs. “Shall we continue our tour?”
Blin kept a hold of Askaro’s hand. He looked at his father. “I’ll catch up.”
Tralora and Unoli left with the others. Blin moved his hand to rest on her less obvious bulge. “This is certainly going to be an adventure.”
Askaro held her close but looked out across the expanse of open sky to the east. “Are you ready?”
She leaned into him. “I just have one question for you.”
“Are you seriously expecting to find fairies out there?”
He kissed the side of her face. “Myths have to come from somewhere. I’m willing to look. You never know what you’ll find beyond the blue horizon.”
I have been writing most of my life. I published my first work of fiction at the age of 16 and have continued on for the past 35 years. I currently live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America.
Although I have written both fantasy and science fiction, this is my first attempt at Steampunk.
This story was originally written as a serial for WattPad.com. I’m releasing it as a whole book for those readers who want the entire story in one place. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story. Although some have asked if I intend to write a sequel, there are no such plans at this time. Although if enough readers ask, I might be persuaded…
You can find most of my work as e-books at Smathwords.com under my author name. I write both fiction and nonfiction.
Eternal Knights Series: Dark Predator & Shadow Dancer
The Dragon Lady of Hamilton High
Salty Dogs (A children’s chapter book)
Micah’s Gift – A Christmas Countdown Story
Askaro of the Falcon
Writing the Journey
A Place Called Kalaloch
Weaver Wisdom – A Practical Guide to Wholistic Living
Reuniting the Divided States of America
While Gold Magic: Eggling is available both in print and e-book from Amazon, the e-book format will be coming to Shakespir this spring with the release of Lost Souls, the next book of the Gold Magic Series.
If you want to keep up with all of my adventures, you can follow me on Facebook. Sorry Twitter fans, I simply don’t have time to keep up with all the chatter. For more information on my work or to book an educational seminar, drop an email to .
Thanks for reading and have a great day!
Lady Li Andre
Askaro was born aboard the Falcon, the greatest airship ever built in the Sky Realms. His mother was captured during a raid so according to the ship’s charter, Askaro is a slave who will be the property of the Slave Master when he turns sixteen. But his father and grandfather say otherwise. The Falcon, her hold full of wealth, is finally headed for her homeport, Rockathalon, the capital of the Sky Realm, which she left 17 years ago. When treachery sets Askaro adrift in the precarious mountain stronghold, he must find a way back to his family and the Falcon. But when he stumbles onto a plot against the future king, Askaro and his newly found friends must decide if their needs outweigh the good of the kingdom.