Chapter – Air Apparent
“Slowly,” yelled Abeland to his crew through a bullhorn as the Hotaru lowered. “Keep those turbines synchronized. We don’t want to lurch to the left like we did the last time we landed. After a perfect combat test like that, I’d like a perfect landing. Everyone ready?”
“Aye!” yelled back his crew.
“Cheeky monkeys,” replied Abeland with a laugh. “Are you all pirates now? Stay focused.” He put the bullhorn aside and placed his leather-gloved hands on two longer, bronze levers among the dozen before him. Then he looked over his shoulder at his crew of eight, everyone at their positions, each by a turbine or large, magnetic-coil gun. The engineer sat at the back, an array of silver bells and levers in front of him, just like Abeland’s, and a cabin door behind him.
The Hotaru eased below the tree-line and wobbled delicately over the railroad platform, its turbines still belting out a deep, rhythmic thumping sound.
He pulled one of the levers and grabbed his bullhorn, which was roped to the console of meters and gauges above the bells. “Are we ready to drop the ropes?”
A member of his crew peeked over the bow of the Hotaru and gave him a hand sign of two fingers straight up.
“Good. Then ropes away!” Abeland pulled the lever.
The crew below grabbed the ropes.
Abeland looked at the silver bells and their cryptic labels. He plucked out one and gave it a ring.
The engineer rang his confirming bell, and the turbines slowed even more.
“While the Skyfallers are clumsy and sluggish, the one thing I’ll give the Lady in Red,” said Abeland to himself, “is that it was genius to move airships by rail. I don’t mind stealing that, given that we built the yigging rail system.”
The Hotaru banged back and forth as it fit into place.
He smiled at the sound of the engines shutting down, and the wub-wub sound of the turbines slowly giving way to the sounds of people working furiously. With a satisfied sigh, he bent down and picked up his metal and glass breathing helmet, and detached its hose from the deck floor.
“All clear?” called someone from the ground.
“All clear,” yelled back Abeland.
A second later, ladders were leaned against the Hotaru and a team of engineers and support staff climbed aboard.
“And?” asked the chief engineer, suddenly appearing in front of Abeland.
“You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to give me a heart attack.”
The short, grey-haired man smiled. “You Piemans are hard to kill.”
“That we are,” replied Abeland with a smile. He handed over the helmet. “On the positive side, the breathing apparatus worked beautifully this time. I had no problem getting air from the tanks below deck. Check with everyone else that they found it better, but I believe we’ve solved the problems of altitude. Now, if you could do something about the glass before my eyes fogging up when we go into the clouds, that would be wonderful.”
“You what? You’re… I’m sorry, but these aren’t designed for that purpose.”
“How will we know our limits if we don’t test them?”
“Is plummeting out of the sky to your death a reasonable outcome then?”
Abeland raised an eyebrow and slapped a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Isn’t science about learning from what we do and engineering about ensuring we don’t die while we do it? And are you not my chief engineer?”
The man glared at Abeland.
“I’m glad we understand each other.” Abeland offered a half-grin.
“Any other impossible tasks you’d like me to contend with?”
“We need to boost the speed of the Hotarus. Maybe by… twenty percent?”
“Why not just say a thousand?”
Abeland gave the man a sharp look. “Because I know you can do twenty percent. The steam engine’s not at maximum efficiency. I can feel the vibrations and loss of energy when we try to give her all she’s got. Also, I think that finding a way to rotate the turbines, so they can push us along, not just give us some lift, could go a long way. It doesn’t need to be much, just a bit more. It would do wonders.”
“Hmm…” The chief engineer scratched his head. “I’m not promising anything, but I’ll give that some thought.”
“That’s all I’m asking for.”
The chief engineer grumbled and marched off.
Abeland took off his gloves and stuffed them into the pockets of his long, brown coat. After a satisfied glance at all the activity, he disembarked and started walking southwards along the rail lines.
As he left the bustle behind him, he thought about Caterina, also known as the Lady in Red. Recent reports about her steam engine trains and new Skyfallers were disturbing and indicated potential to reduce the Piemans’ advantage significantly. Worse was the news that the Lady in Red had not only had the Council of the Fare murdered, but Caterina had managed to get most of the Fare’s factions to pledge themselves to her. Her forces and spy network were quickly matching that of the Piemans, and her financial resources were significantly stronger.
He stared up at the sky, thinking.
“You have that sour face, Uncle,” said Richelle, stepping off a rail-raft and waving off her four soldiers. She was wearing a dark brown jacket and pants, with black boots and her trademark red hood.
“Did I really not hear that approach?” he asked, surprised, as the soldiers pumped the rail-raft off to join the Hotarus’ train.
“It’s not the first time I’ve caught you lost in thought lately.”
He grimaced. “It doesn’t matter that the Hotarus are still a hundred times better than the Skyfallers, the only captains we have are you and me. Everyone I’ve tried to train has nearly cost us a Hotaru. They just cannot think in three dimensions.”
“Hmm,” said Richelle.
Abeland kicked at the ground. “Even if each Hotaru can take out a dozen of Caterina’s airships, she’ll overwhelm us given the latest numbers I received.”
“Well, I have a lead on someone I think might be able to be a third captain,” said Richelle. “They’ve proven themselves to be… very adaptable.”
Abeland raised an eyebrow.
“I won’t be saying a word more about it until I know that they are on board.” She started walking back to the Hotaru; Abeland followed. “How did the ship handle this time?”
“Honestly?” he said looking back, “I’m rather pleased. The latest set of changes had exactly the effect we wanted. The MCM engines now provide the extra boost we need to get in the air more quickly, and once the steam engine takes over, the MCMs allow our weapons to fire and reload quickly.”
“I still think the single best improvement was painting the bottom to look like a cloud in the sky,” said Richelle. “You are aware I originally meant it as a joke, are you not?”
“Some of the best truths lie in jest. On another note, we downed an actual Skyfaller,” said Abeland.
“Pardon?” said Richelle, stopping in her tracks.
“We found it and followed it from a distance until it bombed some small mountain village a few dozen miles from here. We blew it right out of the sky before it even knew what was happening.”
A huge smile crossed Richelle’s face. “So, the magnetic coil weapons work?”
“Magnificently.” He motioned for her to continue walking. “Now, you find us some captains, and I will get more Hotarus ready. Then when we hear back from Father, we’ll be ready.”
Richelle took a deep breath. “Are you worried about this Trial by Royals? It’s been more than a hundred years since leaders from throughout the continent have come together to judge another leader’s crimes. There are no real rules, from what I hear. Never mind that Opa has a lot of enemies these days, the Lady in Red’s got some serious influence over many royal families, never mind having the entire original Fare under her command.”
“Concerned, yes. Worried, no. I’ve learned never to underestimate my father. He’s already caused Caterina no end of frustration. First, she tried to execute him, but he forced a trial. I suspect next he’ll find a way to avoid the trial altogether.”
“She won’t lose well,” said Richelle, evaporating Abeland’s good mood.
He glanced about. “No, and we’ll need to be ready. Any word about the remains of the Tub?”
Richelle shook her head. “There are rumors that the Butcher and Baker have been active near Relna, but nothing significant. Maybe it’s the last, desperate flail of a dead secret society. Like Caterina’s will be soon enough.”
Chapter Three – Whispers to Fear
Tee peeked out from behind a big pine tree. She pulled her yellow hood back down over her face. “I don’t see them,” she whispered to Alex.
The fifteen-year-old towered over her, standing right beside her.
He was dressed in his daily garb of a worn, green, long coat and high-collar shirt. The cuffs and elbows of their clothes were threadbare, and the stains and small tears told much of the story of the past two months since Kar’m.
The dense forest was carpeted with autumn leaves of all shapes and colors. The majestic trees seemed innocent of it all, with the canopy high overhead still thick and blocking some of the afternoon sun.
A rifle crackled in the distance.
“That was further away than the last time,” said Alex, his Enderian accent crisp and sharp. He tugged on his cuffs and pulled up his coat’s collar. His chin raised, he scowled at the landscape.
“See, I told you they’d go the wrong way,” said Tee, leaning against the trunk of the tree. She pulled back her yellow hood and put down the leather sack. She slid her backpack to the ground, rolling her shoulders in relief. “I have to admit that was more of a chase than I was hoping for.”
Alex grumbled, running a hand through his short, tight-curled, black hair. “These missions the leaders of the Tub have been sending us on are getting more and more dangerous. We shouldn’t be doing them.” He gave Tee a sideways glance. “There’s no Tub, so why are we doing their bidding?”
“Because that’s the only way we’re going to get my grandpapa back or see any of our families again.”
Alex bristled. “If they wanted to save Nikolas Klaus, then I believe they would have already done so. That Madame DeBoeuf, Elly’s supposed grandmother, she has many plans.”
Tee raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”
His face tensed, and he turned away. “Nothing. I’m sure she promises everyone something to keep them in check.”
“Alex, what’s going on?”
Tee shook her head. “I don’t like that they’ve been keeping us all apart. Madame DeBoeuf, in particular, has been preventing any of us from having any time alone, but I think it’s because she’s worried about our safety.”
“Are you that naive?”
“Excuse me?” snapped Tee. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to save my grandpapa, and I have complete faith in my other grandfather, Sam.”
Alex licked his lips and looked at Tee. “I would like Nikolas Klaus to be free; I do. He sounds like a splendid man. But I am not sure I’m willing to risk my life for his.”
“Ah. Wow.” Tee checked the cable that ran from her armband grapnel device to the backpack. “We’re all on the same side you know.”
He slowly shook his head back and forth. “I’m not sure. I believe if the Butcher and Baker wanted to save Nikolas Klaus, they would have done it weeks ago.”
Tee’s face twitched. “Is it true that when you were paired with Elly a few days ago, you basically sat out and she had to do everything? She mentioned it quickly before we left, but I couldn’t quite believe you’d do that, until now.”
Alex nervously brushed his sleeves. “We were asked to break the law, to steal maps from a cartographer. And those maps didn’t seem to have anything to do with freeing your grandfather. We didn’t even leave any money to pay for them. That’s wrong.” He gestured about. “Don’t you see how they’re warping our sense of what’s right and wrong? I mean, you still have not said anything about regretting killing those men at Kar’m.” His eyes welled up. “How can you live with yourself?”
Tee stood up and shoved Alex with one hand. “You’ve got some nerve.”
“It’s the truth, Tee. I haven’t said anything because I hoped to hear it come from you, but I no longer believe it will. I thought you were an honest and honorable person. But you killed those men when you threw them off that airship.”
She glared at him and went nose to nose with him. “They were killing good people. They were going to kill us. I did my best to make them stop, and if some of them died in the process, that’s what happens.”
Sorrow was written all over Alex’s face. “How can you be okay with that?”
“I don’t know what life was like growing up with your uncle as king, Alex, and I’m sorry you had to flee your homeland, but where I grew up, if a wolf attacks you, you do what you must to survive. If there’s no cruelty or malice in your heart, then you didn’t do anything wrong.”
He bit his lip and looked down.
Tee took out a thin leather strip and tied her hair back. She stared at him all the while. “So, you think I’m a killer? Or is this a twisted-up sense of being homesick?” She slid her backpack on again.
He stared quietly at her.
She took a big breath. “I’m going to pretend this conversation didn’t happen. I’m going to pretend that you’re just freaked out because there are men with guns hunting for us.”
Tee pulled back the white sleeve of her blouse. Studying the gauges on her grapnel-armband, she turned a dial until she was happy with the readings. “Give me a second to finish recalibrating this.”
Alex shrugged. “Anyway, shouldn’t we be scurrying along to the rendezvous point? We’re supposed to meet Monsieur Baker and Richy a mile or two from here, aren’t we?” He pulled out a compass. “It’s that way.”
Tee picked up the leather sack and slung it over her shoulder. “You don’t want to wear the yellow cloak, fine. But don’t judge what I do from your moral tower. You’re down here with me, and if you’ve got any better ideas, then share them.” She wrinkled her nose.
“I thought you were going to pretend many things?”
The edge of Tee’s mouth curled into a snarl. “Now I will. Let’s get moving.”
After walking in silence for several minutes, Alex broke the silence. “As the King of Endera, my uncle avoided wars with his neighbors despite the often prodding from war-mongers and the nefarious secret societies. He said they whispered poison and could spin one’s moral compass.”
Tee cleared her throat, her fists tightening around the sack and the strap of her backpack. “Drop it Alex. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Then what’s in the sack? Where did they send Amami? Why did Madame DeBoeuf send Mounira off to stay with Christina Creangle and the Moufan-Men?”
Tee glared at him.
“It was like when she sent Bakon and Egelina-Marie out west. She did it then told us. She claims it was because she didn’t want a little child getting hurt, but Mounira was the only one hitting the Butcher with questions.”
They jumped as a shot rang out.
“That was close by,” whispered Tee, pulling her hood up and crouching down.
Alex leaned against a tree and pointed. “Did it come from that direction?”
“I don’t know.” Tee squinted and surveyed the area.
The air crackled with another rifle shot.
“That was even closer.” Sweat beaded on Alex’s forehead.
“Where are they?” Tee’s leg bounced with anticipation. “They’re probably a hundred and fifty yards or so. Let’s go this way.” She stood up and took his arm.
“How can you estimate like that?” asked Alex.
“We did it in our lessons. Didn’t you learn that in—what’s it called?—school?”
She scoffed. “Well, maybe we’re not the barbarian brutes you secretly think we are.”
Two more shots rang out, one taking a chunk out of a nearby tree.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Tee, running and pulling him along.
Alex looked back over his shoulder. “I can see something moving.”
“Eyes up ahead. Run and live, look and die. That’s what Amami says.”
“I don’t think we’re going to outrun them this time. We had the rain last time to help us lose them,” said Alex, his voice laced with panic, his hands slick and shaking.
Tee changed their course sharply.
“Why this way?”
She craned her neck to stare upwards. “Do you see something shiny up there?”
“What are you looking for?” Alex glanced about.
“I think it’s a canopy bridge. Elly, Richy, and I found some a while back when we dealt with the Ginger Lady. Grab on to me,” said Tee, pulling back her sleeve and fidgeting with her armband.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re going to test out the latest edition of this contraption of mine and hopefully not die. How strong is that belt of yours?” She pointed her armband upwards.
“I don’t understand,” said Alex, his arms outstretched, his eyes wide and wild.
Tee pulled him right up to her and glared. He grabbed on to her, and she fired the grapnel up into the air. “Hang on!”
They zoomed through the air until they came right up to the metal canopy bridge. It was covered in leaves and branches.
“Climb around the edge and onto the bridge.”
“What are we doing?”
“Please, just do what I’m asking.”
“Is this safe?”
“Now’s not really a great time to be asking that,” said Tee, looking below for their pursuers.
“This is what I’m talking about. How is this the type of thing that a young lady should be doing? This is lunacy. The Tub makes you think this is normal,” said Alex, getting a firm hold of the metal slats and carefully making his way up and over the side of the canopy bridge. “How do you even know about this thing?”
Shaking her head at him, she freed the grapnel. “Good, it’s still usable.” She then turned two knobs on her armband, and the cable started reversing. Sliding her backpack off, she began feeding the cable carefully back into it.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting it ready in case we need it again. By the way, we have company.” She pointed downwards at the confused Red Hoods who were walking about, weapons out, cursing.
Alex looked at the fifty yards of bridge that headed off to the east, and then the same distance to the west. “This is huge.”
“Yeah, pretty big,” she said, finishing up with the cable and closing her backpack.
“Which way are we supposed to go?”
“Shh. Nowhere, yet. We don’t want to make noise and tell them where we are. Also… I don’t know anything about this bridge. For all I know, it could fall apart as we run on it. I’ve done the dangling in front of bad guys thing before, not my favorite moment.”
“What?” Alex put his head in his hands. “Can you just be serious?”
“I could, but since Elly’s not here, someone needs to be snarky,” said Tee, watching the Red Hoods below.
One raised his pistol and shot into the air randomly. He waited then fired another shot in a different direction.
Tee glanced at Alex, whose face was flush and whose head kept shaking back and forth. “We’re going to be okay.” She put a hand on his arm. “Really.”
“This isn’t what I was raised for. I’m supposed to be in a royal court. I’m supposed to be studying and inventing, maybe leading conventioneers someday. Not hiding in trees and running from agents of the One True Fare.” He stared at her, tears of terror in his eyes. “What are we even doing here?”
“You flew in the air to save me, remember?”
“I wasn’t thinking then; I am now.”
“Then just stop thinking. Breathe, and just be. We’re here and we’re going to be okay.” She pointed to one of the ends of the canopy bridge. “Over there is either a ladder down or another bridge and then a ladder down to the ground. In two minutes, we’re going to be on our way.”
Alex tapped his fingertips on his forehead.
His eyes met hers. “I am okay. What do we need to do?”
The Red Hoods fired another shot, this one ricocheting off a nearby piece of the canopy bridge.
Tee and Alex froze, staring at each other. They could hear the confused Red Hoods below.
“I can’t understand what they’re saying,” said Tee.
Alex put a finger to his lips, his eyes moving side to side intently.
Tee waited anxiously, scouring the landscape for more signs of trouble. After a minute, she pulled out the pocket watch her granddad, Sam Baker, had given her.
Alex put his hands over the pocket watch as he continued to listen intently.
Glancing down, Tee noticed one of the Red Hoods pointing a rifle in the air. She grabbed Alex, making sure her yellow cloak was underneath them.
A shot rang out.
“Yigging pargo,” cursed Tee, letting Alex go. She rubbed her back. “That stings.”
They peeked down and watched as the Red Hoods threw up their hands and started walking off.
Tee patted Alex on the sleeve. “See, we’re okay.” She groaned. “Not great, but okay.”
“Yeah,” said Alex, standing and holding on to the tree-branch-covered railings of the canopy bridge.
“What did they say?” asked Tee, standing up and motioning for him to start moving.
“They said some things that didn’t make sense. I think they were mixing in a language I didn’t recognize—or maybe they were military words? One thing seemed important to them: having seen a Yellow Hood. There’s a bounty from someone named Lou.”
Tee grabbed Alex’s arm.
He turned to see her face was pale. “What is it?”
“LeLoup. Did they say LeLoup?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Why? It doesn’t matter; they’re gone.”
“No. It matters. Did they say LeLoup?” she asked, her face inches away from his.
Alex frowned at her and peeled her fingers off his sleeve. “I don’t know. I’m perplexed why this is so important to you.”
“He’s the guy who shot Elly. Who Richy, Elly, and I first tangled with.”
Alex straightened his collar and shook his head. “It’s most likely someone else. You are simply paranoid.”