The passenger compartment stank of smoke and ash. Clouds of soot eddied in the turbulent air along with charred fragments of Father’s paperwork. Black streaks stained the metal around the ruined porthole, both benches were scorched, and Prentyze’s backrest was burning fitfully. This morning, this furniture had been the height of Temple luxury. Now it was a mess.
Flammia lay on the narrow wooden floor between the benches, crying in agony. Soot coated her hair, face and upper torso. She clamped her hands to her blackened face, and her whole upper body writhed from side to side.
Nothing remained of her shield except a smouldering arm loop around her black-streaked, forearm plates.
Prentyze tried to drop to his knees beside her, intending to help her somehow. She did not make room for him, forcing him to couch awkwardly, and ignored him as she continued rocking and sobbing from behind her gauntletted hands.
Zubin turned on Prentyze’s father who was gawping in shock. “Design Master Brassard! Hang it, man, snap out of it! If ever we needed your brain, it is now. Think or die! How do we block further fire?”
Flammia, through her sobs, called out, “Do something useful yerself for once, yer useless, clodding priest. Block the fucking hole with yer skinny arse and see if yer foul excuse of a false god likes yer well enough to protect yer!”
Prentyze gasped. Father and Zubin goggled at her for a long moment as the slipstream roared and the crystals screamed, now with a broken, rasping whine.
“How dare you!” Zubin shouted, looking mortified. “I have treated your faith with nothing but respect, as is only polite. But you –”
“Young lady,” Father interjected, also shouting, “Retract your insult right now, what? Never mind the bloody Temples, I guarantee you’ll never hear the last of it across the whole of High Society.”
Anger blazed across Father’s face, but a slight smile played at the corners of his mouth.
Really? The elders were going to play THAT game, now of all times?
As if realising what Father had just said, Zubin was now alternating his suspicious glares between Father and the prostrate girl. But Father was still concentrating his gleeful anger at Flammia, seemingly unaware of the priest’s examination.
Whatever Father had in mind, it didn’t bode well for the girl.
But there was a rather more pressing matter, which everyone seemed to have forgotten. The dracs outside.
“Father, I really think you should –”
“Prentyze! Stay out of this, or you’re no better than her!”
Stung, Prentyze scrambled up from his crouch and back into his seat, gabbling words that long experience had trained him to say. “Yes, Father! Sorry, Father!”
Father wasn’t wrong. Pain was no excuse. Her insult had been an unforgivable transgression of civility. She had cursed another’s religion, and in the crudest terms possible. If she didn’t apologise for her outburst, she would actually deserve her fate.
Best not have that stick to him too.
He looked away from the older men, who were now pointedly ignoring each other, and turned his attention to the wind-buffeted wreck of a porthole, waiting for the next attack with mounting horror.
Oblivious to everything, or deliberately ignoring everyone, Flammia continued to twist and sob in pain. Whatever was wrong with her face, it hurt her – he could hear her torment over the sound of the slipstream and lift crystals.
Thanks to his bastard father, they would die long before attempting the old man’s quest to prove dragons were now game for sport. Ironically, it wouldn’t even be a dragon that killed them: all it had taken was a small flight of beastly dracs.
What had the bastard called their flames today, in the ambush? Insignificant? If that word didn’t come back to haunt him, Prentyze bloody would!
With the only fighter worth a damn in this group downed and incapacitated, one more attack would kill them all. Somebody had to think about the drac threat, even if only a teenage boy. But what could he, a would-be scholar, do about drac fire? Douse it with his potion?
Don’t be silly.
Strange. Nothing had happened for a while. The feared final attack had not yet materialised.
When would it come?
Prentyze tried not to whimper as moments passed.
To wait in fear was torture.
Why weren’t they attacking? For that matter, why couldn’t he hear the beasts outside? He could only hear the slipstream. The beasts’ screeches were absent.
The pilot called back, “Your Worship! Barys be praised, the buggers have fallen back – they’re dropping like rocks. I believe we’ve exceeded their maximum altitude.”
The teeth-clenching, broken whine of the crystals abated in intensity, and wind rushed past the open portal, though weaker and quieter than before.
In stony silence, the two older men ignored each other and Flammia.
Feeling a flicker of heat near his left ear, Prentyze pounded his backrest to extinguish the small fire there, making a further spray of embers and ash swirl around the cabin. That done, he rested as his fear ebbed away and regarded the young woman on the floor. She was still oblivious of the men’s presence, and continued to cover her face. Or was it her eyes? But her breathing now was deeper, and she made only an occasional groan, barely heard above the background din.
“This changes nothing.” Father announced over the waning slipstream. “With or without our injured outcast, we are more than capable of continuing with this sporting quest.”
Prentyze Brassard was the last to disembark, but could only stand in the dishevelled cabin, massaging his head to ease its pounding, gasping for breath in the thin air.
The lift crystals were quieter now, tolerable, as they only needed to maintain the craft’s altitude. With each swoosh of a gust, the cabin lurched around him. Immediately, there came squeaks as the pilot wrenched the crystals around in their gimbals, causing the craft to sway to counter the movement.
Swoosh, lurch. Squeak, sway.
Swoosh, lurch. Squeak, sway.
An on-going, cyclic battle was playing out in the pilot’s cabin, and Prentyze was prolonging it.
He staggered with each lurch and sway, but he did not move from his position. He could not move. He was rooted to the spot.
He squinted through the side hatch. The afternoon sun reflected in blinding flashes off sharp angles on three suits of armour. The others were outside, on a rock ledge in front of a gallery-sized tunnel entrance. Flammia sat on the ground, hissing as she cautiously dabbed at her raw, red, burnt face with a wet cloth. Father and Zubin set down the last of the equipment cases which they had retrieved from under the cabin’s benches.
They were only three metres away.
Three metres. That was all.
Yes, but three metres of empty space above a vertiginous void!
One glance down had been enough, a big mistake, and one he would not make again.
With no moorings available, three metres was as close as the pilot dared hold the airship in these blustery conditions. Any closer, a sudden blast might dash the vessel into the rock face. Seen from the hatch, the mountain bobbed and shifted, up and down, nearer and further, in the fight between the temperamental gusts of the thin air and the pilot’s struggle to keep her craft in position.
A wooden gangplank, formerly the cabin floor, telescoped out of the airship like an extended ladder. The co-pilot had locked one end to the hatch’s lower rim, but the end slid and rasped on the stony surface as the craft bucked. Wood ground against stone, the damaged lift crystals’ discordant, buzzing whines varied in pitch, and, over it all, the wind squalled and moaned.
No, he wouldn’t look down again. Not at that frightening drop.
In fact … he couldn’t.
He could only look up or ahead through the open hatch, no lower than horizontal.
Outside, the carrying and fetching done, Father straightened up and began levering off the lid of the largest House Brassard packing-case with rhythmic squeals, while Flammia, holding the cloth to half her face, unfastened the catches of a small case decorated with the House Anluan crest. Zubin peeled away to one end of the ledge to take in the view.
How had everyone else disembarked with such ease?
Father and Zubin had negotiated the sliding gangplank, multiple times, as casually as crossing a muddy street on duckboards. Flammia, as could only be expected, had staggered across, round shouldered, and collapsed as soon as she reached the ledge. But she still crossed over.
So why couldn’t he follow them? At all?
His head pounded harder, though he massaged his temples and forehead with one hand.
A theatrical throat-clearing behind reminded him of the co-pilot’s close proximity. “Sire, if you’d be so good as to disembark, we can drop the ship back to safety.”
He would not condescend to pay her any regard. The gangplank, though he could do no more than glance at it, claimed all his attention. Waving the flask, he gestured outside. “Why aren’t there any railings? … Oh.”
Oh indeed. It was a stupid question. Serving also as the floor between the bench seats, there had been no room under their legs for hand-height railings.
“So marines can practise being fearless, sire.”
What? Was that a joke? Was she making fun of him?
“In any case, sire, with one hand holding your drink and the other nursing your hang … er … altitude headache, you’d need a third hand for a railing.”
Hangover? The cheek of the woman! But it would demean him to argue the point, so he dropped the matter. It was better to let her think there was alcohol in the flask than to be seen arguing with staff.
“If you please, sire.”
She was correct in one thing: he would have to cross over the … to the ledge sooner or later. He inched forward, her presence and polite disdain propelling him to the hatchway. He mounted the fixed end of the gangplank and teetered there, gripping the frame one-handed, uncertain of his footing on the first of many cleats which crossed the varnished wood.
The air was freezing cold on his face.
Swoosh, lurch. Squeak, sway.
Swoosh, lurch. Squeak, sway.
“In your own time. … Sire.”
That was a snide admonishment to hurry-up if ever he had heard one, and the pause was a significant insult. He would never tolerate such insolence from House Brassard’s staff.
But, hang it all, he shouldn’t react. Hadn't he already decided to let it drop?
Just take one step at a time. Try to think of something other than … the gangplank.
He took a step out into space, keeping his eyes on Flammia. Though she had red weals and blisters across her face, lacked eyebrows and had a newly receding hairline, she was still beautiful to him and her bronze, almost-gold eyes claimed his worship.
In unnoticed adoration, he took a second step. And a third.
A flurry of wind caught him just as he put his boot down awkwardly on another cleat. Arms flapping, he regained his balance. How could he avoid stepping on the stupid things if he couldn’t look down at them?
“Almost half-way. You’re doing fine, sire. Like a brave marine, the way you’re charging across.”
Insolent woman, to dare such irony! That did it! Keeping his attention on Flammia, he rushed the remaining length, stumbling on cleats, tottering and fighting for balance in the cunning wind.
His feet touched solid rock.
“Boy’s clear! Kill it!”
The twin teeth-rasping buzzes of the lift crystals stopped in a sudden implosion of silence. With a graunching of wood on stone, the gangplank both slid forwards and levered up on the ledge, catching him in his armoured rump and knocking him to his hands and knees.
By the Gods! If the wood had snagged on his stupid, pointy armour and pulled him backwards ...
He rose from his hands and knees, shaking, and turned towards the airship, heart hammering, hands and teeth clenched, sure of the curse he would fling.
It wasn’t there. The airship had gone.
Sky, just sky.
Sky everywhere: above, in front, to the sides and …
And below? Where had the stupid land gone?