Authors: D. Dalton
Jing and Drina exchanged a glance.
“I know a bricoleur smuggler. She’s the best.”
“We can’t trust him,” Drina said to Jing.
“Hey,” Solindra called.
The mechanic shrugged, also ignoring Solindra. “Recall the boiler. He’s no friend to Codic.”
The cook turned back to the bricoleur. “Are you a Steampower spy, boy?” Her scowl fell back into the approaching spider look.
He shivered. “No, ma’am.” He all but saluted.
He and Solindra both flinched at the booming of the repeating gun. It spit out bullets with unending ease into the mob of fleeing prisoners.
Solindra grabbed at the steam rifle in Jing’s hand, turning it away from the bricoleur’s face. Theo hardly noticed. The shooting Codic soldiers stole his attention. All he could see was the fire from their gun muzzles. Endless fire.
Solindra pulled the rifle into her own hands and tugged the hose around behind her. She snapped it up to her shoulder and tried to focus on the backs of the soldiers operating the crank gun. They bobbed in her vision.
“Cyl, no!” Drina yelled.
The girl yanked on the trigger.
The soft “
” of the rifle was lost in the chaos. The expanding packet of large needles rattled against the train car. Two Codic soldiers shrieked in surprise as a couple of needles bore into their ankles. They whirled in the direction of the dinghy. More soldiers crowded around them.
Jing snatched the gun back. “Okay, it’s time to go.”
“What about me?” Theo grabbed at the railing of the sky-boat.
“Fine, get in!” The mechanic handed the steam rifle to Drina. “But you’ll help.” He bent low and started to heave out the rock ballast holding down the dinghy. Theo and Solindra quickly jumped in to help.
The Codic soldiers tugged and heaved at the crank gun, trying to move it into position to face the dirigible.
Drina’s balance never wobbled as the airship started to rise, and she coiled the steam rifle’s hose at her feet with practiced ease. Two Steampower soldiers charged for their ship. She kept her arm steady and gently tightened her finger around the trigger. They collapsed with a line of needles across their throats.
“Get us away from that crank gun!” She looked pointedly up at their huge target of a balloon.
Solindra chucked out the last rock and collapsed back to the center of the boat. She clutched her chest and swallowed her vomit back down at the realization of being off the ground again. “I hate sky-sailing!” She ducked back down to the deck while the ship drifted into the glare of the noonday sun.
With the sun setting at their backs, the remaining Codic soldiers limped down the tracks across the desert. The water tower had come into their field of vision long ago, but it only now had stopped wavering long enough to become solid. The wind teased the hose that fed the steam engines, waving it around the desolate tracks.
“Water,” the smallest soldier muttered as he stumbled forward. He dropped his rifle and continued to plod down the railroad ties.
A man in black waited on the tiny platform below the water tower. He brushed a few errant sand grains off his sleeve as the soldiers hobbled up to him.
“Need water, sir,” the corporal slurred.
Smith twiddled his mustache. “How many ambushed the train?”
“All of them,” another soldier groaned. “They escaped. Ran away. Even the one with the metal leg, for the Hex’s sake.”
“Tall fellow?” Smith raised his hand. “Black hair?”
The corporal nodded. “And the lines are shot. Telegraph’s down, can’t even splice in.” He pushed past Smith. “Excuse us.”
They limped up to the spigot at the base of the tower.
Smith arced his glass cane across the spigot’s switch, locking it into a closed position. “Tell me about the train.”
“Nothing more to it. An airship, I guess.” The corporal steeled his gaze. “Pardon us,
, my men need water first.”
Smith sighed. “As you wish.” He lifted the cane and backed away.
The soldiers jostled each other, every one vying to be under the open spigot. The clear water splashed up against their hands and faces.
Smith pulled out his blue cipher medallion. None of the soldiers glanced back at him. He leaned against the base of the water tower with his hand pressing the sancta against one of the pipes.
He strolled away after a few moments, the glass cane clicking against the rails of the tracks as he began his trek toward the train wreckage.
The soldiers didn’t notice. They didn’t even pay attention to the groaning of the tower until it suddenly collapsed on them.
Theo glanced over his shoulder. Drina glared at him while holding a coppery-colored metal crossbow. He looked beyond her to Jing and Solindra. The young woman was staring at his feet.
He looked down. Blackened wood crackled underfoot when he shifted his weight. The scent of seared wood rose up from the ground like the souls of the dead.
He didn’t know whose house this had been, but they didn’t have a use for it any more. Theo nudged aside another piece of scorched wood to uncover a burnt human femur.
“Hey,” Drina called sharply.
He jerked his vision back to the air-dinghy. They’d landed in the middle of the rubble, and it sat with its nose rising into the air against the house’s chimney. The mostly-deflated balloon shifted with the wind like an old sack.
“What are you waiting for?” Drina yelled. Beside her, Jing shaded his eyes at the sky, watching for more airships.
“Are you sure you can hit this?” He held up the white phosphorus capsule. “It’s a small target.”
She swung her crossbow at him instead.
“Drina!” Solindra snapped.
She lowered the weapon, but winked at Theo.
He spun around to the airship’s boilerbox.
Jing whistled. “I cannot believe that those soldiers took out my matches. I mean, they couldn’t hit me with a bullet, but they could hit a box of matches inside the boat.”
“Why don’t we just chuck the phosphorus into the boilerbox?” Solindra pointed at the dinghy’s stern. “It’s gotta still be warm enough to melt the gelatin.”
“Um.” Jing glanced at the sky.
“Oh.” Drina briefly lowered her gaze. She brought up the crossbow to her shoulder. “Well, we’re already here.”
Theo dropped two more gelatin capsules onto the deck and listened to them roll across the solid boards. He wedged a third onto a wooden support for the balloon’s ropes. He raised his hands and backed away from the dinghy. “Okay!”
Drina narrowed her eyes and slowed her breathing. “Just like shooting an earhole.” She pulled the release. The string snapped forward and the bolt hummed at the airship.
The metal-tipped bolt cracked open the capsule like an egg. Fire fountained up as the phosphorus ignited on contact with the air. The spitting capsule rolled off the support onto the deck before it disintegrated into fire.
Drina elbowed Jing and said in a stage whisper, “If he hasn’t been honest with us about where we’re going, we’re stranded.”
“Codic soldiers could identify the dinghy and you know it. What? You’re worried about some kid, Drina?”
Theo covered his nose from the smoke and tried not to close his eyes. He knew he would see those memories. Instead, he looked at the etchings on Drina’s crossbow, glowing in the firelight.
“Where did you even find such a barbaric weapon?” he coughed.
She flashed him a grin. “What? Don’t tell me you’ve never been outside the Steamscape before.”
Theo glanced back at the fiery dinghy. “What other things were stashed in there?”
Jing patted him on his shoulder. “Do you truly want an answer to that, son?”
He threw up his hands. “Between ancient illegal weaponry and cipher medallions, I don’t know what else you could have!”
“We should go.” Solindra pointed at the flames where the treated canvas of the balloon was starting to smolder. “I don’t think all the hydrogen has had time to–”
The airship exploded.
The crew picked themselves up from the ground.
“–explode,” she finished.
They dusted themselves off.
“Let’s go.” Jing pointed toward the distant lights, hinting at a town. “Before anyone sees it’s not just another house burning.”
Theo nodded and pointed down the ruts in the road. “It’ll be dark by the time we get there.”
Solindra hummed to herself as she dipped her boots into the well-worn grooves. “I wonder if any survivors of the Killing Train will come this way.”
Jing shrugged as he limped beside her. “Doubtful.”
“You mean those people who wanted to kill you for being a crypter?” Theo sneered. “Well, are you one?”
“No.” But uncertainty bobbled beneath her tongue. “At least I don’t think so.” She pulled the sancta from her pocket and raised it up to her eyes. “I should probably get a pouch or one of those puzzle boxes for this.”
Theo put a hand up between it and his line of vision. “Might be a good idea, yeah.”
“I agree.” Jing turned his back to the fire and started to limp. “I know that I don’t want to touch that thing again.”
“When did you?” Solindra looked up at the mechanic.
“You were just an infant. And all I could see was steam. Could feel it scalding me, and there was nowhere to run away – it was never-ending, like a maze only without walls. Melting me alive as I walked.” He shrugged. “Mark had a similar experience, apparently.”
“Boys.” Drina rolled her eyes. “Always touching things that need not be touched.”
“So did I.” Theo barely avoided glaring at the cipher medallion.
“Turns your fears on you, I once heard,” Drina continued cheerfully.
“Why not me?” Solindra spun the sancta between her thumb and index finger.
“You’re different,” Jing said.
The mechanic stopped walking. He forced a grin. “Because it doesn’t turn your fears on you, that’s why.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, Jing.” She frowned, but started down the road again. “Do you think I could’ve used this to help all those people on the train?”
“I don’t know,” the mechanic replied.
“Can I use it to help people from now on?”
“Maybe,” he sighed. “But I’m concerned with our safety first.”
“Right.” Theo rolled his eyes. “A crypter helping people. What would the Priory say about that?”
“You’re a bricoleur,” Drina said. “Many of your people
“Yeah, but that’s different. That’s traditional. It has nothing to do with the Priory or cipher medallions. It’s not some upright girl with a faux Codic accent.”
“Hey!” Solindra snapped.
Drina groaned. “Are you sure we need him?”
Jing swiftly stepped in between Drina and Theo, his metal leg thumping heavily against the bone-dry ground. “As of the moment, maybe.”
“Maybe not,” Solindra said as she lifted her skirt and her nose. She and Theo glared at each other as they marched down the road.
The sun faded as they journeyed down the road. Solindra had to squint through the expanding darkness into the clump of buildings. Hardly any fires or gas lamps glowed inside the town.
“Welcome to Consequences,” Theo drawled.
Deeper down the streets, a few lights began to highlight the town in an orange halo. The city itself had been shelled out. The remaining people had erected tents and other canvas structures over the foundations and half-walls of the previous buildings.
The party walked down the road into the town. Solindra smoothed her skirt. “The world is a stranger place than I imagined.”
In between two half-buildings, a wooden board marred with huge, block letters screamed out against the deceits of Boras Saturni, president of Steampower. Someone had smashed a handful of whitewash across his face. A smaller poster to the side denounced the soft-spoken weekly columns of Adri Saturni, Mr. Saturni’s daughter. But her face remained clear of any paint.
“Come along.” Drina gripped Solindra’s elbow and pushed her away from the propaganda.
Theo guided them through the streets that exploded with the reek of alcohol, sewage and the undying scent of burnt-out rubble.
Drina kept her hands inside her pockets, presumably gripping some sort of dreadful, illegal weapon. Jing had picked up a large wrench in one hand and occasionally tapped it against the other.
They passed people lounging around the canvas-walled streets, whose clothes had been turned black by coal and dirt. The street-dwellers shuffled away, eyeing them like smaller predators watching a pride of lions. The newcomers were too big, at least until the weakest member was driven from the pack – then there might be a meal to be had.
The party passed by a few belly dancers, still wearing their low-cut costumes and tassels, but they sagged against the wall like everyone else. They passed a cigarette between themselves.
Theo led them to the height of some ancient stone stairs that disappeared down into total darkness. Not even a gas lamp illuminated the base.
Drina arched an eyebrow. “We can’t go down there. All that’s missing is a plaque reading ‘Trap Alley’.”
“It’s over here.” Solindra pointed. She brushed away some coal dust from the sign. “Only it really says Quarry Row.”
“Same thing,” Jing replied.
“Did you expect to find smugglers on Main Street?” Theo asked.
“Come on.” Solindra lifted her skirt and started down the stairs.
“Cyl, wait,” Jing warned.
Theo jumped down after Solindra, pausing to smirk as he passed her. Jing and Drina followed. At the base of the stairs, the group waited until their eyes adjusted and then tiptoed slowly down the dark alley.
Jing’s metal leg dragged across the paving stones, creating a continuous metallic slide. He pointed ahead, noting a stone archway that must have been centuries old. “That it?”
“You sure about this place?” Drina asked.
The young man forced a smile at her glare. “With the war booming like this, there might even be a line.”
“I hate smugglers.” Jing sighed.
Solindra cocked her arms against her hips. “Says the man who smuggled gold ingots in his false leg. Yeah, Dad told me everything about that incident.”
The mechanic winced. “Probably not
Alright, I don’t trust smugglers other than myself.”
“Fine by me if you want to stay in the country.” Theo shrugged.
“Let’s just go already.”
They ducked through the archway, where a fiery glow outlined a heavy curtain hanging across the side-alley.
Jing reached out and shoved the curtain out of his way. He immediately ran into a dense wall of incense.
Behind him, Solindra rubbed her forehead and groaned. With her eyes watering, she squinted through the smoky haze to see a mountain of a man standing upright in front of another curtained barrier. His thinning hair looked blue in the candlelight
Theo pushed past Solindra and marched up to the man. “It’s me, Glinter.”
The mountain rumbled, “They’re trouble.” He squinted through tiny, swollen eyes at Jing and Drina.
“Just get her, please.”
Glinter shrugged. “I will see if the lady is available to receive guests in her house.” He turned and vanished into the brighter glow beyond the second curtain.
Drina spun around the steam and smoke, which dimmed the light of the fat, dripping candles. “Your smuggler is a bricoleur crypter?”
“Maybe. Okay, yeah.” Theo shrugged. “So this is the end of our agreement.”
Jing nodded. “After we’ve gotten passage.”
Solindra held her breath. She inched toward the shelves of candles, waving away the incense and steam with her hand. “Steamflowers!” Her fingers stretched out and hovered over the velvety blooms. The dark purple and blue flowers were open in their glory here. She caught a smattering of red and gold deep down in their centers.
“Just like Dad’s.” She leaned forward and inhaled, but caught nothing but the powerful incense instead of the flower’s nectarine scent. The memory was enough though, and she thought of her father. It was said the ghosts in the steam nourished themselves on these flowers.
Theo wrenched her back by her shoulder. “Do you want to hallucinate?”
She glared at him and brushed off his hand.
The curtain twitched to the side and a dark-haired woman with her layered skirts and feathers in her hair appeared out of the steam. It was hard to tell the newcomer’s age under all the colorful makeup and jewelry, but she moved like a sprite. Her bosom nearly spilled out over the top of her corset.
Glinter followed soundlessly in her footsteps and took up his guard post.
She smiled at Theo and opened her arms as she glided over to him. “My mysterious drifter.” Then she leaned forward and kissed Theo on the mouth.
His eyes widened and he pulled away. Blushing, he straightened his shirt and stammered, “Uh. Merlina, these are–”
“Never known you to travel with anyone else,” she interrupted in a voice of fairy dust and bells. “Not since your… accident.”
His face was still burning. “Desperate times are even more desperate now.”
Merlina raised her bright eyes to Solindra and the others. “Well then, to business.” She twirled around, skirts flaring, and beckoned toward the curtain with her finger. “Come into my mists.” She vanished ahead into the glow and steam.
Solindra held aside the weight of the thick curtain and walked into the glow. She blinked in the sudden light of the gaslights. She had stepped into a circular room with two plush, opposite-facing couches in the center and a card table in between them. Merlina was just stretching out across one.