The child was half-starved and shivering when Gristle spotted him from the porch of the Grove. He’d had his feet up and was about to light his pipe when the urchin spoke from the darkness outside the warm ring of light from the inn.
“I need to see Hamara. Alone.”
Gristle leaned forward and squinted at him. He was a wretched thing, skinny and smudged with grease and the dust of the road. His clothes were shredded near the knees and elbows, and he looked like he had bloodstains on the front of his ragged shirt.
“A lot of people ask to see the proprietress,” Gristle said. “What’s this about?”
The child glanced around uncomfortably. “I can’t say here.”
“Hm… that’s a good sign it might be of interest to her,” Gristle said, putting his pipe aside for a moment.
He examined the child closer. With no visible wounds, it was likely the blood on his clothes was from someone else. The grease stains and torn clothing suggested the child was a Ratcatchers, a gang of street kids who lived in the tunnels and ducts of the old city. They were vicious little thieves, certainly not above pulling a knife on an innkeeper over some quick coin.
“The lady of the orchard keeps a busy schedule,” Gristle said. “I can’t promise she’ll agree to see you. But if I put down this pipe I was greatly looking forward to smoking, and I go have a word with her, who should I say is asking after her?”
Now it was the child’s turn to size Gristle up. He looked at the old ferryman with a hard suspicion in his eyes before finally deciding to speak.
“I’m Trapper. Boots told me I should come here if I ever got in trouble. She said I had information Hamara should really know about.”
Tomorrow, Gristle would have to have a word with Boots about sending blood-stained gang members to the Grove. But tonight, this child was on the inn’s doorstep, and might know something Hamara would want to hear.
Gristle rose to his feet with a grunt and a nod. “I expect she may be able to make time for you. Let’s head in the back way. I don’t think I’d want anybody seeing you.”
The common room was bright and busy. He took the child around the dark path through the courtyard near the stables, letting moonlight and muscle memory guide his steps along the old, weathered cobblestones. Trapper followed close.
On the back porch, Gristle’s pipe sat unlit and forgotten.
* * *
Gristle was surprised when Hamara brought Trapper into the common room minutes later, holding him by the scruff of his collar.
“This child shouldn’t have come here,” Hamara said curtly. “You should know better than to bring street fights to my doorstep. Take him down the mountain and make sure he never comes back this way again.”
Gristle raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear him out? He said—”
“I’ve heard as much as I needed to. This isn’t our fight. He never should have come here.”
Gristle wanted to protest, but instead he tugged nervously at his beard for a moment, then pressed his hands together. As an information broker with countless secrets, Hamara often did and demanded things he didn’t understand, but he’d had been working for her long enough to know she always had a plan, even if he couldn’t see all the pieces of it. Perhaps especially if he couldn’t see all the pieces.
“We’ve got to get him out of here quickly,” she said, looking him purposefully in the eye. “People will come looking. Take the shortcut we talked about.”
Gristle nodded, and guided the child toward the door.
His pipe would have to wait for the next night.
* * *
The next night, Gristle had the match for his pipe lit when a disheveled stranger made their way up the steps of the Grove, looking lost and scared.
He sighed, and shook the flame out.
“I’m looking for—” she began.
“Yes, you’re looking for Hamara. I’m not her bloody secretary, but apparently I can’t sit down two minutes on this mountain without being asked to broker a meeting with her. What’s this about?”
The woman looked taken aback. She had already been frightened, tired and on the edge of tears when she arrived. Gristle immediately regretted his tone.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll try that again. How can the lady of the orchard help you?”
The woman glanced inside the busy common room, the light catching her face for a moment, and then she turned back to look at Gristle, with his enormous thornbush of a beard and thunderhead eyebrows. By her diction and bearing she seemed upper class—not necessarily noble, but she certainly was used to the comfort of an establishment that served more wine than ale.
“You’re her… bodyguard?”
He laughed. “I’m her ferryman.”
She looked relieved for a moment. “Then maybe you’ve seen my nephew. He came here last night when he ran into trouble, and now the same people are after me.” She drew back her travelling half-cloak, revealing a bandage over a wound in her side.
Gristle looked at her with concern.
“I heard that Hamara turned him away,” she continued. “But I’m just trying to find out what might have happened to him after he left here. He hasn’t been seen since, and if something befell him, well… his family wants to know.”
The woman seemed kind and genuinely upset, and the sight of her worried faced in the glow of the inn made Gristle’s old heart beat a little faster. He thought about telling her about the boy, Trapper, but held his tongue.
“Sounds like your plight might be of interest to the lady,” he said, standing. “Perhaps you ought to have a word with her.”
The woman placed a hand on his arm. Gristle blushed at the warm touch of her skin.
“I just—I don’t want to go in the front, in case anyone sees me.”
He guided her around to the back door, the night air feeling cold on his flushed cheeks. Once again, his pipe sat forgotten on the porch.
* * *
The woman, Lianni, ended up staying at the Grove, sleeping in the cellar and staying out of sight doing light chores in the back rooms during the day. Gristle was more glad to have her around than he cared to admit.
The ferryman not been privy to Lianni’s conversation with Hamara, but he assumed it had gone well, because they would sit down together to speak privately for hours every night. Once he had been passing down the hall as she stepped out of Hamara’s office, flashing him a smile.
Once or twice, Gristle’s tasks overlapped with Lianni’s, and whenever they did he found her company a delight. When she stepped into a room, it was as if the sun had just peeked out from behind a cloud, brushing the edges of his world with gold. She was a worldly woman, full of wisdom about the foreign lands and the mysteries that made airships fly and the history of Axia—at least what survived the Shattering.
Gristle could listen to her talk about talk about the history of Summit’s aqueducts or Adriel’s Red Market for hours on end. He told her about his little skiff, about how on his days off he would fly Heaven’s Dinghy around the clouds below Toehold, looking up at the underbelly of the floating mountain and all the rock and roots and strange things that grew there. He’d just come from a week of clear-skied sailing during the late-summer off-season.
“I’d love to go for a ride with you sometime, ” she said.
“I’d very much like that,” he replied.
On the third day of Lianni’s stay, Hamara called Gristle into her office for a stern talk.
“Don’t get too attached,” she told him. “She’s only staying a week, one way or another. I believe she has information connecting Trapper with the disappearance of a scribe from the College of Inventors and the sudden sabbatical of the First Pedagogue.”
“I’ll do my best to keep my distance,” Gristle promised, but he kept finding excuses to pass by the rooms Lianni was working or reading in.
For the first few days of her stay, Lianni had seemed content to just rest and recover from her wound, but by the end of the week, she was growing frustrated with being cloistered in.
“I just want to find my nephew, and she won’t tell me a damn thing,” tying back her black hair, touched here and there with veins of silver.
Thunder rumbled in the distance as waves of slate-grey clouds rolled.
“If she’s not telling you, there’s a reason,” Gristle offered. “She’s got a plan. Trust me.”
“I trust you, Gristle,” she said, her scowl softening. “But I don’t trust her.”
Gristle felt his old heart fluttering a little faster, as if there was more than just the crackle of a coming storm in the air. He cleared his throat and clumsily excused himself to go check on something in the orchard.
“Can I join you?” she asked.
He pretended he didn’t hear, and hurried off. She followed, holding the bandage to her side gingerly while taking long strides through the thinning autumn grass.
“Tell me, is it true you and Hamara have a farewell code?” Lianni asked, struggling to keep up when they were out of earshot from the inn.
Gristle stopped dead at the foot of an ancient apple tree, wizened but still bearing fruit. His heart began to hammer in his ears so loud it drowned out the rush of wind in the trees.
Lianni placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s just… I heard that when you’re asked to escort somebody away from here, Hamara has a code she uses to send you off. Like if she says, ‘take the long way down,’ it means, ‘bring this person to the safehouse.’ Or ‘take the shortcut’ means… well, it means a one-way trip.”
Gristle said nothing. He knew Hamara wouldn’t want this woman asking about her affairs, but he also knew he could bring Lianni peace if he just told her what had happened to Trapper.
“You’d tell me if something happened to Trapper, right?” she said, as if reading his thoughts. “I… I know he’s a troublemaker, and all of us assumed he was going to cross the wrong person sooner or later. It would just bring me peace to know what happened.”
Lianni stroked his neck up and down with a fingertip. Gristle closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation, feeling heat rising to his face. He tried not to think about Hamara, about all her secrets and orders and plans and machinations, but he knew he was too much a part of them to ever forget the promises he had made.
He turned around, stepping away from Lianni. “I’m sorry, but I don’t discuss the lady’s business. You’ll have to take your questions to her.”
Lianni’s face fell, disappointment etched deep in the creases of confusion and dismay that crinkled across her forehead.
“I thought you cared about me,” she said.
“I do,” Gristle replied, looking around at the trees. “That’s why I’m not telling you.”
Lianni turned and ran back to the inn, leaving him alone in the orchard as the first drops of rain began to fall.
* * *
Gristle was sad, but not surprised, when Hamara summoned him to the cellar to take Lianni to a new location.
“It seems it’s no longer safe for our guest to stay here at the Grove. We’ll have to make other arrangements further down the mountain. She has enemies in the Riftkeepers, and they’ll be watching the main roads, so you’ll have to take the long way down.”
Lianni turned to look at Gristle, her eyes meeting his with an unspoken question.
“I’ll make sure the Riftkeepers can’t find her,” he promised.
Lianni looked relieved, but she was silent on the rainy cart ride down the mountain. She didn’t speak until they had reached the docks of Toehold and they climbed into his small airship. He tied himself in to one of the rings bolted to the gunnel, and noticed she tied her own instead of waiting for him to tie hers.
He cast off, hugging the coast of Summit as below them the bottomless skies of Axia churned with rain and cloud.
“So you do have a farewell code,” she said. “Is the safehouse far? Is Trapper there, or did… did you show him the shortcut.”
He didn’t answer immediately. Instead he eyed his own lifeline and hers, taking note of which fixtures they had each secured themselves to, holding the helm strong as a gust tried to buffet him off course.
“Who told you about the code?” he finally asked her.
“One of Trapper’s friends. She had a strange name… ‘Slippers,’ or ‘Shoes,’ or something like that.”
“Boots,” Gristle said, starting to see the pieces of Hamara’s plan coming together. He sighed. Hamara was always right.
“Yes, that was it,” she said, clutching the gunnel with marble-white knuckles.
“Let me guess, she came to you pretending to be a scared friend and fellow gang member of Trapper, who is not your nephew. She told you about the code and Trapper showing up at the Grove, and you got confirmation from a patron who witnessed Hamara turning him away. Then you came down to make sure he was really gone.”
A cold look crossed Lianni’s face. The warmth that had brought sunlight into the Grove for her brief stay was all gone, and only a steely resolve remained.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“Because Boots would never discuss the code unless Hamara wanted the information leaked. And Hamara would never discuss business in the front room unless she wanted it reported back. She may as well have sent you an invitation.”
Lianna’s expression began to grow hot with rage. “If you’d just told me Trapper was dead when I got here, I could have dropped this whole charade and gone back to my life in peace. But no, I had to stay a week, batting my eyelashes before you as good as spilled the code. Now I’ve overstayed my welcome, and it’s time I took the helm.”
She drew a small clockwork revolver from her travelling bag and pointed it at him.
“No more codes. No more double-talk. Just tell me Trapper is dead so we can fly back to land and both walk away alive.”
Gristle shook his head. “You’re wrong about the code. Boots told it to you backwards on purpose. The ‘shortcut’ is the safehouse. If I’m going to kill someone—” he started to say, but then he jerked the helm hard to starboard, pitching the boat sideways and sending Lianni cartwheeling over the side.
He clung to the helm as her rope pulled taught, pulling the skiff upside-down. The horizon flipped and he found himself hanging from the wheel. He pulled himself upward and reached for one of a series of levers concealed at the foot of the helm. Lianni spun, righting herself and raising her gun in his direction as she held to the rope with her other hand.
“IF I’M GOING TO KILL SOMEONE…” he bellowed, audible even over the rain that poured deafeningly on the upturned belly of the boat. “I SHOW THEM THE LONG WAY DOWN!” He pulled the lever, and the ring holding her line detached from the boat.
Lianni fired her gun as she fell, blasting a round through the meat of his thigh, and causing him to lose his grip on the helm. They both dropped, but as the woman free-fell downward through swirling rain and purple thunderheads into the bottomless storm below, Gristle’s rope held steady.
He gritted his teeth, hauling himself up the rope, hand over hand,d until he reached the helm and righted the skiff. Panting, he tied a bandage around his leg and made for the safehouse.
* * *
Trapper, Boots and Hamara were sharing a meal of cliffrabbit and potatoes when Gristle came crashing in the door of the safehouse, bringing the storm in with him. Hamara rose swiftly to help him into a chair, unspooling the bandage.
“Thank goodness, the shot passed clean through,” she said, inspecting him. “It should heal well and quickly.”
Gristle groaned, nodding as Boots put on a kettle to boil. “Who was she?” he asked.
“First Pedagogue Havish of the College of Inventors,” Hamara answered. “She was also a Riftkeeper informant. She’s the reason anyone studying sciontics within their halls has gone missing.”
“And Trapper?” he said, wincing as she started to apply a new bandage. He tried to poke at the edges of it.
“I’m one of the Ratcatcher gang,” Trapper replied. “I used to bring her stuff from the tunnels. You know, old stuff. And sometimes I’d help her with errands, only she asked me to do an errand I didn’t like, something with the Riftkeepers. When I started asking questions, she tried to… well… it’s a good thing I’m quick with a knife.”
Hamara nodded, swatting Gristle’s hand away. “Trapper came straight to us when he got away. After he told me what he’d seen, I knew she’d come after him. She couldn’t risk the Riftkeepers or her colleagues knowing she’d lost control of a kid who knew too much, so made up a reason to disappear for sabbatical. I sent Boots to give her bad information and make sure she came straight to us.”
“So why this ruse?” asked Boots, fidgeting with her crossbow. “Why not kill her the old-fashioned way? I’m a good shot.”
“She’s too public a figure for that, and in a couple weeks I’m going to need you for a big mission, not hiding from the law. Besides, I wanted her at the Grove. I spent the week she stayed gathering information from her. Even lying through your teeth, you give away a lot. And now her disappearance will set us up for what happens next. It will start with young Trapper, who has agreed to stay dead for a while.”
“As long as the rabbit keeps comin’!” he chimed in, looking up from his plate.
“Of course,” Hamara assured him “Our young Ratcatcher was last seen being turned away from the protection of Hamara Groveguard, who of course has no known involvement in this conflict. The First Pedagogue was last seen taking an emergency sabbatical after the disappearance of a scribe, who seems to have angered the Riftkeepers. The rumour mill is eager for grain to grind into fact, and it will not take much to get it spinning and for the right minds to connect the dots. A few planted documents in her office should help speed that along. And when the First Pedagogue is at last presumed dead and labeled a likely Riftkeeper cooperative, the College will look for a successor who will take a harder line in protecting students from the Riftkeepers’ political influence. And by that time, we may be in a position to put forward a candidate.”
Gristle’s head was swimming with confusion as much as blood loss, but he was starting to see how the pieces fit together. Hamara noticed him growing paler, and helped him over to a cot.
“You did well, Gristle. I know how hard it must be to feel like you’re walking around with only a piece of the plan, but I do it for your protection as much as mine.”
“Well the First Pedagogue protected a hole right through my leg,” he replied.
“I miscalculated the threat she posed,” Hamara admitted. “And it’s wrong you should suffer for it. Tell me how I can make amends.”
He thought about it. “Tomorrow, tell me what the next step of the plan is. Not the whole thing, just what’s coming next. I hate flying blind.”
“Fair,” she said. “There are a lot of moving parts. Life on this mountain is about to change for everyone, possibly forever. You deserve to know your role in that.”
* * *
Gristle sat in his skiff, watching the incoming airship in the distance. Hamara had given him the coordinates for the meeting and told him four people would be disembarking to join him before the trading galley headed for its next destination. He hadn’t seen Boots since the night at the safehouse. He wondered if she would be among them.
From the looks of the vessel’s distance and speed, he still had another ten minutes before it would arrive. He pulled out his pipe and a long wooden match from his drybag and struck it against the side of his boat. He lit the pipe, inhaling deeply and blowing a lazy smoke ring toward the slowly growing shape.
He had waited a long time for this.
He watched the ship approach and pull up beside him, its shadow dwarfing his tiny skycraft. Four silhouettes appeared at the railing and began to climb down a rope ladder toward him.
Hamara had sent the call out to her agents, and selected these four to carry out the most important part of her plan.
A plan he had been watching evolve for years.
A plan he had bled for.
A plan he had killed for.
And it would be a long way down for all of them if they failed now.
Story by Peter Chiykowski.
Art by Nick Ragetli.