Wherein things improve, somewhat
The sky ship door shuddered closed. The vacuum suction of the airlocks clicking into place reverberated through the convex walls with comforting finality. Fantel turned and looked around her. She was in a narrow passageway; dark bluish silver walls and metal grated flooring, limned in the dark flickers of discreet power lines, veining the walls like thousands of delicate capillaries. Ahead of her she could hear the other women, shuffling forward and jostling for a place to sit or stand. The ship was not really large enough to accommodate twenty-two people, forcing many of the women to press their backs against the walls of the cramped main cabin or fight for the handful of passenger seats. Fantel moved forward cautiously. The metal grating under her feet thrummed as power breathed through the ship. She heard the engines whir to life, the sound deep and resonant like a great beast taking a lusty gulp of air.
The main cabin contained eight passenger seats bolted to the steel floor, arranged in pairs to the far left and right creating an aisle down the centre from the door to the sunken cockpit. The cabin was in two levels; the floor of the passenger section dropped down into the open cockpit located in the narrow nose section. Passengers in the front seats could look down onto the flight array and the wide curving window. The walls of the cabin thrummed with more purple glowing power conduits. The cabin continued the same decorative motif of swirling arabesques and elaborate curlicues as decorated the outer hull, this time picked out in fanciful relief against smooth, faintly iridescent white panels. The contrast of rainbow gleaming white and shimmering purple gave the cabin an oddly festive appearance.
Rashari was already in the pilot’s chair, the automaton Smith deposited in the co-pilot’s seat beside him. He was muttering over a simply staggering array of glowing gauges, flip-switches, dials, monitors, levers and buttons. Fantel watched as the steering lever – a twin handled device that looked like a divining rod – retracted back into the control console responding to some form of command Rashari had inputted into the controls. Another hatch opened up in the console close to Rashari’s left hand and a peculiar looking device rose up from within. The device was conical shaped. Numerous thin bands of metal wrapped around a half dozen straight rods of steel about the length of a man’s forearm to form a hollow tube. Strange crystalline nodules dotted the horizontal metal bands and a complex lattice of hair fine cables webbed between the vertical and horizontal pieces. The cone extended from the edge of the console at a slight diagonal angle. Rashari, wincing in pain as he moved his shoulder, shoved up his left sleeve and pushed his arm inside the cone, his hand disappearing into the depths of the console. The crystal nodes flashed to life, glowing white-green, and the mesh of filaments glittered with pulsing energy. The ship awoke; glittering lights filled the cabin, and the exposed conduits veining the walls burned bright as stars. The monitors dotting the console reflected read-outs of darting lines and rising gauges. Rashari flicked over a bank of switches with his right hand. He moved his left arm inside the cone, which appeared to have full reticulation. Belatedly Fantel realised the cone must be some sort of technomancy interface allowing Rashari to connect directly to the ship’s internal core via the glove on his left hand.
“Find something to hold onto ladies – we’re off.”
The eight passenger seats had been taken and the other women had settled onto the floor, clinging to the back of the chairs or anything else they could find. Fantel had little choice but to slip into the co-pilot’s chair, placing Smith on her lap. Rashari spared her an oblique glance before returning his attention to take off procedures. He still looked pale and the left breast of his coat was dark with blood. The ship shuddered, the engine fully powered and running at full speed. Fantel looked out of the wide window in front. Blue sky filled her vision, scudded with the occasional cloud. She could see no land ahead confirming her suspicion that the sky dock was suspended over the edge of a sheer cliff. Once again she wondered about the strange geography of the Dha-hali enclave. The ship groaned, almost in protest. There seemed to be something keeping them from taking wing.
“The docking clamps?” She couldn’t see the massive hydraulic clamps that bound the ship to the docking bay, and she would never claim to be well versed in flight processes, but she did know that the clamps needed to be released before the ship could take off.
“Working on it,” Rashari grumbled, an abstracted frown creasing his brow. There was a distant, distracted glaze to his eyes, as if he was concentrating on something no one else could see. The glowing nodes studding the interface flashed jewel bright, changing colours in a quick-fire pattern Fantel did not understand but which corresponded to various lights on the console. “I know, I know.” Rashari murmured lips barely moving. “But I’m here now and unless you want to be stripped for scrap you’ll help me out.” Fantel arched an eyebrow, bemused, but he wasn’t talking to her. A kaleidoscope of rippling lights and dancing lines lit up the console in response to his goading. Fantel’s shoulders twitched. She’d heard about this; skyship’s capable of independent thought. She had also heard that the astronomical expense, combined with a lack of suitably qualified technomancers able to communicate with the sentient craft, meant that the technology was rarely seen outside of the Adran Imperial air force. Evidently today was a day full of unexpected developments.
The craft rocked suddenly, evoking a few gasps from the other women in the cabin. There were several dull thuds as the docking clamps sprang loose without warning. The ship hung in the air and Fantel braced herself against a short, sharp drop back down to the ground. The thrusters burst into life with a coughing roar and they rocketed forward. Fantel was thrown back into her chair hard enough that the breath was knocked loose of her lungs. Her stomach lurched into her mouth. Reflexively she tightened her grip around Smith, her back pressed against the padded upholstery. Their ascent was ferocious. Rashari drove the ship up and up. Fantel’s ears popped as he levelled off their flight in a series of vicious banks and rolls. Fantel refused to close her eyes. She had travelled by commercial airship on occasion but those large, lumbering sky ferries did not compare to the breakneck velocity and snake-like turns Rashari executed in this craft. Fantel could not decide if this was the single worst experience of her life or the most exhilarating. This was flying; truly flying. Her teeth rattled, reacting to the subliminal hum of power pulsing through the arteries of the craft.
Despite the plush padding of the seat against her back, the solidity of the flight console in front of her, and the presence of the women at her back she felt somehow naked, exposed - unfettered. She could almost imagine herself flying free like a bird; the wind buffeting her face, catching under her outstretched wings, driving her up and up. Fantel was a creature of the earth and the soil. She was not meant to fly, nor had she ever wanted to. Yet she could not deny the heady thrill she felt, almost like a sickness in her stomach, as they rocketed upward and Einar’s palace fell away far, far below them.
“Look!” Tamaki exclaimed from behind her. Fantel whipped her head around to look back only to discover that she was pointing out of the window. Rashari had brought the ship around in a complete arc and now Fantel could see the entire Dha-hali enclave. She sucked in a breath. Now she understood why the terrain had seemed so odd before. The strange rock formations she had mistaken for a double backed mountain range was no mountain at all –they were fingers. The entire Dha-hali enclave sat in a basin created by the cupped hands of a massive statue.
“So our fate was indeed in the hands of the gods,” She whispered now able to see the impossibly huge visage of the serpent goddess Lyst, she of the snake bite and many arms, in all her improbable glory. The goddess had been carved out of the dark rock of a cloud wreathed mountain. The statue’s naked upper body stretched outward from the massive bulk of the mountain as supple as a serpent seeping out from a crack in a rock. The upraised arms of the goddess rose up out of a roiling sea of clouds. The goddess’ hands were cupped as if to catch something precious in the cradle of her fingers, and in the centre of her cupped palms Fantel could see a tiny speck of gold surrounded by a smudge of greenery – the Dha-hali palace. Beyond Lyst Fantel could see other giant statues hewn from the mountains –an entire pantheon emerging from solid granite and swirling cloud as far as the eye could see. They were so high up that the mass of cloud rolled below them like a boiling white ocean. Fantel almost believed that the statues were true gods, enormous and invincible, existing in a ghost world of endless sky and racing cloud.
“It’s beautiful.” Tamaki whispered, awed. Rashari snorted.
“It’s arrogant. A man who makes his home in the arms of a goddess is a man who lacks a clear understanding of the dangers of hubris.”
Fantel kept quiet. She was at once appalled and awed by the audacity of the Dagoman to make his home in the most sacred place known to the Bhuvanti. She wondered how he had managed it. Surely even the Dha-hali were not so powerful that they could deface the Aerie of the Gods? None alive today knew what race had created this wonder. The Aerie had stood for untold millennia. The Bhuvam faithful claimed that the carvings in the mountains were not carvings at all, but the true gods of the Bhuvanti turned to stone over thousands upon thousands of years. Looking at the reptilian perfection of the goddess Lyst’s face, Fantel could well understand why the Bhuvanti believed. Rashari circled Lyst, diving lower through the broiling ring of cloud. Fantel was disappointed when they dropped below the cloud line and the faces of the Bhuvam gods were lost to view. The band of cloud formed a barrier that locked away the fantastic realm of the Aerie from the more familiar, everyday blue of the lower sky and the dark green swathe of land below.
“Well now, I’d say that was a rather successful escape wouldn’t you?” Rashari’s question was jarringly loud in the cramped cabin. He glanced over at Fantel, the sly smile playing at his lips somewhat undermined by the sheen of sweat dappling his brow and the pain-bright glitter reflected in his dark eyes. He was still bleeding sluggishly. Fantel could smell the rich, coppery tang of his blood. She gazed back at him impassively. She was not sure quite what to make of his manner, or his actions. She didn’t know what he expected from her. Absently she tapped her blunted nails against the metal carapace of the damaged automaton.
“We have escaped.” She agreed in a neutral tone. “Now explain yourself.”
Rashari frowned, turning back to face front. “What is there to explain, Madame? You wished an escape and I was happy to oblige. What else needs to be said?”
“Where are you taking us?” Tamaki spoke up. Despite her youth she seemed to be the elected spokesperson for the other almost-slaves. She sat, leaning forward in one of the passenger chairs, her nails digging into the plush armrests. Her eyes were very intent on the back of Rashari’s head.
“Ah now that’s a good question,” Rashari nodded smiling. “Getting shot of Dha-hali territory is a priority so Anubad is right out.” He frowned a little. “I don’t dare set down anywhere in Bhuvam. The Dha-hali have eyes everywhere. So it’s going to have to be somewhere on the mainland.”
“Remenes,” Tamaki said quickly. “Please. I want to go home.”
“Remenes eh?” Rashari thought for a moment. “Well Tabris is close by I suppose, just a stone’s throw across the Svalin Strait, and I have contacts at the skyport. Lot of trading routes go through Remenes, I’m sure the rest of you ladies would be able to make your way home from there.” He glanced over to Fantel. “How does that suit you, Madame Chimera? The Battlan wilderness is due west past the border of Aramant; you’ll be back in Aashorum in no time.”
Fantel could not disguise her surprise that this youth had even heard of Aashorum; the Battlan steppes were well outside of human purview. Most would have no idea that the Chimeri called the jungle to the south their home. She narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “I have no home. I care not where we land.”
Rashari’s eyebrow shot up and he turned his head to look at her. “Is that so?” He studied her intently causing Fantel to frown. “Well, well. How interesting. It just so happens I too have no fixed abode.” He turned back to face the sky, his left hand moving naturally within the interface despite his wounded shoulder, and the fingers of his right hand danced over the console with consummate ease. “Of course I much prefer it that way. The sky is my home and all Aldlis is mine to roam.”
Fantel narrowed her eyes further, curiosity getting the better of her natural inclination to avoid engaging with humans. “Do you not belong to this Nylous I have heard talk of? Is that not what the man, Remus, told you before you killed him?”
Rashari flinched and accidentally hit a switch on the console. A dozen red warning lights blinked to life across the console in an angry jangle of warning bells. Rashari hissed through his teeth. “Sorry Vee.” He flipped the switch off again, taking the time to compose his features into a bland mask that was nowhere near as impassive as he might have wished it to be before glancing over at her once more. The fingers of his right hand were shaking. “Remus and I had many disagreements,” He said his voice filled with an overly practiced blitheness that rang palpably false to her ears. He could not fully meet her eyes. “Not least of which revolved around the exact ownership of my person. I was inclined to believe myself to be my own master. Remus in contrast, thought I belonged to him – and by extension the Veridree raider fraternity.” A muscle in his cheek danced with tension. “I’m sure you can appreciate how such a dispute can sour relations?” He forced himself to meet her eyes. “I had the distinct impression you were engaged in a similar disagreement with the Dagoman. You do not seem to me like the sort to be owned by anyone.”
“You know nothing of me, human.” Fantel snapped, obscurely nettled by his familiarity.
“True,” Rashari smiled, more truly this time. “I do not even know your given name. However, birds of a feather flock together Madame Chimera. We may be strangers, but I recognise a fellow exile when I see one.”
Fantel froze, too startled to react at first. “Exile?” Her throat was hoarse as she spoke the one word that defined her entire existence.
“Mmmhm,” He nodded easily, pushing his left arm forward as the ship banked to the left. They had left the coast of Ananluse – Bhuvam’s largest island - behind already. Now the ship swept over the Svalin Strait and the churning waters of the ocean blurred together with the luminous sky beyond the window creating a panorama of unending blue. “You and I are both a long way from the place of our birth – you especially – and yet I do believe that despite all evidence to the contrary neither one of us would have it any other way.” Rashari shot her a quick sharp eyed look. “I know that I have no desire to return to Valkieres so long as I live – and in truth there is little waiting for me there except an Imperial firing squad – and thus I am, I suppose, an exile of sorts, though I personally see my present state as a blessing not a curse.”
Fantel held very, very still before taking a slow breath. She could hear her heart beat ringing in her ears. How dare he? How dare this human compare himself to her. He did not know her. They had met no more than an hour before. They had barely spoken. He did not understand her. He could not understand her. She was Chimera. She was…she was alone. She was always alone. This boy might have run from his home but he would always be around others of his race. He could not possibly know her loneliness. He could not understand the pain of being sundered from everything he had ever known or loved. He could not know the pain of being the cause of such isolation, of knowing that it was his own choices that had led to his exile. He could not know the burden she had chosen to bear when she left Aashorum behind forever. How could this stripling boy know anything of her life, her pain? How could anyone know her pain?
“I did not ask for your origin human – and I care not for your assumptions.” She snapped and met his dark eyes knowing her own were hard and cold. For a moment their eyes locked. For a moment she looked into those dark, human eyes, so dark she could not discern pupil from iris, and thought she saw something there. Coldness; in those dark eyes she thought she caught a glimpse of something solitary and alone, something as distant and lonely as Fantel herself. Something that made silent mockery of her own loneliness, her own sadness and guilt even as it echoed the pain she thought was hers and hers alone to bear. Then he blinked, eyelids shuttering away that secret place inside him, and turned his face away, a strange, edged smile curving his lips once more.
“My apologies Madame Chimera,” he murmured the epitome of polite contrition. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps you are not as I imagined you to be.” He shot her another challenging smile. “A pity.”
Fantel rebuffed his smile with a cold look of her own, but he deliberately kept his gaze fixed ahead and pretended not to see. Silence fell over the cabin; Tamaki and the other women were too exhausted and anxious to speak. Fantel was well versed in silence and rarely felt a need to speak merely to hear the sound of her own voice, but now she found the quiet uncomfortable. Despite his apology she did not think that Rashari was sorry at all. In fact she had the niggling suspicion her sharp words had only enforced his opinion of her. She was unsettled, unable to shake the memory of his dark eyes from her mind. Who was this human? Why had he chosen to help them escape? What did he want, and why did Fantel even care? Stiff backed and tense she sat in the co-pilot’s seat watching the sky part for them, and refused to acknowledge the sneaking glances Rashari threw her way every few moments. She watched as the red cliffs of Tabris’ eastern coast came into view and could not wait to land in Remenes. Her loneliness was a millstone she wore around her neck, but at least it was familiar. She did not like the questions this strange human raised in her with every moment she was trapped in his company.