Slate and Arianna took two more days to spend time with their friends, the best days, full of food and laughter. And at the end of the second, around a campfire, they were ready to say goodbye.
“Every day, every single day, it’s something new,” Dahzi said as he refilled a horn that had been circling around the friends. “The latest I hear is that a cooling machine, a box that can freeze food as if in deepest winter, is coming to fruition here in Morai.”
“You all should see what’s coming next from Yiente after balloon carriages,” Juke boasted. “We’re keeping our eyes on the skies. We’ll have people soaring like birds in the contraptions we’re working up.”
“I heard we’ll be soon able to see and hear each other over vast distances, with what they’re working on in Dale,” said Ertajj. He took a huge drink from the horn and passed it to Slate.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Slate said. “Because Arianna and I are thinking about going home.”
Pilotte reappeared just then, after having chased a burrin off into the night, now licking his chops with satisfaction.
“And, Pilotte here, too, of course,” Slate added.
“What are you talking about, going home?” Ertajj asked. “Home where? I thought you said your village was deserted.”
“Nearly,” Slate said. “But who knows what things will be like now. Maybe the books have reached the island. I never planned to stay here forever; it was really only a delivery trip, after all.”
“So you’d rather go sit in your abandoned village than stay with us? Where things are happening?” Ertajj asked.
Juke took the horn that Ertajj was spilling from his friend’s hands. “I think you’ve had enough to drink,” he said.
“You were the one talking about the new forms of communication, Ertajj,” said Slate. “It’s not like I’ll never see or talk to you again.”
Ertajj huffed and stuffed his hands into his poncho.
“The plan was always to go home,” Slate said.
“My mother will be waiting for me,” said Arianna. “And my brother, and sister.”
“Sure, sure,” Ertajj said. He shifted position and changed his tone. “I’m probably being silly. We’ll see each other again, right? We found each other this time.”
“Of course we will,” said Dahzi. “Even if it takes all the resources of my kingdom.”
Pilotte scrounged up a half-tree for fetch, which he brought over and set down at Slate’s feet. It was obviously beyond Slate’s strength to lift the trunk like Pilotte had, so he broke off a branch and threw it into the darkness. Pilotte raced after.
“How are you going to get home?” Dahzi asked.
Slate turned to Arianna, who shrugged as if to say, ‘I thought you knew.’
“Umm…” Slate hummed, waiting for Pilotte and some answer to come to him.
“You can always ride with me back to Yiente,” Juke offered. “And from there, I’m sure we can guide you back to the outskirts of Jaidour.”
“In the balloon?” Arianna asked excitedly.
“Sure,” Juke answered. “That’s hent fiber construction, it’s as safe as can be.”
Slate turned his head up to the moonlit sky, imagining what it would be like to float in Juke’s balloon.
“That’d be incredible, Juke,” he said. Pilotte returned, not with the smaller stick that Slate had thrown, but now with an entire tree in his massive jaws. He dropped it down at Slate’s feet with a huge thud. Slate had to jump out of the way of its roll.
“You want to ride in a balloon, Pilotte?” he asked, finding a new seat next to Arianna.
“What about you, Ertajj?” asked Juke. “Do you want to come with us? I think there’s room for us all in the basket.”
“Me?” Ertajj asked, obviously happy to be considered. “Nah. I’m going to stay here. Keep the printer going. It’s been a while since I had any purpose. I like printing. I like seeing the books pile up, and get crated, and head out. Not going to lie, I like all the attention we get, too. I’ll handle the questions, Slate, don’t worry. I’ll be the celebrity.”
“Well thank you for your great sacrifice,” Slate said sarcastically.
“Dahzi? Or, should I say, Prince Dahzi? What are your highness’ plans?” Juke asked.
Dahzi took a sip from the horn and passed it to Arianna. “Oh, my parents have plans for me. It’s a different world we’re in now. No longer will governments remain isolationist. There’s too much to gain from sharing in our new knowledge. And so I’m to be Morai’s emissary.”
“How do you feel about that?” Juke asked. “I never knew you to be the most outgoing person.”
“Well, I’m going to have to change. Everything else is; I’d be a fool for standing by and watching.”
“Who could have predicted,” Ertajj said. “When I first bumped into you in that alleyway, when I first met you two all those years ago. That we’d be sitting here talking about this. That the world would be so different than it was.”
“I think things will soon look very different, but always really be the same. We’ll meet here, or somewhere, again, in the future, and we’ll be the same people,” said Arianna.
“Well let’s do that, then,” said Ertajj. “Let’s meet back here in a few years, and slap each other on the backs about how great everything is?”
“Is that optimism, coming from Ertajj Khomz?” Juke asked, laughing. “Truly, the world will never be the same.”
“Shut it,” Ertajj said, punching Juke on the arm.
“So, there we are,” Slate said, satisfied. “I just want to say, I couldn’t have done anything without all of your help.”
“Course you couldn’t have,” Ertajj said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
The next morning, after good-byes, Slate and Pilotte joined Dahzi in his flying balloon. It was an ingenious design, relying on a hot air burner to generate lift via thermal dynamics. Petrified balsan wood was the heat source, which was easily controlled and directed. A basket, sewn of hent bark, hung beneath the balloon, and was bare but comfortable, lined with blankets and pillows to lounge on. Pilotte hated being contained in the basket and absolutely loathed when it lifted off the ground. He would have leapt out if not for Slate and Arianna coaxing him to stay calm, and he made the waves and cheers goodbye exceedingly difficult to appreciate, as he howled and barked and cried so much.
Morai had disappeared from view by the time Pilotte finally exhausted himself with crying and had resigned to burying his head under a blanket and ignoring the situation. Slate, Arianna, and Juke led the flock of balloons over the rivers and jungles of the Ojikef, safe from harm in their flying machine.
“Is it hard to pilot?” Slate asked as he observed Juke.
The sky was streaked with purple and red, the sun an orange ball sinking into the horizon. Arianna was asleep on to of Pilotte in the corner.
“No, not really,” Juke answered. “Rise and fall are easily controlled, with these cords here. You just have to find what level the wind current is blowing which way, and that’s it.”
“I wonder if it’s at all like sailing,” said Slate. “I learned how to sail near the beginning of this whole thing, from my friend, Hid Hidli. Have you ever heard of an Itchy Fish?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Juke. “You want to try to pilot the balloon?”
“Really?” Slate asked excitedly.
He was already moving toward the controls before Juke answered, “Of course.”
Slate found piloting the balloon was both different and somehow similar to piloting the Calamity. It was more exhilarating when an updraft would pick up a nice powerful breeze, and more boring when there seemed to be none. But it was thrilling all the same, to have ones hands on ones destiny in any such practical way.
Slate obviously enjoyed the activity so much, and was so adept at it, that Juke had no problem offering one of the balloons for him to take the rest of the way home. After a short stop in Yiente for supplies and more petrified balsan bark, Slate made his last goodbye, to Juke, and then he, Arianna, and poor, terrified Pilotte lifted off for Jaidour.
Jaidour had been turned upside-down by the coming of the Book of Knowledge. Slate and Arianna found a city in chaos, with factions from all sides of the arguments for and against the Books and how they should be handled screaming in the streets. Groups of protestors stood shouting at each other, and nowhere was it really clear what people were after. The trade and travel freeze had been lifted though, thankfully, and so passage back to Aelioanei wouldn’t be impossible.
“But they want three hundred goldquartz,” Slate said disappointedly as he returned to where Arianna and Pilotte sat waiting on Jaidour’s docks.
“We don’t have three hundred goldquartz,” said Arianna.
“And that’s why I’m disappointed.”
Slate looked around the confused seaport, where goods and crews that had been quarantined off the coast were coming back to and struggling with the huge changes that had occurred while they were in limbo.
“Too bad Hatty’s not here to help us steal a ship.”
Arianna watched as a sea tern rode the air current on the beach so effortlessly that it appeared suspended in motion in mid-air.
“What about flying?” she asked.
“All the way? In the balloon?”
“See the trail of ships heading off into the ocean? There are hundreds of them, all stuffed with goods and anxious passengers waiting to get home. I imagine we could fly over their heads, so that we’d never be far from help, and they’d guide us right home.”
Slate swallowed hard. “I’m kind of scared of the ocean, Arianna,” he said. “The idea of the balloon failing…”
“We’d settle down right on a ship, or near where they could help us,” Arianna explained. She laughed, and added, “And I don’t think we’d have to pay the three hundred goldquartz at that point.”
“No, I don’t think so. But what about Pilotte?”
“What about him? You can take it, can’t you, big boy?” Arianna asked, giving the wulf such a good scratch-down that he couldn’t disagree.
“That’s not fair, you can’t scratch him while you ask,” Slate joked. “I guess we could go for it. How long do you think it would take?”
“No longer than it would take for a ship. It seems to me that the air currents higher in the atmosphere are stronger than those close to the ocean. Though I don’t know if that will hold true when we aren’t over land.”
“Well, I think we ought to go ahead and try. Worst case scenario, it’s a free ride home. Best case, well, that must be some kind of story to tell, to have been the first to cross the ocean in a balsan balloon?”
“Like you need any more stories to tell,” Arianna said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s get a week’s worth of supplies, I think we’ll be home by then.”
“And some fishing gear, just in case we aren’t,” added Slate.
The next morning, Slate piloted the balsan balloon around the lighthouse of Jaidour, to meet the stream of ships headed to Aelioanei. The craft passed over where the Jean Bea had smashed into the rocks, but any evidence had been washed away by the Searching Season tide.
There were shouts and cries and many mirror-flash messages from the ships on the Florian Ocean as the little balloon carrying the translators of the Books of Knowledge flew by. Some ships even sent up fireworks in appreciation of the wonder which glittered and clapped and upset poor Pilotte even more than he already was.
The balloon proved to move much faster than even the hugest ship below. Though she was not adept, Arianna had some experience with stellar navigation, from a one-year course in elementary school, and she reasoned that the ship was making almost twice their time, and would reach Aelioanei within another four days.
A day later, Arianna was making tea over the balsan stove, as Pilotte slept with his head buried in a blanket and Slate manned the ropes. He was lost in thought and so didn’t see at first that some of the ships had diverted their course, but when he came to, he was startled.
“Oh, hey,” he said to Arianna, “Some of the ships have started to head south… should we head south?”
Arianna stood up to see. “No, we should keep west… where do you think they’re going?”
Slate realized when she asked where they must have been headed. “The Passage Islands,” he said, frowning. “Pirates.”
“All those ships? There are six of them.”
“It’s a black market. Everyone visits the black market, not just pirates, unfortunately.”
“They’re being so flagrant about it,” said Arianna.
“Yeah, it’s terrible.” Slate looked over at buried Pilotte. “They almost killed him.”
“The world just opens back up and they’re already headed to the black market,” Arianna huffed. “It’s despicable.” She thought for a moment, then giggled.
“What is it?” Slate asked.
“What if we… no, that’s awful.”
“What if we were to give them a little balsan shower? Their black market?”
“What, from up here?” Slate asked. He imagined the idea and then met Arianna’s sly grin. “Should we?”
“Maybe just destroy it a little. I don’t want anyone to die.”
“Of course not.” Slate’s eyes grew wide.
“What is it?”
“Arianna, I know where they keep their treasure…”
“Treasure? Pirate Treasure?”
“Gold and jewels, honest to goodness.”
“… Is it hard to reach?”
“Not with balsan as a distraction.”
Arianna’s eyes went wide as her imagination reeled. “No,” she said, her eyelids falling. “We’re not those people. We can’t do that.”
“Who aren’t we?” Slate asked. “The heroes from the Legend? Arianna, you asked me once, where do you think those stories come from?”
Arianna blushed and laughed. “I can’t even… What would we do with it? With the treasure?”
“Give it away,” said Slate. “Most of it, anyways.”
Arianna stared out over the ocean. “We’re going to need a very good plan, Slate, if we’re going to do this.”
“It’ll be so easy, though,” said Slate. “I’ll get us down and out in no time. Mother and Father peaks, they rise over the backside of the island. We just need to come around them, touch down behind the jungle, near the fighting arena, and then exit the same way, so we’re out of view. It’ll be like we were never there! They’ll have no idea!”
“Well, the ships are going to see us.”
“We’ll break off after sunset,” said Slate. “We’ll go without lanterns.”
“This is madness, Slate,” Arianna said, offering her last resistance.
“No, it’s not madness. It’s fun!”
The sun fell and a tiny sliver of the moon revealed itself. With the only light coming from the reflection off the waves, Slate brought the balloon around the eastern side of Mother Peak, into the black-market harbor. Once the harbor was in view, Arianna removed three pieces of balsan wood from the furnace.
“You have to go fast,” she said to Slate, as he helped her put the tiny pieces of glowing petrified wood into clay jars. “The clay won’t hold the heat for long.”
“First one go!” Slate said as he hurled the jar down at the ships below. It exploded in mid-air when the heat grew too great, a phosphorescent green burst, and then splashed down into the water, churning up boiling bubbles as it sank.
“We only have three jars. Aim better,” Arianna said as they loaded a second.
“Aim better,” Slate repeated sarcastically as he threw the second jar. It exploded, and then the white-hot woodchip hit the side of a ship, which immediately exploded into a conflagration.
“Bam!” Slate whooped.
Arianna threw the third jar herself, which hit a schooner near the beach. The schooner must have been storing a good deal of fuel, as it exploded on contact so completely as to disintegrate. The pirates and traders started flowing out to the beach to see what the commotion was about, a familiar scene.
The balloon went completely unnoticed as Slate brought it down in the center of a binn grove. Pilotte remembered the place; he lowered his ears and seemed angry.
“It’s okay, boy,” Slate cooed. “We’ll only be here for a second.”
He and Arianna climbed over the basket as the cries from the beach echoed against the island’s northern peaks. “I think it’s working!”
Arianna was white with fear. “Tell me when it’s worked.”
She and Slate tore through the jungle towards the treasure cave. Slate couldn’t remember the exact way, but found it before Arianna caught on.
“Through here,” he said when he located the cave, holding up a curtain of ivy so that Arianna could pass.
She could hardly believe how vast the treasure store was.
“Why? Why store this much? What’s the point?” she asked as she looked over the piles of silver, the statues, the coffers overflowing with goldquartz.
“Greed, probably,” Slate answered. “Let’s lighten their load.”
The two gathered up as much as they could, both using silks like sacks, and then made it back to the balloon faster than before. Arianna worked the stove and the balloon rose up into the sky, above the trees, where it was clear to see the fire had overtaken the whole bay.
“You think they’re alright?” Arianna wondered over the edge of the basket.
“There’s lots of water around,” Slate answered. “They’ll be fine.”
Up the balloon rose, between Mother and Father Peaks, away from the island, to rejoin the line of ships making their way west.