Fladstrand, Upper Peninsula, Denmark
My dear impulsive brother,
If this letter is in your hands instead of on my desk where I left it, you must have flown to Fladstrand without first collecting your correspondence in Port Fallow—where the note I sent to you would have saved you a trip. Don’t be alarmed by my absence. The guards you recommended to me have seen to my safety commendably. Since they have come into my employ, I have not been kidnapped even once.
I have had an unexpected visit from an old friend, instead—you will remember Helene Krause, though she is now Mrs. Basile Auger. She has invited me to accompany her to Australia, and I have accepted that invitation. It will be the perfect opportunity to research the location of the next Lady Lynx adventure.
Do not stop reading this letter, Archimedes! Your instinct will be to drop it and rush up to your skyrunner, where you and your captain will make hasty plans to follow me. I forbid you from undertaking such a stupid effort. Helene’s husband serves as an ambassador in the French diplomatic corps, and we will be traveling aboard a naval airship to his station in the Red City. No pirate would dare attack our escort, and we will not fly too near the smugglers’ havens. I have also assumed an alias to conceal my identity. Rest assured that I have taken proper precautions.
P.S. I warn you again, Archimedes, do not even think of pursuit! I don’t need you and Captain Corsair to chase after me, shooting everyone who crosses your path.
I shall write to you frequently—if you have any brains in your head, you will recognize my assumed name. Remember to collect your post, and you’ll see that I am getting on perfectly well. If ever I am forced to narrate the tale of my upcoming journey, the title will surely be The Scribbling Spinster and the Uneventful Voyage.
Three days after his brother walked into the brushlands south of town and didn’t return, Ariq went in search of him.
He left in his mountain walker just before dawn. Meeng yawned in the gunner’s seat and was asleep again before they passed through the town gates, where a dying kraken’s monstrous tentacles still slithered and coiled in the white sand. Within minutes, the sandy shoreline gave way to dense red earth. Wagtail birds in eucalyptus trees chittered their warnings over the hiss of the walker’s hydraulics. The segmented legs carried them over low shrubs, the steel joints methodically rising and falling through the crackling brush.
Meeng snored until midmorning, but Ariq followed his brother’s trail without the tracker’s help. The skies had been pouring the night Takamasa learned that his beloved had married another, and he’d set out the next morning over thick mud. The sun had returned the following day, baking his footprints into an unmistakable path.
But the same heat that had set Taka’s early prints like stone had hardened the ground as he’d walked. By midday, Ariq couldn’t detect a trace of his brother’s trail. He relied on Meeng, who was guided by the faintest disturbance of dust here and a broken twig there.
Ariq didn’t need to see each print to recognize where the trail was leading, though—south around the head of the bay, then veering back toward the ocean. His brother had gone to the cliffs.
The rocky rise to the sheer edge lay ahead of them, the red earth studded with flat boulders and scrub. A straight course would have sent Taka to the beach far below.
Ariq steered the walker onto the same path. High overhead, the sun glared down accusingly. He shouldn’t have waited so long. But Takamasa had gone on these treks before. Meeng had accompanied him into the unforgiving landscape the first times, but in the past years Taka had ventured off alone. He’d always returned within a few days or weeks, thin and dirty but alive.
Ariq had known this time was different, though. So different that he intended to use the faint excuse of a beached squid to bring his brother home. Now Ariq couldn’t bear to drive up the rise, or to look over the cliff and see what might lay on the shore below. He couldn’t bear it, though he’d faced warriors from the Golden Empire with a steady hand. With a calm heart, he’d stolen into the bowels of a Nipponese prison. He’d been outnumbered and outgunned more often than he liked to remember. Yet he couldn’t recall one danger that had filled his body with such dread as weighed on it now.
“Why do you slow?” Meeng glanced away from the ground. “The trail is clear.”
And the tracker assumed that Taka had simply walked along the cliffs rather than thrown himself over them. Meeng didn’t know of Ariq’s fears for his brother—even Taka didn’t know of them. Ariq had never spoken them aloud. A word of worry might be taken as a question of Taka’s courage and shatter his brother’s tortured spirit. So Ariq had held his tongue.
But the news of his beloved might have broken Taka, anyway.
He stopped the engine. “We’ll walk.”
Frowning, Meeng studied the rise ahead. Their walker could have navigated through the boulders and brush. The machine had been designed to crawl over the treacherous mountains within the Golden Empire—and with a few modifications, the walker had proved just as suited to this flat, dry land.
Ariq was suited to this place, too. If he hadn’t been, he’d have also made the necessary modifications.
Taka had tried to adjust to their new life. Five years had passed since the Nipponese had discovered their mother was a spy and Taka had been imprisoned on suspicion of treason. Five years since Taka had lost everything except a half brother he hadn’t met until Ariq had freed him from his chains. But some days, it seemed as if Taka had never escaped. As if he opened his eyes, yet there was still only darkness and pain.
Ariq had fought in the rebellion against the Golden Empire from almost his first step, yet he’d never seen a battle as continuous as Taka had waged.
That battle might have been lost today.
He followed Meeng up the rise. The ochre rubbed into the tracker’s black ropes of hair was almost the same shade as the dirt beneath his toughened bare feet. The earth was softer here, and Meeng walked alongside the faintest impression of Taka’s boots. Then Ariq’s boots trampled over them, his footprints so much bigger than his brother’s. Though his step was almost as quiet as Meeng’s, each one seemed to thud against the ground, heavier and heavier. Approaching the cliff’s edge, his head seemed weighed down, too. He couldn’t lift it. He didn’t want to look over.
“Get down, you fools!”
Ariq immediately dropped, his hand flying to his pistol before he recognized his brother’s voice behind that urgent warning. Crouching, he spotted Taka sprawled on a stone shelf overlooking the cliff, his body partially hidden by brush.
Meeng glanced back at Ariq. Exasperation tightened the tracker’s cheeks before he slowly sank to his heels.
Taka gestured them closer. Ariq crept to the edge, flattening himself beside his brother. A single inhalation later, he began breathing through his mouth. Taka had been walking for three days, two of them humid and hot, and he obviously hadn’t stopped to bathe in the ocean.
But the ripe odor was sweet—the fragrance of life, not the stench of death.
So what were they hiding from? Ariq glanced into the sky. No airships, and a deeper blue than the sky he’d known as a boy. The ocean below was brighter, greener. In the distance, Fujimaru steamed toward the horizon, dark smoke threading from her stacks. When the Nipponese ironship had left Ariq’s town that morning, she’d been heading south. Now she was striking out to the west.
But Taka wasn’t looking at the ironship. Ariq dropped his gaze to the narrow beach at the base of the cliff. Two men. Two small, sleek flyers, the balloons shining like silver beneath the sun.
His heart slowed to a strong, heavy beat. His breath lengthened. His body calmed, preparing for battle.
Marauders had plagued the coast since the previous winter, indiscriminately attacking incoming airships. No balloons remained at the port in Ariq’s town or the mining settlements farther north. Supplies only came in by boat and with higher prices attached. Ariq had originally suspected the source of the attacks were the dealers who’d seen the most profit when the air trade stopped. But the marauders hadn’t struck only merchant airships—they’d taken down passenger and smuggler ships, too.
He and Meeng had scoured the nearby coast trying to locate the marauders’ camp. The ironship’s commander had been searching the seas. Neither had found any sign of them.
This wasn’t the camp. But answers might be found below.
“Only two?” The few survivors of the attacks had reported more than a dozen flyers. The two men on the beach were either scouting or waiting.
“Twelve more have already gone.” Taka pointed to the horizon. “A half hour past.”
West. Ariq searched the sky again. The flyers were already out of sight.
And the ironship was headed the same direction. Commander Saito must have spotted the marauders and moved in pursuit.
If the flyers were after an airship, Saito wouldn’t catch them in time. The machines were quick and maneuverable, with a dried-jellyfish balloon shaped like a bullet. They weren’t as fast or as silent as living jellyfish, but those balloons were difficult to keep unless they were always piloted over the water. These smaller flyers could travel over land as well as the sea.
But they didn’t have a long range. “Did you see where they came from?”
“From the south. But over land or ocean, I don’t know,” Taka said. “They arrived under the cover of dark.”
Concealing their movements by traveling at night. Ariq had often done the same when he’d led rebel warriors against the Golden Empire’s forces. He glanced at Meeng, who was peering over the cliff. “How best to climb down and surprise them?”
“There will be no surprise unless you are a boilerworm or a kraken.”
Attacking the marauders from beneath the sand or dragging them into the ocean. Neither was an option.
Without the advantage of surprise, attempting to take one of the men alive posed too great a risk. He and Taka would have to go in shooting, and keep firing until the two men couldn’t shoot back.
And there were twelve other men on flyers who might have answers. Ariq just needed to follow them west—and stop them from destroying another airship.
If it wasn’t already too late.