“It’ll come,” Shea said. “Two more hills, and we’ll see it.”
The place where the river meets the land, where the hillside scoops the sun’s honey and the toy white boats ride the ripples.
He didn’t know whom he was telling this—certainly not that calm silence which sat across the table from him.
Aidan fished a piece of meat from his plate, eyes on the airship’s window. The black gloves stayed on even when he ate.
The dining lounge hosted one more passenger, an old lady with large, veiny hands. Although she held on to a fork, she didn’t appear to be eating: each time Shea glanced at her, it was the same posture, same lowered head, as if she’d started the motion but didn’t have the strength to finish it.
“Something seems to be bothering you,” Aidan said. “May I ask what?”
His earlier words echoed in Shea’s mind—‘we must get rid of Patrick, I’m afraid’—as if Aidan had applied a knife to the sentence the way he’d been ready to apply it to Patrick’s throat.
“Why are you asking?”
“Because we share a common goal, and I’ve no desire to see it compromised. And because I still know nothing about this workshop of yours.”
Sunlit hills flowed below, trees at that distance turning into gilded fur.
“Musk Valley is my home,” Shea said.
“Fine, don’t talk.” Aidan folded his napkin. “You seem intent on rejecting my help.”
“What do you want me to say? Listen, when I convinced the duke to destroy the Drakiri devices, I believed in what I was saying. The stuff’s dangerous. Heaven knows how many were maimed at the tower, perhaps even died—were there any deaths? Do you know?”
“I don’t. Not that I care much, mind you.”
The old lady twitched the way people twitch in their sleep. The fork clanked against her plate, and she finally started eating.
“What the hell am I even doing,” Shea said, “bringing more devices to Owenbeg?”
“A chance at the crown means nothing to you, does it? Then consider this: if the tower doesn’t get finished within the next two years, Duma will attempt an incursion.”
Shea couldn’t contain a hiss. “Come on, are you one of those idiots who believe Duma has the densest population of megalomaniacs in the world?”
“I don’t believe anything.” Aidan skewed his mouth, from the looks of it probing his teeth in search of a wayward piece of food. “I know. Duma is my motherland, I spent the first thirteen years of my life there; I know how they think, their opinion of other countries, of you.”
“Well, it’s not like we have a lot to do, so why don’t you convince me that they’re the furnace of the world’s evil?”
“I’ll tell you a story, Shea.” Aidan slouched in his chair a bit, but one of the black gloves squeezed into a fist, crumpling the napkin. “It was my father who’d decided, single-handedly, that we needed to leave the country. He decided it when the crown prince, only fifteen then, only three years older than me, assumed command of the royal cavalry battalion.
“People went crazy. You know how it happens: everybody ecstatic, everybody talking of a new emerging leader. Father, he saw the writing on the wall. One morning at the end of summer I woke up and saw him through the window, in the sun, exchanging papers with a man I didn’t recognize.
“They shook hands, and the man left. Father turned and walked, too. I couldn’t see him past the window’s edge, but I knew the front door would bang in a few seconds, and that moment was for me—I realize it sounds trite, but still—it was a loss of innocence. My sisters, Maria and Isabel…” He paused. “Maria and Isabel slept in another room. I remember a toy, a bear, perched on the table in mine.
“The door banged and he walked in, or rather, darted through the anteroom. I heard him say something to Mother in a loud voice—normally, he was all quiet in the mornings, afraid of disturbing our sleep.
“When I tiptoed over the ice-cold floor, into the living room, Mother was collecting things, some silly stuff—pictures from the walls, porcelain cats from the shelves. Father told her to stop, pack the clothes, and wake us up.
“The carriage already waited outside. Our cook flapped her apron at her face, and the stable-hand, Michael, ran after us, waving his hands. Michael had first put me on a horse and taught me to ride.”
Aidan slid away his plate. “Past the city gates, I remember, Father relaxed. He even smiled at me. Isabel asked for her doll. That was when the bomb exploded.”
He traced with his fingers a pattern on the table.
“Something hit me on the head, and I flew out through the carriage’s door like a sack. I sat on the pavement, bawling, snot all over my face. My hearing was gone. And you know what the worst thing is? I don’t even remember the corpses. I remember a wheel rolling past me, people running toward us, but not the corpses.
“Mother and Father survived—Isabel and Maria didn’t. It was Michael who’d planted the bomb, of course. They’d found out Father wanted to leave the country, and they bribed our stable hand to blow us up.”
“I’m sorry, Aidan,” Shea said.
“You don’t have to be. It was twenty-five years ago; I healed. Which brings me to another point…” He pinched the rim of his glove. “You’re afraid that people at the tower will never learn to work with the Drakiri devices? Well, you can live with these things for your entire life.”
In one motion, he pulled the glove off. The old lady at the neighboring table gasped, and her fork rang like a little bell.
Aidan’s arm ended at the wrist; what came after branched off in metal and purple veins, glowed in sparks, roughly following the contours of a human hand—but only roughly. Knotted ‘fingers’ rolled in the air as though strumming a chord.
Carefully, Aidan put the glove back on and smiled at the old lady who sat there with huge, frozen eyes.
Shea exhaled. “Gosh. I never knew.”
“Now you do. The bomb maimed me, and I had this thing fitted instead by a wandering Drakiri craftsman when I was twenty-one.”
“You said you found out it was Michael who’d planted the bomb. What did you do to him?”
Aidan didn’t say anything, but his smile sharpened while the eyes went to ice.
Isabel, Maria. Lena. Shea exhaled, struck by an analogy. I could’ve been Aidan. If it were a person that had taken Lena from me, I quite possibly would’ve been him.
And then they passed the next hill, and, sure enough, there were the ripples on water, and the white sails, and the valley’s saddle onto which a palette knife had scrawled the contours of a city.
Somehow, the magic of it appeared dull; all he could think about was a boy looking at dead bodies, an image that held, in itself, a similar picture from his own past, like a Dumian stacking doll.
“It’ll come,” Shea said. “Two more hills, and we’ll see it.”