Lady Aurulent, Detective and Purported Sorcerer, in:
The Case of the Missing Pilot
J. Louis Zadorsky
Blue-gray clouds gathered in the west like a watching animal, clotting and darkening, readying to pounce. Delia looked away from the storm and checked her leather harness, crisscrossed over her chest, under her thighs, and around the copper spire to which she clung like a leather-clad spider, her bug-eyed goggles completing the effect. The wind roared in her ears and she instinctively reached back to ensure her satchel of newly drawn copper wire was secured. She gave the harness a tug and slid down the smooth face of the spire twenty feet to where it disappeared into the gray stone roof and re-secured herself with a satisfying click of straps and buckles.
The wind whistled through a nearby crack in the building’s limestone façade. The storm was still half an hour away, more than enough time to upgrade some wiring. But she quickened her pace anyway, unspooling the thin wire between her hands with practiced ease. She reached for the hatch in front of her, tugging on the small wheel she’d soldered onto it herself. She gave the tiny door a pull, revealing the tight bundles of wired entwined inside and carefully secured to the spire’s outer walls at regular intervals. Already the darkening sky was making it difficult to see, but there was enough light if she worked quickly. Just under half an hour later, one of her bells rang from inside the house. The storm bell—Cassandra, she called it, for all the times she ignored its toll—had no doubt been tripped by the change in pressure from the coming clouds.
“Alright, alright,” she whispered to herself. “I know a storm’s coming. I built you, you damned old thing.”
She twisted the last bit of new wire into place around a bolt secured into the spire’s frame, closed the hatch, gave the wheel a tug to secure it, then shimmied the rest of the way down the lightning rod to the limestone roof deck. She took a moment to look at up at her handiwork: the fifty foot high spire stretching into the sky, higher than even the mountain’s peak itself, a human-made apex atop this mountain home she’d carved from the rock. Of course, that was just the visible portion. The copper rod in truth was another hundred feet long, terminating several floors below her feet in a chamber she’d built specially to capture and contain the power of the storm.
She looked to where her airship, the Praxagora, was tethered under a protective roof fashioned from wood planks she’d sealed tight with waterproof glue. It was the desire to give the old girl the best engine possible that had first sparked—Delia couldn’t help a smile at that particular word popping into her head—her interest in the powerful lightning storms that frequently blew through these valleys. She’d crafted a system where the copper rod on the roof of her mountain hideaway drew the electric bolts, which traveled down its length and into the containment chamber where the charge was transferred into and kept inside a series of linked glass jars filled, at first with plain water, and now with a liquid of her own formulation. A dozen of the linked jars could power the ship without need of wind or balloon for several hours.
She let her eyes travel away from the deceptively traditional lines of her airship, and looked around the valley, stretching north in front of her and south behind her, with its far side many miles to the west, now nearly invisible behind the black clouds racing her way. The sky to the east was clear blue, the mountains their usual brown and crumbling selves. She could pick out several important peaks in what the area’s most recent rulers referred to as their “Southern Holdings,” even spotting another airship bobbing in place at one of them.
Her gaze from there descended down to the valley floor where the mountain walls disappeared into a layer of black Hades gas, too heavy to rise into the air. From this distance it almost looked like water, if one didn’t know to look for the telltale wisps and eddies. The whole continent—or at least the parts of it she’d seen—was covered in it, though it only pooled into such poisonous concentrations in these mountain valleys. Why it did that was a simple matter of understanding the prevailing weather patterns. However, why it was there in first place remained a mystery she still had not solved.
She stepped out of her harness, double-checked for all her tools, then kneeled down to pull on the small half-moon-shaped handle carved into the floor, hiding the ladder back down into shelter. Just as her foot hit the first step of the ladder, the bell sounded again.
“Alright, al—.” Not the storm bell.
She popped her head back out and peered north, up into the valley. She focused her eyes on the gas floor and slowly looked up, up, up until she neared the top of the valley, and there she saw it, flying nearly as high as the peaks themselves, an airship. And a big one at that.
“Guess we have company,” she said, then stepped inside and closed the hatch as the first raindrops fell.
The walk from the guest dock to the foyer was over a hundred yards, and by the time her unexpected caller and his two-man entourage were inside, they were soaked.
“Prince Tetramnestus, to what do I owe the pleasure?” she asked.
He pressed his lips together as he ran a hand through his hair, slicked black by the rain, and shook out a handful of raindrops on the stone floor. For a moment she saw that same hair shaking droplets of water out in a rainbow arc under a warm sun. She saw the cozily secluded lake house and felt the sand under her feet. She quickly pushed that thought aside.
“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that, Delia,” he said.
“You go around calling all the ladies of the realm by their first names?”
“Very well, Lady Aurulent,” he said with a bow, “I come to ask a boon.”
“A boon?” she asked with an arched eyebrow, “it must really be something if you were willing to drag yourself all the way to this end of the kingdom just to see a lady of common circumstance like myself.”
His cheeks reddened at that and his two servants very astutely looked at their boots.
“I hadn’t realized I’d left things with us quite so badly as all that.” He looked over either shoulder at his attendants, and continued, “I suppose that’s not entirely true.” He reached out for her hand. “I knew if I sent a formal request you’d refuse, so I thought I would come by and, well, I suppose I really should apol-“
She saw those same smooth hands cupping her rough ones as he drew them to his mouth for a kiss. She saw herself telling him, “you’ve traveled all over the South, but you really know nothing about its people,” and him saying, “you spend all your time talking about the North’s people, but you’ve never traveled there.” She waved his hand off along with the unbidden memory.
“No, never mind,” she said with a sigh, looking into those always eager brown eyes. “I should have known what I was getting into with you.” She looked at the dripping servants again. “You might as well come sit down and tell me what trouble you’ve gotten yourself into this time. I’ll get you some towels.”
“What was that enormous copper contraption on your roof?” the Prince asked as Delia handed him a chipped porcelain mug with no saucer. “Some new kind of flagpole?”
“It’s for capturing lightning,” she replied, taking her seat across from him.
“Lightning? I didn’t know that was the sort of thing one could capture. Leastways not without dying. Or,” the Prince said, cocking his head, “there was Captain Bulwer. He was struck by lightning on the roof of the palace when I was a child. He lived, but his hair all turned white and he never did talk much sense after that. Anyway, it sounds terribly dangerous.”
“That’s why I use the copper rod for it and not my head,” she said.
“Indeed. And what does one do with captured lightning?”
“This and that, I suppose. So have you flown all this way to chat with me about my engineering projects? I’m touched. I can show you some of the calculations in my journals if you’re really interested.”
“Heavens no, De-, my Lady, you know all those Greek symbols give me a headache. I prefer the short version.”
She couldn’t help a little smile with the corner of her mouth.
“I suppose you want me to get to the point, then?” the Prince asked. “It’s Carson,” he added after taking a sip of tea.
“Carson? Your political advisor?” she replied. “What’s that old fop done now?”
“That’s just it. We don’t know. He’s missing.”
Everyone paused for a moment as lightning flashed outside and a deafening crack of thunder rattled their teacups not a second later.
“Missing?” she said. “Send a search party to every lady’s manor in the kingdom and soon enough you’ll find an old man crawling out a window with his trousers around his ankles.”
“Normally I’d agree with your Ladyship,” the Prince said, “if the man hadn’t simply disappeared out of thin air.”
The Prince waited a beat, ensuring himself he now had a captive audience. He’d always had a knack for garnering her full attention.
“Carson was out racing in one of the windier eastern passes,” the Prince continued. She could picture the ship now, with that hideous red stripe down the side of the gas envelope, rudders painted like dragon claws. “He had his usual escort of two ships following at a safe distance. The two escort pilots say everything was normal until suddenly Carson’s ship plunged down to the valley floor—although that in itself, they tell me, is not outside the realm of his usual flamboyant piloting style—and just as they feared his ship was about to disappear into the heavy gas layer itself, it ascended again.”
“The ship returned to its initial altitude and returned to its path for a moment, but then began to veer off course. When it became evident it might crash into the valley wall, his escorts made chase, secured their ships to Carson’s and boarded. When they went inside the ship, he was nowhere to be found.”
“Surely there’s more to it than that,” she said.
“I swear I’ve told it exactly as it was told to me. But I feared you might be incredulous, so I brought the two escorts with me.”
She looked at the two men, standing behind the Prince’s chair.
“I swear it’s just as he tells it, your Ladyship,” one said, “Sir Carson got on his ship and then he vanished in plain day.”
“You saw him get on the ship?” she asked.
“Yes, your Ladyship.”
“He didn’t jump or fall from the ship’s gondola?”
“No, we would have seen it.”
“There was no one on board when he entered?”
“No, your Ladyship, we performed a full search beforehand, as always.”
She set her teacup on the little table near the chair and leaned back.
“So,” the Prince said, “have I piqued your interest?”
“There’s something you’re still not telling me, isn’t there?” she asked.
He smiled. “Yes, but I’d rather show it to you than tell you about it. Will you come with me and investigate my missing advisor’s airship?”
They’d docked Carson’s racing ship in one of the Prince’s personal hangars. It had been over a year since she’d last visited the Prince’s estate. They had argued nearly every time they’d seen each other in the weeks leading up to it. Always Tet with his idealistic dreams of expansion and democracy, and then his acid tongue whenever he was made to see the flaws in his plans.
Not that Delia hated an idealist. It was why the young man had captured her attention despite clearly being a rich and pampered playboy of a prince. But what she did hate was an idealist who refused to do the hard thinking when his ideals ran against the unforgiving walls of reality. She’d been so taken with the young prince she was convinced that with their combined intellects they could start making some of his sunny proclamations an actual physical reality, piece by tiny piece. What she hadn’t considered is that a young man raised to receive whatever he wanted might react badly to a challenge. And “reacting badly” turned out to mean “getting caught in bed with two girls probably young enough to be in school and then responding ‘you should have seen this coming.’” He was right, she should have. Delia had made a prosperous life out of thinking with her head. The Prince, she reminded herself, was an excellent lesson about what happened when she didn’t.
The ship was as ugly as she remembered it. Built by a man who wanted a speedy craft, and wanted everyone who saw it to know exactly how fast it was. It lacked any sort of elegance. It had a rigid envelope holding the lifting gas, sleekly cut to turn sharply in the valley winds, but not with any real measure of control. It would turn hard, it would dive and ascend quickly, but it would be a death trap in tight confines like those Carson inadvisably favored. The gondola hanging under the envelope was polished cherry—not cheap to get in these quantities, with glass windows at eye level all the way around except for where the door was located. The gondola too was trimmed to slice through the wind, accented with real gold piping. Even the mooring knobs were gold, a ridiculous expense for something that was only ever going to hold a grubby sandbag.
“So tell me,” Delia asked the two escort pilots, slowly circling the gondola, “was the ship docked like this, inside a hangar, before you set out, or tethered to an aerial dock?”
“Inside a hangar, your Ladyship.”
“So you give even your advisors big enough estates to build whole airship hangars?” she asked the Prince.
“Their grants are of a size with my appreciation for their services.”
“Then I look forward to naming a mountain after myself when I solve this little mystery,” Delia replied. She turned to the pilots. “Gentlemen, you inspected the interior yourselves?”
“Yes, your Ladyship. Sir Carson insisted we always double-check his instruments, in addition to the usual security inspection protocols.”
“So then you’re not just pilots, but bodyguards.”
“Please, Delia,” the Prince said, “I mean ‘Your Ladyship.’ You don’t need to grill them over the more sensitive aspects of their employment, do you?”
“Do you want me to investigate this or not?” she replied.
When he didn’t respond she turned back to the pilots.
“Of a sort, yes, your Ladyship,” the one who called himself Kent replied.
“Carson always thought it was more stylish to have a team of pilots than a team of guards,” the Prince added.
“Let’s have a look inside, then,” she said and took the three small steps to the gold-handled door to let herself inside.
The interior was no less opulent. Red velvet couches lined the oval gondola cabin. The instrument deck was towards the cabin’s front, though centered and raised up on a platform. It had an enormous gold wheel like something from an old sea captain’s tale. The instruments were gold, the dials were behind glass and lined with gold. It was, in all, an inordinately fancy ship.
“And it looked just like this when you inspected it?” she said, trying not to emphasize the word “this” with too much distaste.
“It did, your Ladyship,” Kent replied. “And the same when we boarded it in the air, except for the wheel spinning about freely owing to there being no pilot.”
“Of course. Well, I don’t doubt the man has disappeared, and I suspect not willingly. No one who spends this much money on a ship leaves it unless he has to.”
She walked back outside, put a finger to her lip and stared up at the ugly craft.
“So?” the Prince asked.
“So I’m thinking,” she said, shooting him a look.
She began to circle the ship a second time.
“What are the dimensions of this ship?” she asked. “I’d guess it’s close in size to a Griffon Class, though obviously it’s bespoke. So around 200 cloudweight of lifting gas?”
“Two hundred twenty, give or take, your Ladyship.”
“The gondola is all cherry? Around 182 boardfeet, if I had to guess, or however you measure it imperial. Changing out for the windows, which will be heavy, and all the gold trim, and it’s a rigid envelope, not one of those hybrids, I’m guessing this is a 2-ton ship.”
“Actually closer to 1.8, your Ladyship. The envelope design is cutting-edge.”
“Of course it is,” she said. “I counted 24 sandbags tethering the ship down, is that right?”
“I think so, your Ladyship,” one of them said.
“If my estimate is correct, and these are standard tethering bags, it should take 28 bags to hold a ship of this size with a fully inflated envelope.”
She looked at the Prince and the two pilots. None said anything. Then she looked at the gondola again, and its opulent windows, not the same size she noticed now. The windows were a full three feet high towards the rear, but they curved upwards towards the front of the cabin until they were no more than two feet high at the front.
“Let’s find the extra weight,” she said, and climbed the steps back inside the gondola.
The polished floors sloped very slightly from back to front, she now noticed. She walked slowly from the door towards the steering console, focusing on the wooden platform it sat atop. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she spotted it: a small imperfection in the wood’s grain. She knelt down, placed her fingers on the spot and pulled back to reveal a small handle underneath.
She grabbed it and tugged, pulling an entire two-by-two square of the floor up by a hidden hinge. One of the pilots gasped, and so did she when she saw what was inside.
“I’m afraid you can call off your search,” she said.
The handle and door had revealed a small compartment, the inside of which had been completely filled with Hades gas. And just underneath the hazy surface of the gas, lying on the velvet lined sofa built into the hidden compartment’s interior, was Carson, hands clutched around his throat and lifeless eyes wide open in terror.
One of the pilots walked to the front of the ship with an emergency mask—a resin designed for a tight fit over the mouth and a metal canister with a few minutes of air. He stepped into the gas-filled chamber with the dead advisor and heaved the man’s feet up to the deck, where the second pilot grabbed hold and pulled. Together they hauled Carson out into the cabin, dropping him to the polished wood floors with a thud.
“Perhaps her Ladyship would be more comfortable in the manor,” Kent said to the Prince, pointedly looking back at the corpse on the ground.
“Thank you, but I’m sure she’ll put aside her fragile sensibilities for the sake of duty to the Kingdom,” the Prince said, unable to completely stifle his smile, then turned to Delia and added, “won’t you?”
She just rolled her eyes at him and knelt down over Carson’s body.
“No obvious wounds,” she said. “Even his clothing isn’t that disheveled.”
She pulled the man’s sleeves back. No signs of binding. She turned his head. No trauma to the skull or neck as far as she could see. She pulled his jacket lapel back. “This might be something,” she said, gingerly removing a slip of white paper from the man’s inner pocket.
She immediately knew something was wrong as she grabbed it. It was rough paper, un-dyed and imprecisely cut. It was nearly sandpapery in texture, she noticed, as she unfolded it and looked at the uneven scrawl written across its center in black ink:
To Prince Usurper Bastard and his Three Little Pigs,
This is your first warning. I would ask if he was a friend, but men like you don’t have friends—only pets and slaves.
I was at Rustgate when you had my people sign away our birthrights at the point of a sword. I saw you there with this piglet and two others. It is time for the slaughter, but I am a merciful butcher, leaving the northern gate open. Flee to it now, and live. Stay, and you will get two more warnings. Then I will come after you.
“Charming,” the Prince said, reading over her shoulder.
“I presume our poet-assassin is referring to Lords Trannick and Garvin,” she said.
“They both can be rather pig-like sometimes,” the Prince said. “Who do you think he means by ‘Prince Usurper Bastard?’”
She gave him a look.
“You really should be taking this more seriously,” she said.
“Oh now you care about me?” he asked. “If I’d known all it took was the threat of assassination, I would have staged something months ago.”
She tried not to roll her eyes.
“I think we should at least take this seriously for poor Carson’s sake.”
“Yes, I suppose we should,” the Prince said with a sigh. “The man was kind of an ass. A brilliant politician, but an ass. Still, I suppose he’s owed some vengeance.”
“I was thinking more you owe yourself some safety.”
“It’s not as though I was planning to walk into Colgate Square, naked, holding a sign that reads ‘please assassinate me.’ I have guards, you know. Very well-trained ones. They’re standing outside this hangar right now, in fact. And I don’t go haring off on solo airship joyrides. Any assassin would have to be absurdly clever and skilled to get to me.”
“This assassin boarded an in-flight aircraft, unseen, by means we’ve yet to divine, subdued a 250-pound grown man with a decorated past in the Royal Air Corps, seemingly without allowing him to put up any sign of struggle, and then killed him, ten thousand feet in the air, using a poisonous gas that does not float.”
The Prince pursed his lips.
“When you put it like that, yes, now I am rather worried. Thanks for that.” Then after a moment of silence, added, “Of course this had to happen the week my father is coming for an inspection of the territories. What do you think we should do?”
“I think you should warn your other advisors.”
“No, I mean what should I do about my father?”
“The King’s disappointment won’t mean much if we let an invisible man slit your throat, Tet. Let’s focus on that first.”
“I’ve called you both here to share some rather startling news,” the Prince began.
They were all sitting around a long, polished oak table in what Delia assumed the Prince styled as some kind of war room. Though really it was just a room full of heavy furniture and lots of maps.
She looked across the table at the two men. They were the Prince’s two surviving advisors, of the three that made up a traditional Triad, the advisory council any prince would have at his disposal. Should he ever become king, he would be granted an additional two, one for the church and one for laws. But that seemed unlikely to happen anytime soon. King Hyperion Gaul had passed along to his children not just a penchant for overwrought names, but also a hale composition. Nearly sixty now, the King-Who-Saved-the-South showed no sign of slowing down and looked poised to rule for a couple decades more at least. Each of his children had been a renowned athlete in their youth, even the girls. In fact, the man’s insistence his daughters be taught the same martial skills his sons learned was the only reason Delia ever forgave him for calling her ‘sweetheart’ the one time they’d met.
The two men sitting across from the table advising the athletic young prince did not share his muscular build, though they deviated from it in quite different ways. Trannick, the military advisor, was lean, with lines practically carved into his wind-burned face, close-cropped white hair that looked as though it had been trimmed just yesterday, and a permanent scowl. Garvin, the financial advisor, on the other hand, was a study in classic bookworm aesthetics. He was stick-thin like Trannick, but half a foot shorter, with brown curly hair, and a youthful, guileless face behind a pair of eyeglasses and a poorly kept mustache. His suit was at least a size too large for him.
“It must be startling indeed,” Trannick said in his gravelly voice, “if you’re starting the meeting before Carson arrives.”
“I’m afraid Carson won’t be joining us,” the Prince replied. “The startling news is that he’s dead.”
Garvin’s eyes widened at that news. Trannick merely raised an eyebrow.
“Dead how?” Trannick asked.
“Assassinated, actually,” the Prince said. “On his own ship, hidden in a secret compartment, drowned in Hades gas. The assassin left this note,” he said and handed the folded piece of paper across the table to Trannick.
The old sycamore read through it several times before he looked up. Garvin stared at him expectantly.
“A Plainlander radical, then,” Trannick said. “Drowning a man in Hades gas was always a favorite of their guerrilla specialists during the war.”
“And you think this assassin is going to come after us next?” Garvin asked. He was reading the note now. His voice carried surprise, but he was calm. He’d never been a terribly excitable person.
“Let him come, I say,” Trannick said with a grin. The smile actually made him look meaner. “I never met a Plainlander I couldn’t kill with my bare hands.”
“I think you’d find this one a touch more challenging than the usual,” Delia said.
“Would I now, my lady?” Trannick answered with an exaggerated bow of his head. “Has a pretty girl like you got much experience with assassins?”
“Yes,” she replied.
Trannick let out a guffaw. She scowled and opened her mouth to reply, but the Prince cut her off.
“Let’s not forget our manners, gentlemen. Now, I’ve called you into this meeting first, to warn you, and second, to figure out what we’re going to do. Preferably before my father arrives at the end of the week.”
Both advisors looked at the Prince expectantly.
“Ok, then. So what are we going to do?” Garvin finally asked.
“It better not be ‘hide in a bunker like a bunch of pansies’,” Trannick said.
“It’s not,” the Prince said. “Lady Aurulent has something of an idea. I’ll let her explain.”
Garvin turned and looked at her, waiting for instruction. Trannick gave a sarcastic “please-proceed” hand gesture.
“We’re going to give the assassin exactly what he wants,” she said.
“You’ll have to explain,” Trannick said, emphasizing each word slowly as though for a child.
Delia “The trouble with assassins is not knowing when they’ll strike,” she said. “But if we give this one an opportunity that looks too good to pass up, we remove that uncertainty, and we can be ready.”
“Alright,” Trannick said, “set a trap, and we’re the bait. I give it points for having some steel. Where do you want me and how heavily can I be armed?”
“Actually we were thinking Mr. Garvin would make for better bait than yourself,” the Prince said.
Garvin had the good manners to look only extremely startled and not utterly terrified.
“Bear with us,” the Prince said, holding a hand up as Trannick opened his mouth to speak.
“Mr. Garvin,” Delia said, turning to the accountant, “do you trust me to ensure your safety in whatever we plan?”
“Well,” he said, moving his jaw like he was getting moisture back in his mouth, “some people do claim you’re a sorcerer. I could do worse for a guardian angel.”
“I’m certainly not magical, just cleverer than most. But I will do what I can.”
“Yes, yes,” Trannick said, “you’re a noble lady from the distant east. We get that. But why him?” he said, pointing a thumb at Garvin.
“For one,” Delia said, “Mr. Garvin is already scheduled to tour some of the outer holdings tomorrow. It’s a publicized tour and assassins love knowing where their targets will be.”
“And two,” the Prince cut in, “we need you on the response team when we catch the bastard.”
“Oh,” Trannick said, “I guess that makes it alright.”
“I still don’t understand why we couldn’t go in my ship,” the Prince said. “It has a bar.”
“I told you, my ship is faster than anything you’ve got. I’m keeping you alive and sober until I get that mountain named after me.”
Delia squinted into the sun rising over the mountain peak in the east. She rested a hand on the wheel of the Praxagora, her fingers fitting into the handle’s grooves with ease. The ship was silent and still, refined elegance on the outside and coiled potential underneath. They were floating in a crevasse overlooking the church where Garvin was scheduled to arrive before the hour was up.
Delia stifled a yawn. It had taken the remainder of yesterday and the entire night to organize what had seemed like a simple plan. First, they’d determined that the obligatory church visit—each major peak had one and it was customary to visit the priest there and pray inside on all official occasions—was the ideal place for an assassin to strike. It was the only time on the trip Garvin would ostensibly be alone. The assassin could kill and disappear before anyone realized anything was wrong. Once they’d made that determination, it had been a matter of gathering the necessary forces, quietly of course, transporting them to this location, carefully scouting the many mountain crevasses overlooking the site, then hiding a number of men inside the church and around the grounds. Then hiding ships with backup soldiers and scouts all around the area, much like Delia and the Prince were hidden now in the Praxagora.
The hardest part had been Trannick. He was not happy when the Prince had assigned him the job of personally escorting Garvin back to his estate. But they’d all agreed that having him die before this chance to lay a trap would be the worst possible outcome and eventually Trannick had capitulated and taken the young accountant home, stashed him in his estate’s safehouse for the night, and then returned home with instructions to lock himself in his own. He was due to arrive shortly himself and join them in overseeing Garvin’s morning visit to the site.
Thoughts about how tired she was were erased when Delia saw a black dot on the horizon. Assuming he was on schedule, that would be Garvin’s ship. In a few minutes he would touch down, enter the church, and if all went well, the assassin would reveal himself just in time to be grabbed by one of the dozen men hidden all around the central altar.
“There he is,” the Prince added unhelpfully.
Garvin’s ship touched down as the sun finished rising over the top of the mountain. The light made it easier to see down onto the church lawn distantly in front of them, framed by the crevasse that hopefully kept them invisible. She couldn’t see any of the other six ships they’d secreted around the valley, so she assumed the Praxagora was nearly invisible as well.
Two guards exited Garvin’s ship first and stood outside. Then Garvin himself exited. The head priest came out from the small church’s front entrance in flowing robes. There was bowing and hand-shaking, and some short discussion. Garvin even laughed once. He was playing this brilliantly. Finally, he went inside. Delia gave him points for not turning his head around to look warily. She probably would have.
“You know, we think we may have found a second garden oasis,” the Prince said. “Here in the Southern Holdings, I mean.”
The Garden Oasis was a pristine valley of several thousand acres in the North, uncorrupted by the Hades gas. The royal family kept a palace there.
“Where?” she replied. “I’ve flown all over this country and I’ve never seen a valley like the Garden Oasis.”
“It’s not an oasis yet. But the geography is perfect for it. Completely surrounded by mountains. No major subterranean passageways that we’ve found so far. It’s nearly two thousand acres.”
“Wait, are you saying—”
“We’re going to pump the gas out of the valley, yes.”
Delia took a moment. It could be done, but it was surprisingly ambitious.
“You know I’d considered that possibility a few years ago,” she said. “I even built some small pumps to clear out the lower chambers of my own hold. I could probably manufacture some larger ones for the royal family if you’re interested.”
“As a favor to me?” he said. “How sweet.”
“No. I expect to be paid handsomely.”
The Prince smiled with a little “of course” nod of his head.
“You could come with us on the tour of the site, you know,” he said. “We’ve already built a nice cabin overlooking it. My father and I will be staying there for a night or two to discuss the merits of the location. You could lend some of your engineering expertise. He always liked you, you know. The King, I mean.”
“He doesn’t like anyone.”
“Well, he certainly tolerates you much more stoically than any of the other girls I—” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well, I’ll just say I think he respects you. You’d get along with him well enough for a few days. He’s bringing his chef. The views are nice. There will be news of what’s going on in the proper part of the Kingdom.”
“Are you actually inviting me on a getaway to a romantic countryside manor?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking and—” he started, then looked out the window to the church. “I do believe something’s gone awry,” he said.
Delia looked down as well. One of the Prince’s ships was descending to land in the field outside the church.
“Who is that?” Delia asked.
“That’s Commodore Blackmoor’s ship. I don’t know what he’s doing. He’s going to cock up the whole operation.”
Delia engaged the ship’s propellers and they began the slow process of moving closer to the courtyard. As the ship slipped along the crevasse and back out into open sky, they watched as Commodore Blackmoor’s finished its descent. Men in military dress exited the ship, tethering it to the ground. Then a man who must have been the Commodore exited. There was a conversation with the priest waiting patiently outside, with much excited hand waving. Then the priest ran inside and shortly exited with Garvin. Garvin was apparently getting the same message the priest had gotten just as Delia was bringing the Praxagora to a halt. With the flick of a button and a few turns of a crank she enabled the automatic tethering and she and the Prince were on the lawn before any of the other ships had even landed.
“Well, let’s see it, then,” the Prince said, striding towards Garvin.
The thin man handed the slip of paper over. Delia could tell even from this distance it was another one from the assassin.
To Prince Usurper Bastard and His Remaining Little Pigs,
This is your second warning. Perhaps I thought too highly of you, so I’ll make your choice easier.
You see, I had a thought to play at spoiled prince myself, and decided I should have a little piggy all my own. So I took one of yours. He’s a bit old and you have to try awfully hard to get him to squeal. The experience is really not all I’d hoped for, so I thought I’d offer you a trade: a pig for a crown. A crown is a more princely accessory than a piglet anyway. Come alone to Tetrahedron Peak Lookout at sunset, with your crown, and I’ll trade you back your pig for it. Bring any of your friends and I’ll have bacon instead.
“But Trannick’s—” the Prince started, and then looked around.
“I checked,” Delia said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked around the open field surrounding the church. “His ship’s not here. He never made the rendezvous now that I think about it. We just forgot in the shuffle to get ready in time.”
“This is just unacceptable,” the Prince said in a tone that made everyone else silent.
“What do you want to do?” Garvin asked meekly.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” the Prince said, growing red in the face, “I’m going to Tetrahedron Peak Lookout with my crown. And I’m also taking my whole damn air corps.”
“Prince, I don’t think—” Delia started.
“I don’t care what anyone thinks. I won’t have some Plainlander waltz me around. I’m going to flatten Tetrahedron Peak, take my advisor back, and then I’m going to mount this god damned assassin’s corpse on the front of my ship for the ride home.”
“Prince, I—” Delia started again.
“Nothing you can say will change my mind about this. I know you don’t think highly of me as a general, but today I will show you. Today—”
“Tet,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. He stopped in surprise and looked at her. “I think it’s a good plan.”
“It’s as good a plan as any. I certainly don’t think you should go there alone. Either it’s another trick, or you’d end up dead. Or both.”
“Then ‘Armada of Death’ it is,” the Prince said. “I’ll tell the men to bring their biggest guns.”
“But,” Delia said, “if our assassin sees 50 ships appear suddenly on the horizon, poor Trannick’s as good as dead.”
“I take it you have a suggestion?” he asked, his tone returning to normal.
“Station the fleet just out of range. Then you and I fly in and if the assassin makes an appearance, we signal the fleet to move in.”
“But it says I should come alone.”
“I have a feeling our assassin will not consider a woman companion to be in violation of his demands.”
“Only because he’s never met you,” Garvin said.
“Quite,” the Prince agreed. “But what if the assassin is expecting us in a ship? What if he’s too fast and strikes at us before the fleet arrives.”
“In my ship, Prince, that won’t be a problem,” she said.
“I’d like to help too,” Garvin added.
The Prince put a hand on his advisor’s shoulder.
“I appreciate that. But the best thing you can do for me now is stay safe. I’ll be damned if I let this assassin take anyone else from me.”
“But even a safe room was insufficient the last time,” Delia said.
“I’ve got a place even better than a safe room,” the Prince said. “You’ll be the safest man in the universe, Garvin. This assassin would have to be the god of shadows himself to get to you there.”
“Where is that?” Delia asked.
The Prince just smiled.
Tetrahedron Peak was at the far west end of a small valley off-shoot from the main valley stretch the comprised the bulk of the Southern Holdings. It was named for its very regular shape, which made it an ideal location to tether a ship. The peak itself was atop a mountain riddled with paths which appeared to be an ancient mine. Though who built them and what they were mining remained a mystery. The Kingdom had refitted some of the tunnels in an early attempt to turn it into a military outpost, but that had been abandoned for better locations with fewer complications.
“Storm coming,” the Prince said, pointing to some rising clouds.
“Shouldn’t be here for another hour,” Delia replied, “and likely the worst of it will move south of us.”
Delia walked from the ship’s wheel to the container where she kept her maps. She dug around for a moment before she pulled out the one she was looking for, then walked back to the wheel and unrolled it.
“You’re not lost, are you?” the Prince asked.
She didn’t dignify the question with a response. He walked up behind her and peered down at the parchment.
“That doesn’t look like a navigational chart,” he said. “What is that?”
“It’s a map of some of the labyrinth under Tetrahedron Peak.”
“How did you get that?”
“I made it,” she said. “Many years ago, before we met. You Northerners are not the first people to take interest in this valley. Though you’re much nicer than some of its previous claimants.”
“I wish I’d known you had that when I sent Plutarch Regiment there. We lost a couple of men in the labyrinth. We still aren’t sure what happened to them.”
Delia looked at the red ‘X’ she’d marked at the end of one of the map’s paths.
“I might have some guesses,” she said. Then she rolled up the map. “Anyway, we shouldn’t need it. I’m hoping for more of a smash-and-grab operation.” She looked out the window. “We’re nearly there. Fire the flare so the others know to follow in twenty minutes behind us. That should keep him pinned long enough to prevent escape.”
“Should?” the Prince asked.
“I think we’ve learned not to underestimate our culprit.”
The Prince walked to the ship’s rear window and activated the device as she’d instructed. It ignited with a sizzle, and a small pop as the cartridge was ejected into the air. Delia saw the telltale red smoke trailing across the view in her mirror.
The plan was to drift in slowly, visibly alone, and then rather than land, hover around the peak, prepared to shoot down any ship trying to escape while the rest of the fleet charged in. It was a risky proposition in any other ship, but Delia thought about the wired up jars of lightning humming away in the Praxagora’s underbelly and smiled.
They emerged from a pass and flew into the half-moon shaped valley that Tetrahedron Peak overlooked. There was no sign of ships or soldiers. No sign of anything except the tiny abandoned docking station atop Tetrahedron Peak. Delia scanned the eddying gas clouds at the valley’s floor for anything out of the ordinary, but there was nothing other than wind swirl and sunlight reflection.
Twenty minutes later, drifting in on the current and playing like they were in an ordinary airship, they were almost at the docking station. Delia gripped the wheel tightly. If they had actually surprised the assassin, this was the time he would react. She saw two ships crest the ridge to her left, then another to her right, then a dozen more followed from all directions. She looked back to the station, but nothing stirred. She gave the wheel a spin and circled around the peak as the warships flew over, men rappelling down out of them and rushing into the building, swords and pistols drawn. The sky around the Peak grew quite crowded and she actually had to throw all her concentration into maneuvering about, so she was startled when the Prince spoke to her.
“Damn,” he said.
She made an inquisitive noise.
“They’re beckoning us down, and I don’t see anyone holding an assassin’s head. So he got away.”
“If he was here at all,” Delia said.
Ten minutes later, Delia had her ship tethered to the docking station and they were standing in front of Kent, looking very stern.
“Report, soldier,” the Prince said.
“We secured the outside and we have all the interior passages sealed off beyond where we found Lord Trannick.”
“You found him?”
“His body, your Highness, and a note.”
“How did—” the Prince started, then sighed. “Alright, I suppose I should have a look.”
The Prince walked down the narrow set of spiraling stairs that descended from the landing area into the labyrinth below. Delia followed. They walked nearly a hundred steps, smoothed and crumbling in places, and the air quickly grew stagnant. It was a relief when they abruptly stumbled out into a large stone room, with small windows high along the walls. That room led to a long hallway filled with soldiers and dusty sunbeams. At the end of the hallway was another door leading into another cavernous stone room.
At that room’s center was a naked Trannick, bound by the hands and feet to a chair, his neck slashed open and blood running down his chest and onto the floor. It was still wet.
“This was in his mouth,” one of the guards said, and handed the Prince a piece of paper the same as the other two.
The Prince unfolded it with distaste.
“You’ll never guess how this one starts,” the Prince said, clearing his throat. Delia took a two small steps closer, just to the edge of the pooling blood under Trannick’s feet, and leaned over to peer at his wound closer. “‘To Prince Usurper Bastard,’” the Prince began, “‘This little piggy had a cowardly master who sends all his other pigs to fight for him.’ Well, that hardly seems fair,” the Prince editorialized. “I did ride in at the front after all.” He continued, “‘I’ve decided I won’t be so gentle with the last little pig. To make it up to me, you can—”
“Stop,” Delia said.
She placed two fingers at the pool of blood still slowly leaking from Trannick’s torn throat, and sniffed.
“Where did you hide Garvin?” she asked.
“Somewhere safe, why?”
Delia took one of Trannick’s hands in her own and pulled at one of his fingers.
“What is so important that you hide it somewhere even safer than your own personal safe room?”
He looked around at his guards.
“I—” he began, “It’s a state secret.”
“Fine, but whatever it is, that’s what our assassin is after. And wherever it is, that’s where we should be going right now.”
“But the note says to head for Emerald Falls or he’ll kill Garvin as well, not that I’m inclined to do anything this assassin asks of us.”
“I’m guessing this safe room is somewhere northeast of your palace,” Delia said. “Not near the territory’s outer reaches. Probably tucked in Carbuncle Mountain or one of the Dremora Twins, if I had to guess.”
“How—” the Prince began.
“Because those are about as far from Emerald Falls as possible without actually being dangerously far away from the center of the territories.”
The Prince sighed with a confused look of defeat on his face.
“He’s in Castle Rock,” the Prince said.
“Makes sense,” Delia said.
“Then we should go now and maybe catch the assassin before he gets there.”
“We won’t catch him in the air. He’s been gone for hours. Half a day or more at least.”
“But the blood’s still—”
“Smell this?” she asked, holding her fingers up in front of him. The Prince wrinkled his nose in distaste. “It’s Spiraea extract. Keeps the blood from clotting. But Trannick’s fingers are stiff as wood. A body this stiff has been dead at least six hours, I’d say.”
“My god,” the Prince said. “Then we need to leave immediately. He could have already gotten to Garvin.”
“I don’t think it’s Garvin you have to worry about,” she said. “It’s whatever’s hidden inside that safe room. Where did you say Garvin was schooled in accounting again?”
“What does that have to do with—” he began, and then paused. “Alright, I can see when you’re in one of your moods. He was certified at the White Spire. My father would never send me an advisor with anything less than the Kingdom’s best education.”
“I’ve seen Spiraea extract used exactly one other time. When I had a run-in with some of the Kingdom’s own assassin’s guild.”
“The Kingdom doesn’t have a—”
“Please,” Delia said with a roll of her eyes. “It’s a terribly kept secret. But perhaps a slightly better kept secret is where the Kingdom trains its assassins.”
The Prince swallowed visibly.
“The White Spire,” he said.
“You didn’t know your own advisor was an assassin?” she asked.
He shook his head no.
“Perhaps your father cares after all. Sending one of his trained killers to watch out over you without even telling you.”
“So you’re saying Garvin can handle himself against this other assassin, then?”
Delia let out an audible moan of frustration. “No, Garvin is the assassin. Think about it. The note. He wrote it hours ago when he killed Trannick. He didn’t know about my ship and that we’d ride in at the front, which would’ve been idiotic in any other vessel. But more importantly, if you want to get whatever the Kingdom’s best kept secret is, past its most well-fortified defense, how do you do it?”
“You have the Prince personally escort you inside,” the Prince said. “I’m an idiot.”
“No, you’re not. We’ve been hoodwinked by a professional. But now we have the advantage, finally.”
“But he’ll be hours away by now.”
“He has to get what he’s after. And he has to escape. And he thinks we’re headed to Emerald Falls, which means we wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. If we leave right now we might still catch him. Especially in my ship.”
“Delia, I hate to break this to you, but your ship isn’t that fast,” the Prince said. “No one’s is.”
“I haven’t put on her dancing shoes yet.”
“Alright,” the Prince said, turning and walking back towards the door, “I’ll order the men to—”
He stopped at the metallic click, a sound Delia recognized exactly at the moment the explosion triggered. She could tell by the fact the dust was still settling that she’d only been knocked unconscious for one or two seconds at most. She yelled out for the Prince, realized she couldn’t hear anything, and stood up to swat away the haze and look for him.
She found him only a few feet away, clutching his ears and shaking his head. She gave him a knowing look and they both turned to stare at the pile of rubble that had replaced their only exit from the labyrinth.
Her eyes traveled across the now-dusty stonework of the floor, finally resting on the metallic insignia on the Prince’s boots. A magnetic trigger? Clever, if she was correct. She realized the Prince was staring at her.
“I said,” he yelled, barely audible over the ringing in her ears, “it’s a good thing our assassin isn’t an expert with explosives, or we’d be dead and not just deaf.”
“I don’t think our survival was an accident,” she said.
He cupped a hand over his ear. She rolled her eyes and repeated herself, yelling this time. The Prince nodded.
“He wants us trapped in here?” the Prince asked.
“There are worse fates than a clean death,” she said, “and it’s possible to meet several of them in the lower depths of this place. There’s a reason no one ever returns with a decent map of the labyrinth.”
“But you have one, don’t you?” the Prince asked. “I saw you looking at it.”
She pulled the map from her pouch and unrolled it.
“There,” the Prince said, pointing to a large red X near the map’s fringe, “can we get back there?”
“It would take three days to get back there. And trust me, we wouldn’t want to go that way on purpose.”
“But I thought you said that was the exit.”
“I said that’s where I left the labyrinth. I didn’t say it was an exit.”
She handed him the map, and reached into her pouch again.
“Well,” the Prince started uncertainly, and trailed off to stare at the map again. He cleared his throat. “Well, then, we just have to find a new exit. The Gaul family does not pale at a few twists and turns inside a big rock. God damnit, this is part of my dominion. And I know no mountain is a match for you, Delia.” He stood. “We’re going into the depths, we’re taming them, we’re finding the exit from this place, and then we’re coming back with that son of a bitch assassin and throwing him inside this labyrinth with nothing but a cast of angry dragonhawks for company. Are you with me?”
“Would you say I left the ship about 38 yards above the landing pad, six degrees off due south?”
He turned and looked at her. She was holding a small wooden box, covered in dials and switches. She was tweaking a small nob.
“I’d guess that’s about right,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Mapping the exit,” she said. “You might want to step away from the wall.”
He looked at her with confusion, then alarm as she pressed a small red button. He barely had hands over his ears when the wall in front of them erupted into dust. When it cleared, a ragged hole in the rock about seven feet across and about five feet up from the floor stared out into the blue sky and sight of the Praxagora, hovering fifty yards away.
Delia stowed the box and began to climb up to the opening she’d blown in the side of the mountain.
“I guess it was closer to 39 yards,” she said, then looked back at the Prince still standing and staring at dumbfounded. “Well, come on. Let’s get back before Garvin makes off with the crown jewels or the King’s finest port or whatever you have so carefully locked up.”
“Right,” the Prince said, rubbing his hands together and grinning. “Let’s go capture a traitor.”
Delia finished reeling in the ladder, and banked the ship away from the cliff side. They drifted out into the valley.
“I was expecting something a little more dramatic,” the Prince said, his hands still clenched together under his chin. “Something a little more like fastest-ship-in-the-Kingdom-puts-on-her-dancing-shoes and less like sightseeing-balloon-ride. Look,” he pointed, “the Dread Eagle is already passing us.”
“The Praxagora is the fastest ship in the Kingdom,” Delia said. “There’s a lightning-powered engine in the back that will push her at speeds you won’t believe.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m talking about,” the Prince exclaimed. “Let’s do that.”
“There’s a problem,” Delia said. “I used all the power to get us out of the labyrinth. I needed nearly a full charge to blow through all that rock.”
“So how do we get more power?”
“We’ll have to go back to my estate and change this engine out for one that’s fully charged.”
“Like from the giant copper flagpole?” the Prince asked.
“Yes, like that,” Delia said. “The problem is by the time we go there and I change the engine out, it would probably be faster just to give chase without.” She paused and looked at the prince rummaging through a cabinet. “What are you doing?” she asked him.
“Looking for a flagpole,” he said.
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“You said the engine is rechargeable. We can just jam a flagpole in it and steer into the storm. Voila, instant lightning engine.”
They looked at each other a moment, as the black storm clouds crept closer out the ship’s window.
“It won’t work, will it?” he asked.
Delia looked at a spool of copper wire on the floor, and back out at the clouds.
“Actually it might, the only problem is it might set the ship on fire.”
“So we’re going to try it, then?”
Five minutes later, Delia was hanging from the side of the Praxagora’s gas envelope with a pair of metal shears, stripping off one of the envelope’s support braces. It wasn’t the best idea for structural integrity, but there were no other long, thin pieces of metal available, and with luck the envelope would hold until they could veer into the storm and recharge the engine. And if the whole ship caught on fire and they crashed into a mountain, really excellent gas envelope integrity would be of little aid.
Delia finished the final cut, and then as carefully as she could, pulled the brace away, cognizant of not puncturing the envelope. She tied it to herself and swung around to the back of the ship, where hopefully Tet would be done running the copper wire into the engine’s jars, and running the spool out the back window. The plan was she would attach it to the pole, which she was now bracketing onto the rear rudder as best she could. It would only jut about twelve feet off the back, which would hopefully be enough.
She looked down, hoping to see the Prince standing there expectantly with a spool of copper. Instead he looked up and yelled “just a minute” and then his head disappeared beneath the window again before she could respond. It started to rain.
A few minutes later, when Delia was thoroughly soaked, he reappeared, ready to toss her the spool. It almost slipped through her wet grip, but she cradled it in her arms. A minute later she had it expertly entwined with the support rib. Some insulation to keep it from direct contact with the wood rudder would have been nice, but this would have to do.
She lowered herself down and swung in through the open window. A moment later, she had dropped her sopping wet harness to the floor, and walked to the steering wheel. Without a word, she banked them away from the other ships and directly into the oncoming storm.
“Do you think this will actually work?” the Prince yelled through the wind.
Thunder exploded outside, and then wind shook the gondola back and forth. Lightning flashed again so close it was blinding, with instantaneous, near-deafening thunder.
“I think we’re in the middle of the storm,” the Prince yelled through the howling wind.
Delia kept her thoughts on the usefulness of that astute observation to herself.
Lightning and thunder erupted outside again.
“Has it hit yet?” the Prince asked.
“You’ll know when it does,” she replied.
Just then she heard a cracking sound from the rear of the ship. They both looked back to see the makeshift lightning rod had come partially undone and was dangling from the rudder, held only by a single line of copper wire.
The Prince ran to the window, looked outside a moment, and then reached for Delia’s harness and started to put it on.
“What are you doing?” she yelled.
“Fixing it,” he yelled back.
“It’s too dangerous, I should go instead.”
“No, you need to fly the ship. You can keep it steady in this wind. Besides,” he said, tightening a band across his chest, “it’s just like rock climbing. Except underwater. And with booming death flashing down all around you. Ok, I’m going now before I talk anymore and lose my nerve.”
He climbed out the window. Delia saw him haul himself up near the rudder. Lightning flashed with instantaneous thunder, no more than a few hundred yards away. Visibility was essentially zero. She was guiding the ship on maps and altimeter alone. She looked back to see the Prince gingerly hauling the support rib up, hand over hand, ensuring it did not slip out from the copper wire that had had been wrapped around it.
Lightning flashed again, this time so close that for a moment Delia thought Tet had been struck. But he gave her a thumbs up as he began to reattach the makeshift rod. He wound the wire around it again and pulled it as tight as he could. He gave it one last tug and Delia almost gasped as she saw the wire attached to the engine be yanked out and fall to the gondola’s wood floor.
Having re-secured the rod, the Prince lowered himself down to the window. He had to try twice to swing himself inside because the wind blew him to the side the first try. He landed, going to one knee and looked up. Delia pointed to where the copper wire had come detached from the engine. The Prince nodded and unspooled some wire and began frantically weaving a bridge from the detached end to the smaller wires going into each jar.
When he had finished twisting the last strands together he looked up and smiled. That was when the lightning struck. The Prince was blown back off his feet and crashed into the side of the cabin even as the thunder still reverberated through the cabin. Delia abandoned the wheel and rushed over to him. She stared at him for two long heartbeats. Then he exhaled, groaned and opened his eyes.
“I feel terrible,” he said.
She smiled and choked back a sob, and looked at her ruined gloves, still smoking on his hands. Thank the heavens they actually worked, though obviously the next set would need to be thicker.
“Did it work?” he asked.
She looked back towards the engine, but she barely needed to. Even as she was turning her head, that distinct smell of captured ozone hit her. She turned to the control panel at the front of the gondola and saw a dozen soft yellow and red lights coming back on.
She nodded as she helped him stand and led him to his seat.
“Then go fly us out of here,” the Prince said. “I think I’ll rest here a while,” he added as she plopped him down in the wooden chair.
Delia turned to the wheel.
She rested her hand on a lever that was ostentatiously adorned with a carved rabbit. “Time to dance,” she said, and pulled it.
The sound of the howling wind was immediately joined by the hum of the prototype lightning-powered propulsion core. The sound thrummed in her chest and sent shivers down her spine.
She pulled the second lever and heard the sounds of the Praxagora’s gas envelope detaching from the cabin. They lurched downward for a second and the Prince even let out a yelp, but then she pulled the engraved rabbit lever once again, and she was thrown back in her seat. She couldn’t hide her grin as the propulsion core positively crackled, and they were out of the storm in less than a minute. She so rarely got to show this thing off.
“This is demonic,” the Prince said, his finger bone-white around arms of his chair.
“This is just some clever engineering,” she replied. “You haven’t seen me get biblical yet.”
The Prince gasped as she turned the wheel and they banked around a peak at nearly a 60-degree angle, leveling out only for a few seconds before banking in the other direction to make it around the next turn. The Praxagora slalomed this way through the peaks and valleys. The Prince was beginning to relax.
“It’s a shame the men won’t see us arrive in this properly,” he said. “It would make for an impressive entrance.”
“Why do you say they won’t see us?” she asked.
“The sun’s nearly set,” he said, pointing to the horizon where indeed it was about an hour from dusk.
“Don’t worry about that,” Delia said, “we’ll be at Castle Rock in less than ten minutes.”
The Prince’s eyes bulged, and he looked out the window, studying the terrain, this time more carefully. He must have realized how close they were.
“But we were on the other side of the Holdings,” he said.
“Yes we were,” Delia said. “But we’re not anymore.”
A handful of minutes later they banked around a corner and the Prince’s estate loomed to the right. She noticed a few people on the grounds point up in astonishment before they disappeared out of view, hurtling on towards Garvin.
As Castle Rock came into view, she knew they were too late. Smoke poured from the front entrance.
“There,” the Prince pointed to a speck rounding the valley corner ahead of them.
Delia clenched her jaw and pushed the little jackrabbit handle one notch higher. As they rounded the far corner where they’d seen Garvin’s ship, she realized they’d gained on him. Good. She took the corner hard, nearly turning the Praxagora on its side. It was a good thing too, because any slower and they would have missed the sight she’d been dreading the whole time. Garvin’s ship vanished right before their eyes.
“What the—” the Prince started.
“I was afraid this might happen,” Delia said.
“You were afraid the assassin might have a disappearing ship?”
“After the description of Carson’s assassination, yes, it was one possibility I considered. I’ve read theories about materials that let the light slide around them. Never had much success in my own experiments, but some of the theory is sound,” she said, reaching for one of the buttons with a yellow light. It was surrounded by a square of unfinished wood a different color from the rest of the control panel.
“What does that do?” the Prince asked.
“Something that will hopefully let me see invisible ships,” she said. “It’s a smaller version of the one I have at home to let me know when I have visitors.” She pushed the button and it gave a tinny ping.
“What does that mean?” the Prince asked after a few seconds of nothing.
“Nothing yet,” she replied. I didn’t have time to design a visual interface, so it gives me information in different pitches. You see the small dial next to that button? Can you move it back and forth? That will change the area it focuses on.”
It pinged again, sounding the same. Delia frowned a little and the Prince moved the dial slowly from side to side. Finally, it issued a higher pitched ping. She jerked the wheel hard to the right and the Prince nearly fell out of his seat.
“A little more to the right,” she said. He gave the dial a nudge. “Keep going, okay, stop. Now straight. Ah, clever,” she said, seeing the small pass Garvin must have escaped into. “In there. We should catch up soon.”
“What is that?” the Prince asked, pointing to one of the peaks. There were men milling about she now saw. The pings grew more urgent.
“That’s him,” she said, and noticed the slight distortion of the setting sun around the invisible ship’s edges. What appeared to be a man was climbing down out of thin air. He’d be on the ground in seconds.
“We’re not going to make it,” the Prince said. “If they get underground we’ll lose them.”
“Tet,” Delia said, “do you remember what I said about being biblical?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Wait, why?”
“Strap in,” she said, and reached for the control panel. On it was a lever with a lightning bolt she’d carefully carved.
“Wait is that the same–” the Prince started.
“But won’t it–”
“But we detached the–”
“Yes. Cover your eyes,” she said, and pulled.
The sky went white for a moment, and then there was the flaming wreckage of a ship falling from the sky and crashing into the unfortunate people who were standing on top of it.
And then the lights on the control panel blinked off, and Delia felt her stomach surge into her throat. She banked the Praxagora away and looked for a place to set it down. This was not easy without a gas envelope. She managed to steer them towards one of the valley walls, but they were plummeting quickly. They would hit the Hades gas layer in another five seconds.
“Is that big enough to land on?” the Prince asked pointing to the patch of loose shale she was directing them to.
“It’ll have to be,” she said as they slammed into and slid. There was a terrible sound as the back of the Praxagora slid behind them, screeched along the mountain wall and tore off. Rocks flew up and cracked all of the windows. The nose bumped into a pile of harder rock no more than a dozen feet from a sheer cliff, and they came to a stop.
They both stumbled outside, through the wide open hole in the back of the gondola, covered in dust, the Prince still wearing Delia’s half-melted gloves. They turned away from the smoldering wreckage on the peak, collapsed on the ground next to each other, and stared down the valley to the west. The sun was no more than a minute from setting. She let her head rest on his shoulder, just like old times.
“Such beautiful sunsets,” Delia said. “They’re one of the reasons I’ve stayed in this part of the world so long.”
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” the Prince said.
Delia turned and saw he was staring into her eyes. He leaned in and placed a kiss on her lips. To her surprise, she found herself kissing him back. Her Prince. Her sometimes stupid, short-sighted, idealistic Prince. But still hers. A kind man who’d always treated her as an equal. Better than equal. And she had never returned the courtesy, she now realized. She had always viewed him as a promising but disappointing pupil, in a way, and had always discounted his good intentions, his imagination, and his bravery. He’s saved her life today. He’d saved both their lives. And he’d saved his kingdom, which he would one day mold, undoubtedly in a greater image than the unilaterally expansionist vision of his father. She looked back into his eyes, with the sunset reflecting them, and thought for the first time, perhaps when that day came he would want a queen at his side.
He looked back at her.
“I’ve just now realized something,” he said, taking her hand.
“What is that?” she asked.
“My father will be arriving at Emerald Falls any minute now. He’s going to be furious that I’m not there.”
Delia rolled her eyes as the last of the sun dipped behind the horizon.