The Surly Bonds of Earth
Steampunk for the win.
PART ONE

He who would indulge in waking dreams, the saying went, sleeps through reality. How many times had he heard that? From the elders, more than enough--not to mention from his father, his fellow apprentices, his employer. Wherever there were bubbles to be blown, so too did cynics lie in wait to burst them.

Kuaz Tzernovik found these people to be hopelessly dull, and the saying itself beyond salvage in its limitations. So while he worked, and sent the remittances to his parents, his spare money he spent on paper, and on graphite--and, when these two combined to produce an idea, the raw materials to pull dreams into tangibility.

Secretly Kuaz hoped that he could finally stumble onto something big, though he enjoyed work in the little carpentry shop attached to Cirtina Birkan's shipyard. For the twenty-three years he had drawn breath, nothing of such import had seen fit to reveal itself--but, he reasoned, there was still life left to live, and always there was more paper. So he drew.

It was slow, today; the supply ship upon which Master Birkan depended had not yet come in, and they were out of nails. He had done as much as he could without the iron, but now there was nothing--and he had tidied the workshop twice that morning alone. So from the leather bag came the paper again, and the pencil.

He had found that inspiration could not be forced, and he started at the paper twice on germs of thought, aborting them both before a single line could scratch itself into the parchment. In the end it was something terrifically mundane that set the young Tzernovik's mind alight, and it came on the end of a fork.

For lunch that day he had brought in soup, made the night before with some of the white fish that Cape Tarenga drew its name from. The young man whistled softly to himself as he heated a bowl over the little iron stove, then returned to the counter. He ate slowly--always the paper, weighted down by the graphite above it, in view, and on the third bite of the soup a thought occurred to him. He set lunch aside, still chewing on a morsel of fish.

He drew an oval, at first, thick black lines bounding the hasty thought like a barricade. Then a fin, large, for power. Then two more. He paused now, and rested his muzzle on two fingers. His fork had settled into the soup bowl, and something else came into his thoughts. He began to wonder aloud: "how is it that they swim without sinking? They must weigh less than the water, of course." No, that wasn't quite it. "The same, at least..."

It wasn't necessarily a simple question. Water was heavy, to be sure, but not that impermeable--as, he rather thought, the patrons of the bathhouse in the town centre appreciated, to say nothing of anyone caught in a rainstorm. Most things sank into water--boats included, he knew, as a shipwright's apprentice. Fish did not, and it seemed a logical deduction.

He speared another bite as a reward for this conclusion, though it raised other questions. "And, of course, the gods have given a different weight to many things." Little flashes of logic gnawed at the periphery of his brain, and he translated them with increasing speed into strokes of the pencil on the page until he had something completed--and he sat back, and smiled.

When Birkan returned--without nails, but generally cheery for all this, which Kuaz was glad to see--the carpenter could already perceive that something agitated the thoughts of his apprentice, and when Tzernovik said, after a few moments of pleasantries, "can I ask you a question, Master Birkan?" he was not surprised.

"You already have, Kuaz. But this--this is going to be a Tzerna question, isn't it?" This was his term for the inquiries born of Tzernovik's wide-eyed curiosity--and there were many. The younger man admitted that it was, but Birkan gave his permission anyway.

"The paper lanterns in the celebrations at the Tethan festival," he began, and waited for Birkan's acknowledging nod. "They float like fish in the sea, yes? How?"

Master Birkan shrugged as though it were no great thing. "They're filled with that hydrogen gas the seaminers trade in. It's lighter than air--buoys them up, somehow."

Kuaz thought about this--he had suspected as such. "Surely, then, air and water must be of the same type of... basic, fluid Šther, such that we breathe air as the Tareng fish breathes water." This had implications.

It also had drawbacks, and Birkan shook his head. "Would it not be possible then for some hand--if not ours, than those of the Creators--would it not possible for some fish of the air to exist? There is a place for all creatures, but the Creators have not seen fit to deliver us such a thing."

No sooner had this question been posed than he began to seek an answer, and Tzernovik presently brightened as a thought occurred to him. "Have they not, though? Think about it--the inland kestrels and the gulls above the bay: ovate cylindrical bodies propelled through the matter of their universe by fins. Is it not so?"

Birkan had to admit--unfortunately, so far as his friends were concerned--that he found the young man as intriguing as he found him crazy. "But they do not live there; they must keep themselves aloft by force--a shot gull tumbles to the waves as surely as if it floated in nothing at all."

Kuaz looked down briefly and pondered this. Then he raised a finger--in violation of decorum, but neither of them noticed. "Yes--as a stricken fish floats upon the top as well. The surface is a powerful draw and all the Creators' handiworks will head there. Is it not where we live, after all?"

His elder thought about this and finally smiled. "Well argued, Tzerna. What are you getting at?"

"If we can set a manmade body aloft, wouldn't it be possible, at least, for us to build our own aerial fish, to sail about the clouds like a porpoise?" He pulled forth his paper and unfolded it on the drafting table. "Consider it. A large body, filled with a lifting gas and moving itself just like such a fish, to which we could cling like seaweed--and in being so borne, free of the confines of mountain ranges and the temperament of Ishoi's domain."

The shipwright, who was used to thinking of the air as untraversable, stopped and frowned, the greying fur on his muzzle accentuating this. "Ah, Vikari--the skies are not for man. Iyalu will melt your fins away for their presumptuousness."

"His problem was that he was arrogant, not that he dreamt at all--or else his father would have drowned as well. The gods have surely given us the medium above--as they have given the medium below. What is the saying, Master Birkan--"from Ishoi to Etteroi," is it not so? Do the scriptures not say that this, this is the domain of the sons and daughters of Kiramoff?" He spoke in the more formal tongue with difficulty.

"But not inclusive," Birkan declared firmly.

"And yet Ishoi allows you to roam his waves. Master Birkan, I admit it is radical--"

"--It is not radical, Tzerna, it is lunacy."

Tzernovik sighed shortly, a sign born mostly of frustration. "Lunacy, perhaps. But was it lunacy that wrought the first steam engine and spelled the end of the age of sail? Was it lunacy that drove the first man to fashion a rifle instead of his arrows? Have we not learned the lesson of Zhelya Pass?"

This bit hard; even at his age Tzernovik knew how deeply the Republic carried the scars of that battle, the last in which longbow tried to hold its own against gunpowder. Birkan himself was not old enough to remember, though his parents would've been. "You and Vikari share more in common than I thought--you both presume to know more than your elders."

Tzernovik shook his head. "Of course not, Master Birkan. But you yourself know the value of technology. You were the first in Cape Tarenga to begin working with steam, but even you know how our short-sightedness harmed us. Perhaps there were those among us who recognised what would become of the tall ships before we lost our trading fleets."

"Perhaps," Birkan had to acknowledge, but having to confront again the heavily wounded state of Republican commerce soured him somewhat, and he waved his hand dismissively. "How is the work coming, anyway?"

It was not difficult to recognise the end of the conversation, and Tzernovik folded up the paper again and returned it to his pocket. "Well. I've completed all the work I can without nails." Birkan growled at this--but though the conversation turned to matters of carpentry, Kuaz Tzernovik kept his sketches close to the front of his mind.



PART TWO

"You always did pick the easy battles, didn't you?" Guxi Naol looked at Tzernovik over the rim of his glass as he took a deep draught. A breath later, he grinned. "Have you ever considered something a little more challenging? You don't challenge yourself." He drained the mug and set it down heavily.

Tzernovik smiled back. Really, it was a mystery how Guxi managed to derive so little effect from so much of the potent alcohol. Like all Ibuyans he was small across every dimension--barely five feet high, Guxi, though more rotund than most of his race, could not have weighed more than a hundred pounds. He was licking away the drops of beer that had clung to his whiskers, now, as Tzernovik gave his characteristically-dry answer. "Well, you know me; I'm lazy at heart."

"True--and much unlike your fellow townsmen." Guxi, who ran a parcel service, was an outsider in Tarenga--which made him an ideal companion, though he was two decades Tzernovik's senior "They are all very upright, hard-working citizens, of course." He slid his mug across the table to a waiting bartender. "But this said, I still think you really should try to stretch yourself."

"Do you, then?" Tzernovik had set six pages of notes and diagrams in front of Guxi a few minutes before, and the Ibuyan still looked over them now, eyes somewhat bleary.

"Well, what is this? It's like a huge boat with wings. What's this scale?" He pointed to a small number, illegible in the dim gas lighting of the Fo'c'sle, Guxi's favourite of the dockside taverns. "I can't read that."

Neither could Tzernovik--who had, however, memorised the plans by heart. "One inch is equal to twenty feet. It'll be about two hundred feet long, when it's finished--not counting a little bit over, for the rear fin that propels it."

"This keel is wood, I presume?" Tzernovik nodded--wood was something that the Kiramoff Republic, and the cape in particular, still had in abundance. "So a two hundred foot long..." He struggled to describe the contraption. "Flying boat fish, yes? No, you set your gaze too low. Why not four hundred?"

"It would be too unwieldy," Kuaz answered with a wry smile. "And I don't know that I would trust myself to design a motivating fin of that size. Besides... Cirtina Birkan's shipyard doesn't really use the two hundred foot berth anymore, since the freighters started getting bigger..."

Guxi laughed heartily. "Your boss is agreed on this? Ah, Kuaz, I take back everything I say!"

Tzernovik's smile grew a bit more thin. "No--but he will. I think I can convince him." There was more conviction here than the young man actually felt--and certainly much more than he would display in front of Master Birkan himself.

Guxi, who was not a fool, could no doubt see this, but he kept quiet. "What is with all the latticework? You are planning on enlisting spiders to help you?"

He shook his head. "No, those are supports... I had to add them in after I realised it would need an actual framework, not just a way to support a man from beneath the gas balloons."

"It is rigid, like a boat?"

"It is rigid," he echoed in answer. "Originally I was just going to make a larger version of the paper balloons we have sometimes, but I was watching a child play with them in the street and I saw them being borne by the wind. That got me thinking... Obviously, like with a kite, the wind would have more of an effect as the balloon grows in area. So, I think it has to be more complex to be larger."

Guxi Naol's parcel delivery service--which was widely respected, even amongst the Tarengans--still relied extensively on horses and, where available, the freight trains that were beginning to visit the cape with increasing regularity. Most of Tzernovik's ideas were beyond the scope of his knowledge--this in particular, though, defied any semblance of comprehensibility. He changed the subject. "Well, I wish you the best of luck."

"Thank you."

Guxi suddenly seemed to notice his recharged mug and drank from it eagerly. "Speaking of the easy battles you choose to fight," he said, the light dancing off the tips of his fur. "I saw her earlier today, in the market square."

Tzernovik shook his head and turned away to conceal a soft look of embarrassment. "Did you, then?"

"I think she was buying vegetables--a ship came earlier this morning with that refrigerated hold, you know? They were bringing the tomatoes off when I was down getting a few boxes."

'She,' in the sense that Guxi used it, referred to Tahala Radovoyan, a clerk in the courthouse at the centre of Cape Tarenga who, Tzernovik firmly professed, refused to give him the time of day. In part this was no doubt due to the fact that he had never truly asked for it--but he chose to ignore this, and Guxi never belaboured the point. "How did she seem to be doing?"

"Well enough," Guxi said gamely, having left the question hanging until he finished another sip. "She was alone, of course."

"Of course." Like Tzernovik, Tahala Radovoyan was still young enough that her unmarried status was not yet scandalous. It was, however, also not something the conservative townspeople of Cape Tarenga were especially fond of, and conventional wisdom suggested she should find herself attached soon. That Kuaz himself was still a bachelor was yet another fact he pointedly ignored in considering Radovoyan, at least publicly.

This, though, his companion was less reserved about commenting on. "Tell me again why you've never talked to her yourself?" A smile painted itself slowly across Guxi Naol's slim Ibuyan features. "Since, you know, you always seem to be so curious." He leaned towards the young man, but the suggestion that followed was more grandfatherly than it was lewd, since in this matter Guxi viewed himself a mentor rather than a companion. "You really might consider going straight to the source."

"Please." By the way he spoke one might have thought the idea truly radical. And it was, of course--though he did not consider this, because he was in the business of pretending two things. Firstly, he told himself that he did not care about Tahala, and secondly he appeared to profess the belief that, even if he did, he could simply act on this and it would easily fall within the realm of the right and proper.

Neither was true. In the first place, of course, he did harbour something of a bit of affection (and he himself would've phrased it in such evasive language) for the woman. They had not quite grown up together, per se, but neither had their childhood homes been particularly far part--he had talked to her, from time to time, before their diverging paths in life brought them to completely different parts of the community.

In the second, there was not--in the orthodox sense--any real way that Radovoyan could reciprocate these feelings, which was to say that while she probably didn't anyway (though as he had never talked to her, he could not be certain), he was in the event off-limits to her social strata.

Tzernovik was a craftsman--an artisan of sorts, to be sure, which was by no means the worst thing one could aspire to in life--and this placed him firmly in a certain group of people, who made a certain amount of money and produced for themselves a certain amount of prestige.

Not so with Tahala--who had gone away for some years to a school in Old Kiramoff, out in the West, and returned an educated woman. She was one of very few who could operate the dictation apparatuses, and understood the principles behind their operation to a degree that made her extremely valuable. Probably, she made less money than he--certainly, she was much more esteemed.

Guxi Naol, who came from a more egalitarian society, was not current on the vagaries of the Kiramoff caste system (it was not codified as such, but a caste system it definitely was, in a practical sense), and he considered it his job to try and bring the two together--irrespective of the futility this endeavour implied.

He had not met with any success, largely because of Kuaz's reluctance and also in no small part because Guxi, a foreigner (and one from a questionable country at that) possessed a slight fear of having to try talking to Radovoyan herself. Nonetheless he persevered. "Nonsense. Don't you 'please' me," he shot back. "You know, one of these days I'll stop giving you information--and then what will you do, eh?"

Tzernovik only grinned. Guxi Naol was as interested in the clerk as he, if with a bit more distance involved, and besides they were good friends. "I'll find someone else."

"I say you would," the Ibuyan scoffed. "I say."

Having been forcibly derailed off his own interest, Tzernovik didn't feel inclined to continue the conversation in its current vein, and he himself switched courses. Fortunately, Guxi was drunk enough by then to either not notice or not care, and he allowed himself to be brought into discussion of matters more mundane--his business, the politics of the region, and hadn't it been unseasonably warm? Time drifted onwards.



PART THREE

"Have you gone mad?" The older man huffed like a locomotive--and indeed the little white tufts of disturbed fur resembled escaping steam as he resumed his tirade. "Unfortunately, for my sake, I cannot force you to stop your daydreaming--but I absolutely will not be drawn into it myself!" Cirtina Birkan's energetic--and unsurprising--reply came in response to Tzernovik's proposal to use his small shipbuilding annex.

"I'm just asking you to consider this before you outright reject it," Kuaz countered. "I'm offering a percentage of the profits from this venture which I... I do not think you should scoff at, Master Birkan."

The old man shook his head along a narrow arc. "What profits? You're a businessman now, Tzerna?"

"This has a lot of potential, Master Birkan, that I don't..." he steeled himself. "I don't think you should ignore. Kirzhic Mail and Telegraph has offered a reward for anyone who can courier a package between Tarenga and the Federal District in less than a day. Sixty thousand dzeller to the first one who can do so."

Birkan's frenetic gesticulations ceased at this, for it was a large sum of money--and an impossible request. Tzernovik could see his employer performing the calculations in his head, and he must've disliked the result for he shook his head. "By sea that's an average speed of forty-five miles an hour, Tzerna..."

"Yes, Master Birkan. Forty-eight, actually. About seventy, by land--along the coast steamroad from New Prandiff, if you can make it." Although Tzernovik spoke plainly, the figures were astronomical, which would make the convincing just that much more difficult.

Birkan did not want to be convinced anyway. "Then why are you even bringing this up?"

"It's only forty-eight miles per hour because you have to round the Cape. If you were travelling by air, you could simply cut across it, come low over the Kiivi Zayns to the south and hit the sea running like a hare." He pantomimed the general course one might take across the low-lying hills that bisected the peninsula.

"Even if you could, the fastest iron boats can't manage more than twenty-five--and they'd blow their boilers doing it." Cirtina Birkan--Birkan the Shipwright--was certainly in a position to know this.

But he was also intelligent, and Tzernovik appealed to this. "Yes, of course this is so. But two things intervene on our side, Master Birkan. Firstly, it will not be a boat of iron. Secondly, I know you must have waved your experienced hands through both water and air--which element proves more docile?"

The old man's brow furrowed, creases evident through the fur on his forehead. "If it would fly at all--and I do stress the if, Tzerna... what sort of velocity do you think you might be able to achieve?"

From some calculations--numbers that would have turned the fur of any true mathematician pale overnight--and a small model, Tzernovik thought he might be able to move quite rapidly indeed. But he hedged. "I would say conservatively sixty--a mile every minute. Certainly no less than fifty, for the lightness of the craft lends it nimbleness more akin to a fish than a tall ship."

Master Birkan, who had experience with ships, saw the truth in this, and Tzernovik could perceive a little of the ideological war that was being waged in his head. On the one hand nearly everything about Kuaz Tzernovik went against the grain, and this rubbed Birkan's fur the wrong way. On the other the possibility existed that he was right... and the dzellers were appealing. "Fifty miles an hour... there's nothing that travels at this speed, Tzerna."

Secretly the shipwright wanted a counterexample, and his apprentice was there to provide. "Birds, Master Birkan--think of the falcons. Fish, the other denizens of the sea, they cannot struggle strongly enough against the current--but the creatures of the air..." he trailed off, almost seductively.

Birkan grinned slightly. "And you think your artificial bird will be able to match them?"

"Yes, Master Birkan, I do. I am a dreamer, of course, Master Birkan, but I am not a fool entirely... if you were ever to visit my house you would know that if nothing else, I know when a dream has bested me." This was the easiest way to sum up the shelves of aborted sketches and half-realised inventions, the little pieces of aspiration scattered over cluttered tables. "If I didn't think this would work, I would not have made this request of you."

Bringing the discussion back around to the real instead of the theoretical forced Cirtina Birkan to frown heavily, and he thought for a few seconds before finally giving some kind of answer. "You know, I must confess to you, Tzerna--I find you absurd."

He had heard it all before, and the insult did not really sting the young man any more than did Birkan's use of the feminine declension of his diminutive; he merely nodded. "Many people do, Master Birkan."

The old shipwright didn't seem to hear this. "I find you absurd, and yet at the same time there is a spark of genius in what you say--in nearly everything you say." He smiled, fatherly if somewhat distant. "They will name you, some day... if I had my way, you would be Tzernovik the Architect or even"--he laughed softly at a joke Tzernovik himself did not at first understand. "Or even Tzernovik the Shipwright."

Kuaz knew that there was a reason Cirtina Birkan kept him around besides the fact that he was handy with a saw, and this reassurance was heartening. The naming ceremony in which the Circle of Elders officially brought young men into the community was at least a few years in Tzernovik's future, but it was close enough that he pondered often what they might make of him.

Popular opinion, he thought, was that he was odd--a pleasant chap, but perhaps too different for the common good. Though his head was frequently in the clouds even he was not too dense to miss the way that people looked at him in the market, the curious distance they gave him in the town square. But, too, he was smart, and hardworking--if they thought his dreams a bit strange, there was never anything to fault in his woodworking.

He was a little worried, to be sure--for a man at forty years with no title was hardly a man at all. Still this all lay before him, and now he only smiled shyly and nodded his head in acknowledgment of the compliment that had been paid him. "Or even, Master Birkan; that would be a great honour."

Cirtina Birkan drew his breath slowly and sighed. "I don't know that your idea will work, here, but I admit it seems to have its merit." There was something else here, something in the way the shipwright reserved his words. Finally he conceded it. "What you said last week about Zhelya Pass has stayed with me. My grandfather was an archer there, and he showed me his wounds once when I was very young."

"My father still has his father's longbow." The Republican Home Guard had halted an invading army at the Pass, but only with great loss of life. The Ibuyans, armed with gunpowder, had faced a longbow-wielding force across long distances--sixty thousand Kiramese had not returned home from the battlefield.

"We are all bearing its burden," said Cirtina Birkan, more than fifty years later. "And the ship with our nails..." this warranted a grimace, as the ship's failure to arrive had necessitated finding another supplier. "The Hesperian Star is two weeks overdue now and insurance will cover my losses on her, yet... what happened? Pirates? Northern raiders? Weather, probably, but how nice it would be to sail above the waves rather than between them!"

Kuaz Tzernovik swallowed, hard, and chose his words carefully. "You think my invention may be the solution then, Master Birkan?"

"If it works. But I can't give you my berth, even the small one." He declined Tzernovik's request abruptly and shook his head at the evident disappointment on his apprentice's face. "I'm sorry, but I can't spare it. Still... I might be able to offer a compromise."

Tzernovik found that his ears perked upright unbidden at this, since without Birkan's help his aerial fish was manifestly unlikely to gain tangible form. "A compromise?"

"I will offer you the use of my shipbuilding tools--all of them, even the steam-driven engines. For after-hours use only, of course, and you'll have to find the raw materials yourself. I don't know where you'll build it--there is that space, down the beach, where we do work from time to time and I cannot foresee myself needing it..." he was thinking as he spoke. "If you'll agree that I own the beach and can evict you at any time, I'll let you use that, yes?"

Kuaz only blinked a few times, unsure he could believe his own pointed ears. "You would do that, Master Birkan?" Even with having to cover the cost of the wood and iron--no small investment--his employer's offer was a tremendous boon.

"And perhaps you could work on it when you're done here--I know I don't have enough work for you. Maybe you'll find that the whole project is nonsense and you'll have to give it up..." Birkan was far from sold, still, and his scepticism was plain. And yet: "But maybe not."



PART FOUR

Work slackened at the carpentry shop and Tzernovik was generally able to spend at least a few hours every day working on the ship. The design was not quite finalised, but he took advantage of every opportunity he had and there had been few snags thus far, some three weeks further along.

Completed, the contraption would look something like a massive Tareng fish, and he had staked out the two hundred foot length--on reflection he had calculated that it would be more than sufficiently buoyant, from what he knew of hydrogen. None of the wood he had been able to convince local shop-owners to give away or barter cheaply was suitable for a ship, but he worked day by day on scaffolding and other smaller segments, because it gave him something to look at.

Were all things to be considered, his life was going better than it ever had--he set to even the most minor tasks with renewed purpose, because all he needed, to know that he was in fact accomplishing something, lay on the beach, not a mile away. His sudden cheer was sufficient to draw comment from both Birkan and Guxi, which he was fine with--let them see what he could be like should life choose to polish him until he shone!

What he had finished of the design was substantial and would take both work and lumber all by itself, though Guxi Naol had apparently found a supplier who had more oak than he knew what to do with and was willing to sell it--good, stout material of tall ship calibre--at a low price that Guxi had not disclosed because he considered it a gift. Tzernovik did not, but he did not want to get on the bad side of Guxi Naol's generosity, since he rather thought of him as a friend.

They would be down on the beach by the end of the following week, Guxi said. He had given Tzernovik a rundown of the lumber and now Kuaz worked quickly, trying to fit the lengths over the sketch of his frame. The blueprint was meticulous, and if Guxi had reported the size of the beams correctly Kuaz felt very certain he could find uses for it--and not just the scaffolding, either! The day found him tracing small revisions of the plans to fit the new materials.

It was a warm morning, in late spring. Once upon a time, the Day of Silence at the week's end had been a time to remember one's ancestors and to commemorate the gods, but this had been dramatically lost over the centuries, and Tesidays now saw the Cape Tarenga market square bloom with activity. Soaking the vivifying atmosphere into his fur, Kuaz sat on the edge of the square with his pencil and his pad; his progress, he thought, remarkable.

Nor was the day a complete loss in other respects, he noticed. Guxi Naol, who frequently accompanied him to the market, was out of town on business, but he saw Tahala Radovoyan across the way, sun catching her spectacles as she wandered about. He tried to focus on his drawings and managed to put the clerk out of his mind, frequently for more than five minutes at a stretch.

The entirety of his conscious life, as regarded Tahala, was predicated on the assumption that she would remain blissfully unaware of his existence. Knowing that he drew breath, inevitability itself dictated that she would be compelled to reject him. So, when a shadow fell across his sketches and he looked up to see what had brought this turn of light about, his heart stopped and resumed beating only with the most dedicated prodding.

He supposed he did not know, of course, as a carpenter and not an artist, but to his eyes she was the very picture of attractive--in the sense that his eyes were drawn to her as if moved bodily. Radova--Tahala Radovoyan--was silver and black, as though the moon and the darkest night surrounding had fought over who had the right to colour her fur. Spectacles framed soft yellow eyes; disappeared into flowing hair that fell easily, like snow on the Kiivi Zayn hillsides.

She smiled at him, now, and the world seemed to stop, the better to pay attention. "Hi," she said, voice bright, bubbling over an undercurrent of vivaciousness. "Can I help you? I was across the square and I noticed you kept looking at me..."

Tzernovik, who would have described himself at that moment as being under extreme duress, managed a return smile that, to any observer, would have seemed quite natural--though it masked pure terror. He stammered a bit. "Oh, well... you know..." At the favour of the gods, his teeth did not chatter, and he continued, the speech unpractised--though it might've been. "Spider webs in the morning dew and Etteroi's tears and the... the way the dying sun sets falling dust aglow in the evenings--the eye is... drawn to things of great beauty."

Taken somewhat aback, she arched an eyebrow at this, hesitant, but then she laughed, and his smile widened because it was so delightful to hear. "Oh, I see, then. What were you looking at, then, that you found so appealing?" She glanced behind her, briefly, as though what he was so enamoured of might lie elsewhere.

He shook his head and laughed in a way he hoped sounded unforced, even though the way he averted her eyes spoke volumes without use of a single word. He looked back up at her as though it might burn him, and was not at all shocked to discover that she remained just as lovely as before. Enough time had passed that he considered his silence a worthy answer, and he changed the topic. "I'm Kuaz Tzernovik, by the way..."

She grinned, teeth catching the sun high above them. "I know--I watch you too. They call you Tzernovik the Daydreamer, in the market square."

Kuaz grunted. "I'm sure they call me worse than that."

Radovoyan's face crinkled into a smile. "Oh, probably, but you'd best ignore them. And I'm Tahala Radovoyan, but... you can call me Radova--everyone else does."

"Ah--Tzernu, then. Pleased to meet you, Radova." To anyone who could not see inside the young man's mind the conversation was light, natural. Each new exchange, however, wrought new fears within him. He did not want her to get too close, since he knew it would drive her away--yet the dialogue continued.

She tilted her head, adjusting her eyeglasses to focus on something in his hands. Ears perked, she narrowed her eyes with the inspection. "What've you got there, Tzernu?"

"Oh, this?" He tilted his drawing pad up into the light so that she could see it better. "It's just an idea I've got. I think that... with the right combination of weights, man might be able to sail amongst the clouds rather than the whitecaps."

Tahala nodded slowly, and then his heart jumped as she indicated the space adjacent to him, now occupied by his satchel, and asked, "may I?" Without direction his hands cleared the bench and she sat to get a better look at the drawings. "It looks like a giant Tareng fish. But to fly, it has to be more buoyant than the air, doesn't it?" She waved a paw through their surroundings to demonstrate this.

"It does, but I think I can do that, if I fill it with a gas that is itself lighter..." He began to explain more, but she interrupted, eyes brightening momentarily.

"Like the votive lanterns at the Tethan festival!"

At this recognition, some sharing of spirits, he felt a weight lift, and he bobbed his head excitedly. "Exactly! You see how they float..."

Black finger outstretched and inquisitive, Radovoyan traced the outlines of the ship on the drawing paper. "Rigid, like a boat--so that the wind won't be able to bend it out of shape. I see here you've got... these must be fins, right? To push it through the air..."

"The fish was my model," he admitted. "Or rather, a fish mated to a soaring bird of some kind."

"Well, it makes sense," his companion said, though something else stuck in her thoughts. "Although there is a problem, here, if you don't mind my saying so."

"I don't--nobody else cares enough to point them out, so I have to take all the help I can get..."

She grinned, the smile lingering as she refocused on the drawing. "This, here--this fin, that won't work. Think about it, Tzernu--your pattern is the fish, but that's the basic pattern of all Ishoi's ships, too. And yet not even the Ibuyans use fins to push their junks along, do they?"

Tzernovik froze in thought, scratched his head. "No," he had to concede. "They don't. They all either use... well, what are you suggesting, putting sails on it? That's not dependable enough," he mused aloud--and she was shaking her head as well. "A screw?"

"An airscrew," she corrected him. "It wouldn't work using the water type. Down at the courthouse we use fans to cool the air, and they're much different from the ones that ships have. I don't know about the small details, but it has to be simpler than all the pulleys and ropes to move that fin."

He didn't have to think about it very long before he realised that she was right, and he told her so, thanking her for the contribution. "You might have something to say about the rest of it, too--I'm still working on it, I admit. I probably wouldn't have seen that mistake until I'd already built it." He laughed, and she joined him in this.

"Oh, I'd like to see what else you have, Tzernu."

"And I'd show them to you," he said, "but I didn't bring them with me--they're all back at my house, sad to say." Still he made the mental note to bring the rest of the papers with him, beyond the ones in his hand and the satchel, and he was pondering how to wrap the conversation up when she spoke again.

"Well, are you busy?" She indicated the basket she had brought to the market, still empty. "My afternoon is free if yours is."



PART FIVE

Half a mile from the marketplace, on the landward edge of Cape Tarenga, stood a little cottage--from the outside, it resembled any one of a hundred wooden shacks scattered on the outskirts of the town. Tzernovik had lived their since leaving the home of his parents, and it showed the signs of use--though as a carpenter, it was perhaps better-kept than some of the others.

He had fashioned a lock, at first, but he had a habit of misplacing the key and the mechanism did him more harm than good. Instead, now, five metal buttons were sunk into the wooden surface. Only a certain combination would disengage the latch, and he entered this quickly, opened the heavy wooden door. Radovoyan was suitably impressed--and this was somewhat gratifying, since nobody else ever seemed to care.

"I'm afraid," he said as they entered and he opened the shutters to let the bright afternoon in. "That this is rather messy, at the moment--I keep meaning to clean it, but--"

"I don't mind," Tahala interrupted. "They had me clean out the courthouse basement--after that, not even monsters scare me." She laughed when he did, and set her basket in a corner before returning to her survey of the home's contents. "What's that?"

He turned to see what she was looking at. "Oh, that..." Experience had taught him well that most people asked such questions not wanting to hear all the details, and he summarised quickly. "Basically it, um--it's for copying. If you move the stylus on the left, the other one moves exactly the same. Or you can enlarge the other drawing, make it smaller--it doesn't," he admitted, "really work all that well." He had found, talking with his countrymen, that they were reassured more by his failures than his successes, and he had begun to call attention to them so that nobody felt out of place by his eccentricities. This proved to be a hard habit to break--though something told him that Radovoyan cared little for the orthodox.

Tahala peered at it carefully, the black points at the tips of her ears marking as they swivelled and perked up curiously. "It's an interesting idea, though," she mused, craning her head to catch a glimpse at a complicated linkage. "There's dust on it--are you still working on this?"

There was an almost-accusatory tone in her words, and he felt himself flush in embarrassment. "Yes," he said, trying to recover his esteem. "But I've been distracted"--and this was more the truth than anything else.

"Good. You'll have to let me know when you get it perfected. It really looks quite marvellous," she pronounced, and straightened, moved on to something else as he fidgeted, uncomfortable at the sudden intrusion into what had always been his own private sanctum.

"Thanks." Kuaz, who had long born the attacks of his countrymen, wanted desperately to be able accept his newfound partner's interest on its face--but it was hard to, somehow, hard to believe that it might be genuine. He reserved himself, until suddenly she turned around quickly, spectacles dislodging themselves in reflection of sudden surprise.

"Does this work? What does it do?" She had found one of his latest projects, a small clockwork dragonfly. Tzernovik knew how unusual it must've seemed to her, the little contraption--intricate and small, and the gears and springs that packed the creature's torso so miniscule one needed a magnifying glass to see them clearly. It was barely six inches long, and he had at first considered it his major success--but a scaled up-version had disintegrated without ever flying and, standing over the mess of cogs, he had declined to continue.

But this still worked. He nodded and took it from its place on the shelf, winding the motivator. "I've always had a thing about flying creatures--funny, I know, since I work for a shipwright..." he smiled faintly. "But so many interesting creatures fly--here, stand back, please." She did and he set the clockwork insect on the table gingerly before letting go of the motivator spring.

With a hum the thin onionskin wings began to move, circling in motions nearly invisible to the eye, and he heard Tahala yelp in shock as it took flight, drifting forward a few inches above the table until the spring had run out of energy and the movements slowed, the wings fluttering as though the machine were dying. "Gods--Tzernu, did what I think just happen--did that fly of its own volition?" That was the catch, of course--like all children they had flown folded-paper birds, which were only interesting up to a point. Powered flight was something else entirely.

He smiled with less reservation and nodded softly. "Yes."

"That would make you the first, then, would it not?"

Tzernovik shrugged. "They say the northerners fly." The mysterious predatory people of the northern wastelands, beyond the edge of the Known World, were said to be capable of taking to the skies by way of wondrous machines.

She scoffed. "They say the northerners breath fire, too." He had to admit that this, as well, was true; the Northern Raiders--the phrase was frequently used as a proper name--were at least as much legend as fact.

"Well, yes. I still wouldn't be so proud. You can see it doesn't... go very far--yet," he caught himself. Kuaz wound it up again and motioned for her to offer him a paw, which she did. "Here--you can feel, it's very light... has to be."

She nodded and gasped when he released it and it grew lighter still before rising. He listened to the hum as the gears wound down and moved his own hand so the machine alighted on it. "Originally, I thought you could use it to carry letters or lay telegraph wire, but larger versions don't work--for the power it takes to move the wings, the motivator spring has to be so strong it snaps all the little pieces." He grinned. "That was a mess to clean up."

Tahala smiled, and nodded. She said nothing else and from there moved to other projects--to the scale-model steam engine he had built to demonstrate something to Birkan, to the wood and fabric eagle's wing he was working on to examine the mechanics of bird flight. To these, and to a dozen other little things that had at one point or another caught his fancy.

For her interest, and the way her eyes seemed to flash at the apprehension of every new concept--for all of that, he wasn't sure what to think. She did not seem, as others frequently did, to be lost, out of place in his little world--in fact she fit in it as well as he. All the same, something nagged at him, told him in no uncertain terms not to indulge the little fantasy that he was entertaining--and he waited.

It was late, and the sun hung low in the sky. He lit the gas lamps--one, she remarked, seemed rather different than the others, which necessitated a brief explanation of the idea he had once had about illumination which produced the object. Kuaz had intended to use the transition, from day into evening, as a suggestion that she might consider retiring, but the young woman would have none of it.

If that suggestion did not take root, another did, and she suddenly shook her head. "My goodness, the time--I completely forgot why I came here. You have those diagrams you were talking about, for the flying Tareng?" He nodded, reservation quickly becoming sapped. "And coffee--right?"



PART SIX

He set a pot on and in the steady glow of the lamplight brought out the sketches, vast quantities of them. He had thought this might go quickly--recalling again the disinterest most people seemed to favour him with. It did not, however, and he felt the thrill of some shared secret as her eyes lingered long minutes on each lovingly-filled piece of paper.

Besides her initial suggestion regarding the fins, she did not have any major complaints to raise. He wasn't sure why, because neither of them were really engineers, but this pleased him. Where any other person might have dismissed him out of hand, Tahala did not, and each time she offered a new suggestion it was assistance, not criticism--a novel and wonderful sensation.

Tzernovik had to brew a second pot of coffee, but by the time they had finished this, as well--it was into the early hours of Nedela, then, the market day long past--the two had covered the blueprints with dense notation. He set the enamel cup down heavily and nodded. "It certainly looks different."

Tahala scratched behind one of her ears. "I didn't mean to intrude, you know."

He laughed, and was relieved to see her expression change as well. "Do you jest? Without these notes, it would've fallen apart the first time it took to the skies." He exaggerated only slightly--untrained or not, she'd found at least a couple of problems with his initial design that he suspected might be fatal.

"I'm only doing what I can. When do you start work?"

"In part, I've already done so... Master Birkan--ah, Cirtina, my employer... he has offered me use of the waterfront, and I've got most of the scaffolding together. Wood has been a problem..."

She nodded, reaching out to leaf through the papers again. "The design calls for great lengths of it, yes."

"But I have a supplier, now, and--much of the wood itself. I was taking a break, to be honest, but I thought probably I'd start Ihedday. The day after--" he glanced up at the clock. "No, not the day after. Tomorrow, then. Perhaps today--after worship, of course."

Eyebrow raised, Tahala smirked a bit. "You attend the service?"

Not quite certain how to act, he went with honesty. "Well... no, I admit."

"Aha, no, I didn't think you'd permit yourself such superstition. I don't either, if I may answer truthfully--always thought it was a lot of nonsense."

Although Tzernovik certainly agreed, this was blasphemy, and he nearly said so before he realised the incongruity of their meeting at all. "It's a way of holding on to the past," he said, cautiously.

Yellow eyes flashed, and she shook her head. "Of course it is. But the only thing we have to look forward to is the future, Tzernu. The past can guide us, but... the oracles would have us live there. I have no patience for that, and I... I daresay neither do you."

"An argument that would do the oracles themselves proud. Very well, then, perhaps I'll skip worship--for you, of course. I suppose after a bit of sleep, I could begin today--I've done nothing that I can't work your ideas into in the finished product."

"I look forward to seeing it, then," she said with a laugh and, setting her coffee cup on the counter adjacent his, fetched her market basket. "I should be going--I seem to have missed the Tesiday market."

He shrugged a little. "Well, yes, but so did I--personally, I think I've made worse decisions in my life. Would you like me to accompany you to your house?"

"Are you afraid I wouldn't be able to find it? Radovoyan's grin was as warm and invigorating as the coffee, though, and she continued. "Still, I wouldn't mind it."

He tried to keep quiet as they made their way through the sleeping town, but this proved difficult, and by the time they reached her house on the eastern side of the town square--a high prestige neighbourhood if ever there was one--their laughter carried. She bid him enter--it was a cold morning--and when the door closed behind him her face turned more serious.

"Tzernu, this project of yours--they'll all say it's madness."

"I know," he admitted. "Some of them already have."

"If you take it up, they'll think you're speaking with devils. They're not going to be able to ignore you if you put up a two hundred foot fish on the beach."

Tzernovik sighed, a short sound of frustration. "Yes, and to be quite honest--gods forgive me--they can meet the underworld in person, for all I care. What point are you chasing?"

"Pragmatism, Tzernu. Are you certain you want to pursue this endeavour?"

He set his jaw, and realised that there was not a thing that could change his mind "More certain than the sunrise today." There'd been too much backing down--this, if nothing else, this he felt sure of.

"Then I'd like to help you." Wildly off-guard, he could only blink, and now she smiled. "I'm serious. I've never done anything like this before--my life's been pretty boring and... well, to be honest, I'd like to see this through. If you think you've a place for me."

"You can't know what that means to me," he finally answered, after another period of stunned silence. "I'll... I'll wait for you, on the beach. I should be down there this afternoon."

"Then I'll see you there. Gods favour you, Tzernu."

"Gods favour," he said in reply, and was out into the morning air before he could scream.

Really, he meant to return to his house, to sleep a bit before the sun came up, but he found that he couldn't, and his feet carried him to the beach at a sprinter's pace. In the light from the enthusiastic moon, reflecting off the caps of breaking waves, the scaffolding took on a new glow.

He set to work.



PART SEVEN

"It's really something else, you know, Kuaz." He savoured the next taste of his beer before continuing. "I chanced past the beach the other day. It looks like you have the keel completed--and a few of the ribs, as well."

Tzernovik nodded, not quite managing to banish the pride from his smile. The last two weeks had indeed been productive. "We have been making good time. I--I can't thank you enough for the lumber. It's all of it worthy--the Republic could do worse than to launch a frigate of that timber."

"I say, a shame I gave it up to you, then," Guxi Naol laughed, "for a frigate--there would be something!"

"It doesn't use as much wood as a tall ship, though, I--I half expect we shan't use anything else but what we have now. The keel is the sturdiest part, and with it done I've still hardly touched the lumber. We just might have your frigate yet, my friend, we just might."

Guxi traded in his glass for a full one and shook his head. "No, no--consider it of secondary importance. I heard some laughing about it in my shop the other day. I had half a mind to beat them on the head and toss them out. From where I see it, every foot your folly comes closer to completion is a slap I don't have to trouble myself for."

Tzernovik took a nut from the bowl Guxi had in front of him and worried it in silence until he could fish out the meat. "They'll see me proven right, Guxi. I venture to say sixty thousand dzeller is no small sum." Tzernovik made barely twelve hundred in a year, and for all his prosperity, Guxi could not have brought in more than three or four. "That and finally having a dream come true--it's more than justification, I'd say."

"More than, indeed. And even if it fails, surely the months with miss Radovoyan were worth your while?"

"She's very helpful, and I'd even call her a good friend." He cracked open another nut. "But nothing more."

The Ibuyan cackled behind his mug. "Nothing? Nothing, my dear Kuaz? Tell me, don't your gods frown on untruthfulness?" Tzernovik shot him a glare, at which Guxi only laughed again. "I may not be from around here, but I know a lie when I see one."

The uncomfortable reality was that Radoyovan had been much easier for him to deal with when she was an abstraction, an apparition glimpsed from the corner of an eye. But the days and weeks together had coalesced her into something much more tangible, and Kuaz was worried. "Perhaps a bit more, then," he admitted, almost ashamed to hear himself say this.

"A bit? You spend more time together than most couples, Kuaz."

Tzernovik focused his attention on a third and fourth nut, then turned back to Guxi Naol with an almost angry sigh. "All right, very well, you can have it your way. I think I might be in love with her." In reality he did more than think--or perhaps, he thought too much, since his thoughts were nearly all about the young woman. "I can't get her out of my mind, and... half the time, the Tareng is... just an excuse to be near her."

Guxi grinned, satisfied for once. "Have you told her that?"

"Are you insane? What would she do besides leave?"

"Perhaps she'd do that," the Ibuyan admitted, his eyes closing as he drained the last of his beer. "Or perhaps, you know, she would admit that she feels the same way--or do you think the only reason she works on your boat is because she likes the splinters?" Tzernovik was silent, so he pressed on. "It's obvious to anyone who isn't you that she has at least something in the way of return. I say, you should tell her, I say."

"It doesn't matter," Kuaz shot back--bitterly, because he had considered this. "Do you think I haven't thought of telling her? I've turned over in my head the exact words I'd use. But I'm--I'm a carpenter. She's... educated, wealthy... we're not in the same class--gods, we're hardly even citizens of the same country."

Shaking his head, Guxi laughed sadly. "You're such strange people. The most powerful nation the world has ever seen, and you can't make your own inventions. The widest range--if you don't count the Nayathi, and I don't, the widest range of any empire, and you shun diversity so strongly. Have you considered what she thinks about what matters?"

"I don't think you understand me, Guxi. As crazy I am, I build things. The townspeople may think it's strange, but they understand carpentry. They'd throw us out of town--and that's presuming she'd agree, which--"

The Ibuyan cut him off, amber eyes flashing. "Which you don't know, because you haven't asked her."

"I've had to explain this to you--what, a dozen times? We're not living in Illy-Anchon, Guxi. This isn't Ibuya, it's..." he trailed off, trying to pick his words carefully, trying to sum up the peculiar mix of tradition and insularity that marked the fishing town. "Time runs slower here, sometimes backwards. They can't imagine a non-caste relationship and if they found out about it..."

His voice the sort of jovial tone only he could maintain, Guxi chuckled a bit ."What would they do, put you in the stocks?" His tone was light, the suggestion an easy one, but Kuaz would have none of it.

He glared, cracking a nut loudly. "You've lived here as long as I can remember. They've done worse for less, and you know that as well as I do." The east--'New' Kiramoff, in common parlance--was in large part still a frontier, and the liberalising reforms of the Federal District did not extend far. "It's not a risk I can take, I don't think."

"You know... if you don't seize this opportunity, someone else will. It's only a matter of time." Guxi had toned his voice down, perhaps in recognition of some of the truth that Tzernovik spoke. "I think you should at least consider listening to me--if nothing else."

With a frustrated sigh, Tzernovik shrugged. "Fine. I'll consider it. Gods, by the six domains I suppose you're right--what's the worst that could happen?"

"If they stone you," Guxi said with a wry smile, "I'll be sure to pick a light one."



PART EIGHT

He didn't outright confront her, though his eyes were opened, a bit, and he saw the sideways glances of the townspeople as he went about his daily business. They did not seem to disparage his work, when they came to speak with him about a piece of carpentry--but he could almost hear the whispering.

Three weeks later, a Sirodday in mid-spring found work at a nearly fever pitch in both Birkan's shop and the improvised shipyard where he spent his free time. In a momentarily lull at the end of the day, when the last customers had left, he found it had come to a head. "Do you hear them, Master Birkan? What they say about me?"

The elder man looked up from inspecting a model they had drawn up together, peering from a greying face through the rigging of the ship. "I hear, but I don't listen. I think the hull may be too tall, Tzerna."

He wanted to shout, but calmed himself. "Yes, you're probably right--I mostly was curious about the bow--I think that's a better shape. What's their problem, Master Birkan? What are the saying? They don't tell it to me direct, of course, or... my best friend is Ibuyan, of course."

"It's not important," Birkan said, his voice muffled by the forecastle he held up to his eyes. "They say you're... speaking with devils, that you're mad. They say they wonder what's possessed your new companion. They say that Iava may need to send the sons of Kiramoff two thunderbolts, instead of one. What of it?"

Tzernovik clenched his hands into fists, releasing them with difficulty. "Do you believe them?"

"No, I don't." He set the model steamship down, pulling a bit of graphite from his vest to mark something on it. "And I don't think you should either, young Tzerna. They haven't seen fit to stop you yet--it's all talk, and people love to talk like nothing else in this world. Ignore it."

To a degree, Tzernovik guessed, as he left the shop and headed for the beach, this was accurate. Though conservative, steeped to his way of thinking more in tradition than common sense, they were also mostly words and little action. All the same, it rubbed him the wrong way.

One could see the growing ship, as Guxi had, from the road that came up the coast--it was only partially hidden by the bends in the cliffs. Kuaz first perceived it, instead, having come from the docks, so that it seemed to rise from nowhere amidst the sand dunes, a large and increasingly monumental edifice.

That--that was the nature of his dilemma. He could see the greatness there, in the ribs, in the strong oak keel that described the arc of a bow that would drive the gods themselves to envy. It wasn't folly to him, had become more like a physical extension of his soul--and still they doubted. Still they made snide remarks to one another, and looked at him askance.

Looked, too, at Tahala, who was, he could now see, balanced atop the scaffolding, stretched out towards a rib. She had far more to lose than he--though her prestige had shielded her from the initial onslaught. He wondered if she was aware of it--she had to be, he supposed. "Radova!" he called, stepping underneath her. "Good evening!"

"The same returned," she answered, smiling brightly. "I've almost got this secured--I don't think it's too stable down there. Can you hold it?" The ribs were thin enough to be fairly light, but unwieldy; he grabbed the end closest to the keel. "Thank you."

"Can I ask you something, Radova? Do you--have you heard the townspeople talk?"

She shrugged her shoulders slightly, focused on her work in the same way Birkan had been. "About what?" Apparently, he was the only one who cared--this was reassuring, after a fashion, he supposed. Vindicating, perhaps, if for once he worried without reason.

"About this--about you, and I, and this project." He sat on the keel to brace the spar at its lowest point, and when Tahala shook her head, he continued. "They say we've gone mad. No--no, that's not true. They already called me that--they say you've gone mad. That perhaps you weren't everything they thought you were, that... perhaps the west changed you too much." He was only repeating half-heard rumours--though if he had known what they really said, he wouldn't have dared opened his mouth at all.

"What of it?" He heard the dull thud of a hammer missing its mark, then an oath directed at nobody in particular. "Is there a reason I should care? Do they plan to test me on it?"

"This isn't a joke, you know. I know you said you wanted to work on this, but it's... not a very honourable way to spend your time. They... they seem to care deeply about that. Not just the people at the market, but... but surely the cabinet, your employers...."

This time, he heard, the hammer struck true. "That's not a reason yet, Tzernu. It's just more of their superstition. I've had enough of that, thank you--and you know, they're right, after all--sometimes I almost regret moving back east, from the city. The people here... sometimes it seems like they have nothing to do but criticise, and hide in the sand like clams."

He had to smile at the thought of Kerano Morozhan, the stately mayor, lurking beneath the beach to spit water at passers-by. "They're neither as powerless--nor as palatable. They can will us, you know. They have the means. Their opinions--" he flinched at this, even, because he didn't want to defend them. "Their opinions are backwards and selfish, but... I think it's in our best interests to consider them."

"Varas!" she swore, and waved the hammer a bit at him--her voice, as well, hard and sharp-edged. "Consider them and what, Tzernu? Just give up and go home? Do you see what we've accomplished? It's not worth sacrificing that for the opinions of a few dozen idiots. They blather like jesters, and I know you don't accept what they say any more than me--we had this conversation the morning I joined you. What are you trying to get me to do?"

He thought back on it, and his own words--his own cursing of their fellow townsmen--came back in a rush. He sighed. "Nothing. I just thought it would be best to make sure we were aware of what we were doing--before it became too late. For you, especially--you're on the chopping block, here, not me."

"A thousand curses on them, then, Tzernovik. I really couldn't care less what they think." This oath having been uttered, she let the words sink in for a second or two of finality. "Now--gods, Tzernu, are you quite done? Do you want this rib clinched or not?" He had let go of it on his end and smiled sheepishly. "That's better. If this rove will just cooperate, we can get at least another rib up tonight. Give me that other hammer, will you? Iava must be frowning on mine."



PART NINE

He had decided, as a weight-saving measure, that they would not plank the boat with lumber. While certainly not easy, the skeleton of the ship (he called it the Tareng, but it looked less like one with Tahala's revisions and had no proper name) was, though labour-intensive, finished fairly quickly.

The first two or three days after driving in the final nails, they had simply admired their handiwork--which was "not bad," Guxi Naol had said, "for a carpenter and a secretary--not bad by any critic's judgment." But there remained other things, yet--given the way the work had gone, Kuaz now hoped to fly by the end of the summer, avoiding the difficult weather and the winter storms that could still dash the frame to pieces if it remained between the dunes like a beached whale.

After some experiments, the secretarial half of the duo had proposed a trio of rudders--one vertical, two perpendicular to the first, somewhat in the fashion of an arrow's fletching. The fins, if heavy, had been the easiest part to actually fabricate--threading the rudder cabling was a different matter entirely. He was braced against a rib, trying to find the right balance point, when he saw Radovoyan.

Heard, rather, for her breathing was unsteady, and as he looked down, he could perceive a slight tremble. Nimbly, he hopped down the ribs and onto the sand. "The gods smile on this afternoon, Radova--how are you today?"

She stared blankly as though in shock, her face twisted with an emotion he couldn't quite make out. "Ah--ah, interesting, to be sure." She sat down heavily against the keel. "I just--I just got back from meeting with my fiancÚ."

Tzernovik tried to speak, in the interval between the point at which his heart stopped and the point at which it resumed again, but he only managed a few blinks and a half-hearted squeak. "What?"

Smiling weakly, Tahala favoured him with a quick laugh. "Ah, don't trouble yourself like that, Tzernu, it surprises me too. My father found me after work to... introduce me to the lucky man. I think he's trying to get me to settle down."

As though the legs had been cut out from under him, he sat as well, opposite her, tail pinned uncomfortably beneath his leg. "Wh--who is it?" He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, for her sake--though she appeared to be beyond caring about such things anyway.

"Ah, he's a Iadavrik. His name is Zef."

"Zef Iadavrik?" Tzernovik knew the man--had seem him on numerous occasions, the sun sparkling off his armour. "The captain of the militia?"

"One and the same. Varas, Tzernu, how did this happen?"

He knew, of course, how it had happened. Prestigious or not, educated or not, Radovoyan was still effectively the property of her father, from whose clan she drew her surname, and he had taken it upon himself to solve what he saw as a grave problem with her behaviour. "He's... a very honourable man, Radova. Your father no doubt thinks that he has done you a great favour."

"Oh, yes, there is no doubt there." She furrowed her brow and looked at the sand that gathered about her feet. "I just wish I had his confidence, is all. I don't quite feel the same way, if the truth were to be told."

Tzernovik sighed--there was precious little that he could do to affect things one way or the other. "I don't know what I can say to that. He is definitely a man of elevated status--I... I don't even aspire to it, it's so beyond my reach. That must be good for something."

Eyes closed, a tinge of moisture at the lids, Tahala shook her head slowly. "You need to have an opinion more often, Tzernu. It doesn't have to be good for anything at all, you--don't have to defend it. It's simply what the gods happen to have chosen for me, and there's nothing I can do about it."

"You could decline the proposal." It wasn't without precedent, though she was quick to pick up on the gravity of the repercussions.

"And lose my name? Gods, what would I do then? There are too many whores on the wharf as it is, Tzernu. I can't give up my name."

She was right, though it--and her analysis of the consequences--angered him. Her clan name defined her as much as the colour of her hair, the sound of her voice. Without it, she could expect little from the Cape and its people. "I didn't say it was a good option. I... I could shelter you, at least. They can't just completely dispose of you, anyway--who else knows how to use the scribing machines?"

"They'd find another--or they'd go back to writing with quills. Either one before they kept me on without a name, I'm almost sure of it. I appreciate the offer, but at that point it would be better to club me over the head and boil me down like they do with lame horses." She opened her eyes and forced a smile at him. "No, I'm afraid this is my fate, unless the gods decide to act."

"'Deep is the cup filled by the favour of the gods,'" he said, an aphorism that he had never really understood but seemed to fit the situation. "I wouldn't give up hope."

"Oh, never," she said, and took a deep breath. "You want some assistance, with the rudders? Help me up, will you?" And the way she grasped his outstretched paw when, after rousing himself, he offered it to her, suggested she was hanging on to more than just a carpenter's dream.



PART TEN

She was quiet about the courtship as it progressed, though he noticed she seemed to spend an increasing amount of time on the beach even as her ties to the militia captain grew. For his part, Tzernovik avoided asking her for clarification--coming instead to see himself and their joint project as a point of refuge.

The changes, though, would have been evident to a blind, earless drunkard, and he was none of these. She alternated between fits of nearly manic productivity--throwing herself into her work on the vessel as though it were the sole thing of consequence--and withdrawal, periods of distraction and silence that lasted for a day or more.

"I don't even know." He was close to considering joining his companion in inebriation, though he'd never really tasted alcohol before. "Yesterday and the day before that, I left her on the beach after I retired for the night. I don't know when she goes home."

"Have you asked her?"

Tzernovik sighed, staring into his coffee. "I have, but she doesn't say much. I think, though, that's she's... not really trying to work as much as she is trying to avoid him."

Licking his lips clean, Guxi Naol nodded, meditatively. "It's a random pairing, isn't it though? They have been talking about it; I overhear it at the depot. I say, you really are a queer people. Will she inherit his prestige?"

"After a fashion, yes. She joins his father's lineage, so her children will, if nothing else."

Guxi raised an eyebrow. "His father? I thought you travelled in clans."

He shook his head, still looking more at the coffee than the Ibuyan. "In the west--old Kiramoff does. Here in the untamed frontier, we're too barbaric to recognise anyone but our immediate blood relatives, so we only care about the father. My father was Tzernov Alosevik, his father was Alosev Kimazovik, and so on. Their children--if they have them, and I admit I shudder at that thought--will take Zeyavik as a name."

With a cough, Guxi thanked the younger man for the genealogy lesson. "I ask because if nothing else, we uphold affection as a requisite for couplehood, where I am from. You do not follow a similar pattern?"

Kuaz laughed bitterly. "Only in a way. It's acceptable for people to come together for that reason, but mostly in the west. Here, I guess we're more pragmatic. They tell you who to marry, and you fall in love with them whether you like it or not."

"Radova doesn't seem to like it much," the Ibuyan observed, and Tzernovik nodded morosely.

"She doesn't. I talked to her about it, and she... seems to think she hasn't much choice, which is unfortunately true, for the most part." He laughed again, watched the slight movement of bubbles on the top of his drink. "He's probably really not all that bad."

Guxi Naol hung on the verge of saying something and finally conceded to it. "I say, I mean to ask you... have you seen the way they act together, in the market square?" Kuaz shook his head--he'd made a point of avoiding the square for that reason. "It... seems to me that he might not be treating her very kindly."

Unable to suppress entirely his worried look, Tzernovik raised an eyebrow. "In what way, 'not treating her very kindly'?"

"Just--please, Kuaz, I don't know the way your people behave, even after all these years. It just seems he... the way he touches her, the way his hands fall onto her upper arm... it's not very gentle, to say the least, and I do not think Captain Iadavrik strikes me as a fellow who would be more restrained in private than he would in the public's eye."

Tzernovik swallowed hard. "What are you chasing? How... how bad do you suppose it is?"

He smiled thinly, setting the beer down and sliding it beyond immediate reach. "I suppose that if it were beyond her ability to bear it, she would have told someone--or, knowing her, taken action herself. I don't think it's gone as far as it could... but then, I do not think it has gone as far as it will, either."

Considering the implications, he could only grit his teeth, for a moment, and his eyes seemed to take on a brief glow. "Curse it all, Guxi--and what should I do? They'll string me up. The morals of the town will never stand for such... for such unorthodoxy."

The Ibuyan's face, which had taken on a strong edge, softened slightly. "I would say, Kuaz, that you should do whatever you can. It's not an easy choice--I say... even Tahala knows the stakes, and she would very well forgive you for inaction. But it's not her forgiveness you should be concerned about. It's your own."

He blinked in surprise and lapsed into a contemplative silence before he nodded. "You're right. I just... every day, I think I'm further and further away from my home."

"It's why you long to take to the skies. You and your friend, both. I'm content on the land, but then--the land doesn't hate me much as it does you. You're not cut out for the Cape."

But there were reservations--if only because it was easier to swear to action than to find out what that action really meant, and to press forwards all the same. He paused again, thinking, and at its conclusion he swore. "Still. Varas, Guxi, one of these days they'll end me."

Sensing that the moment had passed, the Ibuyan reached for his mug again. "I've heard you say that before--what does it mean?"

"It's an oath--blasphemy. 'Iava's wrath', with a century's worth of use nailed to it."

When he finished his drink, Guxi nodded once. "A fearsome thing, indeed." He smiled crookedly. "'And from the parted clouds he summoned down his vengeance upon the gathered foe; and such was its fearsomeness that those who did not flee were turned to water, and those who dared to look upon his work in the fullest were made to stone.'"

"You know that book?"

Another nod. "It's about the wars you and I used to fight--we all learn it. We'd never admit it, but sometimes you Kiramese are more poetic than we are--particularly in victory. They are interesting people, your gods, and just, to hear it told. You talk of tradition and morals--but I wonder, between you and your soldier friend, who they would favour." Then he stopped, looked into the empty mug, and shook his head. "Or, on second thought... no. I don't wonder at all."



PART ELEVEN

Evening, and the slowly dying sun cast the beach in gold, a week or so after his conversation with Guxi Naol. He was sketching, refining the rough schematics of the ship's bridge, when Radovoyan showed up, nodding once before taking a seat on the stack of lumber that served as their workspace. "Good evening. You showed up just in time--Iyalu is getting ready to depart us. I was hoping you might take a look at these?"

She took the offered paper and held it up to her muzzle, eyes scanning across it for half a second before she handed it back. "It looks good, Tzernu."

"I suppose I'll trust that the speed of your examination is testament to the worthiness of the design."

Tahala laughed quietly and took the blueprint back. "I'm sorry, I just... got distracted. I see you've moved it to the keel... be easier to build there, for sure, and more favourable balance... you think you'll be able to see well enough?"

He nodded, not in agreement but in receipt of her question, and was about to answer when his eyes caught on a dark spot below his companion's eye. "I think--Radova, you're... you're bleeding. Is all well with you?"

She touched her finger to the spot, then pulled it away, looking at her fingertip in the diminishing light. "I... oh, of course." Her laugh was a bit forced. "I don't know, I must've poked myself with something."

Tzernovik's jaw set, and he wavered between initiative and defeat for a moment. "The gods favour honesty secondly only to valour. What happened?" Radovoyan looked away, and was quiet. "Was it Captain Iadavrik?"

She turned back to him and bit her lip. "He... ah, I... rejected his... advances, and he didn't take kindly to that. So I left--Tzernu, it's none of your concern."

For the first in many years, he felt himself tremble with anger. "No. For once, you're wrong. It is--this ends now, Radova." He stood, and felt her eyes follow his movement.

"Tzernu--Kuaz Tzernovik! Sit down. Nothing good can come of this. At best, you'll only make him angrier, and at worst... at worst, he'll kill you. He's not a man to cross, certainly not by you of all people."

Three months before, the fear this thought instilled might've immobilised him, but he had progressed significantly beyond the point at which either fear or reason had hold. "Then I'll die. And he goes to prison, or the gallows, and in either, certainly, without the prestige that would make him your equal. I'm sure you think it's wrong, and I'm sorry, but either he kills me, or you do it first." And he started up the beach, at a deliberate pace.

She followed, to the perimeter of the village proper, at first trying to reason with him and then falling silent. By the time he reached the barracks, she was gone, and his closed hand slammed on the barracks door with every bit of force and motion as the hammers he worked with daily.

Iadavrik answered the door, and a pang of concern flitted through Tzernovik's consciousness before departing, ignored. He was a massive figure, a foot at least over Tzernovik's head and a third again his weight. And now the carpenter addressed him, his voice harsh, with the authority of those who believe themselves in the right behind it. "Captain Iadavrik!"

The barracks quieted, save for a few curious murmurs. Zef raised an eyebrow. "Well, if it isn't the town fool. Come to put on a show for us, Tzernovik?" The murmurs turned to laughs, which melted away as he spoke again.

Anyone looking upon the man then would've thought him completely transformed. "No. I come to give you an ultimatum, and one final chance for redemption. If you do anything--anything at all--to cause injury to Tahala Radovoyan again, I will end your miserable life just as quickly as it began when Karebda birthed you."

Iadavrik sneered, taken aback by the attitude of the figure before him and the quiet, conspiratorial whispers from his own men. "What I do with her is my business, sanctioned by the elders and our people's laws. You have no more right to direct me in how I use my property than that alien drunkard you keep for a pet. Now get out of my sight before I make you pay for your blasphemy."

He turned, having concluded the conversation so far as he was concerned, and so was caught off guard when Tzernovik's fist slammed into the side of his head. The barracks erupted into a sea of confusion, and he was able to follow it up with a second, as the captain turned around.

Then, before he could rightly conceive of what had happened, he was on his back beneath sixteen stone of soldier, and his body reeled beneath bursts of pain from his combatant's blows. Time moved slowly with each new shock, and his breathing came to an arrested halt.

It was only a few seconds--no more than five--before a group of fellow soldiers managed to drag Iadavrik off, and Tzernovik found himself staring up at the darkening sky in manifest confusion. From off to the left, Tahala made her reappearance, flanked by a constable. He could dimly make out the confrontation--heard an angry declaration from Iadavrik and was only barely able to grasp what it meant, though the words--"this ends now"--were ones he himself had used not half an hour before.

Then she was at his side, and this was the last thing he saw before the night fell in on him and everything turned to blackness.



PART TWELVE

"Good morning. I wouldn't move too much if I were you."

It was mostly dark, wherever he was, and his brain associated the voice with something reassuring. He blinked a few times, vision slowly clearing. "Where am I?"

"My house--it was closer than yours." He tried to stand up and felt a hand on his shoulder. "You need to listen better, Tzernu. You'll want to take this, too." He turned his head enough to see the small metal cup Tahala held. "It's some peratsyelum, I got it from the doctor."

He took it, drank as much of the liquid as he could stomach. "I'm a bit... confused. What happened?"

She smiled softly. "You didn't listen to me, and you decided to punch the captain of the town militia--a brilliant move if you've ever made one. I think one of your ribs is probably cracked, though that... looks like the worst of it, and if it is, you better be counting yourself lucky. They say it took five people to hold him back."

Tzernovik nodded, the peratsyelum beginning to flood his system in comfortable warmth. "I don't know why I would've... done..." He was close to finishing this thought when everything came back to him in a rush. "Ah! That wretched thing, right--how is he?"

"Better than you. Physically, at least, he is... they are talking about him, now, behind his back, about what he did to me, and his prestige suffers. Also he has lost himself a bride, and he has not been taking that well."

In spite of everything, this warmed him, somewhat. "I thought I remembered you saying that..." He sighed and closed his eyes. "You deserve better than him, Radova."

She made a little, noncommittal noise. "Perhaps. And... ah, Tahala, please." At the sudden look he gave her, she managed a smile. "My father didn't take it well either."

"Oh, gods, I'm sorry." He tried to ignore the sudden pang of guilt, stronger even than the pain in his chest. "What are you going to do?"

With a soft shrug, she took the medicine from him and turned back towards the cabinet. "I don't know, really. I'm not... I'm not under any illusions about my prospects as a woman without a name. I spoke to my... well, my former employer, anyway." She was facing him in time to see him wince sympathetically. "Straight away, I intend to sell my house--I own it, you know, should fetch a nice sum. Then... out, I guess? Away from here, anywhere. I don't really have a future."

"I..." he didn't finish the thought--there was nothing he could say.

And she was shaking her head, anyway. "For what it's worth, Tzernu, I don't blame you. In fact, I can't even begin to think of how to thank you for what you did for me. I know, if the places had been switched somehow, he wouldn't have done the same. That matters a lot to me. You see a lot of money, a lot of jobs, a lot of moving in a lifetime. Not so much of what you did; that's special."

He smiled faintly--for what he had caused her, he wasn't sure he deserved any praise. "If you need somewhere to live for a bit, I could provide that, perhaps; my cabin has room."

"I couldn't impose like that."

He scoffed. "What if I charged you rent? Half a dzeller a month, how's that?"

She squeezed his shoulder. "That's not rent, that's charity. I can't take your house from you. It's really--it... really, I should leave. This town doesn't have much for me, truth to tell."

"No, but... I need your help. The ship..."

"Is almost complete," she finished. "And what's left to do, you can help yourself more than I could ever hope to add. With the engines and the hydrogen, you have yourself a working beast, nearly."

The drug blunting his inhibitions, perhaps, he shook his head and said something else. "Perhaps. But... without you, my life would empty of meaning altogether. I... don't think I can go on in your absence, R--Tahala." Then he stopped, because he realised what he was saying.

So did she, and she blinked at him. "You picked a wonderful time to say that. Where were those words two months ago, Tzernu?"

The truth, as it so often is, was inexpedient, but he said it anyway. "Trapped behind a cage of propriety and tradition. Also..." he paused to refocus his eyes, which were showing him only a blur. "Also, I had not drunk any peratsyelum, then. But... it's not the... not the medicine speaking, you... know that I... care for you a great deal, Tahala." He was starting to ramble, his coherency breaking down.

Brushing her hair back and out of her face, she leaned to give him a quick kiss on the nose--a gesture he would've endured all the pain in the world to be sober for. "Things would've been easier if you'd said some of this before, Tzernu."

"I couldn't--I couldn't, and you know that. Please don't go, Tahala."

Their eyes met, and he found his vision suddenly clearing. She sighed, and then gave him a wry, good-humoured smile. "For the ship, right?"

He nodded quickly. "For the ship, yes, for... for the ship."

"We'll need to find some engines, of course... that'll take some time. I could at least stay for that."

Bleary but not completely stranded, Tzernovik began to smile as well. "And... you know, the bladders for the hydrogen, I can't... invent that on my own. A few months, only--then you can leave."

She shook her head, the apprehension having drained away. "All right. You should get some rest, then, Tzernu--we have a lot of work before us, yet."



PART THIRTEEN

The die had then been cast. It was cramped, in Tzernovik's little cabin, but they made what they could of it, and with Tahala's work on the ship now nearly constant, the gas-bags and the skin--as strong as it could possibly be, while also as thin--came together well.

On the other hand, as it was impossible for the villagers to ignore the leviathan on their beach, it had also become impossible for Tzernovik to ignore the villagers. Because they were nearly always together, and because the idea of Tzernovik and the ex-Radovoyan as a couple was so scandalous, the rumour mill worked full-time, industrious as a colony of ants.

But it was not gossip that fell on Tzernovik's ears. One evening--an early summer evening with the sun still high in the sky--they were working on the omnipresent problem of propulsion, pacing through the town square, when an elderly woman, her face twisted with indignation, stopped them.

"Tzernovik!" she spat, fire lighting up her features. "What--the brothel at the tavern wasn't good enough for you?" He started to answer, but she cut him off in another outburst. "Had to go--had to go turn our own into one of your eastern whores?"

Eyes narrowing, he took a step towards her, and the old woman took a half-frightened step back. "What did you say? I don't believe I heard you clearly enough."

"I asked you why you felt the need to... debase our town with your... your barbarism." She turned to his companion. "I hope he's worth it--you could be making more money on the wharf, you know."

"You!" He lunged towards her before he felt Tahala grip his wrist and then squeeze as hard as she could. He stopped in mid-motion, backing away from the woman, whose cowering quickly gave way to what he could tell was shaping up to be another tirade. "I haven't the time for you," he growled, lip curling. "Not you or any other fifth-domain--" the hand was gripping harder. He twitched. "Gods favour you."

She was shouting as Tahala lead him off, but he managed to put it out of his mind. "It's not worth it, Tzernu. They don't even know what they're saying--how can you hold them accountable for it?" And this was true, but it was hard to forget; harder still when she wasn't, by far, the only one to have such thoughts. The following day, in the carpentry shop, he mentioned this to Cirtina Birkan.

"I saw Jeyro Abiyai, yesterday."

"The borderlander?" Like many Tarengans, Birkan harboured a lingering suspicion of people from Kiramoff's southern border, whose odd names and styles of dress made them patently suspicious. Abiyai had little room to criticise--perhaps this was the significance. "What did she have to say?"

"She..." he stared down at the planks he was sawing for a moment, clenching his jaw. "She called Tahala a... a woman of questionable morals."

"A whore?" He flinched. "And what did you call her in return?" Birkan had apparently no doubts that he had done such a thing--which, in fairness, he had.

"I said she hailed from the fifth domain. I was going to call her other things, but... Tahala intervened."

"Fifth domain, Tzerna?"

"It should've been flattering," he said, his voice practically a growl, low and dangerous. The underworld had six domains, from the gods themselves in the first to the heroes and exalted warriors of the second to the lord of the dark realm in the sixth. She could've done worse, to have been rated with daemons and the cursed. "She's lucky I didn't do anything else."

"Tzernovik," the older man said, setting aside his tools. "You need to consider your eccentricities. For--for your sake, it would help if you were less... flamboyant."

For a moment, Tzernovik could only grit his teeth so hard he thought he might lose them. Then his head snapped up. "Master Birkan--" his voice was a strained hiss, and he worked hard to control it. "With--with all due respect, Master Birkan, what flamboyance? We--we're good friends, we walk together and discuss... discuss the things that interest us. We--yes, yes," he admitted. "We live in the same house, it's true, but we... by Iava's eyes, Master Birkan, we've never seen each other--certainly never... defiled one another. What... flamboyance?"

"You're out of line, Tzerna. Calm your voice."

The young Tarengan bit his lip hard enough to draw a bit of blood, his voice--when he could speak again--almost pleading. "Master Birkan, you--you talk of flamboyance. Surely, you can't believe what you're saying."

Birkan looked away and the carpentry shop fell into absolute, dead silence. Running gnarled fingers through his steadily greying hair, the shipwright finally shook his head. "No. No, I don't, Tzerna. I think--I think, for your sake, you ought to try to control yourself. But... as for me, as for me, no, I can't... I can't censure you for what you've done."

Tzernovik deflated, feeling drained. "Thank you," he whispered, the fire all evaporated in the sudden outburst. "Thank you for that."

"They'd have me dismiss you, of course; end your apprenticeship. I can't really do that either--I need you too much. I suppose... I suppose you are fortunate, for that, but I can't afford to lose you, Tzernovik." He paused, and in the way he paused Tzernovik could tell that the issue was not completely pragmatic. "You're right, you and her both, Tzerna. It's time we stop this--they just can't. They don't know how. I wonder, too, where we might be today, if we'd only chosen to be more open-minded in the past. The gods are said to favour the bold, but it's... it's hard to be bold, sometimes."

"It is," Kuaz admitted. "But what choice do we have, Master Birkan?" The sudden, haunted look in the old man's eyes spoke louder than any words.



PART FOURTEEN

The hard part, Tzernovik quickly came to appreciate, was going to be moving the massive creation. With some of the money she had made from her house and possessions, Tahala had managed to contract for the cloth covering and the gasbags. They didn't have the money to spare for a test inflation, but he felt certain that would go well when it came time to it.

Unfortunately, what they had, therefore, was an oversized Tethan kite. As they finished hooking up the cables to the small control chamber in the ship's bow, the two tried to solve this problem. It wasn't easy. "How much aerial buoyancy do you suppose we'll have, Tzernu? Enough for a small steam engine?"

"No." He twisted one of the wires around its linkage to the steering wheel. "The engine itself, maybe, but the fuel and the water? That's just deadweight."

"It would be helpful," she said with a bit of a sigh, "if we were not the pioneers, here."

It was a pointed remark: as commendable as trailblazing might have been, it did make things difficult. "We should hike north, ask our friends about it." He had to admit that while he took the stories around them with a grain of salt, he did, somewhat, want the tales surrounding the exploits of the Northern Raiders to be true, at least in one aspect.

"You really think they can fly?"

He sighed, lips pursed thoughtfully. "I... I don't know. I guess if, if nothing else, I'd rather it be a possibility. I mean, yes, I... guess most of it is superstition, but I think of it this way--if they can fly, then surely we can. We, after all, are not barbarians. What do you think?"

"I think it's all fairy tales. But I suppose you're right--it would be nice to have friends. We'll not move with steam, though?"

"Not with steam," he affirmed.

"Sails, then?"

"Only if we're going with the wind. It floats on the currents, I--I wouldn't want to try sailing upwind with it. Not to mention tacking--it'd be a horrible tacker. What about..." he paused, trying to recall a few bits of gossip and chance conversation from the carpentry shop. "Wasn't I hearing about something with refined lamp oil, up in the Kazarisan oilfields?"

Tahala paused from her work threading the cabling. "Were you? I can't judge what you heard, Tzernu. I certainly haven't any idea what you're talking about." She resumed what she had been doing. "Describe it a little?"

That would've been easier had he been a mechanic and not a carpenter. "I think they take small quantities of oil and explode them to force a cylinder to... provide motive work."

"An explosion? Around all this hydrogen?" She laughed, tossing her head back. "Well, parts of you might make it to the Federal District..."

"The great majesty of the system is that it's supposed to be internalised. Rather than keeping the source of power away from the source of work."

She shook her head. "Even so..."

That was a good point--it was a rather large risk to take. "You're probably correct. Very well... I suppose clockwork's out of the question... a charmed engine?" He'd almost hated to suggest it, and the look on his companion's face was clear.

"Thaumaturgy, Tzernu? I'm surprised you'd suggest such a thing."

He shrugged. Magic-working was not the domain of the Kiramese, who tended to take a very dim view of it and were not, on the whole, particularly convinced of its efficacy. "I'm out of ideas, Tahala. Hand me that bit of--thank you." Tzernovik shook his head. "You know me, I don't--I don't want to think about it. Varas--thaumaturgy! But... if it works..."

"You'd have to find a thaumaturgist, first. That'd be rare, around here, unless your friend is secretly an academic of that persuasion. Then you'd have to find an energy source, or bring him along for the ride. It would be very complicated."

He was secretly glad to be able to dismiss the idea without seeming to be too rash. "Yes, well... probably not worth it, in that event. At this rate, we'll be sticking oars out the sides. The scale model used springs--that was so much easier."

"I trust there's a reason why you're not using them now?"

"I can't make them strong enough to take the strain. And... it would take a steam engine to wind them, which isn't so useful when you don't have such a thing around."

They tossed a few more suggestions back and forth--at longer and longer intervals as their ingenuity exhausted itself. Suddenly, Tahala's head snapped up. "Wait--what do the Nayathi use for power, in their marine cities? The floating ones?"

Tzernovik was somewhat ashamed to admit that he knew next to nothing of the famed seafarers. "Steam, I would imagine, yes?"

"No. It's..." she squeezed her eyes shut tightly as though that helped her concentration. "I--I think they use something like a heat difference machine. I remember reading about it, when I was in school, as something fascinating. They can be made very small, but they scale... it relies on reservoirs of different temperatures. We can achieve that easily enough, right?"

"I'm sure we can think of something." He was trying to determine whether or not he had heard of such a device. "I wouldn't know how to construct one, though--we'd have to see about the Nayathi themselves. New Prandiff?" The trading colony up the coast was only a day's journey away along the steamroad.

Master Birkan had heard of the basic principles of operation, and explained them in sufficient detail to convince Tzernovik that the idea was sound. It was also, he determined, not something he was likely to be able to pursue in the small port of New Prandiff.

This left--if one did not want to travel all the way to the capital of the Maritime Confederacy, the marine city of Iqn Nowun itself. Guxi Naol, by way of the telegraph line that ran out to the construct, found them a contact, and the following day they were on a mail ship, heading south. It was an Ibuyan-flagged vessel, and Tzernovik did not realise until a day into the voyage how wonderful it was that nobody saw fit to comment on the fact that he and Tahala shared a small room.



PART FIFTEEN

It was possible to smell Iqn Nowun (or perhaps--he wasn't sure--'the' Iqn Nowun) well before one saw it, since the winds blew towards them. The odour of hundreds and thousands of people in close proximity to one another, of jerry-rigged sanitation and all the vagaries of urban life, mixed with a bit of spicy exoticness--and all of it floating on an undercurrent of power, the scent of grease and spinning gears.

When one saw the city--the maritopolis, as its inhabitants had been known to call it--the first sensation a traveller perceived was one of awe; the second, of confusion. Iqn Nowun was more than two miles long and half as wide, an uneven platform stretched out over thousands of hulls in various states of disrepair.

It was a mobile trading city, one of an indefinite number that the Nayathi Maritime Confederacy could lay claim to. In the centre of it, the massive hydrogen refineries stretched up as tall as any building in Ituskva, and surrounding it was a sprawling market where one could find nearly any product--no matter how rare; no matter how illegal. He recognised the nationalities of perhaps only half the ships that clustered at its gaping harbour.

Most of the inhabitants were themselves Nayathi, dark-furred and lithe, moving purposefully back and forth. Their language, alien and lilting, carried above the din of the floating city, and he suddenly felt very out of place--Tzernovik had never travelled more than two hundred miles from the comforting timber-framed houses of Cape Tarenga. They stepped off the gangplank into sheer madness.

Guxi Naol had given them a name, but he became aware, almost instantly, of how little this would help him. Tahala grinned as she hopped onto the deck of the city--though it was so large one could almost properly conceive of it as dry land. "It's like Ituskva, but much more wild." She was choosing her words carefully--and then shouting them.

He turned and found himself face to face with a man clothed in the ostentatious garb of the Nayathi merchant caste. His face was long and angular, the black fur short everywhere, framing even darker eyes. "Addurum!" he shouted, grinning to reveal crooked teeth.

Tzernovik flinched. "I--ah, we're from Cape Tarenga. We're--" he indicated Tahala as well. "We're Kiramese." He said it again, this time more slowly, for emphasis.

The man's ears perked up. "Oh," he breathed. "Kirama!" Kuaz wondered if he was expecting something.

"Ekkar, alummi Kiramoff jayidar man Nayathinda yir sedivar. Ko sedivo Kiramin?" He turned and blinked in near shock at Tahala, who had abruptly transformed into one of the foreign host that swarmed about them.

Their new friend was, equally, either surprised or amused. "Amin, amin. Rin alem... aidam..." He pointed a long black nail off into the crowd. "Aidam Kiraminda sediviti. Ituskeva ettanjayiditi, alem galiya."

"What--what are you saying? What's going on?"

"Hush, Tzernu." She turned back and flashed a winning smile. "Ko... utaidam? Kendash."

"Ekkar, yir migan man. Kudafeh iri Nayathi. Aun iyeti iyawaruzok urnalat man..." He spoke so quickly that Tzernovik was unable to follow, and even Tahala seemed to be having difficulties.

"Kendash, uta mahit." She bowed, and he responded in kind, though somewhat less dramatically. As they moved off--Tahala had gripped him by the hand and was leading him--she shook her head at him. "That was certainly very different."

"I didn't know you spoke Nayathi..."

She grinned, then showed to him her most pacifying smile. "I don't. Just a few hours with a tutor, back in the Federal District. It's not so difficult to pick up the basics."

"What did he say?"

"He said he doesn't speak Kiramese, but he thinks the woman in this stall over here does. And he welcomed us to Iqn Nowun. And--" she laughed. "I think he was saying that if we wanted anything else, he would be happy to help. He didn't charge us for that, though. How much money do you have?"

"Thirty dzeller, in coin. It's in my bag."

"Keep a hand on it, always. Don't let it out of your sight. Ah--ah, here we are. Yes, she doesn't look very Nayathi, does she?" The woman Tahala indicated, indeed, looked as though she might have come from anywhere in the western Republic, the short triangular ears and thick grey fur marking her as strongly out of place--or as out of place as it was possible to be in Iqn Nowun. "Excuse me, are you from Kiramoff?"

The woman's eyes, yellow like Tahala's own, widened. "Gods favour--yes, I am." He couldn't make out where the accent marked her as from--possibly it came from life aboard the maritopolis. "I'm called Tavel Talinazhan; I trade in jewellery here." She gestured at her wares, which glittered in the unfiltered light of the summer sun.

He found his voice. "I'm Kuaz Tzernovik, and this is Tahala. We're from Cape Tarenga, we've come looking for someone here, but... I seem to have forgotten, before we left, that the gods have dimmed my knowledge of the Nayathi language."

"How fickle they be! Who are you looking for?"

"Uqudawetha," Tahala said, before he could answer--this was fortunate enough, he realised; his pronunciation was horrible. "Osum Uqudawetha--he's an engineer here."

Talinazhan's ears flattened thoughtfully. "I've heard that name before... I'm sure if you allowed my brain to rest a moment, I could remember where he was." She brightened. "In the meantime, I'm equally certain that your companion would be interested in... a necklace, perhaps?"

"No, I don't think--" something sharp jabbed him in the side, and Tahala said that sounded wonderful. He blinked in surprise. "Well, on second thought..." he picked up what he hoped was a suitable bracelet. "How much?"

"Twenty zarins, not one less."

"I'm from the Cape; I've got iron."

She frowned. "Three dzeller."

"Are you quite mad?" Next to him, Tahala took the bracelet roughly. "You could get this anywhere in Prandiff for half that, marked. One dzeller."

"Ms. Tzernovik, you insult me! Fine--two and a half."

"Two," Kuaz said, hoping to forestall a confrontation, especially one over something as strange as a bit of gold he didn't even really want. Tavel Talinazhan huffed and glared. "That's my final offer."

"Fine." As he handed over the money, her more friendly smile returned. "I'm sure she will enjoy it. Doctor Osum works at the academy--you can just see it over there, between the spires of the church. He's very recognisable." She grinned. "Enjoy your stay!"

"Do you not haggle?" Tahala was turning the bracelet over between her fingers. He shook his head distractedly. "The merchants must adore you. In Ituskva, this would go for... a tenth of a strip? I don't think it's even real gold."

"She's been here too long," Kuaz said, frowning, mind elsewhere. "She wouldn't have told us anything if we hadn't bought that, would she have? No, I didn't think so. Nobody in the Cape would act like that."

"No," Tahala admitted. "But supposing she was from Tarenga, how do you think she would've acted when she found out we weren't really a couple?" She slipped the bracelet on and made a show of admiring how the light shone on it. "Better or worse than a Nayathi?"

He supposed that it probably would've been worse.



PART SIXTEEN

Tahala was enjoying herself immensely, and Tzernovik began to appreciate just how out of place she must've felt in the confined atmosphere of the Cape. As they swung through the streets, passing people hawking everything from live birds to handguns, every word she spoke seemed a sort of laughter.

Admittedly, the same could not really be said of Kuaz. For all he hated them when forced to deal with their small-mindedness, the atmosphere in Iqn Nowun was entirely too different from the town he called home--too hectic, too incomprehensible--and he found himself missing it to no small degree. He saw a few Ibuyans, a few Tascarians--even fewer Kiramese. Cape Tarenga felt a long ways distant.

They paused, briefly, to let her sell the bracelet, which she somehow managed to hawk for thirty zarins, more than twice what he'd paid before. She shrugged, as they left the stall. "It is no great thing, Tzernu--you just need to learn how to deal with people."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps the gods grace your every action--have you considered this?" She only smiled. "Is this the academy?" The lintel was covered with the flowering Nayathi script, and nothing of any other language, which rendered it somewhat impenetrable to him.

"It looks like it... if it turns out not to be, blame those self-same gods." They entered through the heavy wooden doors into a building completely unsuited for life on a ship, a massive edifice supported in its interior by great stone arches.

A man in a flowing robe approached them, and Kuaz made an effort to avoid confronting the Nayathi language, his failures with which made him self-conscious, by speaking first. "Hello. We're here trying to find someone. A Doctor Uqudawetha."

He sucked in his breath, speaking as slowly as Kuaz had been. "You is of, eh... Ituskva, yeh?" Well, that was close enough, he supposed. When Tzernovik nodded, he seemed very pleased with himself. "Ah, I like it, Ituskva! Uqudawetha is from on the two floor on the... the..." he waved his paw enough that Tzernovik got the picture and nodded.

"Up these stairs? Thank you. Thank you very much. Gods favour, sir."

"Kendash," Tahala added, and the man's face lit up that he had seen many others light, around her. He mumbled something in return as they left, treading up stairs inlaid in marble. The view from out the window, when it came, was of ocean--but the platform was so stable that it wasn't until one had turned in a circle, seeing nothing but the sparkling water, that one realised where one really was.

"Can you read these?" They had come upon a hallway, with a series of doors flanked in brass plaques. "I think these are names--but it's so hard to see them..." They walked slowly, with Tahala slowly announcing who--and they were names, she confirmed--lurked within. Suddenly she stopped.

"Here. Osum. Uh... Osum... qin-Zunur... Uqudawetha." She turned to him, eyebrows arching. "I believe this is he. Osum Uqudawetha, son of Zunur." She knocked on the door and, within a matter of seconds, it had swung open to reveal the object of their quest.

Osum, son of Zunur, was indeed a sight to behold. Like the man at the entrance, he wore the heavy cloak of a philosopher, but age had faded his muzzle to a stark white, which also surrounded his head in a blazing mane. He looked nothing so much as a black dandelion flower, and more surprising than this was the absolute respect which his visage nonetheless commanded. "Addurum. Ko semuka utaiyeti nalat?" He spoke slowly, deliberately.

Tzernovik deferred to Tahala--or would have, had he the chance; she was already speaking. "Ekkar, urut Uqudawetha. Aun ko sedivo Kiraminda? Alummi waruzar an-urut ursediv ker, yir semukar ursediv..."

"Oh." Osum nodded slowly. "Yes, I speak it--poorly." Despite these words, aside from the thick accent, and the speed, there was no way to have come to this conclusion. The philosopher stepped back. "Please, bring yourself inside. I am Osum Uqudawetha, and him in the chair is Kefn Zayaqadijj. What troubles you?" At the sound of his name, Kefn, shorter and much younger than Osum, raised a paw in greeting.

"I'm Kuaz Tzernovik, and this is Tahala. We were told you were an expert in heat engine propulsion," Tzernovik said. "I'm a shipwright from Cape Tarenga--a few days' journey northwards--and I'm looking for some assistance."

"An expert?" Kefn's accent was much lighter, his speech quicker. "Osum Uqudawetha, by himself and the grace of god, designed every heat engine on Iqn Nowun. There is no greater philosopher of their mechanics, I can assure you of this."

"Kefn speaks too highly of me," Osum's baritone returned slowly. "But I can try to make helping you. What is it that your problem is?"

"We need a light, reasonably powerful motor--the first more than the second. It isn't as easy as it sounds at first--we're working within some extraordinary constraints."

Osum and Kefn both looked to Tahala, who had spoken, and the older man raised an eyebrow. "Such a pair I would not have expected from... what is you say, the sons and daughters of Kiramoff? Your people must be changing, then. Hmm..."

The younger man either ignored, or didn't notice, the social commentary. "Light and powerful--what are you after? One of those small racing boats, no doubt?"

"No." Tzernovik opened his satchel and drew from it the latest revision of his main blueprint, unfolding it on a drafting table--a reassuring commonality. "We're building this."

Kefn was the first to speak, as they looked over the diagram, his ebony finger racing across the thin graphite lines. "My god!" He and his elder exchanged looks. "Urut Osum--look at this! This is an airship!"



PART SEVENTEEN

He hadn't come across the term before, but it suited the design. "Right--a lighter than air flying machine. We've built the frame, and the gasbags. What we don't have is a way to move it. We don't have the buoyancy for a proper steam engine, and some discussion with the master shipwright in Cape Tarenga convinced me that... a heat engine might be the best way to impart a motive force."

Osum Uqudawetha finished examining the drawings and nodded slowly. "It would depend. You is knowing how they work, a little?" Seeing the affirmative, he nodded again. "So it is. They require a significant difference between the heat and the cool."

"On Iqn Nowun, this is the difference between heat exchangers in the seawater below us and either hydrogen or coal combustion," Kefn explained further. "Obviously, this is less possible with your drawings here--I presume this is lifted by hydrogen?"

"It is. Unless you have a better idea."

"For airships, there is nothing better," Osum pronounced. "Please, the both of you sit down and we can discuss this. The chairs were rigid--much less comfortable than Tzernovik would've expected, and he and Tahala both found themselves sitting on the edge of their bench.

"Tzernu here mentioned to me the way that the asphalt becomes in the summer. We were thinking of a... a black or dark absorbent surface at the top. That ought to be plenty of heat--it's certainly uncomfortable to touch it with a bare hand."

Osum frowned, reaching for what turned out to be a long pipe. As he fumbled with lighting it, he shook his head. "No... no, that not is be enough by it is alone."

From nowhere, Zayaqadijj had produced a pencil and begun sketching. "Urut Osum, what about the... fins we use, in the heat exchangers? What if they were suspended in the airstream? That might be sufficient--and as the ship moves faster, more air passes over the surface..."

The old man grunted and took in a deep breath, at least partly through the pipe. "Hmm, no, there is two problems. The power produced by such a small change is not to be grand. And it is only in the sun shining, yes?"

"Varas, of course--how did we let that slip by, Tahala?" He broke from the quick glance at her and faced the elderly engineer. "Is there another option?"

Osum's eyes fell on Tzernovik, and he found himself looking back into all the decades the old man had seen. "There always is a path to taking. I think you is right, heat engine is grand. You need a way to make it the heat. Can you burn... oh, what is word--Kefn? Obapater?"

"Catalene?" Osum grunted again, and Kefn nodded. "Right--catalene is refined from... what, is petrol? Naphtha, whatever it is, I don't know the word you use. Your people make it in the north, with Tascari..."

"With all the hydrogen, we were trying to shy away from burning things. We can get catalytic petroleum--it's more expensive than coal, but we can get it." Tahala looked at the two Nayathi. "Is the risk not that great?"

Uqudawetha and Zayaqadijj exchanged words heatedly, and when Tzernovik looked to his companion, she could only shake her head. Finally, Kefn turned back to them. "I would not worry about burning. What I would say, is to build a central unit for heating an inert fluid--water will work, even--and circulating it. Can you make small pumps, yes? Or get them from the Ibuyans?"

Kuaz nodded. "My best friend is Ibuyan; I can get products from Illy-Anchon quickly. Centralise it, you say, and keep the combustion away from the lifting bags?"

"You won't fire at all," Osum said, reassuringly. Then he grunted again. "Halt. qin-Wujh, what if they using... eh... eh..." he gave up the effort to speak in Kiramese and the two fell back into animated discussion. Tzernovik and Tahala took the opportunity to bend over the blueprints, trying to find space for the assembly that would be required. They had come to consensus when Osum took another draught from the pipe and grinned at them. "We have more granding idea."

It required liquid propane, a prospect at which Kuaz blanched--liquid propane was available, in the Cape--but only at wildly exorbitant prices. Still, the idea was charmingly simple: the ship would have a central storage area for the propane and the heating elements, with a pump at each. The propane would be used to heat a closed loop of piping filled with water, which would endlessly cycle between warming one part of the heat engine and returning to propane fires.

At the same time, the fuel tanks themselves and the tubes that carried them to the heaters would be submerged in a separate bath of water. As the gas was freed, the tanks would draw in heat from the water, and--at drastically-lowered temperatures--this would then be used to cool the other side of the engine

The elder philosopher laughed frequently during the description, which Kefn explained was in appreciation of the design. As a carpenter, and not an engineer, Tzernovik had to admit to being impressed--presuming it worked as they said it would. The price of the gas seemed small next to the reward of a functioning airship.

They didn't have the means to make the engines back in Tarenga, and so Tahala and Osum Uqudawetha hammered out a sort of business proposal whereby they would be manufactured on Iqn Nowun and returned, with Tzernovik, on the mail ship. The price, a thousand dzellers for the engines and the pumps, was high--nearly bankrupted them. But it felt worth it.

And it was settled. Outside Uqudawetha's office, Tahala embraced him, suddenly. The airship--he rather fancied that term for it, and had begun using it immediately--was tantalisingly close to reality. In a rented room on the outskirts of the city, under the constant wailing of the gulls, they danced until the early hours of the morning.



PART EIGHTEEN

Fabrication of the parts took a few days, during which they continued wandering about the city. By the end of the week, courtesy of Tahala and a few helpful merchants, Tzernovik had picked up a few words of Nayathi--addurum, "hello"; kendash, "thank you"; alem ebaqetaz taneka, "I have a knife." This last, at the advice of his companion, he had used sparingly.

"The gods have smiled on us, Tzernu," Tahala said, as they stood at the edge of the city and watched the waves lap at its sharp metal borders. "It's helped me a lot, just to be able to get out of Cape Tarenga."

"Myself also," he admitted. "And the airship... how long do you suppose it will take, from our return? A week, to fit all the parts?"

"I won't sleep until it's done," she said with an easy laugh. "We can fly by the end of the month, with enough time left in the summer for another run. Sometimes, we are blessed--occasionally."

"God can be very fickle, when He wants to." They turned around together at the strange voice.

Tahala was the first to speak. "Urut Zayaqadijj, hello."

He shook his head, his large ears swishing with the wind this movement generated. "No, no, I'm not urut yet. I'm still an apprentice to qin-Zunur. Please, Kefn will suffice. I've been looking for you--a Tarengan couple stands out, but not so easy as to find you before so close to your departing. I heard the parts have been delivered to your ship--can I perhaps offer you a dinner, first?"

The tavern he took them to was smoky and dark, like Guxi Naol's habitat on the Cape. When they had sat, and ordered the first round of drinks--Kuaz ordered tea, though he noted Tahala was not so reserved--Kefn spoke again, a shadow amongst shadows. "I wanted to tell you: Urut Uqudawetha and I are very interested in the idea of powered flight. Our people have pursued it for some time."

"I hadn't heard anything of this," Tahala said, her ears perking forward with interest.

"You haven't," he confirmed. "Unless--have you heard of a place called Ekap Unai?" They shook their heads in unison. "It was a Nayathi ocean city--like Iqn Nowun, but somewhat smaller, with a population of just a few thousand scientists. There we did all our research into airships--they looked very much like yours."

"Does that mean the design is sound?"

"I don't know, Kuaz Tzernovik. I, eh... I think so, it is, yes, and Osum agrees, but we're propulsionists, not builders of such things. If they are or not, though..."

Tzernovik nodded quickly. "Yes, please, go on."

"About fifteen years ago, Ekap Unai, which was repositioned in the northern Plysoric, out of New Prandiff, went silent, and we didn't hear anything from them. I remember... I was about sixteen years of age, then, and I was very worried because, in my town, we had many engineers and philosophers there--everyone had a father, or the father of a friend. We sent a party from the colony at Prandiff, and they reached the ship to find it deserted, with nobody left aboard."

"That's odd," Tahala said; with her mug, Tzernovik thought, she looked rather like Guxi Naol. "A storm?"

"Maybe. We don't know, obviously. But... the parties found bodies--skeletons, the bones picked clean by the birds. And many of the buildings had been punctured by bullets."

Kuaz swore softly. "Pirates!" There were some of them left, who had not been subdued by the force of the Kiramese navy. "They still hit us, from time to time."

"I'm not quite done yet. The angles from the bullet holes made it look as though at least some of them had been fired from above, and the balls were not of our manufacture. The options narrow."

This they certainly had, and Tahala was first to say it aloud, raising a spectre the two had talked about before. "Northern Raiders, then?"

Even the best maps, such as Cirtina Birkan kept his office, had, in flowing letters along the top, the words "Boundary of the Known World." This was not accidental--nobody had been able to discover what lay beyond, and speculation was rampant.

The Northerners--there were less polite words, of course--were at least as much myth as they were fact. There was no disputing that they swept in--hollering loudly from the backs of their horses--wiped out whole trading outposts, and then disappeared. There was no disputing that there was a northern line of the Plysoric Ocean beyond which freighters travelled only at their peril.

Yet nobody knew what they looked like--most suspected they were distant relatives of the Ibuyans. Some said they had two heads; some said they had two tails. Most common amongst the stories, and most credible in Tzernovik's eyes, was that they were capable of flight, on the backs of great mechanical birds.

They could not, so far as anyone was aware, be defeated. Whole armies had been sent up, along the spine of the Lvolkin Mountain Range, and had disappeared there. When Tzernovik was very young, his brother had set off as part of a massive convoy of ironclad ships--the joint efforts of the Nayathi, the Kiramese, the Ibuyans, and any other man or woman who had a bone to pick with them. For many months, they had awaited the fleet's return--but it was now almost twenty years overdue, and nobody hoped anymore. It was plausible that they had killed everyone on Ekap Unai, he admitted.

"If they know how to fly, they guard it jealously. There is risk in taking to the skies."

Tzernovik, who mostly regarded the raiders as superstition--but was not above a little healthy fear now and again--raised an eyebrow. "You're telling us not to?"

"Far from it--everyone in the machinery guild longs for your success. I'm telling you to be careful, and letting you know something I think you might find important."

They talked of more pleasant things over the dinner itself, but it was impossible to deny that the evening--and the steamship ride back to Cape Tarenga--was highly muted.



PART NINETEEN

They could tell something was wrong when they stepped off the boat. Guxi Naol was there to meet them. "Kuaz!" His voice was panicked, face lined with worry. "We need to talk."

"What is it, Guxi?" Tzernovik was slow to pick up on the concern, but once he saw it his mind jolted. "Is something wrong? Are you ok?"

"Yes, yes, I--I'm fine. I don't know how to... how to tell you..."

"Quickly would be best, and straight," Tahala suggested. "The gods favour conciseness."

Guxi nodded, and Kuaz noticed for only the first time just how short the man really was--his agitation naturally drew one to examine his features. Time slowed down as he began to speak. "The townspeople, they--they learned yesterday you were gone. They've--they've attacked your Tareng-ship, Kuaz, it's... it's not good."

He continued speaking, but Tzernovik had already taken off at a blinding run, as though the gods themselves were at his heels. After a moment's yelp, and a barked order to Guxi, Tahala was after him. It took only a few minutes to reach the stretch of sand that had served as a workshop and begin to survey what had happened.

The week before, thousands of feet of lumber had cast the imposing shadow of a massive skeleton, more than seventy yards in length. Now, this lay scattered and splintered over much of the beach. Some of the ribs, he saw, had been burned--though, having evidently tired of trying to light them, they had given up on the rest.

It looked like the end of a giant monster, whose bones remained where some vengeful knight had first shattered them. The cables he and Tahala had so carefully balanced had fallen to the ground and were now half-covered by blown sand, twitching occasionally in the wind like dying snakes. The destruction, Kuaz saw through blurry vision, was complete. He stumbled aimlessly through the remains.

Someone had driven a splinter into the ground, affixing a sign to it which read, in blood-red splattered paint, "GO HOME." He collapsed at its feet and began to weep, bent over so that he looked, from a distance, to be in prayer.

Home? Where was home? He had lived in Tarenga since his parents had first birthed him, had schooled and shopped and worshipped with the men and women who had done this. He had worked faithfully as a carpenter's apprentice, tried to gain their favour for many long and arduous years--and now they told him to go home?

Why? This question, asked of so many things, was the one he truly wanted answered. Why had they resisted him? Why had they blanched so at the thought of Tahala's partnership with him? Why had it come to this--to this wretched end, scattered to all the domains of the putrid underworld?

Tahala had gained the beach, though he noticed her only dimly. She was more stoic than he, but the sound of her voice to Guxi Naol said she, too, was far from accepting of the airship's demise. Now she was at his side, and he stood, shakily, and nodded to her. "Well," he said, and bit down on his lip hard to try and still his tears. "Well this would be it. The gods have spoken."

"Tzernu--"

"It's over," he said, with bitter finality. "I'm done. I'm done with all this--with the offhand remarks and the constant, endless torture. I'm done, Tahala, I can't--I can't take it anymore."

"We did it once," she said quietly, insistently. "And we made mistakes doing it. We can learn from them, start over, it--it'll be much better this time, Kuaz Tzernovik."

"No." He shook his head, emphatically. "No. I should have known long before this what it was going to come to. It's my fault, I--we shouldn't have started. We certainly should never have gone this far. It's time to end it, Tahala."

"You can't believe that," she said. "You can't--we talked of this. You had to have known the people didn't like what you were doing, that it--that they might try something. You might not admit it now, but you knew--and you kept going."

The truth was that, no, he didn't know, hadn't known--couldn't have guessed. "Even if I had, which I didn't, there's... Tahala, I'm sorry I dragged you into this. I had this... this crazy dream, and... I never woke up before. And I--I am going to leave now."

She put a hand on his shoulder. "You can't, Tzernu--it's not like you."

Tzernovik shrugged the hand off, though he turned around for a moment. "You know something, Tahala? It's interesting, to me... to have listened to that man, Kefn Zayaqadijj, in the tavern in Iqn Nowun. I was ready for northern raiders--wasn't that absurd? Wasn't that silly?"

"What do you mean?"

"I was ready for an attack from some strange body of harpies--half-expected, at some point, to see them come whistling down from the skies. That--I've lived here long enough to know that that was foolish. I should've known I would be attacked--and I should've known it wouldn't be pirates or mysterious cloaked monsters. It... it's the monsters in plain sight that really hurt you--I should've seen that it would be the... the men I worked with, the men I... I sat with in the temple, the men I bought my bread from in the market square. I should've known it would be them."

She was silent, and he left, slowly, trudging back into town. And he entered the cabin--as a place to live. He knew then it would never be--perhaps never had been--anything resembling a home.



PART TWENTY

The following days were a haze of crippling, sickening depression. He told Master Birkan not to expect him back, at least for a few days, and the old man had said nothing except that he understood. That sort of taciturn manner suited Tzernovik fine.

The day after his return, Tahala disappeared from the house and returned late in the day with a book of notes. "I've looked through the wreckage, and I think we can salvage more than a little bit of what they've left to us, Tzernu."

He looked blankly at her. "There's nothing to salvage. I had a dream--that was my dream they took axes to, Tahala. How many pieces of that did you find?" She blinked, answerless, and withdrew to another room. That left him crying until he fell asleep, head crushed to the oak of his kitchen table.

Guxi Naol came to visit an indeterminate period of time later, sitting opposite Tzernovik, who had made the table something of a place of residence--it was as good as anywhere else in the town. "How are you?"

"Broken," he said softly. "I almost want to get my hammer from the shop and break every cursed thing in this house--myself included. Burn all my drawings and just get it over with. But I don't have the energy. They've beaten me." These words were the longest he had spoken since the beach.

"There's a saying, back in Illy-Anchon. 'Most battles are both won and lost.' It takes someone to win, but it also takes someone to lose, and both parties have to agree on that outcome, in some way or another. This isn't like Zhelya Pass, Kuaz--they can't kill you. All they can attack is your spirit, but they can't do that alone--you have to let them at it, first."

Tzernovik swallowed, shaking his head at the Ibuyan. "Do you know how easy that is to say, from where you sit? What would you do--please, tell me, what would you do if the people of the town rose up and burned everything you'd worked for? Just because they hated what you stood for."

Head bowed, Guxi admitted that he wasn't sure. "But I think you may have missed something. The atmosphere has changed, in the town. I think they have realised that they went too far--that they crossed a line when they went from hatred in the mind to action. They would uncross it, if they could."

"But they can't!" Tzernovik spat. "They can't take it back--they can't rebuild what they've torn down. Why is it always easier to be sorry than to not wrong someone else in the first place?" Guxi Naol was quiet for a time, after the shouting, and then he, too, left.

The anger had drained by the end of the first week after the massacre--he had come to think of it this way. In its place was a lethargic moroseness, and it was into this that Tahala pulled the heavy chair back and sat facing him. "Kuaz Tzernovik, we need to talk."

"Very well, Tahala," he whispered. "Let's talk, then."

"I've packed my bags, because I'm leaving. I think I'll see if I can make it in the Federal District--maybe even Iqn Nowun, I'm not sure. But I think you should know something, before I depart." She waited until what remained of his attention, what remained of his soul itself, came to focus on her. "I love you, Tzernu."

He blinked in surprise, synapses pulsing erratically. "What?"

"I love you--I've loved you for a long time. Because... because you're a dreamer. Because you would conceive of grandeur beyond even my wildest fantasies and try to bring it to life. Because you would sooner curse this town than bow down to it, and I wish I was as strong as you in that way."

For some reason, the revelation came as a surprise to him--he had glossed over it neatly in the months before. "I didn't... I didn't know that."

"Now you do. I think one of these days, things will go better for you--you'll... you'll start giving orders again, to the gods themselves. But I can't see you like this, Tzernovik. If I can't stop them from beating you down, then at least I can't watch, because it will destroy me." She sighed heavily and her eyes met his for a final time. "I hope things look up, Kuaz, I really do. And... know that... I never thought it was folly, and I would've helped you rebuild a thousand times over." And she stood to leave.

Now, in the carpenter's mind, two factions warred with what little resources his broken mind had to provide them with. There was a point, he knew, when sacrifice became too great--so it had been, down on the beach the week before. So, said the voice that was beginning to get the upper hand, it was now.

Her hand was on the doorknob, starting to turn it, when something snapped into place in his mind--a battle was won, and lost, in Guxi's words. He resolved that his final memory of the woman he knew he loved, if nothing else, would not be a view of her back. "Wait--Tahala. Don't go." She turned around, eyebrows raised hopefully. He tried a smile on for size, and supposed that it worked. "That notebook--do you still have it?"



PART TWENTY-ONE

She had moved some of the timber--probably with Guxi Naol's help. He rubbed at the back of his neck and sighed, the doubts flooding back into his mind. Then a few choice words returned to him: that she loved him, that they would stand together to start over--mostly the former. He nodded at the wreckage. "Right."

They made a walking survey again, finding as many lengths of timber as they could of suitable length for an airship. There were not many--though he noted with some joy that the keel had been split in only one place, and he thought that it might be patched. "It won't be easy, Tzernu, but... I'm sure we can do it."

"I'm sure we can, too. It'll take a redesign--see what we can do with what we've got. I've been thinking we could lighten up the ribs--just use them for structure, and let the keel hold all the real weight. Should save us some time and effort." They were still walking, gathering pieces and setting them into a growing pile.

Tahala picked up the ship's steering wheel. He remembered lovingly crafting it in the carpentry shop, and a smile flickered over his features as she propped it up against a beam, grinning back at him with newfound hope. "Well, at least we'll be able to turn it. I agree with you, on the ribs--we went about it wrong. I think we can halve the wood used and keep the same strength--I'll want to test it, some."

"Of course, Tahala." He came across another piece of wood, and stopped. "Now, the first order of business..." the red paint on the sign had weathered some, but its message was still plainly clear. He laughed and kicked its support as hard as he could, so that it collapsed in a small explosion of splinters. The sign lay face-down, and while he was content to leave it that way, he also stomped on it once, for good measure.

"Thank the gods--I was going to do that myself, if you didn't. It's an insult."

He turned, and his jaw dropped. "Master Birkan!"

The shipwright nodded in acknowledgement of his name. "I saw you and Tahala moving down the beach and decided I would see what the gods had set you to." He grinned, the little bits of white on his face moving to accentuate this. It was a rare gesture, and Tzernovik did not fail to catch the significance.

"Thank you, Master Birkan. I'd not imagined a rebirth possible, here, but... Tahala has convinced me otherwise. I'll return to the shop tomorrow, sir, of course."

"Of course, Tzerna. Or not--you can take your time." The old man patted him on the shoulder and started up the beach towards what remained of the ship's frame. "I came to tell you something." He sighed, reaching behind an ear to worry it a little. "I know it doesn't change things, Vikari, or soften the blow, or excuse what happened here any way, but I think you should be aware that... I tried to stop them."

Tzernovik halted in mid-step, turning to face his elder. "Master Birkan? The gods must've turned my ears, I-I'm sorry."

"No, you heard me. They came in a body, and I met them before the beach, up on the road. I told them that they needed to think twice, and if they still thought this was a good idea then perhaps a third time was in order. I tried to make them understand, and... I failed. It took the town militia, in the end, to break them up--over the initial protests of their captain. But by the time they got here, the situation was beyond my ability to salvage it."

"That you would have made the effort is success beyond any aspirations of this apprentice, Master Birkan." So it was--he remembered a time when Cirtina Birkan would have only laughed at the suggestion that he would defend Tzernovik's madness.

"I've decided the gods only give us a few times, in our lives, to be on the right side of something important. You're right--you talked, once, when you started this, about steam power and rifles. I've never seen the future before. Now, for once, I have. I tried as hard as I could--I thought if I gave them the choice between shoving aside one of the most respected shipwrights on this side of the Dablanz Sea, or giving up on their manifest folly, they might choose the second. Unfortunately they did not."

The emotion Tzernovik felt went far beyond gratitude. "Master Birkan, I couldn't thank you enough with all the gifts of the gods and a hundred lifetimes over for your praise..."

"Think nothing of it, Tzerna." It was a tall order--an impossible order, even, and Birkan knew it. On the other hand, the adulation clearly made him uncomfortable, and he sought something else to distract him. "Hmm..." he was looking at the keel with a master shipbuilder's appraising eye. "I think you could salvage this--it'd look like a good beginning, to me."

"We were thinking the same thing, sir," Tahala said from the far side of the stout wood. "They didn't get it very well--I think if we aligned it, reinforced it at both sides..."

"Yes," Birkan agreed. "You'd be quite safe, then--I'd sail in it, Radova. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a weight to move, and you'll want it nice and secure. Tzerna, get that end there." He bent down and grasped the underside of the heavy oak.

Tzernovik flinched as he saw what the older man was doing. "Master Birkan, that's--that's not necessary. It's... it's our problem, sir, please don't feel obligated."

"Tzerna." Birkan glared sharply at his apprentice, never letting go of the keel. "Do you desire a two hundred foot keel, or two one hundred foot pieces of driftwood? Let's get this done, so I can go back to pretending I'm reputable."

And so it began, for the second time. By the time Birkan had left, the sun had nearly disappeared, and they had repaired the keel and laid the foundation planks for what would become the engine room. Tahala and Kuaz stood back, admiring their initial work. Jaw set, the young carpenter turned towards the town and laughed, a sound that carried far. Then he shouted, his words a leonine roar: "do you see this? Do you see? You have not beat us! You can not beat us! This is our home now!"



PART TWENTY-TWO

They had two things in their favour. Firstly, the most expensive parts of their work--the gasbags and the engines, which they had had to send away for, were still in relative safety in one of Guxi Naol's warehouses. Secondly, Tahala was right--they had made errors in the initial construction, and the new beginning allowed them to fix them. In this sense, it had been a blessing--though neither of them were so noble as to consider it that.

On the other hand, nearly all of the wood was beyond salvage; even with a series of new, more economical designs, they kept coming up several hundred feet short--and there was simply no substitute for strong timber. They had tried to find a new supply, but their monetary reserves were nearly gone and he had set aside what little they had left for purchasing the hydrogen and propane the flight itself would consume.

As he kept up the search, they spent their time in other productive ways, shaping the airscrews and testing the heat engines, which he felt increasingly sure would be sufficient. They inflated one of the gasbags with air and discovered that it chafed against the restraining ropes; the redesign took nearly a week. They estimated the final shape and rebuilt the ship's controls, which were becoming increasingly complex.

There came a point, as the summer began to wane, that they ran out of small tasks, and then they began to turn to each other. In their own way, and at separate times, they had both professed to love the other, though in the hassle of building the ship, this had been forgotten. Boredom and lack of progress meant that they could no longer couch all their dialogue in technical discussions.

They began to talk at length about things that had nothing to do with the airship, or engineering, or even Cape Tarenga. They spoke of little things--of digging for clams on the beach, which they tried on a whim, an adventure that ended in a hastily-constructed fire in the shadow of the half-built ship and one of the most memorable dinners he could recall having.

They walked, long rambling hikes up in the Kiivi Zayn hills north of the town, looking down on it and out over the Plysoric Ocean and musing on the sea monsters it took its name from--neither one of them believed, but really, who was to say? Beneath the spreading branches of a broad-leafed tree in full verdure, they kissed for the first time, and he wondered then what he had been missing, and why.

One thing, at least, was true, as they came to spend time together as a true couple. Guxi Naol had been correct--the townspeople were much more reserved, now. He wasn't exactly sure what it was--embarrassment, perhaps, in large part--but they shied away from him, now, averting their eyes. In the carpentry shop, they spoke to him in hushed tones. Nobody mentioned what they had done--but for his part, he didn't either.

Work progressed in dribs and drabs as he could find the lumber for it. A week might net only a dozen feet of usable oak, and as summer slouched towards its inexorable end, he began to worry that they wouldn't be able to take flight before it had given way to the fickle autumn storms that plagued the Dablanz Sea--Cape Tarenga, on the leeward side of the Kiivi Zayns, was largely spared, but the most direct route to Ituskva took them over Dablanz, and he didn't want to chance it.

The summer stars were at their peak, the inexorable climax of the season, when Guxi Naol and he sat down in the Fo'c'sle for drinks. "It's coming along well," Tzernovik said, truthfully, in response to Naol's question. "The frame is... we've done as much as we can. Once we get the lumber... we've redesigned it so we won't have to steam them--it'll save some time. If we could just get the gods-cursed wood."

"Don't your books of prophecy say your gods will provide for you?"

Tzernovik laughed--with the season, and with the airship, and with Tahala he had been in remarkable spirits. "They do, and they will--I should blaspheme more infrequently to curry their favour."

"If anyone could invoke Iava's wrath and his good graces at the same time, it would be you, Kuaz. You or your fiancÚe, perhaps." He chuckled, raising the glass to his lips as though it might act as a ward against Tzernovik's angry denials.

But there was no reprisal. "Not yet, Guxi."

This time, Guxi's laugh spluttered beer back into the mug. "Not yet," he echoed, an eyebrow raised in surprise. Tzernovik grinned.

"Not yet. Perhaps after the flight. She--yes, she doesn't have a name. It'll require a sympathetic clerk--perhaps in Ituskva. She's been speaking of moving there, and... for my part, I think I could second such a migration, with the gods' approval."

"You've changed," the Ibuyan said, his smile becoming less lewd. "I don't know what did it, but... you're not the timid carpenter I met three years ago. You'll at least invite me to the wedding, I hope?"

"Of course." He laughed warmly. "I could never forget to do that."

Guxi nodded his head, and then snapped it to the level. "Speaking of forgetting..." he reached for something and slid it to Tzernovik down the bar. "This came for you--you get so little mail, I set it aside to deliver it specially."

It was a letter, small, made of thick, official-looking paper. The Nayathi lettering on the top distracted him from the small slip of paper that fell from it for a moment, and he read aloud. "Kuaz Tzernovik, Tahala. Dear Sirs. It is with great anger and trepidation for your future that we hear of the events which transpired re: the airship of your design."

Guxi's eyes widened, and he nodded appreciatively. "Someone had to care, you know. Besides you, of course."

Kuaz nodded, distracted, and continued reading. "No action of ours can rectify the wrongs visited upon you, but we hope the enclosed is of some assistance. God willing, you will conquer the skies yet. Our guild will offer prayer for you until we receive word of your... success..." Astonished, he finished the letter, reading the names with difficulty--from shock as much as the foreignness. "Osum qin-Zunur Uqudawetha, Kefn qin-Wujh Zayaqadijj, Engineer's Guild. Warim qin-Kasab qin-Zalus qin-Dayit Numahatih--captain and mayor, Iqn Nowun." He blinked as he read the letter again, quickly.

"Friends in high places, you have. What's that?" He gestured at the paper that had fallen out, which Kuaz retrieved and stared at, trying to make sense of the handwriting on it, which was his. The answer landed on him with a dull thud, and then sudden elation.

"Oh--gods! Guxi, this is--this is the cheque I wrote them, for the engines and the pumps. They--they've not redeemed it..."

"How much?"

"A thousand dzeller. Not quite enough to replace all the lumber we've lost, but--"

His excitement was contagious, and Guxi Naol interrupted him quickly. "I'll put up the rest--can't be more than a few hundred. Can you fly by the end of the month?"

Tzernovik shook his head, stunned like a boxer. "I--yes. That's... twenty days? We can do that--not a problem. As soon as we have the lumber." He was still gripping the cheque tightly. "The gods provide for us, Guxi Naol--remind me if I ever doubt that."



PART TWENTY-THREE

It was done. It looked nothing like a Tareng fish, and would never win an award for elegance, but the airship now rested, complete, on the beach north of Cape Tarenga. They had secured the final gasbag stays ten minutes before, and now Tzernovik and Tahala stood back on the beach, exhilarated.

They had given up on the earlier, gentle curves for time's sake; the ship appeared to be composed of flat panels and from the front described a nine-sided, vaguely circular shape. The frame, made from shorter lengths of the best oak Tzernovik had been able to find, had thin canvas stretched over it, so that the ship seemed much more solid than, in actuality, it was.

Six heat engine-boxes hung from struts that leapt out from the airship's side. As a precaution, in case something happened with the heater in the airship's belly, they had painted the engines along their hot end, and this was sufficient to spin the airscrews--not enough to move the thing, he realised, but enough to give it a sense of mobility.

The canvas had been unevenly doped and the ship, in the wrong light, the wrong angle, looked vaguely leprous; the broad fins that sprouted from its tail seemed out of place, and the square bridge wedged into the nose served only to break what lines it might have had.

He loved it, and the only thing in the world he found more beautiful was standing next to him, her arm about his shoulder. She had turned to him, and now her yellow eyes glinted triumphantly. "It seems a far lesser thing than the sum of all our dreams, Tzernu--and yet, so magnificent!"

"Beyond that--nearly magical. We still have some work to do... we'll need to load the propane, and we'll need the hydrogen... I've spoken with the seaminers, down on the wharf; the second is fine for tomorrow." He had to cringe a bit at the cost of it all--but the Kirzhic Prize was well within their grasp.

They had spoken with an official of the company the week before, and a representative would be present at the departure. The prize rules stipulated that one had to convey a package of "no less than fifty pounds" between the Cape and the Federal District--the fifty pounds consisted, in large part, of a sealed chronometric timepiece that would be used to ensure no underhandedness took place.

The fellow from Kirzhic Mail and Telegraph seemed reasonable enough, if a bit sceptical--but then, so was Tzernovik. Unlike his eastern compatriots, he at least did not seem to dismiss the possibility that they might gain the prize out of hand, and he knew there was precious little competition. Both of these were strong reassurances.

They dragged as much propane as would fit in the airship's fuel tanks down to the beach and loaded it, a process that took most of the afternoon. With a team of mules borrowed from Cirtina Birkan, they moved the vessel--with some difficulty--down to the high tide watermark. He'd arranged for a lighter from a mining barge to meet them there when the tide had come in--conveniently, it was predicted for three in the morning, which he figured gave them plenty of time to have the ship filled before morning.

Together, they checked all the valves, every part that could be tested, every join and every bit of piping. They arranged and rearranged the small supplies they could afford to take with them. At last, there was nothing to do except fret, and neither one of them seemed inclined to this.

It was windy, and without either one saying a word they moved to the shelter of the ship's control room, where they sat, for a time; watched the waves rolling, imagined what it must be like to be able to soar above them. Bit by bit, Cape Tarenga faded, until there was nothing left but a small room and the two of them. He took her hand and gripped it firmly, feeling her fingers fold over his. "I want... I want to thank you, Tahala. I'd not have come a quarter this far without you." There was something else--something more, and she could feel it. "And I love you--I can't say that enough. For all this--for everything we've done... if it came down to it or you, I wouldn't even have to make a choice."

Starkly white teeth showed themselves in Tahala's grin as she threaded her other arm around him. "If it wasn't for you, I'd be a well-respected official married to the captain of the town guards." Her smile widened. "I can't ever thank you enough for that." Then she craned her head up to him, touched her muzzle to his, and he discovered that her grin tasted as wonderful as it fell upon the eyes.

And there was something different about the kiss--a sense of something that bordered on urgency. He relaxed and let the gods set the course they chose, and though neither of them knew what they were doing, it all seemed to make sense in the context of a greater plan. They confessed their feelings and hopes with their sins to each other, in movement, and in quiet murmurs.

She cried out softly, and her blood marked the hasty pillow he had made of their clothes. And they held each other close, in the quiet that settled in the cabin after the tempest, and through tears of emotions she couldn't name she told him she regretted nothing; that the end of the world would find them together. The moon rose full and ghostly, and until the rising tide lapped finally at the planks of the deck nothing mattered beyond the little world created by their love.



PART TWENTY-FOUR

"Vikarivik. The Son of Vikari." The man from Kirzhic Mail and Telegraph had pointed out--quite rightly--that the airship lacked a name. He rather liked the one that had leapt to his mind. "The man who dared to fly and was struck down for it--I imagine his children would carry on in his stead."

The sun was thinking about rising, directly in front of the ship--the process of filling the ship's voluminous gasbags was laborious, and took longer than he had planned. It was novel enough that even the staid bureaucrat didn't seem to mind the wait, and now it was completed; the tide was heading back out to sea.

"Makes sense--I like that." He wrote it down. "Are you ready to depart?" They had crammed the chronometer and the rest of Kirzhic's baggage aboard ten minutes before; so far as Tzernovik could tell, nothing else remained to do.

Still, there was hesitation behind his smile and firm handshake. "Yes. I'm... more than ready. It's not every day you get to see life breathed into a dream."

Guxi Naol and Cirtina Birkan, both, had come to see the departure--Tzernovik thought he could see a few others, up along the road, but the five of them were only living souls surrounding the Vikarivik as he readied for it's maiden voyage. They bid him luck, and the favour of the gods; then he had stepped inside the control room, and the noise became muted and indistinct.

The ship had two ballast tanks, one forward and one aft, which he had filled with sand after they moved it to the water mark. He pulled the levers on both and heard the reassuring hiss. The gauges were improvised--for all the time they'd had to work on it, much of the control room seemed that way. "Well... this is disheartening..."

"We'd planned for, what, half?" Tahala's muzzle rested on his shoulder, and they watched the gauges drop together, below the halfway mark. "Well, if it comes down to it, you can set me down--save you a few stone right there."

He shook his head, but the building worry didn't even begin to dissipate until they both felt the ship lurch, gravity losing its hold. He looked outside, at the movement of the sand, and his breath quickened. "Well, so thirty... I make thirty-five percent, instead." The margin of error was uncomfortably small, but they had to make do with what they had. He took his fingers off the ballast controls.

"Should've made it bigger. Hold on, I'm starting the burners." He heard the click of her fingers on the switch and throttle, then a dull roar from fifty feet behind them. The magnitude of the endeavour flashed before his eyes--how many things could turn out to go horribly wrong. But Tahala's next report was comforting enough. "So far, the gods are with us. Throttle seems to work... it'll take a couple of minutes..."

He slipped past her, through the door at the rear, and walked down the keel until he came to the bank he had built at the outside of the power core, inlaid with a warren of pipes and gauges. "The temperatures are as we predicted... a small bit more elevated than I would've desired, in the coolant... that should change. Tahala! Disengage the clutches, please." Suddenly a new sound surrounded him, a quiet thrum from the outside that built in insistency as the airscrews started to bite at the cold morning.

"We're moving," she said with unrestrained glee as he returned to the control cabin. Not fast, yet, but we're moving. I'm increasing the throttle a little..."

He dropped a little more ballast and spun the wheel that controlled the position of the horizontal planes. The ship began to pick up speed, slowly, but they gained altitude as they crossed over first wet sand and then the breakers of the Plysoric Ocean. Another quick look at the engine gauges convinced him that they were well within tolerances. "Brake the port propellers and engage the reversers when the revolutions drop low enough." He turned the ship's wheel, straining pulleys against the inertia of the moving surface on the large vertical fin.

The noise from the airscrews grew louder, and the ship began to pick up noticeably; he levelled the aft planes and watched the coast road as it approached. For safety's sake, as they reengaged the engines on the port side of the airship, he let out a little more ballast. They didn't need it; the road flashed below them, and then was gone.

Flying was new for both of them--for the entire Kiramoff Republic and, save for a few long-dead Nayathi scientists and perhaps the ogres of the frozen north, the world as a whole. The sensation was overwhelming; the Kiivi Zayns rose in front of them, but the airship rose to match, eager to outrace the dawning sun.

To observers below, the ship cast a strange and alien shadow on their traditional landscapes; on the farms and pastures that had built the Republic into the mighty empire it now was. From above, such work became small, fading into insignificance, and the land spread beneath them as every king in history would have wished to imagine it.

The metaphor, which Tahala first created on seeing the growing footprint of Cerrandon, a small farming nestled in one of the Kiivi Zayn's valleys, was apt. No one else had control of the skies; besides the hawks, no one could look down on the two as they raced eastward. They were royalty, in a domain all their own.



PART TWENTY-FIVE

"I've calculated our speed, from the landmarks we sighted." Tzernovik found a free surface and set the map in front of his companion. They had pushed the throttle to its limits and given the engines time to warm to their new instructions before beginning this test, and Kuaz was pleased with the results. "I calculate seventy-two miles per hour."

Tahala ran her finger over his figures, and shook her head. "Varas--has anything travelled the fast before?"

"Not without a barrel and a charge of powder. Unfortunately, there is a problem. Based on the pressure readings I've taken, at that speed we'll be out of fuel within three hours." Tahala reflexively gripped the throttle and, at his nodding, pulled it back significantly. "I don't know how fast we can make it at our most economical speed--we'll just have to hope it's enough."

She grinned broadly. "It will be--how can it not?" He was not so sure, but her smile made it impossible to contradict her. They found a balance at which he calculated their fuel would hold out, with a little in reserve, but by then any usable landmarks were long in the distance. The dead reckoning he was able to produce gave him hope, as did the time he recorded when the ship, at a stately clip, crossed over the western shores of the Cape and first encountered the Dablanz Sea--but only time would tell.

Now the whole of Ishoi's waters were painted below them in a royal blue, broken only by the wakes of steamships far below them. He had to wonder what they thought of the strange apparition above them--that it was a sign from the gods? A strange monster? He made a note to examine the newspapers upon their return--he was a monster of sorts, after all, wasn't he?

The propane consumption he found rather unhealthy, but with this one exception the Vikarivik appeared mostly capable of flying itself--he had cobbled together a crude barometric altimeter, which showed them at roughly the same height--though they had no real idea what that height was.

Nightfall worried him, a little. There ceased to be any way of gauging speed, or height, or course--besides the compass and the altimeter, the latter of which they watched like a hawk. He figured that, fortunately, they would hit the water only gently--but if they couldn't get up again, that still left them stranded in the less than pleasant waters of the Dablanz. He would prefer not to crash.

As night fell into morning, he began to strain his eyes, searching for any sign of the lights of the capital city--and there would be lights; he had been told. He saw nothing, checked his calculations, and saw nothing again. When the light grew strong enough to make out features below, he noted with some displeasure that they were over land, with a broad river snaking beneath them.

Tahala had the map. "That removes most of our choices... presuming we haven't crossed the mountains yet, that would almost have to be Kechazi or the Mandon." The latter flowed into the Dablanz Sea at its northernmost point and would put them cripplingly far off-course.

"Let's assume it's not the Mandon," he said, for his benefit as well, and began to swing the wheel over. "Lay in the throttle--we're running out of time." He offered a prayer to the gods and hoped they were awake enough to listen to it.

It was a simple navigation error, he realised, looking over his maps. The rhumb line that linked Cape Tarenga and Ituskva, which he had taken from a sailing chart, implied that one had first gained Point Australis at the tip of the cape. They had, by virtue of flight, skipped such a step entirely, and had been travelling due west when an accurate course--how accurate, he wasn't sure; the maps were only as good as the cartographers--would have had them tack slightly south as well.

Now they were running south at a fast clip, and he began to see something artificial rising in the distance. It resolved itself by degrees--into one building, and then two, and then they had hit the outer boroughs of the capital city. Streets and horse-drawn carriages and astonished onlookers swept underneath them so quickly he wondered if they might leave a wake.

Ituskva from the air was quite a sight; the new steel-skeleton buildings rising up, towering over the thick brick-and-timber structures that still dominated the cape. Some of them, perceived from the corner of his eye, must have had twenty floors or more, and the light from the dawning star of the east flashed off massive panes of glass like the city itself was afire.

Kirzhic would be waiting for them at the main steamroad terminal and the docks, which they had figured to be the most reasonable destinations. The Vikarivik and his passengers had already overshot the rails of the steamroad, and he made for the dock, bleeding off hydrogen and setting the after planes of the ship so that it came down over Ituskva like a meteor.

He had not imagined that landing would be such a problem. Fortunately the people in Ituskva harbour had divined his course and cleared off the empty berth he steered towards. Tahala braked the airscrews until the metal shafts screamed in protest, then threw them into a frantic reverse. The ship slowed--not enough, he could tell in the final moments.

They hit the dock with a dull thud, the shallow angle driving the Vikarivik into the wood-topped concrete rather than forcing it to rebound. Friction slowed them far more than the engines, and by the time they had come to a stop, with only thirty feet of dock remaining, smoke curled from the abused keel of the airship. Tahala killed the engines, and then they were out onto the dock and a mass of people was rushing towards them.

A tall, slender official from KM&T was first, and Kuaz showed him where the timepiece was. He retrieved the chronometer from its much heavier protective padding, stopped it, and stowed it in one of the pockets of his dark-blue uniform. Then he grinned broadly at the pair. "Welcome to the Federal District."



PART TWENTY-SIX

It was more curiosity and awe than fear, he noticed at once, with relief. An Ituskvan constable had secured the dock, which shielded them from the crowd only until they moved beyond the barricade, at which point they were mobbed. The Kirzhic man, who had a shiny brass badge, used it to ward them off, clearing a path between the shouting onlookers until they could reach a waiting stagecoach, which also had Kirzhic's livery emblazoned along the side. "Sorry about this," the man apologised. "You've made quite the first impression! Oh, excuse me, my manners!" He was shouting above the din from outside. "I'm Karis, Karis Haradan--Kuaz and Tahala, right?"

"Right!" Tahala shouted back.

Tzernovik was more than a little stunned. "Some welcome party." They had begun to leave them behind, the crowd having chosen retreat over being crushed by the coach.

"The news came in the evening edition last night," Karis said, head rocking with the movement of their vehicle over the cobblestones--a far cry from the smoothness of the airship's flight. "Both the city's papers ran headlining articles about the man who was going to fly into the city."

"Ah," Tzernovik said, and shook his head. "I didn't mean to frighten anyone--we overshot our course a little, is all. Little navigational error."

"Are you mad?" To either side of the official's blue cap, his ears wiggled. "Frightened? Any reputable reporter in the city would chop his tail off for the chance at an interview. You two are celebrities--imagine, I'm the first one who gets to see what you really look like. Our man in Tarenga's description came over the wire a little garbled."

Tahala laughed, back in her element again. "Garbled? I hope not in a bad way..."

"No. He called you both 'striking.' Oh..." he reached behind his seat and pulled out something that Tzernovik recognised quickly as a newspaper. "Here, see for yourselves."

The story below the headline--'ITUSKVA TO HOST TWO FROM THE HEAVENS'--which Tahala read aloud, was short and lacked details. If anything, Tzernovik guessed it was the drawing--which portrayed the Vikarivik as a great bird, upon which he and someone in a dress rode astride--that had captured the attention of the masses. As the carriage slowed to a stop near the Grand Hotel in Ituskva's Kenaprom Square, they began to surround them again.

Like Iqn Nowun, the Federal District was a whirlwind of sensation to Tzernovik--perhaps more so, because he could understand what the crowds were saying--asking for everything from autographs to benediction. Haradan secured them a room in Kirzhic's name and then was gone, taking the chronometer away for review. Standing in the great chamber of Ituskva's most opulent hotel, Tahala and Kuaz looked at one another. Then they burst out in pent-up laughter and fell into each other's arms.

It was madness. Around them sailed people garbed in the finest, most elegant dress the Kiramoff Republic had to offer, jewellery worth more than either of them made in a year glinting off every arm and neck. Businessmen in elegant tophats and suits that fit them as closely as their own skins nodded politely. The two Tarengans were dressed like vagabonds, in grease-stained denim pants and tattered seafarer's overcoats. But for her long hair, Tahala might have been a man, the shape of her body hid beneath their workman's clothes.

But the aristocrats deferred to them, smiled and made eager conversation, listened raptly as he tried to explain the principles of the airship's operation and Tahala described at length what life on the Cape was like as though they were from a foreign land, and not just another district in the vast Republic. At first he was self-conscious of his jacket, of his speech and his beliefs and his work. Then he realised that they either didn't care or loved him for it, at times both, and he abandoned self-consciousness as a manifest failure.

They gave interviews to the press, in relative isolation. Only once did they venture outside, and Tzernovik managed to give a very brief, halting speech off the cuff that the crowd ate up like a five-course meal in the finest restaurant of the city. By early on the second day, he learned, someone had already begun printing commemorative airship memorabilia.

He worried about the Vikarivik, but the Kirzhic officials who drifted by from time to time assured him it remained safe. They remained in the hotel, and time turned into an abstraction; neither slept, though the beds were most comfortable and they found other uses for them. They tried to focus on work, though it was hard, and Tzernovik had the contents of his satchel spread over the fine hardwood table when the knock came at the door of the hotel room.

Tahala opened it, and a man who seemed clad equally in gold and jet entered. "Good afternoon, gods favour." He shook their hands. "I'm the president of Kirzhic Mail and Telegraph, and we have finished our calculations as to the length of your journey."

"Oh? And how long did it last?"

Tzernovik felt his stomach tighten, and gripped at Tahala's hand. "As you know, the contest required traversing between the Cape and Ituskva in less than a day. Your total elapsed time from departure to your landing in Ituskva harbour was twenty-four hours and seven minutes. I'm afraid, in the judgment of our experts, you failed to qualify."



PART TWENTY-SEVEN

Strangely, he did not feel particularly disappointed. The time, as the president pointed out, was nearly thirty hours faster than the previous record, and he accepted their offer to refuel the Vikarivik with genuine appreciation. If nothing else, the previous few days in the capital city had left him with a new sense of purpose--seven minutes, given their navigational error, was hardly anything. The ship would need some repairs, and he didn't think they'd be able to make the attempt until the following spring. But so?

Tahala was agreed. Certainly, being able to cross the Kiivi Zayns and the Dablanz Sea in only twenty-four hours was nothing to be ashamed of, even excepting the prize--which both of them had wanted but neither, in the final account, seemed to feel they needed. They danced a little--poorly, for neither of them knew how--and made preparations for their departure, in peace. He figured they would leave within two days, giving Kirzhic time to make good on their offer of hydrogen and propane.

Outside, the reaction was less muted. The news hit the papers that evening, and the deluge of letters to Kirzhic began the following day. The strange pair had captured the public imagination, and the idea that a mere seven minutes had kept them from success sat well with nobody. A man from the press came to talk to them the next morning and seemed genuinely surprised at their subdued reactions.

They were completely packed and ready to depart when Haradan knocked at their door, and when they opened it he slipped inside quickly, as though in fear of being followed. "H-hello."

"Is something wrong?"

He shook his head at Tahala. "Something, no. A lot of things--about two thousand of them, if the journalists are right. Listen, I came here to tell you something--the president can't leave without being torn to pieces." Tzernovik noticed, suddenly, that Haradan was wearing street clothes. "Would you be available for a gala tonight? In the ballroom of the hotel here?"

"We don't have anywhere else to be, if that's what you mean," Tzernovik said. "But we don't have the clothes--or the manners--for it, either."

"I'd wear those clothes," Haradan returned quickly. "It's what everyone's expecting. And come up with a speech or something, about... uh, uh, everything. Can you be there?"

Tahala was quick to answer. "Of course."

He smiled at her shakily. "Thank the gods." Then he was gone, and once again they couldn't help but laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all.

The ceremony, which had been somewhat hastily arranged, nonetheless had a formality Kuaz Tzernovik would never have guessed possible--in spite of what Haradan had said, he felt strongly out of place in the ballroom, surrounded by men and women twice his age from castes he wasn't even sure he was supposed to look directly in the eye. And since all the explanation they had was from Karis Haradan, neither he nor Tahala really understood why they were present at all.

And they were far from the only ones there in the ballroom. The mayor of the city was in attendance; the general of the Kiramese Army, and a contingent of naval admirals, and the sparkling captain of the Ituskva Guard. He saw faces he dimly recognised from political cartoons in the broadsheets that made their way to Cape Tarenga, though when the master of ceremonies announced, to a crowd that quietly applauded, "Varik Piazavan, the President of the Republic of Kiramoff," his mouth fell open in shock, and remained there as the president began to speak.

"These are interesting times we find ourselves living in. From refrigerated boxcars on the steamroads to the telegraphs that link us instantly with Cape Tarenga, Kazarisan, and the far-off capitals of our neighbouring states, each day brings us closer together.

"Imagine a Republic where any man could, at his pleasure and with the blessing of the gods, travel between Ituskva and the Cape in a day--Ituskva and Nayathi in less than two; Illy-Anchon in a week, without the hardships of the mountain passes. We are assembled to recognise the dawning of that Republic.

He paused, and looked out over the crowd. "I am not the focus of this day, and I'll end my remarks here. It's not to me that we owe our destiny, it is two young gods-favoured persons from the Cape--our easternmost frontier. I would be honoured to shake their hands as equals, and let me then present to you the winners of the Kirzhic Prize, Kuaz Tzernovik and his partner Tahala." The crowd erupted, though in the sudden blank his mind drew all he could think of was the elegant way in which President Varik had managed to avoid drawing attention to Tahala's lack of a surname.

Then he was on his feet, and she herself was dragging him up onto the stage where the president stood. He felt a firm hand, shook it back, and then the crowd was silent. They expected him speak, and he took his place behind the very same podium at which the president had been. He swallowed, and had to start twice before he found his voice. Whatever notes he had written had long since vanished.

"If you--if you had told me a year ago that I would be here now, I would've thought you mad. If six months before today I explained to you a flying ship, you would've thought me mad." He took a deep breath. "We would both have been right. But sometimes... sometimes great things are born from madness. Everything I have today--the airship, this... this ceremony; most importantly Tahala, without whom I would be nothing--everything I have is the child of derangement.

"I haven't done this for myself. I've seen the ways in which our country has faltered. Here is a new domain--Etteroi's unexplored, mysterious country. It... it is the germ of our future and our children's future. The skies are the throne of the world and... with the president's blessing, and the permission of the gods, I give them up freely to you, to the Republic and all the days that lie before her."

Tahala would later tell him that he hadn't ever fainted, that he had acquitted himself well, but he remembered nothing after the sudden, deafening thunder of the audience.



PART TWENTY-EIGHT

Returning to the Cape after Ituskva would be hard. Soaring high above the waters, they mused about what the reaction might be. Tahala guessed indifference--which was, he had to admit, the most likely option. Tzernovik thought that perhaps an angry riot wasn't out of order, for having brought the attention of the Republic down on the cape. Tahala said he was just being paranoid, and he refrained from mentioning their visit to Iqn Nowun.

They came up the Plysoric coast from the south, and he almost didn't land when he saw the milling dots that turned into villagers as they descended. But they were nearly out of propane, and the confrontation couldn't be delayed indefinitely--his fame, he hoped, would at least gain the Vikarivik some protection.

They didn't rush forward, as he set the ship lightly down--less hurried, this time, more careful. They didn't rush forward, when he opened the cabin door, but Kerano Morozhan, the town mayor, was there to greet them, and Cirtina Birkan was by his side. The former spoke first. "We read about you, in the paper. You've become quite famous." In an uncomfortable breach of protocol, he extended his hand, and they each shook it, more firmly than he returned the gesture, disturbing the rolls of fat about his middle. "The Circle of Elders met regarding your naming ceremony."

Tzernovik blinked. "They did, sir?" The implication was clear--he was young, and unpopular. They had at best decided to postpone the decision; at worst decided to reject him entirely, some way of deflating him a bit after Ituskva. He didn't care.

"It was... a heated discussion," Morozhan said tersely. "Unfortunately, the voice of certain people carries great weight in the circle. It gives me no great pleasure to say this..."

Cirtina Birkan, who had begun smiling at the mention of "certain people," interjected. "Then let me." His old face turned full on Tzernovik, and he winked once before taking the younger man's hand and turning to face the crowd. "Good people of Cape Tarenga! Allow me to welcome back to us, from journeys far across the Dablanz Sea, Kuaz Tzernovik! Or should I say..." he squeezed Kuaz's hand and then lifted it as high as it would go in the gesture of acceptance. "Tzernovik the Aeronaut!"

For a moment, stunned as if by physical blow, he could only blink. "By the gods..." Tzernovik's voice was a whisper. He fumbled around for the response, and then shouted. "Thank the gods and the Circle! Cape Tarenga, thusly I pledge myself to you!" The applause was nothing like it had been in Ituskva, but its volume clearly made Morozhan uncomfortable, and the way in which Tzernovik then--as was his right, as an equal--took his hand again made him more so. Well, that was his problem.

"We also have had brought to our attention..." Kerano paused and cast a sideways glance at the woman standing next to Tzernovik. "The presence of a woman without a name whose..." he sighed. "Whose great honour, and the blessing she has brought to the Cape, nonetheless demands one." Cirtina and Kuaz moved back to allow her forward. "Tahala--formerly of Radovoy, now with broken ties to that house. By the powers the gods have devolved to me, I call the naming question."

There was murmuring. In the western tradition, to which the mayor also belonged, any house could take her in, but this required a pledge of adoption, and as much as they had liked her, before her descent into madness, no-one seemed especially keen on taking this burden. Without a volunteer, there were few options--and a sudden voice from the crowd raised the most likely.

"I've read the scriptures and your books of law," the voice said, and the crowd silenced, because they hadn't been coming to any good conclusions. "There is an alternative to her adoption. I may be an alien, Mayor Kerano, but isn't it true that the community has the right to declare a new house?"

Morozhan sighed again at Guxi Naol, but was forced to concede the point. "It does, yes."

"Then I suggest that, in recognition of her contributions, a new lineage be inaugurated. I propose we call her Etteroyan." The crowd rumbled again, and Guxi's voice rose to quiet them. "Would this not be fitting, Cape Tarenga? To call her Tahala, of the house of the stars?"

There were some suggestions that this might border on blasphemy--but then, there were Iavayans, in the west, too. They bickered to a rising consensus, and at last Morozhan had to admit defeat on this second point as well. "It has been proposed, and the good people of the Cape agree. Welcome back also to us, Tahala Etteroyan."

Tzernovik was astonished. In the space of half an hour, somehow, his life had somehow managed to not only not come to a crashing halt--it had escalated in its stature, and in the redemption of the woman he loved. The crowd dispersed--Morozhan first among them--until only a dozen or so people remained, mostly to admire the airship. "Etteroyan, eh?" Tahala was grinning at Guxi, who nodded.

"Took me a couple of hours to get the precedents right. And I think congratulations, also, are in order to the newest member of the community. Aeronaut? You could do worse--I think. Birkan, is Aeronaut a good thing?"

Cirtina shrugged. "We've never had one before. But then, we've never had anyone like either of them before--so I suppose, in the final picture the gods have painted for us, it all makes some degree of sense."

"I don't think any of us saw it coming," Tahala Etteroyan said. "This day--ah, Tzernu, such a day it has been! Could anything add to its perfection?"

He looked over the beach, over Cape Tarenga and back up at the curving hull of the Vikaravik. It had been a perfect morning, he suddenly realised--the culmination to a perfect week, which had followed on the heels of all the days before that, in retrospect, must have been perfect as well. And yet. "I can think of only one," he said, and his eyes fell back on the newest and only member of the House of the Stars, who had raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Tahala, it's a bit abrupt I know, and out of form." He drew a deep breath. "But will you marry me?"

The sudden grin on her face told him everything he needed to know about the answer that swiftly followed.

dann Firefeet
8.03.2010 - 3h36
Comrade Alex
10.03.2010 - 11h36

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