Leon hated Vahrian airships, but since unloading them put beers on his table, he faked a smile as he picked up the crate.
“Good evening, Captain,” he said.
I hope you fall in the sea and drown, he thought.
The captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin, stumbling down the gangway to reach the old jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot and waves slammed against the rocks, spraying him with freezing water. Above Leon, the airship’s four-hundred-foot balloon was long and cylindrical, tapering at the ends, with the cabin attached underneath. Straining at the moorings, the ship’s anchor ropes twisted and creaked on either side of the jetty as Leon walked along, labouring under the heaviness of the crate.
Towards the end of the jetty, he fumbled the slippery box, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, then dumped the crate beside the nineteen others he’d unloaded. His back twanged and he groaned. In his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was forty-three.
Those days were behind him.
He inhaled a lungful of salty air and rested his hands on his hips, puffing. Dozens of vessels crowded the harbour. Airships floated on the end of their anchor ropes, fishing skiffs bobbed in the water, and pegasus-drawn carriages rattled as they entered the harbour from a landing strip that led to the disc’s edge. Out of all those vessels, of course the stupid harbourmaster had given Leon the biggest ship to unload.
The captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Like most Vahrians, he was a head shorter than a Payan, but twice as stocky. Buttons gleamed on his jacket and he bounced as he strolled towards the harbour office – it seemed he still hadn’t adjusted to Hargold Disc’s gravity, which was half as strong as the Vahrians’ planet.
Leon watched the captain disappear among the crowds of sailors. It wasn’t enough that Vahria had bombed the hell out of Paya’s discs in the Invasion War, or that the airship’s crates weighed more than an asteroid. No. On top of all that, Leon had to deal with arrogant captains who knew nothing about space travel, yet thought themselves too good to meet a Payan’s eyes.
Someone tapped Leon’s shoulder. “Leon de Velasco?”
He turned. A young woman stood before him, wrapped in a bulky, dirt-stained cloak. Her tall, slender frame marked her as a fellow Payan. Good. Leon didn’t have to hide how annoyed he was at being interrupted.
“What?” he asked.
“My name’s Elena. I need your help.”
Her voice was a mixture of nervousness and excitement, but she had a confident firmness despite her youth. Leon raised an eyebrow. With dishevelled, shoulder-length hair, a tangled beard, and ratty clothes that reeked of booze, he didn’t get many requests for help. Especially from young women.
“Got a ship you need unloaded?” he asked.
Two Vahrian soldiers swaggered past and bumped Elena.
“– we’ll catch them by tomorrow, chaps,” one soldier said.
Leon frowned. Most Payans looked down when soldiers passed, but Elena glared at the Vahrians as they strutted away.
“You were saying?” he said.
“I need to sail to another disc.”
What a bloody waste of time.
He turned away. “Can’t help. I just unload cargo.”
“Wait!” She grabbed him. “I know who you are.”
“That ain’t so, or you wouldn’t have come to me.”
He shrugged her off and strode toward the harbourmaster’s office, hoping that entering an official building would intimidate Elena and make her go away.
She chased him. “Please. You have to help.”
Leon ducked under a pegasus’ wing. The four-legged creature neighed and shook its mane, stepping away from Leon as he passed. Elena kept following him.
“Told you, I ain’t a sailor,” said Leon.
The harbourmaster’s office was on the other side of a pack of merchants. Leon would be rid of Elena within seconds.
She shoved something soft into his hand. “I know who you are.”
“Karym’s horns, girl. I ain’t –”
He looked at what she’d handed him.
It was a feather.
Panic surged through Leon. The feather was gray, long, and broad, filling the full width of his palm. He hadn’t seen anything like it in the twenty years since the War.
If a Vahrian found it, they were both dead.
Leon stuffed the feather in his pocket, dragged Elena down the alley beside the harbourmaster’s office, then shoved her against the wall.
“Where’d you get that?” he asked in a low voice.
“You have to –”
“Tell me where you found it!”
“I need your help.” Her voice wavered. “I know who you are and you need to know – you’re not the last.”
Laughter swelled from inside the harbourmaster’s office. Elena gasped. She tore herself from Leon’s grip with surprising strength.
“Have to go,” she said. “Can’t let him see me – but I’ll find you, okay?”
She sprinted down the alley, vanishing into the shadows. Leon clenched his hand into a white-knuckled fist and strode out of the alley, back into the harbour. This couldn’t be real. He’d hidden his secret for two decades, but now …
She can’t know. Can she?
A Vahrian inquisitor limped out of the harbourmaster’s office, flanked by soldiers. The inquisitor’s left leg scraped along the cobblestones and his foot was twisted at a painful right angle to his body. He leaned on a cane and winced with each dragging step.
Leon’s skin crawled. He thought his war wounds were bad, but for this man every stride would be agonising.
The inquisitor saw Leon. “Ah, you’re the chap that unloaded my airship, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
Lean bowed deeply, taking the moment to steady his breath. “Leon, sir.”
The inquisitor bowed back. That was nice. Most Vahrians didn’t understand Payan etiquette and tried to shake his hand instead of offering the normal greeting.
The inquisitor gave him a handful of coins. “My gratitude for a job well done.”
Leon blinked. No Vahrians had directly paid him before. Normally, the harbourmaster paid all the workers at the day’s end.
“Thank you, Inquisitor.”
The man smiled, but the smile didn’t reach his cold eyes. “My dear chap, what’s that in your cloak?”
Leon glanced down.
The feather stuck out of his pocket.
Leon’s guts twisted. Trying to stop his hand from shaking, he grabbed it and showed the inquisitor.
“Found it in the sea.”
The inquisitor hobbled closer, leaning on his cane. Leon’s nose twitched. The man reeked of yhona, a foul-smelling painkiller paste.
“Don’t be nervous,” the inquisitor said. “I’m just looking. It’s a rather magnificent feather, dear chap. What creature do you suppose it came from?”
“Don’t know,” lied Leon. “A pegasus?”
The inquisitor leaned towards the feather. “Ha. Not even close.”
Sweat ran down Leon’s face.
“Say …” The inquisitor stepped back and Leon breathed out. “May I take that?”
“Yes – of course, sir!”
The inquisitor took the feather. He pulled out a sack that jangled with dorics and gave it to Leon. Leon looked inside. Those coins represented more than he’d earn in a month.
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome.” The inquisitor examined the feather. “This may be just what I need. Now, Leon, if you find another feather, or anyone who has them, there’s more dorics in my pocket for you. Come to the castle and tell them you have a message for Walter Drayton. How’s that sound, dear fellow?”
Leon thought of Elena. “Excellent, sir.”
Inquisitor Drayton’s gaze lingered on Leon. Then he hobbled away. His cane tapped on the cobblestones and his twisted foot scraped along the ground. The soldiers clanked after him.
Another wave smashed against the shore, spraying Leon with water. He clenched his teeth. He’d been safe for twenty years, but now he saw how flimsy that safety had been.
~ ~ ~
Leon staggered to his seat in the corner of the Lowfern Inn, clutching two drinks and trying to ignore the stench of sweat, mud, and stale beer. He glanced around the noisy room. It wasn’t like Alvaro to be late. For the last few years, they’d met every Sunday and Wednesday evening to drink and play jonshular. Alvaro never missed an evening without telling Leon, but it was already a half hour past their usual meeting time and there was still no sign of him.
Leon pulled out his hand-carved jonshular board. His thick fingers trembled as he set black and white pieces onto the board’s hexagonal spaces.
The woman with the feather – Elena, that was her bloody name – kept appearing in his mind. Her words echoed in his ears: I know who you are.
He shook his head and sipped one of the beers, knowing it probably wouldn’t help any more than the first three had. He squinted out the dirty window. Glowfung lit the street with purple light and the force field dome encasing Hargold Disc glittered above the rooftops. Stars glowed beyond the field. Leon sighed. That’s where he should’ve been – up there, amongst the stars. Not stuck here, grovelling to Vahrians.
The door opened. Leon looked up, expecting Alvaro, but three Vahrian naval cadets swaggered through instead. Their pale skin and stocky bodies contrasted with the slender, olive coloured Payans crowding the inn. Scowling, Leon finished his drink. The second beer sat in front of him, but he didn’t touch it, saving it for Alvaro. If he ever arrived.
“Got any Murmidian Ale?” asked the biggest cadet, a giant man with his hair shaved into a thick strip running down the middle.
“Sorry, sir. We’ve only got local brewed –”
“Give us whatever’s strongest.”
Leon stared at the jonshular board and scratched his bushy beard.
Ain’t no way Elena knows who I am … no, she’s trying to fool me. For a bet, maybe. Yeah. That’s it.
The three Vahrian cadets strode to the cushioned seats by the fire, which held several Payans. The Payans leapt up and scurried away, heads bowed. The cadets sat.
But what about the feather? That was real. Damn it.
Twitching his fingers, he glanced at the door.
He reached under his cloak, pulled out a half-circle pendant, and stroked the marks in the wood. Leon knew the marks by heart, but touching it felt like touching the woman who’d carved it for him, so he cradled it, hoping the pendant would bring him comfort.
He sighed. She would’ve never been late. Even though he’d made her wait years and given her more hardship than she deserved, Juliana was always there for him. Her, and his best friend Blas … the three of them inseparable.
The War changed that.
The door opened and Alvaro stumbled inside. Leon jumped out of his chair. Bruises covered his friend’s face and a sling wrapped around his arm. He limped over to Leon and they bowed to each other, Alvaro stumbling slightly as he rose upright again.
Leon pulled out Alvaro’s chair. “What happened?”
Alvaro slumped onto the seat. “Bloody resistance fighters. Blew up half the Overseer’s House as I was delivering flour. Only left the healers’ now.”
Leon sat. “Blew up?”
“Didn’t you hear the great big explosion at noon?”
Leon had been too busy carrying crates to think about the noise and he hadn’t talked to his fellow workers all day.
“I thought it was an asteroid hitting the force field,” he said.
“Might as well have been. Didn’t take out a single blasted Vahrian.”
Leon winced and glanced at the Vahrian cadets, who were roaring with laughter. “Careful –”
“For Marym’s sake, those dullards can’t hear a thing.”
Leon nudged the drink he’d saved to Alvaro, hoping it would shut him up. Alvaro grunted thanks and they started a game of jonshular.
“At least the bomb blasted apart the steward’s chambers,” Alvaro moved a piece. “You should’ve heard him complain about the dirt on his carpet. Stupid prick.”
Leon jumped Alvaro’s piece and glanced at the cadets. “Don’t speak so loud.”
“What are you worried about? We’re clean.”
“So was Maurice.”
“That’s different. They were watching him.”
“Yeah, because they heard him talking.”
Alvaro slammed his piece onto a goal space and flipped it to turn it into a king. “Why so uptight today?”
Leon thought of Elena. “I ain’t wanting trouble, okay? I’m close.”
Leon leaned forward and lowered his voice. “An inquisitor paid a month’s earnings for unloading his ship.”
“Not bad. So you’ve only got … hmm, let’s see …”
“Five months and two weeks. Then the moneylender’s off my back and I can start saving for the carriage. We’ll leave this disc in no time.”
“You don’t want to work in a Vahrian mansion the rest of your life, do you?”
“No. But I’ve got Teresa to think of, and my stepson.”
Leon scowled and nudged his king forward.
Alvaro jumped over Leon’s piece, moving his own king back towards the exit spaces. “Come on, man. We’ve talked about this. A sailor’s life ain’t for me, and besides, even when you pay off your house, you’ll probably waste any extra money in this place.”
Leon sipped his beer. “I’m cutting back.”
Alvaro raised an eyebrow. “Even so, the pegasus will cost as much as a carriage. Maybe more.”
“Yeah, but one step at a time.”
“Long as you’re walking the right way.” Alvaro frowned at the jonshular board. “What did you unload? Must’ve been important if the inquisitor paid that much.”
“You know I don’t look.”
“And that’s why you ain’t working there.”
“Still, must’ve been special.”
Should I tell him about Elena?
If he told Alvaro what happened, that might get her out of his head, but then he’d have to discuss the War, and their one rule was to never talk about that.
Alvaro jumped three of Leon’s pieces. Leon cursed. He should’ve moved his pieces earlier to block that route, but thinking about Elena had distracted him.
Who the hell was she? How did she know his secret? And how had she got that feather? The last time Leon saw one, it was –
No. He wouldn’t think about that.
Alvaro’s final king jumped two of Leon’s pieces and landed on an exit space.
“Another win!” said Alvaro.
“Crap.” Leon glared at the board. “Good game.”
“You kidding? I wiped you in under ten minutes. Rematch?”
Leon stared at his empty mug. “Sure.”
Alvaro frowned. “You alright?”
A mug shattered by the fireplace.
The biggest Vahrian cadet stood and knocked over his chair. “This crap’s piss weak! Barman, you got anything stronger?”
Alvaro’s hand clenched into a fist and he whispered, “Sit down, you idiot.”
“Shh!” said Leon.
The barman mopped sweat off his forehead. He glanced at the blunted war axe hung on the wall. The weapon was strong and sombre, but against the powerfully built Vahrian cadet it looked like a child’s toy.
The barman stared at the dirty floorboards. “I’m sorry, sir. That’s the strongest I’ve got.”
“Pah. No wonder all Payans are weak, drinking crap like that.”
“Shut the hell up,” said Alvaro under his breath.
“Quiet!” hissed Leon.
“Explains why you lost the War,” said the cadet. “You’re all as weak as that pathetic beer –”
Growling, Alvaro grabbed his mug and cocked back his arm.
Leon grabbed his friend. “No!”
Alvaro threw the mug and it shattered on the wall behind the soldiers. An ominous hush filled the room.
Snarling, the cadet whirled around to face Alvaro. “What the hell?”