“It’s not hard to keep moving if the alternative is standing still.”
-Fareday, the most famous of Fleetfeet
His shoes found a tremulous hold on nothing, sliding off the rotting tiles as he pounded toward the edge. Before he could decide if he was falling or not, he sprang into open space, arms cartwheeling and legs tucked, as indiscernible shapes whipped by far below. The breeze buffeted against him and Valeo tried to fly.
He touched down on the cracked shale shingles, inches from the edge. He bent his legs as he pressed down, rolling his body forward. The air in his lungs vanishing as gravity slammed into his back, but before the pain could catch him, he was already back up and gaining speed.
Valeo blew by an ancient statue of Magistrate Benetzio, every bit as weathered and old as the Magistrate should be, and rounded a corner. The ground disappeared, nothing below him but a steep staircase. At the last possible instant, he sprang atop the center handrail, the soles of his shoes grinding along the protesting metal. His heart thrumming from equal amounts exertion and vertigo, he leapt off the rail at its base and streaked away, not once looking back.
He continued on for the better part of an hour, past countless posters calling for entries into the various events of the Timeless Trials. He fell on more than one occasion, looking to all the world as if he were terribly late for something. Not thinking, reacting, chasing that familiar warmth in his chest.
After an hour of running, mind spinning with Drake’s proposal, all Valeo and his parched throat wanted was apple juice. Few things could stop him mid stride, but Elly’s apples were one of them.
Elly had sold apple juice on Half-Moon Lane as long as Valeo had lived in Heartstone. There was no better drink in the world; he’d stake his toes on it. Elly was sweet and seemingly harmless, but she had never once been robbed. Everyone knew why, and no one was ever dumb enough to try.
Every day, Valeo tried.
Today, pressed for time as he was, he decided to hit her stall at full speed, no fancy maneuvers. Granted, as he approached her cart all overflowing with the greens and reds of pristine apples, he did think of a single flourish.
“Morning, Elly,” he groaned, suddenly cradling his ribs and limping.
Elly turned toward him, her voice wispy but bright. “Good mornin’, V! I was just talking to your grandfather. We been wondering where you . . .”Her crooked smile faltered. “Fayts above, Valeo! What happened to you?”
“Wind sailing,” he invented wildly. “Had a bit of an incident.” He injected just the right amount of wincing. “Said right, sail said left; said pull up, sail said crash into a sky reef.” He waved dismissively. “Bah, typical really.”
Her voice dropped a key. “You were wind sailing?” Her eyes narrowed. “You foolish boy. Knowin’ you, you did it without a turbine?”
“You know me,” Valeo agreed. “Not dangerous, not interested.”
Elly’s eyes narrowed. “You’re lying.” She scrutinized his face, her mouth going wide. “You did it, didn’t you? You went after the Albatross.”
Valeo’s cocky grin faltered.
The old seller snorted. “I should have known. I wouldn’t have said a damn word had I known you’d go rushing on after ‘em.”
Valeo bristled at this. “Was there any real alternative? You told me exactly where they were headed and then said it couldn’t be done.” This pronouncement alone was enough for him to do just about anything, much less with his father’s dream lifting his sails.
She sputtered and gnashed her teeth. “It wasn’t no damn challenge, you Fleetfool. I was just telling you what that old storyteller had told me, was all.”
“Well he was right,” Valeo added, grinning. “It really did feel like the hands of a god beating judgment against my skull.”
She swung her knobbly palm at his face and he just managed to pull back in time.
“Should be me beatin’ against your skull, you daft . . . “ She trailed off and shook her head. “One of these days, death will catch you.”
He plopped the coin down, a faded brown Heartsung stout, and picked up a bottle of juice—amber, cloudy, and perfect. Elly scooped up the coin and turned to an old till, still muttering.
“. . . not catching me today,” he whispered the instant she turned her back. Knowing he had seconds, he snatched up a bright red apple and pelted across the street, too afraid to look back. He vaulted off a lamp pole, hooked the edge of a shingled roof, and clambered up and over the building into a parallel street. His legs streaked as fast as he could push them, nothing but freedom on the horizon.
He almost made it to the end of the block.
One moment he was fine, the next his chin was stuttering across uneven flagstone. A heavy weight cackled above him, pressing down on his legs.
“Don’t quite have it today.” A strong hand rummaged through his pockets, retrieving the apple.
“Guess not,” Valeo replied, wincing as the weight shifted.
“Bit easier than catching an Albatross, hey?” Elly cackled again, slapping him on the backside.
She stood up, and Valeo pushed himself into a sitting position. Picking up a cane as gnarled as she was, Elly took a bite of his ill-begotten apple.
“Just about,” he said, standing up and brushing dust off his now torn leggings. “How’d you catch me so fast?”
She grinned. “Boy, you haven’t learned a thing.” She whacked him with the cane. “You don’t need to outrun something if you know where it’s headed.”
“How did you know? That was a mystery even to me.” He couldn’t keep the whine from his voice. He had been so close.
“To know where something’s goin’, look where it’s been,” she retorted, eyes shining in the morning sunshine. “Even luck follows a plan, if you provide it one.” She met his stunned silence with a wide leer, revealing several missing teeth.
He shook his head, still annoyed. “Gotta pay for the babble, or does it come free with the juice?” He blew her a kiss and darted away before she could whack him again, her loud cackles trailing on his heels.
He resumed his run, chewing away his irritation and trying to get a fair workout in before heading home. Heartstone, filled with buildings of every size, was the perfect place to do just that. The town was old Heartsung province, hence the name, until the Day of Foundry, when the Timeless had taken it for themselves. It was cramped but orderly, the streets narrow and paved with stone unforgiving to falls. Valeo had scars that would agree. Every kind of shop he could imagine lined those streets: fruit sellers, butchers, blacksmiths, woodcutters, shipwrights, gun shops, and tailors of every design. He knew them all by sight, if not by name. Most of them had been there since he could remember, and most would be there long after he was gone.
Jogging along, juice still clutched in his sweaty hand, Valeo turned and saw it. Crescent Spire towered two hundred feet above the harbor, a giant stone mother guiding in her children still to sky. It was tiered like an immense, square wedding cake, and where the bride and groom should have stood sat a large bulb the color of lacquered sunshine.
The area beneath the spire was fairly deserted, dressed in morning light. Valeo ran right up to its stone base, tucking the bottle of juice into his waistband as he went. As quick as he could—what he was doing was far from legal—he dug his fingers between the rocks and began to climb.
Valeo crested the first tier and loped across a bed of gravel to the second. This one was framed by inlets of wood between the stone. His toes and fingers found sure handholds as he scaled the next wall, a familiar heat in his chest straining to break free.
The feeling was luck. Most people couldn’t feel theirs, having as much control over their own odds as they did the stars. Fleetfeet were different. Valeo seemed almost to control his at times. “Burning chances,” as he called it. They were just his words, though. He hadn’t so much as seen another Fleetfoot in nearly a decade, so he didn’t exactly have someone to compare notes with.
In any case, he couldn’t do it all the time, and it wasn’t an exact science. But on occasion, when the time was perfect, he had made jumps, beaten odds, and gotten out of sticky situations in ways too uncanny to be mere coincidence. Each time, the impossible act was always followed by a bloom of reckless heat near his heart.
He pulled himself up to the third level of Crescent Spire, well over a hundred feet off the ground, and ran to the last stone tier. He wrung his hands out and began climbing again, this time with a twinge of trepidation at what was to come.
Whatever luck he dealt wasn’t foolproof. More than once, he’d come out with the bloodier cheek. His chances could only take him so far, and there were outcomes that no amount of luck in the world could change. Once that heat was on him though, it didn’t matter; he was untouchable. At least . . . until he cooled off, which was usually just long enough to land him into trouble.
The tower’s stones narrowed. Hands and big toes, even freed as they were by his shoes’ design, could barely find purchase between the weathered rocks.
Right on cue, his left foot slipped and he was dangling from his fingertips. Valeo scrabbled at the cobblestones like a dog digging a hole, trying to regain his grip. A couple skips of his stomach later and he pulled himself tight against the stone. His fingers now raw and chafed, he took a steadying breath, and continued climbing.
Valeo had learned to save his luck, to rely as much on his own abilities as well as whatever his blood could provide. In any case, trying to figure out how it worked was like counting water.
He had reached the final part of the climb—and the most fun. At the top of Crescent Spire was a slanted rooftop, jutting out like an absurd square hat. The only way up was to leap to the brim—a sturdy stone gutter doubling as the perfect hold. Only problem was that the brim jutted out four feet behind his head, so he’d be jumping backward into open air. If he caught a handhold, the climb was over. If he missed . . . well, he hadn’t yet.
He looked up one last time, double-checking the distance, and leapt. His stomach lurched the instant before his hands found the brim’s hard stone, legs reeling back and forth over open space. Careening two hundred feet off the ground Valeo grinned.
Heaving himself up and over the gutter, he made his way to the enormous crescent. Plopping down in the cradle of the moon, he pulled Elly’s juice from his waistband and broke the wax seal. Sitting back, he took a victory swig of the thick, amber liquid. It wasn’t as good as the Elderfruit had been—he didn’t think anything ever could be again—but it was the closest to second place he’d ever tasted. The tangy coolness poured past his dry lips and down his dry throat, bringing life back to his limbs.
He drained the bottle and tossed it across the shingles, now basking in both the warmth and the sights. He could see everything from up there. Winding, colorful streets fed into rolling green hills all the way to Wayland Point, its craggy cliff-face jutting into the sky like a giant snapping turtle. Past that was the swirling clouds and endless blue of the Emerald Expanse, the stretch of sky that flowed from Heartstone to Erendale. If he squinted hard enough, he could almost imagine what lay beyond. The spire was a place a person could dream, and just high enough to believe those dreams could come true.
Valeo was reminded of the Albatross, and how close he had come to the edge. He had never used up all of his luck, what luck he could tap anyway. He was terrified to try; the closer he got to empty, the more tired he became, until it felt he might drift off and never wake up . . .
That was surely what had almost happened. Without a doubt, it was the reason he’d slept half the return journey. Whatever luck he had tapped must have worked, because he wasn’t dead. After a few minutes, he stood up and stretched, wincing slightly as his back twinged. He strolled around the crescent to a metallic panel on its backside. For obvious reasons, a twenty-story drop not least among them, it was never locked.
The crescent moon was more than a sculpture on a tower. It also served as a lighthouse, an immense bulb set high in the center of the curving edge. Out of his hip pocket, Valeo produced a set of tools and set about turning it on.
His father had been a Fleetfoot, like him, but his adoptive grandfather, Jakk, was full-blooded Brightwin. Brightwins, as a general rule, cherished knowledge and learning, most having an inherent love of anything mechanical. Valeo did, too. When he wasn’t running, he was fixing engines, switchboards, or else trying to build whatever struck his fancy. Tapping into the lighthouse was no trouble at all.
With one last flick of his wrist, the crescent flickered, rotating slowly along its base. In the middle of the day, the bulb’s light would hardly be noticeable, unless you made a habit of looking.
He sat back on his haunches, watching the sparkling bulb as it hummed into life. Because his days aboard the Jolly Judy were muddled, he wasn’t quite sure what day it was, but he knew she’d see it. Crescent Spire could be seen from every point in the city. He gave it almost a full ten minutes before cutting the power. The bulb stuttered and slowed, the crescent falling silent once more. He stood and jogged to the edge of the platform, eyes roving the streets, scanning the southernmost edge of the city, beyond the river. The houses here definitely had a sagging, mournful air about them, quite the opposite of the polished buildings to the north. It was where he had met Breeze, and where she lived still.
As the minutes multiplied, he let his eyes trail up, scanning back and forth for a sign. Finally, he saw it, a flicker from the corner of his eye. To Valeo’s surprise, it came from the merchants’ quarter. He couldn’t make out the person holding the mirror, but there were only two people who carried reflector mirrors in their pockets, and only one of them wasn’t him. He pulled his own out and signaled back.
The light from the mirror changed, pulsing quickly, two flashes at a time.
Two meant a meeting. Good. But when?
As if she read his thoughts, the answer came. Flicker-flicker-flicker. One flash meant morning, two noon, and three was sundown. She flashed sundown one last time, and then the reflection was gone, lost among the chimneys.
Valeo jogged back to the moon, shoved all the loose wire back inside the hollow, and snapped the panel shut. He glanced around for the apple bottle, retrieved it, and jogged back to the edge, looking out over the sprawl of buildings below. Cables were attached to each corner of the tower, stretching into the city in different directions, anchoring the spire against the ever-howling winds from the Emerald Expanse. Reaching down, he unfastened a bracelet of metallic mesh from around his ankle. The metal was so finely woven and braided that it bent and flexed like leather. It was the color of burnt charcoal, somehow darker than ink.
He backed away, putting himself in line with one of the cables. He gripped the bracelet in one hand and hurtled forward, muscles flexing as much as the coiling metal under his fingers. He leapt off the tower, wrapping the bracelet around the cable overhead and taking hold with both hands. He bounced up and down as his weight rocked against the zip line.
Sweaty hands clinging onto the vibrating metal band, Valeo glanced around at the ground far below, catching flashes of color and shocked faces before they were swallowed up as he whirred over them. Pulling his eyes back up, he looked for an arched blue house and soon spotted it in the distance. When he was above it, he released his grip and plummeted down.Yelping, Valeo came to a fitful stop right on the edge of the roof, arms swatting the air in front of him as his toes dangled over the street below. A few loose pebbles fell to the ground as he careened and caught his balance. He chuckled and sprang backward, turning to face a hatch right in the middle of the roof. He dug through his pockets for the key. He quickly unlocked the hatch and threw it wide, peering down into his bedroom.
The word bedroom was a bit of a stretch. It wasn’t the kind of space normal people lay their heads. The chamber was tall and square, made almost entirely of bleached-white wood with high bay windows set into one wall. Cluttered with possessions, it was a strange cross between mechanic’s shop, office, and pigpen. Littered across the floor were a dozen machine parts, half-assembled and half-forgotten, grease marks splattered along the wooden slabs. Tools were sprawled across every available surface, including the small, plain bed shoved carelessly into a corner. Along one wall hung an enormous black chalkboard filled with countless numerals, half-finished drawings, and ideas meandering in every direction. Some trailed off to be picked up again in a different spot, and others seemed to have no beginning or end at all, often starting mid-sentence from a source that could only be imagined. In the middle, under the heading LE sat a long and complicated equation in faded chalk.
Along the other side was a gym of sorts: a miniature forest of balance pegs, ropes trailing from the ceiling, and climbing holds and routes in every color scattering the wall. The only thing in the room not in complete disarray was a single wooden desk, pencil set and sketch pads atop it. The whole lot was covered in dust.
Valeo slid the length of one of the ropes and plopped down into the center of the chaos . . . his chaos. He had barely enough time to inhale the familiar scent of sweat and machine oil when a thunderous knock shook the small door already loose in its hinges. Valeo nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Is that you, boy?” a booming shout echoed from the hallway. “Where have you been? Get out here! Let me take a look at ya.”
His grandfather had all the subtlety of grapeshot but still somehow moved quieter than a padded cat. Valeo stood up and walked to the door, dragging his feet and wincing as the booming continued. He had hoped to get in and out of his room unnoticed. An afternoon he’d meant to spend planning and packing would no doubt now be spent greasing cogs and repairing turbine blades. Valeo knew better than to pretend he wasn’t at home, though; somehow Jakk always knew. All was well in war. He quite wanted to see the old bugger anyway.
Valeo unlatched the door and threw it wide. Standing in the doorway was a burly brick of a man. His face, much more weathered and wrinkled by the last fifteen years, was pulled down into a permanent, disapproving frown. His arms were still huge and corded, covered in a thick coat of curly grey hair and framing an enormous belly as solid as granite. Jakk’s usual grim expression pulled itself even lower as he surveyed his grandson.
“Where’ve ya been?” Jakk rumbled, his voice a bucket of gravel bouncing around a bass drum.
Valeo blinked. “Snuck onto a ship and tried to catch an Albatross.”
Jakk scowled even deeper, pointing a giant, gnarled finger at Valeo. “Stop jokin’ around.”
“For truth,” Valeo said. “Every word. Stowed away on a ship in harbor and tried to capture a giant bird.” He flapped his arms and squawked, then shrugged. “Obviously didn’t catch one, but then the captain offered me a job, so not all was a waste of air. Going to be a Corsair.”
Valeo stared right back.
Jakk huffed like a buffalo and shook his head, eyes narrowing.
Valeo rubbed his nose.
The silence lengthened.
Finally, Jakk puffed and threw up his hands in disgust. “Don’t know why I bother askin’, shoulda known you weren’t gonna give me a straight answer.” He turned and stomped off down the staircase, grumbling all the way.
Valeo chuckled. He never had to lie to Jakk. The old man wouldn’t believe the truth even if it hit him in the chin. He let his grandfather simmer a few moments longer, then went through the door.
“Oi, Grumblebelly! Gonna need some help down there?” he called, leaning against the frame.
A moment passed. A grunt of indignation.
“. . . Yeah.”
Valeo shook his head and burst out laughing. Looking longingly one last time toward his room and all the planning he still had to do, he went downstairs to help his grandfather.
“So what have we got?” Valeo said, entering the workshop. It should have been a large space, but a lifetime of clutter—engine parts, tools, bits and bobs Jakk could never bear to throw away, all covered in a thick film of grease—filled every possible shelf and spare crevice. It was homey after a fashion, in that adorable-Brightwin-hoarder sort of way.
“Two burned out Andromeda couplings—stupid Wellstone miners going lower than they should, of course—and an entire engine rebuild for the patrols,” Jakk grumbled, his enormous girth somehow tucked behind the little store counter. “Which do you want?”
“Whichever will get me out of here, quicker,” Valeo grumbled under his breath, picking up a rag and wringing it out.
“Aye? What you say?” Jakk barked, suspicion in his eyes as he jabbed a finger in his ear.
Valeo raised his voice to a dull roar. “Whichever gets me out of here quicker!”
Jakk’s frown nearly walked across the space and kicked the Fleetfoot. “Well, hell, if you’re in such a hurry, just get on out of here then.” He dismissed Valeo with a sharp wave of his hands.
Valeo knew better than to believe that to be an honest dismissal.
“Was just teasin’, Jakk,” he said, trying to placate the old crust. “The engine’s mine.” He winked. “You know how boring stripping out couplings can be.” Jakk didn’t reply, only snorted as a side dish.
They each took up their places and set to work, Valeo handling an engine block six times bigger than he was. They worked for a time in a silence that wouldn’t last. Jakk just needed to get comfortable before he started barking.
“Pass me the tenner,” Jakk muttered after about an hour. An excuse. Valeo sighed and threw the correct spanner at him and waited. Sure enough . . .
“Now, no more lying, boy, where have you really been?”
“Said it already. Boat. Albatross. Fleetfoot.” He pointed at himself. “Never lie to you, that’s my motto.”
“You were lying to me before you could spell the word,” Jakk retorted, rolling a cigarette and lighting it.
“Fair point,” Valeo said, “but not in this.” He hesitated, crankshaft hovering in midair, not sure how much he should tell him, then plowed ahead anyway. “Keep having this dream . . . about my dad.”
There was a loud thunk and Jakk emerged, cursing and thumb bleeding. He hardly seemed to notice, eyes fixed on Valeo. “A dream? What kind of dream?”
“Don’t know. Never had one like it. Just my dad, telling me again and again to go after an Albatross.”
“Was your mom in it?” Jakk said, almost fervent for some sort of news of his adopted daughter.
Valeo shook his head. “No, not her. Just him. Over and over.”
“Of course. Been driving me absolutely F—”
Jakk waved his hand, visibly relaxing. “Ah, was prolly nothin’. Just a dream, and you the fool who took it seriously.”
“Thanks for your confidence,” Valeo snapped, heat creeping up his face. Similar feelings of doubt had been edging their way into his thoughts for days.
“Not here for confidence, here to fix ships,” Jakk retorted. Despite the callous words, he was grinning, his special brand of support.
“You are a grimy, Nox bastard sometimes,” Valeo said, using the rather offensive nickname for Brightwins. He still couldn’t shake the feeling the dream had been something more, something real, but he let it go for the time being.
“I know,” Jakk said around his cigarette. “But there ain’t a better mechanic this side of Shinedown, aye?”
Valeo snorted, rubbing his nose with a forearm as he dismantled the intake.
With that, the old Brightwin took up whistling a bit of “Harper’s Haven,” a sailor’s shanty older than the sun. Valeo joined in the harmony. It had been a decade-long unspoken tradition between them, and not even hearts could break it.
“It’s good to have you back, boy.”