Chapter 1: Jump
“Today’s a bit of a milestone; it’s time to break my record of consecutive days without dying.”
Valeo crouched on the bow of Jolly Judy, gaping at the skies and squandering away the final notes of his life. Typical, really. Sunrise was nearing, and a quiet calm had settled around the ship as it glided among a sea of clouds. In those still moments, it was easy to believe everyone in the world had disappeared with the setting sun, and the only person left alive was this man crouched over a few coils of rope.
Such sobering thoughts never crossed Valeo’s mind.
Considering what he was about to do, the serenity of the moment was completely lost on him, not that he was ever much for meditating in the first place. With a sharp nose carved by wind, and a gaunt, angular face, his looks streamlined momentum, not silence. He was tall and lean, taut as a bowstring, with windswept, crimson hair streaked white. He was too young to be going grey, but it was supposedly hereditary. Having hardly met his parents, he had not really thought to ask.
The crew slept soundly below Valeo’s feet. This was good news, for none aboard knew they had a stowaway, and the only posted guard was fast asleep at the helm. Valeo had sneaked on two days prior, spending most of that time playing a merry game of “What was that noise?” with those aboard. He got bored being cooped up for so long, and nothing was more dangerous than a dose of his boredom.
He peered over the railing at the vast and endless expanse below the ship.
More clouds whipped by, bursting against the hull like dandelion clocks. The night had been balmy, and sweat clung to the bodice and puffed sleeves of Valeo’s shirt, soaking through to the blue vest he wore over it. He checked his vambraces next, cinching each lace so the bands of tooled leather lay flush to the skin of his forearms. They would need to be tight. He’d fashioned them himself, while the final, decorative touch, a series of coiling leaves, had been crafted by Breeze. Even Valeo had to admit that the final product looked—
The noise came without warning. As if on cue, Valeo sprang into action, rolling to the side and taking cover behind the forward mast. It was a bad hiding spot, but the bad ones were usually checked last. He allowed two more thumps of his pounding heart before he craned his neck up, looking for the origin of the sound. He finished looping the rope around his ankle, pulling it tight as he peered all around a ship returned to silence.
The deck of the Jolly Judy was a sprawling mass of timber, cables, and canvas—and more space meant more places to hide. The ship was a two-tiered brig: the stern, where the helm was lodged, about ten feet higher than the main deck. The sound could have originated from that tier, or anywhere on the main level in one of the many shadows peppering the wood in the predawn light. More unnerving still, he had already explored a fair amount of the Judy, but for every unlocked hatch, two had been so firmly bolted he would never know what crept beyond.
His imagination raced with the host of angry sailors hidden below, laying in ambush. The thought didn’t alarm him. He accepted it as a possibility and formulated a plan to counteract it. In the event of discovery, jump off, swing wide, try to get a handhold on the bottom of the ship, cut the line, wait them out. With any luck, they would think him dead. It was dangerous and stupid, but it was a plan, and Valeo always had a plan.
As far as he could tell, he was completely alone on deck, and everything was as it should be. A strong southerly ruffled his hair, blowing strands of red into his eyes, and with it he discovered the noise’s source: The main boom was loose, white canvas flapping as wind stuttered across it. That was it. He chuckled and stood up, returning to work.
He was nervous, but Valeo wouldn’t acknowledge that. Fear was normally an unnecessary distraction to an otherwise successful venture.
Today fear would find anyone. It found Valeo now as he prepared to cast his die on a jump that maybe even he couldn’t land.
The jump itself was nothing. Valeo had made an entire life of jumping and running. He was a Tracer. At least, that’s what he called it. It more or less amounted to getting over or under anything in his path, by any means, without breaking speed or intention. While some people made a hobby of carving trinkets or collecting albino chicken quills, Valeo made flipping, climbing, and everything short of flying his.
So he traced. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t safe. He had the scars to prove it. But no one had seen the things he had, no one could come close to moving like he could. Except Breeze, maybe. At least . . . she could try. Valeo felt a small twinge of guilt as he thought of her.
Breeze would not approve of him being here, especially if she knew why. So he simply hadn’t told her. What she didn’t know, she couldn’t fight him on. It was less messy that way.
He checked each shoe, running thin fingers along thinner soles for any sign of significant wear. The last thing he needed was to get snagged on a loose nail and spend the rest of the morning chewing splinters. The shoes were also his own design: light and sturdy, with snug canvas tops. For the sake of balance, he had cast a deep V between the first two toes. The result looked odd, but they helped him climb, so he didn’t care.
This checking and rechecking was a tick he couldn’t help, any more than he could stop his blood from flowing. The waiting made it even worse. When his muscles began to tense, he surrendered to the passing minutes, flopping onto the deck with a dull thud. Sprawling each limb in opposite directions, he willed himself to relax.
Any moment now.
He inhaled slowly, feeling the thrum of the sturdy deck beneath him, and sat up. He could make out the large, dark outline of an island floating in the distance, the steady rise and fall of its mass almost imperceptible as the horizon began to warm. He turned over and pressed his right cheek against the deck. The creak of wood filled one ear, a groaning wind the other. He tapped his fingers against the planks and breathed deeply.
“You are really going to do this, aren’t you?”
Valeo shot up and overbalanced, tucking into an ungainly roll. He still had enough sense to try and keep moving, but the rope was so tangled around his knees all he did was crash down in spectacular fashion. Valeo looked around and started. Standing over him was none other than the captain of Jolly Judy.
Valeo’s heart tore around his ribs. Of all the people on board . . . the captain on deck at this hour? The fear coursing through Valeo’s spine was gone as quickly as it had arrived; only a flicker across his face betrayed the inner tumult. He didn’t have to remember to compose a smile; it was already in place.
“Bit early for a morning gambol, don’t you think?” Valeo asked, standing up and loosening the snarl of hemp from around his legs.
“You would think so, and on any other day I would agree,” the captain said, slowly pacing along the rails. “But you see, a crafty young Fleetfoot has been skulking around my ship for days now.” He turned and smiled. “And before that he was slinking about the docks in Delves, asking about Albatross. Lying in bed last night, I had the strangest feeling he was not going to let the chance pass him by.”
Sour surprise rolled over Valeo, and his mask faltered.
“No one boards my ship without my knowing,” the captain assured him, “but I will say,”—he stopped walking and turned toward Valeo, a grin on his face—“you were very entertaining to watch.” The captain let out a deep, booming laugh, making Valeo jump. The laugh didn’t suit him; it was as if he’d borrowed it from someone much bigger.
Standing there in the morning light, it was the first unimpeded look Valeo had of the captain. He wasn’t a big man but neither was he a small one. Grey eyes in a pale face, brown ponytail streaked with silver, and a trimmed, well-to-do beard riding his jawline. He seemed average in most ways.
That would be the first impression of the man. But there was a quality about him, an air that was far more memorable than any physical feature. He exuded an unshakable presence. Even with a slice of vertigo lodged in his gut, Valeo could feel it pouring off the captain, couldn’t help wanting to trust him. Which was stupid, considering he was probably about to be put in chains.
“So you are going through with it?” The captain’s voice was modest, but each syllable was distinctly heard. “To try and catch one, I mean.”
Valeo straightened up, wiping dust off his vest as if the question was hardly worthy of note, his insides hammering.
How did he know?
Valeo thought about playing dumb, but something told him this man already knew better than he did. So he settled on the truth, at least in part.
He turned toward the railing, slightly away from the captain, and let a sly smile dance across his cheeks. “Considering it.”
The words must have held some hidden, deeper humor because the captain again let out that huge laugh. Absolutely absurd. The strangeness of it had Valeo laughing, too, against his own better judgment.
“Okay, for truth, how’d you know?” Valeo asked, the curiosity burning inside him.
The captain’s beard twitched. “I have known since the beginning! Look at you.” Valeo didn’t follow. “Shaking like a torn sail, it is obvious. But it is also why I brought my ship here.”
Valeo couldn’t begin to know what to say, so the captain continued.
“That is some luck you have. There are only a handful of ships who would even know where to look for the Flock, and yet,”—he pointed to the west, toward the sunrise— “they will be here any minute, and with them, your . . . chance.”
Valeo stared, dumbfounded, not least of all because of the reference to chances. “You’re serious?”
“As apple pie,” the captain said, smiling.
“But, if you knew about me—” Valeo started, a faint blush rising into his cheeks, “—why didn’t you chuck me off?”
The captain shrugged as if the answer was obvious. “I wanted to give you the opportunity.”
“Sure,” Valeo snorted.
“Don’t believe me?” he chuckled ruefully. “We were not even supposed to leave port until tomorrow. And in case you have not realized, we are heading in completely the wrong direction.”
Valeo felt his jaw slacken and looked around, considering their bearing for the first time.
The captain was right.
“You left out of port early, the wrong way, just to give me a shot?” Valeo whispered. “But why?”
The captain shrugged again. “Why not? My crew was already to hand, and you seemed pretty adamant in your endeavor.”
“You’re mad,” Valeo muttered, though a wild grin had found his face.
“It certainly is not the first time my sanity has been called into question.” The captain gave him the briefest of winks. “But that is of little import. You think you can do it, then?” he asked, still smiling.
Valeo ran his hands through his shaggy hair, then his face lit up. “Seems high time for a fresh attempt, you ask me.” The captain didn’t seem surprised or confused. He didn’t react at all how Valeo had expected. He appeared only to consider the words. “That is some fire you have beating in your chest,” he said approvingly. “It will either get you killed or be the one thing in the world that saves your life.” He gazed intently into Valeo’s eyes, making him shiver and feel naked. “I have not made up my mind on which yet.”
Valeo broke the gaze, for the first time feeling the slightest tinge unnerved. Without warning, Breeze popped into his head. She would call him a complete fool if she could see him now, maybe even punch him for good measure. Deep down she was a hypocrite, though. She loved all his foolish ideas just as much as he did. The danger was the gravity that drew them together. But she couldn’t possibly begin to understand what drove him now, why he had to do this.
The captain walked to the gunnel to stand next to Valeo, resting his arms on the wood and peering out. A few moments passed, both men solemnly drinking in the minutes before dawn. The clouds left from the summer storm the night before were already melting away. A flash of fury burned out in moments, fierce and then forgotten.
When the captain broke the silence, his tone had changed, shifting from light wit to stone sober. “Contrary to the bet going around, I think you really are going to do it.” He looked at Valeo again as if really seeing him for the first time.
“Wait, what?” Valeo sputtered. “You’ve been betting on me?” He stifled a tremendous groan as he closed his eyes. “Does everyone know?”
The captain nodded. “It is part of the reason I got them to go along with our early departure in the first place.”
Valeo clapped a hand over his face, quickly running through the past two days in his head. He had thought himself so smooth . . .
The captain took the opportunity to switch gears. “The name is Drake. I prefer Captain, but since you are neither part of my crew, nor I your captain, Drake is fine . . . for now,” he added, holding out his hand.
“Pleasure to meet you, Drake,” Valeo replied once he had recovered. “Valeo. But feel free to call me Captain whenever it takes your fancy.”
Drake chuckled but didn’t reply. Another silence filled the deck. A rush of sparrows flitted by, intent on doing whatever it is that sparrows do. The first rays of sunlight broke, heralding the new day.
A subtle drumming filled the early morning stillness, almost imperceptible to those not listening for the beat. For a brief moment, the smile that so often and easily found Valeo’s face was nowhere to be seen. They’re almost here. A sudden gust of wind sent the main canvas roiling, and the ship listed slightly in the sky.
The captain produced a wooden pipe from his voluminous jacket. Without adding tobacco or a light, he brought it to his lips and began puffing away. Valeo raised his eyebrows.
“You . . . need a match?” he asked. Valeo didn’t have a light of any sort to give, but felt awkward not saying something.
The captain’s brow furrowed as he considered the offer. “Oh, no, thank you. I do not smoke, never have. In any case, I rather thought you were the one looking for a match today.” He winked, dragging heavily on his dead pipe.
Valeo continued to stare. Running his hands along the lacquered railing, he wondered if the captain was actually insane. He wanted to laugh, if only to relieve the tension of both Drake’s oddity and the ever-growing beat of drums. No, not drums . . .
Wings. Hundreds of wings.
Tension tugged Valeo’s muscles into piano strings, his impatience gnawing at the keys. He needed to go. Needed to pull at the tightness. He hungered for the fall, to replace fear with movement and moment.
The pressure beat nearer with each slam of wings. But all he could do was wait and watch this strange and knowing man suck on an unlit pipe. It was torture.
“For what it is worth, I hope you make it,” Drake murmured, breaking through Valeo’s thoughts. “There is a reason they are in every storybook, a reason they grow so big, and a reason why we let them. You will learn the hard truth of that today.” He let his words linger, the seconds slipping by. Past him, Valeo could make out a curious mass moving closer, flickering in the distance.
“You really have not worked out why you are doing this,” Drake stated more than asked, plucking the pipe from his lips. He seemed to be searching Valeo for a hint of recognition, of meaning.
Valeo smiled, the words igniting familiar threads within him. “Why does everyone always insist on there being a reason? Sometimes, we do it because it feels right and hope for the best.”
“Risking death by Darksky for a fistful of fables feels right? Why?” A flicker of hidden fear whipped across the captain’s eyes, something Valeo failed to understand. “No one has paired with an Albatross in centuries.”
Valeo’s brow furrowed, trying to piece it together, all the feelings that clamored through his brain. Albatross were massive birds from Vernadon: a lush, never-ending forest to the north where Sunstriders lived and beasts ruled. His father had talked about the birds endlessly, had wanted to see them for as long as Valeo had ears to hear his plight.
So much of this was because of him.
“Don’t know why,” he lied, though not completely. “And maybe don’t have to. This is where it feels . . . to be. Right here. Right now.” Truer words Valeo had never felt in his life.
Drake considered that and sighed. “Point taken,” he said with a frown. “But a problem remains—”
With a flash of the captain’s wrist, a hatchet appeared. Drake suddenly advanced on Valeo, his weapon held high. The younger man stumbled back, tripping over himself and letting out a strangled cry.
The hatchet flew between Valeo’s legs, severing his safety line in two.
“If you really are doing this, there is only one way you are bound to survive,” Drake said, pointing down at Valeo’s chest. “And that is with a healthy dose of fear. In the face of death, fear will push you farther than anything in the sky. So now, if you jump, you have every reason to keep holding on. And besides,” he snorted, shaking his head, “when you are atop seven hundred pounds of angry tail feathers, how were you planning on undoing the knot?” He helped Valeo to his feet.
The captain was right, of course. Cold sweat bloomed across Valeo’s body, and he began shaking so badly he couldn’t even clasp his hands. The drumming of wings became a rhythmic roar. Past Drake, there were hundreds of them—dark russets, bright blues, canary yellows, dusky browns—every color imaginable as far as Valeo looked. They all beat in perfect unison, flowing with a grace and precision he’d never thought possible. He stood transfixed. Every breath of his life had been spent striving to attain such levels of perfection. With twenty-two years under his belt, he had never even come close. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and the noise . . .
The storyteller was right. It sounds like the hands of gods.
Drake had started talking again, shouting over the clamor. “You do not have to do this. I can give you a moment to look at them. Not every day we get to see a legend. You can turn around, come with me, and we will have a talk. There is no shame in . . .”
But Valeo had stopped listening. He was caught between thought and action, a peaceful intersection between a flight of fancy and the grit of reality. He closed his eyes, hearing the sound of each wing as it pushed against the effects of gravity, imagining each galloping heart as it rejoiced in the act of flight.
A strong breeze played across his face, carrying with it the scent of pine and fish—of Albatross. He lifted his arms and felt a second of weightlessness as the ship rocked, buffeted by the Flock as it approached. When he opened his eyes, all tightness in his body had vanished, rocketing down the elastic lines of a simple choice—every ounce of him in its wake.
“Hold this,” Valeo burst out, throwing the rope at Drake.
Valeo hurtled toward the ship’s opposite edge, a frayed flick of hemp still trailing his ankle. Drake smiled wide, his eyes twinkling as he watched Valeo streak away.
“Eyes down, and luck be yours!”
Valeo felt his muscles hum, his lungs thunder, his stomach singing all the fears he would never admit. It was a song of bone, blood, and sinew, and he was conducting the orchestra.
Drake shouted something else, but he couldn’t make out the words. There were only fifteen feet between him and open sky. He, too, was flying now, toes punching out the punctuation of his life on the wooden planks. Hundreds of birds blazed beneath the ship, each the size of a horse, gliding across an azure sea of sky.
The dream he’d been having for weeks, his reason, his father’s voice:
Catch one, Valeo. Catch an Albatross . . . we’re waiting.
Valeo screamed, the sound somewhere between a trill of excitement and a terrible death rattle. To his surprise, one of the birds called back.
The rail was there, under his feet. He felt the press of wood for an instant. Flipping forward, his weight carried him into a dive, plunging into a day just awoken. In an instant, Valeo Sorte was gone, the trailing rope flapping in the sunlight and a whooping cry still on his lips.