By the time Briar reached the ferry, daylight was as full as it was going to get. The sky was coated in a mold-gray film, but there was sun enough filtering through the clouds that she could see a tree-covered island across the water.
Here and there a dome-shaped thing would rise above the trees. Even at this distance, she could see the airships docked and waiting for crews or cargo.
The ferry creaked and dipped when she stepped onto it. There were few other passengers at such an early hour, and she was the only woman. Wind swept off the waves and tugged at her hat, but she held it down, low over her eyes. If anyone recognized her, no one bothered her. Maybe it was the rifle, and maybe it was the way she stood, feet apart with her hands on the rail.
Maybe nobody cared.
Most of her fellow passengers were sailors of one kind or another. Folks on this island either worked the airships or the boats at the pier, because when an airship unloaded on the island, some other means of transport had to take it over the water and into town.
It had never occurred to her to wonder why there were no airship docks any closer to the Outskirts, but now she did wonder, and she could make a guess or two. The rambling, sketchy conclusions she drew bolstered her hopes that they kept away from the public eye for shady reasons. As far as she was concerned, the shadier the better.
After over an hour of bobbing awkwardly across the tide, the creaky, white-painted ferry tied itself to the docks on the far shore.
Side by side the landing areas were pressed up against one another—the wooden piers with their brittle armor of barnacles down at the water line, and the cleared-out lots with great iron pipes that jutted up, out, and back down deep into the earth. A dozen airships in varying states of repair and quality were moored to the pipes, affixed via sets of brass lobster-claw clips as big as barrels.
The ships themselves came in assorted designs. Some were little more than hot air balloons with baskets held up low and close to the balloon’s underbelly; and some were more impressive, with buckets that looked like the hull of a water-running vessel—but built onto a hydrogen tank and propelled with steam thrusters.
Briar had never been to Bainbridge. Unsure of where to start, she stood in the middle of a landing where even the tradesmen were only just beginning to bustle. She watched as the crews arrived and as men shifted cargo from bucket to cart, and then from cart to boat.
The process wasn’t smooth, but it managed to move the incoming products from air to water in a quickly clicking cycle.
Before long, one of the smaller airships gave a lurch, and two crewmembers slid down the mooring ropes to disengage the docking clips. The clasps unhinged and swung free, and the men scrambled back up the ropes into the bucket. From there, they reeled the clips up to the vessel’s edge and hung them around the exterior.
An older man in a captain’s hat paused near Briar to light a pipe.
She asked him, “Excuse me, but which of these ships is going closest to the Seattle wall?”
He gave her a knobby-browed glare over the pipe, summing her up as he sucked at the stem. He said, “You’re on the wrong side of the island for that kind of question, missy.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means you should take that road there.” And he used the pipe to point at a muddy, flattened trail that disappeared back through the trees. “Walk as far as it’ll take you. You might find someone who can answer you better.”
She hesitated, her arm on her satchel because she felt the need to hold something. Another airship was unlocking itself from the pipework dock, and a new one was hovering over the lot. On the side of the airborne ship she saw a name painted, and then she realized it was a company name, not a ship name.
“Ma’am,” the man called to her.
Briar returned her attention to him and caught the way his gaze flicked from her belt buckle to her eyes.
He continued. “The island’s not that big. It won’t take you long to find your way over to the… alternate commercial row, if that’s what you’re looking to do.”
She thanked him, considered the muddy stretch of semi-road, and said, “You’re very kind.”
He replied, “No, but I do my best to be fair.”
Someone nearby called a name, and the man in the hat responded to it with a wave and a nod. Briar looked at the trail again and noticed that no one else was walking it.
She wasn’t sure if nonchalance or outright sneaking was called for, so she tried to meld the two into a quiet retreat that took her up a slight hill and out to the overgrown path with its deep ruts.
The tops of the ruts were drier. She tiptoed across them and up through the trees, out of sight of the docks. The woods had never been a comfortable place for Briar: she was a city child born and bred, and the wide-trunked walls of bark and brush made her feel small and anxious, as if she were trapped in a fairy tale with wolves.
She tripped up the way, trying hard to keep her heels from sticking in the thick, wet surface. As she scaled the rolling landscape the trail became wider and clearer, but she still saw no one else coming or going along it.
“But it’s early yet,” she said to herself.
The trees were higher the farther back she wandered, and the forest was thicker the deeper she hiked into the heart of the island… which was why she didn’t realize she’d found another set of airship docks until she was nearly in their midst.
She stopped herself fast and retreated back onto the trail only to realize that it had all but ended behind her. And she was no longer alone.
Three broad airmen stood smoking off to the side of a clearing. They all stopped smoking their pipes to stare at Briar, who was wholly uncertain of how to proceed but determined not to show it. She split a casual examination between the mottled airships and the three quiet, startled men.
Most of the ships were anchored to trees, tied like horses. The trees were fully stout enough to stand the weight, and they bore it with the odd creak or crack, but none of the ships sprung loose or failed. These ships were of a different sort, less glossy and less uniform than the ones at the main dock. They were not so much manufactured as cobbled together from bits and pieces of other, sturdier, larger vessels.
Over to the side of the airships, the smallest smoking man looked roughly like any given one of Briar’s coworkers, pale and a little dirty, in baggy clothes and a leather apron that had a pair of long leather goves sticking out of the pockets.
The middle man was a mulatto with long hair braided into coiled ropes and pulled back in a scarf. He was wearing a fisherman’s sweater with a tall, folded neck that tucked up under his dense, dark beard. The remaining smoker was the best-dressed of the three, a coal-black Negro in a sharp blue jacket with bright brass buttons. A pink scar ran from the corner of his mouth nearly back to his ear, which was festooned with a row of small gold hoops that jangled when he started to laugh at the sight of her.
The laugh began as a low, rumbling chortle and worked its way into a full-belly guffaw that his fellow smokers shortly joined him in.
“Hey there, lady,” the darkest man said, between hastily caught breaths. He had an accent that came from somewhere over the mountains, and to the south. “Are you lost?”
She waited out the height of their shared hilarity, and when they were reduced to wheezes she said, “No.”
“Oh,” he said with a lift of his eyebrow. “So you’ve come to Canterfax-Mar on purpose, then, eh? I could not tell you the last time we had such a lady in our midst.”
“What’s that mean?” she asked.
He shrugged and pursed his wide lips. “Only that you appear ready for business of a different sort. What is it you want from us here, at our lost little dock? Your mind is set on something firm, I can see that now.”
“I need a ride. I’m looking for my son. Can you help me?”
“Well, ma’am, that depends,” he said. He left his companions and came forward to meet her. She could not tell if he was trying to be intimidating, or if he only meant to see her closer; but he was more ominous than she’d expect for his size. He was no taller than her father had been, but his shoulders were wide and his arms were as thick as logs beneath the sleeves of the woolly blue jacket. His voice was low and loud, and it sounded almost wet inside his chest.
Briar did not back away or down. She did not move even to shuffle her feet. “What does it depend on?”
“Any number of things! For one, I must know where you wish to be, and how far you mean to go.”
“Of course I do. This ship over here is mine. You see her? The Free Crow, we call her, and she is a little bit stolen, a little bit bought, and a great bit made… but oh, she can fly.”
“She’s a very fine ship,” Briar said, because it seemed appropriate, and because the ship was indeed impressive. There was a mark on its side; she could see the edge of it and almost read it.
The captain saved her the trouble of squinting. “It says CSA because that is where the body of the bird was first created, in the Confederate States. I might have intercepted her, and put her to a better use. In days like these, in this time of war and adventure, I say the initials mean, ‘Come See America,’ for that is what I intend to do.”
“This isn’t quite America, yet.”
“All of this is America in one way or another. Did you know the entire continent is called after an Italian mapmaker? And anyway, your corner of the map will make a fine state one day. It’ll happen,” he assured her. “With patience, when the war ends.”
“When the war ends,” she repeated.
He was looking at her closely now, standing in front of her and peering hard at her hat, then at the badge that she’d stuck on the side of the belt. After a thorough appraisal, he said to her, “I don’t think you represent any rule or government. I never heard tale of a woman of the law, though that looks real.” He pointed at the badge. “And I know who it references. I know what that symbol means.”
He pointed at the buckle with its large, ornate MW.
“I don’t know if ol’ Maynard is guarding your knickers or anything else, but you’re wearing the sign, plain as can be, so me and my men are forced to believe you’ve not come for trouble.”
“No,” she assured him. “I don’t want to find any trouble, and I don’t want to make any. I’m only trying to find my son, and I don’t have anyone to help me, so I came here.”
The captain unfolded his arms and offered her a handshake. He said, “Then perhaps we can do business. But tell me first, since you haven’t told me yet, where is it you mean to go, that you need services from the island’s back side?”
“Seattle,” she said. “I need to go over the wall, into the city. That’s where my son went.”
He shook his head. “Then your son is dead, or damned.”
“I don’t think he is. He got inside; he just can’t get out.”
“Got inside, did he? And how’d he do that? We’ve seen no boy come out this way.”
“He went under, through the old sewage runoff.”
“Then he can find his way back out the same direction!”
Briar was losing his attention. He was backing away. She tried not to sound too frantic when she said, “But he can’t! The earthquake last night—you must’ve felt. it. It collapsed the old tunnel, and there’s no way underneath anymore. I have to get inside and get him out. I have to, don’t you understand?”
He threw his hands up and almost walked back to his fellows, who were whispering between themselves. Then he faced her again and said, “No, I don’t understand. There’s no breathing the air in there, you know that, don’t you? There’s nothing in there but death.”
“And people,” she interjected. “There are people in there too, living and working.”
“The scrappers and Doornails? Sure, but they’ve been there years, most of them, and they’ve learned how to keep from getting eaten or poisoned. How old’s your son?”
“Fifteen. But he’s smart, and stubborn.”
“Every mother swears it of every son,” he argued. “But even if you get inside, how you going to get him out? You going to climb? You going to dig?”
She confessed, “I haven’t gotten that far in my planning yet, but I’ll think of something.”
The mulatto man behind the captain put aside his pipe and said, “Next gas run’s going in less than a week. If she can live that long, she can catch a rope out.”
The captain whirled around. “Now don’t you go encouraging her!”
“Why not? If she can pay, and if she wants to dip into the city, why won’t you take her?”
The captain answered Briar, although she wasn’t the one who’d asked the question. “Because we aren’t equipped to do a gas run right now. Our two best nets got snagged on the tip of the tower last trip, and we’re still patching them up. And so far, I haven’t heard any mention of paying anything, so I’d hate to assume that our surprise guest is a wealthy widow.”
“I’m not,” she admitted. “But I have a little money—”
“To talk us into a gas run that doesn’t net us any gas, you’ll need a lot more than a little money. I’d love to help a lady, but business is business.”
“But…” she asked, “is there anyone else who might fly?”
“Anyone dumb enough to fly up to the walls? I don’t know.” He shoved his hands in the pockets of that Union-blue coat. “I couldn’t say.”
Again the mulatto spoke. He said, “There’s Cly. He’s dumb for a pretty woman, and he respects the Maynard peace.”
Briar wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended, so she chose instead to be hopeful. “Cly? Who’s he? Can I talk to him?”
“You can talk to him.” The captain nodded. “And ma’am, I do wish you well in your search for your mad little son. But I ought to warn you, it’s a devilish place inside. It’s no place for a woman, or a boy.”
“Point me at this Cly,” she said coldly. “I don’t care if it’s no place for a dog or a rat, it’s going to have a woman in it before sundown, so help me God. Or Maynard,” she added, remembering what Rector had said.
“As you like.” He offered her his arm, and Briar wasn’t sure if she should take it, but she did so anyway. As long as everyone else was playing nice, she’d play nice, too. She didn’t know how much help she needed from these people, so it was worth her time to be pleasant even when it frightened her.
The captain’s forearm felt every bit as dense as it looked, straining at the seam of the coat. Briar tried to keep her fingers from fluttering out of nervousness, but it wasn’t like a handshake where she could squeeze and make her position known a little more firmly.
The captain patted her nervous hand, and said, “Lady, so long as you wear Maynard’s mark and respect our peace, we’re bound to respect yours. There’s no need to fret.”
“I believe you,” she said, and it might or might not have been true. “But I have more things to fret about than your proximity, I promise you.”
“My son, yes. I’m sorry, you didn’t mention your name, Captain… ?”
“Hainey. Croggon Hainey,” he told her. “Captain for short. Captain Hainey for long. Crog, in passing.”
“Captain, yes. I do thank you for the assistance.”
He grinned to display a row of shocking white teeth. “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve done nothing but treat you as I’m bound to. My fellow friend and airman may or may not give you any further assistance.”
Crog led her between the creaking, swaying airships that moored themselves in the wider paths between the massively thick trunks. They bobbed against their leashes and bumped gently against the treetops, brushing their undercarriages with evergreen boughs and bird nests.
The nearest of them was a slapdash affair that looked wholly improvised and yet thoroughly solid. If anything, it looked too heavy to fly. It boasted a steel-plated, canoe-shaped basket the size of a rich man’s living room and a pair of gas tanks as big as a poor man’s wagon. Riveted, stitched, bolted, and tied together, it loomed over the clearing where it was held by three long, fat ropes.
A rope ladder trailed on the ground, dangling from the bottom of the ship’s underside. Beside it, in the shade of the strangely shaped craft, a man sat in a folding wooden chair. In the crook of his arm rested a bottle of whiskey. The bottle rose and fell against his chest as he breathed, and if it weren’t for the goggles over his eyes, it would have been obvious that he was stone asleep.
Crog stopped a few yards away from the almost-snoring man and said in a rumbling whisper, “Ma’am, allow me to introduce Captain Andan Cly. And there above his thick-boned head you’ll see his ship, the Naamah Darling. Wake him with kindness, and—if possible—at a distance.”
“Wait, you’re not going to—”
“Oh no. You’re the one who wants the favor. You can nudge him awake for it. Best of luck to you, ma’am. And if he won’t take you, the best I can offer is a trip in three days, at our next gas run. Or, if he lets you ride and drop, then you can look for the Free Crow on Tuesday, docked at the Smith Tower. It don’t cost me a thing to pull you out, though you might think to bring me a present if I do.”
He pulled her fingers off his arm, and until he picked at them she hadn’t realized she’d been clenching at his sleeve. “Thank you,” she told him. “And I do mean it, thank you. If you lift me out on Tuesday, I’ll find a way to pay you. I know of places, and things inside the city. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Then I’ll be the one thanking you, ma’am.”
He disappeared back through the maze of trees and ropes and hovering ships while Briar tried not to cringe at the presence of the man underneath the Naamah Darling.
Andan Cly was not precisely slumped, and not precisely seated in the wood-slat chair. His light brown hair was cropped so close that he appeared almost bald, and his ears sat high on his skull. The left one was pierced with three silver studs. The right one remained plain. He was wearing a dirty undershirt and a pair of brown pants that cuffed down into boots.
Briar thought that surely he must be too cold to sleep, but as she crept towards him she felt the temperature rise. By the time she stood in front of him, she was almost sweating—and then she realized that he’d positioned himself underneath the ship’s boilers, which were steaming themselves into a fully heated state.
She didn’t step on a twig or tap her foot against a rock. She didn’t move, only stared, but it was suddenly enough to bring him awake. Nothing signaled this change of state except a sharpening of his posture, and then a sleepy finger that lifted his goggles until they sat on his forehead.
“What?” he asked. The question was not specifically a demand or complaint, but it sounded like it could’ve been either.
“Andan Cly?” she asked, and added, “Captain of the Naamah Darling?”
He grumbled, “Speaking. To who?”
It was Briar’s turn to ask, “What?”
“Who am I speaking to?”
“I’m… a passenger. Or I want to be. I need a lift, and Captain Hainey said I should talk to you.” She left out the rest of what Crog had said.
He twisted his head left, then right, and all the joints in between cracked loudly. “Where do you want to go?”
“Over the wall.”
“Now,” she said.
“Now?” He drew the bottle out of the crook in his arm and set it down on the ground beside the chair. His eyes were a clear, vibrant hazel that almost looked like copper, even in the half-lit shade of his ship. He stared at her, not blinking nearly often enough for her comfort.
“My son; he ran away,” she condensed the story, “He’s gone into the city. I have to go in after him.”
“You’ve never been in there, then?”
“Not since the wall went up, no. Why do you ask?”
“Because if you’d ever been inside, you’d know better than to think some kid’s in there alive.”
She met his glare blink for blink and said, “My son might be. He’s smart, and he’s prepared.”
“He’s an idiot,” Andan corrected her. “If he went inside.”
“He’s not an idiot, he’s only… uninformed.” She settled on the truest word, even though it hurt her to say it out loud. “Please, listen. Help me. I’ve got a mask, and if I can get inside I can find my way around all right. Crog said he’d pick me up on Tuesday—”
“You think you’ll live till Tuesday?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Then you’re an idiot too. No offense.”
“You can offend me all you like if you’ll take me over the wall.”
He made half a smile as if he meant to laugh at her, but the upward swing of his lip lost its momentum. “You’re serious. And stubborn. But you’ll need more than that”—he pointed at the rifle—“and Maynard’s mark if you want to stay in one piece down there.”
“But if I respect the peace—”
He cut her off. “Then some of the other people you meet inside will respect the peace, too. But not all of them will. There’s a madman named Minnericht who runs part of the city, and big quarters of Chinese folks who might or might not be friendly to a strange white woman. And your friends the crooks will be the least of your problems. Have you ever seen a rotter? A real hungry one?”
“Yes. I saw them during the evacuation.”
“Aw.” He shook his head. While his head moved his eyes stayed casually locked on her belt buckle. “Those things? They weren’t hungry. Not yet. The ones who’ve been starving inside for fifteen years, they’re the problem. And they move in packs.”
“I’ve got plenty of ammunition.” She patted the satchel.
“And an old repeater too, I see. That’ll be useful. But eventually you’ll run out of shot, and if the rotters don’t get you, Minnericht’s men will. Or the crows might. There’s no telling with those damn birds. But let me ask you a question.”
“Yes, another one,” he said crossly. He aimed one long finger at her midsection and said, “Where did you get that?”
“This?” From reflex, she grasped the buckle and looked down at it. “It… why?”
“Because I’ve seen it before. And I want to know where you got it.”
“That’s no business of yours,” she argued.
“I guess it isn’t. And it’s no problem of mine if you don’t get over the wall to look for your kid, Mrs. Blue.”
For a moment, she couldn’t breathe—she could only swallow. The fear clutched her throat and she couldn’t speak, either. Then she said, “That’s not my name.”
He said back, “Well, that’s who you are, aren’t you?”
She shook her head a little too hard and said, “No. Not since the wall went up. It’s Wilkes. And my boy, he’s a Wilkes too, if you’ve got to assign a name to him.” The rest came spilling out too fast, but she couldn’t stop it. “He thinks his father was innocent because you’re right, he’s a little bit of an idiot, but he’s gone in because he wants to prove it.”
“Can he prove it?”
“No,” she said. “Because it isn’t true. But Zeke, you’ve got to understand, he’s just a boy. He don’t know any better, and I couldn’t sell him on it. He had to go see for himself.”
“All right.” He nodded. “And he knows about Maynard’s mark, and he found a way inside. He went under, I guess?”
“He went under. But the earthquake we had last night—it flattened the old runoff tunnel. He can’t get out that way, and I can’t get in. Now will you take me over the wall, or won’t you? If you won’t, then say so, because I’ve got to go ask someone else.”
He took his time answering her. While he decided, he looked her up and down in a way that wasn’t altogether offensive, but wasn’t too flattering, either. He was thinking about something, and thinking about it hard; and Briar didn’t know what it was, or how he’d guessed so easily, or if Maynard could help her now.
“You should’ve started with that,” Andan said.
“With how you’re Maynard’s girl. Why didn’t you?”
She said, “Because to claim him as my father marks me as Blue’s widow. I didn’t know if the cost would outweigh the benefit.”
“Fair enough,” he said. And he stood.
It took him a few seconds. There was a lot of him to stand.
By the time he was on his feet, underneath the belly of the Naamah Darling, he stood taller than any man Briar had ever seen in her life. Seven and a half feet from toes to top and thickly muscled, Andan Cly was more than simply huge. He was terrifying. He was not an attractive man to begin with, but when his plain, workman looks were combined with his sheer size, it was all Briar could do not to run.
“You afraid of me now?” he asked. He pulled a pair of gloves out of his pockets and stretched them over his huge hands.
“Should I be afraid of you?” she asked.
He snapped the second glove into place and bent over to pick up his bottle. “No,” he told her. His eyes shifted to her buckle again. “Your daddy used to wear that.”
“He wore a lot of things.”
“He didn’t get buried in all of them.” Andan held out his hand to her and she shook it. Her fingers rattled around in the cavern of his grasp. “You’re welcome aboard the Naamah Darling, Miss Wilkes. Maybe I’m doing wrong in taking you—it might not be the right way to pay an old debt, since I’m a little scared I’m going to get you killed—but you’re going to get inside one way or another, aren’t you?”
“Then best I can do is get you ready, I suppose.” He kicked a thumb up at the boilers and said, “The thrusters will be hot before long. I can take you up and over.”
“For… for an old debt?”
“It’s a big old debt. I was there in the station, when the Blight shut down the world. Me and my brother, we carried your dad back home. He didn’t have to do it.” He was shaking his head again. “He didn’t owe us a thing. But he let us out, and now, Miss Wilkes, if you won’t have it any other way… I’m going to let you in.”