Maricossa was bent over a map of some kind in his little make-shift office when Skylar found him.
Skylar stood for a few minutes, just watching the older man. The bunker was in darkness, and only a few oil lamps illuminated Maricossa’s rugged, unshaven face. The metal snaps and clips on his dark clothing glinted in the dim light, and deep shadows hung around the man’s eyes. He looked tired.
Skylar still wasn’t sure what to think of Maricossa—he never had been, really. Even when they knew that the ex-agent was on their side, there was a measure of distrust that refused to go away. Maricossa was strong, and able, and the sort of capable man that Skylar wanted to be—but that didn’t mean he really trusted him yet.
As if sensing Skylar’s gaze, Maricossa looked up. “Skylar,” he said, straightening. “I thought you went to bed already.”
Skylar stepped into the light and kicked a crate closer. Sitting down, he shrugged. “Everyone else did, I think,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Maricossa rolled his shoulders, and sighed as his back popped. “Are you worried?”
“About what?” Skylar shook his head. “About Tianzhu? About Hez being an idiot? About getting caught by your old girlfriend?”
Maricossa didn’t wince, exactly, but Skylar caught the minute reaction, and stopped himself. “Sorry,” he sighed. “That was low. Yeah—I guess I am worried. A bit.”
Maricossa pulled over another crate and sat down, picking up a thermos from the floor. “Coffee?” he asked, holding it out.
Skylar would rather have drunk tar. “Eh…no thanks.” Coffee was, he thought, one of the most disgusting substances known to man—bitter and biting and dark.
Maricossa popped the lid from the thermos and took a swig. Swallowing it slowly, he looked at Skylar with an intent gaze.
“I’m sorry about Coll,” he said. “And…that it was mostly my fault.”
Skylar tensed, willing himself to stay still in spite of the sudden anger that welled up in him. “Me too,” he said, his voice flat.
This time, Maricossa did wince. “It’s tough,” he admitted, “Losing a friend like that. Losing a friend in any way is hard, but violently…” he shook his head and set the thermos down between his feet, resting his elbows on his knees. “You don’t get over that soon. You won’t. And you shouldn’t.”
That was a bit of a surprise. “I…I shouldn’t?” He’d thought he needed to—there was so much going on, so much at stake. “But we don’t have the time—”
“There’s always time.” Maricossa clasped his hands and looked down at the floor. “Always time to remember. Maybe not in the way we’d like, but you can’t just pretend it didn’t happen or that you’re fine with it all.”
Unbidden, tears sprang to Skylar’s eye, and he blinked them away, his mechanical eye clicking rapidly. He pretended to busy himself with a knob on his arm. “I am fine,” he insisted.
Maricossa reached out and tapped Skylar’s metal arm. Skylar pulled back, but Maricossa just said, in a low voice, “No, you’re not.”
Skylar looked up to meet the other man’s gaze, and saw there an understanding—a layer of something behind the usual man-in-charge air that Maricossa carried. He was right: Skylar wasn’t fine. His best friend, the only friend he had known since the Professor had taken him in after the dog attack that had left Skylar maimed for life, the one person who knew him as well as he knew himself—the brother he had never had—was dead. Gunned down before Skylar’s very eyes, mere inches from safety.
His shoulders sagged.
“What should I do?” he whispered, hearing how young his voice sounded and—for once, for just a moment—not caring.
Maricossa leaned back. “That’s up to you,” he said. “Some people get angry, some cry, some go off and write a book or something. I usually punch a sandbag until my knuckles bleed.” He gave a wry grin. “Just don’t hold it in. You’ll explode.”
Skylar huffed a small laugh. “That’s the last thing we need right now. Everyone else is busy exploding—I can’t add to the mess.”
“Tell you what,” Maricossa said, picking up the thermos and taking another drink. “When we get to Tianzhu, we’ll have a proper service for Coll. His mum deserves it at any rate, and it’ll do us all some good.”
“She’s worse off than me,” Skylar said, glancing back over his shoulder at the darkened hallway, down which Mrs. Monday was sleeping with the smaller children. “She hasn’t cried, hasn’t done anything.” It was a bit frightening, actually.
“She’s a strong woman,” Maricossa assured him. “She’ll manage.”
They sat in silence for a moment, Maricossa sipping at his coffee, and Skylar absently rubbing at the base of his metal thumb as he stared into the flame of the oil lamp.
“Take me with you,” he said suddenly, surprising even himself. “Back to Shandor Rei, I mean.”
Maricossa narrowed his eyes, and lowered the thermos. “Why?”
Skylar wasn’t exactly sure himself. “I need to get out of this cave, for one thing,” he said. “Besides, it’ll be easier and faster to find Hamlet—and Brick if he’s still missing—and get supplies and everything with more than one person. And I can help you manage Hez.”
“He does need managing, doesn’t he.” Maricossa frowned. “There probably more trouble coming there.”
“As soon as he’s back in the port, he’ll want to find his crew,” Skylar said. “He may even try to mutiny…except,” he frowned, thinking. “Is it mutiny if it’s your own ship?”
Maricossa chuckled. “If it’s Hez, it’s mutiny no matter whose ship he’s on. The man’s a pirate born.” He looked thoughtful. “But if I took you and Libby—and maybe the Professor…We could handle Hez well enough.”
“I doubt he’d do anything to put Libby in danger.” Pirate or not, Hez treated Libby like a little sister. “We could just leave him here—”
Maricossa shook his head. “No. I won’t risk him alerting the White Tiger to our presence—not if Mrs. Monday and the kids were here alone.”
“Not to mention the books.”
“Then it’ll have to be us—you, me, Libby, and Hez.”
“You don’t think we should take the Professor with us?”
Skylar grinned. “Prof’s great, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But if we took him with us, it would be like herding cats to get him back on board. He’d want to stop in every shop we passed.”
Maricossa laughed, his warm baritone echoing around the high-ceilinged room. “I can picture that,” he said. “Fine, we’ll leave him here with Mrs. Monday.”
“We need to be ready to leave as soon as we get back, though,” Skylar said, his mind working at the situation like a rat with a bone. “We can’t load all the books back on to the ship, can we? And sail right back into Shandor Rei with them? But we can’t unload them, because we might have to hurry and go…”
“There’s a longboat aboard,” Maricossa explained. “It will hold eight men—that should be enough for us and whatever supplies we need. We’ll get the Defoe ready to sail before we leave, and if we have to make a run for it, she’ll be ready as soon as we get back. Or, if worse comes to worst, Mrs. Monday and the Professor could probably launch her and get someplace if something happens to us.”
Skylar didn’t want to think about that. It was all fine for him, and he had no doubt that Maricossa could fend for himself—but if anything happened to Libby…
“That’s settled, then,” he said. A warm glow filled him as he sat there, almost knee-to-knee with Maricossa, making plans for the future of their little band. He wondered if this was what it was like to be an adult.
“It’s settled,” Maricossa agreed. He stood, and pushed back his crate with a booted foot. “And we’d better get some shut eye. Tomorrow, we’ll reload the Defoe, and after that—”
Skylar stood as well. “After that,” he said, “Shandor Rei.”
Two days later, dawn was breaking in the east as they set sail, lavender and red over a landscape draped with golden fog. Hez was sulking at the wheel, occasionally calling out irritated instructions to check a line or trim a sail. Skylar swung down from checking the netting that held their balloon to the ship and landed—with an ungraceful thump—beside Libby.
“Scared?” he asked her, his voice quiet. She glanced over her shoulder at Hez’s scowling face and Maricossa standing nearby with one hand on a weapon in his belt.
“It’s like being in a cage with a cat and a hawk,” she whispered. “I just don’t know which one’s going to attack first.”
He patted her arm, and they leaned on the ship’s rail, watching the apparently-innocent waterfall fall away below them as the longboat rose above the cliff-top, breaching the crest just as the sun broke over the horizon. Skylar squinted into the light, feeling the fresh morning breeze on his face, with a nip of the fast-approaching winter in the air. Over their heads, the lines that tied the longboat to the parchment-colored balloon hummed and sang, creaking as the ship swayed and Hez set the rudder east-northeast. By nightfall, they would be docking in Shandor Rei, and hopefully would find Hamlet and Brick waiting for them at the Library.
“We’ll be there by nightfall,” Skylar told Libby, “And we’ll find Hamlet and Brick, and get the supplies—and then we’ll be off for Tianzhu.”
That was, of course, assuming that Hez didn’t decide to try and take over once he had his crew nearby, and that the White Tiger didn’t have lookouts watching for them, and that Hamlet had actually found Brick by now, and that a million-and-one other things that could go wrong didn’t.
But Skylar didn’t say any of that. Instead, he stood still as Libby leaned her head against his shoulder, and together they watched the sun rise over the bow of the ship.
“We’ll be fine.”