As splinters from the longboatrained down on the group, Libby felt like time momentarily slowed down. Maricossa jerked to one side, reddened splinters bursting from his hand. Hez spun around just as the unarmed White Tiger agent lunged at him. Connie ducked away from Maricossa, her hand going to the katana sword at her waist. Hez kicked the other agent's feet out from under him and aimed his pistol in the direction of the river.
Skylar sprinted from her side. Two shots cracked out.
"Sky!" She yelled after him. "Don't be an idiot!"
Too late. Skylar launched himself at Connie. They tumbled to the ground. Maricossa joined them a split second later, dragging Skylar away from his girlfriend. He grabbed at Connie. She slapped his hand, and Maricossa stumbled back with a cry of pain.
Connie took off, running toward Libby. Hez started after her, but the other White Tiger agent grabbed his ankle, and Hez tumbled to the ground.
"Watch out, Libby!" he yelled, drawing a circular weapon from a deep coat pocket.
"Libby!" Skylar shouted at the same moment. "Maricossa's hurt!"
Connie slowed slightly at that and looked over her shoulder. Libby started to dodge around her. Connie grabbed her arm. Libby's heart clogged her throat and she jerked back, but Connie's grip was too tight.
"Connie!" Maricossa staggered toward her, his injured hand tucked against his stomach to keep from jarring it. "Don't do it, Connie."
Connie's nostrils flared. She released Libby's wrist and stepped back. "You dare ask for favors after you betrayed me, Galvin?"
Maricossa's face hardened. "So help me, Consuela…"
She spun and took off running, the echoes of her feet ringing up and down the empty street. Maricossa started after her, but Skylar grabbed his uninjured arm.
"I have to stop her…" Maricossa's legs buckled and he dropped down to his knees, splaying his hands on the street to steady himself. His injured hand spasmed and Maricossa rolled to his side, a deep grunt jerking out of his throat.
"You're not goin' anywhere, Tiger Boy," Hez said. "Better grab some of the medical supplies, Libby."
She dashed to the longboat, past the White Tiger agent who was staring with blank eyes up at the sky, and scrambled inside. The red medical boxes were piled carefully to the far side. She grabbed one and threw it open.
A scrap of notepaper lay on top. She almost tossed it aside, but the familiar lettering made her pause. Her heart thumped harder as she scanned the brief message.
We're fine. Don't worry. Let us know the plan. Check in at the grocery, we spend most of our days there.
Her shoulders sagged and she blew out a gentle breath of relief. Hamlet was okay--and he'd said "we", so he must have found Brick.
She jammed the note in her pocket, grabbed the box, and met Hez at the side of the boat. "What exactly happened? It was too fast for me to make much sense of anything."
"They had another guy with a cannon on the river boat," he said. "That's what got Maricossa and the longboat."
Libby hurried to Maricossa's side, her stomach turning at the sight of the blood dribbling steadily onto the street. It wasn't right, seeing him on the ground with sweat darkening the hair at his temples and pain-glazed eyes darting back and forth around the street. Trying to protect them even he was hurt.
Libby crouched down beside him. "Let me see."
Maricossa looked at her, his jaw set. "I have to go find Connie..."
"Let Libby look at that hand--I know that White Tiger agent got you good," Hez ordered.
Maricossa slowly uncurled his hand. His fingers were twisted and mangled, and he might have been missing a portion of the palm below the pinkie finger. She didn't want to look too closely—she was wrestling her stomach into place as it was.
Libby set her teeth and carefully wound a bandage around the hand, wincing every time Maricossa flinched. Everything in her was begging to just get up and run…run back to the library, find Hamlet, feel his arms wrap around her as she freaked out. She needed something old, something normal…her breathing sped up a little as she considered it.
"Libby? Here, let me finish this." Skylar gently pulled the bandage from her hands.
She scooted over to let him have room. There's no more normal. Get a grip. Her hands were shaking ever so slightly. I ran when Sky was hurt, and I’m never, ever being so cowardly again.
She looked up and saw Hez was watching her hands. She pressed her fingers flat against her legs. "I'm fine."
Hez merely raised an eyebrow.
"We'd better get going soon," Skylar said, tucking the end of the bandage in. "He's bleeding pretty badly.”
Libby looked at Maricossa. His eyes were almost closed, but she could tell by his stiff posture that he was still awake. Hez joined Skylar beside Maricossa, and together they helped the injured man to his feet, supporting him with a shoulder under each arm. They limped to the longboat, Libby trailing after them.
"Shouldn't we find a doctor?" Libby thought back, trying to remember if there was any person worthy of the title in Digory Street. She'd been to the apothecary once or twice when a kid had been really sick. Brick had split his leg open on a sharp piece of metal once, but Mr. Summers, the grocer, had stitched him up after that. Libby had always taken care of minor illnesses and injuries herself. She knew that wouldn't be good enough for Maricossa.
"The Professor took care of me all by himself, and I was worse," Skylar answered. "He'll get Maricossa good as new."
His tone didn't sound so sure. Libby slid her hands inside the pockets of her pants. Her fingers crumpled a piece of paper. The note. She had to talk to Hamlet. But how could she justify the trip when Maricossa was hurt?
Maricossa grunted. "I'm going to need a stronger antiseptic than what we have in the medical kits." His voice was tight and strained.
The apothecary, of course. "I'll go."
"No, Lib, you can't go alone," Skylar said reflexively.
Libby curled her hand around the note in her pocket. "I can go. I know Digory Street just as well as you. I won't get caught. Maricossa's right, anyway. When Brick had to get stitches, Mr. Summers had to give him a really strong antiseptic to keep infection away."
"I'm going…to need a lot more…than stitches," Maricossa said.
Hez gave her an approving look. "She'll attract less attention and move faster than either of us, Skylar."
Skylar's lips tightened. He reached out and squeezed Libby's hand. "Be careful."
Libby smiled, then turned and darted off.
"We'll meet you at the airdocks!" Hez shouted after her.
She waved to let him know she'd heard and concentrated on the streets ahead of her. She'd only been to the warehouse once, and while she was fairly certain she knew the way to Digory Street, there was no time to waste.
Thankfully the streets were relatively deserted until close to the market. Libby slipped through the crowd, her eyes down and shoulders hunched, trying to make herself as small and invisible as possible. Mr. Summer's Grocery was full as she entered, and he was busy with customers, so Libby pretended to be interested in a display of withered apples. Once or twice, Mr. Summers glanced up at her and nodded to acknowledge her presence, but there was no recognition in the nod. Libby wasn't too surprised--between wearing pants instead of her typical patchwork skirt and having her hair covered with a scarf, it was no wonder Mr. Summers didn't know who she was.
Someone jostled her, nearly sending her headlong into the apples. Libby whirled around, but the man had already moved past. His back was to her, and a snarling tiger’s face glared out from the back of his leather vest.
Libby’s stomach knotted. A White Tiger enforcer was no new sight in Digory Street. Local thugs often joined up just to have a ‘lawful’ reason to bully people. Usually Mr. Summers paid them substantial bribes to stay away from his shop.
The man pushed his way into the customers at the counter. “Hey, Summers. Seen her yet?”
Mr. Summers continued jotting down prices on a card, calculating a shopper’s total. “I told you. When the infamous Libretto Con Brio steps foot in my shop, I’ll let you know.” He made eye contact with Libby. “One of my shopboys will be with you in a moment, ma’am.”
Did her recognize her? Then why didn’t her just point her out to the thug? The tension made her feel like her breakfast would be coming back up at any moment. Libby hunched her shoulders and eyed the door. Would it be too conspicuous if she bolted for it now, after Mr. Summers had spoken to her?
Someone grasped her arm. “This way, miss. We have just what you’re looking for.”
“Sssh!” Hamlet gripped her arm tighter and pulled her into the darker interior of the store. Once the crowd hid them from the White Tiger thug’s sight, Hamlet opened the counter and ushered Libby into the back.
She stopped and stared at him. Even within just a week, he looked like he’d lost weight. There were dark circles under his eyes. His hair, normally carefully combed, stood out in a wild rat’s nest from his head. But it was Hamlet. She wrapped her arms around him.
Hamlet hugged back, tightly. “It’s good to see you, Lib.” His voice sounded choked.
“Running errands. What are you doing here? I thought it’d be Maricossa who would come for us.”
That sent another jolt through her gut. “Maricossa’s hurt—we got into a scuffle with Connie—“
“Connie! Are you okay, Libby?”
“I’m fine, but Maricossa’s hand is practically blown off. That’s why I came back. Remember the antiseptic Mr. Summers used when Brick had to get stitches? Can you find me some?”
“Yeah, let me…” Hamlet was already moving. He disappeared among the cans, crates, and shelves, but just as quickly reappeared, carrying a small, dark glass bottle. “When are you planning to get us out of Shandor Rei?”
Libby slipped it into her pants pocket. “Can you come with me right now?”
“No, like I said, Brick’s running errands, and—“
“Okay, let me think.” Libby bit her lip. They couldn’t delay getting Maricossa back to the bunker. “The White Tiger isn’t looking for you, are they?”
“No, they really only have descriptions of you, Skylar, and Maricossa. Mr. Summers has vouched for us.”
“How about you meet me tomorrow morning, first light, at the edge of the forest?” That seemed the earliest they’d be able to get back. Skylar would come with her, of course, and Hez. She didn’t think Maricossa or the Professor could mind, especially as long as they didn’t go into the city again.
She moved further into the storage area. “Is there a back door?”
“Yeah, over here.” Hamlet led her to it. “But Libby, it’s gonna be hard getting out of the city—“
“I don’t think Maricossa’s going to want us to come back into Shandor Rei for a long time.” If he can even care. Libby wrapped her hand tightly around the bottle of medicine.
“You’re not listening to me.”
“You need to get out of the city. We’re not going to come back for a long time, not after this. Please, make it work?”
Hamlet sighed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I guess.”
“Thank you.” She leaned up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “I won’t abandon you, but I’ve got to go now. See you tomorrow.”
“Be careful.” Hamlet pulled the door open for her.
Libby bounded out into the sunlight and down the alley, unable to stop grinning. Everything’s gonna work out just fine now.
The airship docks were, mercifully, not busy in the least. Libby hurried onto the huge wooden platform, scanning the docks for the longboat. Skylar spotted her and waved for her to hurry up. Libby ran down to dock and grabbed Skylar’s outstretched hand, clambering aboard.
Without a word, Hez cast off.
“Did you get it?” Skylar asked.
Libby took in his and Hez’s expressions. Skylar looked openly worried, while Hez had his jaw set as he stared forward.
“Maricossa’s unconscious. And right before you showed up, we saw a White Tiger patrol,” Skylar said.
“They took great interest in the longboat,” Hez said grimly.
Libby’s happy mood clouded. “You should’ve left.”
“Wasn’t going to abandon you, little sis,” Hez said, reaching out and roughly tugging her braids. “Besides, Maricossa needs that medicine too much. Even I wouldn’t wish dying of infection on a guy.”
Libby glanced over the stern of the boat. The docks rapidly receded, though she could still hear the sound of the river. Even with Maricossa so hurt, she couldn’t help but feel elated. Hamlet and Brick would be joining them! All the library kids would be together again.
She glanced over at Skylar, who was helping Hez coil up the anchor rope. Should I tell Skylar yet? She knew he’d be happy for her, but it would remind him of Coll. It’s not fair that not everyone gets a happy ending.
Something over the stern of the boat caught her eye. Libby poked her head over again and saw a dark, smudgy shape in the river fog below them. Their shadow, maybe? The longboat wavered in a sharp gust of wind, and that same wind cleared the fog away enough so that she could see the smudge clearly.
With a cannon aimed right toward her, and a man just touching the fuse with a match.
“Skylar!” she screamed, throwing herself back.
A roar, and grapeshot ripped into the railing where she’d been standing. The longboat listed, tossing Hez and Skylar to the deck.
Good thing they put Maricossa in the hold.
Libby scrambled to her feet and lunged at the wheel. She jerked it to the side, and the boat lurched back flat, though the back end kept wobbling. Hez darted past her, glanced over the stern, and came back, spewing curses.
“They took out the prop and the back half of the keel!” He brushed Libby away from the wheel. “Go help Skylar get the sails up. It’s a good thing we’ve got some wind—we’re light enough to stay ahead of that tug!”
Libby scrambled to the bow, where Skylar was already drawing the small jib into place. He left her to tie it off while he ran back and jerked up the mainsail. As soon as the large square of canvas was up, it snapped full of wind and the boat picked up speed.
Libby pulled her braids back with her scarf and ran to look over the stern again. They’d already moved away from the bigger ship, but it was following. “Can we lose them?”
“Doubtful,” Hez said.
“But we’ll lead them right to the bunker!”
“And we’ll have just enough time to get out before they arrive. This is what we were planning on anyway, right?”
“But Brick and Hamlet…” Libby bit her lip. “Maricossa promised he’d find them.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not Maricossa. You know that, Libby.” Hez jerked hard on the wheel. “They may have to stay behind.”
Libby frowned. Not if I have anything to do with it.