Libby stood on the deck of the Daniel Defoe and watched Skylar carry Mia up the ramp. As soon as he had both feet on the deck, Hez slashed at the ramp's ropes with his knife and kicked the board off the ship.
Better move soon. She glanced around. Skylar and Mia had disappeared inside the cabin with Maricossa and the Professor; Hez and the older kids dashed around the deck preparing for flight while Mrs. Monday kept Leelee and Toddy out of the way.
Libby grabbed Dash as she rushed past. "Hey, listen, tell Sky…" What? Tell him what? Libby dug Hamlet's note out of her pocket and stared at it. How would she explain?
"What?" Dash brushed her tangled brown hair away from her eyes.
"Do you have a pencil?"
Dash pulled one from her vest pocket.
Libby pressed Hamlet's note against her thigh and scribbled, I'm going back for them. We'll find you, below Hamlet's note. She handed the pencil and the note to Dash. "Give that to Skylar when he notices I'm missing."
"You—you're not coming with us?"
"We can't just leave the boys behind." Libby brushed her braids back and retied her scarf tightly. "I'll catch up."
"Maricossa's gonna be mad. So will Hez and Skylar and…geez, Libby, everyone's gonna be mad at you."
"Well, that's just too awful, isn't it?" Libby glanced at Mrs. Monday to make sure she wasn't looking, then swung over the railing. She landed in a crouch and stayed down as the airship began to lift off.
Once it was clear of the dock, Libby dashed for the abandoned longboat. She clambered aboard and turned to watch the Daniel Defoe splash through the waterfall's spray. No one had seen her. She sat on the deck and took a deep, shaky breath.
What am I doing? This is crazy. I can't just take off…I can't…but I can't just leave Hamlet and Brick. Oh stars, what am I doing—
A loud boom echoed into the bunker, only a little muffled by the waterfall. Libby shot to her feet. "The White Tiger!" She jumped over the side of the longboat, braced her feet, and pushed against it. The bottom of the boat scraped along the rocky floor, and the shredded stern left splinters under her feet.
It cleared the floor. Libby jumped in, unfurled the sail, and tried to start the small propeller. It creaked and hissed, shooting steam into the air. She glanced back at it. The outer metal casing, dull brass, had several large dents in it from the grapeshot that had damaged the stern.
"Oh, bother it all!" Libby pounded it with one hand. I need the Professor.
The longboat drifted toward the waterfall.
Libby ground her teeth. She pounded again. "Work, you worthless piece of junkyard scrap!"
The waterfall misted over the boat, drumming on the balloons. Libby shaded her eyes with one hand. Where were they?
Another cannon shot, this time behind her. Libby spun and squinted up at the sky. The Daniel Defoe and the White Tiger airship hung above the waterfall, broadside to each other. The White Tiger ship dwarfed Hez's, and dark wisps of smoke drifted up from one of the guns poking from her deck.
Libby bit her lower lip. "C'mon, Hez, move!"
A cloud of glittering bits shot from the Defoe. Libby rubbed her eyes and looked again. What in Shandor Rei is he shooting at them? Pixie dust?
Whatever it was, it worked. The shards clung to the hull of the White Tiger ship and slashed at the balloons. Libby smirked. Of course, Hez had a plan. He always had a plan.
Maybe that was why he and Maricossa clashed so much.
She turned her attention back to her own boat. It was floating just above the river, carried along by the air currents over the cold water. She wouldn't need the propeller after all.
Libby straightened the sail, made sure it was tied firmly in place, and spun the wheel. The boat rose above the river and soon skimmed along the treetops.
She glanced back for one more look at the airships. The Defoe was chugging away in the opposite direction, and the White Tiger ship was slowly settling to the ground. Libby grinned. For the first time, she was glad they'd brought Hez in on their adventure.
Libby reached to the side of the wheel and inflated the balloons a bit more.
She glanced over her shoulder again. The waterfall had faded to mist behind her, and there was no sign of the Defoe. Her throat tightened, and she fingered a charm on the end of one of her braids.
Skylar's worried face sprang to mind. He'd be frantic that she'd left his protection. And Maricossa and the Professor would be furious. Libby didn't even want to think about how Mrs. Monday would react—after losing Coll, she'd turned to mothering the Library kids. She'd probably be sick with worry.
Was it right of her to be so excited, so elated, at having pulled off her escape when she'd be making so many people anxious? After all, it's not like they were trying to keep me captive. They all just wanted me to be safe. Hez isn't exactly the best influence.
It had all seemed so simple in the Library. She'd wanted to cut the White Tiger's legs out from under it. She thought she'd be able to do that by teaching people to read. Instead, it had gotten them in this mess. I still want to help, but the others act like they don't want me to do anything.
She shook her head, rattling the charms in her braids. No. I'm not going to sit by and let everyone else risk themselves for my kids and my library. She still needed to work out exactly how that would look, but for now, she'd just see this as her first attempt to pull her weight in their little rebellion. Besides, it's too late to turn back now.
Libby shoved the thought from her mind and inflated the balloons a little more. She drifted upward, watching the brilliant colors of the sky slowly fading as the sun sank. She smiled. Everything was so peaceful…
As she sailed on, back toward the city, the sun sank to the horizon. The sun rays gold-washed the leaves below her in rippling waves, making it seem as though she was floating on a sea of dark green and gold. Orange and pink cloud streaks shot across the sky, and even the faint smog that hung over Shandor Rei glittered. The last sun rays glinted off an airship chugging over the city, clearly depicting the snarling tiger's face on the brilliant white balloons. A reconnaissance ship.
Libby's shoulders tensed. She crouched down behind the wheel and quickly toggled the balloon pressure down. Too quick. The boat dropped. Her heart jumped to her throat. She released the switch, but before the balloons could stabilize, the bottom of the longboat crunched into the trees below.
The impact knocked her on her rump. The wheel turned, and the boat listed to one side.
"No, no, no!" Libby scrambled against the tilting deck and jerked the wheel back. The boat stopped leaning, and she heard branches grate against the tiller. Libby poked her eyes over the wheel, keeping herself stiff so the boat wouldn't move, and watched the airship.
It continued its slow circle of the city.
Libby huffed and sat down, biting her lower lip. Why did I ever think this was a good idea? I should've brought someone with me…even one of the kids would have been helpful.
A cool night breeze slid over the boat, rustling the branches and raising goosebumps on her skin. Libby shivered and zipped up her jacket. "Stupid, Libretto Con Brio," she muttered. "Stupid to listen to Hez again."
Because that's what had started this. He'd challenged her, wanted to know why she was following Maricossa and Skylar, why she didn't just strike out on her own.
Because every time I do, Hez, something bad happens. Libby stood up and peered over the railing of the boat. For the most part, the boat simply seemed to be resting on a tangle of branches, but from what she could see in the fading light, the tiller and propeller were completely tangled in some sort of vines.
She groaned and looked around. Then she snorted. What am I doing? There's no one there. No one to help me out of this. Great going, Libby.
A long howl drifted up from the forest floor. Libby hunched her shoulders and clenched her hands into fists. The tension in her muscles felt like it would tear her apart.
She hopped in a circle, her legs stiff, her heels thudding into the deck, shaking her arms up and down in short, jerky movements. "Not good, not good, not good," she chanted. "Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad…oooh, Libby, you dunderhead!"
She stopped spinning.
She pulled up the trapdoor and dropped below the deck. It was almost completely dark in here, but the hold wasn't big. Maybe she could blunder her way onto something that would help. She crouched down and patted the sides of the boat and the floor. Her hand struck something metallic and sent it skittering across the floor.
Libby followed the sound and, searching more carefully, found it. By the shape, it was a medical knife. She tucked it into her jacket pocket and finished exploring the hold. There was nothing else useful to be found, even though she pawed into every corner and cranny.
When she stuck her head above deck again, the sun was gone, and the moon was gaining brilliance in the east.
"But still not enough light to work by," she muttered. Her skin prickled as she looked around again. This time, lit with silver instead of gold, the sea of leaves looked menacing and ready to pull her under.
She shivered. "I suppose it's better than crashing on the forest floor."