Dark, wild lines, scrawled in thick strokes, careened across the floor of the lookout nest, surrounding Skylar. Snarling vines choked scenes of city crowds and structures exploding into flames. His hands—shaking, just slightly—were black with the burnt smudges of charcoal, snatched from the galley ash-bin, that now lay in broken, snubbed scraps around his knees.
He swiped a hand across his damp forehead, leaving a broad smear of black.
He was angry. No—too mild a word. He was furious—livid.
How dare Libby pull a stunt like this? He picked up a chunk of charcoal and hurled it over the side of the lookout nest, watching it sail through the air and into the foliage below. The Defoe was moored between two low hills at the foot of the Vuori Mountains, where—in theory—they could keep a lookout for Libby’s return.
Why in the world did she think this was a good idea? If she had only said something—Skylar would have gone with her, or they could have gone back…but no. Impulsive as always, Libby had gone off on her own, put herself in danger—and maybe the rest of them too. If the White Tiger caught her, they could make her tell them everything.
He’d seen that firsthand. His blood boiled to think of Libby in the hands of Sergai’s agents, intent on “extracting” whatever they could.
He tugged at the rag tied around his mechanical left arm, straightening it. It caught on a protruding screw, and he gritted his teeth in frustration. The outer casing that had protected the intricate inner workings of his arm was gone and now protected the tiny gears and springs clicking and whirring in Maricossa’s clumsy new prosthetic.
Not that Skylar minded—not too badly. His mechanical bits had been in place for years. He could stand to be a bit unprotected. Maricossa’s new, raw prosthetic, with its delicate marriage of tendons and bones and metal, needed shielding. Skylar would just have to be more careful for a while, until they reached Tianzhu. The Professor promised to replace everything once they regained civilization.
Though, if Skylar had to work one more bit of dust out of a tiny gear with one of Hez’s compass points…
He huffed a heavy breath out his nose and stared up at the clear blue sky of early evening over his head. He’d been up here almost all day. He didn’t trust himself around the kids—his temper was too foul, and there was nowhere to go cool off. He had to sit. Stare at the sky and the unending sea of green limbs and the great grey heaps of the mountains rising behind him. And try not to worry.
Because, under all of his anger, he was worried—desperately worried. Libby was alone, possibly in danger, and he had no way of knowing, let alone doing anything about it.
Hez was in almost as foul a mood as Skylar. The moment he saw Libby’s note, he started for the wheel, determined to head back and track her down. But the Professor—even as he started toward the cabin to deal with Maricossa’s injuries—intervened.
“We cannot go back,” he said, his calm voice rising above the confused chatter of the kids. The ship’s deck fell silent, and Hez gripped the wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white, but he listened.
“Libretto has taken a risk,” the Professor continued. “Possibly a foolish one—possibly not. However, we cannot risk the lives and freedom of everyone else on this ship. Better to find a place where we can await her return, and, if she doesn’t reappear soon, venture after her from a safe location.”
The Professor didn’t wait to hear Hez agree or argue, but disappeared below to tend the wounded Maricossa.
Skylar hadn’t liked the dark look on Hez’s face. The pirate silently obeyed the Professor’s suggestion, but as soon as the ship was moored, he retreated to the galley to spread his maps and charts on the table, planning a half-dozen rescue routes. And he hadn’t said a word to the Professor about any of them.
With a sigh, Skylar swept up the bits of charcoal he’d been drawing with and tossed them out into the waves of foliage, where they silently vanished. The sky was turning periwinkle with the coming of sunset, and the light wisps of clouds in the west—toward Shandor Rei—were tinged with orange and bright pink. Squinting into the golden light of the setting sun, Skylar wondered—
He lifted his hand to shield his eyes, manipulating the mechanical one to zoom in on a dark shape appearing out of the light. He sucked in a sharp hiss through his teeth.
“Ship,” he breathed. Then, louder— “Ship!” Leaning over the edge of the lookout nest, he yelled below:
Hez burst out of the galley, his pistol already drawn. “Get everyone below,” he shouted. “Skylar, get down here and man a cannon!”
Skylar swung over the side of the lookout nest and clambered down as quickly as he could without his foot slipping from the wooden pegs that made a ladder down the mast.
“It could be Libby,” he said, landing on the deck with a thunk.
Hez was holding a spyglass to his eye. He brought it down with a muttered curse. “It could be,” he growled, “or it could be the White Tiger, or it could be a merchant ship on its way to Zazibay, or it could be another pirate craft. I can’t see with that blasted sun…” he clapped his hand on Skylar’s shoulder. “Battle station, boy. One way or another, we’ll deal with this.”
“What’s going on?” The Professor stepped out of the main cabin and peered quizzically at Hez through his spectacles. “Is there a problem?”
Hez pointed his spyglass at the Professor. “Get back in the cabin, old man—make sure tiger boy stays down. I can’t deal with an invalid on my deck right now.”
“It’s a ship, Professor,” Skylar said, ducking down behind one of the shard cannons and flipping open the lid of the ammunition box. “We don’t know if it’s a problem or not.”
Please be Libby, he prayed, while Hez dashed around unfastening the ship’s moorings. If anyone up there is listening, please let it be Libby.
He had no idea if anyone out there would pay any attention to a scruffy cyborg boy on a small airship in the middle of nowhere, but Mrs. Monday prayed sometimes, so he thought…Maybe.
Then again, Mrs. Monday prayed, and Coll had still died.
He shoved that thought away violently, and squinted into the sunlight. The ship was still quite far out, flying low over the dark green waves of the forest. Skylar fingered a glass shard missile, rubbing his thumb along its jagged edge.
Please be Libby…
Hez, beside him on the gunwales, let out a soft grunt.
“What?” Skylar asked.
“It’s my longboat,” the pirate said in a low tone.
Skylar’s heart leaped.
“Don’t get your hopes up yet,” Hez cautioned. He sighted down the length of his shard cannon. “Just ’cause it’s mine doesn’t mean it’s friendly.”
The sun was dropping lower, a fiery ball of vibrant red skimming the horizon. Black and silhouetted against it came the longboat. Closing his natural eye, Skylar strained, pushing his mechanical eye’s magnification abilities to the max. The gears behind the glass lens whirred in complaint, and he felt the heat build in his eye-socket. Pushing the discomfort aside, he struggled to focus on the longboat, until he thought he could make out—
He bolted to his feet—and staggered, vertigo at the change in perspective painting golden swirls around the corners of his vision. Searing pain stabbed the left side of his head.
“How can you—”
Skylar steadied himself against the railing. “It’s her,” he managed. “I could see her waving.”
“And anyone else on board?” Hez looked up, something akin to concern creasing his brow. “Skylar—you alright?”
“I need to sit.” Following words with action, Skylar folded onto a crate full of shard ammunition. He closed both his eyes, and the pain diminished. “I’ve got to shut this thing off for a while,” he admitted. “Think I overheated it.”
Hez turned back to the approaching longboat. “You’d better be right.”
“No, I mean—I believe you think you saw Libby, but you don’t—”
“No,” Skylar waved a hand. “I mean actually listen.”
Hez fell silent, brushing away a strand of dark hair that had escaped his queue.
The voice was tiny, but Hez heard it too.
“Ahoy there, Defoe!”
The pirate let his shoulders sag with relief, and released the lever on the shard cannon.
Skylar spread his cybronic hand magnanimously. “Told you.” He didn’t let Hez see his other hand, which curled into a fist. “I told you.”
Libby came about to the port side of the Defoe and—with much bumping and at least one shout of “Watch my ship!” from Hez—got the longboat tied down. Swiping loose hair out of her damp face with a grimy hand, she stepped up and over the railing.
“I’m home,” she announced, just as the younger children tackled her. “Oomph,” she exclaimed, going down in a flurry of arms and legs.
“Libby, Libby, we had a fight!”
“Mr. Maricossa is asleep and I got to see his knifes.”
“There was pirates and we was pirates and stuff was going ever-where!”
“I got a splinter!”
Skylar stood back, relief and anger warring in him. Libby looked up over Mia’s tussled head and met his eyes. Pride and defiance and regret shone in her gaze, and he looked away—just in time to see Hamlet, with Brick close behind, step over the railing.
“Hamlet!” Skylar called, relieved at the distraction. He stepped forward. “Good to see you a—”
A third figure climbed over the ship’s rail, wincing, and favoring his left side. His thick blonde hair was slightly too long, and his clothes hung loosely on a frame that had been bulkier the last time Skylar saw him. But there was no mistaking who it was.
“Coll?” Skylar’s voice rasped, and he felt tears sting his eye.
“My boy!” Mrs. Monday shoved past him and gathered Coll into her arms, tears running down her face. “Oh, Coll, oh my boy—you’re alive, you’re alive…”
“He’s alive.” For the second time, Skylar felt like he needed to sit, but there was no handy crate this time. “He’s…he’s alive…”
“Hamlet found him.” Libby extricated herself from the pile of children and stood, taking him gently by the arm. “One of the dockworkers saved his life—Connie’s shot was just barely too high. Missed his heart by inches. Hamlet’s been taking care of him and Brick both.”
Skylar squeezed her wrist. “Libby, I—”
“Please don’t be angry with me, Skylar,” she pleaded. “I had to—I had to go back for them.”
He looked down into her eyes, and lifted his hand to touch the freckles on her cheek. “You could have been captured,” he said. “Or killed.”
“But I wasn’t.” She straightened. “I nearly crashed, and I climbed around on that stupid longboat in the middle of the night without a single speck of light and I found a knife and I saved my boat, and I found Hamlet and Brick and Coll and I got us all the way here because I just knew Hez would hide somewhere like this, and this is the fourth place we looked, and I really think you should be saying how proud you are of me instead of being angry with—”
Skylar laughed. He couldn’t help it. All of the anger and fear he had been struggling to keep down was washed away by a flood of relief and joy. Libby was safe. Coll was alive.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave her a swift hug, noting the evil eye Hamlet cast his way. He winked at Hamlet—an easy task, considering he only had one eye operational right now—and stepped back.
Libby stared up at him, her mouth ever-so-slightly agape.
“Well,” she said. “Well.”
“This calls for a celebration!” shouted Mrs. Monday, her face reddened from crying, but beaming with such joy that it felt as though all the shadows of night suddenly fled.
Coll, one arm around his mother, and a damp patch on the front of his shirt where she had wept, grinned at Skylar.
“I am a bit hungry,” he said.
Skylar had never heard more beautiful words. He stepped forward, and clapped Coll on the arm.
“Good to have you back,” he said, his voice catching a bit in his throat.
Coll threw his arm around Skylar’s shoulders. “It’s good to be back,” he agreed.
Skylar cleared his throat, and gestured toward the galley. “We’ll let Hamlet have run of the kitchen,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get some good food for a change.” Taking Libby’s hand, he grinned down at her.
Coll, his best friend, whom he had seen shot down in front of him, had returned from the dead. Libby was safe. They had escaped Shandor Rei and the White Tiger.
It was most certainly time to celebrate.
Late that night, long after Mrs. Monday had put the children to bed, Skylar, Hez, the Professor, Libby, Hamlet and Coll sat around the fire that they had built in a clearing beneath the Defoe. It had dwindled to ashes, and the darkness of the woods seemed a safe blanket of protection, hiding them from the eyes of the White Tiger.
Skylar sat on a log with Libby’s head on his shoulder. Her eyes drooped, and he looked down at his right hand. Libby’s fingers fit perfectly, threaded through his own.
“…So Maricossa is laid up for at least another day or two,” the Professor was explaining to Hamlet and Coll. “You saw him at dinner—he couldn’t fight a kitten, let alone a tiger.” He grinned. “See what I said—a tiger? Like the White Tiger—”
“We caught it, Prof,” Coll said with a smile.
“How far is it to Tianzhu?” Hamlet asked, looking up at the Defoe. “I always thought it was sort of on the other side of the world—can we make it in a ship this small?”
Hez picked up a long stick and poked at the fire, sending smoke and tiny sparks into the air. “Oh, the Defoe can make it—she’s sturdier than she looks. It’s a crew I’m worried about. Can these kids handle the voyage? I can’t sail this ship alone. Plus, Tianzhu is at least a month’s voyage from here, and that’s assuming we make no stops. We have enough food and water on board to last us about a week—maybe ten days if we stretch it.”
Libby sleepily raised her free hand. “They can do it,” she said. “They’re hard workers.”
Hez looked at her, and his face softened. He raised his face to the hovering underbelly of his ship, hanging above their heads.
“I believe you,” he said at last. He stood, and extended his hand for Libby to take.
“Get some sleep,” he said, nodding at Skylar and the others. “We sail at dawn.”