Libby gripped the rope netting and leaned to the side, hanging ten feet above the Defoe's deck and nearly fifty feet above the ground. From her vantage point, she could see the outskirts of Delfi, white glittering mansions dotted among green hills and jungle.
The ship listed to one side, and Libby tightened her grip. Her braids flew into her face as Hez circled over the city's airship port. Even at this altitude, she could smell the dust and the spices drifting up from the huge market that surrounded the port. Bright-colored tents spread in all directions, the dirt paths sticking like wheel spokes from the hub of the port and disappearing into the earth-toned buildings of the city proper.
The sounds were there too, of people jabbering, metal and pottery knocking together, and the occasional screech of an animal. Somewhere came the sound of a deep, throbbing drumbeat, joined later by a sharp, tinny sounding instrument unlike any she'd ever heard before.
Hez pulled level with the port, a wooden tower sticking several stories up from the city, and began searching for an empty dock.
"There's one!" Dash shouted, pointing to a dock at the very top of the tower.
Libby untangled her legs from the netting and started down. Skylar met her on the deck, carrying a backpack in one hand and tucking something into his belt. She caught a flash of metal.
"Maricossa gave you one of his pistols?" she whispered.
"No, Hez gave me one," he muttered. "He's acting a bit jumpy."
"Not nearly as much as Maricossa will, I guarantee it." Libby leaned over the railing and scanned the ground. "Sky, look, there's an elephant underneath us! A real, live elephant!"
He grinned. "Something tells me you're going to love Tianzhu. Just don't take off on an adventure—I don't want to miss it."
She frowned, but managed to keep her mouth shut. His light-hearted tone said he was joking. But he's been making 'jokes' like this ever since I got back with Hamlet, Coll, and Brick. It's not just joking anymore—he's hinting that he doesn't want me to go off on my own.
Which was sweet, but a little annoying. Why couldn't he just come out and say it, rather than dancing around the subject? Surely after everything they'd been through, Skylar knew he could say whatever was on his mind.
The Defoe settled into port with a gentle bump. Hez tossed a line out, and dock workers immediately scrambled to secure the rope to the dock. One of the men shouted something to Hez, and he replied in the same language.
"Be right back." Skylar turned and ducked into the galley, the top of his head brushing the door frame.
Libby sighed. Sooner or later, they'd have to talk about it.
Hez and the dock worker concluded their discussion. Hez jumped down, shoved the gangplank out to the dock, then came to stand next to Libby.
"We have to wait for the dock master to clear us to come ashore," he said. "Shouldn't be long."
Hez eyed her carefully. "I saw that Skylar talking to you. Ti-borg should be glad you've got a babysitter."
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the railing. "For what it's worth, I think your trip to pick up the boys was worth it. Both for them and for you."
"I think you're the only one who approves," Libby muttered.
"Hey, you had a better plan than I did when I left the Library." He shrugged. "Don't worry about it. They'll figure out that you can take care of yourself."
The door to Hez's cabin opened, and Maricossa stepped out, carrying Mia in one arm. His hands were encased in leather gloves, and he wore a long-sleeve shirt, despite the sticky heat that already had Libby feeling like she swimming through the air. The Professor followed Maricossa, and at the same time, Skylar popped out from the galley.
"Seen the dock master yet?" Maricossa called to Hez.
"Waitin' on him now." Hez spit over the side of the ship. "I hope your little hideout has an airship dock, 'cause the money for this space is coming out of your pocket, not mine."
Maricossa just narrowed his eyes. "I'll see what we can do."
Libby caught sight of an Indian man wearing a white suit coming up the dock. "Is that the dock master?"
Hex started to stand.
"I've got it, Hezekiah," Maricossa said, heading for the gangplank.
Hez resumed leaning on the rail and watched Maricossa walk carefully to the dock and offer his hand—the flesh one—to the dock master. The two started up the dock toward the central port hub, Maricossa still carrying Mia, the little girl staring around her with wide eyes.
"I'll tell Mrs. Monday to begin readying the children," the Professor said, heading into the galley.
Hez waited until the door had swung shut to say, "Look at that, sis. They actually trust us up on deck, by ourselves. What a rotten mess."
Libby sighed. Here we go again.
"C'mon, admit it. You haven't changed that much over the years. I can tell you're miffed."
The word choice made her chuckle. "Yes, okay, Hez, I'm miffed. I wish they wouldn't make such a big deal out of me going to get the boys."
"That's my sister." He gently bumped his shoulder into hers. "Tell ya what. As much as Ti-borg won't like it, we'll have to keep our noses to the ground, see if the White Tiger is going to try to come after us. Tianzhu may have kept itself out of the Black Turtle's hands, but that doesn't mean there won't be Cardinal Point Alliance agents trying to flush us—or at least Maricossa and me—out. Maricossa might have contacts here, but he's not really going to be in any condition to jaunt around the city. I've been here plenty of times, and I know who to ask if I want news. If you get tired of hanging around with the Library crowd, just tell me, and I'll make sure a visit to my informants is immediately necessary."
Libby faced him. This was Hez as she remembered him, wheedling her into climbing onto the Library roof for the first time, or digging into the rubble to discover a new room of unexplored books. Hez grinned and held up his hand.
She slapped her palm against his. "Deal."
The streets were even more lively than she'd noticed from the ship. Everywhere, there were bright, vibrant colors—booths covered in red and orange sunshades, gold tracery making the cloth glitter in the sun. They walked past a vendor selling dull, earthen spices, and Libby gripped Skylar's arm, pulling him, Toddy, and Leelee to a stop.
The smells were a weird amalgam—spices, gritty dust and dung from the street, exotic fruits and flowers from the booth next door.
"Whoa!" Skylar grabbed Toddy's arm pulled him out of the street as an elephant trundled past, blue and silver drapings swaying.
A man sat on the elephant's neck, prodding him along with gentle pokes of a stick. Huge basketwork seats hung over the elephant's sides, each seat holding several people, all swaying in time with the elephant's gait.
"An elephant taxi?" Libby pushed her braids away from her face. "Sky, they have elephant taxis!" Across the street, she caught sight of a dark purple sari hanging in the front of the booth. "Look at that, Leelee!"
"Oh, that's beautiful," the little girl whispered, staring at it.
Libby glanced down at herself, trying to imagine how she'd look wearing the dress. She'd left her aviator jacket at the ship, but even so, her wrinkled linen pants and white sleeveless shirt looked out of place. The only thing she was wearing that looked right where the sandals.
Skylar and Toddy gave other exasperated looks and rolled their eyes.
"C'mon, Lib, no time for shopping now. I'll take you when we're settled," Skylar said.
Libby let him guide her away. "I'll hold you to that!"
"Girls are weird," Toddy said.
Leelee smacked his arm. "Boys are gross."
"At least we don't stop to poke our noses into every store. Look!" Toddy pointed ahead, where Mrs. Monday was leaning over baskets of fruit. "Even Mrs. Monday!"
The woman turned back toward him, smiling. "Yes, even Mrs. Monday. But you'll thank me when I know exactly where to find oranges."
Toddy's eyes widened. "We were lucky if we got oranges at Christmas in the library!"
"Ssh, ssh!" Libby hissed.
Mrs. Monday smiled. "No one's paying any attention, Libby. Here…I'll take these two, and you and Skylar can hang behind a little bit." She took Leelee and Toddy's hands and hurried after the rest of their group, now several booths ahead.
Skylar flushed, but slipped his hand around Libby's. They walked casually, just fast enough to keep their group in sight. Libby felt like her head was going to fly off, since she kept jerking around to see all the different sights she could. She was thankful for Skylar's hand around hers, so he could navigate and she could sight-see.
Another booth of bright clothes caught her eye, and she started toward it. Skylar's hand tightened.
Libby jerked to a halt. "Skylar!"
"What?" He looked down at her, his forehead wrinkling in concern.
She pulled her hand away from his. "I'm not a little kid you have to keep corralled! Why did you jerk me back? I looked—there was a clear path, no elephants or anything!"
He slid both hands into his pants pockets and scuffed the dirt with his boot. "Sorry, Lib. I don't mind if you shop a bit."
"It's fine." She started after the library group again, crossing her arms over her chest. The clothes had lost their appeal.
Skylar walked beside her, and she could feel him watching her. Finally, he said, "Libby, why are you mad at me?"
"I don't want to have this discussion here."
"You've been upset over the last couple of weeks. I'd like to know why."
She sighed. "Think about it."
Skylar groaned and tilted his head back. "Does it have to be a guessing game? Toddy's right. Girls are weird."
She heard the joking tone, but the words rub just enough the wrong way. Libby stopped in the middle of the path and put her hands on her hips. "It's not funny, Skylar Bench. You've been making jokes about this for week,s but it's not funny! Coll wouldn't be here if I hadn't gone to get Hamlet And Brick. Mrs. Monday and yhou and the Professor would still be griewving for him, and the kids and I'd vbe heartsick over leaving Brick and Hamlet. But all I hear is that it was 'stupid' and 'dangerous' to go back. Maybe, but Maricossa would've done it if he hadn't been hurt! And I didn't even hear a single thank you."
"Did anyone say thank you? Did they?"
Skylar rubbed the back of his neck. "I thought it was implied…"
"Hez is the only one who approved of whast I did!"
Skylar's face tightened. "Yeah, and that's where I have the problem with it. That's not good, to have Hez approve of something."
Libby snorted, whirled, and stomped off. Her eyes on the ground, she rammed straight into someone and tumbled into the dirt. She looked up as the person passed her, and her heart skipped a beat. The person was wearing a long cloak, with the hood pulled far over their face. She couldn't see any facial features except the glimmer of eyes.
Connie had brown eyes.
The person continued on their way without even acknowledging the collision.
"Libby, are you okay?" Skylar leaned down and started to help her up.
Libby jerked away and stood up on her own, brushing dust off her pants. "I'm fine," she growled, staring after the cloaked person. A shiver ran down her back.
She wanted to smack herself. Hez's words about the White Tiger coming after them were getting to her. She was mad at Skylar, distracted, and probably imagining things.
Skylar was babbling something, but Libby interrupted him. "C'mon, Sky. We need to catch up with the others."