“Put her down right there,” Maricossa said, pointing out past the front of the longboat.
“Are you insane?” Hez demanded.
“We need to land there, whether I am or not,” Maricossa replied.
“It’s too dark!” Hez protested, flinging his hand towards the shadowy expanse between the dim, hulking outlines of decrepit warehouses. “I can’t see to get any idea of the terrain or what might be down there.”
“It’s a stretch of old loading docks with paved surfaces that run from the river up to the backs of all these old warehouses. There might be a few bushes around, but nothing worse than that.”
“And you know this how?”
Maricossa turned as Skylar stepped up from the rear and squinted out into the dusk.
“Isn’t that the warehouse?” He pointed down at the ramshackle building in front of them. “The one where Professor and Coll and me used to live?”
Maricossa nodded. “Good eye.” He grimaced as soon as he’d said it. Idiot. But Skylar didn’t appear to have caught it. Instead, his face lit up.
“So that’s why we followed the river into the city!”
Maricossa nodded again. “I didn’t think we stood much chance of getting in at any of the airship docks without getting caught.”
“So instead we can land in a run-down shipyard in the dark and crash and drown,” Hez said, his voice and body language dripping sarcasm. “Obviously a better course of action.”
“Oh, we’re well away from the edge of the river, and I’m sure with your expertise as a pilot we’ll be just fine.” Maricossa didn’t put much effort into hiding the patronizing tone in his voice.
“Shut up and give me some breathing room,” Hez said, his eyes fixed straight ahead. “I need to concentrate.”
Maricossa motioned for Skylar to move towards the tail end. Libby, who had been standing right behind Skylar, followed them.
“Landing here was a good idea, Maricossa,” Libby said quietly.
“I’m just glad I can grab some of my stuff,” Skylar grimaced. “Mrs. Monday left a lot behind. Not to mention the tools and food and things still in the Professors lab.” He narrowed his eye at Maricossa. “… but you already thought of all that, didn’t you?”
Maricossa shrugged. “More or less. I saw the loading area one of the times I was here, and it seemed like the best spot to land without being noticed—”
A jolt shuddered through the longboat’s deck, and they all spread their feet for balance. Hez directed a rather cliché assortment of derogatory names at Maricossa, as more bumps and shakes followed.
“Hezekiah!” Libby yelled, turning as if to storm Hez’s position.
“Shh.” Maricossa caught her arm and shook his head. “Let it go. Better to let him get it off his chest by questioning my lineage than to let it build up to another fight, eh? We don’t need that right now, and I’ve been called worse before anyway. Just keep quiet. We don’t want to draw attention if we can avoid it.”
Libby stayed put and lowered her voice, but crossed her arms and glared at Hez’s back. “I don’t know how he turned out to be such a punk,” she muttered, “like nothing Needle taught us matters anymore. He knows good and well what she’d do if she heard him talking like that—”
Another shake made them all take a step or two as the longboat came to a complete stop. A few moments later, the engine stopped. The darkness seemed to thicken as a deep quiet settled in. Behind them, they could barely hear the sound of the river lapping and sucking at the docks. A few insects sang to each other. There was no other sound.
Maricossa felt a subtle thrum of energy building in his chest—the feeling he always had right before a mission. Whether he liked it or not, this was his element.
He stepped closer to Libby and Skylar and spoke in a low voice, barely above a whisper. “Here’s the plan: we go in and get whatever we can from the warehouse—only the absolute necessities. We can’t afford to waste time on anything else. Skylar, I’m putting you in charge here, since you know where everything is kept. Libby and I will follow your lead.”
“Right.” Skylar nodded, and his eye widened with excitement.
“But what about the library?” Libby hissed.
“We’ll get there,” Maricossa assured her. “But if we get spotted on the streets somewhere and have to run for it, I don’t want us to have to fly out with nothing to show for the trip. Just try to trust me, okay?”
Libby hesitated for a moment, her lips pressed together and her forehead furrowed, but she finally nodded. “Okay.”
“Let’s go.” Maricossa looked past Skylar to where Hez stood with arms crossed next to the pilot’s seat. “I assume you’re not coming with us.”
“There is no way on this green earth I’m leaving my longboat here to get stolen or vandalized.”
Maricossa nodded. “That’s what I thought. It won’t take us long to clear what we need out of the warehouse, then we’ll be back here to load it.”
Hez said nothing. Maricossa stepped out onto the pavement. The surface was riddled with cracks, weeds and grass crowding every crevice.
With Skylar and Libby behind him, he made his way into the dark, looming interior of the warehouse where Professor had made his headquarters. Fortunately, vast though the place was, there were few rooms, so it was easy to check for potential threats.
Once he was satisfied that no one lurked inside, Maricossa sent Skylar and Libby together to gather supplies from the rooms at one end of the building, while he made for the far end.
A couple of trips between the building and the longboat were all it took to clear the most vital supplies from the warehouse: some non-perishable food, a precious few medical supplies, as many papers, drawings, plans, and blueprints as they could find in Professor’s work room, and an armful of tools and pieces of mechanical gear. Skylar, who’d had to trust the packing of his belongings to Mrs. Monday, made a quick sweep of his old room and grabbed a few overlooked items, and then they left, shutting the door after themselves and walking away for the last time.
They left Hez grousing in the longboat, and made their way through the dark streets to the library. Maricossa had to remind Libby several times to slow down and stay alert; she kept speeding up her pace and getting ahead of them. He knew how anxious she was to get to the library, and they did need to get out of the city as quickly as possible, but they couldn’t afford to let themselves rush and make a mistake that would get them caught.
When they reached the tunnel leading through the rubble to the library entrance, Libby cast a quick glance at Maricossa, as though daring him to stop her now.
“Libby…” he started, but she ignored him and ducked inside, charging ahead into the darkness.
Maricossa growled in frustration under his breath as he and Skylar followed. “I don’t know how you put up with her like you do, Skylar.”
“It’s the freckles,” Skylar said.
Maricossa shot him a look and, in the light of his torch, saw a flush of red cover the boy’s face. Maricossa grinned, but realized that he probably shouldn’t tease Skylar—after all, who was he to talk about relationships?
They reached the hallway outside the kitchen just as Libby was coming out of the kitchen door. Maricossa was about to say something to her about running ahead of them, but she spoke first.
“Don’t know why I looked in the kitchen first,” she said, brushing past him and Skylar on her way towards the Hub. “It’s the middle of the night. They’ll be asleep.”
Maricossa decided the lecture could wait—it was probably pointless anyway—and followed her.
A search of the entire library—every room and every tunnel—turned up nothing. There was evidence that someone had been there recently—half a loaf of mold-free bread in the cupboard, an armload of firewood stacked next to the hearth in the Hub—but no one was around now.
Maricossa felt Skylar’s metal hand on his arm, and stepped closer as Skylar leaned in to whisper to him. “Where are they? You don’t think the White Tiger…”
Maricossa shook his head, chewing on the inside of his mouth. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think the White Tiger’s been here, but Hamlet and Brick aren’t either and that worries me.”
They stepped apart as Libby came across the room, her face pale and her eyes wide. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Where are they?” She threw the question out, leaning forward and staring at Maricossa as if he knew the answer and was playing a prank on her by keeping it secret.
Maricossa braced himself. He didn’t know where Hamlet and Brick were, but he knew what had to be done now, and that he was going to have to tell Libby.
“Libby,” he said slowly, “I don’t know where they are. But what I do know is that we cannot afford to spend all night searching the forgotten sector for them. We’ve been here too long as it is, and morning isn’t that far off—”
Libby stiffened and stepped back from him as if he’d pulled a gun on her. “I’m not leaving them behind again!” she said. “I’m not going to Tianzhu without Hamlet, and Brick is my responsibility too. I let you leave them behind once, Maricossa, and it’s not happening again!”
That hurt more than Maricossa cared to admit, and that fact gave him pause. This wasn’t just a mission to get as many books and kids as possible to safety, he realized. Hamlet and Brick and Coll weren’t just collateral damage. This was his family now, and families didn’t leave each other behind.
He supposed that settled what he had to do, then.
“You’re right, Libby,” he said, giving a resigned sigh. “I’m sorry.”
She blinked once, but said nothing.
“We need to get out of here, get back to the longboat, and back to the bunker,” Maricossa said, holding up a hand to cut off Libby’s interruption, “but I will come back alone and look for Hamlet and Brick until I find them or get caught by the White Tiger, whichever comes first. Even if the rest of you have to leave for Tianzhu without me. Will that work?”
Libby stared at him distrustfully for a moment. “You would do that? You’re not just saying that to get me to leave?”
“I promise,” Maricossa said. “I will come back for them.”
She hesitated a moment more, twisting her hips and looking at everything but him.
“Okay,” she said, finally looking up at him, “but—but we’re not leaving for Tianzhu without you, either.”
Maricossa turned and started back towards the exit. “You will if I tell you to,” he said.
As Skylar and Libby followed him, he heard Libby mutter: “I’d like to know who died and left you king.”
Maricossa suspected she was only partially teasing.
They had made it back to the warehouse district and were approaching the alley that would let them into the docking yard when Maricossa heard voices. He sidestepped into the shadows against the wall, and Skylar and Libby did the same.
“What is it?” Libby whispered, but Maricossa held up a hand to silence her.
From the docking yard, in the direction of the longboat, came a line of a song bellowed in a slurred voice. It sounded like Hez.
“Get a hold of yourself, man!” another voice ordered. “I asked you a question: what are you doing here, and who are you waiting for?”
“I toooold you,” Hez said, “I’m waiting for my crew to get back from their leave, so we can… load up! And… head out!”
“How in the world did Hez get drunk so fast?” Skylar whispered from behind Maricossa. “We’ve only been gone for an hour!”
“He’s faking it to cover for being there,” Maricossa whispered back. I hope. “And so he can make enough noise to warn us without arousing too much suspicion.”
“But who’s that questioning him?” Libby asked.
Maricossa crept closer to the corner of the building to hear better. “My guess would be…”
“He has cargo in there already. Search it, just to be sure.”
Maricossa’s stomach twisted at the sound of that voice.
He’d figured it was White Tiger agents patrolling the river, but why on earth was Connie one of them? River patrol was a menial assignment… had Connie been demoted or punished after Maricossa and the others escaped Shandor Rei? Not that it mattered at the moment. Things were about to go south in a hurry, and he had to do something about it.
He backed away from the warehouse’s corner and turned to Libby and Skylar. “Alright,” he said, “we’ve got to move fast. Those are White Tiger agents, and I’m going to go in and try to take them out.”
“Not by yourself!” Libby hissed.
Maricossa ignored her and began rattling off instructions as quickly as he could. “I want you two to stay here, out of sight. If I get the drop on them and signal you, run for the longboat and get in. But if I don’t, get out of here fast, as far away as you can, and don’t let them find you. Find a way to get back to the bunker as soon as you can.”
He didn’t wait for either of them to reply. He pulled his revolver from its holster on his ankle, levered the hammer back, and carefully moved forward enough to peek around the corner.
The agents were at a disadvantage. While the man pawed through crates on board the longboat, Connie was left to keep watch alone, and most of her attention was rightfully focused on staggering, ranting Hez.
Maricossa quickly moved out of the alley and across the docking yard in a half-crouching run, angling himself to have both agents in his sights with minimal movement required. He only hoped that Hez wasn’t really as loaded as he sounded. If he was, they were all in deep trouble.
Connie turned to scan the area just as Maricossa raised his revolver and aimed it at her.
Her eyes shot wide open, and she gasped.
“Don’t either one of you make a move,” Maricossa said, loud enough for the agent searching the longboat to hear him. “Both of you put your hands on your heads.”
By now Connie had recovered her poise, and her expression had returned to a cool stare. She made no move to obey his command.
“Galvin, really,” she said, “I won’t deny that we parted badly, but you’re a fool if you want me to believe you’re capable of shooting me.”
Maricossa clenched his teeth. She was right, no sense denying it. She knew him too well. Connie took a step closer to him and began easing the barrel of the revolver away from herself with the palm of her hand, and he let her… until the sound of another hammer clicking back froze her.
Hez stood with his own revolver leveled at the back of her head. “Yeah, well, thankfully I don’t have the emotional hangup-thing for you that Tiger boy here has,” he said. “I’ll shoot a hole in your head and call it fair for the hole you shot in my ship. How’s that?”
Maricossa gave an inward sigh of relief at Hez’s sobriety and timing.
Outrage blazed in Connie’s eyes, but she said nothing as Maricossa stepped away and ordered the other agent out of the longboat. He disarmed both of them and was about to signal Skylar and Libby to come out.
Then a cannon shot roared from the river, and the gun in Maricossa’s hand exploded.