Joseph Robert Lewis
Omar the Immortal
Chapter 1. Swordplay
Omar Bakhoum stepped down off the train before it stopped rolling and he surveyed the crowded platform beneath an evening sky stained the color of iron and rust.
One small step closer to Ysland and to unlocking all the mysteries of life, death, and the universe. At last!
The city air stung his nostrils with the mingled scents of sea salt, rotting fish, burnt oil, and dung. The train squealed to a halt behind him, and he heard a chorus of voices rise from his fellow travelers, the men and women from Carthage who spoke more dialects of Mazigh and Eranian than even he could recognize.
As he emerged from the Tingis train station, Omar noted the sun riding low in the western sky beyond a veil of gray clouds and a smoky haze that clung to the city like a filthy spider’s web. The street teemed with bodies in motion. Women in fashionable business suits marched in pairs sharing newspapers. Men in sweat-stained rags staggered beneath crates and barrels on their backs. Striped zebras trotted along with small carts in tow, and mighty spotted sivatheras promenaded proudly with their elaborate carriages rolling smartly behind them. Long brass trolley cars trundled down their tracks with bells clanging and wires sparking. And through the surging tide of people and vehicles, tiny children darted laughing through the streets, dodging wildly in and out of traffic.
Omar paused to look up the hill behind him. Above the train station was another, larger facility where three massive hangars stood wall-to-wall beside a wide grassy field ringed in tall white poles.
Mooring masts. So that’s a Mazigh airfield. But it’s a bit late in the day for introductions, I think. Tomorrow, then.
He looked back down the busy boulevard in front of him as a pair of children collided with his leg. His left hand darted to his sword to pin the weapon in place while his right hand snatched the collar of the closest child and held the boy at arm’s length. Omar smiled into the boy’s terrified eyes. “You should learn to be faster and quieter if you want to prosper as a thief, little one.”
The boy swallowed and nodded.
“You need practice. Are there any stray cats in this place?”
The boy nodded again.
“Good. You should practice sneaking up on the cats. When you can catch a cat, you can catch a purse. All right?” He grinned and let the boy go. The boy stood there a moment, then darted away into the street again.
Omar set out. His thin sandals let him feel every bump in the cobblestones, but his heavy green robes kept out the wintry sea breeze. At the next intersection he paused to run his thumb down the black and gray stubble along his jaw, and then he turned left away from the Tingis harbor.
He soon found himself on another busy street lined with houses of lodging and places to eat, but these were not the rude inns and taverns of his home in Alexandria. Before him stood the gleaming brass and glass facades of Mazigh hotels and Mazigh restaurants, all staffed by smiling young Mazigh men and women in matching uniforms, all bearing food on trays and rolling suitcases on well-oiled trolleys. Omar stepped up to the window of the first restaurant on his left and peered inside at the carefully arranged tables and the overdressed patrons eating with a baffling array of utensils and speaking in such low voices that he couldn’t imagine that any of them could follow what the other was saying. His gaze fell on the menu posted in the window just in front of him, and as he did not recognize any of the dishes listed, he turned away to select a hotel instead.
His command of the Mazigh tongue was out of practice, but with a bit of effort he was able to ask several ladies in the street for a recommendation, and they pointed him in the direction of a tall brick building called The Imperial. Smirking to himself at the presumption of the name, Omar stepped inside and found the interior far brighter than the evening street outside. Electric lights glowed in regular intervals along the walls and countless mirrored panels reflected the lights over and over again across the foyer.
The uniformed woman at the desk winced at the sight of his sword and his sandaled feet, and she stared down at them longer than Omar thought polite. But she took his money and gave him the key for room number seven, and a minute later he was sitting on the third softest bed he had ever encountered in his very long life. Smiling, he lay down on the thick blankets. His stomach growled.
He went downstairs and followed the sounds of plates and glasses to a small bar at the back of the hotel, and there he successfully negotiated the bartender into finding him a plate of roasted chicken, chickpeas, and dates. After supper he slipped out the back door into a wide alley blissfully empty and nearly silent. Only the soft rumble of the evening’s traffic echoed from the street in front of the hotel. Sitting on a sturdy crate, he slipped his pipe from a pocket inside his left sleeve, tapped down a few leaves in its bowl, and set them alight with a Puntish match.
As Omar inhaled the sweet scent of the herbs, he heard a footstep echo from the end of the alley. The stranger walked slowly and confidently with the weight of a grown man, and he made the sharp clacking of an easterner wearing wooden sandals.
The clacking stopped.
Omar exhaled slowly, watching the smoke curl up through the air. “You’re a long way from home, little brother.” He turned to look at the stranger. “A very long way.”
The stranger was short and lean, his spare body hidden within his long brown and white robes. Below his flowing trousers, the man’s bare feet rested on a pair of wooden geta sandals that lifted him several inches above the cobblestones. His hands were hidden inside his voluminous sleeves, which swayed softly around the two swords belted at his waist. He wore no beard, and dark brown eyes stared out from an expressionless face. A straight white scar ran from his left cheek down to his lip, but it failed to twist his mouth into an unpleasant shape. And his dark brown hair was tied back in a single tail that hung to his shoulders.
Omar squinted at him. “I suppose you know who I am.”
“You are Bakhoum-dono of the Temple of Osiris,” the man said, bowing his head. “I am Ito Daisuke, samurai of the Temple of Amaterasu.”
Omar nodded wearily.
A Tiger from our brothers in Nippon. I’d hoped to never see one again. So much for hope.
“What can I do for you, little brother?”
“I have come to challenge the great Master of Alexandria.”
Omar took another long draught from his little pipe, and then set it aside on the crate as he stood up and stepped into the center of the alley. “I’m not sure that it would prove much if you were to beat an old man like me. And I really don’t want to fight you. Are you quite sure about this?”
Omar coughed and cleared his throat, and then rested his right hand on the hilt of his sword. As he touched the pommel, a soft tide of voices filled his mind and a sea of dim faces appeared before him, floating in midair all around the alleyway stretching out in every direction. Some of the ghosts looked angry or frightened, and some of them were shouting at him, demanding his attention, but Omar ignored them all as he locked eyes with the shade of a grim young man dressed in Old Persian blue silks with a slender scimitar on his hip.
The shadowy youth nodded at him and with a weary voice he said, I am ready to serve as always, Master Bakhoum.
Omar nodded back, but for once he was not entirely certain that the ghost of the young gladiator would be equal to the task at hand. After all, young Merik’s skills were over one thousand years out of date. Still, Omar focused on the living samurai and squared his shoulders. “All right then, little brother. Whenever you’re ready.”
The Tiger of Amaterasu turned his body, set his feet, and rested his right hand on the hilt of the shorter of his two swords. Omar watched his opponent’s eyes, knowing he would see no doubt, no fear, nothing at all. And he didn’t.
This is going to hurt.
Daisuke drew his sword and struck in a single fluid motion faster than Omar’s eye could follow. His blade shone like molten gold in the shadows of the alley, painting the walls in splashes of amber light. The dead gladiator Merik guided Omar’s hand, and Omar drew his own sword straight up to block the samurai’s blow. The tip of the golden sword shattered off as the two blades connected.
Instantly the samurai’s blade fell dim and dull, the steel fading to cold gray as a pale aetheric fume billowed up from the broken tip. But Omar’s sword, identical in shape and size, blazed with a perfect white light that bleached all color from the two men and the stone walls around them. Omar reached out to slowly swipe his blade through the smoke rising from his opponent’s weapon, and the vapors swirled into his gleaming white sword, which brightened slightly as it inhaled the fumes and those souls caught in the aether riptide.
Daisuke dropped his broken sword as a thin hint of anger rippled over his scarred lip. His eyes narrowed as he reached for his second, longer sword.
“It’s done,” Omar said. “I hope you found whatever it was you were looking for.”
But the man in brown drew back into his stance once more, his hand resting on his undrawn weapon.
“Don’t be foolish, little brother.” Omar lowered his shining sword to his side. The bright blade hissed and sparked with tiny electric arcs, and the air around it boiled in a rippling cloud that would have steamed were the air not so dry. “Your swordsmanship is excellent. If we had fought with plain steel, you would have killed me easily. But you cannot break my seireiken. Look at it.”
The samurai’s eyes remained fixed on Omar’s face.
“Look at it!”
Daisuke’s eyes flickered down for a brief moment and then back up again. “Yes. I can see now that I never had any chance of winning in a contest of seireiken. Mine contained a mere five hundred souls. Yours must contain several thousand.”
Omar nodded. “Yes, it does. Plus most of your five hundred, now.”
“Then why is your hand on your other sword, little brother?”
“Because I did not travel halfway around the world merely to fight one of the Sons of Osiris for power or honor. I came here because I have been told you possess that which we all seek. The ultimate truth, the ultimate mastery. The secret of eternal life.”
Omar smiled sadly and glanced up at the darkening sky. “So you came to kill me for it?”
“I came to claim your soul, and with it, the knowledge you possess.”
“That will be difficult now, without your seireiken.”
“Quite.” The samurai slowly drew out his plain steel katana and presented it in an unorthodox one-handed grip. “So now I shall slay you, claim your seireiken, and capture your soul with it.”
Omar shook his head. “You’re making a mistake, little brother. Don’t do it. Walk away. If you don’t leave now, you’re just throwing your life away.”
“Perhaps. We will know in a moment.” Ito Daisuke rotated his foot slightly, his geta sandal grinding on the cobblestones. And then he struck.
His katana flashed in a lightning stroke and Omar barely stumbled back in time to avoid it. With the ghost Merik’s guidance, he raised his blazing white seireiken to hold his opponent at bay, but Daisuke ignored it entirely, checking and turning each slash to avoid touching the burning sword. The silvery katana slashed again and again, each cut perfectly executed at the eyes, at the knees, down the arm, up the leg, and all the while the Tiger of Amaterasu stared at him without a trace of emotion, without a shred of passion.
Omar reeled back, trying over and over to block the attacks, but each time the katana would slip around the seireiken, never making contact with the scorching hot sun-steel roiling with the heat of thousands of stolen souls. And without any contact, the battle proceeded in near silence, broken only by the grunts of the men and the shuffling of their feet.
Daisuke’s assault was relentless, and if anything it was growing faster. No longer just retreating, Omar began jogging backward as he ducked and reeled, his deadly sword all but useless in his tired hand. He scanned the sea of ghostly faces around him, wondering if any of them could help him now, but they were mostly dead scholars and priests and physicians, not warriors. Merik was the best he had, and today Merik was not good enough.
Not nearly good enough.
It only took the samurai a few moments to slip past the older man’s faltering defense. The first cut sliced just above Omar’s left knee, setting his skin on fire and dashing a bit of his blood against the alley wall to his left. He stumbled.
The second cut flew up his right arm, racing around his bright seireiken and gashing him from elbow to shoulder. Omar gasped and clutched the wound with his left hand. And for a moment, he looked down at the blood staining his sleeve and streaming down his arm.
In that moment of distraction, the katana’s long steel blade slammed through his chest. Omar gasped, his eyes bulging, his scream stillborn on his dry lips as he struggled to breathe, but he had no breath left. The pain stole the wind from his lungs, stole the strength from his legs, and stole the sight from his eyes, leaving him in a white haze as he toppled over backwards onto the hard stones at the end of the alley.
That was almost as bad as being trampled by a horse. Almost. But a horse has more than one hoof.
A moment later his eyes recovered enough to see the sheer walls of the buildings to his right and left rising up to meet the evening sky where angry clouds burned with shades of violet and crimson. He saw the dark figure of Ito Daisuke walk up beside him and stare down at him through cold, expressionless eyes as he pulled his sword from Omar’s chest.
The samurai inclined his head. “And now we know, Bakhoum- dono.”
With painful deliberation, Omar bared his teeth in a smile and whispered, “There was never any doubt, little brother.” And with a flick of his wrist, he swung up his seireiken to cut the Tiger in the ankle.
The samurai’s eyes widened the barest fraction, so little that Omar might have imagined it. But then the man’s eyes dimmed, his jaw went slack, and his body toppled over to the ground.
Omar inhaled slowly, feeling his lungs expanding whole and strong once again. He sat up and looked through the gash in his right sleeve to see his bloody skin already knitting back together just as the wound in his chest closed itself. The cut across his knee was already gone without leaving the slightest scar to mark its passing.
“Well, I may have the secret of eternal life, little brother, but it’s not pretty,” Omar muttered. He fished the little golden pendant from inside his clothes, inspected its wrinkled and veined surface, and then tucked it away again. “Cheating death hurts more than you’d think. But it’s still worth killing for, I suppose.”
No blood stained the samurai’s leg where the seireiken had cut him. Daisuke’s flesh had been seared at the moment it touched the blistering sun-steel, but the brief contact had been enough for the seireiken to draw out the aether in the man’s blood, and his soul along with it. A few pale yellow flames danced on the dead man’s trousers and Omar reached over to smother them with his own sleeve. Sighing, he leaned back again.
“Are you in there, little brother?” Omar gripped his sword tightly, summoning the vast sea of ghostly faces again. He sifted through the voices of the sages and priests, past the thieves and murderers, and through the strange group of newcomers from Daisuke’s sword, until finally he found Daisuke himself. The samurai’s soul felt like a cold void in the dead congregation, but then the shade with the scarred lip whispered:
I understand now, Bakhoum-dono.
“You beat my gladiator, and he was the strongest warrior I had.” Omar smiled briefly and sadly. “So I’ll be wanting your swordsmanship, little brother, sooner or later. I hope you’ll offer your skills freely. The alternative will be… unpleasant. For you.”
Omar stood up with a groan. With great care, he slid his bright white sword back into its clay-lined scabbard on his hip, dousing both its light and its heat. He glanced about, but the alley was just as deserted as before with no indication that anyone had seen or heard what had happened. He shifted Ito Daisuke’s body against the wall and covered it with a few bits of trash lying nearby, and walked away, leaving the beautiful katana under the body to be found by whatever vermin might happen by. He also took up the chipped and now-cold seireiken that the samurai had left on the ground, and he slipped it down through a grate into the shallow sewer below.
Hm. I’ll have to remember to come back for that, one day.
As he returned to the back door of the hotel, he picked up his pipe to find the leaves still smoldering and smoking. Omar smiled, set the pipe between his lips, and went inside to bed.
Chapter 2. Negotiations
The morning sun found Omar Bakhoum striding through the early press of Mazigh workmen and professional women as he angled uphill toward the airfield above the train station. The road leading up the hill plunged through a warehouse district, and on either side Omar saw teams of men moving sacks, loading wagons, and driving steam cranes to shift massive pallets of barrels and crates. He even paused to watch four men leading a massive hairy beast up the center of the lane. The animal stood twenty feet high and shambled along on its long-clawed knuckles, but it had sad cow-like eyes and a soft muzzle like a giant horse. It wore a heavy leather and iron harness tethered to a long wagon laden with massive brass pipes that must have weighed more than a ton each.
After the giant beast and its burden had passed, Omar crossed the road and passed through the tall iron gates of the airfield. He approached the small office beside the first hangar and spoke to a young lady in an orange jacket, who said that the airship he wanted was in the last hangar of the row.
He strode along the front of the hangars, peering into the first two to appreciate the massive cavern of each, though each was empty. And when he reached the doors of the third hangar, he stopped.
Omar stood there a long moment, just staring. The airship loomed above him in the shadows of the hangar like a great flying whale hovering effortlessly in the cool morning air. Its skin looked thick and wrinkled with all the layers of canvas and leather that were banded and lashed to it with brass rods and oiled ropes. Down on its belly where the craft kissed the earth he saw a beautifully crafted ship’s hull, an elegantly shaped arc of stained teak and polished brass and shining windows. Every fitting and corner was armored and riveted, and a small sort of cannon poked out from the starboard side.
He was still staring when a woman in a heavy leather jacket and canvas trousers emerged from the shadows and said, “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Captain Riuza Ngozi,” he said, sparing her a quick glance before resuming his study of the leviathan above them.
“You’ve found her.” She stuck out her hand. “And you are?”
He smiled broadly as he shook her hand. “Omar Bakhoum. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, dear lady. I trust you’ve received my last few letters? The ones about your latest expedition?”
“Ah, Mister Bakhoum, yes.” She nodded slowly as she took her hand back and hooked her thumbs in her belt. She tilted her shaved head to the side as she said, “I did receive your letters, but I wasn’t expecting to meet with you today. When did you arrive in Tingis?”
“Just last night. When I heard you were about to depart on a new expedition beyond the glaciers, I decided it was time for me to come and lend a hand myself.”
“Lend a hand?” The captain frowned. “Sir, I’ve appreciated your correspondence and your help with our translations over the last few months, but our expeditions are carefully planned long in advance. And we’re leaving tomorrow morning. I’m afraid there isn’t time for you to help with this trip.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s some small contribution I could make.” He reached into his right sleeve and pulled out a carefully folded and tied bundle of soft leather, which he handed to her.
Captain Ngozi took the bundle, removed the twine, and unfolded the leather. She hesitated, holding the soft sheet up to the light. “Where did you get this?”
“Rus.” Omar smiled and leaned around to look at the map with her. He pointed to the writing. “This is all in Rus, of course. A rather old and obscure dialect, as I understand it.”
“But this…” The captain traced the ink lines with her fingertips. “This shows the complete northern coastline of Europa. That’s impossible. It’s been buried under half a kilometer of ice for thousands of years. No one knows what it looks like anymore.”
“Sure, sure.” Omar nodded. “But once upon a time it wasn’t covered in ice, you know. The Rus folk used to live up there before the north was frozen. It took me ages to find this map. It’s positively ancient.”
“Then I don’t suppose anyone can read these markings,” the captain said.
“No, not really,” Omar said absently. “Except for me, of course. I speak half a dozen sorts of Rus. See here? This is a mountain called the Troll’s Hump, which is one ten-day from a lake called Woden’s Mirror. And a ten-day, by old Rus reckoning, was about two hundred of your kilometers.”
“This is very impressive, assuming it’s accurate.” Captain Ngozi carried the map a few steps farther from the hangar to better catch the morning light. “How long would it take you to create a translated version of this map with modern measurements?”
Omar smiled. “Oh, I’m sorry, but I can’t say I have much interest in translating the whole map right now. Although I’m fairly certain I could be persuaded to translate a few bits and pieces of it at a time, as needed. I’m sure you catch my meaning, dear lady.”
She lowered the map to look at him. “You want to come with us?”
“You’re serious? You want to spend the next two weeks inside a little metal box with four strangers, eating cold rations and shivering through the long Europan nights while entire legions of ghosts wander the ice below us? That’s what you want to do?”
“It doesn’t sound particularly appealing, no, but I do want to see this.” He lifted the map in her hand and touched a small island at the upper edge of the leather. “This island here. The Rus call it Ysland.”
“We’ve never gone that far north before. It must be a thousand kilometers beyond our current flight plan. And besides, we’re already prepped to survey the eastern coast of this island here. Alba.” She indicated a larger island to the south of Omar’s destination.
“Well, that’ll be fine. I’m not looking to build a summer house up there. I’d just like to see whether my little Ysland is really there, and whether it’s buried in the ice. That’s all. We don’t even need to get very close. Only close enough to see whether it’s frozen over.”
The captain narrowed her eyes. “It’s at the top of the world. Why wouldn’t it be frozen over?”
Omar winked at her. “I have a theory or two about that. But for now, I’d just like to take a quick look at it.”
Riuza frowned but shrugged and nodded as she studied the Rus map. “Well, I’ll have to do the math on it, but we can probably come within sight of your island by adding just one or two extra days, depending on the weather. If that’s all you want to do, well, that may be possible. And you really want to sit in the Finch for two weeks just to take one quick look at this Ysland?”
“Absolutely, dear lady. And in return, I may just find the time to make you a properly translated map, complete with your Mazigh measurements and markings.” Omar took back his map, noting the hunger in her eyes as she returned his Rus treasure. “Perhaps I should add that in addition to speaking more Europan languages than you’ve ever heard of, I’m also an experienced military surgeon, a deft tailor, and cook of no small skill. My hummus is smoother than silk.”
“Hm. I’ll need to discuss it with the rest of the team,” she said. “Come back this afternoon around three o’clock and we’ll let you know our decision.”
“Is the team here now?” he asked innocently as he glanced around the dark hangar. In the distance he heard a metal tool fall to the concrete floor. The clattering noise echoed across the chamber.
The captain sighed. “My engineer is here, but the others won’t be here for another hour at least. But we do have a lot of work to prepare for the launch, and we’ll need to discuss the matter in private.”
“Of course, of course,” Omar said. “I’ll just be out here. You can come get me when you’re ready.”
“You’re going to wait here all day? Fine, suit yourself. Just stay out of the way of the ground crew.” Captain Ngozi frowned as she went back inside the hangar.
Omar sauntered out across the cool dew-speckled grass of the airfield. From the far side of the field he could look down on the long curved roof of the train station. Its iron girding stood in stark rows of green-painted beams, and the center of the roof was paneled in shining glass windows that spilled the morning light down onto the platform and the rails below.
Beyond the train station were two more streets of shops and warehouses before the continent of Ifrica came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the Strait of Tarifa. To the west, the strait flooded out in sparkling wavelets to the vast Atlanteen Ocean, and to the east the waters shone a bit bluer in the busy Middle Sea. All across the waters he could see the tiny white sails of the fishing boats and the huge steaming bulks of the merchantmen chugging off to Espana, Italia, and Numidia.
His left hand dropped absently to his seireiken, allowing the thousands of shadow faces to appear around him in a great congregation of the dead, all staring at him in respectful silence. But one specter tore away from the others and strode into the empty space at Omar’s side.
“Hello again, little brother.”
The dead samurai gazed toward the east and said, Why are you taking us to this Ysland?
Omar chuckled softly. “Taking you? Are you my poor little child now, to be dragged about on my travels, pouting and moaning? Please, Daisuke, you were a Tiger of the eastern temple. You held a seireiken. You know what your role is in the world now.”
The young warrior frowned at him. Very well. Why are you going to Ysland?
“To find the truth. The last truth. The one truth,” Omar muttered. “Yes, I am immortal. Yes, I know something about aether and sun-steel and soul-breaking. But there are so many questions still unanswered.” He smiled gently. “And I have been looking for those answers for a very long time, indeed.”
“Over four thousand years.”
“I’ve been everywhere in the world, or nearly so,” Omar said. “From the palaces of Nippon to the streets of Tingis, right here. I’ve studied with doctors and sages and priests in a hundred lands, for dozens of centuries. And I still don’t know anything. What is aether? Where does it come from? Did the sun-steel really fall from the sky? And why can these things reveal and enslave a human soul? Haven’t you ever wondered about it all?”
Of course, Daisuke said. But these questions are as timeless as they are pointless. It is the way of the world. Our task is merely to try to use these things, perhaps even to master them, but not to comprehend them. We’re only men, not gods.
“Aha!” Omar raised a triumphant finger in the ghost’s face. “But what if we could ask God? What if we could follow the trail of aether and sun-steel to the very gates of paradise and meet God? Not in a vision, not at the end of the world, but here and now!”
Daisuke turned away to study the sky again. You aim very high.
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. But maybe this is what God wants, for someone to find these signs and wonders and follow them to the truth, the real truth, the ultimate truth in the world.”
And what truth is that?
“I have no idea, little brother.” Omar grinned. “I’ve been looking for that truth for half an eon and found only mist, metal, and ghosts. But Ysland! Ysland could be the answer. Have you heard of Ysland? No, of course not. It’s one of those legendary places, like Atlantia, that vanished into the sea. But the stories! If Ysland exists, then the people there could have all the answers, all the truths of the universe, just waiting for us to come and discover them. The stories say that Ysland defies the ice, that it glows with an otherworldly heat.”
You think they have enough sun-steel to warm an entire island?
“Exactly!” Omar couldn’t stop grinning. It had been years since he had dared to speak so openly about his designs to another person, living or otherwise. “Ysland may even be the source of the sun-steel, and the aether as well. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re just stories. But think of the possibilities if it is all true. The secrets of the aether and the sun-steel! The true origin, nature, and purpose of the human soul revealed! And perhaps even the gates of paradise thrown wide for us mere humans to walk through and meet our creator, in this life, in this world, to tell us the meaning of it all.”
Daisuke said nothing, and Omar joined him in gazing at the horizon. He was still looking off to the east when a speck appeared in the sky. It grew slowly and steadily, a single circular blot in the bright morning clouds. Eventually the soft droning of the distant airship’s propellers rose above the cries of the sea gulls and the dull roaring of the city traffic. A few minutes later the flying machine began to descend over the airfield, and Omar could see the smooth skin of the ship’s white belly and the pale outline of the tiny gondola clinging to its underside.
“That’s the Halcyon,” a voice called out.
Omar looked down at the young woman sauntering toward him. Behind her a team of young men in orange jumpsuits were striding across the field toward the eastern mooring masts to meet the incoming ship. The young woman came up beside him and leaned back against the rough wooden fence at the edge of the field to watch the landing. She had a soft face and tiny hands, and a long blue scarf was tied back into her hair, which bounced around her shoulders in thick brown curls.
“It looks smaller than the one in the hangar,” he said.
“Well hell, everything’s smaller than the Finch,” the woman said with a grin. “But Halcyon ’s even smaller than the other couriers. That’s Isoke Geroubi’s boat. She was the captain of the Shearwater when it exploded, just half a little way over there.” The woman pointed toward the city harbor. “Blew her engineer to pieces.”
Omar winced. “That’s awful. But the captain survived?”
“More or less. She’s not the same now, though. Isoke’s completely obsessed with safety regs and procedures and technical specs. She’s always fighting with the commander about one thing or another.” The woman shook her head. Then suddenly her face brightened as she held out her hand. “Lieutenant Morayo Osaze, flight engineer of the Frost Finch. Pleased to meet you.”
“Omar Bakhoum.” He shook her hand.
“So I’m supposed to bring you back over to the hangar now,” Morayo said. “The captain wants to give you a long speech about protocols and responsibilities and safety procedures before she tells you that you can come with us. Oops.” The engineer winked at him. “I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that last part. Riuza’s a straight shooter and an ace pilot, but she gets a little boring and controlling sometimes. Still, she’s a hell of a lot better than Isoke.”
“That’s good to know.” Omar paused to watch the small courier Halcyon hover lower and lower over the field as the ground crew waited patiently to tether it to the mooring masts and the huge iron rings standing in the concrete along the side of the field.
“All right then, let’s go listen to your captain’s speech,” Omar said. He followed Morayo back across the field to the hangar and let his mind wander to his imminent need to purchase some warmer clothing, and the mundane concern of whether the Mazigh shops would take his Eranian darics. And so he lapsed into thinking in Old Persian and almost walked into Morayo when she stopped short at a sudden burst of shouting in Mazigh at the far end of the field.
The young engineer started to jog toward the ground crew, but Omar took in the scene in a glance and set off at a dead sprint, his long legs devouring the distance as the men shouted more and more frantically.
As the Halcyon had descended, the four men on the ground had taken its ropes to guide the airship to the mooring masts, but one of the men had gotten his foot snared in the lines and the airship was now dragging swiftly him across the ground. The Halcyon ’s propellers had been turned over to blast their fan-wash downward to control the airship’s descent, but now the starboard propeller was descending directly toward the dragged man’s chest and the roar of the prop drowned out his screams completely, leaving his face a silent mask of terror.
With a prayer in his heart and his heart in his throat, Omar ran with all his strength. He could imagine all too well what would happen when the whirling steel blades touched the man’s flesh. The other three men in orange were hollering and hurling their goggles and gloves and even their shoes at the airship windows to try to get the pilot’s attention, but still the Halcyon glided swiftly forward, sinking ever closer to the dragged man.
And then the propellers all snapped to a halt, freezing in place, and in that same instant the roar of the motors fell silent and the screams of the men filled the air.
Omar felt a tiny wave of relief wash through his chest, only to recede again into that same naked fear. Without its propellers turning, the Halcyon had no way to control its descent and now it was sinking even faster toward the ground. The dragged man was safe from the propeller, but the gondola would crush him into the cold earth when it touched down.
Omar was only a few paces from the airship now as its bow plowed toward him, and he could clearly see the rope running from the gondola’s railing down to the dragged man’s leg. Omar grasped the hilt of his seireiken tightly and whispered, “Little brother? I’m going to need your help now. I need to sever that line without anyone on this field seeing my blade. Can you do it?”
The dead samurai answered, I can.
A series of images flashed through Omar’s mind, the motions that Daisuke wanted him to execute. He blinked. “There must be an easier way than that!”
There isn’t, the ghost replied.
Omar grimaced. There wasn’t time to argue. The rope was right in front of him and the gondola’s hull was a mere hand span above the crewman’s chest. Omar exhaled and drew his sword. The sun-steel blade flashed bright white as it slashed through the rope, dropping the crewman’s leg and leaving him motionless on the grass as the Halcyon ’s belly smashed down into the earth just beyond his feet. The gondola gouged a deep brown gash in the dirt, scraping the grass away.
But Omar had no time to see any of that. At the same moment that he drew his sword in his right hand, he drew his scabbard from his belt with his left hand. As the blade severed the rope, spinning his body to the right, he chased the bright sun-steel with the clay-lined scabbard, and as the rope fell slack Omar gracefully slid the scabbard up over the exposed blade. His whole body continued to spin in midair until he fell face-down on the cool grass with his sheathed sword lying flat beneath his chest.
Omar blinked into the crushed grass. I did it. The blade was only visible for half a second. I did it! Thank you, little brother. That was truly inspired. I’ve never been so graceful before in all my life.
The dead samurai appeared for a moment on the field beside him to bow his head, and then he vanished again into the netherworld of the seireiken.
As he pushed himself up, Omar saw one of the crew men kneeling beside his dazed comrade and the other two were wrestling the Halcyon to a full stop and lashing it to a pair of iron rings buried in the earth.
“You all right, old timer?” Morayo jogged up beside him. “That was a hell of a thing you did. The captain never mentioned you were a fighter, too. If I’d known that, it would have been even easier to convince the others to let you come along on the Finch.”
Omar brushed the grass from his clothes as he turned to her. “Ah, so you were my advocate in there? But we’ve never even met. Did you think the expedition really needed a translator or a doctor that badly?”
“Not really.” The young engineer grinned. “But we sure as hell could use a good cook.”
The two of them headed back to the hangar once again and passed close by the Halcyon ’s cabin. Morayo slapped her hand on the window, startling a young woman inside. “Hey Taziri!” Morayo yelled. “Have you figured out where everything goes yet?” And she laughed as they walked on, leaving the other woman glaring out through the glass.
“Who was that?” Omar asked.
“That’s Isoke’s flight engineer. She’s not even a real engineer, she’s an electrician. Can you believe that?”
“Ah. And she’s having trouble finding her way around the Halcyon?”
“No. I just like giving her a hard time that she hasn’t had a baby yet. They’re waiting, she says.”
Omar frowned. “Why give her a hard time about that?”
“I don’t know. Why not?”
Back inside the hangar they found Captain Ngozi and two men standing beside a long wooden table and speaking in low voices. When Omar and Morayo walked up, the captain asked, “What was all that noise out there?”
“Just Isoke and Taziri trying to crash that new boat of theirs and kill all the ground crew at the same time,” Morayo said dully. “But our new cook saved the day.”
“Our new cook?” Riuza asked. “You told him?”
“It may have slipped out,” Morayo said. “But I promised him you would do the whole lecture about protocol and command and everything anyway.”
The captain sighed. “Never mind.” She shook Omar’s hand. “We’ve all discussed the matter and decided that we’re willing to trade you a seat on the Finch for a copy of your map. Welcome aboard, Mister Bakhoum. You have one day to buy a very warm coat and to notify your next of kin that you’re probably not coming back. You’re going to Europa.”
Chapter 3. Civil war
Captain Ngozi motioned for the tall man beside her to step forward. “Mister Bakhoum, I’d like you to meet Mister Kosoko Abassi, our resident cartographer and geologist from Timbuktu. He’s been with the team for three years now.”
The men shook hands briefly. Omar guessed from the traces of gray in the taller man’s hair and the deep lines around his eyes that they were of the same age. Or, more precisely, that Abassi was the same age that Omar had been when he stopped aging.
“And this is Professor Garai Dumaka of Gao University, our naturalist and anthropologist. Technically he’s been on the team for five years, since before the Finch was rigged for northern flying,” Riuza said. “He helped get the entire exploration program off the ground, so to speak.”
The professor was shorter and younger than the cartographer, and he wore a pair of circular spectacles on his small nose. The rest of him wore an over-tailored green suit of many pockets full of pens and small tools. Omar shook his hand politely.
“All right, well, that’s all the time we have for standing around,” Riuza said. She handed Omar a slip of paper. “Here’s a list of everything you’ll need. Clothes, mostly. We’re adding extra food for you. The weight shouldn’t be a problem, but there’s absolutely no room for any personal gear. No trunks full of special equipment or a secret companion you conveniently forgot to mention.”
Omar smiled. “I take it you’ve had trouble with such things before.”
“Let’s just say there used to be a fifth member of this team, and she had trouble listening to directions. So now she’s no longer a part of the team.”
Omar nodded. “I understand completely, dear lady. No surprises. Just myself and the clothes on my back, as soon as I can buy them. Thank you all very much. You won’t regret it, I promise you.”
“We leave tomorrow morning at six thirty,” Riuza said. “Be on time.”
“Don’t worry. We won’t leave without that map of yours,” Morayo said with a wink.
The captain glared at her lieutenant and sent her back to work on the Finch.
The rest of the team went back to work as well, and Omar strode out of the hangar with a bounce in his step that he hadn’t felt in decades. He crossed the field, left the gates, and hurried back down the hill to grab the first person he found to ask for directions to a tailor’s shop.
It took three people to give him directions because none of the three could agree on which shop had the best prices, but Omar took all of their advice with a good-natured smile and set out for the closest clothier’s establishment. But he soon found it would take all three of the recommended stores to find everything on his list. Still, with every shop eager to accept his Eranian darics, he stepped out into the streets of Tingis fully attired shortly before noon. The canvas trousers were stiff and rough, the tall leather boots with the steel toes squeaked when he walked, and his several layers of shirts and sweaters made him feel like a hippopotamus wallowing in the mud. But he rather liked the full-length wool coat with the fox fur trim, even with its pockets crammed full of spare leather gloves and wool hats. And his favorite purchase of all wasn’t even on the list, but the blue-tinted Mazigh sunglasses were simply too pretty to pass up. And besides, he reasoned to himself, they would shield his eyes from the glare of the sun on the vast Europan ice.
Probably. And if not, then at least the ladies should find me dashing and mysterious in them.
Eager to break in his uncomfortable trousers and noisy boots, Omar set off down the road with his old clothes bundled over his shoulder and his sword hooked on his new belt. After a few minutes of sweltering in his new clothes, he decided it was time to sit down for a long lunch and he ducked into the first eatery he came to, not bothering to look for a menu outside. Inside he found long rectangular tables, not the small round ones from the cafes near his hotel, and he sat down near a group of roughly dressed men in the middle of their midday meal.
A young man appeared at Omar’s elbow a moment later carrying an unexpected but welcome fish sandwich and bowl of vegetable soup, so Omar took the offered food and paid his coin and settled in to his working class lunch. He had just discovered exactly how spicy a Mazigh sandwich could be when the shouting started.
Looking up from the peppery cod in his flatbread, Omar saw several men surrounding a woman in a conservative blue dress. The garment covered her from throat to wrists to ankles in the Espani fashion, but her complexion and voluminous hair style were clearly Mazigh. She was speaking just as loudly and twice as quickly as the men confronting her, but from across the cavernous cafeteria Omar couldn’t understand a word of it.
At first the angry men were all focused on the woman in blue, but then a sudden division split their ranks and several of the men seemed to switch sides, now pointing fingers and shouting at the other men. Omar heaved a weary sigh, spooned as much warm soup into his mouth as he could, and then stood up with his sandwich in hand. He stepped away from the table and started shuffling through the crowd toward the door.
The argument grew louder, and more men stood up to take sides, and the woman in blue was all but hidden by the wall of bodies.
Omar had nearly reached the door when it flew open and in rushed half a dozen young men in matching brown uniforms with long black rifles slung over their shoulders and beaming smiles on their faces. The foremost of the soldiers, a squinting fellow with a pair of scars down the left side of his face threw out his arms to the cafeteria and shouted, “Who wants to buy lunch for the hero of the Atlas Mountains?”
A handful of men waved their glasses and sandwiches at the soldiers and made some half-hearted cheers, but the shouting match in the center of the room drowned them out.
“Hey now!” The scarred soldier pushed farther into the room and gestured to the man behind him. “Three cheers for the bane of the Songhai, Lieutenant Zidane!”
The other soldiers cheered the man so loudly that Omar stepped back with a wince and one hand to his ear. The celebrated man towered over his comrades, a giant of a soldier with a shaved head and a thick neck who took in the room with half-lidded eyes and a bored frown. But this time several tables’ worth of men perked up to join in the cheer, to shout unkind words about the Songhai raiders, and to chant Zidane’s name.
In the center of the room, a fist flew and a woman cried out.
Instantly the giant called Zidane charged into the room, climbing over men and tables like a wolf racing toward his prey. He crashed into the knot of brawlers in the center of the room, roaring like a mad bull and throwing frenzied punches in every direction. The rest of the brown-clad soldiers clambered after him, but by the time they crossed the room through the crowd, the fight was already over. Half a dozen men lay sprawled on the floor and half a dozen others sat bloody and dazed on the seats nearby. The woman in blue stood untouched in the center of the space, though her expression was quite wide-eyed and she stood very, very still. Lieutenant Zidane cranked his arm around in a vicious circle to unwind his shoulder and he grunted something into his chest. Slowly, the hungry patrons put the room back together, and then the men went back to eating and talking, and Omar let go the breath he’d been holding.
Then he noticed his sandwich in his hand, and he smiled, and he shuffled out the door into the street where the air was a bit cooler and his heavy new clothes didn’t feel so oppressive. An elderly little man followed him out and exchanged an amused look with him.
“Is it always so exciting around here?” Omar asked.
The man shrugged. “Not more than once a week. But when the soldiers come around, it does tend to get colorful. That Zidane is a beast of a fellow, though. Good man, I suppose. Still, the more he’s out on the frontier, the better, eh?”
“You mean the Songhai border?”
“Where else? Songhai raiders crossed the border last summer and burned a hundred homesteads just south of Arafez. People are in a panic down that way. But the queen refuses to declare open war with the Songhai Empire, so the fighting goes nowhere, and everyone gets a bit angrier as the bodies pile up year after year.”
Omar nodded as he took another bite of his peppery fish. “Any idea what that argument was about back there? The one with the woman?”
“I don’t know. Wages, probably.” The man stretched. “Times are tough, and getting tougher. But that’s always been true, hasn’t it? Hm. Well, have a good day.” The little fellow limped away with a high, squeaking sound on every other step. Omar saw that the man’s right leg was gone just below the hip, replaced with a padded wooden cup mounted on a brass peg with a thick spring joint where his knee used to be. The stiff coil rocked and squealed with each step the man took.
It was still early in the afternoon, but Omar headed back to his hotel to shed his extra woolly layers and sit with his old Rus map. With a bit of hotel stationery and a cheap blue pen, he began his translation. After supper in the bar downstairs he considered another smoke in the alley behind the hotel, but then he thought better of it and returned to his room for an early night.
After all, tomorrow is a big day.
Chapter 4. White squall
Omar arrived in the hangar entrance just as the morning sun was about to break above the eastern ridges of the Atlas Mountains. Dressed in all of his heavy new clothes and his blue-tinted glasses, he strode toward the Frost Finch prepared to offer whatever assistance the crew required. But Captain Ngozi merely waved him into the cabin, directed him to sit in the back, and told him not to touch anything. And so he sat and waited.
From his seat, he could see the outline of the steam engine housed behind him and the shape of the flight controls in the cockpit in front of him. Along the walls to either side and lashed to the bars and shelves overhead he saw countless packages wrapped in leather and canvas, bound in twine, or covered in wooden panels. The equipment and provisions crowded in the space in teetering piles and bulbous lumps, making it more like a wildman’s cave than a civilized room.
Over the next half hour, the engineer Morayo and the two southern scholars arrived, inspected the trunks and sacks carefully stowed inside the Finch ’s cabin, and the two men sat down beside Omar with only the briefest of greetings between yawns. The cartographer Kosoko regarded him with an unpleasant frown, but kept whatever he was thinking to himself.
Morayo came back and held out a folded brown paper in her hand, on which rested a small pile of gnarled brown and white roots. She grinned at Omar. “All right landlubber, time for your medicine.”
Garai grabbed a root and popped it into his mouth. Kosoko selected one carefully and sat back with the morsel still in his hand. Omar peered at the offering. “What is it?”
“Ginger. It helps with motion sickness.”
“Oh. Thank you.” He took one of the roots and glanced at Garai, who nodded confidently between chews, so Omar put the ginger in his mouth and began chewing.
Suddenly there was a flurry of activity outside as the ground crew cranked the huge doors of the hangar open. Riuza settled into the pilot’s seat and the engine rumbled to life. Morayo sealed the cabin hatch and took her seat beside the captain. Through the small armored windows, Omar could see the Finch ’s propellers whirling just outside the gondola, their monotonous droning echoing inside the hangar.
The airship shuddered and glided forward, slowly moving out into the morning light. Omar sat patiently with his hands on his lap. He turned to Kosoko and said, “So how many times exactly have you done this?”
The cartographer pressed his lips tightly together, narrowed his eyes in a pained expression, and shook his head.
Garai, the naturalist, leaned forward and raised his voice above the noise of the engine to say, “You’ll have to excuse him. He gets more than a little motion sick, every time. It’s so bad he won’t even be able to put the ginger in his mouth for a while. But he’ll be able to talk in half an hour or so.”
“I see. And what should we do in the mean time while we’re en route?”
“Do?” The professor leaned back in his seat wedged between a small water reservoir and a cargo net full of salted fish wrapped in brown paper. “Take a nap. There’s nothing to do until we reach the glacier.”
“And how long will that take?” Omar asked.
“About two days, depending on the weather.”
The Frost Finch rose gently into the cool morning air and Omar gripped his seat as the floor vibrated and shuddered beneath him. Through the small window on his right, he saw the edge of the hangar shrinking until it fell out of sight, and then the entire city contracted into a collection of toy houses and toy shops and even toy boats on a brightly painted sea. In a matter of seconds the entire world had fallen out from under him and all he could see were surreal replicas in miniature. Roofs, walls, roads, and trees lost all meaning to him from the sky, and people vanished entirely.
I wonder if this is how God sees us. As ants. Or not at all.
Omar glanced at the professor.
Two days to the glacier. In two days, I’ll be beyond the northern edge of all civilization. At last!
From the port city of Tingis they crossed the Strait of Tarifa in half an hour and began the first leg of their journey across the Espani sky to the Pyrenees Mountains. The engines droned, the little professor snored, and the tall cartographer breathed through his open mouth looking somewhat greener than he had on the ground. The ginger root remained tightly gripped in his white-knuckled hand, but eventually he managed to place a small sliver of it in the corner of his mouth.
For two days, Omar sat in the back of the cabin. He made small talk with his fellow passengers, and occasionally he stood up to pace the narrow floor and to look out the other windows, and even to peer into the cockpit at the arcane assortment of levers and dials and gauges around the pilot and the engineer’s console. But there was never more than two minutes’ diversion anywhere in the cramped and crowded cabin. So he sat in his seat and closed his eyes and rested his hand on the pommel of his seireiken, and for hour after hour he listened to the sweet voices of Numidian songstresses, Hellan poets, and Persian courtesans who had all lived and died centuries ago.
When the cartographer was looking less likely to vomit, Omar offered him a look at the old Rus map. Kosoko took it grudgingly and then passed the rest of the afternoon comparing it to his own hand-drawn maps from their earlier expeditions. Omar watched the man’s face for some reaction, some sign to confirm that the Rus map was accurate, but the cartographer merely looked grave and thoughtful and returned the leather map without comment when he was finished.
Omar offered to cook when he guessed the lunch hour to be upon them, but he was casually dismissed by Morayo, who said they wouldn’t be cooking in the air and he would have to wait for their first landing for a warm meal. So they ate dried meat and fruit and seeds, and drank lukewarm water that tasted of copper from an overhead reservoir.
Late in the afternoon of the first day, Omar had the professor show him how to use the small metal toilet in the corner, a facility with no illusion of privacy that did however provide a terrifically cold shock to one’s bare bottom. Omar tried not to think about where the waste might fall. Nor did he look forward to witnessing either of his female companions use the device. When Morayo headed back to the round seat, Omar quickly headed forward to linger by the cockpit until she was done. Garai chuckled at him when he returned.
The nights were worse than the days. There was still nothing to do and no comfort in which to rest, but in the darkness the world outside faded into a ghost landscape of moonlight on shapeless white snowfields. The vast wilderness of Espana stretched on and on below them, a featureless winter world punctuated by the rare stone cities that huddled like gray mountains in the day and glowed like colonies of fireflies in the night. Kosoko began to describe what they were seeing below, naming cities and landmarks, especially the famous Espani cathedrals, but the man soon grew queasy and fell silent again. He chewed his ginger sparingly.
It was late during the second night, as Omar leaned shivering against a canvas sack of apples trying to sleep, when lightning flashed across the cockpit windows. A moment later a deep growling thunder rolled through the cabin, and then the soft patter of rain began to fall on the great padded gas envelope of the airship above them.
After a few minutes of listening to the storm, Omar shuffled forward into the cabin where Riuza sat tall in her seat peering into the darkness ahead. Morayo slumped in her engineer’s station, snoring.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
“Right as rain,” the captain said softly. “Are you all right?”
“Quite all right, dear lady. Just bored and a bit cramped.”
“That will happen. But the good news is that we are now over the Pyrenees and as soon as we reach the lee of the mountains we will be setting down, just after dawn.”
“You have an airfield up here?”
“We do.” Riuza tapped one of her indicators, and was rewarded with a little wave of a needle. “It’s called the Bayonne Glacier.”
He nodded. “Ah. I see.”
Why do I sense that she doesn’t like me very much? Such a pity. She has such a nicely shaped head. I’ll bet she has a beautiful smile as well.
“You should try to get some sleep,” she said. “We’ll probably need your help in the morning to secure the ship when we land.”
“All right then. Good night.” Omar shuffled back to his seat between the apples and the toilet, wrapped his new wool coat tightly around himself, and closed his eyes.
He awoke to the hideous noise of metal vibrating against metal. Sitting up, he saw the naked fear in Garai’s unblinking eyes and the breathless panic in Kosoko’s pale face. Both of them were gripping the seats and bags beside them, and all around the men their stores and supplies were shaking against the cabin walls.
“What’s happening?” he shouted over the rattling noise, but the two men only stared back at him in silence.
Omar lurched to his feet, clutching the shaking rails overhead for balance. Through the windows he could see the thick stormheads of the gray clouds all across the horizon with their edges set ablaze by the rising sun. Heavy rain drops pelted the windows of the gondola and the heavens thundered without pause as the clouds flashed with lightning again and again.
He stumbled to the front of the cabin and leaned into the cockpit. “What’s going on?”
Riuza clutched the controls tightly with both hands and Morayo lay on the floor, a wrench in her teeth and both hands thrust into an open panel by Riuza’s feet.
“Just some weather, Mister Bakhoum,” the captain said. “Best if you sit back down.”
Omar didn’t move. Through the forward windscreen, he could see a great plain of black and white ice shining across the ground. And the ground was growing closer. “What can I do to help?”
“Just sit down.”
“But look how fast we’re coming down! Are we going to crash?”
The Finch shook violently and leaned over on its port side, and Omar could feel the freezing wind whistling through some unseen crack in the walls. Behind them, the engine sputtered and the droning of the propellers began to skip and stutter and choke on the winter air. The cabin shook harder.
Morayo slammed her panel closed and scrambled back up into her seat as she shoved her tools into her pockets. “We’re screwed until I can get outside, captain!”
Omar glared at the two women, and opened his mouth to demand more information about what was happening when he caught sight of the ground out of the port side windows. The frozen tips of ice spires whipped by the glass, clattering on the hull. And ahead of them, tilted at a drunken angle, he saw the face of the glacier about to strike the gondola. The world that had once looked so distant and smooth now appeared terribly close and riddled with jagged outcroppings of ice. “We’re going to crash! Do something!”
“Morayo!” the captain shouted, “The anchor! Now!”
The engineer leapt from her seat, shoved Omar out of her way, and dashed to the thick brass gunstock welded into the inner panel of the starboard wall. Omar fell to the floor, cracking his head on a railing. Squinting and fumbling for a handhold, he watched Morayo jerk the gunstock up and left and then she pulled the heavy iron trigger. A sudden shock ran through the cabin floor and Omar heard a sharp whistling rip through walls. Briefly he glimpsed the wire cable zipping down from the ceiling above the gunstock and vanishing through a brass eyelet into the world outside.
The Finch jerked to starboard and Omar stumbled as he rose to his feet. Through the window he saw the jagged spears of ice so close that he could almost reach out and touch them, but no nearer, and no longer coming any closer.
The Finch had become stuck in midair.
He turned to ask what had happened, but just then Morayo grabbed a winch handle beside the gunstock and began cranking it around. Omar climbed the uneven deck to her side and lent a hand, forcing the winch over and under, and with each turn he felt the Finch lurch a short distance to starboard. Then the engineer shoved a lockbar into place beside it and waved him back. “We’re good. Thanks.”
He followed her back to the cockpit and watched as the glacier rose in short hops and slips up toward their feet, until at last the Finch banged down against the hard ground.
Morayo squeezed past him again, this time to unlock the hatch and let a torrent of freezing air into the cabin. She jogged outside and Omar followed, and he saw that she meant to lash a pair of ropes from the gondola to the nearby columns of ice. The spires had been thrust up from a crack in the glacier, each one stabbing the heavens at a different angle, and half of them had been sheared off by the screaming wind.
He worked quickly with her, squinting into the howling winds that sprayed his face with needling ice crystals. Snow dust swirled across the ground and the blasted spires shuddered like prisoners in fear for their lives. Overhead he saw an angry maelstrom of white mists and gray clouds colliding and warring for mastery of the skies, and bolts of lightning danced from one thunderhead to another, rumbling like the bellies of hungry gods.
With the lines secured, Omar climbed back into the cabin behind Morayo and slammed the hatch shut. He blinked. The sudden transition from the freezing noise of the outside world to the warm stillness of the airship was like stepping into a stolen corner of paradise.
He took a moment to catch his breath while watching the women slump in their seats to glance at their dials and flick their little switches. The Finch ’s engine chugged on, its propellers still spinning swiftly but not powerfully outside, only fast enough to fend off the elements.
“Now,” he said, “would you please tell me what’s happened? What’s gone wrong?”
Riuza sighed. Morayo laughed. “Nothing’s wrong,” the engineer said. “We just hit a little weather. Just a little squall over the mountains. It’s nothing, really, it happens all the time. Welcome to Europa, Mister Bakhoum.”
He exhaled slowly and glanced back at other men, who nodded at him sheepishly.
“So this is normal?”
They nodded again.
“And will probably happen again?”
They nodded again.
“Ah.” Omar swallowed and straightened up. “All right then. Good. Then I can make us a nice hot breakfast now. Where’s the stove?”
He made them a heavy Espani breakfast of sausages and red potatoes while Morayo explained that the gunstock in the cabin wall connected to a harpoon gun outside that they had modified to fire their emergency anchor down into the ice or rocks to stop the Finch from blowing about in a storm, which happened rather often near the Pyrenees.
After they finished eating, everyone trooped outside into the freezing ice wind to inspect the Finch ’s hull and check the lines. Omar followed Morayo, marveling at the young woman’s ability to notice tiny dings and scrapes in the outer walls of the gondola through the blinding snow gusts. She shouted over the wind to tell him that the ice did this or a rock did that, and which were superficial, and which she would spend the day hammering out or welding over. With the lines secure and the engineer’s repair plan ready, their last task was to follow the steel cable from the harpoon gun across an uneven sheet of ice to find the emergency anchor.
Peering through his blue-tinted glasses, Omar spotted the anchor hooked under a block of ice that rested on the glacier like a boulder. Staring down at the device, he despaired at the thought of having to chip the anchor free of the ice using hammers and shovels, and he wondered if he might convince the others to leave the task to him alone so that he might make short work of it with his blazing seireiken.
But Morayo slipped around him, yanked a pin from the anchor’s base, and the long jagged arms of the anchor slid neatly back into its central shaft. The engineer stood up and shoved the cold anchor into his arms. “Here. Thanks.”
Omar trekked back to the ship and reloaded the anchor into the harpoon gun, and then went inside to winch the entire steel cable back onto its spool, a job that took nearly half an hour of continuous winching. But when that was done, he was free to flop back down into his narrow crevice between the apples and the toilet, and for the first time in two days he couldn’t imagine a more restful place to be.
After a short break, he turned to Kosoko, whose mood had improved considerably since the landing and was now reading a small leather-bound book, and Omar said, “If the weather is this rough in the winter, why don’t you make your expeditions in the summer?”
The cartographer snorted. “In the summer, the warm air off the sea mixes with the cold of the glaciers to make storms so violent that they would shatter this ship like kindling before we got anywhere near the Pyrenees. In the winter, all of the air is cold and thus more predictable. This isn’t rough weather, Mister Bakhoum. This is the calm season in this part of the world.”
Omar nodded slowly. “I see.”
“We learned that the hard way three summers back.” Kosoko returned to his book. “Don’t worry. If anyone is going to get us all home safely, it’ll be Captain Ngozi. You can trust in that.”
Chapter 5. Death march
Riuza let Morayo fiddle with the Finch all day long, and the little engineer spent as much time outside banging on the hull as she spent inside banging on the pipes. The men were also called out for a bit of work breaking up the ice under the Finch and hauling the freezing chunks and shards inside to refill the engine’s boiler. The bits of ice bobbed in the warm tank for a moment or two before melting away and Omar marveled that something as simple as steam was driving the huge propellers of the airship. As night fell, he resumed his cooking duties to prepare a traditional Mazigh tajine of lamb, apples, olives, raisins, and almonds with a dash of cinnamon and pepper from the tiny spice kit that Morayo kept hidden in an overhead locker.
As darkness fell upon the frozen wastes of the Bayonne Glacier, Omar noticed the tiny flickering light bulb in the center of the ceiling. Frowning, he jerked his chin at it and said, “I thought those lights needed sunlight to power them?”
“Sunlight is just one way to make electricity. Another is wind,” Riuza said. She had tilted back her pilot’s seat to create an uncomfortable-looking recliner to sleep in. “And there is plenty of wind out there right now.”
The howling gusts outside shook the cabin, and there was a continuous tinkling sound of icy granules peppering the windows from all sides.
“So, is there nothing alive out there?” Omar squinted into the dark window, but could only see his own reflection in the glass. A sharp gurgle in his belly made him wince.
“No, nothing alive here,” Kosoko said. “Plenty of dead folk, though. If the wind lets up enough for the aether to settle, we should see the southern migration tonight.”
Omar jerked away from the glass. “Migration? Of the dead?”
“It’s not a migration,” Garai snapped. “Animals migrate to find better seasonal habitats. The dead have no habitat. And you call yourself a scientist!”
“Then what would you call it?” the cartographer asked. “Hundreds of souls all moving south together. Just like birds or fish.”
The naturalist rolled his eyes, pressed his hand to his belly, and burped. “Don’t be stupid, Kosoko. It’s probably some sort of pilgrimage. These barbarian souls must be looking for their afterlife or their gods or something.”
“So you don’t know?” Omar asked. “You’ve never investigated this migration?”
Garai slipped his hand inside his belt to pull his pants away from his stomach as he shifted in his seat. “Of course not. I am a scientist, sir, not a priest. Natural philosophy has been the bedrock of Songhai scholarship even longer than in Marrakesh. I don’t concern myself with matters of religion. So until it becomes possible to study aether and ghosts in a controlled manner, there is no place for it in the natural sciences.”
Omar smiled and turned back to the window. “Interesting.”
Within the hour, the small light bulb overhead flickered dimmer and dimmer, and then faded completely to leave the cabin in utter darkness. But a pale glow fell on the ice outside and Omar peered out across a vast plain of wintry desolation marked here and there by the light of the stars and he perceived the shapes of the clouds overhead by the dark shadows they cast on the glacier. The Finch itself sat flat and still on the ground, and only a few thin streams of icy dust tumbled across the ground outside.
The men were snoring in the back of the cabin, and the women looked to be similarly asleep in the cockpit, so Omar pulled on his gloves and hat, wrapped his coat tightly around himself, and slipped out the hatch as quickly and quietly as he could. There was a sharp stitch in his side and he hoped a long walk would ease his digestion before he tried to sleep sitting up for the third night in a row.
Stepping away from the warmth of the cabin and away from the shadow of the airship, he discovered a world of quiet oblivion. There were no leafy branches or tall waving grasses to shush and whisper in the breeze. There were no owls or nightingales to call, and no crickets to chirp. No wolves howled and no lions roared.
There was nothing between heaven and earth but the ice and the clouds wrapped in perfect silence.
He walked carefully across the frozen ground, placing his boots gently on the icy dust and making only the softest crunching noises. When the Frost Finch was merely a dark shape in the distance behind him, Omar stopped. The clouds were breaking up, revealing more stars and spilling more moonlight on the face of glacier. A pale mist hovered above the ice so thick that it obscured the ground completely, and Omar saw the aether moving slowly toward the south, sliding down the skin of the world toward the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees. He turned to look north, and froze.
My God. Look at them all!
The ghosts marched toward him in a line that stretched from the east to the west as far as he could see. Their fragile forms rippled and fluttered as the last weak breaths of wind danced through the aether mist, gently tugging at the outlines of the dead men and women. They walked slowly, their empty hands hanging at their sides. They did not seem to acknowledge one another, all of them walking just out of reach of those around them, never touching, never speaking, never even looking at each other. The army of the dead marched in stone-faced silence.
Omar stood very still as the wall of ghosts approached him, and when they reached him he took a few steps forward here or backward there to avoid touching them as they passed. But he did study their faces. He saw men and women of all ages, and even a few children in the distance, and all of them bore the sharp noses and thin mouths he had come to associate with the Europan tribes. They wore heavy leather clothes and thick furs, and had small carved bones thrust through their ears and tied into their straw-colored hair.
After a few minutes of watching the silent procession through the aether mist, Omar fell into step beside the shade of a young woman with a large fur hood resting on her insubstantial shoulders.
“Good evening,” he said in Rus.
“Hello.” Her accent was strange, but the word was clear enough.
“Where are you from?”
“My home is called Swansea,” she said. “Is this your homeland?”
Omar glanced at the desolate glacier around them. “No. My home is far to the south and the east, in a land called Aegyptus. It’s much warmer in my homeland than here. Your home in Swansea must be very cold if it’s much farther to the north. Did you die in Swansea?”
The woman nodded. She never looked at him, only at the southern horizon.
“If you don’t mind the question, could you tell me how you died?”
“Reavers.” Her voice was flat and lifeless, like some Mazigh machine that stamped answers in dead metal. “They came during the summer, sailing through the ice. We fought them, but they were too many, and too strong. The Yslanders take whatever they want, and burn what they don’t need. They always have.”
Omar felt a spike of adrenaline race down his spine.
Yslanders! She’s seen them!
He asked, “Was this last summer? Six months ago?”
“No.” She shook her head slowly. “Four or five generations past, I think. I’m not sure how long I lay in the earth before I heard the call.”
“What call is that?”
“The call of the Fisher King. He lives beyond the ice in a golden hall,” she said. “Because of his wounded leg he cannot travel the world, and so he summons the souls of the faithful to find him in death, where he can bless them and keep them for all time.”
Omar frowned. “I’ve never heard of this king before. But you hear his call now?”
“Yes. But his call is not a sound to be heard. It is a summons that can only be felt in the hearts of the faithful.”
Omar looked around them at the countless multitudes parading south across the glacier. “There are many faithful.”
“Yes. There are.”
“Has anyone ever returned from the south to tell you about the Fisher King? Do you know his name or the name of his country?”
“Once there was a brave soul who found the royal hall and returned to his home in Gaul to tell his village shaman of the Fisher King. He said the great hall was made all of gold and stood alone on an island of barren rock high on a mountain slope. The island is guarded by huge white beasts who serve the Fisher King, and the island itself is so hot that it glows red in the night.” She paused. “The spirit said it nearly broke his heart to leave that place so that he could tell the shaman. And then he hurried back south again to take his place in the court of the Fisher King.”
A hall on an island on a mountain? Huge white beasts?
Omar squinted across the sea of misty faces around them. “Have you seen any Yslander ghosts since you began your journey? Are there any Yslander souls here?”
“No,” she answered quickly without looking about. “The Yslanders always carry their dead back home with them. And they worship crueler and stranger gods than ours.”
“I see. So they aren’t among the faithful, then?”
Omar nodded. “Thank you. And good luck. I hope you find your golden hall soon.”
“I will. Farewell.”
Omar came to a halt and watched the dead woman wander away with her fellow ghosts. A moment later he shivered as the spirit of an old man shuffled through his body, and Omar danced away from the aether figure, and then began picking his way carefully through the shuffling crowd of ghosts back toward the Frost Finch.
He stepped inside the gondola and sealed the hatch behind him, and felt his skin flush with the dry heat in the cabin from the ever-warm boiler in the engine compartment. His companions all lay just as he had left them, all reclining on or propped up against their food stores and supplies. Omar spent an unpleasant minute on the toilet, closing his eyes and trying to imagine that he enjoyed a moment of actual privacy, and then he bundled himself up in his seat and closed his eyes for the night.
Omar awoke with a bony hand shaking his arm and he looked up through the morning light shining on the glacier to see the gaunt cartographer staring at him. “What? What is it?” Omar sat up and shook off the man’s hand, which seemed loathe to release him. “What?”
Kosoko nodded across the cabin and Omar looked at Garai. Riuza stood over the little professor, her fingers pressed to the man’s throat. She sighed. “He’s dead all right.”
The lieutenant stood behind her captain, and at the pronouncement she went back up to the cockpit alone.
“Dead?” Omar sat up and looked at the corpse. Garai’s eyes were closed and his head still leaned against the tall pile of fish. But he did look a bit blue and gray around his eyes and lips. “When? How?”
“Last night,” Riuza said slowly. She opened the professor’s shirt and poked around his neck and chest and belly. “I don’t know, I don’t see anything on him. You take a look, you’re the doctor, aren’t you?” She stepped aside.
Omar wiped the dry crud from the corners of his eyes, yawned, and leaned over to look at Garai Dumaka. The man’s skin looked a bit dry and cracked, his lips chapped and split. There were no marks on his neck or face, and no bruises or wounds on his belly. And when he removed Garai’s gloves, Omar found the professor’s hands quite smooth, though dry and bluish around the nails.
He shifted in his seat and casually rested his left hand on the pommel of his seireiken. The sea of dead faces filled the cabin of the Finch and he glanced around quickly to find and nod his head at a very small man leaning on a slender cane. He muttered, “Old man?”
“He can’t hear you, he’s dead,” the captain said, frowning. “And he’s not that old.”
Omar ignored her and focused on the old Hindu physician, a master of the Ayurveda school who had surrendered himself to Omar’s sword willingly on his deathbed. The elderly healer limped forward so that he appeared to stand in the narrow space right in front of Garai and he peered down at the dead man for a moment before saying, It may have been his heart, though he is rather young for that, some families simply have weak hearts. Any number of mushrooms or serpent venoms might produce the same appearance as well, though few kill very quickly or quietly unless given in a massive dose. It was probably just his time, as untimely as it was. A pity.
The ghost receded into the crowd of souls in the seireiken and Omar took his hand off the sword. He leaned back again with a frown. “How old was he?”
“Not very. Late thirties, maybe,” Riuza said.
“Well, since he’s eaten the same food as us, and he isn’t very cold… if I had to guess, I’d say his heart just gave out in his sleep. A pity,” Omar said.
“I suppose.” Riuza nodded. “All right then. Help me with him.” She took hold of Garai’s sleeve and waved Omar to stand up.
Omar stood. “Help you with him?”
“Yes,” the captain said with a touch of exasperation. “Help me. With him. Outside. Now.”
“You don’t mean to dump his body out there, do you?”
Riuza let go of the professor’s sleeve and straightened up. “I’m sorry, did you want to keep a corpse in here for the next twelve days? Because he isn’t going to last long in this heat, and I can’t exactly shut off the boiler if you ever want to see home again.”
“But he was your friend, dear lady, your colleague! And you’re just going to dump his body out in the wilderness, alone, unburied, and forgotten?”
“He wasn’t my friend. And yes, I am going to dump his body in the wilderness. I have a schedule to keep, a mission to carry out, and several living people to see safely home. There isn’t time for a burial detail. I suppose we could lash his body to the outside of the gondola where it will freeze and keep well enough until we return to Marrakesh. Would you like to try that?”
Omar sighed. “No.”
“Then help me with him. Now.”
Omar still wanted to argue, but he couldn’t see any way around the facts as she had stated them. “So then you mean to continue the expedition without a naturalist? We’re not going back for a replacement?”
“Well, we won’t be stopping to inspect the local wildlife, but yes, we’re still heading north. We don’t scrap a mission just because something goes wrong. As long as we can fly, we do fly. The professor here knew the risks when he signed on. And we can still map the islands we came to see, including yours. Now, if you please.” She gripped the professor’s sleeve again.
Omar frowned, but there was nothing left to say. He grabbed hold of Garai’s coat and helped the captain wrestle the little man out the hatch and onto the glacier. They laid him out on his back in a restful looking position, and then went back inside.
He made up a quick breakfast of boiled oats and fruit, which they ate quickly and in silence. As soon as everything was stowed and ship-shape, they trundled outside to free the Frost Finch ’s lines from the icy rocks and jagged spires frozen into the surface of the glacier. Omar gave one last look over the body of Garai Dumaka, already frosted with fresh snow and ice, and then he followed the others inside.
They lifted off the Bayonne Glacier less than an hour after dawn and climbed up into a clear blue sky to sail among islands of huge gray clouds. Below them, the world became a single sheet of ice, veined in blue and white and black.
Kosoko Abassi closed his eyes and looked sick, Morayo Osaze fiddled with her console, and Riuza Ngozi sat tall and stiff at the controls.
Omar grimaced at the sight of the toilet beside him and then he tried to go back to sleep.
Chapter 6. One horn
For two more days the Frost Finch cruised up the western coast of Europa following the ragged line where the glaciers met the sea. They passed over deep ravines and long fjords that reached inland like bony fingers. In those gaps in the earth, Kosoko and Riuza pointed out the tiny fishing villages that they had already discovered and visited. Blaye, Acres, Royan, Fouras, and Charron. The names did not sound very Rus to Omar’s ear, but the captain assured him that the people there did speak a sort of Rus mixed with Espani. Each village was home to fewer than a thousand people, each one clinging to a fragile thread of life between the angry sea and the towering glaciers where they fished the cold waters of the North Atlanteen for seals, crabs, eels, and whales.
On the fifth day of the expedition, after crossing the vast green plateau of the Mayenne Glacier where the late Garai Dumaka had believed a forest was thriving hundreds of feet below the ice, the Frost Finch emerged from a cloud bank above a black spit of land thrust out into the white sea like an accusing finger. At the tip of the finger Omar could see the pale gray shapes that he had come to recognize as Europan buildings hidden between the frozen snow on the ground and the frozen snow on their roofs. But this village was larger than the last few and he pointed it out. “Have you been there before?”
“Once,” Morayo said. “It’s called Cherbourg. About seven thousand people.”
“You’ve only been there once?”
The engineer shrugged. “Sure. Kosoko mapped it, Garai picked some pinecones, and we got the name of the place. So why go back? There’s nothing special there. They don’t even have enough spare food to trade with us.”
They sailed on across the white sea to another dark shore that was marked Alba on both Kosoko’s new map and Omar’s old one. The Aegyptian slouched against the window, peering down at the world through his blue glasses. “It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? Just snow and ice, rocks and trees.”
The cartographer shrugged. “Well, of course it does. What did you expect?”
“I don’t know,” Omar said. “Something more interesting.”
Kosoko raised an eyebrow as he chewed yet another tiny sliver of his ginger. “The captain said you came along because you want to see if there’s snow on an island at the top of the world. That hardly sounds interesting to me.”
Omar smiled. “No, I don’t suppose it does. Still, I do want to know. Very, very much.”
On the morning of the sixth day, Omar awoke to a soft babble of new sounds and the strange sensation of stillness. Through the window beside his seat he saw that they were on the ground with the hatch open and a small crowd of people stood outside the airship talking to Kosoko while Riuza and Morayo ran their mooring lines around a few large stones sitting in the snow. He stood up, intending to hurry out and help them with the chores of securing the Finch, but the motionless deck beneath his feet seemed to tilt and weave and he stumbled into the wall of the cabin. After a moment, the dizziness passed and he stepped outside into the thick snow to help with the lines.
“I almost couldn’t walk,” he said to Morayo as they tied the last rope to a boulder. “I felt seasick, but we were on the ground.”
“You were landsick,” she said. “You got used to the Finch shivering around under your feet all day and night, and you forgot what it’s like to walk on solid ground. That’s all. Happens to everyone.”
“No.” She grinned.
“So what’s this place called? Where are we?”
She pointed across the field to the snaking line where the frothing white sea lapped up on the dark gray stones of a beach, and above that beach stood a town. It was encircled by a ragged stone wall twice as tall as a man so that all Omar could see of the homes within were the peaks of the roofs and the tips of the chimneys, but suddenly his gaze was drawn to a dark shape rising high above the top of the wall. “What is that?”
It was a rude but solid structure of black stones that rose three times the height of the town wall, and Omar counted three small towers at the corners of the keep. Slate tiles covered the roof, though they were grimed with frozen filth, and what few windows he could see were all shuttered and sealed. No light escaped from the building, but smoke poured upward from half a dozen of its chimneys to mingle with the smoke of hundreds of other homes high above the town. The sight of so many columns of smoke reminded him of the tales of dragons sleeping in their lairs, their burning bellies spilling dark fumes from the ancient mountains. “Is that a castle?”
“Yes it is, and home to the king of Edinburgh.”
“A king? Here?”
“I admit, it’s not much of an accomplishment.” Morayo laughed. “If you like, I can tie a string around your head and call it crown, and you can be the king of the back of the cabin.”
Omar smiled. “Very funny. Though I’ve seen men rule over less. I was just surprised to hear someone up here in the middle of nowhere style himself as royalty.”
“Well, he’s the master of twenty thousand souls,” the engineer said. “That’s more than I can say for myself.”
With the ship secure, Omar found Riuza and asked, “Can we go see the town now?”
“No, we stay with the ship at all times.”
His smile vanished. “But why?”
She jerked her chin at the stream of people coming up the icy road from the town. Most of them carried sacks or trays or even pulled small carts behind them. “They come to us. Talk. Buy. Sell. Whatever you like. Just don’t fight with them. These are the friendliest people we’ve found this far north. We need to keep them friendly. But we don’t leave the Finch.”
“Because I don’t trust them.”
“Because they’re Europan?”
“Because they’re primitive savages.” She gave him a serious look and then walked away.
For the rest of the morning, Omar wandered through the cluster of merchants with their wares spread out on blankets on the snow. He saw crudely carved figures of rock and bone, poorly polished stones of no particular value, bruised fruit, ragged blankets, and rusty tools. The only things that really caught his eye were the fresh fish and the huge cuts of seal steak laid out on the snow. Since Garai’s death, they had only stopped on the ground once more to refill the boiler and have one hot lunch. Every other meal had been cold rations, all salted and dried and tiresome. The allure of a savory seal steak supper quickly had him haggling with the fisherman, and he walked away with several pounds of meat in exchange for all of his spare gloves and hats.
After stowing his precious treasure, Omar found Kosoko engaged in an intense discussion with two elderly locals about the markings on the cartographer’s working map. Through the broken bits of their mismatched Rus dialects, Omar picked out the points of confusion about this island or that mountain and he pulled out his own leather map for comparison. Instantly the two northerners’ faces brightened as they scanned the ancient writings, pointing excitedly at this symbol or that word. As the pair muttered to each other, they confirmed to Omar that his old Rus map was indeed correct, at least for this area.
They were still leaning over the map when a low horn blast echoed across the field from the south where a line of small fir trees obscured the woods beyond. In a heartbeat, every merchant had his wares bundled up and was trudging quickly back to their walled home. The two old men peered at the southern edge of the field with pained looks of worry wrinkling their brows. A moment later the stunted fir trees shivered, shaking loose their coats of frost and shining icicles, and a pack of wolfish hounds darted out into the field. They were shaggy beasts with fur the color of old iron, and they ran with their black tongues lolling from the sides of their mouths. But they slid to a halt in the center of the field and turned to face the bracken behind them. Again the little firs bent apart and now a band of men in brown fur coats came charging out of the wilderness with axes and bows in hand.
Omar took a nervous step back, his gloved hand straying to the hilt of his seireiken.
The men raced across the field and when they passed through the hounds the animals turned to follow their masters. Together the hunters converged on the Frost Finch, and Omar could hear them shouting in their strange Rus accents, “One horn! One horn!”
He frowned at Kosoko, who merely shrugged back. But the two old men beside them snatched up their walking sticks and set off for the town.
The hunters running across the field angled away from the airship, heading for the town, and the dogs stayed close to their masters. But they stopped short of the town gate and turned to stand shoulder to shoulder and form a small shield wall on the icy road. The archers nocked fresh arrows and made ready to fire while the others raised their small hatchets to hurl.
A deep-throated bellow erupted from the trees across the field, and Omar’s first thought was that an elephant had followed him all the way from North Ifrica to this frozen hell. But the beast that came crashing through the firs was no elephant. It charged through the underbrush with its head lowered, smashing aside the brittle trees with its massive legs and shoulders. Of its head, Omar could only see that it was long and broad with tiny black eyes and tiny brown ears set on either side. Its thick coat of brown fur shook and shuddered with every thundering step that the beast took, and Omar wondered if this might be a monstrous sort of bear.
But then the creature shook its head and Omar saw it, for brief a moment, in profile.
One horn. They must be shouting its name. They call it a one-horn.
An enormous curving horn rose from the animal’s snout above the nose and below the eyes, but it was unlike any horn Omar had ever seen before. Long ago he had hunted with a bow, stalking the swift oryx and gazelle in Ifrica and taking their long slender horns as drinking cups and walking sticks. And only a few years ago he had hunted with an Italian rifle to bring down a huge red elk with a massive rack of branching antlers. But the beast charging across the field had armed its skull with an enormous scimitar, a weapon long enough to skewer three men back to back, and Omar suspected that was exactly what the creature had in mind now.
Morayo and Riuza were already running for the Finch, so Omar grabbed Kosoko and propelled the old cartographer into the cabin, but he paused by the open hatch to watch.
The one-horn stampeded over the snow, its pillar-like legs crashing through the snowdrifts as though they were mere snowflakes. And as the seconds ticked down, Omar realized that the beast wasn’t following the tracks of the men and dogs toward the town. It was charging toward the Finch.
“Stay inside!” he shouted as he slammed the hatch shut.
As he strode out across the snow toward the woolly juggernaut, Omar gripped the hilt of his seireiken and said, “Little brother, I’d appreciate your help again. Any suggestions would be appreciated.” He could feel the frozen earth shuddering under his boots with the vibrations of the one-horn’s huge feet.
Slaughtering animals is a task for butchers, not samurai, the dead man answered.
Omar tightened his grip on the sun-steel sword and he reached down into the burning metal with his own soul to grab the ghost of Ito Daisuke and tear a flood of images from his memories. Omar saw strange castles and silken robes, men practicing with wooden swords in a gravel yard, a young woman standing on a bridge with an umbrella on her shoulder. Image after image appeared, too fast for him to comprehend any of them.
I submit! Daisuke cried out.
“That’s better.” Omar blinked to clear his mind as he drew his seireiken, letting its white light dance on the face of the unbroken snow. The one-horn tilted its head back to bellow its final challenge before lowering its snout and leveling its massive horn at Omar’s chest. But already he felt the soul of the samurai guiding his hands and feet, and Omar moved.
At the last moment before contact, he dashed left and forward, slashing swiftly to his right and guiding the edge of his blade along the side of the beast’s head. The behemoth moaned and crashed down into the snow as though its legs had been torn out from under it. Omar whirled away to the side and sheathed his blade, hiding it once again inside his coat. Before him the great beast lay dead and still, an ugly black scar running from its mouth through its small black eye, over the ear, and down the side of its throat in a long snaking line. Omar studied the smoking cut with no memory of having guided his hands around the contours of the animal’s head like that at all. He nodded and exhaled. “Thank you again, little brother. Maybe next time you’ll be a bit more eager to help.”
And the ghost whispered, Yes, Bakhoum-dono.
The airship hatch banged open and footsteps thumped lightly in the snow to his right, followed closely by many more footsteps approaching on his left. Morayo was the first to reach him. “That’s amazing,” she said, her warm breath swirling around her face in a cloud of vapor. “How did you do that?”
“With the wisdom of many years’ experience in killing giant furry one-horned beasts.” He smiled. “Life is mysterious that way.”
“Life isn’t mysterious at all,” Riuza said dully. “Most things die when you slit their throats.” She indicated the final cut behind the one-horn’s ear. “But why is the wound cauterized?”
“What?” Morayo leaned closer and poked at the wound. “Hey, it’s all dry and hard. Feels like bacon.”
“Oil,” Omar said abruptly. “There’s a special oil on my sword. It’s an ancient Aegyptian practice. The oil burns when it mixes with blood, and seals the wound shut. It makes the internal wound worse. That’s what happened.”
Riuza frowned at him, and then looked away. “If you say so.”
The other local hunters jogged up, inspected the kill, and erupted into cheers. They descended on Omar with brotherly affection, embracing him and lifting him off the ground, laughing and shouting, and roughhousing with their excited hounds. Eventually they set to work butchering the carcass, from which they offered their guests many choice cuts of meat, of which Omar accepted a few but returned most, encouraging his new friends to enjoy the bounty on his behalf. They were happy to oblige him.
The rest of the afternoon passed quietly as some of the merchants shuffled back out to try to sell their stones and furs. Riuza and Morayo refilled the boiler with ice and refilled the hopper with coal bought from local miners. Meanwhile, Omar and Kosoko stood in the snow with several more elderly gentlemen, comparing maps and struggling to understand each other through the barriers of four different languages.
For supper, Omar prepared a small feast of seal steaks and one-horn ribs, an experiment that quickly proved that no one liked one-horn ribs no matter how well seasoned they were. Eventually the sun set and with no wind to power the lights, a soft darkness settled over the field. Starlight glowed on the snow on the ground as well as on the town, and Omar fell asleep with a full belly and a smile at the thought of continuing north in the morning.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll cross the Sea of Ice and we’ll see it. Ysland. Tomorrow.
Chapter 7. Fall out
“This is simply amazing,” Kosoko muttered. The cartographer was kneeling on his seat facing out the window with his drawing board balanced against his hip and Omar’s old Rus map pressed flat against the wall above him. His complicated-looking mechanical pencil was clenched in his teeth, distorting his words slightly as he peered alternately at his new map, the old map, and the ground below the Frost Finch. They were cruising less than a thousand feet above the earth and following the meandering eastern coast of the country that the people of Edinburgh called Alba.
“What’s so amazing?” Omar asked.
“The detail,” he answered. “Whoever drew this map did a wonderful job capturing the detail of the coastline. Some of the proportions look a bit fuzzy, or maybe the coastline has just shifted since this map was drawn. There’s no way to be certain. But every inch of the coast that I’ve drawn over the last two hours is here, on your map, in perfect detail. I really wish I could read this thing.”
Omar nodded. “When we get back, the first thing I’ll do is make you a translated version. That was my deal with the captain.”
Kosoko nodded absently, his hand massaging his belly.
Shortly thereafter they reached their destination, the northernmost edge of Kosoko’s incomplete map. From there they proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace while the cartographer practiced his craft, sketching in the shape of the world below one tiny line at a time.
The hours crept by, and Omar slipped away into the world of ghostly singers and dancers preserved within his seireiken.
“Captain?” Kosoko called out over the growl of the engine. “I’d like to propose a little change of plan.”
“What’s that?” Riuza asked.
“This Rus map, it looks nearly perfect. I think we might be better served if we speed up and I simply spend the time confirming as much of this map as possible rather than reinvent the wheel on my own.”
“You want to go faster?” the captain asked.
“Yes, much. Same altitude, full speed ahead. If I see any discrepancies I can tell you to stop, but right now I’d like to see just how accurate Mister Bakhoum’s map really is. I think it would be a better use of our time.”
“All right.” Riuza’s hands and feet barely moved, but Omar immediately felt the surge of power from the propellers as the Frost Finch accelerated into the northern sky.
Another hour passed and Omar tried to sit patiently and quietly, waiting for the expedition’s work to end so his real journey could begin, the final leg across the Sea of Ice. From time to time he glanced at Kosoko or the maps or out the window, but it was all the same. Snow and rocks and surf and seals. The forests had thinned out just north of Edinburgh and now trees appeared vanishingly rare, but he couldn’t bring himself to care about that or anything else.
It was nearly noon when Kosoko turned back around to sit down in his seat, piling his papers in his lap. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, breathing heavily and wincing slightly as he pressed his hand to his stomach. “Captain? I don’t see any need to continue any farther. Every meter of this coastline is drawn with exacting detail on the Rus map. Even the rocky islands off to the east. And the proportions to the mountains in the west look right to me as well. I’m satisfied, at least for the moment.”
Riuza looked back at the men. “You’re sure? We came all the way up here for this. I want you to be sure.”
“Captain, believe me, no one wants to be more certain than I do. But I’ve been comparing this map to the land below us for over three hours now. That’s several hundred kilometers, at least. And it’s all correct. The Rus map is correct. If nothing else, this expedition has allowed us to verify this map, which is worth Mister Bakhoum’s weight in gold. I think we’d be best served by heading home and translating the old map instead of lingering at the end of the world to draw a new one. I can continue to confirm his map on the way back, too. But I’m satisfied for the moment. It’s accurate, captain.”
“If you’re satisfied, then so am I.” She turned to Omar. “Well, Mister Bakhoum, it looks like it’s time to find your island, and well ahead of schedule at that. Can you give me a bearing and range?”
Omar discussed the measurements with Kosoko using their two maps and then called out, “Bearing northwest three-one-four. Distance, thirteen hundred kilometers.”
“Thirteen?” The captain shook her head. “All right, but it’ll be close to midnight before we get there, assuming the wind cooperates. That’s a long time over open ocean. You’re certain of the bearing?”
“Absolutely, dear lady.” Omar grinned and patted Kosoko on the knee. The cartographer offered a weak and sickly smile in return. “We are certain. Full speed ahead to Ysland!”
Full speed to the gates of paradise, full speed to the garden of the sages! After all these years, I’m finally here, nearing the end of my too-long journey. Finally.
Lunch was a cold handful of fruits and nuts, and the afternoon was an uneventful cruise above the clouds that hid the northern sea and left them in a featureless expanse of blue sky and white clouds. From time to time, Omar would pace up to the cabin to peer out the forward windscreen, hoping to be the first to sight his island, but there was rarely any sight of the world below at all, and when the clouds did part they only revealed more dark blue ocean frothing and churning with great white icebergs sailing the waves.
As evening approached the clouds parted one last time and Omar saw the light of the setting sun streaking across a vast field of white ice spider-webbed with black cracks. There was no sign of the dark waters any more. But Morayo pointed to her airspeed indicator and her fuel gauge and her pocket watch and said with youthful confidence that they were halfway to their destination, if their destination did in fact exist.
The sun set and darkness engulfed the airship, but Omar remained poised on the edge of his seat, leaning forward to stare at his clasped hands, waiting.
Only a few more hours. We’re nearly there now. Ysland!
After a while of staring down at the filthy toes of his new boots and realizing that he hadn’t taken off his new boots in several days, Omar sat up to stretch and yawn. He glanced at Kosoko and said, “Are you excited about seeing my little island at the top of the world, or is it just another island for you?”
The cartographer didn’t answer. He simply went on staring across the cabin at the far wall. He didn’t blink.
Oh God, not again.
Omar touched the man’s neck.
He grabbed the hilt of his seireiken. He muttered, “Doctor? I need your help again.”
The dim shade of the Indian healer appeared in the center of the cabin, his legs partially obscured by the small barrel of cheeses in the middle of the floor. After squinting at Kosoko, the physician shrugged and said, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing to be done. He’s been dead for quite a while now. It’s the same as that other man from before. Heart failure. But at least this gentleman was older. He seemed like a nice man. And the healer vanished.
No, not now!
He exhaled slowly.
No, it’s all right. The captain didn’t turn back when Garai died, so she won’t turn back now. It’s all right.
“Captain?” he called out. “Can you come back here, please?”
Riuza thumped back to him with one hand on the overhead rail for balance. “What is it?”
Omar gestured to the cartographer. “It would seem our friend Kosoko is no longer with us.”
“What?” Riuza grabbed the dead man’s wrist, and then his neck. “Damn it. What the hell is going on here? Did he say anything?”
“No, nothing. He looked a bit queasy, but he’s looked queasy since we left Tingis. And now he looks the same as Garai did. See the discoloration around the eyes and mouth?”
“Hey, what’s going on back here?” Morayo poked her head over the captain’s shoulder.
Omar leaned over to peer at the cockpit and saw a thin metal bar propped up against the pilot’s controls. The handle wiggled, but stayed upright.
“Kosoko’s dead,” Riuza said.
“Him too? How?” The young engineer took a quick step back from the corpse.
“The doc here says it was his heart, just like Garai.”
“Well, what are the odds of that?” Morayo’s frown shifted quickly into gaping, wide-eyed fear. “What if our food’s been poisoned? What if we’re all going to die?”
“We’re not going to die, lieutenant, settle down.” Riuza turned to Omar. “But it can’t be a coincidence that they’re both dead. What about you, how do you feel?”
“Fine,” Omar said. “I had a little indigestion once, but that was days ago.”
“Captain,” Morayo whispered. “What if he did it?”
“Don’t be stupid, lieutenant. Get back to your station.” But Riuza kept her gaze on her one remaining passenger.
“I didn’t kill anyone,” Omar said, raising his empty hands. “I didn’t even know these gentlemen before you introduced me to them. Why would I kill them?”
“So you could get to your damn island,” Morayo said, her face darkening. “With Garai dead, we spent almost no time on the ground looking at the plants and things. It sped up the flight for you, didn’t it?”
Omar shrugged. “Maybe. But why would I kill Kosoko? He stopped his map-work hours ago. He wasn’t holding me up.”
“Maybe not now, but this morning he sure was. Maybe you poisoned him then and he only just now died of it. You’ve had your hands in the food the whole time. And you cooked for us right before Garai died. You could have poisoned his food then,” the engineer said. “What do you think, captain?”
Riuza frowned. “I think we need to stop making wild accusations and start being sensible. We’re a long way from home and this is not the time or place for a grand jury. The chart says we’re nearly at this island of yours, Mister Bakhoum. If we find it, we’ll set down there for the rest of the night and let off Mister Abassi. We’ll refill the boiler and head home in the morning and let the authorities sort this all out then. In the meantime, you’ll be shackled. Your sword, please.” She held out her hand.
Omar winced as he rested his hand on his weapon. “Is that absolutely necessary? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe Garai and Kosoko just happened to die on the same trip for the same reason. Maybe it was just a bad piece of fish. And maybe you killed them both. I don’t know, and right now I don’t care. I just need to get my ship home in one piece, so I’m asking you for that sword. It’s not like you need it right now, do you?”
“The sword!” Morayo’s eyes widened. “Remember how it burned that big beastie’s skin so it didn’t bleed when he killed it? Maybe he stabbed Garai and Kosoko somewhere we wouldn’t see, like in their mouths, or up their backsides!”
Riuza grimaced and shook her head. “Maybe. Like I said, I don’t care. Let’s just focus on getting home. We’re six days out at least, and that’s a long time to be stuck together, so let’s all just keep our heads. Mister Bakhoum?”
With a sigh, Omar tugged his seireiken free of his belt and placed the short sword in the captain’s hand. “Please be very careful with it. Whatever you do, don’t touch the blade. In fact, you shouldn’t draw it at all.”
Behind the two women, he caught sight of the shade of Ito Daisuke staring down at the little engineer. Slowly the samurai looked up at Omar and said, She never spoke to the dead men, did she?
But when Omar let go of the sword, the ghost vanished and he was left to wonder what the dead warrior had meant.
Riuza frowned, then handed the weapon to Morayo so she could pulled a length of twine from the overhead bins. “Your hands, Mister Bakhoum.”
“This really isn’t necessary,” he said as he held up his wrists together for her to bind.
The dim cabin brightened suddenly as though the sun had risen in the center of the gondola and Riuza turned to see Morayo holding the naked sword in her hand, its sun-steel blade shining like the full moon.
Omar felt every muscle in his back tense at the sight of his ancient and deadly weapon in the young woman’s hand. And then he realized what the samurai had meant. “You never spoke to them.”
“What?” Riuza said.
“Never once. Not even when we were working together to tie up the ship. Not even to pass the salt at supper.” Omar glanced up at the captain. “In the last seven days, I’ve never once heard your lieutenant talk to Garai or Kosoko.”
“So what? It’s not a crime to ignore someone.”
“No,” Omar said slowly. “She didn’t ignore them. She shunned them. Except when she gave us the ginger as we were leaving Tingis. But even then, she only looked at me, and never at them.”
“Huh.” Riuza looked back at her engineer. “Come to think of it, I don’t recall you ever really talking to them on any of our expeditions. Not even to give them a hard time. And you give everyone a hard time.”
Morayo glared at them, her face nearly chalk-white from the blazing light of the seireiken. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Tell me about your family,” Omar said. “Do they live in the south, near the Songhai border? A man in Tingis told me that last summer the Songhai raiders came over the border and killed the homesteaders up in the hills, but there was no retribution because the Mazigh queen refuses to declare war on the Empire.”
“Lieutenant?” Riuza stepped closer to the engineer. “Put down that sword and answer the man’s question. Was your family involved in the attacks last summer?”
“Yes,” the young woman whispered. The bright sword in her hand crackled with electric arcs and the air around it began to warble and ripple like a mirage on the desert sand. “They killed my parents, and my little sister. They even killed my dog. Burned the house to the ground. Burned the orchard to the ground. They left nothing alive.” Morayo face twisted with rage. “And what did the queen do? Nothing. She’s too damned scared to defend her own people, so while she’s safe up in her palace in the sky, we’re the ones dying. We’re dying, captain!”
“So you killed Garai and Kosoko?” Riuza asked softly. “Because they’re Songhai?”
“You’re damn right I did! I poisoned the ginger. It should have killed them all sooner, but Kosoko was such a damn baby about eating it. And you, it didn’t even bother you, did it!” she yelled at Omar.
The Aegytpian said nothing, but he remembered the stomach pains he had the night that Garai died. If I could die, I would have.
Bright tears spilled down the young woman’s cheeks. “I mean, what the hell were they even doing here? You can’t tell me there aren’t any Mazigh mapmakers or naturalists who could do their jobs! They’re Songhai! They’re goddamn Songhai! And I’m glad they’re dead!”
“All right, Morayo, it’s all right.” Riuza stepped a little closer. “It’s all over now. It’s done. Here, let me take that.” She reached for the seireiken.
“No!” Morayo lurched back and raised the sword.
“Watch out!” Omar yelled. “Don’t touch the blade!”
“I heard you the first time, Mister Bakhoum,” Riuza said coldly. She reached behind herself to the harpoon gun and yanked the winch handle off the wire spool. She held up the steel handle as a club. “Morayo, put that thing away before you hurt someone. We’re a long way from home and the nearest living Songhai is over three thousand kilometers away. So just settle down. You’re not going to kill me, and you’re not going to kill our Aegyptian friend. Do you hear me?”
“But don’t you see, captain? We can pin it on him, easy. We can just go back home and say Omar killed them, and then we killed Omar in self-defense. So maybe when the Songhai find out, they’ll go to war with Aegyptus or Eran, and they’ll stop coming after us. You see? We can fix it all, you and me.” She sniffed and wiped her sleeve across her face. “All we have to do is tell a little lie.”
“You know it won’t work out that way, Morayo.” Riuza shook her head. “The Songhai won’t care about a couple of dead scholars, and even if they do, they’ll probably just use it as propaganda against Marrakesh, not Aegyptus, and definitely not Eran. I don’t know what the right answer is right now, but we have a few days to figure it out. And in the meantime, you’re going to put down that sword and no one is going to hurt Mister Bakhoum. So put the sword down, now.”
The engineer sniffled and the tip of the sword began to droop lower. But then she winced and shook her head sharply. “What is that? Who’s there? What’s that sound? Who is that?”
Omar stood up. “Morayo, you have to listen to me. Ignore the voices, ignore the faces, and listen to me. You need to put the sword down. Just put it down carefully on the floor. You need to ignore the voices and put the sword down!”
“What voices?” Riuza asked.
“No, stop, get out of my head!” Morayo spun in a drunken circle, swinging the seireiken in wild flashing arcs. Twice the tip of the sword scorched the walls and once it melted the edge of a window.
“Crap.” Riuza leapt forward and grabbed her lieutenant’s arms, struggling for control over the sword. Omar scrambled out of his narrow slot beside the toilet and stumbled as the Frost Finch shuddered under his feet. He tried to catch himself, but his bound hands slipped off the rail and he fell into Garai’s empty seat by the fish.
In the center of the cabin Riuza and Morayo were locked in a vicious knot of arms and the blinding white seireiken blazed in between them. Omar could hear both women gasping and grunting as they struggled for the sword. The Finch shuddered again and the slender bar wedged against the steering column popped free and fell to the floor of the cockpit. The flight stick leaned forward and the entire airship pitched forward with it. The two women fell down the uneven deck into the cockpit with Morayo sitting on Riuza’s chest. The lieutenant had the seireiken poised over her captain’s chest, the blazing tip just inches from Riuza’s leather jacket. “Stop it, all of you! All of you, shut up!” the young woman screamed, shaking her head in violent circles.
Omar lurched up across the tilting cabin and fell face-first onto the women’s legs. He got his own feet under himself and shoved up, slamming his shoulder into Morayo’s back. The engineer pitched headfirst over the captain and crashed into the thick glass of the forward windscreen. The glass crackled and a sudden draft of freezing wind shrieked into the cabin. Morayo lay very still, her glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling.
“The sword! Grab it!” Omar hollered over the wind.
The seireiken lay on the deck just under the pilot’s seat and wedged under the flight pedals. The brass plates and controls were already deforming, melting, twisting, and dripping down to the deck. Riuza yanked the sword out of the floor just as the pedals collapsed into the deck and she shoved the weapon into Omar’s hands. As he fumbled the seireiken into its scabbard with his bound wrists, Riuza climbed into her seat and grabbed the flight stick and throttle, but when she pulled back on the stick it snapped off in her hand. “Crap.”
“What do we do now?” Omar shouted over the wind screaming in through the broken windows.
Riuza pointed out the forward windscreen. “Not much we can do now.” She reached over with a small utility knife and cut his hands free.
Omar rubbed his wrists as he looked out into the darkness and saw the moonlight falling on the frozen sea. But just ahead the ice sheet ended and he saw dark waters lapping on a dark shore, and above that rose the black shapes of mountains against the starry sky.
“Welcome to Ysland, Mister Bakhoum.”
Chapter 8. The end
The Frost Finch was still pitched down and descending quickly. Riuza cut the throttle and for the first time in seven days the engine fell completely silent. Omar crouched beside her in the cockpit, watching the dark island grow larger below them.
“So it would seem your theory was right,” Riuza said calmly. “There’s no snow on your island, or not much, at least. Since we’re going to die here, would you mind telling me what this was all about?”
Omar glanced down at the still form of Morayo Osaze staring up at him from the broken corner of the window. “It’s about this.” He held up his sheathed sword. “This metal. It’s very rare, and very dangerous, and very strange. We call it sun-steel. In its raw form it looks like dark gold. It attracts the aether mist like a magnet, and if a soul is drawn into the steel with the aether, then the metal grows hotter and brighter. For years I’ve been trying to find more of it, trying to learn more about it. And then I heard a story about an island in the north where the earth shone like gold, and it was always warm, and the living walked side by side with the dead.”
“So you think this Ysland has more of your sun-steel?”
“A lot more.” He nodded. “So much that the very ground under their feet is kept warm by it all year round, even here at the top of the world. With so much of it, the people here must be masters of it. They must know everything about it. Some of my people back in Alexandria know how to make weapons from it, like my sword, and to make other more useful tools as well.” He reached up to touch the lump of the golden pendant under his shirts. “We can even talk to the souls trapped in the steel. But these people, these Yslanders must know far more than we do. To them, sun-steel must be as common as tin. It’ll be everywhere, in every aspect of their lives. And here they are. Look there.” He pointed at a shimmer of yellow light on the dark plain of the island. “A home. People. We’re not going to die, dear lady. We’re going to live for a very long time.”
They had several long minutes together in the cold dark cabin of the wounded Frost Finch to watch the island loom up larger and larger before them. The fiery dot on the shadowed plain grew larger as well, and soon burst apart into a dozen lights, and then a hundred.
“It’s a town,” Omar said.
Riuza spent a few moments banging around the cockpit, but she gave up trying to salvage the controls and came to stand back in the center of the cabin beside him with one hand on the overhead rail and the other hand holding the collar of her heavy jacket closed tight around her neck. Omar saw a wisp of pale steam curl off the woman’s shaven scalp.
“It’ll be very soon now,” she said.
The cold wind blasting through the front windscreen grew more wild and all of the nets and bags and sacks and strings inside the cabin danced and whipped through the air around them. And out in the darkness, the scattering of lights continued to grow.
“That’s no town,” Omar said softly. “It’s a city!”
“I think you’re right.” Riuza nodded. “It is a city. It even has a… get down! ”
She tackled him to the floor just as the airship collided with a tall black spire. The dark tower of jagged rock scraped along the port side of the gondola and they heard the terrific ripping sound of every layer of the balloon overhead being shredded open to flap violently in the wind. The Finch nosed down more steeply and a quiet scream rose in the air as they fell faster and faster toward the ground.
Omar sat up, clutching Riuza to his side as he tried to wedge himself between the cabin wall and an empty box of dried beef. “Well, dear lady, it certainly has been an adventure. I’m sorry it had to end this way.”
She snorted and a small smile curled her lip. “I thought you said we were going to live.”
“Yes, well, I’m the optimistic sort. So…” He leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth, luxuriating in the warmth of her soft lips and tasting the salty sweetness of her tongue in his mouth. He leaned back and smiled at her.
She gave him a wry look. “I would hit you, but you’re handsome enough, and we’re about to die, so I’ll let it slide. Just this once.”
And the Frost Finch crashed into the earth.
Omar had half a second to hear the steel frame of the airship keening and wailing as it twisted and bent around him. He heard glass shatter and fabric tear, wood splinter and flesh thump. There was the grinding of stone and the groaning of brass pipes. And in the distance, there was shouting. But that half a second ended when Omar flew forward with Riuza still in his arms and he collided with the front of the cockpit.
The world ended, for a time.
When he opened his eyes, the sun was high overhead. He was lying on a cold bumpy street and he could see the sides of stone buildings around him. There was a giant smoking skeleton of steel off to his left, and to his right there was a group of people standing and kneeling around the body of Riuza Ngozi. The pilot coughed and her hand moved.
We’re alive. We’re both alive. We made it to Ysland. The airship is destroyed and three people died, but we made it. I made it. I’m here. Ysland, at last!
A scowling old man knelt down over Omar and the Aegyptian looked up into the wind-burned and bearded face. In his best Old Rus, Omar asked, “Is this Ysland?”
The man raised an eyebrow, and nodded. “It is.”
“And is there much sun-steel here? The hot gold? The bright metal?”
The man shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said slowly. “I have no gold. But you, you’re hurt. It’s very bad. I’m sorry.” He reached across Omar’s chest and lifted up a heavy cloth lying on the man’s shoulder. Omar rolled his head over and saw the stump where his left arm used to be.
A wild giddiness swam up into his brain at the sight.
My arm is gone. All gone. I’ve lost my arm. I’m sure I had it a moment ago. What did I do with my arm?
The ground shone with dark blood as far as he could see in every direction.
My blood. All of my blood. It shouldn’t be outside like that. That’s very wrong.
His teeth chattered for a moment, but he rolled his head back and reached up with his right hand to grab the old man’s wool shirt and pulled him down close. “I know there is sun-steel here. Where is the gold that keeps this island warm? Where is it? How much is there?”
The old man chuckled and shook his head as he loosen Omar’s grip on him and straightened up. “There’s no gold here, friend. Iron a-plenty, but no gold.”
“I don’t care what you call it, old man!” Omar felt his arm shuddering, felt his mind slipping back toward oblivion. His skin was cold and his vision was growing dim. “What keeps this island warm? Why isn’t it covered in ice?”
The old man shifted back and pointed at the northern horizon, and then to the east, and then to the south. Omar followed the man’s finger to see the huge smoking mountains around the city. Omar shook his head. “Volcanoes? No, no, no. But the stories. The stories said… I thought…” He clawed at the old man’s arm and hauled himself up onto his knees. He teetered off balance from the missing weight of his arm. Gripping the old man for support, he stared at the northern volcano with a terrible icy emptiness in his belly. “The stories were wrong. I was wrong.”
He stared across the street at Riuza, and then up at the brass ribs of the Frost Finch rising high above the city, with a few charred shreds of fabric still clinging to the beams. The airship’s engine was burning brightly and belching a thin column of black smoke into the sky. Staring and panting, he saw the stoic faces of the Yslanders all around him, all dressed in rough leather and fur, all standing outside simple stone houses, all carrying simple steel tools and weapons, and adorned in nothing more ornate that carved bone trinkets.
“There’s nothing here,” Omar whispered.
The hills outside the city shivered with yellow grass, and the lower slopes of the volcanoes gleamed with patches of snow on the black rocks, and the more distant mountains shone with sunlight glancing off their pale gray faces and snowy caps.
The roads were paved with gravel and dirt. The buildings were mortared with clay. The only animal in sight was a shaggy little pony.
There were no shining temples, no golden palaces, no proud warriors fighting alongside the spirits of their ancestors, no wise priests conversing with the souls of their predecessors. He saw no sun-steel, no marvels, no legends come to life, and no answers to the mysteries of the universe.
“It was all for nothing.” He pitched forward onto the stone street and his vision went white.
Is this my fate, then? Is this finally the end?
Against the hard gravel road, he felt the tiny lump of his golden pendant pressed into his chest through his shirt.
And after a moment, he felt the dull throbbing of his heart beating on and on and on…
No. There is no end for me.
At least, not yet.