Masque Ball: Chapter VI

by Mallard

Summer’s finicky luck was on our side as we ran, for the pirates seemed in no particular hurry to ascend the stairs. Laden as they were with their carefully-packed crates of loot, in good cheer and with no reason to think that anyone had escaped the ballroom, they could take their time up the stairs.

Serah and I, on the other hand, ran like fugitives.

The mayor’s mansion stood a full five stories high, each of which must have contained high vaulted ceilings, for there were far more steps between floors than there strictly should have been. The lanterns glowed every half dozen or so steps, lending a cheery yellow glow to the staircase that in no way matched my mood.

I like to think I keep myself in decent shape, but I also don’t sprint up five over-long flights of stairs on a regular basis, and certainly not in a full suit. I can only wonder how Serah managed, with her gown flapping around her feet. At least she had left her heels in the ballroom. We were both panting with exertion as we neared the roof, and when I saw Serah slow to a stop by the door to the fifth floor hallway, I assumed she was just too tired to continue. I stopped beside her, just as she opened the door and walked through, into the darkened hallway behind.

“What are you doing?” I hissed. I knew the pirates were likely still ascending the first flight of stairs, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at any moment, I would hear shouts of alarm and the cocking of guns.

“Shh,” she whispered back, and advanced several steps down the hallway. I hesitated, but she hadn’t left me much choice. I followed her and closed the door behind me, leaving us in complete darkness. It occurred to me then that the mayor lived with only his wife and his staff. Most of the latter were downstairs, so the entire upper four stories of the house must be empty. No wonder all the doors had been closed, the halls dark.

I couldn’t see anything, except for Kristopher’s faint red glow, which hardly illuminates anything. With a quick glance behind to make sure the door was firmly shut, I summoned an image of blue fire, an old and easy favorite of mine, and held it in my palm. The pseudoflame cast a pale blue light that turned the maroon carpet black, and lent an eerie cast to Serah’s skin.

Serah had her wrench in her hand once again–where did she store the damned thing?–and was advancing toward one of the cast iron wall scones, identical to the dozens we had passed on the run up. Up close, it was something of a piece of art. Planes of frosted glass settled in a delicate iron framework that formed decorative, curling vine and leaf patterns. A stiffer vine mounted the scones to the wall, blending into the leafy wallpaper. The support hid the gas line, branching out from a larger pipe within the walls. It was the fashion among the rich to run their utilities in the walls and floors, out of the way of visitors’ eyes. It made for an emptier, cleaner-looking hallway, but it was also more expensive and difficult to maintain.

Serah attacked the scone it with a vigor, loosening several cleverly disguised fasteners and pulling the lamp clean off the wall.

“Hold this,” she said, and shoved it to my hands, pushing it through my illusory flame so that the light scattered and caught in the glass, sending blue sparkles across the walls.

“And a little brighter, please,” Serah whispered, feeling with her hands along the leaf-patterned wallpaper.

“We don’t have time,” I whispered back in exasperation, still clinging to the lamp she had thrust at me. I complied, though, shifting the light to a more comfortable yellow, and hoping it would not show through the crack under the door. The mayor’s mansion was probably built well enough so that no such cracks would exist, I figured.

“What are you doing? We can vandalize the mayor’s house another time. Just name the day and I promise I’ll be there.”

Serah glared at me, then dug into the wallpaper with her wrench, tearing a jagged vertical gash.

I stared. That wallpaper, and the wood she had scarred below it, likely cost more than most of the furnishings in my tiny studio above Annabella’s. Not that I was particularly upset; if I wasn’t afraid of repercussions both political and military, I’d be all about taking Joel Downing down a notch. But Serah hadn’t my reasons for disliking the man, and she was hardly the sort given to wanton destruction. She’d take her own property apart in an eyeblink, but never someone else’s without permission.

Without any of her usual care, Serah reached out and ripped the wallpaper open further, revealing the wood paneling underneath…and a metal access panel, planted flush into the wall.

A cluster of valves and gauges, pipes and tubing filled the wall, a confusing mess to most, but Serah waded in without hesitation. She turned several valves, and corresponding needles shifted meaninglessly. A few seconds of work with her wrench, a quiet curse, and then she simply ripped out a section of rubber tubing several feet long, with complex brass fasteners at either end.

“Okay,” she said, grinning and retrieving the lamp from my arms. “Let’s go.”

I shook my head and doused my light, leaving the mess of the wall to fade into darkness. “What was that about?” I hissed, then listened against the door for footsteps. The other side sounded as empty as when we had left it, and holding my breath, I cracked it open slightly, ready to slam it shut and run at a moment’s notice.

Needless worry, it turned out, as once the door was open I could hear the faint sound of singing from below. I couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded not unlike old army marching songs. Pirate shanties, no doubt, celebrating their richness and cleverness. Which was fine by me; the longer they took in their celebrations, the better for Serah and I.

“No time to explain,” she whispered back, and pushed past me to run up the final steps to the roof. I ground my teeth and followed.

The steps ended at a plain metal door, closed but unlocked. On the near side, a heavy steel bar hung from an equally hefty chain, clearly designed to fit into a matching set of slots in door and frame such that the door could not be opened from without. No key would dislodge that sort of latch, which meant that either the mayor had been uncharacteristically lax in security tonight, or the pirates had planned this rather more thoroughly than I was comfortable thinking about. They must have placed someone–or multiple someones–in the mayor’s house staff well before this night, perhaps as early as a month ago, when the ball had been officially announced to the city. It disturbed me that something this big could have gone unnoticed for so long by anyone.

The door, though heavy steel, was balanced well and opened smoothly, without creak or protest. I let it close gently behind us, and we found ourselves on the roof of the mayor’s mansion.

The roof of Downing’s mansion was large and flat, tiled in hard white ceramic and walled in on all sides by a low ridge of stone. At the four corners, towers rose another two stories above the rooftop, housing bedrooms, attics, clock towers, or anything else the mayor deemed them useful for.

Under normal circumstances, much of this would have been dark and invisible, the only indication of the walls and towers being the dark silhouettes they made before the orange glow of the low cloud cover, the glow of a city that never sleeps.

But on this night, the entire rooftop was lit up like a carnival.

The mayor’s mansion is enormous. Not the largest building in the city, but a respectable size for a private dwelling. There was easily enough room for a decent game of football, provided shots did not go very far out of bounds. The airship was a small sort, dwarfed by the roof it occupied. The balloon was held in place by great steel cables, supporting an almost ludicrously small gondola beneath, painted midnight blue with a dark red underneath, as if it had been dipped in blood. Lights glowed from within, mostly drowned in the much larger guide lights that had been used to dock the airship.

Ladders and rigging roughened the smooth surface of the envelope, climbing ropes battling rungs and pulleys for space, tiny catwalks ringing the structure and providing a precarious mount for a brave or foolish crew member.

Shapes moved behind the lit windows of the gondola, but no one seemed to take notice of two fugitives skulking in the shadows. Black tubes snaked from the rear of the gondola, slithering to a corner of the roof where a rat’s nest of pipes and tubes marred the otherwise perfect smoothness of the architecture.

I made for this at once, hoping I could simply cut off or reverse the petrol flow without the pirates noticing. I doubted I could drain the tanks enough to prevent launch, but at the least I could create a little chaos, delay things just enough for Hattie or someone to get help.

It was only after I slowed to a stop before the snarl of pipes that I realized Serah was no longer by my side.

Neither was Kristopher, for that matter, but only because I had repeatedly warned him to stay well back from flammable fluids. He was floating serenely in the air several yards away, his soft red glow all but swallowed up by the great floodlights that still shone on the airship.

I whirled around, the pipes forgotten, and scanned the rooftop frantically for Serah. My eyes complained as they adjusted from nighttime black to the bright floodlights, and I was unable to spot Serah’s form anywhere on the roof.

(She is fine,) Kristopher said. (Remember yourself).

“Fine. Right,” I muttered, and spent several more precious seconds looking, before letting out a growl and turning back to my objective. She could take care of herself. I knew this. But knowing didn’t stop me from worrying.

None of the valves before me were labeled with anything more than the colors and symbols that any chemist might understand, but were alien to me. The mechanical connections themselves were easy enough to follow, however. This wheel opened a path through the tubes, that lever controlled a directional valve, this gauge displayed hose pressure. Familiarity with Serah’s shop helped me here, and I closed one valve, flipped a lever, and opened another, and was gratified with the sudden gurgling sound of arrested fluid, followed by a rise in pressure as the fuel began to flow the opposite direction along the tube. Soon enough, someone in the airship might notice the drainage and shut off the connection, but until then, every gallon lost was distance the airship could not travel.

I turned to look for Serah once more, worried despite Kristopher’s assurances. As my eyes passed over the airship once again, a sudden red glow lit up the night sky as a brilliant light shot upward, drowning out the orange city-light. The light rose high into the sky and seemed to hover, twinkling, before falling back down, fading out as it went.

A shout went up from the pirates in the gondola, and from the rooftop door, and I whirled in surprise. The pirates crowded out of the doorway, all sounds of singing and revel gone, and they hauled the crates across the smooth tiles of the rooftop. The light had been a signal, a call for help that I was well acquainted with, and that the pirates must have recognized as well. There was only one person who could have set that off. But why would Hattie bring a flare gun to a ball?

I was so fixated on this thought, and on the pirates running toward the airship, that it took me several seconds to realize what the afterimages imposed on my retina were trying to tell me.

In the red glare, a figure had shown against the night sky, standing high on the top of the envelope. A figure whose lower half blew in a stiff wind, just as might a woman’s gown.

“What the hells is she doing?” I muttered angrily, and at that moment, a light blinked on and off atop the airship. It was a faint light, dim and barely visible next to the rooftop floodlights. But were all the other lights quenched, it could be visible for quite some distance.

And I understood.

“Oh, Serah, you brilliant, clever, reckless and idiotic woman,” I whispered, half in admiration, half exasperation. “How in Winter’s hells are you going to get down?”

The beacon flickered on once more, and stayed that way. Of course, given the limited time and tools, Serah could hardly rig a remote or time-lagged trigger. Which meant that all any pirate had to do would be to look up, and the game would be blown.

It was a simple matter to reach across the distance between Serah and myself and throw up a darkness to hide her lantern. Darkness is the easiest illusion in the world, requiring no features, no skill, hardly any power.

Simple. But too late by just a second.

A shout and a crash sounded as one of the men holding the crates suddenly straightened and pointed, dropping his corner with a sound that made me wince.

“Idiot!” one of the others roared, and for a moment I thought it might all blow over in a chaos of blame and worry over the loot. But this crew wasn’t formed from trigger-quick hotheads, and after a few rounds of shouts and insults, they quieted and listened to the man.

Would that the Kestral government could function so effectively.

The man picked up his corner, and the group picked up the pace. Those not carrying the boxes sprinted toward the airship and began to swarm up the ropes and ladders, hanging off the enormous balloon like bizarre, thieving spiders. The others reached the gondola in short order and raced up the ramp, which then fell to the tiles with a clatter as it was unhooked from within.

“Shit,” I said and started to run, not sure what I was going to do, but damned if I was going to leave Serah to the pirates. Maybe I could cause some confusion, delay the launch enough for Serah to get down and hide with me…

In addition to communicating well, the pirates were apparently efficient pilots as well. Before I had covered half the distance to the airship, the ropes holding it down suddenly snapped free, whipping out, and the airship leapt skyward as the gases in its envelope strained for the clouds.

I sprinted forward, grabbing at flailing ends of rope, leaping uselessly into the air, shouting in vain for the airship to Stop!, but I could do nothing and the airship was already twenty feet or more above my head, and still rising.

“Stop, gods damn you!” I roared, and stamped my foot like a child throwing a tantrum.

Joel Downing, I could let them take. Even Martha I could live with, because I knew we would get both of them back alive, if perhaps not unharmed. But they had no reason to keep Serah alive. And she had nowhere to run. The airship was big, but once in the air, it was a tiny island, and one without a safe harbor.

I was hyperventilating, unable to focus, unable think about anything but her face, bloodied and bruised, her body dropping from the airship like a limp rag doll. These pirates would have no qualms about killing her. I knew that. They had shot Hattie without thinking twice. They would–

Kristopher whistled, louder than I had heard him before, and I clapped my hands to my ears. His song still reached me, loud and unforgiving. (Are you going to do nothing?) he said, and had he been human, a heavy note of scorn would have tainted his words.

I gulped, my mind suddenly clear, and I dug into my memories for something, anything. Darkness was easy; I blinded the airship, casting a cloud of black over every window. But they were flying in night anyway, flying by instrument; added darkness would hardly give them pause. I dug deeper, remembering stories I had heard of old sky sailors, the ones who claimed to have flown impossible distances to the east, across the mountains, across the vast desert, to lands unknown by any in Cest-Weldersheen.

In those lands far across the desert, it is said, live birds of impossible size, creatures that dwarf ships, that can swallow buildings whole. Creatures to which we are nothing but fleas. Brilliantly white, so bright that they are difficult to look upon, these rocs have been said to destroy airships by careless accident, the wind of their passing enough to knock the ship out of the sky.

This is what I threw at the pirates’ airship, an enormous white bird of prey, diving out of the sky to tear the airship to pieces. Every aeronaut’s worst impossible nightmare, a creature that would give even a man who’s never flown pause.

And it did nothing. The bird dove and on the streets below I heard shouts of horror and the screams of frightened horses, but in the sky, the airship did not so much as twitch, and when it struck the deadly razor beak of the roc, able to swallow elephants whole, it simply sailed through.

As if blind.

I screamed then, a wordless scream of rage and frustration. Anger that they had gotten away, anger that they had been too fast, and I too slow, anger at Joel Downing for throwing this cursed ball, and anger at Hattie for forcing me to attend. But most of all, anger at myself, at my own stupidity, my own snare that had caught me as neatly as if I had planned it.

I collapsed on the smooth tile of the mayor’s roof, my legs no longer willing to support me. I sat there, shivering in the cold autumn night as the airship rose slowly upward into the dark sky, growing dimmer and smaller by the second.

I hardly had time to mope, for a squadron of armed men burst onto the roof seconds later, weapons held at ready. A dozen safeties on a dozen rifles clicked off, surrounding me in a half circle. I didn’t acknowledge them; I didn’t care what they did now. I simply sat there, staring up at the shrinking speck of light that glowed atop the airship, the tiny beacon that was a testament to Serah’s brilliance and ingenuity, and my failure to keep her safe.

* * * * * * * *
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3 Responses to “Masque Ball: Chapter VI”

  1. why are you posting your story online? I mean seriously, shouldnt you search for a publisher? btw great work, check my blog out , i am a sixteen year old writer. And would you mind If i occasionally asked you for some suggestions etc? o AND DO SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG!

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