As they climbed higher, the rope turned coarse and splintered. Their fingers were red and swollen. Her hands were well calloused, and so she voiced no complaints. His were tender and inexperienced, so each scratch became another injustice. The merchant’s pants were wearing thin, and perforations gave way to tears, which gave way to holes, which gave way to blood. The snake charmer’s song was lost in the wind, but they knew he was still playing. Like a sapling peaking out of the soil, the top end of the rope manifested the strands, which braided and knotted themselves. Each push of their feet, and pull of their arms brought them closer to the wispy clouds. The rope did not sway, as the trees had. The cuffs of their clothes rippled in waves. He told her to slow down. She told him to keep up. A crowd below, swarmed together, growing, yet shrinking from sight. He wanted to give in, and let them feel his fall. She had listened to him whine for long enough, and each time she inched up, her hips moved with increasing angst. When he asked if she was trying to shake him off, she acted as though she couldn’t hear him so far below, and again he was told to hurry.
The airship was slow, but steadily it came, threatening to pass without them. The wind had turned against it, and the men at the cranks rained sweat upon the distant sands. The captain sat upon the prow, beside a windsock used for measurements. He dangled a fishing rod between his knees, jigging a lure that held no bait. Two handles hung down to the height of his ears. Each one was tethered to the rudder’s, and the minstrel saw the bottom fin pivot towards her. The first mate laid a hand on the fire feeder, signalling him to stop. Sparse embers were kicked away, shooting between the holes in the furnace’s grate. They aged into ashes and journeyed away in the currents, past the climbing pair, never to be noticed again. The ladders were dropped from both sides and the back, along with airy baskets, hooks and cargo nets. Most of the deckhands were giving the merchant and the minstrel their attention, but a few were flocking to the rear. When the merchant took notice of what they were taking notice of, he called up to the minstrel, “Flyers in chase!”
The tiny crafts, made from a seat, frame, and pedals linked to a propeller or flapping pairs of wings, were dangerously exhausting in the headlong gales, and only flew in the civilized land. The actual understanding of how they worked was largely lost, but the process to make them fly was common knowledge. When a flyer would venture out too far from the known realms, it would simply float lower and lower, until beached. Stories told of men who flew west into the sick-lands, became stranded, and died. Since the mechanics were exchangeable, and the frames were of ordinary craftsmanship, many flyers were customized. The irreplaceable parts, being the grey rod, and the brown coil, could always be found intact at crash sites. Men who stumbled open a wreck, always checked for the ‘rod’n’coil’, as the pair held a high trade value, equating to a luxurious type of freedom. Depending on the weather, a skimp flyer could out-race a steed across open ground. The minstrel knew of a map in her grandfather’s hall, which charted seasonal wind patterns, and the dead spots where crafts couldn’t pass. From the assortment of patterns and paints donning the pursuing vessels, she knew it wasn’t the RaHaZa.
A pirate fleet was in chase. Each man or woman piloted his own pairs of wings. Down below, they were known as the ‘dragonfly thieves of the rocky dunes’, but within their ranks they knew no collective name. Any person who could fly may join in their fun, as long as they could find them on their raiding routes, wore no badge and voiced no commands. At the tip of the hoard, two women strained with grinding teeth. Neither wanted the other to reach the prize first. Their attack appeared chaotic, but each one knew their role. The nimble and light would spend their strength for height, and latch on to the top of their prey. When one would cling on, they could give their pedaling legs a rest, and let their weight do their part for them. The burly pirates, who wore padding and clubs, would land on the decks, in a fury. Their higher risk let them get first picks, but that incentive was hardly worth it. Those who were amiss in speed or strength, would play about as distractions, harassing any exposed propeller crankers, slinging hollow stones. Their flyers often carried less loot, as they weighed themselves down with shields, and missiles.
The airship’s shadow was chasing up the charmer’s trick. The rope had blossomed like a daisy, whose petals were stiff enough to stand on. The minstrel, panting, perched on the top. She bounced her gaze from the merchant below to the oncoming ship above. She smiled with malice, seeing the merchant’s tears rolling off his puffy cheeks. As he climbed, he left red stains where his legs and hands clenched. She judged that there was a chance he would be left behind, where a tragic target he would make for the dragonfly thieves.
The ship came overhead. She grasped the first ladder, and pulled herself up towards the lower deck. Manly hands met her sleeves and shoulders, bringing her over the rails. Her back pressed against the planks, as her chest heaved in the crisp air. Her eyes closed, her mouth widened, and she listened to the captain commanding. The Merchant had stopped under the flowered platform, and stretched his left arm far, reaching for a swinging basket. It brushed against his hand, spun on it own, and was lost, much to his dismay. Another came fast, and crashed against his blindside ribs. His elbow dropped in, pinning the second basket to his chest. The merchant’s legs unwound, and he dangled free from the rope.
With both bodies unburdened, the snake charmer’s trick ended, as the fibers imploded down, receding back into the earth like a worm. Four airmen chanted together, pulling up the second basket to the rhythm of their song. The merchant had expired his arms, so he used his chin to help hold on. They reached for him before the basket was aboard, and seized his outstretched hand. His blood lubricated their grips. He watched their eyes widen, and felt confused as he slipped away.
The minstrel heard a scream, then felt the deck quake three times. They were subtle bumps, but the captain felt them too. His shouts explained two of them. Mesh-men were dispatched to ascend the balloons and remove a pair of female boarders. When the merchant was heard again, in a desperate state of agony, men were ordered to reel in the anchor which had violently snagged him. The fire feeder was joined by two others. They were trying to climb higher to freeze out the followers.
A man fell from the top, screaming and flapping his arms. The minstrel sat up, fell forward, and crawled to the back of the bottom deck. Her legs had quit, and all she could do was find a stable corner to sleep in. An aft window let in the light of the evening sun, turning the wood red. She lay in the middle of the doorway, finding a moment to stop and think. Whether the ship was overrun or not wasn’t concerning to her, passage was going to cost her the last of her jewels regardless. She could still hear the muffled moans of the merchant, whom had been brought aboard, and gagged. She made a mental list of all the pleasantries left back in Ka Rosha.
The ship quieted. The air grew colder. With her last breaths of effort, Elaina inched her way into the red light, and watched the sunset.