Fiala heard the sound of the culler’s wings. Long low swoops which stirred the impenetrable clouds. She couldn’t see farther than her arm could reach and even that grew hazy by her wrist. The mechanical wings strapped to her back beat loudly, a clumsy pigeon flap telegraphing her position to the culler. She wished her wings were quieter, but metal couldn’t compete with flesh and bone. Fear sweat dripped down her face and she wiped her mouth with a shaking hand.
She turned, flying in a tight circle, listening for the monster. She pictured the beast stalking her. Nostrils flaring, throat pouch swollen with the leystones which kept it aloft. And the teeth. She’d seen them in drawings and etchings in books about sky beasts but they were so much more dreadful in person, as long as her hand and stained with past meals.
Fiala undid the buckle of her flight helmet. She needed to hear more than she needed its protection. A helmet wouldn’t save her now. She dropped it and listened to it whistle as it picked up speed on its way down. Maybe that would distract the culler for a second. Fiala thought she heard the beast’s wings snap as if changing direction. Probably wishful thinking.
She had fled into the cloud bank for safety after radioing the ship to warn them about the pack of cullers but she realized her mistake. Some animal instinct in the back of her brain told her the culler who had cut her off from the ship was closing in. The thin hope she had was culler pack dynamics. They were loose, and individual animals would pursue a single target while the rest cruised for their own prey item of choice. It was every culler for itself, so she’d picked up only one of the hunters. She needed to get out of the cloud bank, to get her bearings and try to make a run for the ship.
Where to go. Up? Down? Strike out in a random direction?
Quietly as possible, Fiala drew her pistol from the leather holster attached to her flight harness. She ran her fingers over the bandolier crossing her chest. All the gear made her heavy but she was loath to part with anything more than her helmet.
The cloud cover was thinnest above and she didn’t know how deep the clouds went. They could end in fifty feet or five hundred feet, whenever they hit an air layer of a different temperature. She was trained for the city. Not this. She was just a courier, a glorified postal worker flying packages around Victus, the capitol. She was going to die out here. Die a horrible painful death in the jaws of a giant predator. And it was all that bitch’s fault
If she got out of this alive she was going to kill Vedette.
“I’ve got a job for you,” Vedette said as Fiala walked in the office door.
“Delivery, pickup, or both?” Fiala hung her oilskin rain coat on the wall peg. The coat dripped on the scuffed wood floor adding even more moisture to the already damp office.
Vedette sat behind her desk, although “desk” was too grand a word. It was a door rescued from the trash propped up by two halves of a barrel.
The office depressed Fiala if she thought about it too much, a moldy hole in the wall with one grimy front window. The meager light from the window was further blocked by the sign hanging there.
Von Gallowglass and Wickliff
Winged Couriers 2nd. Class
“It’s not a delivery,” Vedette said. With one hand she flipped her long purple-dyed hair aside.
She always flipped her hair when she had some scheme in mind. Fiala had met plenty of lowlife street rats whose pursuit of money was as ruthless as it was shameless, but somehow Vedette made them look like honest constables. Apparently, in Vedette’s case, having come from money and then losing it was worse than never having had any to begin with.
“What is it then?” Fiala sighed. She pulled up a collapsing wicker chair in front of the desk. The chair was another rescue from the garbage. She’d been there when Vedette had pinched it from a merchant’s trash on Lucre Key.
“I signed you on to a leyship as a scout. You’ll earn double, even quadruple, in four weeks what you could in the city. And as your partner, I get half your earnings.”
“Wait!” Fiala sputtered. She stood so fast the wicker chair was knocked to the ground. Her fists balled. Anger darkened her tan face. Beneath the anger was the sting of betrayal. Not that she should expect any better. To Vedette, Fiala was a tool, not an equal. Not a partner. “You can’t just… just sell me! And what do you mean half? Why aren’t you going if it pays so well?”
Vedette motioned for her to sit down but Fiala placed her hands on the desk and leaned over to glare at Vedette.
“Oh come on,” Vedette said. Her hand jerked through her hair. “It’s only a month. I’m not going because someone still has to manage the deliveries in the city. And you know the money will go right back into the business. You’re just on loan. Nothing more.”
Vedette’s aristocratic, in-bred, mismatched eyes locked on Fiala’s plain brown ones. The bitch had one green eye, and one blue eye, and both of them burned with willful haughtiness. “Who paid for your wings and the license for the company?”
She always came back to that. After Vedette’s mother, the Duchess of Wayward Key, had disowned her daughter, Vedette had sunk every last ha’penny into this joke of a delivery company. Because the guild laws required a company be a minimum of two people, she had come to Fiala with a business proposition. Vedette would buy their wings and licenses and in return Fiala worked for her. Fiala just wanted to fly. She’d dreamt of it since she a was a child. So she’d said yes. And now she was stuck with her worst enemy, bound iron tight through debt and contract.
“And who was it got us expelled from the Royal Academy to begin with?” Fiala said.
Vedette ground her teeth. “Fine, I’ll get the contract cancelled. But if you know where you can make five hundred crowns in a month I’d like to know.”
Five hundred? Fiala pulled back as she thought about the money. Five hundred left her with two fifty after Vedette got her money.
“We need the money,” Vedette said, voice soft but insistent. It was as close to begging as she could get.
Fiala sighed. They did need it. Desperately. Their upstart company was barely operable. They didn’t clear enough to take a salaries most weeks. They skipped meals, took more jobs than they should have, and worked into the night to meet deadlines.
“Fine.” Fiala said, voice tight. She wasn’t sure who she hated more right now. Vedette or herself for always giving in.
Fiala had to get clear of the clouds. If nothing else at least she’d be able to see the culler before it ate her.
She tapped out a sequence, touching the contacts wired to her thumb and first three fingers. The mechanical wings on her back sped up, engine whining. Straightening her body, Fiala shot upward. Using her body weight she added a spin to the maneuver. She needed to see three hundred sixty degrees when she left the cloud cover.
Above her the clouds grew brighter. The dew collecting on her face mixed with sweat and chilled her raw.
Brighter and brighter. The clouds thinned. The light told her she was about twenty feet from breaking cover.
Her grip on the pistol tightened, and she was glad it was attached to the holster on a long leather strap. Her hands were so sweaty she was afraid she’d drop it.
Fiala broke into glaring bright sunlight. She squinted as her eyes adjusted, forcing them to stay open. Even the tint in her goggles didn’t cut the light.
She spun in the air, a weightless dancer locked in a deadly pas de deux.
Less than fifteen feet away, the culler breached the clouds. Water streamed off its oily fur, beading and shedding a thousand droplets that glittered in the sun. Beautiful. Terrible.
The culler angled toward her, blue eyes fixed on its prey.
She leveled out and skimmed the cloud layer. Fiala made the mistake of turning around to see how close the culler was.
All she saw was a gaping red maw lined with rusted ivory teeth.
A cold breeze lifted Fiala’s auburn hair. She stood on pier 82 looking at the long iron and wooden walkway projecting into open space.
Lucre Key was anchored three hundred feet above Victus. Chains with links the size of houses kept it stationary over the city. The floating island was home to the busiest sky docks in the nation. Leyships from around the world came to trade, deliver goods, and depart again, their holds full for the return trip.
Piercing morning sun warmed her skin. Fiala sighed heavily and looked down at the scrap of paper in her hand. The leyship Vedette had signed her onto was docked in slip 15. At least she was in the right place even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
She picked up her duffle bag. She hadn’t packed much for a month-long trip. She didn’t have much to pack in the first place. A few changes of underwear, a travel-size wing maintenance kit, her battered leather flight suit and the clothes on her back.
Tapping her fingers, the wings on her back fluttered to life. Fiala skimmed the peeling paint and tarry deck of the pier.
A few seconds later she reached slip 15. The main deck of the leyship rose above the pier. Cranes loaded cargo and a swarm of dockhands ran back and forth. She checked her piece of paper and looked at the hull of the wedge-shaped ship. Painted over its grey steel hide was a woman dressed in a revealing under-bust corset. “The Dainty Whore” was painted in yellow-orange letters above her. Soot from the ship’s three smokestacks stained the painting but did nothing to obscure the dainty whore’s comically large breasts.
Fiala sighed again as she took in the sight of her home for the next month.
The culler’s leathery wings beat as it flapped after Fiala, picking up speed.
It let out a subsonic cry Fiala couldn’t hear but felt it in her chest. Her heart skipped a beat and she felt her bones squeeze. Her ears went numb and she couldn’t hear the culler anymore. Her only advantage was speed and maneuverability. She clenched her jaw as her heart sped up. She wouldn’t die. Not here.
Fiala barrel rolled. She gauged the culler’s speed and distance, saw its throat swell as it took in air. Scarlet air sacs along its jaw line swelled.
The culler pushed air up into its domed echo chamber of a skull and let loose another pulse.
She felt the punch in her soft tissues and a brief ache in her bones. Too many more sonic blows and it wouldn’t matter if she made it to the ship. Her bones could fracture, or the wing engine could take damage, leaving her immobile. Fiala spun back around. She tapped her fingers together and slowed down.
She glanced back again to make sure the culler was catching up.
Fiala looked at her tiny quarters aboard ship. Metal walls and wooden floors, cold hard unwelcoming surfaces. There was a narrow metal bunk bolted to the floor. A little steel writing desk bolted to the wall and a stool bolted to the floor. As far she could tell everything on board was nailed down in some way. Her room at Mrs. Miffin’s boarding house wasn’t as small and dreary as this.
A grimy porthole let in graying sunlight and above hung a lamp on a short chain. Fiala set her small duffel bag on the bunk and sat down. Across from her, pinned to the wall, was a full-color poster, an expensive amenity and the sole color aside from gray in the whole room.
It was a chart of ley-line predators. Big letters across the top of the poster warned KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE SKY! in alarming red ink. Below were front and side views of each animal along with silhouettes and next to them a scaled silhouette of a human.
The predators justified the red ink. Fiala shifted on the hard mattress, trying to get comfortable, as she looked at the chart.
It was arranged smallest to largest. The smallest was a culler, a bristled mammal with a domed head and jaws half as long as its body. Tip to tail, the chart said it measured twelve to fifteen feet. They hunted in packs and were known to pick unwary sailors from the decks of ships.
Reptilian drakes twenty feet long. Razor sows, another mammal reaching thirty five feet long with long forelegs ending in hands. Their hind legs were flattened into long fins tipped with poison spurs.
Largest on the chart was the massive death bird, the ship breaker, the Sun Eagle. The great raptors were said to never touch land. They soared at 21,000 feet or more and sometimes dive-bombed ships, tearing them in half and eating the sailors as they fell. The tiny ant-like human silhouette was dwarfed by its seventy foot bulk.
Fiala shivered. Vedette had said animal attacks were rare in the commercial shipping lanes. The predators had learned to steer clear of humans and most of them lived along the smaller secondary ley-lines now.
If that were true, then why were the three scouts already on board scarred so badly? Was Vedette trying to reassure Fiala, or herself? Or maybe Vedette was just wanted to get her out the door and earning money.
More important, why did Fiala keep going along with her insane schemes?
“Frightful aren’t they?”
Fiala jerked around to the cabin door. She’d left it open. Captain Lerdy stood in the doorway.
“Captain, sir,” she said and stood up. She saluted left handed, then right handed when she realized she got it wrong.
He waved away her efforts.
Lerdy had greeted the new scouts as they came aboard and she hadn’t thought to see him again so soon. He was a red faced, permanently weathered man. The skin on his nose was peeling and he sported three days of grey stubble.
“Trick to killing ‘em, if you can do it, is come in behind ‘em from just above.” He held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “Most of ‘em couldn’t scratch an itch between the shoulder blades if their life depended on it.”
He hooked a thumb at the poster and his eyed narrowed. “’Cept the razor sows. They can reach. You just better hope you don’t run into one of ‘em.”
The Captain turned and left.
Fiala stood alone in the middle of the cabin too stunned to move.
The culler was a few feet away. Fiala imagined its hot breath on her skin although she couldn’t actually feel it. Another sonic pulse hit her, harder because she was so close. Her heart stuttered, pausing long enough for pain to spike in her chest. Dizziness spun her senses and she started listing. If she lost orientation she would flounder and be killed.
Fiala slowed and dove, a little, not enough to alarm the culler, or force it to change direction, but just enough to keep clear of the claws and teeth. Just enough so it’d sail over head. She hoped.
The beast clawed at her but she was out of reach. The thick musk of the culler choked her, threatening to evict her breakfast from her stomach. She clenched her teeth just as the backwash from the culler’s wake tumbled her through the air. Its broad tail came within inches of smacking her in the face.
Fiala rolled and accelerated. The culler was trying to swing around but was too big to turn quickly. She straightened out and flew right for the culler’s back.
“Go for the stone pouch.” Captain Lerdy lifted his head to show his throat and drew a line across it with his thumb. “If you’re lucky you’ll hit an artery. If you’re really lucky you cut it open and the leystones will pop out. Hell, maybe you’ll even live.”
Fiala nodded along with the other green recruits. Her stomach knotted around the breakfast of milk tea and biscuits.
She and the four other fresh scouts sat in the galley while the Captain lectured them on the ley predators they needed to watch for and how to kill them should they encounter one.
“Here’s your gear. Keep in mind it belongs to the ship. Lose anything and it’ll come out of your pay.”
A skinny, sallow boy named Wesley raised his hand.
“What?” Captain Lerdy grunted. He glared at the boy, annoyed to be interrupted.
“When do we get hazard pay?”
“You get that if you work dusk or dawn,” Lerdy said. “That’s when the preds are on the prowl.”
“Can we take extra shifts?” Wesley tossed greasy blonde bangs out of his eyes.
There was raucous laughter from the back of the galley. Three of the ship’s regulars, seasoned scouts, who didn’t have to be at the lecture, laughed. That seem to be their sole purpose for being there. Mocking the new recruits throughout the orientation lecture.
One of the ship’s scouts, a wire-thin woman called Rhen stood up. Fiala remembered her because of her face, scarred to ruins by some beast. She sauntered over to the boy.
She loomed over him. “You wouldn’t be thinking of cutting into my profits would you?”
The scouts in the back chuckled again.
“No,” Wesley said. His lips quivered a little but he added, “But we should all get a chance at more money.”
“You’re as dumb as you are ugly kid,” Rhen grinned lopsided, one corner of her mouth pulled up higher by scar tissue. “And aching to get uglier.”
Her friends guffawed and a few of the new scouts joined in. The lanky boy had bad skin, red and cratered. He turned even redder at her comment but said nothing.
Fiala didn’t laugh. She didn’t feel like it. None of this was funny. Not the lecture on ley-line predators and certainly not the threat of death.
Captain Lerdy coughed and the mirth ended. Rhen returned to the back of the room and the rest of them turned their attention back to the Captain.
“Dusk and dawn patrol assignments are given out by seniority but you’ll all get a chance.” He said.
“Now back to the equipment. Radio, belted on, don’t lose it. Charge it with the hand crank.” He pointed to a handle on the side. “It’s on an open frequency so no chatter. If you radio for help anyone in range can hear and come to your aid.”
He picked up the pistol and bandolier next. “Six shooter, spare bullets. It don’t work much past a few feet, not in the high winds you’ll be facing. Unless you’re a crack shot.”
Fiala had never seen a gun up close until this very morning. She doubted she could have hit the broadside of the boarding house she lived in, let alone a stalking predator, although some of them were the size of a house, which still didn’t make her feel better.
“You can get some target practice in but the bullets are docked from your pay.”
“Last,” he held up a heavy bladed hunting knife, “your knife. Strap it to your arm. Beast gets too close, slash ‘im.”
Lerdy put the knife down. “Any questions?”
No hands went up.
“Good,” he said. “Check out your gear before each patrol. You sign it out at the requisitions office and sign it all in when you get back. Dismissed.”
Fiala angled in and hit the culler’s back where it’s claws couldn’t reach and its teeth couldn’t find her. She grabbed thick wads of slippery fur. Only the outer coat was oily. Her fist sank into a soft under-layer of insulating fur.
The culler bucked, throwing off the sharp turn it’d been making. Leathery wings beat to slow itself before it spun out of control.
The pistol was flapping on the end of its tether. She didn’t remember dropping it. A knife would be faster. The hunting knife supplied by the ship looked like a stick pin. Rhen’s blade would do better.
She pulled herself along its back, inching closer to the neck as it twisted and roared with rage. The culler almost threw her several times but Fiala hung on.
She hooked her legs over the culler’s wings where they sprouted from its shoulder blades. The culler flew straight up, body reaching vertical, hoping to dislodge her. Fiala pulled a thigh-long knife from her boot, the metal glinting orange and pink, reflecting sunrise in its deadly blade.
Dinner was a steaming pile of something unidentifiable on toast. Fiala stabbed in her spoon and dug through the brown slop. She sniffed at it. Didn’t smell bad. Maybe it tasted better than it looked.
She found what looked to be a carrot, then a chunk of potato. Across from her, Wesley was digging in. He hunched over the table, greasy blonde hair hanging perilously close to his food.
They had just come off afternoon patrol and while Fiala didn’t count him as a friend, he was closest to her age, only three years older. He’d just turned twenty and that somehow qualified him to follow her around and give her tips on everything from wing maintenance to how to fly.
He wasn’t even good. She flew circles around him on their patrols and he alone of the new scouts never practiced his flying. But they kept getting lumped together based on age. Fiala would much rather have flown with Clure or Lucerta, two of the older green recruits. Better yet she wanted to fly with Rhen. None of the ship’s seasoned regulars, career leyship scouts all, would give the temps the time of day, not when it came to the job anyway.
Fiala took a tiny bite of the food, letting it touch her tongue. The slop was delicious. She took a spoonful of the savory stuff, still unsure what to call it. Stew was close enough.
“Hey,” came a voice behind her.
Fiala swallowed her food and turned to the galley door.
Rhen, dressed for dusk patrol, walked over to the table. She always seemed to be dressed for patrol no matter what time of day Fiala saw her, and always with her weapons on.
“I was looking for you Wickliff,” she said. Rhen leaned against the steel table and plucked a candied apricot off Fiala’s tray. “You get dawn patrol tomorrow,” Rhen said, then ate the apricot.
“What?” Fiala swallowed, mouth gone dry.
Wesley jumped in, “If she doesn’t want it, I’ll take it.”
Rhen reached across the table and smacked the side of his head. “No you won’t, you greedy little shit. It’s Wickliff’s turn on the roster.”
“But,” Fiala said. She didn’t want dawn patrol. Wesley could have it.
“You don’t show up you break contract.” Rhen said, lopsided grin pulling her face. “Besides, I’m doing you a favor. Radio chatter says there’re cullers around.”
It was a favor. A confirmed culler sighting would double her hazard pay. But this wasn’t the sort of favor she wanted.
“Here, have an extra knife if it makes you feel better.” Rhen pulled a knife from her boot, a knife the length of a short sword. The blade was double edged and gleamed brightly in the sun coming through the portholes. It dwarfed her standard issue hunting knife by ten deadly inches.
It clanged on the steel table as Rhen put it down. “They under-equip you landlubbers anyway.”
Rhen snickered as she turned and left.
“Aww, lucky you.” Wesley said
Fiala glared at him.
He held up his hands. “Hey, I bet we could trade patrols. That wouldn’t break your contract.” He eyed the knife on the table, then reached for it.
She grabbed the hilt and pulled it away from him. He really was a greedy bastard.
“I’m taking the dawn patrol,” Fiala said through gritted teeth. Want it or not, the job was hers, and she was tired of everyone thinking she couldn’t do anything. Worse yet, Fiala believed them. She listened to Vedette’s put-downs and Wesley’s wheedling voice because they echoed her own doubts.
Maybe Rhen had it out for Fiala, but she didn’t think so. Rhen knew she needed money and she was helping Fiala make the most of her time on board.
“Come on,” Wesley whined. “It’s obvious you don’t even want to go. You turned white the instant that ugly bitch said cullers. Anyway you’re just a kid, you couldn’t beat those monsters.”
Slowly Fiala stood up. She took the knife in one hand and her food tray in the other.
“You can’t fly for shit Wesley. Find someone else to latch onto. If you can.”
She turned and left the galley.
Fiala found the culler’s ear hole and dug her fingers in for a better grip. The beast squealed and Fiala was relieved her hearing was coming back.
She swung Rhen’s knife against the culler’s neck. The blade sank into its fur and sliced through skin and fat and into muscle. The culler went wild. Twisting in the air, it shrieked, making a sonic pulse even though it couldn’t focus it behind its head.
Fiala wrenched the knife out. Blood sprayed from the wound, drenching her face and hands. The hot jet of blood blinded her, filming over her goggles with liquid red. Without a free hand to wipe the lenses, Fiala struck blind. The blade bit in again.
The spray of blood became a gush. Fiala could feel the culler shudder beneath her. Blood soaked her clothes and seeped in at the seams. Her mouth filled with the iron flavor and she couldn’t hold her stomach anymore. Fiala leaned over and vomited.
The blood slowed to a trickle and the culler trembled, then grew still. Her own harsh breathing rasped in her ears. She wiped her goggles with her hands, trying to clean them but the blood just smeared. Letting go of the culler’s ear, she pushed the goggles up and saw what she’d done.
The culler was dead. Fiala let out a ragged sobbing breath. She wanted to break down and cry but she forced the tears back. Her body shook, nerves vibrating with adrenalin that turned to acid in her veins.
The culler’s dead weight drifted slowly down. If it weren’t for the leystones in its throat pouch, they’d both be plummeting earthward, but Fiala still had plenty of time to try to calm down. She thought her nerves would ever stop jangling. She took in a deep breath but gagged on the spoiled meat smell of culler, blood and death.
She looked down. Below the drifting clouds, clean and placid, was a patchwork of green and brown. Forest and field, untouched by the violence done above.
Fiala guessed they were at 7,000 feet. The culler picked up speed as it sank.
She tapped a flight sequence into her wings and climbed off the culler’s back. She looked at the corpse in disbelief as she soared around it. Had she really survived? Had she really killed the beast? Somehow Fiala couldn’t quite accept that she was the one who’d done this. Not skinny Fiala Wickliff, the beanpole from Ms. Tavham’s Orphanage and Charity. Other people did things like kill cullers. People like Rhen.
Rhen’s knife was still lodged in the culler’s neck.
Bracing her boot against the culler’s neck Fiala yanked it free. The knife was harder to get out than she thought. The blade had been wedged in bone. Fiala wiped it on the culler’s fur.
She flew around to the front of the beast. There was a distinct bulge in its throat where the leystones pressed against the skin.
Fiala swallowed hard and closed her eyes. Sweat cooled on her skin and the blood drying on her face itched. She tried to picture the pile of money the leystones would get her. She pictured Vedette’s face, sour with envy, pictured Wesley’s nasty pout.
She slashed the blade across the culler’s throat. The skin split and the leystones popped out. A dozen or more, covered in slime. They rose fast, straight into the air as the culler’s body plummeted, subject to normal gravity once again.
Fiala watched it fall. The attack had taken how long? She looked at the sun. It hadn’t risen much higher over the horizon than when the culler’s shadow had first fallen over her.
At last her panting breath slowed but she still felt weak, jittery, rung out, and old.
The culler dwindled to a speck and disappeared from her sight long before it could hit the ground. Perhaps some farmer or shepherd would find its corpse in the middle of a meadow.
She had to get moving. The culler’s pack could still return and her bonus was floating away.
The cluster of leystones had risen at least a five hundred feet while she’d been watching the culler fall and collecting her nerves. She sped after them, flattening her body to go faster. For a minute she thought she’d lost them and fear caught her breath in her chest. But the gap began to narrow. The mechanical wings beat faster at her tapped command. Fiala pulled level and exhaled in relief. The stones were hers for the taking. They varied from the size of her fist, to the largest, which was big as her head.
Fiala snatched the smallest stones out of the air first. Her flight suit had half a dozen pockets that buttoned tight. She stowed them away, feeling the stones tug her clothing upward. They forced her already overworked wings to whine with effort, fighting to keep her steady. She stuffed as many of the rocks into her pockets as would fit.
Twenty percent of their price at auction would be hers, money she could live on for a year or more, money Vedette couldn’t touch. She’d read her contract carefully. All bonuses were hers to keep.
By the time she finished, Fiala, had collected twelve stones. The biggest one she carried in her arms. Putting the sun at her back, she headed back to the ship.
She kept nervous watch all around her, especially above. In the city she had never feared the sky. The most she had to watch out for were rival couriers, inclement weather, bad traffic, pigeons, and hawks.
A tide of miserable longing rose in her chest. She missed Victus with a ferocity she never imagined she had. She missed everything, the factory smokestacks, the mildewing office, the stink off the river, even Vedette.
A sleek pointed black shape came around a cloudbank, jolting Fiala out of her reverie. Fresh adrenaline shot through her already wrecked nervous system. The terror dissolved as she recognized the oncoming silhouette. The Dainty Whore’s skiff.
She flew faster, a sob of relief catching in her throat. Tears dried by the wind stiffened her face and, as she blinked them away, her vision wavered and then swam into focus.
As the skiff neared, a figure launched itself from the bow. Rhen’s huge industrial wings beat as she flew toward Fiala.
Clutching the sticky leystone like a pillow, Fiala sobbed hard. She had no idea where the emotion came from, but she felt saved. Rescued. She’d never felt that before. No one had ever rescued her. Not even when Vedette had found her a year ago and pulled her from the gutter to fly again had she felt like anyone cared whether she lived or died. Vedette had been watching out for her own ass. Though no one had saved her from the culler it was enough someone had come after her, that she wasn’t entirely alone.
Fiala raced faster, pushing the wing motor beyond safe tolerances. She saw Rhen’s face, a hint of pride in the sharp features that gave way to surprise as she got closer.
Not caring if she made a fool of herself, Fiala threw herself at Rhen, crying like a baby robbed of a toy. But the tears wouldn’t stop. She almost collided with Rhen. With her hands full, she couldn’t brake, and Rhen was forced to catch her. The woman grunted and the impact spun them both. Rhen laughed and put her arms around Fiala, letting her cry herself out. The big leystone in Fiala’s arms pulled them up but their wings kept them steady. When Fiala was wrung out, she looked up at Rhen, apology ready.
“All done?” Rhen gave her a crooked grin.
“I’m sorry.” Fiala pulled away, ashamed of her outburst. She was grateful her face was so red from the wind. It hid her embarrassed blush.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Rhen told her. “You’re alive is what matters.” She punched Fiala’s shoulder. “I knew you could do it. You’re a real scout now.” She winked.
Unfamiliar pride bubbled inside Fiala.
“I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Fiala said. The culler attack was fresh in her mind, the terror only just fading, but the events of the attack, the things she’d done, felt distant and hazy. Like a second hand story she imagined she’d taken part in.
“No one does,” Rhen said. She ran a finger over the deep scars on her face. “Come by my quarters tonight. I’ll tell you how I got these.”
Fiala nodded but didn’t reply. She didn’t want to risk bursting into tears again.
“Come on. You can register your prize when we get back to the ship.” Rhen pulled her toward the skiff which had drifted within ten feet of them.
As she turned Fiala, saw respect on the faces of the crew. The hardened sailors all grinned and a couple even clapped. Fiala’s mouth twitched at the corners and she let an embarrassed smile spread across her face. The grin widened to a grin when she saw the sour jealousy on Wesley’s face. His eyes were locked on the big leystone in her arms. Wait until he saw the others she had in her pockets.
She thrust out her chin and squared her shoulders. She gave a mid-air bow to the skiff and the sailors all applauded and whistled. Fiala’s nerves broke and she let out a ringing laugh. She was alive. She’d killed a culler. She’d taken the leystones from its throat. Things she never imagined herself capable of. It all felt impossible and impossibly good.