I awoke about an hour before sundown. My first thought was of Leon. I believed he would get well, but mostly because of the dream. Hope based on the message of a dream was irrational. I wanted to go back and check on him again, but knew it would be dangerous for us both.
“Hey,” a voice spoke from the doorway. It was Ryonel. He crossed the room to admire the contents of a tray of food on the table.
“Wow,” he commented, lifting the small bundle he carried in one hand, “I guess you don’t need any dry bread and cheese.”
The tray contained a whole roasted chicken on a seasoned pile of some sort of grain. Fruit, a crusty loaf of fresh bread and butter sat on one side and a wineskin of some kind of brew slouched behind it all. Jenassi had been true to her word, and had left me undisturbed as well. She was just a little girl, eager to please, after all.
“Only Bartroles eats like this,” Ryonel commented and threw me a glance. “How did you rate this tray?”
“I’m supposed to be well and strong enough tomorrow to go on a tour of his kingdom,” I explained, feeling irrationally defensive. “If I decide to go. But — please, take some. I can’t eat it all.”
“We’ll be leaving in the morning anyway,” Ryonel said, as though to reassure himself and then grinned at me with elation. “Tonight Leon and I will take The Aero on a test flight—“
“Leon is sick.” I interrupted. “Like, really sick. He almost died this afternoon.”
“What?” Ryonel exclaimed. He came over to sit beside me on the bed. “How do you know this?”
His sympathy and concern unleashed a torrent of words.
“Danteres came to tell me Leon was dead. We went across the bridges from building to building . . He was laying under the bed, incoherent and burning up with a fever. He said Bartroles poisoned him— tried to kill him. I poured some — some medicinal tea down his throat. After a while he started to get a little better, but he was so weak. I wanted him to come away. I was going to help him get to the Starport so we could leave tonight. But he couldn’t walk. He wanted to wait until tomorrow. He’s going to pretend he’s dying and try to regain his strength. He said to tell you—“
Ryonel reached out and awkwardly patted my shoulder and I realized for the first time that I was crying.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We can wait. I have a friend on that floor who will check on him for me and bring him food. Do you have any more medicine for him? I can get that to him too.”
His practical suggestions cured me of worry.
“The sun is going to set soon!” I exclaimed. “And I need it to make more tea. Wait a second, I’ll be right back.”
I ran down the hall and refilled my canteen with water, crushed moss and returned to put it in the window. Ryonel watched me with a funny smile.
“You’re a wonder, Captain Eleanor Ascent,” he said.
“Leon has been talking,” I observed.
“He talks a lot about you,” Ryonel said simply. Then he turned away to lift the tray from the table and put it on the bed between us.
“This is the only good thing Bartroles has ever done,” he said. “It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
As we ate, it became clear to me that Ryonel had been giving me most of his own food. He seemed to savor every bite of the chicken and and kept sighing with enjoyment. I wanted to ask how long it had been since he’d had a meal like this, but didn’t want him to have to pause and answer me. He kept offering me more, and telling me how good it was, as though I weren’t eating from the same tray.
Ryonel was energized by a stomach full of food and began to pace the room, enumerating all the things that still needed to be done to The Aero. I listened and packed the rest of the food into the bundle for Leon.
“You can hook the canteen to your belt like this. . . so you don’t have to carry it,” I demonstrated.
“If he’s strong enough I’m going to get him out of there,” he told me.
“He’s a big dude,” I said dubiously. “If he can’t walk on his own two feet. . . you won’t be able to carry him.”
“Maybe I should get The Aero flight ready and up to the Starport first,” Ryonel mused.
“We could do that tonight,” I suggested, squeezing myself into equation. “Maybe by morning. Then we could still leave. . .”
I thought he’d try to dissuade me, but he just smiled and nodded his head. “I do need you,” he admitted. “I’ve never flown anything before. Tell you what; you wait here. I’ll come back in about a half hour.”
Ryonel left with his bundles, promising to let Madia know the current state of affairs.
The bell rang and I put on the forsheda mask. No one came to check on me. The Marchempor was biding his time, waiting for Leon to die, no doubt.
Ryonel returned for me, with news from his friend, who happened to be the guard called, Bravon, whom I had seen earlier. He said that Leon was, “very sick, but not dead yet.”
This news did nothing to comfort me. Ryonel said all it meant was that Leon was doing a good job of pretending and that Bartroles’ poison didn’t work. There was nothing we could do short of actually going in there and carrying him out. Our best move was to get ready to leave as soon as possible.
The three Solanti boys met us at the city’s perimeter and we ran behind Ryonel out to the ship, taking a slightly different route than we had taken the night before.
While Jase, Naero and Telson stood guard, Ryonel and I checked all the major functions of The Aero. Ryonel spun up the mercury power source while I began to boot each system. The Aero sounded old and cranky, but she didn’t die on us. She just sat there in the grassy clearing, coughing and groaning while I worked through the check list.
I was completely wired-in and checking out the last gravity gauge when Ryonel spoke in my ear.
“Lani, it’s almost sunrise.”
“Already? Well, tell the boys to get in if they want a ride,” I said. “It’s now or never.”
The “boys” excitedly strapped themselves onto the bench and Ryonel took the co-pilot’s seat next to me.
“What do I do?” he asked. “I don’t know anything.”
“This is the landing gear lever,” I pointed out. “You push that up once we’re over the trees, and then pull it down when we’re about to land. I’ll let you know when. And, once we’re up, I’ll need you to give me directions to the Starport if it isn’t visible in this light.”
It felt great to fly again. We lifted off without a hitch. The grass around The Aero danced in the moonlight around us. I lifted above the tree line and hovered, checking everything again. No issues. I made a 180 degree turn slowly, still hovering.
A large bull mammoth charged out into the clearing beneath us and began to use his tusks to angrily gouge and throw the parts and pieces we had left behind.
“Woah, just in time,” Ryonel said, peering down through the side shield. “Those things don’t take “no” for an answer.”
Just as he finished speaking, the mammoth launched a chunk of rejected metal frame into the air and it hit us from underneath. The Aero shuddered and beeped.
“We’re going to die!” Jase, Telson, and Naero cried out from behind me, and the tone of their voices said clearly they expected the worst.
“It’s okay,” called out, “We’re okay. Hang in there. Let’s move higher. Retract the landing gear.”
“Got it. We’re good,” Ryonel answered.
Higher and higher we rose, straight above the clearing. The angry mammoth trumpeted below, but we could not hear the sound. He was far away.
“There’s the Starport,” Ryonel said, pointing toward the East. The enormous airport could be clearly seen against the moonlit horizon.
As much as I wanted to take The Aero for an actual test flight and see the lay of the land, I knew we were short on time. The glimmer of sunrise told me I had less than an hour to get back to my room. So, I banked The Aero and took her in a wide circle away from the city, approaching the far end of the Starport, near Ryonel’s dwelling.
“This is the coolest airport I’ve ever seen,” I said as I slowly lowered The Aero and set her down. “Even on Earth.”
“I can’t believe we did it,” Ryonel commented in a voice so quiet I scarcely heard him. “She flew. She actually lifted off. Thank you, Lani.”
I turned to smile at Ryonel and tell him “no problem,” but his expression was so intense I swallowed the words. This was a moment he’d been working toward for years. And I just somehow happened to be there. I shut off the power source and The Aero fell silent again. The boys in the back began whooping, cheering and congratulating each other.
Ryonel was still looking at me with joy in his eyes.
“It’s mutual,” I assured him. “Without you, Leon and I would be stuck here. And. . . guess what I brought to celebrate the Aero’s first flight?”
I reached into my backpack and pulled out the wineskin Jenassi had left in my room, which we had never opened. This time, even Ryonel whooped.
We stood around The Aero, taking turns drinking from the skin of what seemed to be nothing stronger than Apple cider, and slapped each other on the back until I finally said,
“Ryon, shouldn’t I get back to my room?”
“What am I thinking?” he cried, “come on!”
We ran to the heavy Vaer and there Ryonel had me crouch down behind him, incase someone was watching the holograms.
“They’re used to seeing me come and go at odd hours,” he explained. “I’m left to myself as long as I stay away from everyone else. But we have to be quiet on the Vaer.”
The Vaer silently sank down, down, and came to a stop on ground floor. Ryonel gestured for me to wait, while he looked out to the left and the right, then he gestured for me to follow him. Hunched down, I shuffled out behind him and then stood up.
“All clear,” he whispered, “but we better hurry.”
“So when are we leaving?” I asked as we ran through the shadows toward my building.
“It’s too late to leave this morning,” he whispered back. “There isn’t time to get Leon and the kids all up to the Starport and onboard. I told Madia we might have to wait until tomorrow before dawn.” We stopped in the Hall of the Gods before the Vaer.
“Shouldn’t I take the stairs?” I asked, hoping he’d say “no.”
“You can take the Vaer, just stay crouched down. If someone is watching, they won’t see you and will assume it’s Danteres wandering around. He’s still too short for the hologram.”
“I wish I’d known that last night. I nearly killed myself trying to get up all those stairs before I was missed.”
Ryonel laughed. “Thanks for everything you did tonight, Lani. I’m so — so happy right now I feel like I might shimmer.”
“Shimmer. . .” I echoed. “On Earth we say ‘explode.’ Shimmer sounds way better.”
“You always shimmer.” Ryonel said, smiling at me. Then he looked embarrassed and backed away.
“Will you check on Leon for me?” I asked, halting his escape, “and tell him, if you can, what our plans are?”
“I will. And I’ll see you tonight, if not before, and let you know everything. Stay safe￼today. No matter what happens, don’t go anywhere alone with Bartroles. Okay?”
He bent down a little to look me in the eyes, as though to make sure I was listening.
“Okay. I won’t. Good night. Er, good morning, Ryon.”
“Good morning, Lani,” he said politely.
I laughed, squatted down, and waddled into the Vaer.