The Race

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
illustrated by neomeruru

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/244685.html)

“Do you see that one in the black?” Simoen murmured in her ear, leaning past her to disguise his moving lips. “That’s Kes Kalumaria. Everybody says she killed her husband.”

Nyobe looked at him first, surprised and amused, but then she turned her gaze outward. He’d been watching the dance floor beneath them, and it wasn’t full, nor was it hard to pick the spot of black out of everyone else’s brightest colors. The woman Simoen must have meant was a few feet out from the bottom of the sweeping balcony stairs, dancing and laughing with Lanre Adwubo of the North Ridge Adwubos, who must have been at least twice her age but was doing his damnedest to keep up all the same. A little smirk pulled at the corner of Nyobe’s mouth. No fool like an old fool, and she ought to know, oughtn’t she.

The older she got, the harder it became to tell whether it wasn’t a very good party, or she wasn’t a very good guest. She thought this one was running about half-and-half, but couldn’t be sure. The Shasais were very pleasant but rather dreadfully dull people, and for the most part it was just the same old faces, all over again; she felt sure she was already thoroughly informed as to what half of them had been up to, and didn’t care about the other half. She’d spent the majority of the affair sulking on the balcony, wishing she were flying and taking far too much indifferent champagne from the automaton servers. If Simoen hadn’t turned up when he had with a pocketful of moderately fresh gossip, she might well have actually made a rope of tablecloths and rappelled out down the mansion wall.

But now at least her attention was distracted by Kes Kalumaria, apparently — who was a bit of an oddity, Nyobe couldn’t help noticing, even apart from her black dress. Her hair was a vivid, eye-catching light red, like raw copper, although that wasn’t so strange by itself — not when the crowd around her included one teal head, one that was a cloud of lavender, and one that was a natural black but into which an entire stuffed heron had been carefully woven. The loose corkscrewing curls it formed were a bit more unusual, though: a difficult style to pull off. She was also lighter-skinned than most people, but managed to be very pretty anyway: she had sweet features, a broad dazzling smile and wide eyes, and a voluptuous figure whose heavy curves of breast and bottom looked like they packed her gown full to bursting. Watching her dance was quite the view, and Nyobe took it in for a moment before turning back to Simoen.

“Did she?” she asked in a half-whisper, leaning close. Simoen smirked, swirling at his cocktail.

“Of course not, they just hate her. I mean, look at her.” That surprised Nyobe into laughing, and Simoen sucked alcohol off the onion at the end of his swizzle, until a thought seemed to occur. “Mm. Well, he did fall down a flight of stairs and leave her his company, but who wants a company? If I were going to kill somebody, it’d be for two companies, at least.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that when the Police come to my door one day.” That just made Simoen laugh, though, and slip his arm briefly around her waist.

“Oh, you already know where all my bodies are buried.” He kissed her cheek, and then gestured to the coup in her gloved hand. “Would you like another drink, darling, or were you planning to wring that one out down your throat before you let it go?”

Nyobe swatted him, but let him have the coup as he pulled away. “Dreadful boy. Bring back ten and just line them up along the railing.”

“My word, at your age?” Simoen said, grinning cheekily; but he escaped into the crowd before she could give him the slap he deserved.

She snorted to herself, and turned back out to the crowd below the balcony. Adwubo had retired from dancing and was now deeply in conversation with some boring investment type Nyobe had never bothered to learn by name; the much-maligned widow Kalumaria had vanished, meanwhile, into the crowd or for sparser climes. Nyobe spent a bit searching for her before finally giving up, and sighed, leaning on her elbows on the rail. She thought she’d make her excuses early tonight, having fulfilled her obligations. She could go to bed early like the old woman she was, and take her ship out into the sky at dawn.

Simoen was gone for an oddly long time, though, before she heard his laughter coming up behind her, and mingled with an unfamiliar woman’s. Nyobe turned to find Simoen returning, looking a bit out of breath and positively devilish, with his arm linked through — of course — that of Kes Kalumaria herself. She came along with him in a wobbling stumble, still giggling over something and sheened with sweat from her exertions. She beamed at Nyobe as she saw her, questioningly, and Simoen stepped forward grinning to take over.

“Allow me to do the honors, ladies,” he said, his eyes gleaming back at Nyobe’s skeptical stare. “Mrs. Kes Kalumaria, may I present Miss Nyobe Massanna, heiress and owner of the Massanna Industries empire, and champion of the Metropolitan Jubilee Dirigible Race for — what is it, darling, eleven years running?”

“Twelve,” Nyobe said, a touch coolly, and extended her hand. “My pleasure, Mrs. Kalumaria.”

“Kes, please,” the girl said, and smiled even broader as she clasped Nyobe’s hand and shook it — firmly, like a man. She was even lovelier and stranger up close: her hands and arms smooth and rounded and shapely, her eyes warm and bright, the skin across her nose and cheeks and shoulders heavily freckled dark-on-dark. “And the pleasure is all mine.”

“And on that note–” Simoen, turning back in Kes’s direction and finally freeing her other hand. “Miss Nyobe Massanna, may I present Mrs. Kes Kalumaria, widow and heiress of Kalumaria Autonomics’ Rasher Kalumaria?”

“I’d say you already have,” Nyobe said, with one dry eyebrow arched — making Kes glance between them, a curious smile on her lips. Simoen beamed at her, all innocence.

“Why yes, we were just talking about how quickly you’ve become the word on everybody’s lips!” He turned back toward Nyobe, looking not just shameless but positively gleeful. “But when I bumped into Kes just now, you’ll never guess what I found out. Having big companies with your names on them isn’t the only thing you two have in common. Kes here has just finished building an airship of her own — and she’s planning on entering the Race this year.”

Ah. Now she understood. She stretched her lips, making her smile a little wider and a little politer as she took another assessing look at Kes. “Is that so. Where did you commission it from?”

Kes looked puzzled for a moment, then laughed. She had a sturdy, strong way of doing it that seemed like it’d be better placed in a blue-collar bar than in this sweeping ballroom at the top of the City. “Oh, no, no — I didn’t have it built, I built it. I got some good deals on the materials, and I had some help, but mostly it was just me.” She grinned — might even have dropped a bit of a wink. “How else would I get to know her, right?”

Another reason why everyone hated the woman was becoming clearer the more she talked: she sounded like such new money she might still have been waiting tables out in the Flats this morning. It must have scraped the skin right off Obi and Afia Shasai’s asses to even have to invite her. “I suppose that’s true,” Nyobe said, polite as she could be. “So you’re a pilot, then?”

“Not up until this year,” Kes said, and laughed again. Simoen joined her, the vicious little terror. “I picked it up pretty quick, though. I mean, it’s not that tough: just a big balloon with a bunch of propellers on it, when you get right down to it.”

Nyobe’s smile felt frozen, impossible to stretch any further. Even Simoen had gone rather quiet. “I’m not certain that’s how I would describe it,” she said, in an even tone, with no small amount of difficulty. “Your confidence is an inspiration to us all.”

“Aww, thanks,” Kes said, beaming, with no apparent irony. “And, well, winning twelve times in a row — you’ll probably be happy to have some real competition for once, I bet!”

There was a long silence. Nyobe was almost certain Simoen was actually holding his breath.

“Won’t I just,” she said, cool and serene down to the last inch. “Well, I certainly look forward to it. But I’m afraid I have to excuse myself for now; it’s been a lovely party, but I was just on my way home for the evening.”

“Oh, really? That’s a shame, it’s still so early.” Kes’s smile was sorry now, and she seized Nyobe’s hand in both hers again without any help from Nyobe per se. “I wish we could’ve talked more, you must have so many great stories. But maybe some other time, huh?”

“We shall see.” She pressed Kes’s hand just a little too tightly, and then pulled back, drawing up to her full height and the inches it gave her on Kes. “How interesting it’s been to meet you… Kes.”

“Likewise,” Kes said; and stayed there smiling as Simoen excused himself too, and they moved on.

They made their way to the balcony stairs, Nyobe holding on to Simoen’s arm too, although probably with no more real need than Kes had had. Once they were out of earshot, Nyobe said pleasantly, “I’m going to destroy her.”

Simoen sighed, glancing over his shoulder, although Nyobe wouldn’t have believed there was real remorse there for a second. “Miss Popularity,” he said, and took Nyobe’s hand instead to lead her down the stairs. “Well, I do know how you like a project.”

By the time she’d kissed Simoen goodbye, collected her coat and cane, and gotten out to the curb, Hibiscus had brought the car around, and she let him escort her into the back seat gratefully. Loath as she was to admit it, she really did tire out quickly these days. The vast leather seat was soft with age, and she relaxed into it, letting her head tip back and eyes close on a soft sigh. The driver’s-side door opened and closed in the background, perfectly discreet.

“An enjoyable evening, madam?” Hibiscus inquired a moment later, rising and falling on the stilted modulations of his recorded voice. She opened her eyes and glanced up at the rear-view mirror, smiling when her eyes met the pulsing green line of his visual array.

“More interesting than I expected.” He shifted the car into gear while she spoke, and in time her gaze drifted out the window, toward the courtyard lit against the dark and the sparkling City laid out ahead and below. “When we get home, please ask Foxglove to wake me at five o’clock, Hibiscus. And the Bellatrix crew to prepare for launch at dawn.”

“Of course, madam.”

But by then, Nyobe’s head was already back in her engines; and climbing up, up, above, to carve out her own slice of sky.

The sky outside the vast windowed wall of her bedroom was still dark and dimly starry when Foxglove roused her. Instead of taking her more customary tray in her dressing-gown, she sipped bitter cocoa and nibbled dry fritters as she bustled back and forth across the room, alternating between check-ins on the house telephone and letting Foxglove dress her with spindly metal hands. Faint blue light rose outside as she finally waved off Foxglove and strode out into the hall, cap and goggles in hand, duster and scarf billowing behind her. The elevator lifted her to the hangar through cool early silence.

When she came through the door into the main bay, though, there was sudden life: the crew finishing up their pre-flight checks, the gangplank being swung into position from the control box, the open wall now showing the start of rosy sunrise colors along the edge of the sky. Nyobe went directly into their midst, and they parted and then gathered around her, giving greetings and readings and status reports all the way to the gondola.

She flew with an automaton crew, of course, like most everybody did. The balloons of her youth had been manageable single-handedly, but modern rigid craft like her Bellatrix were so heavy they required multiple independent engines to maneuver, and each had to be tended individually. Automata were preferable because they were far less prone to error — and more importantly, because a ship could be outfitted to immerse an automaton crew in its mechanisms, and thus transmit directions from the main navigation panel directly to their neural systems. Particularly in a race, the value of the difference in speed, as compared to clumsy speaking tubes and human response times, was incalculable.

“All present and accounted for,” Nyobe said as they loaded on board, an odd bride trailed by a tall gangling metallic procession. “Outside wind?”

“Fifteen miles per hour, madam,” Lavender said, behind her shoulder. Nyobe nodded, turning to face their line once inside the gondola.

“Barometric pressure?”

“Twenty-nine point eight inches, steady.”

Nyobe nodded again. “Ready for takeoff? No faults with ship or crew?” Their mechanical voices chorused a negative, and she clapped her hands together one brisk time when they had done. “Excellent, thank you. Positions, please. Launch in approximately five minutes, on my signal.” She turned to the control deck and squeezed herself inside, amid the massive, bulky panels of dials and knobs and levers. The crew clanked by outside, metal feet on the metal gratings of the floors, heading for their stations by each engine that would wire them into the airship walls. Bellatrix hummed all around her, systems on but idle. Ready and eager.

“Good morning, beautiful,” Nyobe murmured, and took the control stick in one hand, the starter for the main propeller engine in the other. “Ready to catch the sun?”

The hangar crew moved around them as the propeller began to warm up: pulling away the gangplank, releasing the blocks, clearing the path. The ship drew free, slowly at first, rising in a langorous float as she reached the edge of the high hangar. Then Nyobe pushed the throttle, and all the engines roared into full gear — and they were moving, under more power than the breeze or momentum, driving forward into the lush cloud-puffed pinkness cut by towering dark spires that was dawn over the Aviary.

Like always, it was like she could feel something dropping away, something that had been tangled around her arms and legs unknown to her and only realized when its weight lifted. Everything was lighter, all of her was stronger and more limber and more free. She could almost swear that the clock itself hitched and began to roll backwards; that if she had a mirror here on the deck, she would be able to see first ten years peel back off her face, then twenty, then thirty, until her reflection would show only a young woman no more than some Kes Kalumaria’s age again, glowing with joy. Feeling, for the first time, the way this made her heart expand and rise in her chest, as though the lightness of air that lifted this huge lumbering ship had caught it up inside her too.

“All right then,” she said, again to no one really but her lovely ship. “Now fast.”

And the engines thrummed hard and so did she, all along the streak of white smoke they left behind like dust. And she thought, for that moment, how she’d have liked to have seen anyone keep up.

“Madam,” Hibiscus said from the head of the dining room table a few days later, making her look up from her newspaper and lunch. “I have received a communication from a Mrs. Kes Kalumaria, aboard a flying vessel inbound for your residence. She requests your permission to dock at the hangar and come to call.”

Nyobe blinked, tugging off her reading glasses and sitting back in her chair. “What on earth for?”

“I regret to inform madam that that information was not component of the message,” Hibiscus said. Fair enough, Nyobe supposed. She thought about it for a moment, then shrugged, setting down her teacup.

“Well, I suppose she can visit if she wants. I wasn’t busy.” She tilted her head. “Is she still on the line?”

“Yes, madam.”

That raised her eyebrows slightly. Little Miss Competition-For-A-Change must have quite the crew. “Then tell her she’s cleared for approach, and I’ll be up to meet her presently.”

The ship that docked in the usually-unused half of Nyobe’s hangar was as curious a sight as Kes herself: lumbering and unwieldy to all appearances, its shell fat and full near the prow and then tapering narrower both before and behind. Its gondola, by contrast, was smaller than ordinary, only half the length of the hull and plainly less tall than the Bellatrix‘s when they hovered nose-to-nose. An oddly unlovely contraption for the very lovely guest who pushed out of its door, sunny and bright-eyed and full of energy as she strode out down the gangplank and dock. Her black duster, Nyobe couldn’t help noticing, fit her very differently than Nyobe’s own did her.

“Afternoon, Miss Massanna!” Kes stuck out her hand when she’d come close enough, and Nyobe reached to clasp it only to find Kes seizing and shaking her own again. “I hope you don’t mind my just dropping by like this. I was just going for a flight and realized I was around your place, and your friend Simoen gave me your number. He’s a real character, isn’t he?”

“That’s the least I’d say for him,” Nyobe agreed, mildly. “But no, I don’t mind company. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

Kes seemed to hesitate for a moment at that, giving her a long look that seemed to size her up… and then her smile was smaller, and yet seemed more honest, somehow. “That’s nice of you to say,” she said. “I, um…” She glanced around, as though realizing suddenly where she was, and then pulled off her cap and goggles, scruffing at her hair until it tumbled into its more customary froth of curls. “I know this is rude as hell, but I don’t suppose you might invite me in?”

Nyobe blinked at her a moment, taken aback — then was surprised into a cautious smile. “If you have to ask, then I’ve been the rude one,” she said, and stood back to stretch out her hand to the elevator before Kes could even demur. “This way, please.”

She led Kes into the parlor downstairs, handing off Kes’s duster to Hibiscus at the door while Kes peered around, apparently deliberately avoiding them both. When Hibiscus was gone, though, and Nyobe returned to her, Kes turned back with that strange small smile again on her lips.

“I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m blunt,” she said. “I’m not all that used to being out and around in high society on my own, so sometimes I put my foot in it.” Nyobe waved this off, smiling a bit in spite of herself, and Kes looked down at her clasped hands a moment before raising her eyes again — and startling Nyobe into continued silence.

“I think I was awfully rude to you the other night, Miss Massanna,” Kes said. “I didn’t mean to imply that flying is easy, or that there’s nothing impressive about your winning the Race twelve years in a row — in a row! That really is something. I just didn’t know. I never had any idea it was a big deal, I’d never heard too much about it, and, well…” She shook her head, though, switching tracks. “I picked up how to fly pretty quick, but I’ve always had a knack for that kind of stuff — and that’s nothing I’ve done, it’s not putting in the kind of work you must’ve. And I’m sure there’s a whole hell of a lot of difference between being able to do it and being an expert. I just… really did want to talk to you, not offend you. So, I’m sorry.”

There was a moment’s pause after she’d finished, while Nyobe took all of that in. There was, perhaps, the smallest sense of being patronized to (must give the old woman a pat on the head and assure her she’s impressive, it’s not the done thing to tease the elderly), but there certainly wasn’t the slightest trace of ill intent, and weren’t people always a bit like that? In an odd way, she couldn’t even help being a bit touched.

“Your apology isn’t necessary, but it is accepted,” she said, and Kes looked back up at her with the hopeful start of a smile. “I admit, I’ve been known to be a bit vain of my record; but the true pleasure is in the flying. Easy or difficult, it’s all the same.” She paused a moment, and then added, “And you were right about one thing, I must say — it would be nice to have a bit of true competition. I won’t say my wins have been effortless of late, but it may be true that the last few Races have lacked the luster of some of those of my younger years.”

“Well, I hope I can help you out with that,” Kes said, now beaming ear-to-ear. “And… thank you. Really, I appreciate it. I don’t seem to be doing all that well at making friends in high society, either, to be honest.”

“It’s not a skill most people I’ve met have had much use for, either.” Kes looked a little puzzled at that, but Nyobe just shook her head. “I take it you’re less ignorant of your reputation than Simoen assumed, then.”

Kes shrugged, which did interesting things with the entire front of her, and offered a small tired smile. “You could say that, though I’m not surprised. It’s funny — for some reason, most people seem to think just ’cause I’m pretty, I must be deaf too. Not sure I see the connection myself.” That startled Nyobe into laughing, much harder than she might have otherwise, and Kes grinned. “I don’t know, do you get that too?”

That faded Nyobe’s laughter, although her smile lingered, at least at the edges. “I’m sure you meant to say, ‘did I,'” she said, a touch tartly. Kes raised her eyebrows, and then her smile broadened.

“I said what I meant,” she said: warm and deliberate, and holding Nyobe’s eyes with a bit of a conspiratorial glint. It was hard to think, here and now, what could have ever made her assume this girl was anything less than razor-sharp. And hard, for that matter, not to be foolishly flattered.

She tried her best anyway, though, drawing herself up to her supercilious best. “Then no,” she said; “not in quite some time.”

“Well, that seems like a shame.” Kes seemed to ponder a moment, and then grinned. “If you want, I guess I could assume you’re an idiot for a while. Even things out, like.”

Nyobe laughed again without entirely meaning to, and shook her head even as she did. Hell, she hadn’t intended to like this tiresome lovely little brat. “No, I think if either of us still had debts, they’re entirely repaid by now.” And then, without pausing to explain that, she tilted her head and gave Kes a closer look. “You said you’d wanted to talk to me. What about?”

“Hmm… a bunch of things, I guess. But for now, I sort of just wanted to ask you something.” Nyobe frowned, and Kes grinned back. “I know I just brought you down here, but… I was wondering if maybe you’d do me the honor of taking out your ship and flying with me a bit, Miss Massanna. Yours and mine, just for a little cruise.”

And Nyobe could only hesitate for a moment, before her own face caught the grin from Kes’s and betrayed her. Somehow, there was something about it that you just couldn’t resist.

“Nyobe,” she said, at last. “Please. And that would, very truly, be my pleasure.”

When Nyobe had begun flying, there had been no shortage of talented leisure pilots. Aircraft had been smaller and simpler, more easily conducted and maintained by a single individual; travel had still been primarily by ground, and most of the Aviary’s more inaccessible heights had not yet been constructed. Piloting had been more hobby than profession in those days, and its best and brightest had still had time to fly for pleasure — which had been how the Race began in the first place.

In latter days, however, most of those best and brightest were so because flying was their trade: on short distances through the City, or shipping and tourist routes out east to the Hallaqin Desert, or further still to the Eastern Principalities or even Qadar. Piloting airships was a way of making a living now, and experienced pilots with time to fly in the Race had been growing further and further between. Nettle her though it might to hear someone else imply as much, Nyobe hadn’t seen an amateur who could fly worth much of a damn in years, maybe even decades.

Until Kes.

That ship of hers might have been strange-looking, but it could certainly move. They’d no sooner pulled out of the hangar than it was off: seeming to just catch an air current and blow away before the propellers could even fully spin up. Nyobe was the one who felt like the lumberer suddenly, muttering to herself as she wrested the Bellatrix about to catch up. They were side-by-side quickly enough, pacing one another as they crested above the spires of Nyobe’s neighbors, but it was clear that Kes’s ship was the more maneuverable of the two. It seemed to sit lighter on the air, less steady perhaps than the smooth solidity of Nyobe’s but also more responsive. It was enough to make one feel like she was flying a tin can — and her own ship had been commissioned from some of the finest engineers in the aeronautics end of her family businesses.

But little though she might have expected from the custom design (and build, really?) of a corporate trophy widow, plainly she’d been mistaken. The only salve for the wound, as she thinned her lips and sweated to keep pace with Kes over the tops of the City and the thin wisps of clouds, was her sense of smug superiority over Simoen and all of their wretched peers. She might well be the only one of all of them who now knew how badly Kes was being underestimated.

They followed each other through descent and ascent, Nyobe sometimes eking out a lead, and then Kes taking it back from her. As they grew more accustomed to each other, more familiar, they both turned a little more daring: pushing faster, further, trying a little harder to outstrip one another and show off a bit more. They dipped under arches, wove between close spires, rose above the cloud-line again and gunned the engines up to new levels: Nyobe pushing the throttle as far forward as it would go and feeling the answering growls as her crew gave the engines all they had. And then they were swooping back around and down, settling back to lazy spirals, as they made their way back toward earth and hangar again.

Nyobe was still a little out of breath by the time she’d shut down and made her landing checks, although she tried not to show it when she stepped out onto the catwalk. Kes came out not a few moments later — a little more sedately than when she’d first arrived, but grinning like a hyena.

“Say, that was something.” She pulled off her cap and shook out her hair, and Nyobe was at least gratified to see a few threads of sweat in it as well. It always seemed a bit silly to be physically worn from flying, but it was physical: managing the controls was a full-body operation, and it could become hot and taxing inside the gondola, between the engines and the light through the glass walls. “I knew you had to be good, but I didn’t know you were that good. Now I feel like twice as big of a dummy.”

“No need for that. You put me through my paces out there. Did you really just learn to fly this year?” Kes nodded, maybe a bit sheepishly, and Nyobe shook her head. “I’d be more embarrassed, but I expect I’ve been flying since before you were born, and I’ve never seen anyone so good with so little practice. And your ship — how on earth did you come up with that design?”

Kes shrugged, more sheepish than ever. “I just studied airships until I got the hang of it. …Like I said, I guess I just have a knack for it.”

Nyobe smirked, stifling bitterness. “That’s certainly the least of what you have.”

“Plus, it’s not like it’s perfect. She’s quick, but she’s definitely got plenty of drawbacks.” Nyobe tilted her head, and Kes grinned, drawing back her hair. “She’s real easy to move, but that cuts both ways. I get blown off course when the wind’s high, and I can’t do much precise. Just getting in here at this height is a bit of a trick.”

“Hmm. I suppose you have a point.” Nyobe surveyed the ship for a moment, and then turned back. “Does she have a name?”

Cuckoo,” Kes said, and cast a long, fond look over her shoulder at the hull before turning back. “Kind of suits her shape, right? Not to mention what a funny flier she is.”

“I see what you mean. Most unusual.” Nyobe took a few steps closer, examining, and then turned back toward Kes where she’d followed. “How large of a crew do you have?”

Kes frowned. “Crew?”

…Surely she’d just misheard. “Your crew,” Nyobe repeated, as clearly as she could. “They are automata, aren’t they? You couldn’t possibly be so responsive with humans, not to mention I’d imagine they’d have introduced themselves by now.”

A strange, complex expression was dawning on Kes’s face now, though: comprehension, and shamefaced amusement, and something almost like guilt. “Oh, ah… I actually don’t fly with a crew,” she said. Conversationally, as though that were just some sort of ordinary preference to express. “Don’t play well enough with others, I guess.”

For a few seconds Nyobe could do nothing but stare; and then it took her every effort just not to splutter. “What do you… that’s absurd. You must. You couldn’t possibly fly a ship that size by yourself, it’s just… impossible. I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Well, now you have.” Kes’s tone was still sheepish up top, but now there might be an edge of annoyance on it — and well there might be, Nyobe supposed. “I’m not lying, it’s just how I do things. I designed the ship special so I could. Just suits me better.”

“That’s…” Nyobe groped for words — both to stop just stuttering and to soothe her rudeness. “That’s very impressive.” Kes’s smile warmed a bit, but Nyobe found her eyes drifting back up to the Cuckoo again, shaking her head. “I suppose you really don’t have much of a gift for making friends.”

“Hey now!” But Kes was laughing, and Nyobe joined her, just a bit. “Well… thanks anyway, though. You’re pretty impressive yourself, you know.” Nyobe smirked, and Kes caught her eyes and broke into a wider grin. “That’s why I really want to beat you.”

…All right, that caught her entirely off guard. Nyobe’s eyebrows raised in spite of her, her head drawing up again. “…I beg your pardon?”

“Come on, you know how it is.” Kes’s grin had turned devilish, a deliberate needle in the side. “It wouldn’t be any fun to win if there weren’t anybody worth beating, right?”

“That is very bold talk for a first-time entrant, I must say,” Nyobe said, dry as the eastern desert. Kes laughed, hands on her hips.

“Yeah. So I guess we’ll just have to see if there’s a first-time winner, too.”

“I’m sorry — I was under the impression earlier that you were concerned about being disliked.”

Kes waved her hand, brushing that off with the grin still on her lips. “I was concerned about being rude. Being liked or not I figure’ll sort itself out on its own.” And before Nyobe could even gather herself to retort to that, their eyes had caught again, Kes’s dancing with a bit of an evil light. “Either way, though, I guess you ought to fly again with me sometime if you want to be sure whether I’m all talk.”

Nyobe stared at her for a long moment… and then found the corner of her mouth pulling up in a small, unwilling twist. “I suppose I ought,” she said at last, smile-shaped. “How about this time next week?”

And Kes just beamed at her, the smuggest prettiest look she’d ever seen on any face. “Sounds just fine,” she said. “It’s a date.”

It was definite that Kes’s flying hadn’t been a fluke, though, and it was just as definite that she wasn’t all talk. Nyobe spent the whole week anticipating their next flight, and it was everything the first had been and more: exhilarating, frustrating, tense and challenging and joyful, filling her at once with a girl’s giddiness and a grim new determination. After the next week, they set a new date for the one after, and then after that, the following. She found herself taking out the ship more and more in between as well, setting out at every dawn, trying more and pushing harder. Provided, for the first time in what felt like ages, with a reason to be the best that she could be.

A month before the date of the Race, all contestants were required to report to City Hall and finalize their registration, with a press event to follow. Nyobe flew to it, as was her custom, although the Crucible was all on ground level and it would have been just as easy to take the car; at this point, it was all about appearances. Even after all these years, though, there still wasn’t a damn place to berth an airship anywhere in the old capital, and she wound up crossing a zipline to the rooftop terraces, perched in the crook of Hawthorne’s metal arm with her designer dress fluttering and her cane across her knees.

The ballroom downstairs was a riot of popping flashbulbs and flocking people, reporters and City officials clamoring over each other while every entrant tried to look more aloof and superior than the last. Nyobe recognized a few of the faces: a very foolish young dilettante son of one of the finest old families, who’d gotten the newest and shiniest model for a birthday a few years prior but never learned to fly it worth a damn; an unfortunate old party who wandered off course more often than he finished in the Race and who always filled Nyobe with a certain dread of her impending future, now toddling about blinking through book-thick spectacles on the arm of his quietly exasperated wife; a stout handsome fellow with dark windburned cheeks who could never seem to smile without sneering and talked at all times much too loudly and only about himself. A handful more were new to her, mostly younger men huddling together laughing and back-slapping, and one older fellow in a suit with a tight, clamped smile.

And then, of course, there was Kes: resplendent with her hair up and in a dress that seemed to give her a mermaid’s tail, beaming around at the throng she’d gathered. A vast majority of the photographers seemed to be focusing on her, Nyobe was amused and unsurprised to see. She had her hand tucked through the arm of some rich idiot, who fawned at her with fish-mouthed besottedness. The poor thing probably thought he was here indulging the whims of his windy-brained prize — not the whim himself.

When Nyobe walked in, anyway, Kes glanced her way, and for a second caught her eye. She winked, the way she had at the party: almost too fast to catch, and certainly easier to miss. And then her eyes were back on the photographers, her toothy smile perfectly poised and false again. And Nyobe walked on smirking to herself, satisfied for no good reason she knew.

There were sheaves of paperwork to be done, of course, once they’d all settled down, and then a brief welcoming invocation by the Minister of Culture, who seemed extremely impatient to be somewhere else. Then there were the more formal photographs, the official City Hall photographer shooing all the press behind her and organizing the entrants into rows before one of the tables that had been set out. Kes was placed front and center, which was also not surprising but somewhat more annoying, and Nyobe shunted to one side of her with a nervous young man between them. A great deal more tiresome instruction and deliberation followed, and finding herself left out of it, Nyobe turned her head to look down the row, taking in the faces of everyone she was up against…

…and saw the man with the tight smile, who had been stationed behind Kes’s far shoulder, leaning just slightly forward to speak into her ear. It was subtle, both their eyes fixed forward and his lips barely moving, in all the chaos it might well be that no one else had seen; but from Nyobe’s angle between the rows she could see that his hand was gripped tightly around the back of Kes’s arm — and that Kes’s face had entirely frozen, with no expression on it at all.

Nyobe was already frowning, and sheer instinct might have made her lean across the boy between them and say something, despite her better judgment… but then the photographer clapped her hands together, calling everyone’s attention forward again at once.

“That’ll do, now everyone hold your places please, and look this way — now smile, and we’ll begin on my signal, and please keep still until I signal again. Ready, and — ”

And then she’d brought her arm down, with no pause at all; and Nyobe kept still, and didn’t turn her head, in spite of how torturously hard it suddenly was not to look. Let alone to smile.

When the photographer signaled with her arm again, Nyobe glanced over at once, barely able to keep herself from snapping her head around and staring — but of course, by then it was too late. The man with the tight smile was moving away, as they all relaxed out of their poses, Kes smiling and replying to something another young man beside her had said, all life and light again. It might well have never happened at all.

They all dispersed in short order after that, contract made and pictures soon to be in the papers. Kes took up the arm of her handsome buffoon again, beaming at him and starting to steer him away, and Nyobe hesitated only a moment before following her. Though actually leaning on her cane by now; these shoes were wretched.

“Mrs. Kalumaria,” she called from behind, when she’d got close enough. Kes turned back to face her with eyebrows raised, in an amused incredulous expression that lasted only a second before she smoothed it away again.

“Yes, Miss Massanna?” she asked, all innocence. Nyobe corralled her own smirk into a smile, and held out her hand, and Kes stepped away from the young man to meet it. This time, with only a lady’s dainty press of fingers.

“Congratulations on your first entry,” Nyobe said, at an ordinary volume — and then dropped her voice a bit lower, leaning in a bit. “What was that about? Just now?”

Kes frowned, but there might have been something more than puzzlement in her eyes; they’d gone entirely opaque. “What do you mean?”

“That odd duck in the suit who looks like he’s grinding his teeth. Was he bothering you?”

Understanding crossed Kes’s face at that, oddly complicated somehow: dismayed? Controlled? Relieved? “Oh, that,” she said, and broke in a broad laughing smile that Nyobe would have sworn now was as fake as the ones she’d been flashing at the photographers. “Just getting a little too friendly, that’s all. I’m sure you know how it is.” She didn’t even give Nyobe time to retort to that, though, just caught her eyes with a grin growing more honest. “Are we still on for this week?”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Nyobe said, smiling back. Still wanting to protest, maybe, a bit; but if Kes didn’t care to talk about it, then what business was it of hers to pry? …And, for that matter, why should she be so concerned in the first place? It was Kes’s problem, not hers.

But telling herself so did nothing to convince her, somehow. And even as Kes let her hand go and stepped back to the young man, thanking her at a louder pitch and waving her goodbye, for a moment all Nyobe could do was follow with her eyes, and smile, and wave, and wonder.

There was no real need for all the hushed tones, Nyobe supposed; it wasn’t any sort of secret that she and Kes had been flying together, after all. Their ships were each unique, and anyone who happened to be familiar with their designs would have only to look up one day to know what was afoot. Certainly there weren’t any rules against two Race entrants practicing together; on the contrary, it actually seemed more logical that to an outside observer it would seem like a bit of a handicap to do so, letting another pilot see one’s strategies and weaknesses ahead of time. There would be only one winner in the end regardless.

But even so, they hadn’t exactly taken out an advertisement together in the paper, either; and now Nyobe found that for whatever reason, she was most disinclined to put it about that she and Kes had been flying so much in one another’s company. There was no need, but she did have a preference… and based on the evidence, it seemed that Kes felt much the same way.

Simoen dropped by after the registration event, resplendent in a suit of lavender and yellow and with his small army of ridiculous dogs for a vanguard; they had tea and then went walking with the dogs racing around their feet, Nyobe’s arm linked through his and her cane exchanged for a parasol, over the Aviary’s swooping web of bridges and causeways, glass and steel that glittered in the blaze of mid-day sun. And when Simoen teased along the way, “So how goes the crushing of the merry widow?” Nyobe only sniffed, and told him he would have to wait and see for himself.

And Kes came that week like the weeks before, and they flew, and everything seemed more or less ordinary again. So much so that Nyobe actually began to wonder whether the whole thing hadn’t been just an old woman’s paranoid imaginings: that it really had been just as Kes had said, and anything else she’d thought she’d seen simply hadn’t been there.

Until the next week: when the appointed time came, and went, and Kes never arrived.

Nyobe waited first up in the hangar, until the hour had obviously grow late, then down in the parlor for a while, then up in the hangar again when she’d become so fed up she couldn’t hold still. At first it was only a quarter-hour or so, nothing worse than a little lateness, and then a half hour and some cause for impatience, and then over an hour and then over two and all of time and the world seemed to have drawn to a halt, trapping her in a tense whirling limbo she might never escape. And of course it occurred to her, pacing aimlessly up and down the catwalks while her crew wisely kept to the storage room, to contact Kes and try to find out what was the matter, but that thought led in the end to a disturbing realization: that she had no idea how to contact Kes. …That, in fact, she had no idea whatsoever where Kes would be, anytime she wasn’t here.

What did she actually know about Kes at all? What had ever made her so certain that Kes would be here today?

Where, exactly, was Kes now?

Dark came on before her eyes, as she watched through the open wall of the hangar where a second ship wasn’t parked opposite her own: the sky first turning a darkening velvet blue, and then breaking into stars. The breath of air from outside went from too-warm to cold, with customary dizzying speed. And still there was no sign or word.

A sensible person might have given up and gone on to do something useful with her time, at least said yes to Hibiscus’s eventual appearance and query as to whether he should have dinner started, but she wasn’t hungry and couldn’t imagine by now that she could focus on anything else. So she was still there when finally, not long after full dark, a headlamp swept across the hangar tower out of the dark; and this time, unlike every other time tonight a nearby light had made her chest close up, it really was a ship coming near. The light swelled, and grew, and then flooded the hangar, and then a moment later the Cuckoo pulled, bobbing and unsteady, up to the dock. And Nyobe hurried up to the gangplank as fast as she could, against the wind off the propellers, even before it was really safe to be so close.

The gondola door swung open, and Kes came out — and the sight of her stopped Nyobe where she was. She was smiling, but only with her mouth; her eyes were hooded, puffy and dark-circled in her wan face. She looked exhausted, and very unhappy, and came out to where Nyobe stood as slowly as though she were going to the gallows.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she said, and turned that tired, bruised smile up on Nyobe. “You must be about ready to wring my neck.”

“About ready to call the Police, more like,” Nyobe said — a little more sharply than she’d meant to. Although she wasn’t sure whether it was more that or what she’d said that widened Kes’s eyes for a second, before she let out a shaky little laugh.

“Well, good thing you didn’t.” She rubbed the back of one hand across her face. “I’m really sorry. It wasn’t anything, I just got held up. I’m really sorry I couldn’t get in touch.”

Nyobe hesitated, on the verge of asking why not… and then in the end, decided to back off a bit. It was something about the look in Kes’s eyes that held her tongue, at least for now. “That’s all right,” she said, instead, after a moment. “I was just concerned.” She glanced out the hangar wall past the Cuckoo and then back at Kes, her lips quirking up. “I don’t suppose you’re up for a flight at this point, at any rate.”

That managed to draw a weak laugh out of Kes, and she shook her head, finally pulling off her cap. “I think I’d wind up nose-first in the bay. I wouldn’t even have come if I hadn’t figured you must be thinking all kinds of crazy things by now.” Her gaze skated a quick line down Nyobe’s face, then slid away again. “And if I wouldn’t miss it too much.”

“Then how would you like to join me for dinner?” Nyobe asked — warm and unplanned as the little smile that confession had won out of her. But with the way Kes’s eyes startled back up to meet hers again, she could scarcely regret it.

It was her custom to eat in the dining room even when it was only herself, of course, but Kes made such an insistence of not wanting to be a bother that in the end she just asked Hibiscus to have a tray prepared, which they could summon to the parlor at their leisure. She led Kes downstairs for the second time in their acquaintance; and for the first moment that she sat on the sofa, Kes just sank into its cushions as though into a warm bath, her eyes sliding closed with a deep weariness written across her brows. Then she opened them and smiled up at Nyobe again, back in her gamest face.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she said, as Nyobe sat down beside her. Nyobe raised her eyebrows, turning herself so she could lean one elbow on the sofa-back.

“It may surprise you to learn this, but eating meals is actually something of a habit of mine.”

Kes laughed a little, but it seemed forced for her, not fully natural. “Fair enough, I guess.” She paused, looking down at her hands with a faint fading smile. “I’m grateful, though. And… I wanted to ask you something again.”

Nyobe tilted her head. “Oh?”

There was a long moment where Kes said nothing, just twisting her hands together, biting her lip. And then, finally: “What if I said I was thinking of dropping out of the Race?”

Another silence.

“I think I’d be rather disappointed,” Nyobe said finally, at the end of it: choosing her words with slow care. “Not to mention surprised.” She considered a moment, then added, “I might also accuse you of cowardice, in another frame of mind; but at present I don’t much suspect that’s the issue.” Kes laughed, just a heave of breath through closed lips, and Nyobe risked reaching out: flicking one of those curls away from where it had gone astray on Kes’s forehead. It surprised Kes into looking up at her, and a wan smile. “So if I may pry: what’s happened?”

Kes hesitated, then let out a long breath. “You remember that man you pointed out at the registration?” she asked, just when Nyobe was beginning to think she wouldn’t say anything. Nyobe nodded, and she went on — seeming to choose her words with just as much care. “Well… I didn’t quite tell you the truth about that. Turns out he was a business rival of my — my husband’s.” Did her mouth make a slight, sour twist around that word against her will, like she’d bitten something bitter? Hard to say. “I didn’t know him before, but he kind of introduced himself. And it seems like he’s… got some ideas that’ve made him real interested in me.”

“In you?” Kes nodded, and Nyobe frowned. “Forgive me, I don’t mean to slight another businesswoman, but I hadn’t gotten the impression you were much involved in your late husband’s trade.”

“I wasn’t. And I’m no businesswoman by any stretch. But…” Kes sighed, and then looked back into Nyobe’s eyes. “I don’t know how much you know about Kalumaria Autonomics, but it’s pretty much a fortress. Everything is top secret, and everybody else in the business is dying to know what goes on in there. That much I do know. So, somebody like me… it matters more who I am than what I’ve done, you know?”

“He thinks you might have heard a few top secrets over the dinner table,” Nyobe said, nodding. Kes looked briefly startled, then smiled, a little more humor in her eyes.

“Something like that.”

Did you? was the question that rose next to Nyobe’s lips, but it was also the one she knew better than to ask. “Is this something you have to deal with often, then?” was what she settled on instead, and won another half-hearted smile with it.

“It’s something I’ve been ready for. Or at least I thought it was.” Kes sighed a little, blowing strands of hair. “Just didn’t think it was going to sneak up on me right when I was having a good time, which I guess shows what I know.”

The run of that had made Nyobe frown again, though. “I don’t mean to criticize, of course, but if you’d thought someone might try something like this, why wouldn’t you have gone into hiding? Or at least gotten yourself into a few fewer high-profile parties and races?”

Kes shot her a sidelong glance, with a twist at the mouth that was much more herself again. “Call me stubborn, but I’m not big on anyone else getting to say where I go or what I do,” she said. “Not to mention, what’d be safer about hiding? It’s a lot easier to make somebody just disappear when nobody’s seen them in a couple years than when they’re all over the gossip columns every day.”

“…True enough.” And more incisive than even Nyobe might have imagined, to be honest. She tried to catch her balance quickly. “In that case, though, why bother dropping out of the Race? It’s the same principle, isn’t it?”

Kes hesitated, then smiled. “It’s complicated,” she said. “Mostly, though, I’ve got to admit, I’ve been asking myself the same thing. Yeah, I know he’ll be there, but what’s to stop him being anywhere else if I quit?” She was quiet a moment — and then looked up at Nyobe again, smiling broader than ever. “Would you really be disappointed?”

“Bored to tears,” Nyobe said, meeting her eyes and her smile. And they stayed like that for a moment, fixed in place.

Until Kes leaned forward and kissed Nyobe’s mouth. Her lips were soft and warm, pliant, slightly parted. She took her time, every movement deliberate, not just a quick peck but not exactly a deep plunge either. Just arriving, offering, and making herself at home: every inch the perfect guest that the rest of her person had never managed to be.

illustrated by neomeruru

When she let go and sat back again, that old devilish sweetness was back in her smile. And Nyobe found herself, for once, entirely out of things to say.

“I didn’t want to be rude,” Kes said after a brief pause, her voice lower and eyes searching Nyobe’s, “but I’m not actually all that hungry.”

“You could have just said so,” Nyobe said — her own dry voice finding itself without her help. Kes laughed, though, her eyes never flickering away.

“You’re pretty tough on a person’s ego; does anybody ever tell you that?”

“Constantly, in fact.” She swallowed, though, trying not to let it show. “I didn’t say you should have, though.”

“Well, that’s something.” Kes’s gaze flicked between Nyobe’s eyes and lips, her parted smile curving her own mouth prettily around the words. “If you don’t mind my asking, how’s your appetite?”

“Severely diminished by age, I must admit,” Nyobe said, after several seconds’ pause. Kes snorted, shifting forward on the couch; one of her hands gripped Nyobe’s thigh to support her, warmth burning through the thin fabric of her dress. She was all warmth, seeming to radiate from her across her clothing and the air between them. The full slope of her breasts teeming beyond the neckline of her dress as she leaned forward, the long supple lines of her legs shifting below.

“Quit it already,” she said, soft, close enough that Nyobe could feel her breath. “You’re not that old.”

“And yet there cannot be any fool quite like me,” Nyobe murmured, even as Kes’s lips were nearing; and then they were on hers again, which on consideration made her point for her handily.

They kissed like they flew together: at length and languidly peaceful at a glance, threaded with urgency under the surface, both vying for mastery without wanting to show the effort. Kes seizing the lead from time to time, and then Nyobe striving to retrieve it. Her hands came to rest on Kes’s back eventually, palms pressing to the soft skin-warm weave of Kes’s dress and the cooler, stiffer belt she wore around it; Kes’s hand lingered on her thigh, even as the other slipped around behind her neck to the lambswool wisps at her hairline.

In time, without ever breaking contact, Kes pushed up onto her knees and around to straddle Nyobe’s hips, over her lap. She only let go of the kiss at last to undo her belt and drop it behind her, and then take a second to smile into Nyobe’s eyes as she crossed her arms over herself and lifted her dress by fistfuls at each side. It collapsed to the floor in a long rumple, and as she leaned back in clad in just her whisper of a shift (with its much firmer structure of lacings and stays in support of her bosom) and stockings, Nyobe found herself turning that old blade of amused pity inevitably back on herself. Perhaps you could hope for nothing more than to become the whim yourself in time, with the likes of this one around. But she was beautiful. There was no way not to catch your breath, old cynics and young fools alike.

“I hope you’re not counting on this to make me forfeit,” she said before Kes could claim her mouth again, though, with her driest arch in her brow, because there was still dignity to be thought of. It caught Kes up short with her arms stretched out over Nyobe’s shoulders, her eyes wide under her mussed hair — and then she was tipping back her head and laughing, free and full of delight.

“Well, it was worth a shot — ” But she broke off giggling before she could finish, letting her head fall forward and then raising it to grin at Nyobe with eyes sparkling. “No, no, hush, you. You know I don’t mind a little competition. That’s why I like you.”

Nyobe raised her eyebrows, and brushed curls from Kes’s eyes with a small and more rueful smile. “I’m not certain what sort of competition you’d expect from me on this ground.”

“Oh, now come on,” Kes said; “you’re the old pro, aren’t you?” Her voice softer, silkier, her hands curled around behind Nyobe’s head and that warm curve back in her lips. “You can show me how it’s done.”

She drew close again as she spoke, and for a moment there was nothing Nyobe could do but kiss her; when they drew apart again she had to wet her lips before she could speak. “We’ll see how much I remember,” she murmured to Kes’s lips — but the dryness of her voice was much more artless now, and Kes’s laugh a gentle tease.

They lingered another moment, and then Kes slipped away, reclining back on the couch with her legs apart. The hem of the shift, which upright had just graced the tops of her thighs, now pooled instead at her hips and revealed a tangle of curls only a slightly darker red than those on her head, and the dusky-rose folds between her broad brown thighs. A few more freckles even peeped from beneath her stockings and between the froths of fabric along her hips. She stretched out her arms, smiling breathlessly, and Nyobe went as though hypnotized: hardly feeling the protesting of her joints as she made her clumsy way over the sofa to press to Kes’s body, knowing nothing now but the warmth and scent of her. She kissed Kes, clutched her, touched her. Her fingers pressed to Kes’s inner thigh and then slid up it, slowly, to finish dragging through the slick of her lips. She felt like wet silk, and moaned into Nyobe’s mouth.

Nyobe lingered there, kissing and caressing her with slow deliberation, coating her fingertips on each leisurely stroke. The top of the shift was far too complicated to be unfastened one-handed, but she could at least adjust her weight so she could wrap one hand over the side of Kes’s breast, and flick her thumb over the small hard rise there she could feel under lace. Kes hissed breath and then sighed, with a slight shake, and Nyobe settled both hands into that same steady, lazy pace. Almost at once she had Kes’s hips cresting into it, though, and then Kes squirming under her, panting and laughing “Tease, tease” against her lips. Nyobe’s own curved in answer, and she drew her wet finger up to circle Kes’s clitoris, slow enough to make her whine through her teeth. Her thighs spread as wide as they could, begging.

She showed mercy by degrees: pressing her thumb in firmer faster circles, speeding the strokes of her other fingers and focusing them more tightly on that spot. Kes bit her lip and quivered, caught up a little bunch of the shoulder of Nyobe’s dress in her tight clamping fingers. Finally she shifted her position and reached down with her own hand, between her thighs; Nyobe thought for a second with some rueful amusement that she was going to be the one shown a thing or two, but then Kes only slid her own fingers past Nyobe’s, inside her lips and then spreading them apart. The hint made her breath stutter in her throat, but could hardly be misunderstood. Nyobe moved up to kiss Kes’s mouth again, and used the new angle to slide two fingers inside her, with slow care. They sheathed in slick, gripping muscle, up through its tight close clutch and inward and upward, with almost no resistance at all, and Kes shuddered and breathed in deep and released on a moan. Her heartbeat pulsed around Nyobe’s fingers and knuckles, soothing away all memory of their occasional aches and stiffnesses. A safe berth, found.

When they were fully seated Kes stroked her ring finger almost at once, and she added it — then made a questioning press with the fourth when that proved difficult, which Kes spread and welcomed in. She formed a tight knot of them, and pumped them a little in and a little out once, pushing from the wrist. Kes gasped and murmured something, a yes or a please, and her pace picked up: her fingers barely moving, more around than in, but the crook of her thumb ground up against Kes’s clitoris and giving it all firm attention. Her other hand remembering itself and teasing Kes’s breast again. They lay almost still, wrapped together on the sofa, moving only at those most critical points. No sound but Kes’s open-mouthed and rasping breath, the soft sigh of her occasional sound, the wet rhythm of Nyobe’s hand inside her.

Then the warmth inside her began to squeeze and contract, and her breathing took on a deeper, heavier note; and with a long, half-voiced burst of breath, she arched up her back, clutched at Nyobe’s shoulder and tossed her head, and shuddered to a whimpering peak that slicked new wetness over Nyobe’s fingers and palm. Held in place a moment, sweat-dappled and heaving at her prodigious bosom and unspeakably beautiful — and then collapsed, her breath all sighing back out again as she released. Nyobe continued to stroke her for a few languid seconds, drawing out shudders and twitches, until she was still, and then only let her hand relax into the pulses of muscle inside Kes. It gently slid out almost on its own over a space of seconds, and then Kes murmured a sound and wrapped both arms around her, kissing her without ever opening her eyes.

When they drew apart again, though, she had opened them, and was smiling up at Nyobe with a drowsy contentment. And then, before either of them could speak, she rolled onto her side, pressing Nyobe onto hers against the back of the couch, and kissed her again, soundly.

They stretched out a bit at a time, Nyobe shifting onto her back, Kes shifting on top of her. Her dress closed at the back and Kes lifted her into her arms to unfasten it, making her way down from top to bottom, and then draw it off her arms and down over her waist and hips and legs. It was an unkind comparison, Nyobe felt, but Kes didn’t seem bothered; even paused for a moment over her to smile down at her, as though her bony arms and ribs showing through the top of her chest, wrinkles of loose flesh and occasional liver-spots, mattered nothing at all, were no less lovely than her own soft round rolls of flesh or scatters of freckles. She pushed aside Nyobe’s slip and tugged away her underwear, and settled down between her legs, hair spilling out over Nyobe’s thighs like strange red ivy.

Her tongue was a perfect heat, a perfect softness, bringing a new wetness to a place that sometimes struggled, these days, to create its own. Nyobe’s breath shook in her chest, her fingers twined into Kes’s strange hair, and her eyes slipped shut. That soft wet caress slid along her lips, lapped her clitoris, and she strained and pressed and didn’t worry about what her hips would have to say about it in the morning. The moment was enough: like the effort of moving an airship through the sky, like the first sliver of sun that rising early let her catch.

The time seemed to stretch out forever before she came: Kes’s tongue describing small circles and patterns, Kes’s hand clasping hers when it released her hair and fell away, Kes’s other hand tucked under her thigh and lifting her hips into that perfect mouth. Then finally it was all rushing away, like sand sliding out from under bare feet as a wave retreated on the shore, and she was dizzy and spinning, cut loose… and then everything was bursting heat and light and fire, and she was crying out in a weak voice quite unlike her own, trembling with effort and panting for breath, and lost in the tide, and gone.

Kes fell gradually still, and Nyobe lay panting, and collected herself again. At some point she opened her eyes, and wiped sweat from her face; her makeup must have run everywhere, her hair must be a fright. Every part of her ached newly, and would probably only get worse. She had no idea of the time and they’d never actually eaten.

A smile had crept across her lips at some point she hadn’t noticed, and now would not seem to leave.

A moment or two later Kes popped up on her elbows next to her, grinning and utterly disheveled, and Nyobe laughed and kissed her, heedless of the taste of herself on her lips. They lay where they were until Nyobe was embarrassed to find herself dozing, and then when she started to stir Kes kissed her neck and murmured, “Can I stay tonight?” into its skin. And really, what would she ever have said that wasn’t yes, of course, yes? To any part of this, at any time?

Barely-dressed, they crept up to her private rooms like naughty students, laughing in whispers and shushing each other. She peered into the sitting room just long enough to tell Foxglove politely that she’d not be needed this evening, before leading Kes through it into the bedroom. They undressed again and finished the job this time, and tumbled into bed without bothering to turn out the light; but, as it happened, the journey had been good for a certain amount of alertness, and neither was quite ready for sleep just yet.

But finally in the small hours of the morning they lay still again, sweaty and out of breath and irretrievably tangled, Nyobe’s head resting in the curve between Kes’s breast and neck. And this time, when sleep came for her, she went gladly.

She woke the next morning squinting against the sun, her sleep-mask still lying neglected on the bedside table. The first thing she noticed when her eyes had adjusted, though, was that the bed was empty apart from her. A slip of paper perched folded over on the other pillow, however, and once she had fumbled herself upright and found her spectacles, she opened it.

Sorry, but I had to run, it read, in a hand that sprawled charmingly into large loops and swirls. Thanks for the talk, and for everything else. I’ll see you next week.

Kes

She folded it again absently, letting it rest against her upper chest. Her other hand tugged her glasses off and folded them inside it, while she only stared out the daylit window, naked and with hair a mess; and, in that moment, thought nothing at all.

The telephone on the bedside table, shrilling her up from sleep. In the dark depths of some unknown hour of night, her eyes still covered, her hand only snatching up the receiver before any of the automata could answer it by the sheer force of her alarm.

“She’s using you, you know,” the voice on the other end said before she could speak: a man’s voice, deep but thin and sour. “It’s what she does with everyone. She’s got to be very clever, or she wouldn’t have made it this far.”

Still trying to collect herself: pushing at the mask and her head as though to force her mind into line. “…I beg your pardon?”

“But you’re not stupid either, Miss Massanna.” As though she hadn’t spoken. “Think very carefully about this. Some things aren’t worth your time. And no one is worth your life.”

“What do you mean?” Still struggling to catch up, feeling like she was swimming through mud. “How did you get this number?”

“What do you know about Kes Kalumaria?” the voice asked. And for a second, she had nothing to say.

“Who is this?” she asked, finally: sharp, and dry.

But too late already. There was only another second or two of silence — and then a click, and a dial tone droning in her ear.

After a few seconds of only sitting still, Nyobe drew the receiver away enough that she could pull out of her sleep-mask and drop it in her lap. She stared into the telephone’s earpiece for a moment, in the dim glow of city-night… and then jumped a bit, foolishly, when she finally looked up and saw Foxglove’s visual array glowing out of the dark at her, from just beside the bed. Nyobe pressed a hand to her chest as she took a deep breath, then let it out slow and forced herself to relax.

“You should not listen to a man who says such things,” Foxglove said. Her recorded female voice could only speak at one volume, but it seemed very loud in the bedroom’s dark silence. Nyobe blinked back at her, and then tried a tentative smile.

“I’ve never known you to be such a stickler for manners, Foxglove.” She leaned to the side as she spoke, breaking her paralysis to hang up the telephone. There was a pause, almost a hesitation, and then the glow of Foxglove’s gaze flickered.

“I apologize if I have spoken out of turn, madam.”

“Not at all, no need.” Nyobe fumbled for the lamp next, but after a moment Foxglove’s metal fingers touched hers and gently guided them away, and a second later the lamp blazed into life and made her wince her eyes closed. “I just didn’t know you’d overheard.”

Foxglove inclined her head, in acknowledgement perhaps, or confirmation. “That man is not to be trusted, madam,” she said again, after another pause: almost as though she were trying to hold herself back, and just couldn’t help it. “It is because of men like him that she must be cautious.” The lights in her visual array flickered more strongly, faster than ever. “He speaks wrongly. He should not speak at all. He is an evil man.”

Nyobe could only stare: caught in place, startled out of all sense and thought. “…Foxglove?”

Foxglove tilted her head on one side, an eerie boneless gesture on the swivels and pneumatics of an automaton’s neck. “Madam?”

Nyobe hesitated for a moment more… and then just shook her head, attempting to smile. “No, that’s… never mind. Most likely you’re right. Thank you, Foxglove.”

“You are welcome, madam.”

“I suppose I’m just a bit on edge in general.” She let out a long breath, and then scrubbed both hands across her eyes. Trying to settle herself, and put the whole thing out of her mind, at least for now. “Well, I won’t be getting back to sleep now. Could you draw me a bath, please, and have Coriander send up some tea?”

Foxglove inclined her head again, and it was plain that her visual array was now pulsing as steadily as ever. Perhaps she’d imagined the whole thing. It was late, and her mind still clouded from sleep; and it could be so easy to fool oneself, sometimes. “Of course, madam. It would be my pleasure.”

The day of the Race came on with all haste, and without other incident. Kes continued to come and fly with her, over those last two weeks — and to spend the night in her bed, afterward. They didn’t speak again about the man who had sought her out, nor did anyone else call Nyobe in the night. Every day that Kes wasn’t there, Nyobe went out flying, and checked her engines and propellers and rudders and equipment, climbed all over her ship on the hangar’s scaffolds and rigging checking for problems or flaws. Counting down the days until it was time.

And then it was. She woke up before dawn on yet another morning, was dressed by Foxglove in her airworthy best, and stepped out into the hall to find Hibiscus waiting. In one hand he balanced a light meal packed immaculately into a paper box, and the other proffered her cane.

“Good morning, Hibiscus,” Nyobe said, smiling, as she accepted it and settled her scarf into place. “Are you ready to fly?”

Hibiscus inclined his head, and though neither his face (such as it was) or voice could show emotion, she could have sworn he managed to appear resigned all the same. “Regrettably, never, madam,” he said, making her laugh. “But if ensuring madam’s safety requires the reckless and disturbing act of boarding an airborne vessel, then I must do so.”

“Poor dear. Do you know, I think that’s word-for-word what you said last year.” She patted his metal arm, and then set off, him trailing behind her. “You were never really prepared for this, I suppose. What was the worst Daddy ever made you do? Drive above the speed limit?”

“Nothing to be discussed in polite company, madam,” Hibiscus said, serenely — and that time she laughed so hard she nearly choked.

They emerged into the hangar together, her breath showing in plumes in the still night-chilled air. She gathered the crew, and they all crawled through twice the ordinary number of checks and condition reports before finally setting off: this time, not further north into the Aviary’s heights but south over the edge of its high platform, across the lower rise of the Bower down to the southeastern edge of the Crucible. The starting point was the vast sprawl of Centennial Park along the rocky part of the bayfront, between the Ministries and the water and with a dazzling eastern view of the Bower’s skyline. Much better than when it had been on the edge of the old capital and the Flats; getting a good wind up out of the river basin had always been murder.

It was mid-morning by the time she touched down in the park, the ground crew rushing up with steps and proffered hands to help her down to the grass, along with Hibiscus’s aid. There were only three other ships in evidence yet, she’d noticed from the air, and one was Kes’s little oddity, but as much as she looked around on her way over to the main pavilion, she didn’t see Kes herself.

She signed in and completed the last of the forms (mostly emergency contact information, at this point), and then lingered under the tent with Hibiscus at her elbow until nearly launch time, watching the rest of the ships land and pilots arrive. At last, though, the officiant stepped out to the edge of the green and fired a flare up above the treeline — the first signal — and she had to repair back to her own ship with all the rest, and still with no glimpse of Kes. She must have been staying on her Cuckoo, making final preparations, it was perfectly logical… but it was difficult all the same not to be a bit disappointed. It would have been nice to wish each other luck, perhaps, or exchange a few final goads. That was all.

But no matter, or little, anyway. She took up the helm again: restarting all systems, and preparing for launch. Keeping an eye trained all the while either out the window on the park, or on her pocket-watch.

Finally, tense minutes later, the second flare appeared, burning its line up the sky. She lifted off, circling carefully amid the flock of other ships doing the same thing, keeping to her appointed patch of runway. At last they were all hovering above the park, bobbing slightly along, in a ragged line. And last of all followed a smaller, no-nonsense, Police balloon: the officiant’s transport, as well as the Race’s principal monitoring vehicle.

A moment more of stillness, as it rose to their level and then slipped past them, pulling away to one side. As it settled into place in the air, and paused.

And then the third flare arced above them, into the sky. And they were off.

The course circled around the City, mainly above its outskirts: beginning by cutting south over the bay, and then back inland across the Bower’s lower suburban sprawl, the industrial districts around the outside of the Crescent, and across some miles of deserted scrubland hills to reach the slummy western edge of the Flats, before turning back toward the park. There were a total of six checkpoints set up along the course, at which each ship had to pass between a pair of manned balloons or be disqualified, and which were distributed at intervals such that the shortest distance between any two consecutive checks was a straight line.

Right from launch, Nyobe and Kes were neck-in-neck; and the memory of her disappointment at not seeing Kes melted right out of Nyobe’s mind as the nimble little Cuckoo darted out in front of her nose, seizing a stride of lead while her own engines were still spinning up to top speed — and a savage grin crawled across her face. She pushed the throttle for all it was worth, giving chase, the two of them veering side-by-side out over the beachfront and then the water in a long, breathless arc. It could have been any of their weekly visits, the afternoon sun high and dazzling and baking in the sky, their engine-smoke cutting streaks and whirls into the blue; only now instead of the giddy obstacle course of the Aviary it was only open water, and speed alone would tell. Speed Kes had in spades, and Nyobe found herself gnawing her lip, eyes narrowing, pushing for all she was worth, not noticing the time that flew by. Careening around the line of the bay, toward the first checkpoint like lightning, already not holding anything back. She was hardly surprised to see, when at last banking sharply between the balloons, that they had also left most of the pack well behind them, fumbling along in their dust. Only one ship seemed to be near to keeping up with the two of them, a narrow black missile of a thing that she didn’t recognize.

They crossed back over the cliffs at last to the edge of the Bower, leaving the water behind, their racing shadows clearer on land. They had to fly higher now to be in safe skies, into where wisps of cloud sometimes separated them, sometimes obscured one from the other partly or completely for a space of seconds. The altitude was friendlier to Nyobe, the moisture of the clouds and the higher winds tossing Kes’s little ship around like a pebble on waves; she took the lead for a time when Kes was blown briefly off course, her heart thumping in her throat and lips peeling from her teeth in triumph. Kes paced her from behind for some time after, until at last Nyobe streaked ahead through the second checkpoint and never let up, coursing in a long curve out over the eastern beginnings of desert. This part went outside the edge of the Aviary, but level with its highest peaks, describing an arc past them at a safe distance. The spires of her home made a chest-flattening array outside the left side of her front window, jeweled stalagmites reaching in perfect parallels toward the sky.

Kes was catching up to her now, though, she saw soon enough: able to take the curve more tightly, hugging it without having to come lumbering about. Nyobe set her teeth and dared more throttle, pushing harder —

And heard a short, deep, hollow thump from off to the left and behind, at the same second the ship jumped sickeningly in the air and began to list.

At first she could do nothing but hiss through her teeth, her eyes going wide. Almost at once, though, she forced another breath down into her chest, hard and hurting in its compressed tightness; and shouted, “Hibsicus!

A second later there were metal footsteps in the doorway to the control deck. “Madam?”

She didn’t even dare look back; she had the throttle and steering column in a death-grip that paled her knuckles, eyes fixed ahead. “Go ask Calendula what in the hell just happened. Port aft. Hurry.”

He took her at her word: gone the next second, with no pause to be polite. She hung on like grim death in his absence, but he came back faster than she expected — hard to say whether that was a good or a bad sign.

“The rear port engine is lost, madam,” Hibiscus said from behind when he’d arrived. Overlapped at the end by her cursing blisteringly. He waited for her to be done before going on, with typical good grace. “Calendula reports that a rod has explosively detached from the central shaft, and damaged its housing. Her propellor no longer functions.” He waited this time through her snarl, her yank of one hand back through her hair and dislodging her goggles, even as the other still pulled as hard as it could against the unstable new drag on her trajectory. “Shall we seek aid at the next checkpoint?”

“No.” Fast and hard, cutting off all protest even if he’d had any. “Fuck the engine. I’ve flown this old battleaxe through twenty-one Races and I’ll fly her to the end on five engines, or four, or two, or one, if I damn well have to. We’re not giving up now.”

No one could load a pause with weight like Hibiscus. “I must confess with apologies that I find this statement neither rational nor reassuring, madam.”

“I don’t give a damn if you do or not.” She took a long breath, flexing and rewrapping her hands on the controls. “Thank you for the message, Hibiscus. Now go sit down and hold on to something.”

“With pleasure and profound relief, madam.”

There was a slight new rocking in the ship’s balance, as though with a stirring of wind, and then a streak of silver flying by and into view ahead: Kes, passing her, and in a hurry. Her ship’s rudders swung with the turn as she took the lead — practically flashing her ass. Nyobe growled under her breath and started to lean on the throttle again, pushing it a little harder than she probably even should have, under the circumstances. And knew, stomach sinking, that it still wasn’t going to be enough. Not this early on, not down a sixth of her thrust and control.

“Don’t start popping the champagne yet, though, darling,” she muttered, alone in the deck, leaning with her whole body into the controls that kept trying to fight her and throw her off. “We still have a long way to go before we’re done. And a lot of high winds ahead.”

It was brave talk, of course, but it alone couldn’t keep her from beginning to lag, as they cleared the third checkpoint some ten minutes later and began rounding the Crescent. This had always been her least favorite part of the journey — the anonymous boxes of corporate towers glittering off in the distance, and the sludgy sprawls of factories and shipping-yards directly below, sending up plumes of foul-smelling smoke and burning refinery flames — and it was in no way improved by first Kes’s ship continuing to build its lead until it had gone from sight, and then the thin black ship overtaking her as well, slowly pulling ahead and disappearing too. At least the rest of the pack, though gaining on her by degrees, still remained well behind, as she could see while she took the harder turn to loop in through the fourth checkpoint and then out over the empty hills. Even to be in third place midstream chafed her viciously, but at least it wasn’t any worse than that. And, she kept telling herself in increasing desperation, who knew what might happen?

She wrangled her struggling ship over the hills for some untold time, cursing and sweating at intervals. Finally the fifth checkpoint loomed ahead, the furthest point out of the City, before the long leg back to the sixth check over the Flats. She pushed through it with some relief, and swung into the next long (and clumsy, given the state of her poor ship) turn…

And then began to see something, up ahead and well off to one side, in the sky. Two somethings, in fact, weaving and bumping around each other, barely visible at this distance. But coming closer.

They were quite a ways off the Race’s course, and she had no time for deviation, but the way the ships were moving gave her pause. There was definitely some sort of distress at work there, and it only became plainer as she closed the shrinking distance. For the first few seconds she thought they might be monitoring ships, or unrelated vehicles, doing some odd maneuver outside the Race’s course out here in the hills — but it wasn’t long before she could make out the shape of Kes’s ship, trying to swing around and away, and the black ship that had passed some time ago, giving it chase.

Whatever was going on, it had them thoroughly distracted, not to mention slowed. If she’d just flown by, she could have taken the lead, and probably kept it all the way back to the park.

But of course, by the time she thought that, she was already setting her teeth and steering off the track.

Once she was flying straight at them, it didn’t take long to see the nature of the disturbance — little though she could credit it. The rails along the undercarriage of the black ship’s gondola, which of course had been empty earlier in the Race, were now fully loaded with perhaps ten or a dozen men in dark, full-body, masked gear, perched on and clinging to the rail and tethered to it by ropes, dangling in the air like spider-silk from this distance. When the black ship moved close enough, two of them jumped at once for the gondola of Kes’s ship — only to be shaken off when it swerved and darted away again. Even so, there was no mistaking what they were trying to do: get close enough to board her. There were no monitors this far in the lead and no prying eyes this far out in the wasteland, and Kes’s ship was under attack.

And Nyobe thought she could guess by whom.

“Hibiscus!” she called again, and he appeared behind her at once.

“Are there further troubles, madam?”

“You could say that.” She nodded ahead, out the window, and could hear the clicks of his processing in his pause. “Tell the crew I’m going to maneuver us into position, and then I’m going to need them to maintain speed and altitude when I release the controls. Then I’ll need you to put on a parachute and meet me at the door with another one for me, and we’re going to have a bit of a fishing expedition.”

She could see his dim reflection in the glass, inclining his head in resignation. “I am deeply impressed with the variety of ways you have found today to make the experience of the Race even more unpleasant for me, madam.”

The side of Nyobe’s mouth curled up in a distracted smirk. “And I’m deeply impressed today by your endless reserves of wit. Now do what I told you, we need to move quickly.”

“Madam.”

Matching the pace of two ships moving wildly all around each other wouldn’t have been any mean feat even with all her engines functioning, but she hauled for all she was worth: coming in close, and then pulling up alongside Kes, trying to match her movements and stay on her. She wasn’t sure, but she thought Kes’s ship smoothed out a little bit as she did — as though seeing and understanding what she was doing, and trying to help, even while she was still trying to avoid her strange team of assailants. Finally Kes managed to veer far enough away, and Nyobe with her, that there was a slight lull, and she took the chance; she let go the steering column and squirmed out of the control deck, rushing to the gondola door. Hibiscus, true to his word, had a parachute pack held out in hand already, and her cane leaned up against the door, bless him. She shoved her arms through the straps and let him buckle her in, and then grabbed up the cane in one hand and a hooked line in the other, pressing it into his hands.

“You’ve a better arm than I,” she said, and grabbed hold of the gondola door, disengaging the safety locks with a practiced set of flips. “When I pull this open, you throw. Her rails are along the top side of the gondola, just under the balloon.”

“Understood, madam. I am ready.”

“Good. Then — go.”

She clunked open the door and threw it wide, throwing all her weight with it to the side so she was out of his way. The torrent of freezing wind flattened her to the wall and made her eyes slit shut, but Hibiscus stood steady in the doorway, taking it all in and setting his aim in no more than a second. And then he’d whipped his metal arm up and thrown.

There was a heavy rumple of the line pitching out into the wind, on an angle to account for it. A breath-holding moment of nothing else… and then a harsh metallic clang not far off. Nyobe winced her eyes open enough to see that the line was taut in Hibiscus’s hands, though whipping heavily in the force of the air. She pawed out, claimed one of his arms when he stretched it out to her, and they both pulled her in to his side.

Now!” she shouted over the wind, up toward the small metal dish that was his ear. And Hibiscus’s arm tightened securely around his waist, and his legs bent — and they jumped.

There was a moment of swirling vertigo, wind battering from all sides and their long arc along the line feeling dizzy and aimless. And then the wall of Kes’s gondola loomed ahead, shadowing out the sky; and Hibiscus caught its handle with another jarring metal-on-metal sound, catching them in and giving order to the world again. They hit a bit hard against the wall, almost thumping off it, although enough of it was caught on Hibiscus’s arm around her that Nyobe didn’t have the wind knocked out of her too badly. He braced his feet against the lip of the entryway and hauled on the handle, and managed to pull it open just enough to push Nyobe inside, before grabbing either side of the doorway and hauling himself through too.

Nyobe pushed up against the wall again until he’d closed the door, and then took a second to settle herself and catch her breath. She’d never been inside Kes’s ship before; this first entrance was a cramped passageway that not only Hibiscus but she as well had to duck down to fit inside, all bare silvery steel along the walls and splitting off in different directions like a warren of metal. And the main passage, straight ahead, opened onto the control deck from the side; and framed in its doorway, in profile, was Kes, eyes focused straight ahead and hands gripping a strange set of controls quite unlike Nyobe’s own.

When Nyobe duck-walked forward a few paces toward her, Kes snapped her head around to look at her, and then front again. It was only for a second, but that was long enough to see that Kes was strained and tight-lipped, every line of her body tense; and that the look in her eyes was more terrified than anything Nyobe had ever seen there.

“What in the hell are you doing?” she asked, with a little shrill sound that might even have been a laugh. Nyobe came in closer, to where she could actually stand up a bit in the opening to the deck.

“Helping,” she said. “I hope.” She peered out the window at the front of Kes’s deck, then caught herself against the doorway as the ship jolted with another swerve. “Has this been going on long?”

“A few minutes. He caught up to me just out of sight from the checkpoint. Shit — ” Another dodge, and another black-clad figure tumbling and falling away at the bottom of their view. Kes bit her lip, and Nyobe could see her hands on the controls were trembling as much as her voice. “Where’ve you been, anyway? Looked like you got bored and gave up back there. I was pretty pissed off.”

“So was I. You passed by on the side without the smoke.” That caught Kes’s darting gaze again, and Nyobe’s mouth twisted. “One of my back engines blew out. No idea how on earth it happened — we did double checks before I even took off this morning.”

“It was him,” Kes said at once, though, startling her, and then cursed under her breath. “It must have been. Hell. He came around with the fueling crew in the park, all dressed up like one of them, when everybody else was signing up. Probably going to try to sabotage me, but I was staying onboard and I caught him out and sent him packing. He must have done the same thing to you. Knew you’d be in his way otherwise. Son of a bitch.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Nyobe said — low and cold, but with her eyebrows still raised. All of this was suggesting a far more premeditated operation than she might have guessed at, but apparently not more than Kes had. “He must be very sincere about his pursuit of you.”

“You could say that again.” Another small, unsteady laugh. “I didn’t think he’d actually… hell. I don’t know. I don’t know.” She swiped sweat off her forehead with the back of one gloved hand, and looked at Nyobe out the corner of her naked, frightened eyes. “He knows a lot more than I thought. …I can’t let him board my ship.”

And Nyobe only let that sit a moment; not to debate her answer, but because she was considering all of that. And what came next.

“You keep flying,” she said, at last. “Does this ship have an interior gangplank?” Kes nodded, a little too hard, and jerked her head toward a set of paneling that was out just inside the gondola door. Nyobe nodded back. “Then Hibiscus and I will lower it, and mine, and lock them together. That’ll keep us as close as we can be without knocking our balloons into one another — and it’ll give us a place to greet your guests.”

Kes’s eyes flickered to hers again, wide and alarmed. “Are you crazy?”

“Certain allegations have been made,” Nyobe said, agreeably enough. And then picked up her cane to chest level — and pulled off its outer casing to reveal the long, slim sword that was hidden inside, and test its edge. “But fortunately I’ve never set much store by them.”

Kes stared for a second, before having to look front to swerve around another assault again. She opened her mouth to say something… and then hesitated, and then finally just closed it again, shutting her eyes for a brief moment at the same time.

“Thank you,” she said, softly. “Thank you so much, Nyobe.”

“Nonsense,” Nyobe said, cheerfully — which at least made Kes look up and over at her again. “It’s just as I’ve heard it put before: what fun would it be to win if there weren’t anybody worth beating?”

And Kes’s laughter — still shaky but much more genuine this time — followed her back out to Hibiscus and the door.

They fought another battle with the wind: Hibiscus swinging back across to the Bellatrix and pushing down her gangplank, Nyobe wrestling down the one on the Cuckoo herself with much difficulty and frustration. They met in the middle at last, Nyobe clambering out low on the loose gangplank and clinging to the railing for all she was worth, Hibiscus carrying more spare line from onboard her ship. Hibiscus threw out some of it to catch Nyobe’s gangplank and haul them together — the ships having gone fairly off-pace from each other, with no one piloting the Bellatrix — and the two of them each pulled hand-over-hand until they met. Then they could clamp together and then tie down the planks, Hibiscus holding on to Nyobe’s waist against the threat of the wind when she had to lean overside. Now they were flying side-by-side, locked into a twin set of ships, Kes’s speed pulling Nyobe’s along and Nyobe’s heft holding Kes’s steadier.

As Nyobe had expected, though, that steadiness took down Kes’s maneuverability by quite a bit — at the same time that the paired gangplanks made an attractive target. In a matter of scant moments the black ship was lifting up above them, over the narrow valley between them, and its rabble dropping toward the paired gangplanks like a nest of spiders depending from their threads. Nyobe squinted up at them, her sword at the ready, and then smiled grimly to herself when she saw they were wearing parachutes as well. Good. That would permit Hibiscus to help her, and for her part she was a pilot, not a murderess; and just now she was in the mood to at least inconvenience some people very badly.

She stood at one end, guarding the entrance to Kes’s gondola, and Hibiscus facing her at the other. And then the men in black landed heavily between them, rattling the whole gangplank under their feet; and it was begun.

The nearest man landed facing her, his face covered in mask and goggles, nothing showing of it but a mouth and thatch of beard. She swung at his head the second he landed; he ducked, but that was what she’d wanted. She pushed more power into the end of the swing, and struck instead at the rope that connected him back up to the ship, cutting it with her blade. It wasn’t metal — of course not, not and risk slicing each other in half in mid-air when the things were flying around — but heavily braided cord, but even so her sword only cut halfway through it on the first stroke before jouncing off to the side. She dodged the man’s arms as he made a grab for her, then reversed and swung back from the other side just as he fumbled in his heavy belt for a pistol. This time she cut through the rope, and it let go and spun off into the air with a heavy whdd sound. She wasted no time — just rushed forward and ran directly into him with her shoulder. She was smaller and lighter, but she’d caught him off balance, and he pitched over into the railing at the side of the gangplanks. She kicked at his feet before he could recover himself, knocked them out from under him, and then shot up and threw an elbow as hard as she could into his chest. He toppled over the railing and fell out of sight, shock-silent.

There were more men on the gangplanks by now, but Hibiscus had already taken her cue; he charged forward, seized two ropes above two men’s heads, and ripped each off with two ferocious, eerie-fast flexes of his hands. Then he picked the two men up even as they were trying to flee toward Kes’s ship, one in each arm, and threw them both overside. They fell careening, vanishing into banks of cloud below, then parachutes appearing further down. But by then Hibiscus was moving forward again, slashing and grabbing, his tall spindling frame stalking among their human forms like a heron’s wading out and plucking up fish.

They fought their way toward each other, cutting lines as fast as they could before the bastards got their balance, ducking and parrying as best they could any ripostes. Nyobe had to slash another pistol out of one fellow’s hand, and then aimed for the next one’s belt first, sending the gun clattering to the metal grating and then kicking it off into the sky. At one confused point she heard the whine of a bullet ricocheting off some part of Hibiscus, but the lovely thing about him was that he didn’t much mind. She tossed another two overside, he a handful more, and now the crowd was thinning, the survivors beginning to panic and tangle —

And then they surged, and there was a blur of motion. Larger, solid weight slammed into Nyobe, then clamped around her, arm round her waist and fist gripped eye-wateringly in her hair. She shouted and tried to kick and fight, but then she was pulled up and to the side… and out and down, dizzily spinning, into open air. They plummeted, out into the sky down the valley between the two ships and below the one above, the gangplanks and the shapes of the three craft whirling away sickeningly overhead.

Then the rope reached its end, and began to retract up toward the ship above, lifting them up past the gangplank again: Hibiscus turning their direction, hauling the last struggling men overside, maybe calling something she couldn’t hear as they passed. Both the man’s arms were clamped around her now in a bear-hug, and for a moment she shoved and struggled foolishly at them with her free hand, her sword still clutched in the other. They rose to the top of the two airships now, to the edge of Kes’s ship’s balloon. The man reeling back to where they could look at each other, the shape of his eyes dimly visible behind his dark-smoked goggles as he shouted to her over the rush of wind.

Tell your metal man to stand down and let me board!” he roared in her face, his lips stripping back to reveal large, furious rows of teeth. “Your word or I drop you, bitch!

Nyobe craned her head back to look up above them, at the dark ship they were rising to; she glanced down at the ships below, the already too-small shape of Hibiscus staring up at her from in between. And then she looked back at the man clutching her, from her high vantage point of where he held her — and stared down her nose at him, at her icy supercilious best.

“Young man,” she shouted back, over the wind, “you clearly have no idea with whom you are dealing.”

And then she whipped her sword-arm up, above both their heads, and hacked through the rope.

They fell out of the sky like two stones: tumbling apart, scattering downward. They both hit the balloon of Kes’s ship at almost the same time, but by sheer chance she got the better angle; she felt the thin metal shell bounce and dent and give way under her weight, and let herself roll bonelessly along it, gritting her teeth. She was going to be sore as all hell tomorrow. Meanwhile, he’d struck further down the side, and tumbled down its slope, head over heels. His hands and feet scrabbled and clawed at the shell, searching for purchase but finding none… and then he was gone, sliding and flipping right over the edge of the balloon and out into space. He shot down past the joined gangplanks as she watched, and all the way down toward the vast spread of rolling hills and low trees laid out far below them. The circle of his parachute followed a moment later, a period at the end of the sentence.

Torn by wind, barely able to look up or move, Nyobe tried to crawl along the balloon toward where the gangplanks met below; her grip slipped almost at once, making her curse a touch shrilly (torn away at once by the wind) and flatten herself down again to the surface until she felt less apt to be blown away. She shimmied herself instead, staying flat on her belly like a worm, the going painfully slow. But she made her way along until she was overhead and a bit forward of the gangplanks relative to the wind, and was lying out of breath and just starting to wonder what the hell she was going to do about her success —

When she realized how dark the sky was up above her, a shadow fallen across her and then passed. And then the entire world shook apart into panic-striking earthquake lunacy, when the balloon of the black airship slammed full-force into the balloon of Kes’s own.

Nyobe fell like a rag doll, flipping hard end-over-end with limbs akimbo, everything spinning to nonsense. A short thin scream tore out of her throat, immediately lost in the chaos of wind and sky. She clawed at her chest with her free hand, pulling the parachute cord — it bloomed out over her in a long silken rumple but for now she was falling, falling hard, the wind rushing up past her and the ground towards her and the gangplank in between in the way —

And then she struck metal, and stopped: in an explosion of screaming blue-black pain that tore the world away in a sudden shatter.

She woke to the wail of a siren, her eyes startling open to the confusing sight of metal overhead. First she was aware of the hugeness of pain in her lower half, and then the fact that there was no wind rushing into her face, and that she could hear the familiar and yet unfamiliar roar of engines around her. She struggled to raise her head, to pull herself upright, but then hissed and let out a quavering sigh when the pain became too much for the latter.

“Holy shit,” Kes’s voice said from off to the side: with laughter in it, but shaking all apart. “How about you don’t scare me like that ever again.”

Nyobe blinked her head up and around more solidly this time. The shapes of things resolved gradually into the front corridor of Kes’s ship, beside the control deck. She was lying draped in Hibiscus’s arms, cradled to his chest, with Kes flying the ship beside her but looking, for the moment, only at her. She looked clammy and positively green, and it finally occurred to Nyobe to wonder how long she had been out.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she murmured, and then pulled herself up at least slightly on Hibiscus’s shoulder, hissing breath and showing her teeth. “Hibiscus, what — what happened?”

“I caught you, madam,” Hibiscus said, and Nyobe supposed it was good for both their sakes that his voice couldn’t show emotion right then. “As you had lost consciousness, and the attack on Mrs. Kalumaria’s ship had ended, I then brought you inside. It has only been a few minutes.” He paused there, and then tilted his head. “I trust you are well, madam?”

“Well… for the most part.” Her voice had a dusty, chalky sound to it that she couldn’t seem to get rid of, no matter how she tried, and Kes looked over at her again frowning this time. “You’ve always had a very firm hand, Hibiscus; but on this occasion, I fear it has broken my hip.”

A stunned silence fell over them all then, so hard you could nearly hear it crash. The sound of that siren, wavering and warbling and gradually fading — what was that? — was the only thing to hear.

“Oh,” Kes said at last, faintly, staring out the front window again; just as Hibiscus was saying, overlapping, “We must seek out medical attention immediately, madam.” Nyobe was already waving her hand at both of them, though; letting her head recline again, closing her eyes.

“No, shut up, both of you. I’m in a lot of pain and you’re irritating me. Stop it.” She took a deep breath, finding the support to go on. “Is that disgusting little man still following us?”

“Take a look for yourself,” Kes said, sounding both subdued and shaky now — but also a little amused. “Might cheer you up.”

That got Nyobe to raise her head and blink her eyes open again, and she craned around to look out the windows of the deck. Passing away to one side of them, hovering a ways above still, was the black ship… but now it was flanked by the officiant’s monitoring balloon on one side, and another Police vessel on the other, herding it away from the Race’s course. That must be the source of the sound of the siren; now that she was paying attention, she thought she could even hear amplified voices over a bullhorn, fading away out of audible range behind them but still present. She settled back into Hibiscus’s arms with a growing, distracted smile on her lips. Kes had been right; that was a sight to soothe a troubled soul.

“I assume an official happened to witness that last ill-advised attempt to ram you?” she asked, and Kes nodded, with a small grim smirk.

“Didn’t think much of his sportsmanship, either, from what I can tell. If they saw you fall, they might have some questions, but he’s getting arrested on top of disqualified.”

“That would indeed be music to my ears.” Nyobe took in, and let out, another long breath. “So that’s one problem solved. Now — how does the Race stand?”

“Nyobe — ” Kes jumped in, sounding furious, and Hibiscus’s visual sensors were flashing too, but Nyobe held up an imperious hand at both of them from her prone position.

“We aren’t stopping, and you aren’t forfeiting, for heaven’s sake. What have we come this far for in the first place?” She rolled her head back, to glare up at Hibiscus. “I’ll get medical attention, but I’ll do it when you’ve set me down back on my own ship. And what will have happened is that my ship blew an engine, I was thrown into the wall and broke my fragile old bones, and Mrs. Kalumaria was sporting enough to tether our ships together and help me limp back to safety. And then I will go into hospital, and Mrs. Kalumaria will win the damn prize that she’s earned.”

“If you think that I care about — ” Kes was raging now, spluttering. “You just saved us — me — you stupid stubborn old cow, it’s not about the fucking Race!”

“No,” Nyobe snapped back — drawn up again enough to at least approximate haughtiness, and stare down the side of Kes’s flushed angry face. “It’s about the fact that if anyone can put together that Hibiscus has just — inadvertently or no — injured a human, he will be impounded and destroyed. And that I assume you don’t entirely want it put about that you are such a valuable target that strange men attempt to board your ship the second they can corner you alone on a deserted stretch of ground.” She took another breath, while both Hibiscus and Kes stood tellingly silent around her. “And, to a lesser degree, it’s about the fact that I cannot pilot my airship with a broken hip, regardless of how it was received. And that makes you the rightful winner of this Race. And, I think — ” and she gritted her teeth — “it is very likely you would have been anyway.”

Another silence, briefer this time.

“I don’t know about that,” Kes began, awkwardly; but Nyobe cut her off with a loud sigh, rolling her eyes.

“I beg you to spare me.” She twisted her head upward again, with all available dignity. “Hibiscus, take me back across to my ship, please. We’ve still one checkpoint to go, and we can’t be too careful. Someone there may become curious about this little three-legged race.”

“Indeed, madam,” Hibiscus said. And she gritted her teeth against the slight jostle as he began to move, and clung to him, and they made their way toward the door. But although Kes might have taken a breath to say something behind them as they went… in the end, by the time they left she had said nothing at all.

The rest was a blur: sliding in and out of pain-soaked awareness on the sofa in the small passenger compartment of her ship; the thumping of the band and rumblings of crowds outside as they arrived back to the park; human and automaton voices bursting their way into the ship, and then careful hands lifting her onto a stretcher and carrying her out into the sun. She only really became fully aware of herself again in the hospital, when she was roused by nurses and doctors to discuss the surgical procedure that would be necessary, that they wished to perform as soon as possible. And then not long after that came the dark blanket of anesthesia, and everything went away entirely for a while.

She woke the next day in pain and with fresh scars but with her hip successfully bolted into place, and feeling more or less herself again. She lay in her private room and stared out the window, over a steady invasion of flowers and gifts from well-wishers. A newspaper had been brought to her in the morning at her request, and it lay beside her in bed for most of the day: opened to the page near the back where the champion of this year’s Metropolitan Jubilee Dirigible Race, one Mrs. Rasher Kalumaria, was named and celebrated.

As unkind as it seemed, in the wake of everything, she thought she could see the shape of it now. The hunted young widow wants to enter the Race, to claim the sky, but fears the exposure of it as she flies alone around the City. So she attaches to the reigning champion, befriends and seduces her, to be sure that there will be one person around who can keep up with her and has a stake in protecting her, at her most vulnerable time. But it all goes much more awry than she’d thought, and she winds up feeling ashamed, her bodyguard gone much too far for her and her coveted prize leaving a sour taste in her mouth. Yes, perhaps it was mostly a game, but she never meant for it to be played for such high stakes. But that’s the way things go, isn’t it? Better to just move on. Forget it, and start over with someone new.

She’s using you, Kes’s mystery stalker had said, it’s what she does with everyone, and Kes was very clever, indeed. That was what Nyobe had learned about her as she’d dug down beneath the surface, what she understood that so few other people did. But the man had been wrong about at least one thing, Nyobe thought, as she fingered the pages of the newspaper. She herself really was sort of stupid, after all.

It had just been so pleasant. And maybe, in spite of all her protests, she had been a bit lonely.

Well, too late now.

She slept much of the next few days away, waking to be tended and poked and tested, and to entertain occasional visitors. They were all society acquaintances and friends, Simoen and his like, there to make jokes and coo over her and be seen to care. She told herself, again and again every time the door opened, that she wasn’t disappointed. That she must not be so foolish as to be disappointed.

Until on the third day, the door cracked open, and a head peeked around the opening. A very pretty head, with curly red hair.

Nyobe had been half-asleep, dozing off as she stared out the window and up at the sky, and for a second she wasn’t in the slightest convinced that what she was seeing was real. Her head jolted up and she stared, and then blinked, and stared again. Kes’s head in the doorway didn’t go away, though; and after a moment of mutual staring, it even offered her a tentative, sheepish smile.

“Hi there,” Kes said, and slipped inside a little further, half in and half out. “I… thought I might come visit. Is that all right?”

“I… yes.” She blinked again, shook herself mentally a bit, pulled herself up on her pillows the best she could without jarring her hip. “Yes, of course. Forgive me, I was just dozing. By all means, have a seat.”

Kes did, in the chair beside Nyobe’s bed. She was wearing a lovely dress in a shimmering, patterned green, her hair tied back from her face with a matching band of cloth. She was smiling, and there were rueful touches to it around her eyes and mouth; but other than that, her face was nearly impossible to read.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. Nyobe shrugged, with all the elegance she could muster.

“A bit of a mess, but I’m on the mend.” She tilted her head, smirking a little. “And you? How does it feel to be a champion?”

Kes snorted. “How would I know? You tell me.”

An awkward silence descended over them, for a moment. Then Kes raised her eyes to Nyobe’s: more sorry and sweet and timid than ever before.

“I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you hated my guts now, you know,” she said, without ever quite losing her smile. Nyobe raised her eyebrows, and then answered it, with a touch of uncertainty.

“I think that would be a very peculiar thing to do.” Kes avoided her eyes, though, and after another moment Nyobe was unable to help herself, and reached out to take her hand. Kes turned hers over, at once, to clasp it back. “You neither picked my pocket nor broke my hip, as it were.”

That won a small laugh out of Kes, although her eyes stayed turned downward, toward their joined hands. It took her a long moment to speak again; but when she did, she looked up at last, meeting Nyobe’s eyes.

“I just wanted to say that was a really amazing thing that you did,” she said, softly. “Not just for me, but for Hibiscus.” That took Nyobe by surprise, and she could think of nothing to say during Kes’s long pause, as she took a breath and darted her eyes off to the side and then back. “I’ve… never met anyone before who would do something like that — especially not for an automaton.”

“Well, you’ve no idea how difficult it is to find a decent driver these days,” Nyobe said, shrugging — making Kes laugh again, too, which pleased her more than it probably should. “…Honestly, I’ve never seen much of a distinction. Hibiscus has been with my family since my father’s time; and he is as much a friend of it, and a part of it, as any. He would never allow me to come to harm, and I could scarcely be so ungrateful as not to do the same for him.”

Kes looked at her for a long time… and then, slowly, smiled, turning her head down. Then picking up Nyobe’s hand in hers, to her lips, and gently kissing its knuckles. It was a sweet, strange gesture that rather took Nyobe’s breath away. “You’re a rare bird, Miss Nyobe Massanna,” Kes said, smiling, into her skin. Her warm breath stirred across it, making Nyobe shiver; but she hid it by stretching out her forefinger, and trailing it lightly down the side of Kes’s cheek.

“I could say the same for you,” she said. And Kes closed her eyes, cheek leaned against Nyobe’s hand, and smiled.

“Nah,” she said. “I’m nobody special.” Her eyes flickered open again after a moment, and she met Nyobe’s gaze, though without lifting her head. “So you’re going to give me a call when you’re up and around again, right? I mean… we’ve got to start practicing for next year.”

And Nyobe looked back at her, hard, for a moment. Feeling a smile stretching out broad across her face too as she did, without any conscious intent of her own.

“That,” she said, “would be my very great pleasure.”

Her cane had been lost at some point in the whole escapade, perhaps fallen overside, but when she left the hospital Hibiscus presented her with a new one he’d had made unasked — according, of course, to her very exacting specifications. It was sturdier than the old one, though, and a good thing too: it had to take much more of her weight on a much more regular basis now than its predecessor ever had.

Getting back in the sky was a much more challenging prospect, but she made her way there little by little. At first she just didn’t have the strength or range of motion she needed to run the controls, but she practiced as often as she could, being able to do more and more of it for longer and longer as the days went by. She still had dreadful physical therapies to attend every week, but she often thought that her real therapy was getting her hands back around the control stick, and reclaiming a little bit more of the air with every passing day.

It was some time before she was in any condition to fly with Kes again… but when she called, as promised, Kes answered. And showed up, just like always, popping out in her duster and goggles from the door of her newly-repaired funny little ship, and came up to where Nyobe leaned on her cane, grinning, and kissed her on the mouth not at all chastely.

“So,” she said when she’d let go, smiling up into Nyobe’s eyes with hands lightly on her shoulders. “Are you ready to get back to showing me how it’s done?”

“Never more so,” Nyobe said, smirking back down but straining all her available dignity to keep from grinning like a fool. “Back aboard your bird, darling, we haven’t got all day.”

And Kes laughed, and raced off, and Nyobe made her way to her own ship at her much more sedate pace, picking up her crew along the way. And thought, as she did, about the shape of things, and being a wanted woman… but also wanting, more than anything, to soar — no matter how difficult, no matter how dangerous, in spite of whatever else it risked. It was an unenviable position, in a number of ways, but she supposed there were worse ones, too. Especially if you were clever enough to pull it off.

Yes, she supposed she’d been used, might be being used still. She had no way of looking into Kes’s heart and seeing what any of this meant to her, how long her game might be or how much of Nyobe’s company she might really value. But that was true of anyone, wasn’t it? And an argument might be made that she had been doing some using of her own in this situation, all along.

And what of it? No matter. Sometimes it was enough to outweigh anything, just to have somebody who understood.

Nyobe pulled her ship out from one side of her hangar above the Aviary, into the fading light of afternoon, and Kes pulled hers from the other. And together they shot off, rising on the winds, into the sky, on their way to find out which of them would be the one to catch the sun.

Author’s Notes

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