Sky Knight: First Chapter Preview

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In about ten days, Sky Knight will be released. I’ve decided to post the first chapter of the steampunk/fantasy story up on my blog for those interested in checking it out. The book is about sky knight Taliah Storme, a lieutenant in the Vhel’hema Legion, and her struggles with her career and the government she serves. Secondary characters include Erikson Roarke, the pirate captain Taliah is entrusted to capture, Admiral Arklin, Taliah’s commanding officer, and Braethen and Merida Eldridge, friends of Taliah’s and important members of society.

The book is more so targeted towards adults (and older teens), with dark themes expressed throughout the novel.

*To all the bloggers and book reviewers out there, if you’d like a free e-book copy in return for a review, please let me know and one shall be delivered to you upon release day! (Or when desired.)

Enjoy the first chapter!

SKY KNIGHT

SANDRA HARVEY

1

Behold: the warriors of air and light, the sky knights of Vhel’hema.”

—Thelonious Blackwood, founder of Blackwood Academy

The most beautiful element of the Skylands was its sunrise. Down in the Lowerlands, it was a cold, harsh light that greeted the world at the break of dawn. It signified little less than the start of a new day, the beginning of work. Far above, amongst the floating cities and colossal ships that roamed the skies, a sunrise was a form of art no one could capture with paints or still pictures. The auburn light pierced the clouds like shards of stained glass, and a great sphere of fire rose to meet the horizon—a scorching monster to face unflinchingly in the early hours of the day, with nothing but crimson tides to ride for miles.

When given the chance, Taliah Storme watched the sunrise of the Skylands, allowed it to transfix her as it did many others who sailed the skies of Vhel’hema. Taliah was prone to watching it from the deck of the Lunar Guard, the airship she was given upon reaching lieutenant status.

Throughout the night, Taliah and her crew of fellow sky knights had navigated the dark skies, pursuing a smaller airship stolen by one Edward Brewer. His capture was Taliah’s current mission. Lesser criminals usually fell to lower ranked knights, though the illegally obtained airship—the Morning Star—was a fulminite shipping vessel and the task to reclaim the expensive resources inside was given to Taliah.

Brewer would be her fifth mark this month. Crime in the Skylands was increasing yearly, with more and more dangerous criminals making their way to paper. Once the Vhel’hema government fixed their sights upon an offender—often classified as “pirate”—it was up to the Legion to find said enemies of the world and punish them.

This particular mark was to be taken back to Hartstone City, the capital of the Skylands, where he would be tried and found guilty by the court, and then transported to the Wintersong Asylum to spend the rest of his days locked away.

A standard mission, in other words.

Taliah surveyed the cloud formations past the bow of the airship, wrapping one gloved hand around the rigging as she leaned over the side. Great crimson birds glided underneath the airship, far too close to the turbines sucking in air to keep the ship aloft. Taliah pressed her lips together as she watched the witless creatures, grip growing taut on the rope as they steered clear of the machinery and flew out of sight. Nine chances out of ten, birds flying into the turbines was nothing to worry about, but it was that one probability that still caused her neck hair to stand on end whenever she saw the creatures too close.

Diverting her attention back to the clouds, Taliah studied their structuring, finding a tall streak through the middle, as transparent as stretching cotton: evidence that an airship had passed through quite recently. She pulled her mouth into an assertive smile. They were closing in on Edward, and it was about damn time. He was certainly a slippery pirate, but he wouldn’t be partaking in anymore flying after she handcuffed and arrested him.

“Captain Fletcher!” Taliah left the airship’s railing and leapt up the stairway to the quarterdeck two steps at a time, her long auburn coat flapping behind her in the wind. The man at the helm slid up his pilot goggles as she neared him, one calloused hand steady on the wheel. “Can we push the limit on our speed? I’m certain the filth is now close enough to overcome.”

“Aye, Lieutenant.” Captain Daniel Fletcher had been piloting airships long before Taliah joined the Legion, and was recruited at her request to fly the Lunar Guard after her rank advancement. She was quick to realize that he was an easy man to like, with his casual smile and skill at navigating. “I’ll turn ‘er to sixty knots, if that be pleasing to ye.”

Taliah unclipped the belt under her chest to remove her coat and tossed it onto the mahogany railing bordering the quarterdeck. “It would. Run the ship under theirs. I’ll grapple my way onto the stolen vessel.”

The captain grinned as he snapped his protective eyewear back on. “Takin’ on another solo skirmish, are ye?”

“It never fails.” At Taliah’s side was a compact grappling hook: steel, lightweight, and collapsible. She drew it out of its leather holder and verified that it was safe to use. “Keep our baby steady, now. We don’t want anyone scraping my remains off the deck,” she teased, though Fletcher just grinned wider.

“All hands on deck!” bellowed the captain as Taliah bounded down the stairway to the lower level, onyx hair wild in the wind. She tied it up with a black ribbon. “Make way fer flank speed and prepare fer conflict!”

The crew responded with a series of shouts and Taliah manoeuvred through them towards the main mast. Like the other smaller masts, it was carved from cedar, while the hull had been crafted from deep mahogany, the deck white spruce, and the frames oak. Each airship owned by the Vhel’hema government was manufactured in the Lowerlands, where the trees grew thick and wild, and sometimes took several years to complete.

Using the notches in the mast, Taliah began the upwards climb. The wind lashed at the ends of her white blouse and hindered her ascension, though she’d done this particular task a thousand times before and would not be thwarted. Fastened to the mast were two great turbines, blowing air up into the broad sails. Taliah passed them both, feeling the steady vibration in the wood against her hands from their whirring. Just above was the crow’s nest, and Taliah climbed through the gap in its base to reach the top of the airship.

Now that she was past the sails and was able to see clearly again, Taliah spotted the glimpse of another ship not far away, gliding steadily above her own vessel. The Lunar Guard was moving fast and it was likely they would pass under the pirate ship without detection.

Readying her grappling hook, Taliah braced one long boot upon the rail of the crow’s nest and patiently waited for her chance to sneak aboard the other ship. Once she grappled her way onboard, the Lunar Guard would cut its power and drift back down into the cover of clouds. After subduing Edward, she’d find a way to contact Fletcher and the Lunar Guard would sail straight into the sight of the pirates and an attack would ensue. The chaos would give her the time she needed to escape.

The Morning Star was what sky knights liked to call a “steel bird”. Crafted mostly of metal, the airship relied solely upon fulminite to fly. Air did little to keep it aloft, though Taliah bet the pirates had done their best to ensure the minimum use of fulminite. The power room was perhaps filthy with ash and cinders from shovelling coal into the engine’s gaping mouth. She could see some of the pipework curl around the airship’s sides as she neared the smaller vessel, coiled, iron snakes strangling their prey. A great steel mask covered the bow with jagged shards that looked like teeth, and metal fins protruded from each side of the ship, steadying the craft’s balance. There were no sails or turbines—just one large fan at the stern with propellers large enough to slice a dozen men in half at once.

As the Lunar Guard approached the enemy vessel, Taliah lifted her grappling gun and aimed it at the railing partially surrounding a stairwell into the belly of the ship. Most sky vessels had lower entrances for easy disembarking, though marauder airships were usually sealed tighter than most prisons. She’d simply gotten lucky with this one. Brewer was overconfident, and that nasty trait would lead to his impending downfall.

The grappling gun made a faint whirling noise as the line and hook shot through the air towards its destination. Taliah felt a tremor pass through her hand as the steel hook wrapped around the railing and clenched on tight. Looking over the side of the crow’s nest and towards the quarterdeck, Taliah saluted Captain Fletcher before hitting the trigger on the gun. Using her foot against the lookout’s railing as leverage, she pushed herself away from her own ship and allowed the gun to haul her towards the other.

One hand clasped the iron rail and Taliah pulled herself up onto the platform. Retracting the hook back into its slot, Taliah tucked the gun into its holster and started up the stairway. She listened closely as she made her way up the steps, concentrating on the sound of others shuffling about. Boots pounded against the deck far above her head and Taliah peeked over the top of the stairs to look around the quiet hold.

An upturned table was nearby, cards and silver coins covering the floor. Beyond the discarded furniture was the storage area, where wine casks were stacked to the ceiling, crates of illegal merchandise were packed in tight rows, and a steel chest with a heavy lock was chained to the floor.

The fulminite was undoubtedly in the strongbox, though Taliah didn’t have time to check. Subduing Edward Brewer came first.

Since everyone seemed to be elsewhere, Taliah left her hiding spot on the stairwell and crept her way through the messy hold towards the captain’s cabin. She found a ladder leading up to the second floor of the steel bird and climbed it. At the top was the gun deck, overflowing with men drifting back and forth between cannons and short tables covered in liquor bottles. They didn’t seem to notice her as she snuck between crates and masts, too absorbed in their work to spot a woman onboard.

Once she reached the captain’s cabin, she found it empty, the door ajar. Taliah pushed it open wide enough to slip inside and then shut it behind her.

A person could learn all there was to know about someone by studying their living space. Looking at the cabin belonging to a sky pirate captain was the same as looking at a coat: Was it new, old, loved, hated, stitched, ripped, clean, dirty? Were the pockets full, empty, stained, torn? Did the sleeves roll up or down or button at the sides? Everything you needed to know could be taken in at a single glance, and that was the way Taliah liked to work. Just by examining the pirate’s quarters, she already had Edward figured out.

There were bookshelves along the wall, though none of the books they carried had ever been read. The spines were still fresh, indicating the books were for aesthetics value alone. Stacks of papers were positioned on the desk near the window, yet they faced towards the exit and not the chair behind, indicating that Edward needed someone else to write for him. The bed against the wall was unmade and empty bottles peeked out from underneath. As Taliah approached the desk and sat in the ratty chair beyond, she noticed a key hanging from a drawer handle.

So far, Edward was shaping up to be illiterate, disordered, and arrogant.

After taking the key from its spot, Taliah lifted her legs and thumped her boots down upon the desk. She pulled out her fulminite pistol and laid it upon her lap in case Edward wandered in and spotted the copper object dangling from her fingers. Intuition told her the key belonged to the impressively secured chest down in the hold. Too bad all the locks in the world couldn’t protect it from stupidity.

Taliah didn’t know why Captain Brewer would go through the trouble of stealing a fulminite airship in the first place; the airships were the easiest to track and reclaim. Warehouses in the Skylands were no better to raid, as they were all heavily guarded. The various mines in the Lowerlands would be the best targets when searching for fulminite. Security was a laughing matter there, which greatly irritated Taliah. Vhel’hema needed to fix that problem. It would make her job a lot easier if she didn’t have to track down every fulminite thief in existence. They were popping up more often since the increase of fulminite production.

For a while now, Taliah assumed there was a leak out there somewhere, feeding these pirates the resources, though she couldn’t prove it. Yet where else were they getting it so easily, if not from inside? Sky knights would notice if the mines were being drained; issues like these were reported.

Thinking too long upon it just made Taliah frustrated, and she slipped the key around her neck, tucking it out of sight under her shirt.

Rummaging through the papers on the desk, digging up clues to Edward’s whereabouts over the past few weeks, caused enough noise to draw someone in to investigate the cabin. It wasn’t the captain, unfortunately, and before the poor man had a chance to speak, Taliah lifted her pistol from her lap, toned down the fulminite blast, and shot him square in the stomach. He was thrown against the bookshelf, a waterfall of books chasing his fall and papers scattered like leaves upon the floor.

That definitely hurt. Taliah jumped up from the chair, expecting the commotion to draw more attention to her location, and wandered across the room to hide behind the door. She stepped over the unconscious pirate lying face-down on the rug and peered through the gap between the wall and door, eyeing the other buccaneers loitering around the gun deck. They seemed completely oblivious to what had happened, and Taliah snorted in annoyance. Clearly the one crew member wandering into the cabin had been a fluke.

It was time to take matters to a new level.

Placing her fulminite pistol on a shelf, Taliah slipped off her leather vest and loosened a few buttons on her blouse. She pulled her hair out of its band and let it fall free around her shoulders. The official sky knight badge that had made its home upon her belt was tucked into the back of her pants and hidden under the long hem of her shirt. After checking her reflection quickly in the mirror on the desk—because sky pirate captains did enjoy primping themselves—Taliah pushed open the door of the cabin and stepped out into the gun deck.

The pirates lurking around cannons and barrels of rum all diverted their attention to the only female in the room, their mouths popping open in surprise. A few drew their guns, though some were so startled they simply gaped at the sky knight.

“Who’re ye?” asked the first oncoming pirate. He looked Taliah over with a swift dart of his eyes. “No one’s ‘spose to be onboard save the crew.”

“The Capt’n invited me onboard,” said Taliah, voicing her best impression of a Lowerlands bar wench, though failing miserably. Thankfully, her revealing physique made quite the distraction. Admiral Arklin would be laughing his ass off if he were here. “Would ye mind fetching him?”

“The Capt’n’s busy,” said another, “but I’ll keep ye company if yer lonely.” A few of his mates laughed and pushed him jokingly forward. Taliah bit back a retort and forced a smile onto her face.

“I’ll see the Capt’n only, but thank ye.” She turned and looked over her shoulder as she headed back into the cabin, sliding a slender hand along the doorframe. “You’ll fetch him for me, won’t ye? I’ll make it worth yer while later.”

The door shut gently behind her and she leaned her back against it, letting out a sigh. That had been a dangerous plan, but most pirates couldn’t resist a woman, especially if they’d been flying for weeks. Offering sex up on a platter was an easy way to motivate them—or to lure them into a trap. One of the pirates would run off to find their leader; they’d perhaps squabble about who would do it, but eventually Taliah would see her target coming to her instead of the other way around.

And that was exactly why she was Lieutenant Storme now and no longer an ordinary recruit. She always got her man. Always.

Returning to her hiding spot, Taliah retrieved her gun and waited for the captain. It didn’t take long once word got out that a wench was lurking in his chambers. She supposed he was a mixture of eagerness and confusion—what the hell was a wench doing onboard his airship, and how the hell did she get on? Taliah had played this part a dozen times before and it had never failed.

The door swung open with zest, the captain stomping in with a look akin to a bewildered bird caught in the crevices of a stationary turbine. He was so distracted by the sight of his crew member lying on the rug that he didn’t notice the slam of the door, only looking up after the loud bang at the woman with the fulminite pistol. His eyes were wild with alarm.

Edward Brewer was a burly man, with a thickly braided beard and enough piercings covering his face that he’d probably drown if he were submerged in water. Like the everyday sky pirate he was, his neck was weighed down by jewels and fulminite shards, his fingers adorned with rings of various sizes. Leather boots ran to his knees, belt after belt decorated his waistline with enormous clasps and pouches, a long coat swept the floor, and pilot goggles rested easily upon a cap that flattened his unruly hair.

Those witless eyes of his took in Taliah’s stance, her gun, and—once again—the man she’d incapacitated.

“Yer not a whore,” was his first statement, his voice as smooth as sandpaper.

She really did love it when they were surprised. “No, I am Lieutenant Storme, and you’re under arrest for the illegal possession of fulminite.”

“The hell I am!” bellowed Edward, though he didn’t make a move towards the gun fastened to his side.

Smart man, thought Taliah. But not that smart. He was, after all, flying an airship stocked full of fulminite with a long trail of evidence to implicate him.

“Are you resisting arrest, sir?” Taliah eyed him over. He was indeed a big man—ungodly tall, stocky, probable muscles under his coat—but she’d taken down larger men before. Underestimating a woman in combat became her enemy’s greatest flaw.

Edward took a threatening step towards her, treading over the man on the floor, and Taliah raised her pistol higher. “You approach me further and I’ll remove your head from your shoulders,” she warned.

“Ye can’t do that,” he said, honeying down his tone. “Yer a sky knight. Ye have a code to live by.”

Taliah shrugged. “Complications sometimes occur.”

The pirate stood silently for a moment, and Taliah wondered if he was to come quietly—there was a first time for everything—or if he was to do something terribly stupid, such as fight his way out of the situation. Sadly, they always wanted to run, to preserve themselves and their miserable lifestyle, and Edward Brewer was no different in that regard. One more glance down the barrel of Taliah’s gun convinced the pirate to secure his freedom, though the sky knight was prepared for his rebellion.

She wouldn’t blast his head off, of course. The pirate was right regarding the Legion’s code. They frowned upon killing targets and any associates the criminals might have. Yet they didn’t specify what kind of shape the target had to be in when they arrived back in the city.

Being a large man, Edward would have plenty weight behind his punches, which meant Taliah would do well to dodge him instead of block. With her willowy form, she could easily manoeuvre about the room, though the pirate would have difficulty with the unconscious man stretched out on the floor, the scattered books underfoot, and the desk jutting out at an awkward angle. His clothes would also impede his movement, and if he reached for any weapon she would have a few seconds at best to subdue him.

Taliah rapidly took all of this into account before Edward threw his first swing at her.

The large fist was aimed at her head and she ducked out of the way, dashing behind the pirate. Using the butt of her pistol, she slammed it down upon the back of Edward’s neck, unable to reach the sensitive areas of his head. The hit was enough to send him reeling away from the sky knight, but he recovered quickly and seized a metal globe off the shelf and whirled around to fling it at her. Taliah pressed one hand against the desk and hopped across, scattering the papers to the floor as her long legs slid along the polished wood, fluently evading the improvised weapon. She supposed outside the cabin, the other pirates were convinced their captain was having quite the time with his wench.

Hiding behind the desk, Taliah braced her elbows against the surface and aimed her gun at Edward, who was now reaching to his side to fetch his revolver. “Leave your weapon holstered or I’ll shoot!” she again warned, but they never listened.

The captain’s fingers brushed the handle of his gun and Taliah pulled the trigger on hers. A blast of energy exploded from the barrel and shot across the room, striking Edward in roughly the same area as her last victim; anywhere higher would most likely kill someone. He stumbled back against the wall, able to withstand the blast with a little more dignity than his fallen mate, but then crumpled to his hands and knees onto the floor, joining the other pirate in oblivion.

Showcasing her pleased look at wrapping this mission up nicely, Taliah pulled a roll of strong silver twine out of a side pouch and began twisting it around the captain’s wrists, binding his hands behind his back. She retrieved her vest from the floor and threw it quickly on, not bothering to fasten the straps until she was back onboard the Lunar Guard. Captain Fletcher needed to know she was done here, which meant she needed a way to contact him.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she murmured aloud to the two men on the floor, and cracked open the door to the cabin once again. Some of the pirates hanging around earlier were now gone, empty bottles cluttering one table and a single man loitering around the line of cannons. Taliah slipped out of the room and snuck past the guard, boots light upon the stained planks. She made her way to the communications room, using barrels and shelving to mask her presence.

The Morning Star was a Vhel’hema shipping vessel, which meant it would most likely have both a radio and a transceiver for easy contact between cities and other airships, and like its steel brethren, it was simple to navigate.

Usually the communications room was guarded and locked up tight, being the last line of defence in a takeover, though Taliah found the door open. A single pirate manned the station—if he could be called that. He was a small, lanky boy who looked a few years shy of manhood. Taliah would’ve been outraged by the sight of him sitting there, an old-fashioned revolver in his lap, flat cap pulled down over his eyes, if she hadn’t seen it a hundred times before. Young, orphaned boys were plucked off the Lowerlands streets by slavers and sold to pirates, who then trained them into loyal crew members. It sickened her, but there was no time to worry about the lad’s future. He was stuck being a pirate and there was nothing she could say to change his mind; his time had passed.

Nudging the boy’s shoulder with the barrel of her pistol, Taliah waited for him to spring to his feet, but when he didn’t stir she moved to his front to see that he was fast asleep. His unruly brown hair escaping from beneath his cap reminded Taliah of the boy she’d been partnered with during her first year as a junior sky knight. The resemblance brought back such warm memories that she had to force her gaze away.

Focus, she reminded herself. Find the transceiver.

Between the sleeping boy and the wall of windows that curved into the floor was a long control panel. A series of buttons and switches lined the dash, with maps, notebooks, and pencils on one side and the transceiver on the other. Taliah flipped back the switch to end the radio silence and twisted the dial on the device, searching for her ship’s frequency. Amongst waves of static and transmissions from nearby floating isles and other airships, she managed to lock onto the Lunar Guard.

“Officer Blake?” she spoke into the microphone, addressing the communications officer on duty. She released the button and waited for a reply.

“This is Officer Blake of the Lunar Guard—”

“Blake, it’s me.”

A pause, and then, “Lieutenant Storme?” Taliah sighed aloud at his surprise. “Are you unharmed? Did you make the arrest?”

“I did. Now inform Captain Fletcher to board.” She hesitated, an idea striking. “I’ll disable the fulminite cannons to give you a clear path.”

“Aye, Lieutenant!”

The transmission drifted back to static and Taliah stepped away from the radio, though her boots knocked into something on the floor. She looked down to see various… things made of steel, wires, glass, and even shards of fulminite. The random creations were scattered everywhere and seemed to serve no purpose other than to crowd walking space. They were likely the boy’s inventions, which only saddened Taliah further. She looked over her shoulder, pity rising up despite her resistance towards it, and was shocked to see the boy was no longer sleeping—if he was even sleeping to begin with.

He was standing to the side of the chair, hat now pulled up to reveal his olive eyes and freckled nose. The gun that once sat in his lap was held firmly in his hand, and Taliah inwardly groaned. She hadn’t planned on hurting a child today; that wasn’t part of the contract she’d signed nearly ten years ago.

“Drop yer weapon,” instructed the boy, his voice light and whimsical—the very opposite of how a pirate should sound.

Taliah did as he asked. Her gun thumped against the steel panel behind her as she dropped it there, and she wondered how she could con the boy out of his own weapon.

“Who’re ye?” he demanded, eyeing her distrustfully.

Now came the part where she could either fabricate a story and confound the boy or tell him the truth and risk the consequences. To be honest, he didn’t look like the type of child who was easily fooled, and lying about who she was might cause her more harm than good.

“Lieutenant Taliah Storme,” she said, going with her gut instinct on this one. “And who are you?”

“They call me Gizmo, cause I ‘andle the technical stuff.” He nodded his gun to her side. “Yer a lieutenant, huh? Don’t see yer badge or nuth’n.”

“Oh. Uh.” Taliah felt at her belt and remembered she’d tucked her credentials away. “I can retrieve it, but it’s behind me. Is that all right?”

Gizmo seemed to be weighing the dangers of her request over in his head, but he finally nodded his approval. “Yeah, but no funny business! I’ll be watch’n.”

This lad’s no laughing matter. Taliah reached beneath her shirt at the back and pulled the badge out, holding it up for Gizmo to see. “There. Are you convinced now?”

There was still a distrustful look about him, though Taliah could also see a spark of excitement flicker through those youthful eyes of his.

“My da’s a sky knight, or he was before they snatched him up.” The boy lowered his gun slightly, the bliss in his gaze changing to sorrow.

Taliah’s brows furrowed as she stepped closer to the lad, hoping his change in attitude would cause her actions to go unnoticed. “Snatched up, you say? What does that mean?” she questioned.

Unfortunately, the boy knew what she was about and the gun was raised again, hostility filling his gaze. Damn. Too close. “Ye should know what it means!” he said heatedly. “And don’t think I won’t stop ye from whatever it is yer try’n to do here! I ain’t a kid no more! Yer fancy badge won’t distract me!”

A different tactic would have to be taken, it seemed. “Listen… Gizmo—is that your real name?”

“None of yer business!”

“All right, all right.” Taliah held both hands up in defence, the badge still clutched between her fingers. “I don’t want to harm you, just as I know you don’t want to harm me. What would your father do?”

“He wouldn’t do nothing! He’s dead!” Gizmo adjusted his hat with one hand, his facial features tightening.

“But if he weren’t and he were here,” coaxed Taliah, lowering her voice, “what would he do? Would he like that you were working for pirates? Would he be proud?”

Gizmo’s mouth crumpled, his gaze darting off to the side. “No,” he mumbled out, somewhat against his will.

“No,” repeated Taliah, blood pumping as she stepped closer to the distracted boy. “He’d want you to do the right thing, the noble thing.”

The gun in Gizmo’s hand was slowly dropping, and the boy looked less than willing to put up another front to stop her. Taliah reached out and gently took the weapon out of his grasp, then released the breath she’d been holding. Seeing the lad standing there, smaller than he seemed when she first entered the room, tugged at her heartstrings. She really didn’t want to tie him up; she didn’t want to arrest him along with all the others. He was just a misunderstood child—a child who’d been taken advantage of—and if his father was indeed a sky knight, then why not pay tribute to a fallen comrade and save his wayward son?

“Gizmo?” The boy looked up through wet lashes, the lush green of his irises even more prominent when filled with tears. It might’ve been foolish, but Taliah offered her own pistol to him, the setting still on low. “Do you want to help me sabotage a pirate ship? I’ll reserve you a spot at Blackwood Academy, the same school your father attended, if you do.”

The sadness in his eyes was blinked away in an instant and replaced with utter glee. A smile tugged its way across his mouth, the kind of smile all children his age should’ve worn. When he nodded and took the gun out of Taliah’s hand, she felt contented for the first time in months. She’d never rescued a child from the grasp of pirates before. Her missions always involved capturing criminals, but for the first time since joining the sky knights she had actually managed to save an innocent life from a horrible future, and that felt pretty damn good.

“Stay behind me and do as I say, all right?” Despite being able to wield a gun, Gizmo was still just a child and—

“I’ve a better idea!” The boy dashed off without warning, leaving Taliah completely bewildered.

“The hell—?” She made for the gun deck but stopped in the doorway, remembering she was onboard a pirate ship and there were men out there with guns. And now all she had was the boy’s shitty revolver that still used gunpowder to function. Could she really trust him to not tell his mates about her? Even more troubling was the notion that someone might notice the fulminite pistol in the boy’s possession.

Fuck!” The mission had been going fantastically until now, but she just had to botch it up—over a child, no less! It was foolish to allow her heart to govern her emotions, to allow it to get in the way. She should’ve just tied up and gagged the boy when first entering the communications room.

Where did that little brat go? Anxiously, Taliah crept outside the room and slunk back along the same route she’d taken before, keeping an eye out for the boy. She could hear movement towards the stairwell leading up to the top deck, but it was just the guard, tossing a shabby ball towards the ceiling in a game of solo catch. Boots pounded against the deck above and voices rang above the wind, causing Taliah’s heart rate to dramatically increase. She wondered if they’d spotted the Lunar Guard yet and if she had enough time to disable the cannons like promised.

As the footsteps thundered down the stairs and men flooded into the gun deck, Taliah hid behind some crates packed full of ammunition. She peered around the containers to see pirates rushing off in all directions, shouting orders above each other. There was confusion mixed amongst them—

“Where the bloody hell is the Capt’n!?”

—and Taliah knew she would have to do something fast in order to succeed. She followed one pirate, allowing him to lead her straight into the shadowy cover of a cannon. Before he realized someone was tailing him, she struck him across the back of the head with her gun, catching the limp body before it knocked over a box of round shots. She laid him gently down and stepped over him to the cannon.

The panel was exactly where it ought to be and Taliah flipped it open, revealing the glowing fulminite shard inside. She always found the internal sight of fulminite-powered devices somewhat disturbing, as though the stone itself was alive. Of course, fulminite came from deep within the earth. It was simply a crystalized form of energy, the same as steam or water.

A small fracture in the fulminite shard would be enough to render the cannon useless, though it could also cause an explosion worthy of blasting a hole through the hull. The safest option was to cleanly remove the shard, but as Taliah reached towards it, the fulminite began to flicker in and out like a dying lamp. She lowered her arm, a frown stretching across her face as the fulminite faded to black. The entire airship ran on fulminite, and if it was suddenly failing… Well, that wasn’t good news for anyone onboard. Yet the airship seemed to be flying fine, which meant only the weaponry had been affected. She’d have to investigate the other cannons to confirm, and then find her way back to the Lunar Guard before someone found the captain’s body.

As Taliah turned around, she nearly jumped out of her skin. The boy—Gizmo—was back and standing before her, a goofy smile plastered across his face. He pushed up his hat, leaving a trail of grease running down his cheek from his filthy hand.

“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Taliah in a low whisper. She grabbed the boy by the collar and pulled him off to the side where she could both keep them out of sight and survey the long room.

Gizmo shrugged off her hand. “Takin’ care of them guns.”

“Speaking of which—” Taliah retrieved her pistol from his belt and returned it to the holster at her side. “What exactly were you doing?”

“I told ya.” Gizmo crossed his arms, smearing his coat full of grime, too. “I was takin’ care of the guns.”

Taliah glanced between the dead cannon and the boy. “You did that?”

He flashed a proud grin up at her. “I ain’t got my name fer nuth’n!”

Taliah snorted and pulled a small smile onto her face. “All right. You’re skilled, I see. Nice work, lad.” She motioned towards the ladder heading down to the cargo hold. “Now we have to escape this place. I have some friends on the way to take care of these pirates.”

“More sky knights?” The boy was incredibly fascinated with the Legion, which worked out well for her, considering.

“Many more.” Taliah signalled for him to follow her across the gun deck towards the ladder. “Keep close. Tug on my blouse if you see someone coming.”

“Got it!”

The pirates scrambling to understand why the cannons had all shut down were too preoccupied to notice the sky knight and boy sneaking to the lower level. Taliah went down the ladder first in case of danger from below and Gizmo followed stealthily behind.

Halfway down the climb, the airship violently shook, causing Taliah to nearly tumble from the ladder. She looped one arm around a rung and held on. The boy wasn’t as swift, and lost his footing before the worst of the shaking was over. Taliah reached out and snagged him by the coat before he plunged into the floorboards below, and then swung him back onto safe footing.

Their less than graceful act caught the attention of a pirate in the hold and he whipped out his pistol. Taliah beat him to the draw. She cocked the trigger and fired, only remembering at the last moment that she was still in possession of the boy’s outdated revolver. She swore as the bang echoed across the room and a bullet dug its way into the enemy’s chest, spurting blood out across the stacked crates of coffee, gunpowder, and ale. He fell to the floor in a puddle of red, his gun sliding away as the airship swerved, pulling Taliah’s feet off the ladder. The boy was smart enough to cling on this time, both his arms and legs wrapped firmly around the rungs.

“FLETCHER!” roared Taliah, not caring who heard her now. “What the hell are you doing!?”

With the way things were going today, she would be surprised if the Vhel’hema government offered her another mission.

After some more sharp jerks, the airship stabilized once again and Taliah was finally able to finish her descent to the ground. She ushered Gizmo towards the entrance she came in through, advising him to grab hold of the railing in case the acting captain decided to pull anymore insane aerial manoeuvres to escape conflict.

The wind hit her as soon as she stepped out onto the lower terrace, disturbing her unbuttoned vest and long shirt hem. She lifted a hand to block the sun from obscuring her view and spotted the Lunar Guard flying steadily beside the Morning Star, hooks digging into the bulwark of the stolen airship as it struggled to draw the two ships together. Taliah identified Fletcher on the quarterdeck, barking out orders at the men preparing to board the Morning Star, and she cupped one hand around her mouth.

“You’d better not scratch her!” she shouted, drawing the captain’s attention. He looked utterly confused at first, but then shook his head as he noticed her down below. His concentration was given back to the other crew members and Taliah pulled out her grappling gun, ready to return to her own ship. Edward wasn’t going anywhere, even if he did manage to wake up from the fulminite blast, which meant she was free to get back to where she belonged.

“Hold on to me, lad,” she instructed, peering over her shoulder to the boy, who had one hand gripped fiercely around the railing and the other clenched onto his hat. His jacket was flapping wildly in the wind and his eyes were nearly squinted shut, though he leapt out towards her and grabbed her at the middle.

Aiming for the airship’s railing, Taliah shot the hook towards her target and felt the tremor down her arm as it latched on. She stepped off the platform before the two airships could merge and reeled herself up to the deck of the Lunar Guard. A crew member was there waiting for them and he pulled Gizmo up first, hauling him up over the railing. Taliah pulled herself up, slinging her legs over the rails and touching down on the deck. She left the boy with the fellow sky knight and hurried up to the quarterdeck, keeping an eye on the Morning Star as she thundered up the short stairway.

“What the hell happened to ye?” asked Fletcher, laughing as he looked her over.

Taliah’s face burned as she buttoned up her vest and fixed her shirt. “Still your tongue. I had to improvise. Are we nearly finished here?”

“Did ye enjoy yerself?”

“Remind me again: Did you enjoy working in Hartstone’s shipyard?” retorted Taliah.

Captain Fletcher sobered. “Aye, Lieutenant, nearly finished now.”

Taliah breathed out slowly, the heat in her face lessening. She held onto the rigging as the two ships collided, wincing as a terrible quiver ran through the deck. “What did I say about scratches?” she shot over her shoulder, though Fletcher simply shrugged and locked the wheel in place.

A sigh escaped between her lips and she stepped towards the stairwell, addressing the crew about to transfer to the Morning Star. Most of them she didn’t know; they were new recruits and knights in training, but it was her turn this year to take on novices. “Edward Brewer is in his cabin!” she informed them all. “The fulminite is stored in the hold! Let’s round up the traitors and take them back to Hartstone!”

A roar of “Aye, Lieutenant!” met her orders and Taliah turned back to Captain Fletcher, ready to call it a day. “Well, you can handle the mission from here—the hardest part is over. I’m going down to my chambers for a well-deserved glass of wine.”

“Already?” Fletcher’s voice followed her down the stairway. “But ‘tis not even midday!”

“It’s midday somewhere!” Taliah shouted back, before throwing open the doors to her quarters and disappearing inside.

All at once the noise and light and wind subsided. Inside her own secretive domain, she could relax and leave her crew to finish the job. Like most airships under the command of the Vhel’hema Legion, the Lunar Guard had separate quarters for lieutenants and captains. Her room was just below the quarterdeck, while Fletcher’s was below deck and across from the galley.

Unlike the rows of untouched bookshelves on the Morning Star, Taliah retained a single shelf with a few favourite stories. Most novels she touched were either about the Skylands or the Legion, leaving fiction in the days of her childhood. A plant was maintained on the desk at the centre of the room, the lilac petals now in full bloom, and it sat next to the map she’d been examining earlier, tracking Edward’s whereabouts.

The bed in the corner was slept in more often than any bed in the city, the quilt sewn by the academy’s cloth-mending class worn from years of use. A cutesy airship was stitched into the blanket, riding up over feathery clouds. It appeared more childish than professional, yet Taliah had kept it anyway, just as she kept her old awards in the desk drawer and letters from old friends tucked away in odd places.

A person could learn all there was to know about someone from studying their living space, and Taliah liked to keep her space away from the prying eyes of others. Her private life was hers and hers alone.

The wine bottle was resting in the cabinet against the wall, secured in place by a holder. Years of bottles shattering to the floor during airborne skirmishes had perhaps motivated inventors to create standing racks for them. Taliah plucked the bottle out of the cabinet, briefly gazing over the sepia portrait of her closest friend, Merida Eldridge, and then closed the tinted glass doors. Merida looked elegant even in a windstorm—the result of good genes and wealth. She hadn’t seen the younger girl in almost a week. A visit was in order when she returned to Hartstone City.

Propping her boots up onto the desk, Taliah retrieved a small glass from one drawer and poured herself a serving of White Chalcedony, her favourite wine. The taste was slightly bitter yet pleasantly tangy as it ran down her throat, warming her insides. She filled up another glass and lifted it to the plaque above the cabin doors. Inscribed on it was an outline of an airship with crossed pistols. The sky knight emblem. Her coat of arms.

“Cheers, and thank God for smart children named Gizmo.”

Then she tilted her head back and downed the liquor.

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