Seren followed Rive out of the house, up a ladder, across a wide roof beam, and into a small flat area that was hidden from view. She could still see out and over the tops of the nearest neighbors and clock towers. There, off in the distance, gleamed the White Tower. The city kept going, winding in and out of itself, and seemed as if it would never run out of places. Weirdly, the noise was both quiet and loud at this height. She couldn’t hear voices or words; they smeared together as raindrops did on windows, beading, breaking, and bonding.
She turned her attention to the new area Rive had brought her to. A small section, mainly the area around the ladder, was open to the elements, but the rest of the lab was nestled in a hollowed-out area under protection of the roof. She had expected this far up to smell like fresh air, but instead allowed the mix of the city to separate enough for her to identify individual smells such as burning wood and spicy food.
“This place is absolutely amazing!”
Her attention focused exclusively on the lab. All the shelves at the back of the room went to the underside of the roof, violently crammed full of mechanical pieces, tools, and other odds and ends she wasn’t sure how to even start classifying. The cleanest place was the workspace in the middle, which held an engine placed on about three boxes of junk covered with a board. Looking around, she could see at least three different hammers, a mallet, several screwdrivers, and bellows? Like the ones she’d used on the fireplace at home?
“Welcome to my lab,” Rive said, turning and bowing. “Don’t touch anything. Don’t breathe on anything. Tell me what’s wrong with your propeller.”
She let out an awkward chuckle, shifting on her feet and hands rubbing together.
“Um, actually, I don’t know what’s wrong with it.” Shrug. “It just doesn’t work.”
Rive let out a sigh and pinched the bridge of their nose.
“What kind of captain are you? You have to have some idea. A guess? A thought? It’s your ship.”
She winced at that, but they kept talking, turning away to heft the engine off of the table. Going to the side with the biggest number of large and medium shaped items, they pulled out a propeller system and set it on the makeshift table, the blades hanging off the side.
“Okay, look here.” They motioned her to come closer, and she did, well aware of what items she’d hit and break at specific moments if she tripped.
“Is something stuck in the blades? Is a belt worn through, or did it snap?”
For every suggestion Rive threw at her, Seren didn’t have an answer. She could hear herself grow snappish with each answer, and it echoed in Rive’s words too, but the constant bombardment of questions didn’t stop.
“You’re the worst captain I’ve ever met! Do you know anything about your ship?!” asked Rive in exasperation, throwing a piece of metal to the ground with a clang. It didn’t break, but it left a long white scratch mark.
“It’s not my ship!” Seren yelled back, immediately putting her hands over her mouth in horror. She took a step back as Rive turned to her, the jerky movements reminding her of a clockwork doll she’d broken years ago.
“Say. That. Again,” said Rive, staring at them. The orange color of their eyes went from resembling a warm, cozy fire to tall, engulfing flames ready for destruction. She shook her head. They’d heard her clear as the wind. She didn’t need to repeat it.
“Okay, fine. What exactly do you mean it’s ‘not your ship’?” Rive stepped closer to her and Seren ducked, covering her head with her arms. Looking down, she could see the moment their shadow froze. Reached out. Retreated a step. “What the hell... I’m not going to hurt you.”
“You sounded angry,” she said, uncurling and lowering her arms. She watched as their face went through several emotions, then settled on what she thought was disgust.
“We yell in my family, but we don’t hit.” Rive hesitated. “Okay, sometimes there’ll be fights or something between us kids, but our parents don’t like physical arguments and will ground anyone they catch doing it. Did your family... did they hit you?”
“No!” she yelped, thinking about her funny, friendly dad and strict, societal father. “Not at all! My father would charm me as punishment,” Seren explained. Old feelings grew in her. Anger at not having a choice in obeying, fury at the idea her father found charming easier than trying to talk it out. Guilt made a bit of an appearance as well. “He’d make it an appropriate punishment for whatever I’d done wrong.” She hiccupped. “He apparently tried that on my dad once, early in their partnership, and that was one of the few times he slept outside the house.”
“What did your dad do?”
“He’d sit with us and logic out how the argument started. He was always the peacekeeper in the family; my father, when I grew old enough to understand, was the punishment giver.” She gulped down a deep breath and shoved her feelings back down in the box she normally kept them locked in. “Just, I don’t know you very well yet, and you got all yelly and angry, and even though I wasn’t sure what you were going to do, I didn’t think it’d be a simple charm.”
“Feh.” Rive turned around in disgust. “Charmers. Them and the prayers here would be good to set loose on each other. And I wouldn’t hit anyone. Well, not anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
Seren’s eyes narrowed at that last remark. It was open to interpretation.
“And who do you mean when you say that?”
“Anyone who would hit me first.” Rive rolled their eyes. “Look, I’ll sit down and fiddle with something. You can tell me about what you let slip, and anything else I’ll need to figure out the situation.”
“I only meant I don’t have a license.”
“And the Towers will never crumble,” laughed Rive, grabbing something small enough to hold in one hand. They looked over their screwdrivers and selected one that ended in a star shape. “I live with many siblings; I can tell when someone’s lying.”
Seren sighed. She’d never been able to lie, not to her parents and, if she was honest, not to herself either. With Rive sitting cross-legged on the ground, their hands occupied with whatever metal thing they were holding, Seren started with the argument she’d had with her father, finding the ship on her home island, and flying off in it. There were a few details she wasn’t ready to tell, like the fact that the extremely powerful flight spell had been one her dad had made, but those details weren’t important, and when she skipped them, Rive said nothing. She spent most of the story talking about running into Captain Juji’s ship, and how he’d helped her find a berth in Viadora because her engine wasn’t working.
“And that’s why you have no idea why it’s broken, or how.” Rive held their chin in their hand and stared off in the distance; Seren stifled a giggle at the image of gears clacking together over their head. “Hmm... in that case, I’m going to need to see the problem firsthand.”
Which brought her back to what she classified as “now problems.” Future problems included her parents, food now that she’d eaten something, and money.
“Besides being somewhere high up in the mushroom, I don’t know where the ship is or how to get to it.”
“That’s not a problem.” Rive’s voice was confident. “There’s a manifesto put up daily outside the ‘shroom that says what ships came in and out. Yours won’t be mentioned, of course, since it’s not registered, but the Crimson Cloud will be. We’ll need to comb through exports, imports, maintenance, and shore leave logs to find them though.”
That sounded like an awful lot of work. Hopefully, the lists were at least written by someone with nice handwriting.
“And I still don’t know how to get a license.”
Rive nodded, their face serious.
“That’s something we can do too.”
“Why are you helping me?” The question had been burning at her. Helping a stranger by feeding them lunch was one type of kindness, but this was going beyond that quicker than she thought it had any right to.
They stopped fiddling with their object and stared at Seren. She straightened up, making sure that her shoulders weren’t hunched over. Maybe all those times her father had scolded her for bad posture would finally work in her favor. She continued.
“I don’t know you, you don’t know me, and it’s not like I’ve charmed or threaded you.” She shivered at the threads Bri had ensnared her in earlier. “Sure, you seem really interested in the propeller, and other mechanical things if this lab is a clue, but that’s not enough to go to all this trouble.”
Rive rearranged their legs and cracked their knuckles. The cracking continued at their neck, which made Seren twitch, and then they carefully set their machine onto the ground.
“You’re right, we aren’t friends yet. Not good ones, at any rate. On the other hand, talking to you doesn’t make me want to jump out of the second-floor window to get away.” They held up a finger as she opened her mouth. “You asked, now listen. You’ve got a ship. A way to fly through the clouds and do whatever your heart wants.” Rive looked behind them at the street, in the same direction the front door was, and shook their head. “I love my family. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a little worried about leaving them. But I’ve wanted to fly for longer than I’ve worried, and you need an engineer.” Rive stood up. “What do I want? I want to fly with you.”
“The ship’s not big,” said Seren. “It’s a tiny seashell. The inside holds a bed, a table, and a small bookshelf. A tiny kitchen. I really don’t know if it’s big enough to hold two people.”
“Where’s the shower?”
Seren forced a grin.
“How do you wash clothes?”
She rubbed the back of her head, cheeks heating in embarrassment.
“I waited until it was raining and washed them outside.” She didn’t mention that since she only had what she was wearing, it had been easier to stand outside, hang her clothes over the sink after coming back in, and squirming under the bed cover when she finally dried off. Looking over the propeller would have Rive learning that soon enough.
“Okay, captain-to-be, there’s something else we need to talk about. Disguise.” Rive studied her, their eyes sweeping up and down. “There’s not much we can do if the owner comes back for the ship. I’m sure they have paperwork that’ll show it’s really theirs...” their voice trailed off. “Are your parents going to be looking for you?”
“Yes.” The next few words were hurried as she hastened to explain why she wasn’t concerned. “But, they don’t know I have a ship, they don’t know I’m traveling by air, and they don’t know I’ve gone to Viadora.”
Rive rubbed their chin.
“That’s an impressive start, but with printing presses, it’ll be easy enough for them to distribute pictures with your face on them.” They looked back at Seren. “And you said someone named Briarrshi threaded you to burn a prayer.”
“What does she have to do with anything?” She bit her lip as he flapped a hand at her. “What?”
“I’m thinking. We need to disguise you.” Their hand pointed out quickly as they named the areas they would change. “Clothes to begin with. Hair color and length would be easiest though.”
Seren grabbed her ponytail, hugging it to her chest. She’d had long hair for as long as she could remember, and there was a clenching feeling in her stomach at the thought of cutting it all off.
“Might make it so you’re missing teeth,” they continued, thinking aloud. “At least when you register. Then you can remove that stuff later.”
“Wow…” It amazed her, the sneaky way they could think. “You really want to fly.”
“You heard my family.”
“Why haven't you already gone, if you want to do this so badly?” Seren thought she saw Rive twitch at that question, but they started laughing, so that probably wasn’t the right idea.
“Like I said, I haven’t wanted to leave my family.” They leaned forward and clapped her on the shoulder. “Tell you what, though. Since I’m gonna make you change yourself, I’ll change myself too. Cut my hair and everything.”
Seren felt her eyes widen in disbelief.
“You’d remake yourself... for me?”
“It’s not remaking just for you,” they said, flicking the tip of her nose. She frowned at them. “But yeah. Long as you don’t ask me to change who I am on the inside, I don’t mind changing my appearance.”
It was a really nice gesture. Seren felt her heart sing at the idea of having this wonderfully kind person with her on whatever journeys she, they, would face together. And someone who could make sure the engine and propeller were working the whole time! An unexpected bonus!
“Just...” she took a deep breath. “I want to make sure you realize what you’re getting into with me. You’re going to give up your home, your family, and how you look to sail the skies in a tiny shellship with me?”
“Yes.” Rive grinned. “Besides, we can always come back to visit everyone. And a haircut sounds good.”
“Right.” Seren matched their grin, feeling much lighter now that there was someone on her side. “What’s first?”
Rive grabbed the end of her ponytail and tugged it.
“We ask my older siblings for some help.” They let go of her ponytail and picked up the item they’d been fiddling with earlier. “Okay, Captain. Let’s make you and me into new people, then pay a visit to the ‘shroom.”
- Dust Warrior
CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!
“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”
(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)