I first knew something was amiss when the shouting started, though I just thought someone had just fallen. Then there was a sudden lurch as the mooring lines were cut free. I grabbed a handhold and kept my grip, but Salmon, fast asleep, rolled right off the gasbag, and I heard him curse and bounce on the side. I made my way along the curve of the gasbag so I could get a look around.
There was another cloudboat coming toward us from the west, its gasbags black, its deck polished and gleaming, utterly unlike the patched and ragged mien of the Corpulent Whale. Captain Ham was shouting about pirates, which wasn’t strictly accurate. There aren’t enough cloudboats plying the skies to support full-fledged pirates, but occasionally two outlaw ships will happen upon the same seam of silver, in which case the better-armed bunch generally gets all the spoils. And the losing boat gets its gasbags popped for a swift midair scuttle, if they’re lucky. Crueler foes will just poke slow leaks so the cloudboat drifts to the ground gradually, providing ample time for the people on the ground to set up a proper welcome, the kind with tar and torches and hanging ropes.
But this black ship was no mining vessel. It was a warship, the only one of its kind in all the world.
And it was coming for me.
Captain Ham called all crew to man battlestations, such as they were, and Salmon and I dropped to the deck and unfastened our harnesses (I left my little pack strapped on my back, of course, as always). We picked up the rusty pikes used, in theory, to repel boarders. The crewmen realigned the fans to provide us with some thrust, but it was clear the approaching cloudboat—named the Avenging Crow, I knew—had some more complex and efficient propulsion system, as it closed on us rapidly. A bolder captain (myself, say) might have tried to rise up through the nearest layer of cloudstuff, dodging the seams of silver by intuition and luck and getting above the clouds where a more expensive cloudboat might fear to follow, lest they crash against hanging ore. But Captain Ham was a plodder, and such strategic thinking was beyond him, so the Avenging Crow inevitably closed in. Our archers sent a few feeble arrows at the Crow, but their gasbags were made of sterner stuff than our own, and the projectiles bounced off harmlessly.
“Oh, bugger,” Captain Ham said. He had the worst job on the cloudboat, because he was the one who’d get tossed over the side first if we were boarded.
A black-haired dark-skinned giant of a man stood in the bow, holding a golden shouting-tube to his lips. He looked enough like me that he could have been my brother, but he was only a distant cousin. “Your Majesty!” he shouted, voice whipped, but audible, in the wind. “You must return with us!”
“Majesty?” Ham sputtered, approaching me and awkwardly drawing his sword. “You’re . . . That’s . . . You’re him? You’re worth a king’s ransom!” He paused. “Literally.”
While he was looking pleased with his own witticism, I brought my pike down hard, probably breaking his wrist but at the very least making him drop his sword. I sprang for the nearest gasbag, clambering up the handholds with practiced ease. Once on top, I knew I had only moments before my fellow crewmen came after me. I pulled my goggles over my eyes, gauged the distance to the nearest cloud, bounced a few times, and then leaped out into the void.
I fell through cloudstuff and thought I’d misjudged, but I reached out wildly and caught a lip of hard silver with both hands. The ore didn’t even move when my weight hit it, which meant it was a big seam, so I pulled myself up to the only semblance of solid ground in the sky, standing in spongy cloudstuff almost up to my waist. Running through cloudstuff was like running through feathers: theoretically yielding but practically rather hard going, though it was no more substantial than seafoam when you scooped it up in your hands.
In my younger days I’d engaged in more than a few chases across rooftops, but this was my first chase across the clouds.
And chase it was. My cousin had brought the Avenging Crow, with its superior maneuverability, close to my cloudbank, and Feydor had personally leapt out after me. Idiot. If he missed his footing he would plunge to his death; the Crow couldn’t descend fast enough to catch him. I’d feel guilty if he died, but then, I hadn’t asked him to pursue me.
Suddenly a wind blew, stirring aside cloudstuff and revealing a hole just a dozen feet ahead. The silver was still firm beneath me, but a few more steps and I would have fallen, and the nearest cloud was too far away to reach. Maybe if I’d had a grappling hook with me, but I hadn’t planned for such a contingency. I turned, standing on the edge, and there was Feydor, approaching me with his hands spread in a harmless way, giving me the horrible pained expression that was his attempt at a reassuring smile. “Please, Majesty. Come back with us. Your country needs you.”
I snorted. “I left things organized to my liking. I see no need to return. But it’s good you’re here. You can let everyone know I’m still alive.” A more reasonable country could have appointed or elected or acclaimed a new king in my absence, but my homeland has certain quaint and ancient customs, notably a belief in divinely-appointed rulers. I am the earthly minister of the gods, after all, and while I am absent, nothing in my country can change—no new laws can be enacted without my seal, no new taxes levied, no appointments filled, no executions committed without my signature. And, most importantly, no new wars can be declared. Everything must remain as I left it, static and unchanging.
“Majesty. Iorek ordered me to kill you.”
I laughed. My younger brother. Successor to the throne. All he needed was confirmation of my death, and he could run things as he saw fit.
“Would you try?” I said.
He sighed. Seeing such a man, such a titan of the battlefield, sigh, was enough to soften my heart, but not to change my mind. “Of course not, Majesty. I just thought you should know of his treachery.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for assassins as well as more benign pursuers in my future travels, then.”
“Majesty, you are in the clouds. There is nowhere for you to go.”
“You know the improvements I made to the Crow, cousin? My many inventions?”
“Yes, Majesty, all ingenious designs.”
“I invented some other things, too,” I said, and jumped off the cloud.