Sailing towards the end

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She was a beautiful ship, that was for sure. Tranton ran his hand hand along the hand rail at the edge of the starboard side, a line of bronze bolted into the deep, dark wood of the hull. Bruckin design seemed inclined to leave everything on display, keeping the engineering and structural ingenuity visible to all rather than hiding it beneath a bland veneer. The Mountain Breaker was impressive and boasted astonishing craftsmanship everywhere he looked but it contained no frippery or needless decoration. It was distinctly different to the ships of the Headland, which often seemed to belong in an art gallery more than upon the waves - then again, no Headland ship had ever felt the need to rise into the air. The Mountain Breaker felt sturdy, like it was ready to take on the whole world, which made sense given its name.

Heading to where the wide gangway led down to the scaffold that made up the shipyard's makeshift dock, a steady flow of people moving up and down it still, even with cast-off less than an hour away, Tranton looked down and spied Roldan Stryke standing at the back of the crowd. Descending the ramp, Tranton moved carefully past those readying the ship and approached Stryke.

"Had a change of heart?" he asked. "Going to join us after all?"

Stryke smiled ruefully and enigmatically, before shaking his head. "I don't belong on this ship, Tranton. Don't deserve it. Besides, I'm with the ground team. Makes sense for me to be on the support ships."

Tranton returned a quizzical look but received no further explanation. "They say we're launching soon," he said. He glanced up at the rigging of the swollen envelopes. "How often do these things go wrong?"

"How often do your country's ships 'go wrong'?" Stryke asked with a shrug.

"Depends who is sailing them."

"Well, then," Stryke said. "Depends who's flying them. In which case you'll be fine."

Tranton turned and craned his neck up towards the control tower in the centre of the deck. "She seems pretty well-regarded."

"Anything Captain Praetus Holst doesn't know about flying one of these beasts isn't worth knowing," Stryke said. He sighed, took in the scene of the hangar, opened up like the petals of a flower. "You think this is going to work?"

It was Tranton's turn to shrug. "Doubt it, to be honest. But what are the likes of me and you to do about it?"

Stryke looked him in the eyes for several seconds, a grim expression on his face, then he burst into laughter and slapped Tranton on the side of his arm. "When this is all over maybe I'll come and take a look at your ocean. See what all the fuss is about."

"It's not my ocean," Tranton side with a grin, turning back towards the ship. "See you in Treydolain."

He trudged back up to the deck, thoughts buzzing around his mind like flies. Every part of him was judging this to be the wrong move; insisting that he should get off the ship and make for somewhere quiet and away from the peculiar civil war into which he'd fallen. Go back north, beyond the ruins of Aviar, to see what lay further on, into the icy wastes. Or somehow find his way south, taking the long route around the edge of the valley, along the feet of the mountains, until he could return to the Headland and the coast. Anywhere but here.

Instead, he straightened his belt, checked the hilt was in its place, and patted down the pockets of his new coat. He'd found it hanging on a market stall, surrounded by burned debris, curiously unmarked and a perfect fit. Long, thick, but not too heavy. Practical.

It suited him to be back aboard a ship, albeit one that floated on air rather than water. If he squinted it was possible to pretend that it was an ordinary ship; but regardless it still operated according to a physics he understood, unlike the hovering, unnatural discs and slabs that had accompanied them from Aviar. If anything went wrong with one of those it would simply fall from the sky, whereas with the Mountain Breaker Tranton had an innate understanding of its functions. He could see its strains and stress points at a glance and knew how it would fly under a fair wind or a storm. The ship felt real. It was solid and tactile beneath his feet.

"Hold her steady!" came a shout from somewhere on the deck, and a jet of flame shot from the burners up into the envelopes. The ship pulled at its ropes and the clamps holding her in place. The last of the supplies had been loaded and the last of the dock hands had disembarked, leaving only the essential crew. Tranton watched as the ramp was lifted back into the ship, where it retracted into the side of the deck. Below, Stryke saluted, then turned and walked away.

The ropes were untied first, then the clamps released simultaneously, the ship immediately rising with surprising haste. The deck rolled a little to one side and Tranton smiled. It felt like returning home after too long away.

Bruckin dropped away on all sides, the increasing altitude revealing the verticality of the city in all its absurd ambition: layer upon layer of humanity, balanced on top of itself, reaching up for the sky. The rooftops and walkways and platforms were crowded with people, waving them on. Many of the lowest streets were blackened and still sent plumes of smoke and steam into the air, though the rest had survived surprisingly intact. Other ships lifted into the air, as Bruckin's entire fleet mobilised to join the Mountain Breaker on its maiden journey. Kirya had insisted that the Aviar ships remain in the city, partly to protect it but primarily to avoid the appearance of a foreign invasion. Tranton had pointed out - even with his basic understanding of Lagonian politics - that a fleet of Bruckin ships wouldn't send an ideal messages either, but she seemed to think that it would still be more effective. Lagonians might hate each other but they were at least unified in their dislike of outsiders, as had been repeatedly demonstrated to him. Who was he to argue with the valley's princess?

The valley sprawled out below them, with a smudge of grey all that he could make out of Treydolain, a couple of indistinct markings where the mesas rose from the ground. The main engines roared to life and with a shudder, as if shaking off a long sleep, the Mountain Breaker began to move towards the centre of the valley.

"Doesn't it look wonderful from up here?" Kirya said, appearing at his side.

"I still can't get used to flying," he replied. "I've been up high before, when climbing, or atop towers, but nothing like this. Everything looks calm as long as you're far enough away."

He could feel her looking at him. "Is that why you left your home? Why you're always on the move?"

Smiling weakly at her, he shook his head. "You don't get to analyse me, princess." She looked deeply pleased with herself, which irritated him somewhat, but it would have to go to the bottom of his list of annoyances.

"You still think this is going to work?"

"It has to work," she said. "The alternative is too awful to consider."

"As circular reasoning goes, I'll go with that." Tranton looked over his shoulder, up at the control tower rising from the deck. "How is Tarn?"

"Calmer, I think," she said, sighing. "Not frenzied as he was immediately after the battle. But he won't talk to me about it. I still can't believe he didn't want to come with us. To finish this."

Tranton looked sideways at her, disapprovingly. "That's because this valley is all you've ever known. Everything that happens in that pretty brain of yours is all tangled up with this place. You've got no perspective."

"Don't patronise me."

"Point is, Kirya, that he was born a slave, lived as a slave, then escaped and immediately got stuck in the middle of all this. He's come along for the ride because he didn't know what else to do. Sooner or later he's going to realise that he'd got no ties to us. And certainly no obligations to you or the valley. You just have to hope we can win this thing before he gets to that point."

They stood in silence as they drifted away from Bruckin, the ship creaking under its own weight as the structure supported itself for the first time. The sky was dotted with ships, keeping pace and maintaining a safe distance between each other.

For the first time in a while, Tranton felt his four-fingered hand throbbing, the nub of the missing digit aching for its phantom associate. He peered into the hazy distance, past the smudge of Treydolain growing on the horizon to the mountains far beyond, on the opposite side of the valley. Somewhere up on the Barrier Mountains was his finger, frozen and no doubt buried beneath the snow, preserved perfectly where it had fallen. For a fleeting moment, Tranton felt somewhat jealous.

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