A fresh sea breeze wafted in through the open window of the hotel suite, rustling the sheer curtains. The radio on the table mumbled reports on the war raging over the land of Karifiga, pitting Inexa and its allies against the Directorate of Averna. The crackling broadcast advised listeners to avoid large swaths of the desert countryside. Held down with an empty coffee cup and a full ashtray, ink-scrawled papers fluttered their edges next to the carved wooden radio face and several hardbound books. A wooden cane leaned against the low back of a cushioned chair.
From behind the door to the water closet, a young man groaned in agony. Azarola rested his head of unruly black hair against the paisley wallpaper and winced against the jab of pain from his gut. He hummed the song the radio previously lodged into his head to distract himself from his twisting innards.
As soon as his bowels calmed in what he knew to be a temporary lull, he picked up his folding magnifying glass and resumed translating the glyphs in Audra’s notebook. His pencil scratched out the possible words for each symbol, slowly finding the context to piece together the sentences. Itching from his mangled right leg tested his focus. A month after Audra rescued him from certain death, his wounds finally showed progress in healing, though it was still an unpleasant sight.
A week ago, Azarola joined Audra’s scholarly partner, Paetun, in the ancient seaside city of Kertyra. Though still in Karifiga, it was far enough away from the war front that they would have plenty of time to leave should Inexa fail to stop the Avernan advance. Meanwhile, Audra still fought alongside the Inexans with her Elspian airplane, dominating the skies. She entrusted her precious notebook to his care while she was on her sorties, so he could translate the copied glyphs within. They were similar to the symbols the Senvira people used to communicate with each other on their wandering paths, though not exact. Audra already transcribed hints on how to break the code and he made use of that to bridge the gap between the modern Senviran and medieval glyphs. However, Azarola first needed to learn the shorthand she used.
Green eyes focused on the small notes in abbreviated handwriting between the rows of cryptic symbols. “She thinks Maedra’s Seal is the way to stop Averna from using…” He hesitated on using the word “magic” to describe the events he saw. Audra’s notes referred to it as thaumaturgy, but that just seemed like a sophisticated way to say “magic” to him. He bore witness to sandstorms generated by arranged metal pillars, great beasts controlled without a rider, and teleportation gates allowing men and supplies to cover vast distances in an eyeblink. Maedra, goddess of the sun and paramount deity of his homeland, Inexa, was also considered a patron of thaumaturges according to this research. Tantalizing snippets of medieval texts hinted that something called Maedra’s Seal closed the access to magic, though Audra could not decipher how or why. “If she shuts down the Directorate of Averna, she can finally go home and find her sister. Yeah, I’d be willing to believe in a magic “I win” button for that, if I was her.”
He stared at his translation notes and raised his eyebrows. His pencil circled one word in each column where he listed multiple translations. “We must travel three weeks by sea, because Maedra’s Seal has closed the doors. We cannot travel faster. Gods help the King of… Something. It’s a name of someplace.” He scribbled another word into the pieced together line. “Not doors. Gates.” He moved onto the next line. “He may be abandoned… As of now? The gods hear not our prayers. The skies are empty and the wind is quiet. We must… Work? Labor? Build?” He scribbled each of the three possible words into a column. “Alone. The world? Land? Kingdom? Has ended.” He raised an eyebrow at that and gave a lopsided grin to the paper. “Well, that’s a cheery way of looking at things there, pal. Always an overflowing bucket of optimism, aren’t you?”
The creak of the suite door opening jerked up his sun-darkened face. Paetun wasn’t supposed to be back so soon. Audra was still away, though she was supposed to be on her way to Kertyra. The footfalls weren’t the patter of the scholar’s sandals or the heavy strides of the aviatrix, either. Neither were they the mousy shuffle of the housekeeper. Azarola’s jaw firmed and he listened to two men ransack the suite, looking for something. Could he get up quietly and pull up his pants? Would they hear him struggle with his crippled leg or the jangle of his belt? From his holster, he drew his pistol. He wore it for the peace of mind it brought him after Audra’s warning about the Directorate bounty on her. Any associate of hers was an open target on the path to her head. Flicking off the safety, he aimed it at the door, still seated on the toilet with his sturdy canvas pants about his ankles.
He heard the intruders walk closer to the water closet door. “Gods, it stinks in here!”
“Did something die?”
Azarola felt his cheeks burn and tried not to snicker at his own embarrassment. He held his pistol firm.
“Any of those books it?”
“No and there’s no one here, either.”
“Good. We beat her here.” They stopped in front of the door and Azarola’s finger curled onto the trigger.
“We can hide in here and wait for her to come back. She won’t see us coming.”
“Got a special bullet for her. Damn, I think the smell is coming from in here. Are you sure this is where you want to wait?”
“It’s that or the bedroom wardrobe and I don’t like you that much.”
The water closet door opened and two armed bounty hunters stared in surprise at Azarola just before two shots rang out. He watched them drop and struggle against the rapid embrace of death. Red pools seeped onto the floor.
Azarola didn’t envy the housekeeper for cleaning up that mess. “Sorry, Livian. I’ll ask Paetun to pay you something extra.” He noticed that the door was now jammed open by one of the fallen bodies. His bowels suckerpunched him again and he groaned.
A while later, the door to the hotel suite opened again and Azarola recognized the footsteps as belonging to Paetun and Audra. Paetun’s voice carried into the sitting room. “He was working on it when I left and- What happened?”
Audra rushed in with her revolver drawn. “Azarola!”
From his exposed seat on the toilet, he answered, “Here.”
The towering woman stopped at the bodies on the floor with her jaw agape, then jerked back from the foul odor. “Oh, gods!”
“Could you please shut the door?” Azarola asked with darkening cheeks.
She stared at him incredulously. “What?”
His face burned as he held the notebook over his lap. “Privacy, please?”
Single-handedly dragging the blocking corpse away from the door, she let the door swing shut and she curled her lip in disgust.
Paetun cradled his face in his hand. “You shot them from there?”
Azarola called out, “Didn’t have much of a choice.”
Her golden eyebrows drew together in a scowl. “Is my notebook in there with you?”
“Yeah, I’m still working on it.”
“You’re on the toilet with my notebook?!” she snarled, “You degenerate! If you’ve soiled it-”
“They were looking for it,” Azarola interrupted, “They would have grabbed it if it wasn’t in here with me. Then you might be upset about a bullet hole or blood on it. Don’t worry, bosslady, it’s still clean.”
From behind his palm, Paetun grumbled, “You took your gun with you in there, too?”
“Yeah,” Azarola answered, “Didn’t much like being alone without it when I can’t run and my boss has a bounty on her head. Those fellas were gonna ambush the bosslady from in here, so you’re welcome.”
From the other side of the door, he listened to Audra look over the bodies. “There are some rather nice pistols on them and a handsome amount of cash. Inexan and Karifigan notes.”
Paetun’s voice carried a note of surprise. “Inexan? Not Avernan?”
“Inexan notes have held their value better,” Audra replied, “But if that was the concern, why not use Elspian notes? That is the superior currency.” The clack of metal sounded as she unloaded the guns. “These pistols are of the standard issue model for Inexan infantry, but not manufactured there. Made in Lasumi. They make good firearms there. Azarola, would you care to keep them?”
“Lasumi, huh? Yeah, can’t get much better than that,” he answered from within the water closet, “Sounds like these fellas were the expensive sort of guns-for-hire.” Under the bare incandescent bulb, he muttered, “Two more tattoos, if I was still in the gang. I’d be giving Sendoa some competition by now.”
“Who?” Audra asked from just beyond the door.
“A fella I knew in Ixpoli,” Azarola answered, “It was a long time ago.”
Audra didn’t sound very interested in that. “We have to move everything now, not tomorrow.”
Paetun spoke up from near the open window. “Where should we move to?”
“If Azarola is strong enough to defend himself now, he’s strong enough for the journey to Elspia. We’ll go there with no delay.” She directed her voice toward the water closet door. “Finish your business in there quickly and prepare to leave. You’ll fly with me. Paetun, my airplane only seats two.”
“I’ll board a flight,” he interjected, “I don’t want Azarola sitting on me again, especially when he’s ill.” Paetun paused a beat. “Should we call the police?”
“For bounty hunters?” Audra blew a harsh sigh. “I suppose.” She opened the water closet door, exposing Azarola again. “Give me your pistol and I’ll give you one of the Lasumi guns. If anyone asks, I shot them when they tried to ambush me. As soon as you’re done in there, go to the room across the hall. That’s my room. You will remain in there until I tell you to leave.”
“Yes, sir,” Azarola automatically replied, “Do you still want me to keep the notebook?”
Audra nodded and closed the door. “I would rather not tempt nosy officers, if I can help it.”
After dealing with the police and using her clout to smooth over the process, Audra returned to the room where Azarola waited. “We leave now. My notebook, please.” As soon as it was in her hands, she examined the book and then slipped it into her sheepskin flight jacket. Azarola pulled his sturdy blue jacket off of the coat hook near the door. The scent of newness still clung to the stiff twill. The weather along the Karifigan coast was not nearly as punishing as the arid interior, but the heat of summer still crept to the shore. Leaning heavily on his cane, he hobbled after the towering woman.
Paetun joined them in the hallway. “I’ve ordered for a cab to take us to the air depot.” Audra nodded her approval before descending the stairs with the entire party’s luggage in her hands.
The pair of adventurers waited dutifully on the stairway landings for Azarola to slowly navigate the steps. His free hand gripped the banister as insurance against his injured leg failing. The cane touched down on the lower step, weak leg down, strong leg down, and repeat. Three beats like a waltz thumping down the stairs, one step at a time. The aches and pains in his injured leg protested against the work, but he could not and would not stay bedridden and wait for a doctor to pronounce him healed. Audra would not allow it. ‘The sooner you move, the sooner you’ll regain your strength. You have work to do.’ He silently repeated her words as he inched down to the ground floor.
They stepped out onto the narrow, stone paved streets of Kertyra. The ancient city wound around them with layers of civilization pressing against each other. An ancient bathhouse with graceful arches still operated across the street from the hotel. Down the avenue, a medieval fortress of dark stone now served as a municipal building with a clock tower. Behind them, the hotel was new, completed just before the breakout of war. Azarola limped after Audra and Paetun, pushing his pace as fast as he could bear to keep up with them. His injured leg complained bitterly to him with each step. At the corner of the hotel, the intersection provided a clear view of the ocean.
Small boats meandered on the waves in the harbor. Very few large ships now visited the piers, due to the iron grip Averna held on the oceans. Ship-gutting fish, giant squid, and the battleship-crushing sea dragons all served the will of the Directorate. Summoned storms and dense fogs added to the Avernan arsenal against the steel and fire domains of Inexa and Elspia. The constant drone of airplane engines swarming above advertised the sky as the last refuge of the nations standing against the Directorate.
A cluster of women and children dressed in colorful draped clothes gathered next to a signpost and their gestures told Azarola that they were debating over which way to go. He noticed the familiar structure of their faces and the tone of their bronzed skin. His gaze shifted to Paetun to compare the resemblance. A woman in a flower-patterned green trimmed with saffron also spotted Paetun and rushed towards him. She spoke with desperate urgency to the white-garbed scholar in a language that Azarola did not understand. Paetun replied to her and gestured with a pointing finger up the hill. He turned to Audra and said, “They are from my homeland. They came from Kurunesos to Karifiga, hoping to gain asylum in Inexa, but Inexa will no longer take refugees.”
“Elspia won’t take them, either,” Audra warned him, “They don’t have the resources to support a flood of people.”
“I know that, but the Elspian embassy might be able to find somewhere else they can go. As things are, they can’t stay in Karifiga and it will take time to arrange for transport.”
Audra nodded her head with closed eyes. “Then help them. I’ll continue with Azarola.”
“Thank you, Audra.”
One of the young girls spent the entire conversation staring up at the tall woman and her eyes brightened at the sound of the aviatrix’s name. “Audra!” She carried a doll sporting a pair of yellow braids and an aviator’s cap. Audra’s breath caught when she recognized her own features in the toy. For the first time, Azarola saw Audra struggle with doubt and discomfort as the towering woman shifted her weight and her eyes desperately searched the horizon. Turning her attention back to the little girl, she offered a small coin. After a moment of hesitation, the girl accepted the gift with a beaming smile. Paetun gathered up the group and escorted them further into town.
“That was kind of you, bosslady,” Azarola remarked with a crooked grin.
She solemnly watched Paetun lead the family up the hill. “She lost her home. Everything she knew is gone. Now is a time where a little kindness is most welcome.” A crease formed between her eyebrows and her eyes became glassy. A deep sigh heaved in her chest. “She still has her family. Not all is lost.” Audra’s jaw firmed and she drew her shoulders back as the cab arrived. “Let’s go.”
At the airport, Audra filled out some paperwork before she escorted him to her waiting aircraft. Azarola looked up at the chipped crimson paint of Audra’s biplane. Staggered wings and a sleek nose gave the machine a predatory air. His gut gave another warning pang and grumble. “How fast can this thing go?”
“Top speed is one hundred and ninety five knots,” replied Audra, “Despite being a few years old, she’s still a knot faster than anything in the Inexan air force.” Her gloved hand caressed the thin metal shell. “Still the glory of Elspia and the bane of dragons.” She gave the machine a couple of fond pats. “For now. By this time next year, she’ll be outclassed, but she’s served us well.”
Audra hoisted Azarola up to the rear-facing tailgunner’s seat and he awkwardly clambered into the plane. As he used his hands to adjust his injured leg into a comfortable position, Audra vaulted into the pilot’s seat and lowered her goggles over her eyes. “Is your cane secured?” she asked over her shoulder.
He slid the length of sturdy wood into the loops of a sheath meant for a rifle. “Now it is,” he answered. A familiar weapon rested within the leather case. “An Inexan submachine gun?”
Audra paused her preflight checks and twisted about in her seat. “Ah, yes. That was still strapped to you when we brought you on last month.”
“Is it still loaded?”
“The magazine didn’t fit into that holster, but Paetun slid it inside separately after clearing the chamber. I believe it still contained cartridges.” She continued to prepare for takeoff. “Fasten the harness,” the aviatrix ordered, “If you need goggles, there is a spare pair in the compartment in front of you. As we climb in altitude, the air will get colder, but we shouldn’t experience anything concerning on this journey.”
The rumble of the twelve-cylinder engine vibrated through his seat, drowning out all other sound. The red biplane taxied onto the airstrip, following the guidance of the ground crew. Azarola cringed against the rough ride as the aircraft gained speed, bouncing ever more violently until it suddenly smoothed out. Peeking over the edge of the passenger pit, he saw the ground blur underneath him and grow more distant. The wind roared past his ears and he felt his gut drop and his heart skip at the sight of retreating earth. They rose above the olive trees at the end of the airfield and the pastel painted buildings of Kertyra. The ocean soon gleamed underneath them with tiny white lines marking the wave crests. Seagulls wheeled through the air under the painted wings. The air cooled as the biplane rose into the clear blue sky and Azarola closed his jacket.
After a while, the endless expanse of the sea lost his attention and Azarola settled in for the long flight. Just as he was comfortable enough to nap, the biplane bounced violently in the sky. His knuckles turned white and pressed into his seat. “What happened?!”
“Turbulence,” Audra answered, “Just some rough wind. It’s nothing to worry about.”
It was a few hours before the rocky coast of the island nation of Elspia passed underneath them. Golden fields stitched together by verdant hedgerows spread across the earthy canvas, speckled with trees and livestock. Tiny villages clustered along thin roads. The air carried a sweetness of green and growth that Azarola never before knew he missed.
Soon, the pastoral landscape gave way to a dense metropolis. Magnificent stone buildings reached into the sky over the sprawling city. Elegant spires and artful towers trumpeted Elspia’s wealth and pride. Below, automobiles crisscrossed the neighborhoods on wide paved roads. Electric lights covered the commercial districts, all clamoring for the eyes of customers. Azarola spotted open plazas teeming with people, beckoning him to a past life. The campuses of the stately University of Elspia splashed green spaces amongst the dignified academic halls.
The harbors seemed strangely empty for a nation once known as a naval power. He heard Audra’s voice, but not her words, as she communicated via radio with the airport’s control tower. All around, aircraft of many shapes and sizes soared through the sky. Elspia abandoned her mastery of the seas to rule the skies in the face of the Directorate’s threat. A massive single wing cargo airplane took off from the military airfield, four engines powering it into the sky. Even Audra seemed impressed by the size of the craft. “New freighter,” she shouted to Azarola, “I didn’t think it would be in service so soon.”
The biplane circled the busy airfield a few times before Audra oriented to the landing strip. The wheels touched down on the earth and the rough vibration of the ground shuddered through the machine. The ground crew guided Audra to the space where she parked. The engine quieted and the propeller slowed. “Welcome to Delderys, capital city of Elspia,” she announced to her passenger. After taking his cane, Audra helped Azarola to the ground. He leaned on the wooden stick heavily as he regained his balance and footing.
The ground crewman saluted to Audra as she approached him. “Welcome home, Lady Audra,” he greeted with a grin.
“Enough with the silly titles, I have a proper rank,” she retorted with a tint of humor to her exasperation, “But thank you for the warm welcome. My passenger is crippled and I have taxed his endurance enough on this journey. Please call for a car to take us home. While we wait, I require the use of a telephone.”
“Yes, sir,” the crewman replied before leaving to fill the order.