“She’s a real beauty. I bet you can’t wait to take her up.”
Aware his grin ran from ear to ear, Rat ran a calloused palm over Independence’s helm. He had far too much excitement and pride coursing through his veins to keep a sober expression. It had taken five long years of intense labor to finish his airship, Independence, so for this one brief moment Rat was going to let his innermost feelings of pure joy show through. There would be time enough to act in the way he figured a serious commander should.
The commander of his own airship. Damn. Five years ago he had been chasing rats, doing his damnedest not to starve to death. The young man he had been back then would never have imagined the future he had achieved by pure dumb luck, and blood sweet and tears of course. He had come such a long way from that beaten-down, starved boy. But what if, after doing everything to captain his own ship, he failed? That thought soon sobered him. There were a million-and-one things that could go wrong up there in the sky and hadn’t his father always called him a loser? To hide this sudden rush of nervousness, Rat brushed a handful of long, brown braids back off his shoulders.
No. His father wasn’t going to win. Not today, not when Rat had the whole world in his hands. That man and the boy he had been were now long dead. Rat refused to let his father decide his future for him, so, as a simple act of defiance, Rat let his feelings of pride return. With this beautiful ship under his command there was no way he could ever fail.
“She’s everything I thought she would be and more. I’m so grateful that Harmony took me under her wing and taught me everything she knows about flying. I can’t wait to get Independence up and finally carry my own weight around here.”
Griffin lowered a large, powerful hand onto Rat’s shoulder. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve always done more than your fair share of helping around the homestead. It was a lucky day when Harmony brought you here.”
A feeling of shame washed over Rat and he hung his head. “She’s never completely forgiven me for trying to steal Airus, and probably never will.”
His good friend’s deep throaty laugh rumbled across the deck of Independence and Griffin slapped him soundly on the back. “Well, at least she doesn’t bring that up as much as she used to. I’m hopeful my dear wife will forget that minor mishap before one of you dies.”
Both of them looked over at the brown wheat fields, stretching out toward the homestead. It was a beautiful sight, one Rat didn’t think he would ever tire of looking at, and he loved knowing that the people living in those small cottages had made him part of their family in spite of his attempted thievery. They were living in a time when such acts often led to a swift and final justice. So, to be taken in and treated like a family member was a rare event and Rat never took his good fortune for granted.
“Harmony can hold a grudge longer than anyone I know,” Rat said, remembering back to when his mother and father had both died the day the airship had appeared out of nowhere. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. When it landed on the riverbank, he had run over to figure out what it was, surprised when a beautiful woman had climbed down, hauling with her two of the strangest creatures he had ever seen before.
It had taken Rat a long time to work up the nerve to climb aboard the airship and an even longer time to work up the nerve to steal it. Knowing nothing about flying, the moment he had pulled up the anchor the wind blew the airship into the nearest tree. That was all the opportunity Harmony had needed to get Airus back. She’d used the tree as a ladder to climb onboard, and without a second thought had knocked Rat out cold. Looking back, he was lucky she hadn’t throw him over the side to his death. The two strange objects Rat had seen lowered down, Boy and Molly, were the ones who had talked Harmony into showing him compassion. It took Rat a long time to understand what a robot was, but somewhere along the way he had stopped thinking of them as objects and as friends.
Griffin grinned. “I know exactly how long my wife can hold a grudge—forever and a day.” He leaned forward in earnest. “But she also has the biggest heart of anyone I know. She helped me when she didn’t have to and then found it in her heart to love me. I admire any woman willing to do that.”
“She does have a big heart.” Rat rubbed on his freshly shaved chin. “I’m surprised she agreed to let Boy and Molly go to Freedom, not without her going along too. It’s just not like her to allow Boy out of her sight for more than a day or two.” Rat slipped into the captain’s seat. It felt like the home he had never had. From hammering the first weathered plank to the last, Independence felt like it belonged to him. He had never owned anything else before in his entire life and couldn’t wait to get into the air and head off to distant places. For the first time in his life, he was going to be in command of his own destiny.
“Speaking of which, I wonder where those two have gotten off to?”
Rat nodded toward the homestead. “Molly wants to check on Storm and Wind, and you know Boy: he’s never three steps away from Molly.”
Griffin leaned against the platform on which the friction engine sat. “It will do them both good to have something useful to do. Remind me to give you the box with the extra screws for Molly. She can lose them faster than Boy can replace them, so keep any eye on her. I wouldn’t want her accidentally losing an arm or leg while you’re gone.”
Rat nodded. “Harmony would never let me live it down if Molly or Boy didn’t come back in the exact same condition they left in.”
Harmony’s husband glanced out at the rolling wheat fields. “Harmony plans to stay around here for the next few months. Heading out with all three children on Airus is like herding a ship load of cats. Besides, she doesn’t want to risk taking them into the Forbidden Lands until they’re old enough to understand its dangers. Wind and Storm can get into trouble here where’s it’s reasonably safe, but taking them into the Forbidden Lands would be a disaster.”
Griffin patted the shiny black case of the friction engine. “It takes some worry off of our shoulders now that Independence is finished and you’re able to take the wheat out to our usual trading areas. It gives Harmony a chance to stay here, so we can give Tinker and Mary some much needed help in the fields. They’ve never complained about the workload but it’s easy to see that things don’t come as easy to them as they used to.”
Rat stood and motioned to starboard. “I’m going to go see what’s keeping Boy and Molly. You don’t think they’ve changed their minds do you?”
Griffin laughed. “They’re probably trying to figure out a good spot on here to stow away the children.”
The two men exchanged worried looks before chuckling.
Griffin slapped Rat on the shoulder again. “We’d better go see. Harmony would kill us both if Wind and Storm went missing.”