Long-time no post. Sorry for the long break. Things have been a bit busy with finishing the last edition of Cloud Dancer and working on how to digitally paint and design covers. For those of you that are interested, I should have the book out on Amazon as a Kindle Unlimited before Christmas. I debated going through D2D again, but for the initial release, I’m going to try this route this time. Depending on the results, I’ll probably do later release on all platforms, but it depends on the results. After all, even authors need to eat. So, here is the cover and the first two chapters to hold you over until it is out. Cloud Drifter Teusren the 32ed of Argoth Year 837 of Revana “Remind me why I ever let you talk me into this?” Jesse grunted as he hoisted the hoses over the side of the skiff to trail in the blood-red laced swirling doom of the Eternal Storm, not nearly far enough away, below. There were only two of them in the light skiff, and it wasn’t because Spira crystal syphoning was a two-man job. In fact, they were breaking several laws and worse Taboos by engaging in it at all. Hence why they were out here in the dark, lurking around in the shadow of one of the low flying islands which was on its death drift. “Because you needed the cash,” Ben replied lazily from the tiller of the skiff, keeping them clear of the poisonous exhaust from the Storm they were leaving in their wake as the old steam pump wheezed like an asthmatic cat with a hairball in a catnip field, drawing the toxic soup from below and passing it through the catch. The soft tinkling sound of Spira crystals falling into the catch pan was music to their ears and Pel in their pockets. If they lived long enough to collect it. Even for a scoundrel like him, this was not a career, but a desperate gamble and Ben’s eyes never stopped scanning for ripples and other signs of a rise. Spira crystals were the lifeblood of the world. They literally kept the world floating. Most of the time you were supposed to mine them from one of the deserted rocks, but that was hard and dangerous work; not only did you have to dig for them, but you also had to worry that the next one you removed would send the rock you were on on a one-way trip into the Eternal Storm. And even with all that risk, the crystals usually weren’t high grade. Easier was what they were doing, but it was illegal for a good reason. The denizens of the Eternal Storm didn’t take kindly to those from above mucking up their domain. If a Kraken or Wyvern rose to meet them, they might be able to run away or beat it off with the swivel cannons, but if one of the others showed up, all they could hope for would be a quick end and to give it indigestion. “Right. The cash.” Jesse listened to the light tinkling as the hopper filled and focused on the Pel each clink represented. Tiamat’s Pestilence had hit his family’s farm hard just after what had looked to be a bumper crop when the government assayer had passed through, but before they could harvest it. Leaving them with only a pittance of their harvest. Worse still, the losses in their Rasp fruit orchards wouldn’t be recoverable for years, and their fields were going to need to be cleansed and replanted. Usually, they could have hunkered down and made it, but with the war on between the Orlan Federation and his own Salicia of the Russo Republic – and the Draft tax it entailed based on what the assayer had seen which couldn’t be adjusted, they had to either pay or provide the Draft to cover the tax. His family owned a good size chunk of land, but they weren’t a large family. There was only him, his brother, two sisters, and his mother. The war wasn’t going well, so if his brother and him went, it was doubtful they would ever return, and even the two of them wouldn’t have covered the tax which left his elder sister to make up the difference as a “support” troop, and the things he had heard about what was happening to the female draft as the war grew darker made his blood run cold. Unfortunately for common decency, they were one of the few backwaters as yet not fully engaged in the fight and that meant the garrison was made of the slimiest sort of weasels who were bound and determined to stay out of the fighting and were therefore highly motivated to provide the warm bodies needed at the front so as not to be called up themselves. They couldn’t draft beyond their draft quota, plus the few daft volunteers who still trickled in, but they were real sticklers for catching everyone that they could. Jesse adjusted the hose, prayed, and listened to the tinkling in the pan. Two hours, two kilos of Spira crystals split fifty-fifty, and my family will be safe with a little bit extra to help us get back on our feet. That is if Ben can sell them for what he says without getting caught. Not that any of this will be a problem for me if one of the lower creatures should take offense to our trespasses and end our worldly concerns. “Stupid, pointless war. Why can’t they see that we never stood a chance! All they are succeeding in doing is reducing us to poverty before the Orlandans gobble us up. Stupid Tiamat,” he grumbled, earning a withering glare from Ben, which he rightfully deserved. Siphoning was bad enough without dissing on the big’uns where they might hear you. Tiamat usually stayed in the Storm, or on the mythical lower lands, if you believed the loons, but one of the recent air battles had been closer than anyone had liked and when one of the ship’s magazines had the sheer gall to explode after the whole ship’s crew had already died to the Eternal Storm’s poison, Tiamat had made her ire known by wiping the skies of over half of the remaining vessels, most of them Russo, and spreading a path of crop-killing pestilence across the island as she overflew it. Ben had been born to this life, but, as a local, he understood Jesse’s angst well enough. But that wasn’t reason enough to be stupid, and there were some things you just didn’t do in this line of business. The Lawless Laws for the Lawless of the Skies were hard and uncaring, but they were the laws, and they were there for a reason. He was about to rip into Jesse when a ripple in the clouds below and almost out of his periphery caught his eye. Jesse started to say sorry, when he saw Ben’s head whip around so fast it should have cracked like a whip as he stared into the swirling abyss beneath them, and his blood ran cold. “I’m so sorry,” he blubbered, but a warning glare from Ben made him shut-up right quick. “Watch the clouds and draw in the hoses. If you see anything rise, cut them loose, and pray it’s only a Kraken!” Jesse set to work as quickly and as quietly as possible, killing the pump – which seemed almost a mercy after an hour of its retched hacking – and started reeling in the hoses. The hopper wasn’t as full as he would have liked, but, if they lived, it was going to have to be enough. Worst case, I’ll go to cover the difference. It’s what I deserve for breaking the law anyway. He leaned out to grab a hose as it spooled only to freeze, seeing something in the dark depths below them. The night was deep and eerily cast with only the faint red and blue light of Salis and Bathor in the night sky, so it was hard for him to make out what he was seeing. Ben saw Jesse freeze and knew they were both dead men, but that didn’t mean he was one to go down without a fight. He rushed for the swivel and readied to give whatever came their way a one-kilo pinprick. He swung it around, tracking where Jesse was pointing as his finger tensioned the trigger. Jesse pointed at the… “I think it’s a boat!” Ben almost pulled the trigger as Jesse spoke, but his finger stopped a half gram short of sending a kilo of death through the small dinghy bobbing on the edge of the Eternal Storm. He carefully pulled his finger away from the trigger before letting out a jagged breath, taking a long look at the tiny dinghy bobbing beneath them. “So it is,” he agreed, looking around for any signs of where it may have come from. Except for the battle, he didn’t know of any ships going down recently. What’s more, they didn’t even carry dinghies, which were only used close to islands. “Throw the hoses back out. Since we are going down there anyway, we might as well risk a deep siphon while we are at it.” “We’re going down there?” “Of course, we are. There might be someone alive, but if we dawdle, they won’t be for long. The dinghy’s Liftrig or Charger must be about shot for it to be floating that low. I may be a smuggler and work outside the law, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart. We are going, so pitch the hoses and let’s be about this!” Ben scowled, not having the time to give him a proper browbeating. Cowed, Jesse did as ordered, praying the whole way while listening to the quickening of the tinkling in the pan as they neared the edge of death. The keel hummed as it brushed against the Spira rich and deadly clouds of the Eternal Storm as they bobbed next to the dinghy. Ben quickly tied off the dinghy with a tow line and jumped across. The dinghy rocked lightly beneath his boots and sunk deep enough into the clouds to allow a little spillage, causing his skin to burn and itch. Moving quickly, he searched the boat from stem to stern. Except for some rags and a small bundle near the rudder, it seemed empty. Given the shattered stays and planks, it was clear that the dinghy had gone through some rough stuff before getting here, but there was nothing to say where it had come from or what had happened to it. It was less than he had expected to find, but it would make a good cover for what they were doing here if anyone happened across them. As he turned to jump back across, his hip bumped the bundle. A single squall of protest broke shattered the night. Jesse’s heart thundered as the indignant squawk added to the wheezing of their pump. “There’s a baby in those rags,” he stuttered, deeply ashamed that he had suggested they just cut and run. Ben crouched and opened the bundle, revealing a round, slightly drawn face with deep frowning brows set over jade green eyes laced with silver flecks. The frown held for just a moment, before the baby’s face split into a gurgling smile as the tightly wrapped bundle wobbled back and forth. Ben’s almost smile changed to a frown as he realized how much of a problem they had landed in. His grimaces only encouraged more gurgles from the stowaway, each one raising his anxiety. He gathered the bundle and passed it to Jesse. “Find somewhere secure to stow this.” Jesse took the baby while Ben hopped back over and pushed the dinghy free to drag on the tow line. “It’s a baby. Not a this,” he scolded, wiggling a finger in front of the baby’s face and making little cooing noises. “Stow that for the moment. Right now, it’s a noisemaker, and we need to be gone. This whole thing gives me the creeps. That boat was damaged in a battle but it ain’t from around here; the lines are all wrong,” Ben explained, flipping a bullet he’d fished out of one of the planks to Jesse as he went back to the rudder and fed the small steam prop some power to pull them away from the Eternal Storm. “Put it down and pull in the hoses!” he ordered, getting the feeling that they had worn out their welcome and luck. Jesse scowled. “If anything were around, we wouldn’t be here anymore.” Ben started to retort when the whole skiff bucked. Their forward momentum shuddered to a halt despite the droning efforts of their prop as it labored to push them forwards. They both looked back in time to see an enormous black hand, dwarfing their skiff, reach out of the storm and crush the little dinghy to splinters as a deep basso laugh like boulders being gargled boomed from the Storm and shook the very sky around them. There was only one creature that laughed like that. Knowing they were as good as dead but unwilling to roll over and die, Ben cut the tow line and dumped their steam pressure they had through a nozzle at the rear of the skiff in a last-ditch effort to get clear of Petrov. Jesse fell to the deck as they rocketed up into the sky but managed to land so as not to crush the baby. He could imagine the sound of tendons popping as he watched Ben straining against the logy rudder. The steam poured out for what felt like minutes but was only seconds as they rocketed up and around the small island they had been using for cover. They were still were using it for cover, but now it was in the opposite direction as they drifted up and away from it. The boat drifted to a near stop as their speed fell off, leaving them at the mercy of the winds. “Why are we stopping!” Jesse demanded, looking back at Ben and the island behind them while clutching the giggling bundle close to his chest. The baby, as all baby kind do, had a demented sense of humor. “That little maneuver used all the steam. It will take a few minutes to build a new head and get back underway,” Ben explained, looking behind them. His little trick was great for getting out of tight spots with customs boats and behind cover quickly, but if Petrov wanted them, they were as good as dead. All they could hope was that Petrov had a short attention span today. As if summoned by their very fears, Petrov’s hands lanced out of the clouds, biting into the sides of the small island below them, rending great fissures in the bedrock base of the island. Almost immediately, the island began to sink as The Touch of Petrov befell it. Of all the creatures of the Eternal Storm, he was the most feared. Where the others might bring death or some destruction, Petrov brought doom. His very touch drained Spira energy from the crystals keeping everything afloat, as it was doing to the island sinking below them. That island should have had at least another fifty to sixty-years before it sunk into the Eternal storm to be reborn, but not anymore. As the two men stared, wondering when the hands would return for them, the island disappeared silently into the Storm beneath them. The minutes dragged on in silence, and they both started to smile and relax as it looked like they were going to live. An indignant squall shattered the calm, making them jump as their hearts raced faster than a Rasslebock on a coffee farm. They glared at the wiggling bundle in Jesse’s arms before glancing at the calm clouds beneath them. One island was apparently enough to sate Petrov for now. Coming off the rush, they laughed – only slightly hysterically – shaking with adrenaline crashes that would have made a tweaking chihuahua look steady, hardly believing they were still alive. “Boy must have the luck of a smuggler,” Ben said, acknowledging the baby for the first time as it continued to squawk. “What’s wrong with him?” Luck may have shined on them today, but he didn’t want to push it until they had a full head of steam and many leagues behind them. Jesse frowned, sharing Ben’s wish while he bounced the baby, trying to quiet it, but nothing seemed to be working. “I don’t know…” he started to say when the smell hit him. “Oh. I think he needs his diaper changed.” “Why are you looking at me. I’m a smuggler and cloud hopper. You’re the family man,” Ben argued, but his mind was latching on to other issues, like how the baby had come to be out here in the middle of nowhere with a diaper still in decent shape. Logic demanded that the baby should have been filthy and sopping wet if it had been out here for more than a few hours. He glanced around as his worry mounted, but there were no signs of anyone or anything else in the gloom surrounding them. Jesse frowned, but couldn’t argue with Ben’s logic as he got to the stinky work at hand. There were three heavy thuds in the bottom of the skiff as something fell out of the mummy-like wraps surrounding the baby. Curious and with nothing better to do while they built a new head of steam, Ben came over and picked up the objects. In the soft glow of the steam engine’s fires, he held up two daggers and a small but heavy pouch. “Practical parents,” he mused, checking the daggers. They had an elegant triangle geometry, about thirty centimeters long, and were well balanced for use as a thrusting or slashing weapon. They were also sharper than anything short of a woman’s tongue after catching you with her best friend, and the blade’s black steel with its pattern swirling from within like oil on water made him feel just as queasy as that thought of being that man. He shook off their mesmerizing effects and set them aside to check the hefty pouch accompanying them. Emptying the contents of the pouch, he almost suffered another heart attack as he found three heavy coins. Jesse’s eyes went wide as he looked from his efforts to un-swaddle the baby and lit on the flash of gold in the firelight. “Are those…” he gulped. Ben nodded, shifting the heavy coins in his hands. “Gold. Solid gold Drakkas.” He’d only ever seen one once and never thought he would touch one, let alone three of them. Forget a kilo of Spira; this was enough to live for decades in the lap of luxury. But he knew better, nothing was free, and all things came with a price. For three gold Drakkas, the price was sure to be high. Before he could get too enthralled in daydreams of pleasure, he shifted his attention, almost painfully, back to the piece of paper which had accompanied the coins, knowing that it would name the price and slipped the coins back into the pouch where they wouldn’t distract him as much. To whom finds this, I hope that your reading this means that you found my daughter Delphi well. My people and I are no more, so I can only hope that you are decent people and implore you to bring her to safety. I know it isn’t much, but with this letter, are three Drakkas. I can’t force you to do the right thing, but I ask that you accept two of them to cover the cost of her upbringing. The third is yours, freely given for rescuing her. Protect her. Please, protect my baby, Delphi. Her birthday is the 2ed of Hoden, Year 837 of Revana. Sincerely, Ben tried to make out the name at the end, but the ink was smudged and impossible to read except for the first letter, “Z.” He started to pass the letter over to Jesse to read when Jesse suddenly thrust away from the stinky swaddle and baby. “Sure, it stinks, but it ain’t that bad. I’ve been on whale barges that were worse.” He frowned at Jesse, who was pale white in the harsh cast of the engine and pointing at the baby. He looked at her, it was clearly a her, and just stared for the third time of the night as he saw something that he never thought he would and chewed the inside of his cheek. “She’s going to need a glove.” *** After the events of the night, the ride back to Salicia was boring. Even the typical worries about being caught by a patrol paled against the events of the night. Not knowing the situation or Delphi’s condition beyond the obvious, they quickly stashed their ill-gotten Spira as well as the coins and tied off the skiff at Ben’s hidden dock on the backside of the island before heading to the plain above and their griffins. Town was a hard day’s flight away, but as they said, “best to keep your transgressions a hundred kilometers from the market.” The cover story was that they had “gone hunting,” and Ben tied a few Rasslebock and a Wolpertinger to his saddle to give truth to the lie. As they flew, Jesse pondered how they were going to explain the baby, which was far from the game most would expect them to return with. He was still trying to figure that out when they sighted the plumes of smoke rising from town. Ben guided them in low before landing almost ten kilometers short of town as it became clear that all was not well. Delphi squawked, making her opinion of the delay clear, but fussed remarkably little for how tired and hungry she must have been. They had given her some water, but milk wasn’t the sort of beverage one usually took out siphoning, and he admired her composure and understanding in the face of adversity. “What do you suppose happened?” Jesse asked as they neared his farm. They both agreed it was for the best to stay clear of town until they had a better idea of what was what. Ben shrugged, sneaking a smile at Delphi, before returning to his usual dower frown. “If I had to guess, I’d say an accident or a battle. The smoke seems to be coming from near the harbor and the constabulary, so I’d guess it was the latter.” Jesse nodded his head in general agreement. “If it was a battle, then I guess the question is: Who won?” They both shared the same opinion on that question, but the answer left them both unsure. After all, sometimes the Sobek you knew would bite you if you turned your back to it was better than the Rasselbock that went for the throat when you were sleeping. Ben opened the gate to the Kursk family farm for them and followed Jesse in, making sure to secure the gate behind them and checking the sky and road to make sure that they hadn’t been spotted. Except for some Hippogryphs and what looked to be a Roc in the distance, it didn’t appear anyone had noticed their arrival. He quickly tied off their Hippogryph and headed to the house. Too keyed up, they both jumped as the door to the house flung open before Jesse reached it. They relaxed as Mama Kursk bustled out, but Jesse had to move quickly to keep Delphi from getting crushed by her hug. After several seconds passed, she released him and gave Ben a much cooler nod. Mama Kursk had never much cared for Ben Sheridan, but, just this once, she was willing to let his dragging her son off slide since it had kept him out of the fighting. She knew Jesse had no love for their leaders, but she also knew he would have felt compelled to fight when it came to protecting their home, and she shuddered to think what could have happened to him given the results of the previous day. But she wasn’t about to tell Ben that. She squared her shoulders as only a disapproving mother could and crossed her arms. “You boys had best get inside before you’re noticed and get cleaned up. There is much to talk about!” “Yes, ma’am,” they both chorused, obeying her orders. You could take the boy out of the man, but the whooping lasted forever. “Now that’s an understatement,” Ben muttered, earning himself a smack upside the head as he passed and a curious, if worried, glance from Mama Kursk. Mama Kursk followed them in, her curiosity blossoming as she saw Jesse pawing through her orderly cabinets and pulling out one of the kid’s old bottles that she kept around for when they had visitors and going to the steam fridge to get out the morning’s milk. It was only then that she took note of the wiggling bundle of rags on the table. She rushed over, going full “mommy mode” and scooped it up, brushing the folds aside to reveal the gurgling baby within. “A baby!” she demanded, rounding on Ben as she hip-checked Jesse out of the way and readied the bottle in a one-handed flourish that was pure “mommy magic,” giving it to Delphi who gurgled appreciatively. “What have you involved my son in?!” Ben wiped his brow with a rag wishing he was in a bar brawl instead of here because he would have gotten fewer bruises in the brawl. “Well, you see…” *** It was dark out as the four of them sat around the table in silence. Jesse’s younger brother and sister had made appearances as soon as they realized he was back, but Mama Kursk had quickly sent them on their way, knowing there were some things that you just didn’t talk about around kids. It’s bad enough they know Ben is around. She glared at Ben as he held an ice pack to his black eye. Taniya , Jesse’s older sister, who was of age with Ben, had, invited or not, stayed at the table for the explanation of what had happened to them and to help explain what had transpired here at home while they were away. Mama Kursk didn’t much like her getting involved, for entirely different reasons than the others who were simply worried about her safety. Ben found Taniya unnerving in that she was as beautiful as he remembered, twice as smart as he would even generously call himself, and had a will to be reckoned with. Worse yet, rehabilitating one Smuggler known as Ben Sheridan seemed to be her enduring hobby to the horror of Ben and the consternation of one Mama Kursk. As to why Taniya’s interest in rehabilitating him so disturbed Mama, he was not sure since she had always seemed to be of a similar mind where he was concerned. “So, the war is truly over?” Jesse asked, shocked by the sudden change of their fortunes. Whether it was for the better or worse, was yet to be seen, but where before he was driven to crime to dodge the draft tax, it now no longer mattered. Given the haul they had managed to bring in from their impromptu deep siphon, it could mean a lot for them. There was still the issue of them now being under the “gentle” care of the Orlan Federation, but if even half the propaganda was true, it meant things were probably looking better in the long term. Mama had been right to worry, though. Right or wrong, had he been home when the attack came, he would have went to the island’s defense, and, like most of the constabulary troops and a good size chunk of the militia, he would probably be dead now. The Orlandans may be better than the Russo’s, but they weren’t about to risk their own soldiers in trying to reduce losses by taking it easy on the defenders. “It is for us,” Mama Kursk, replied. “From the little news which has gotten in, the Orlandan broke the Russo’s main fleet when they drove their thrust here. Some of the ships managed to retreat like scared cats on wash day, but no one believes they have any fight left in them.” “Given that the Orlandans cut loose a goodly sized chunk of their fleet to give chase in pairs after the escapees, most will be forced to vent steam and cut their pennants or be lost to the Storm before the week is out. Sadly, given the quality of those who do manage to escape, we will probably be looking at a bit of a pirate issue for the next few years, but that is nothing new for us.” “As for the Peoples Republic of Russo, the war is all but over. If the capital is smart, they will surrender, but if this war has proven anything, it is that our dear and beloved leaders are about as bright as using lanterns in a methane plant.” Her words dripped acid strong enough to reduce the hull of a battleship to sludge. The good men who had been lost, she would grieve, but for their nation, good riddance. “Now, we’ll see if life in the Federation is any better.” Agreeing with Mama’s sentiment, they sat in silence, letting it sink in that the war was over. Delphi broke the silence, giving a little coo in her sleep, drawing their attention to her and the deadly threat that she represented. “What do we do about her?” Ben asked, broaching the topic they had been avoiding. Mama frowned at Delphi, but as she looked at her, she couldn’t help smiling. “The laws and the Taboo, if you put stock in such things, are pretty clear on that: over the edge or to the Constable she goes. But given that you brought her here and your cavalier attitude about the laws, I take it that you have already decided to ignore them?” Ben nodded his head with fire in his eyes. “It’s just not right. She’s a baby, and it ain’t like she’s done anything to deserve that,” he argued, clawing at some vague feeling in his gut. After his father’s passing when he was seven, he’d grown up an orphan and knew how hard that road was even on a quaint island like Salicia. “You read the letter. She ain’t got no one to return to. So yeah, if there is some way that I can manage it, I mean to let her grow up as safely and happily as possible!” Mama was hard-pressed not to laugh at the obstinate pose, Ben struck. “Oh, relax and stop saving spit. It makes you look like you’re four,” she scolded. “For what it’s worth, I agree. But it’s going to be dangerously tough to explain, and we can’t have people asking the wrong questions or even thinking them, because those same laws and the Taboo are clear on what to do with those who are harboring one of the Touched, so we are going to have to keep her left hand covered.” Taniya surprised them all by laughing and relieving her mother of Delphi, holding her to her bosom. “You are all overthinking this,” she said, smiling at Delphi. “You have kept me cloistered in this house and out of the city for the better part of six months for fear of what the troops might do, but that offers us an opportunity.” She smiled and looked across the table at Ben with a wicked gleam in her eyes. Mama Kursk swore under her breath and tried not to feel sick as she realized what Taniya had in mind. She was a good girl, but there were some things about her which Mama would never understand. Jesse, for his part, just looked confused. Rascal Celestia the 37th of Argoth Year 842 of Revana “Come back here, you miscreant!” the Smith yelled as Deft-Hand Delphi Sheridan blitzed around the corner and out into the traffic main. It was Celestia and a slow day, but she still had a few hours left in her penance for “borrowing” some of his tools the week before without asking. He debated chasing her but let her go with a shrug. She’d done better work than most her age were capable of and helped him get a lot more done than he usually could have. She just needed to learn to ask before “borrowing” things. Then again, given who her father was, there was little surprise that she was an irredeemably mischievous sort. Thankfully, her mother tended to balance it out with solid penance terms when she did get caught, and most of the shops had enjoyed her free labor as penance for one thing or another over the years. Delphi knew she should have stayed the extra hour, but the shop was clean, the tools, including the few she had “borrowed” while helping there, were put away, and it was unlikely that there would be more customers today. Everyone knew there were more important things to be doing today than shopping, and she needed to get ready for them. Today was the day the war had officially ended, and they’d joined the Orlan Federation. Some of the old fogies still grumbled about it, but everyone could see that life as an Orlandan subject was far better than it had been under the PRR. Not that she could compare the two since she had been a baby in her mother’s arms when the war ended. No, for her, it meant the Alignment Party, and that meant fun. Which, in her informed opinion, was something this rural island was sorely lacking. She might have set a new speed record on her race back to her family’s small repair shop and home, but that was little compensation for the arched eyebrow her mother speared her with as she screeched to a halt like a frog which had just accidentally jumped into a sleeping Sobek’s mouth. “A little early today?” Mama Taniya asked from the entry to the boat bay where she was bouncing the newest baby in their family on her hip. “Gregor must be getting soft in his old age if he’s letting trouble like you sway him.” Delphi did her best not to look guilty but knew Mama saw straight through it. It was so unfair that mothers seemed to come with a built-in sensor of some type, which drew them to exactly where you didn’t want them, exactly when you didn’t want them there.“Well, today is the Alignment Party, and it wasn’t like we were going to get any more customers,” she replied, trying to evade answering Mama’s unspoken question. “Hmm,” and an arched eyebrow was all the reply Mama gave her. Delphi’s shoulders sagged, and Mama was hard-pressed to maintain her stern face as she watched her wayward wild child crack. “Okay, I might have assumed that I could leave early. But, honestly, there wasn’t anything left to do, and…” her excuses died off as Mama continued watching her and bouncing Nick on her hip. “I’ll go back and apologize and work the rem..” Mama cleared her throat. “The remainder of the time and some extra,” she hedged, earning a calculating look from Mama but no further correction, “tomorrow.” “I’m sure Gregor will be glad to see you. In fact, he mentioned that if you wanted to, he might consider an apprenticeship,” Mama replied, approving of the idea. “Generator smithing is a highly respectable profession,” she added, watching Delphi closely, her eyes only falling to Delphi’s gloved hand for the briefest of moments. She was used to seeing it, as was everyone in town. They all knew of the “disfigurement” it covered, even if none of them had seen it and how it was a sore spot for Delphi. They all did their best not to dwell on it, but their very lack of paying attention created a stigma which had sadly spread to the rest of Delphi as she became a shadow to them and she had taken to those shadow with an alacrity which made for many a sleepless nights as worry ate at her. Delphi ignored her mother’s glance. “Maybe. But it doesn’t make much sense to choose anything permanent until I come of age. Depending on what Ether I get, what work I should do could change a lot. If I get fire, like dad, then being a Smith might be okay, but if I’m a water Ether like you, it would be tough,” she quibbled, not that she didn’t have a valid point. Please don’t let me wind up as an Earth Ether. Being stuck as a digger or a farmer like uncle Jesse and Gran ain’t my cup of tea. She noticed Mama twitch ever so slightly like all her elder family did when she talked about such things and wondered once again why it was such a big issue to them. Taniya recovered quickly but knew Delphi had noticed. Delphi was sharp as the wind, and little got past her inquisitive and piercing gaze. The silver fleck in her emerald-green eyes had grown into streaks that were either mesmerizing or disturbing to anyone who stared for too long and only added to the mystique around her. It was another sign like her flame-red hair, which showed how she was different not just from the other people in her family but from everyone on the island. She loved Delphi as much as any of their children, and even more in some ways because she was their child by choice, not blood, but she had never been able to work up the courage to tell her the truth about how she had come to them – always vowing that she would tell Delphi once she was older. “You never know, you may be a Cloud Dancer,” she speculated, trying to shift the conversation in a cheerier direction. “Right, like that is ever going to happen,” Delphi scoffed, waving the idea off like a crumb and trying not to look at Mama like she had gone daft. “I could never become one of the Spira users and dance in the sky.” Her voice was bitter while her heart yearned desperately for the impossible. She pointedly didn’t look at her gloved left hand. Someone broken like me could never become someone amazing like that. “You never know.” They were saved from an awkward silence by Daddy Ben strolling out of the slip with a grease rag in his hands and a smile on his lips as he playfully reached out for Taniya. “What did I miss?” “Keep those greasy paws off of me, you scoundrel,” Mama warned, slipping away from him but with a smile and a sway to her hips. “Ooo, scoundrel. I like it. I’ll have to show you how much later,” he warned, bouncing his eyebrows suggestively and earning a smiling scowl from Mama, who pointedly glanced aside at Delphi in embarrassment. “No need to get embarrassed, mom. It ain’t like I don’t know that you two are talking about sex. The walls are thin, and, if you haven’t noticed, there are five of us kids. I figured out what you were up to after helping Uncle Jesse with the heifers when I was three. Have fun with dad tonight, but all the same, I’ll be staying out late,” Delphi assured, slipping past her parents and up the stairs into their home. Taniya blinked a few times while Ben stood there slack-jawed. “Did our daughter just say sex?” “Yes,” Ben replied, pointedly not mentioning how, even if indirectly, Taniya had been compared to a heifer. Some things a wise man, even a reformed scoundrel like himself, didn’t say. “Delphi!” Taniya bellowed. Did she just compare me to a cow! “Jesse is a dead man,” she growled as she marched into the house. “It is time we had a little talk!’ Ben, the wise man that he was, chose the better part of valor and retreated into his shop to clean greasy smudges off his wrenches. There were some talks which dads feared, and that one was almost at the top of the list. Should any of the others occur, well, he still had the old skiff, and, in an endless sky, there were plenty of places to be rid of things. *** The party was in full swing when the Sheridan troupe made its appearance and Jesse Kursk, and his slightly smaller pack, came over. If there was one good result of the losses the male population had suffered during the war, it was the bountiful pickings for those men in good standing remaining afterwards. Jesse, who had weathered it surprisingly well, despite the damage his crops had suffered near the end, had married the mayor’s daughter, who was arguably the second-best looking lady of her generation after Taniya herself. Jesse spread his arms to give Taniya a brotherly hug in time to take a hard-right cross to the jaw that laid him out flat on the cobblestone street to the oohs and ahhs of the spectators. The Kursks and the Sheridans had a well-deserved reputation in town, and watching them was one of the most entertaining parts of any gathering. Jesse shook his head to clear the Wolpertingers running around it and regained his feet just in time to take a left hook from the other direction. He’d halfway been expecting that one and had turned enough to dodge the worst of the damage. Back peddling out of range as he fell, he managed to regain his feet after several more head shakes without further assault. “What was that for?” he demanded, rubbing his tender jaw and prodding his teeth to make sure none of them had been knocked loose. Pam, Jesse’s quite pregnant wife who was thoroughly acclimated to their ways, watched the whole scene with patient amusement. “What did he do this time?” “I didn’t do anything,” Jesse tried to argue, but the conversation had already left him behind like a greasy fry on the pub floor. “Someone forgot to mention that they provided a primer on sex while receiving help with their heifers from their three-year-old niece! Who today informed her parents that the walls are thin and it’s not a secret when we are talking about sex. And, did I mention the heifers!” Pam arched an eyebrow, cocking her head and regarding Jesse with a smile in her eyes as she waited for Jesse to try to talk himself into an early grave. Before Jesse could say something life-threateningly stupid, Ben slammed a tankard of Mead into his gut and whispered, “This is when you say sorry and be glad you don’t have to go to the dentist or the doctor tomorrow.” “Sorry.” “Hmmph,” Taniya sniffed, slipping her arm through Pam’s as the two of them with several of the youngsters trailing behind wandered off into the crowd, chatting like nothing much had happened. Delphi walked over and checked Uncle Jesse in the hip, causing him to slosh his mead. “Don’t feel bad, Uncle. Better someone respectable like you explained things to me than some surly sort at the docks or one of the boys in town,” she gave him a pat on the back and slipped off into the crowd while Ben and Jesse shivered at the thought, sharing a knowing glance. It would be a shame to get any blood in the old skiff if that day ever came, but if it did, they would take care of things as any father should. Or at least any with the means to do the right thing did. Ben was silently happy that there weren’t many of those fathers around, or else he’d never have survived. Ben shook off his concerns and smiled proudly as Delphi was lost in the flow of the crowd. Jesse was smiling too, but Ben had just the thing to set him back into a proper mood. “I don’t know what you are grinning about, your pockets are awfully light for being at a festival,” he observed, beaming with pride at his daughter’s smoothness on the lift. Jesse scowled, reaching for his purse, only to find empty air and a single Pel out of the dozen he had been carrying. “Why that little scamp!” “Makes you proud, doesn’t she,” Ben agreed, clapping Jesse on the back. “Don’t worry; I’ll buy tonight as long as you promise not to tell Taniya.” It was Jesse’s turn to arch an eyebrow. “Oh, I think we can come to an arrangement,” he agreed with a crooked smile that had nothing to do with his bruised jaw. Ben groaned, knowing that look and that it would have been cheaper to pay him back, but that wasn’t the way of things in the family, and he followed along companionably. Delphi watched them disappear off to whatever drink or revelry they were bound to get tangled up with and followed suit, looking for some mischief. After all, she was a Sheridan. The well-dressed gentleman watched it all from the revelry by the bonfire with a wry smile. Delphi found her fun in record time. She had snuck in and scouted out the merchants and their booths and knew right where to go. Usually, she would have waited until the last moment when you could haggle the best deals, and she would come back to do that later, but there were a few items, with the helpful contributions of her uncle, that she didn’t want to miss out on and was willing to pay a little extra to make sure she didn’t. The first tent she hit was the Tinker’s. Seeing as he floated from island to island buying, trading, and selling what he could at markets and festivals such as this, he had a bit of everything. No doubt, he preferred the festivals with their inebriated buyers, loose with their coin and blurry-eyed, which they brought. So, she had no qualms about trying to get a little back from him if she could. Of course, it was purely to keep the scales balanced. Tinker Tran glanced up as the chimes at the entrance rang, surprised as his first customer of the night wandered in so soon after thing had started. His heart and hopes of a juicy sail sank as he saw the five-year-old brush past the curtain. Delphi smiled on the inside as she saw the Tinker’s face fall as he figured that she was only a browsing kid. Perfect. Tran quickly recovered and put on his best face for the little girl. “Welcome, M’lady, he schmoozed, appraising her with a theatrical nod. “Yes, I’m sure I have just the thing for you over here,” he said, gently directing her to the Knick-knacks, gewgaws, and doodads he kept around for the kids to help keep them entertained and maybe draw in their parents to buy something of real value. A Fil earned is a Fil more than nothing, which is what I’ve made so far tonight. Delphi allowed herself to be led, feeding the Tinker’s mental image of her as an unknowing little girl. The kids’ section overflowed with shiny toys and accessories, but nothing caught her eye. When your dad was a semi-reformed smuggler and a grease monkey, you tended to only look at shinies for their pawn value, and this being the kids’ section, that was next to nothing. Tinkers weren’t known for making mistakes when it came to appraising the value of things, except maybe little girls. She was challenged not to snicker as she carefully pawed through the kids’ stuff until the Tinker lost interest. Forgotten, she slowly drifted towards her real goal. Several minutes later, she was at the very edge of what might have qualified as Seven-n-Up goods and was the edge of the tools section. Glancing out of the corner of her eye to make sure the Tinker wasn’t paying attention, she snagged the item she had come for along with a fancy hair comb that was a swirl of iridescent silver that rippled like the wind on a summer morning as it first stirred a mirror pond, for her mom. Now it was time to let the real fun begin. Tran looked up from the spreadsheet he had been perusing, trying to discern where his “fortune” laid. It was a great pastime of Tinkers worldwide, though they all knew they would never be able to tie up their ship and lay down their goods until they reached the age where they could ply their trade no more and returned to the Isle of Aden. But he still had many decades to go, and a customer was waiting.“Ah, managed to find something to your liking, did you,” he smiled at the shy way she held onto the comb. It wasn’t what he had expected her to go for, but who was he joking. No one knew what truly drove the minds and wiles of female kind. Delphi smiled shyly and did a little wiggle like she was working up her courage. She nodded her head and squared her shoulder like a kid trying to copy the manner of their parents. “Yes,” she replied, letting a slight quiver into her voice. “But I fear the price is a little high,” she bravely explained. Tran staunched a chuckle at her admirable show but let a smile slip. Got him. “Well, it is a right nice piece you have there, but I may be able to come down a touch.” He stroked his goatee theatrically. The haggling was the most important and enjoyable part of his job, and it was always fun when he got to help a child learn the art. “Say ten,” Delphi gave him big doe eyes, “okay, fifteen percent off since you are my first customer and such a nice little lady,” he offered, sticking his hand out to shake on it as was his people’s way. A shake was their bond, and he smiled as her eyes lit up with happiness as she set the comb down to shake on it. It was only a fraction of a second before their palms met when he caught the lightning-fast blur of her left hand as it set a match grade set of Spira shaping tools next to the comb as their hands met. “Deal,” Delphi agreed, pumping his hand and grinning like a Drake in the sheep shed. Tran shook his head and smiled. It served him right for being lax.“Well played master haggler,” he conceded, giving her a theatrical bow. “Why thank you, Master Tinker,” Delphi replied as was the custom in these situations. Cheating a Tinker or worse stealing from one was bad juju, but playing one was part of the game. She dug out her coins and dutifully paid the man eleven-Pel and six-Chip while he wrapped her coyly gotten goods and handed her the bundle. She gave him a little curtsy and smile before turning to leave. “A moment Miss,” Tran called, bringing her up short. “It is rare to meet one as cunning as yourself, and I find my curiosity piqued. Might I have your name? I promise to keep it and won’t even warn my fellow Tinkers.” “Delphi,” she answered, smiling as she headed for the exit. “Hollow,” Tran pondered aloud, halting Delphi in her steps. “What?” “Oh, you didn’t know. Your name, it means hollow,” he explained. “An interesting choice by your parents and an old name not often heard these days or in this region. You are the first one I have ever met outside the binds of a book or history. One version says Delphi is a hollow vessel infinitely fillable with knowledge and ability. The other is that she is cursed,” he explained. “In your case, I’d say it’s pretty clear which is the case.” Delphi frowned but nodded her thanks before leaving the shop, her mind turning this new information over and over, distracting her enough that she barely even got a ten percent discount on the remainder of her purchases. It felt like something was cracking inside of her. She had never really thought about it before, but now that she did, it rolled around in her head and stomach like a lead-weighted grinding stone. She had red hair, the red of a thunderhead at sunrise, or more ominously of the Elemental Storm, while her parents had black and blond as did all her brothers, sisters, and even her cousins. For that matter, there were maybe three others, two of them immigrants, touched by the red on the whole island. And now that she thought about it, her name didn’t fit. It wasn’t a Russo name, and it wasn’t like it was some fetish of her parents either since all her siblings, who were all younger than her, did have traditional Russo names; Finni, Alesha, Kisa, Aidan , and baby Nick. And they fit the Salicia look. Stocky men and hardy, if shapely, women. She was only five and already almost as tall as her mother’s one-hundred-fifty centimeters and built lithe with every indication that she was only going to grow taller. Suddenly her shoes didn’t fit so well. Listlessly she wandered back to the main revelry and found a corner out of the way to sit with her thoughts, unsure of what she was thinking or where it would lead her. *** Taniya found Delphi sitting in her corner with dried tear tracks on her cheeks and came over softly as if approaching a wounded animal and not wanting to scare it off. Gently, she sat next to her. Delphi was too strong-willed to accept her being overly motherly. So, she waited for Delphi to share whatever was going on, and if it was a boy or man, then Petrov take them because that would be a better end than what she would give them. Delphi sniffled slightly and wiped her eyes. “I figured it out,” she said, content to wait and see what Taniya would say. Those four words were like a dagger in Taniya’s heart. Delphi may have been born to another lady but was as sure as any of her brothers and sisters, Taniya’s daughter. The very thought that Delphi now felt differently about that was the worst fear she had. “What tipped you off?” she asked, knowing that there was no use denying it. “The Tinker knew the meaning of my name. It got me thinking, and I put together enough of the other pieces to get the picture.” Delphi glanced at Taniya and leaned against her. It felt just as secure and safe there at Taniya’s side as it always had. “I’m a war orphan, aren’t I.” There were certainly enough of those in town, and it would explain a lot. Even more so, given her hand. Some would have passed a parentless baby like her over to the authorities, and the rest would have even gone so far as seeing her over the edge of the island and good riddance. It wouldn’t be so bad if people found out now, but it would still probably get her ostracized. What her conclusion and the facts she knew to be true didn’t answer was why no one else in town seemed to have put it all together. As far as she knew, there was something of a scandal when Ben and Taniya had come forward after the war ended and gotten married with a baby in arms, but everyone had accepted it. “You’re my and Ben’s daughter. Just as much as your brothers and sisters and nothing will ever change that,” Taniya assured, finally putting an arm around Delphi now that she had opened the embrace. “But you’re right and maybe wrong. You are an orphan. According to what we know, your parents died. But we don’t know if it was the war which took them. Given how you were found and your hand, we believe Petrov might have destroyed your home. You see…” she proceeded to tell Delphi about the day she was found and the choices they had made. Delphi listened to it all and felt a weight lift off her shoulders as the unknowing and feelings of being different, which had always plagued her, took flight as did a few leaves around them. It came with new questions, but those were just things to learn, not barriers. She drew closer to her mother and felt the love and security of her embrace. Taniya is right. She may not be my blood, but she and Ben are my father and mother, even more so because they chose to be. She sniffed and pulled back a little so she could see her mother’s face. “Thank you for telling me, Mama,” she said, embracing Mama’s crushing hug. Mama. That simple word melted all the fear and doubt which had weighed down Taniya’s heart. “You’re welcome. But remember, I’m still your mother, and this isn’t going to change how I expect you to treat your father and me or how we will treat you!” she warned but with a smile. Delphi sighed. “Yes, Mama.” “Good. Now, the night is still young, and I for one, have not had nearly enough fun yet. So, for this night only, as an understanding mother, I’m ordering you to go get in some trouble, have some fun, and do the Sheridan reputation proud.” Taniya dragged Delphi to her feet and pointed her in the direction of the celebration. Delphi’s eyes twinkled as the corners of her mouth twitched, earning Delphi the patented Mama Taniya eyebrow. “That is unless you have already started and forgot to mention it…” “Let’s just say that I’m pretty sure dad was buying the drinks for Uncle Jesse tonight.” Taniya debated being upset, but after the heifer incident, she couldn’t work up to it. “That’s what he gets for talking about things he shouldn’t have around cows,” she said, stomping with her hands on her hips and her chest thrust out proudly. The clatter of tripping men and falling glasses that pose induced was a thing of legend. They grinned as the fallen men’s wives and girlfriends browbeat them while the men fumbled to make excuses, all to the hearty laughter of those watching. “Mom!” Delphi giggled. “Those should be labeled as deadly weapons or at least instruments of mayhem and chaos,” she managed to get out between giggles and shook her head. “Nonsense, they’re control stations that turn men’s brains to mush,” Taniya laughingly countered, accompanied by the distinct sound of slaps upside the back of the head, finger waving, and “Ow.” “Now, go have some fun,” Taniya encouraged, shooing Delphi away. Delphi nodded, lunging in to give Mama Taniya a rib-cracking hug and slipping the comb into her hair at the same time before darting off into the crowd. Taniya watched her go, before reaching up to find out what had been stashed in her hair and smiling fondly at the artful comb. “Be safe, my child,” she prayed, slipping the comb back into her hair and starting to head back to the party until she stopped cold in her tracks, noticing the perfect circle, almost three meters around, where the leaves had been pushed back from them. The elderly man resting against one of the barrel tables with a tankard of Ale nodded and made his way over. It was time to work. “I think we need to talk before anything unfortunate happens,” he warned, looking like a jovial elderly man talking to a beautiful lady to everyone else, but his eyes were full of purpose, and there was nothing jovial about his words.