Prelude


“Today’s a bit of a milestone; time to break my record of consecutive days without dying.”

– Valeo Sorte

 

Crouched on the ship’s bow, the final notes of Valeo’s life were spent gaping at the stars. Typical, really. Below his feet, the crew dreamt pleasant thoughts of everything under the moon, oblivious to the quiet plight of their latest stowaway.

Peering over the ship’s railing, he lost himself to the roiling shadows of Darksky miles below. A chill pounded through him that had little to do with cold. By sheer force of will, he turned away, pulse quickening.

They’re coming.

Valeo checked each shoe, running thin fingers along thinner soles for any sign of serious wear. No proper legend snagged a boot on a loose nail and started their story chewing splinters. Fastening the rope around his ankle, he took a deep breath, trying again to feel it, to flex honey heat infinity—his luck. He was a Fleetfoot, so luck should have been his birthright, commanded as easily as skipping stones. But not today.

Sunrise was imminent. A quiet calm had settled around the ship, gliding across the sky. A few clouds whipped underneath, bursting against the hull like dandelion clocks. In that moment, with sweat clinging to the bodice and puffed sleeves of Valeo’s shirt, a strong southerly ruffling blowing strands of crimson and white into his eyes, it was easy to believe the world had vanished and he the only person left alive—a fool worrying over a few coils of rope. A fool muttering lines of a nursery rhyme to himself.

Eleander Ropp goes up. . . up.

Out of luck. Out of options. Out of time. He had to catch an Albatross, had to cast his die on a single jump, one even he might not land.

Valeo sighed. A floating island formed into view, the steady rise and fall of its mass almost imperceptible as the clouds began to warm. A subtle rhythm broke the stillness, easily missed by those not listening for the beat. For a brief moment, the smile that so easily found Valeo’s face was nowhere to be seen.

They’re here.

Tension tugged his muscles into piano strings, his impatience gnawing at the keys. The rope fell forgotten from his hands, anchoring him to nothing but hard hope. A curious mass flickered on the horizon, moving closer to the ever-growing beat of drums. No, not drums.

Wings. Ever-endless wings.

Valeo shook so badly he couldn’t even clasp his hands. Wings became rhythmic roar. There were hundreds—dark russets, bright blues, canary yellows, dusky browns—every color imaginable as far as he cared to see. They fluttered in perfect unison, flowing with a grace and precision he’d never thought possible.

Albatross.

Every breath of his life had been spent striving to attain such levels of perfection. With nineteen years under his belt, Valeo had never even come close. And the noise. . .

Threepwin’s tale was right. It sounds like the hands of gods.

A peaceful intersect between flight of fancy and reality’s grit. Valeo closed his eyes, imagining each galloping heart as it fought gravity’s embrace. A strong breeze played across his face, carrying with it the scent of pine and fish. He lifted his arms and a second of weightlessness embraced him. Eyelids rose, revealing gold desire. All tightness in his body vanished, rocketing down the elastic lines of a simple choice—every ounce of him in its wake.

Valeo’s muscles hummed, his lungs thundered, his stomach sang all the fears he would never admit. It was a song of bone, blood, and sinew, and he was conducting the orchestra.

There were only fifteen feet between him and open air. He, too, was flying now, toes punching out the punctuation of his life on the wooden planks. Hundreds of birds blazed beneath the ship, each the size of a horse, gliding across an azure sea of sky.

Valeo screamed, the sound somewhere between a trill of excitement and a terrible death rattle.

One of the birds called back.

The rail was there, under his foot. He felt the press of wood for but an instant. Flipping forward, his weight carried him into a dive, plunging into a day just awoken. In an instant, Valeo Sorte was gone, the trailing rope flapping in the sunlight, a whooping cry still on his lips.

Time for luck to truly wake up.