Sunlight glinted brightly in the heavily scented air, rising high over Twist’s shoulder, prompting him to adjust his black silk top hat so it cast a shadow over his pale, fine featured face. The well-tailored, black and blue accented coat that a pirate had given him in Hong Kong, was of a light enough fabric to be comfortable even in the warmth of India. His electrically powered silver and black walking stick made a pleasant click as it struck the ground in time with his steps and made it much easier for him to feel like a gentleman, no matter where he was.
Walking with Myra and Jonas through the semi-European styled, wide, and straight streets of Bombay, Twist finally got his mind into some kind of order. Although the buildings were of a familiar design to Twist’s eyes, with three stories each and a generally square appearance, the shop on the ground floor of each one spilled onto the street under cloth awnings in a seemingly disorganized and highly foreign way. The innumerable people walking by looked no different from those in the bazaar, and were a constant reminder that he was far from home.
As they walked through the crowded streets, Jonas kept his gaze solidly on the ground, rather than accidentally catch anyone’s eyes. Myra’s metal fingers still curled through Twist’s, as if forgotten, as they walked and talked together under the occasional shade of palm trees planted along the streets. Through constant force of will, Twist managed to hold his own thoughts and emotions in the forefront of his mind despite the effects of her touch on his Sight. Twist was certain that he could learn to stop losing himself in her every time they touched—if he practiced diligently.
The three soon came to the imposing gothic facade of the Victoria Terminus railway station in the center of the city. The enormous building, so recently finished in honor of Queen Victoria—the Empress of India, as she liked to be called—reminded Twist of drawings that he had seen of French palaces. There were two huge three-story wings that opening out around a plaza before the central face of the building. A single gray stone dome rose above the entrance, simply covered with statuary, stained glass, and gargoyles. The proud figure of an ancient god stood in white stone on its zenith. Above and behind the station hung the massive cloud of docked airships, all moored along the edges of the top floor ramparts.
Seeing such a sight in the center of a bustling city half way around the world from London, Twist allowed himself a moment of quiet patriotic pride. Jonas glanced up at the building before he pinned his eyes on the ground again.
“You know,” he said as he took the lead, heading for the airship docks, “all this cocky colonizing is going to turn around and bite England in the rear one day.”
“How?” Twist asked as they walked into the cooler air inside the stone building and began to climb the stairs. “We have the widest sweeping empire the world has ever seen. The sun never sets on it, after all.”
“Oh really?” Myra asked with great interest. “It’s that big?”
“You know what they say about big things falling harder,” Jonas replied. In the distance, a train whistle echoed off the stone, steel, and glass of the train platforms below them.
“What have you got against your homeland, anyway?” Twist asked sharply.
“My homeland is the sky,” Jonas answered with a smile as they reached the third floor and walked along the crowded open ramparts toward the docked Vimana, near the end. “All I ever got from England is my accent and a handful of ancestors.”
The Vimana hung in the air beside the docks like a storm cloud. The large, three-level hull seemed to absorb all the color around it into its gray wood, while the enormous gray balloon above shaded it from the sun. The lay against the stone ramparts, inviting them back aboard, beside a number of large crates that hadn’t yet been loaded.
“Someday,” Twist said to Myra softly, as they came under the shadow of the Vimana’s balloon and flanking wing-like sails, “he’s going to realize that he’s just as much an Englishman as I am. I’m sure it’ll give him quite a fright.” Myra giggled behind a hand, drawing’s Jonas’s suspicious attention as he reached the gangplank.
“Get back!” a voice hissed to them as a hand covered in black cloth snatched at Jonas’s arm. Aazzi Rodés pulled him behind a tower of large wooden crates to the side of the gangplank, and hurriedly gestured for Twist and Myra to hide as well.
“Ow, ow!” Jonas winced and pulled at the vampire’s talon-like grip. “What’s goin—“
Aazzi spun him around in an alarmingly fast movement and held him tightly from behind with one hand over his mouth and another pinning his arm to his stomach. His eyes opened wide in shock as she turned her mouth close to his ear. He let out a muffled sound and struggled to free himself, pulling at her immobile grip with his free hand.
“I’m not going to bite you,” Aazzi spat impatiently on a hushed voice. “Now be quiet.” She looked to Myra with silver eyes, from the darkness of her shaded face, under the red shawl of silk over her head. “You’re in trouble, little one.”
“What? How?” Twist asked quickly.
“There are Rooks on board, talking to Howell,” Aazzi said. Jonas reached up with a finger to tap on the hand over his mouth. “Are you going to behave?” Aazzi hissed, turning her voice to his ear. Jonas’s body shuddered visibly and his eyes flinched closed, but he nodded. The instant Aazzi released him, he moved well out of her reach to stand on the other side of Twist.
“God you’re terrifying!” Jonas whispered harshly through clenched teeth. He rubbed at his neck, where her breath had been. Aazzi smiled at him slightly. “So, why are we frightened of magpies, then?” he asked her quietly.
“Rooks? Magpies?” Twist asked. “Why are we talking about birds?”
“Rooks, not magpies,” Aazzi amended quickly to Twist.
“Oh, so it’s just one kind of bird, then,” Twist said, starting to feel his level of annoyance rise quickly.
“Shut up,” Jonas said, holding a silencing finger before Twist’s face as he spoke to Aazzi. “So, there are mags on the ship. What of it?”
“Howell registered a ‘life-sized clockwork puppet’ as belonging to him, when he brought the British navy to Indonesia to catch Quay,” Aazzi explained quickly. “Apparently, the Rooks saw the report. Now, they’re here for Myra.”
“Shit,” Jonas hissed darkly. “Would Howell sell her out from under Twist?”
“What?” Twist snapped. A jolt of Myra’s fear crept through Twist’s Sight as she wrapped both of her hands around his arm.
“Would he have a choice, is a better question,” Aazzi said. She offered Twist a calming smile. “We all got paid well enough when we claimed the reward for Quay. Howell and the rest of us can see very clearly how important Myra is to you. We wouldn’t take her from you.” Twist nodded quietly, patting at Myra’s nervous grip. “Howell might try to lie about her to the Rooks,” Aazzi said, looking back to Myra, “but if they see her…”
“We have to get out of here,” Jonas said to Twist, his tone now startlingly serious.
“We’re not actually talking about birds, are we?” Twist asked slowly.
“Go to this cafe, and wait for me,” Aazzi said, handing Jonas a small slip of paper. “If it’s clear, we can come back together. If not, we can figure out our next move. Either way, wait for me to tell you what the situation is before you act,” she added pointedly to Jonas.
“Sure,” Jonas said, nodding.
“I mean it, Jonas.”
“I get it,” Jonas snapped. “We’ll wait for you. Now go and figure out what’s going on, will you?”
Aazzi seemed to accept his promise, and turned to glance around the crate before walking around it and onto the Vimana. The moment she was gone, Jonas nodded for Twist to follow him and turned to hurry farther down the ramparts behind the shelter of clustered piles of cargo. When they were a good distance away, he stopped, took a steadying breath, and then quickly looked over the people around them: aeronauts, merchants, passengers, dock workers, and disguised pirates wandered among their own business, all along the ramparts and docked ships. Jonas snapped his eyes closed and leaned back against the wall of the building to take a breath.
“Not a mag in sight,” he said. “We’re safe for now.” Twist took a quick glance as well, not seeing a single feathered creature anywhere.
“What is going on, Jonas?” Twist asked. Beside him, Myra continued to hold to his hand tightly, sending a pulsing throb of worry wafting through his skin.
“It’s a really long story,” Jonas said, looking to him. “Basically, it’s a huge secret society of people who steal strange or dangerous technology and remove it from the general populace. They say it’s so it can’t hurt anyone, but we all know their game. They always go for things that might cause more harm than good, like weapons or time machines.”
Jonas waved his words away. “Like I said, it’s complicated. They also try to police any magically inclined people, and generally cause strife and misery to anyone who they don’t count as ‘friendly.’ They’re a damned bloody nuisance and we do not want them interested in Myra.” Myra gave a soft, nervous sound. Twist grimaced against her fear.
“What can we do about them?” Twist asked quickly.
“Not a lot, if they’ve got our scent,” Jonas said darkly. “Mags—“ He stopped suddenly. “Rooks, I mean, have a lot of money, a lot of power, and all of the dangerous items that they take away from people. They also have the best information network on the planet, and people stationed all over the world.”
Twist nodded, listening, and willed himself not to panic. As he struggled to control his thoughts, a stray question slipped through his grasp. “Any reason for the obsession with birds?” he asked.
Jonas gave a sigh. “They call themselves ‘Rooks.’ It’s probably because those birds are supposed to be mysterious, intelligent, and can predict death and whatnot, but the rest of the world calls these people ‘magpies’ behind their backs because they tend to steal and hoard all the best stuff. And it’s usually bad luck to see them unannounced.”
“They sound like something I should have heard about.”
“They don’t interact with the normal world,” Jonas answered Twist. “You only see them when you get close to weirdness. But, once they appear, they have a tendency to take control. If they decide that Myra is high enough on the freaky scale—“ Myra’s face took on an affronted expression. “Not that you are, of course,” Jonas amended. “We know that you’re as harmless as a kitten. But if they decide to say that you’re dangerous, that would justify taking you. And there’d be no way for us to stop them.”
“Taking her where?” Twist’s fingers tightened unconsciously on Myra’s.
“There are rumors of stockpiles all over the world, but no one has ever found them. And believe me, plenty of pirates have tried. We only have two options here,” he said, holding up a finger for each one. “One, we find some ridiculous way to prove to them that she’s harmless enough to leave alone. Two, we run and hide and hope they never find us.”
“Which one’s better?” Twist asked.
“Neither,” Jonas said with a sigh. “They could both fail and then we might never see her again.” Myra gasped and Twist felt a fresh rush of fear burn off of her. “But if we try to run and they catch us, then we can always try to convince them as a backup plan.”
Twist could already feel the future spinning wildly out of his limited control. He took a breath and tried again to calm his fears. “There has to be something else,” he said. “I only just put her back together, for goodness sake!”
“I’m telling you right now, I had no idea they’d go this far out of their way for her,” Jonas said a little more gently. “Sure, they might be interested out of curiosity if we went and told them about her. But the fact that they came here without being called proves that they already think she’s valuable.”
“But she’s not just some … thing,” Twist said, finding the very idea offensive. “She’s a person. They can’t imprison her, can they?”
“Oh yeah, easily,” Jonas answered with a nod. “Hence the problem.”
“So, we’re going to wait for Aazzi to return with good news, then, are we?” Twist asked on a heavy breath as he tried to accept this new reality.
“Does that sound like a good idea to you?”
“But you promised.”
Jonas gave a mirthless snort of a laugh. “To hell with Aazzi. We were going to run away anyway. Now we’ve got even more reason to do so, immediately.”
Twist felt as if the ground was turning and shifting under his feet. Things were changing so quickly it was making him dizzy. “But the plan was to advertise and let Myra dance for the masses. We can’t exactly do that if we’re trying to hide.”
Jonas pushed himself off the wall and stepped closer to Twist, staring into his eyes while his own took on a stony, dark purple color. The deep, constant buzzing sensation at the back of Twist’s neck grew more noticeable under the pressure of Jonas’s Sight. “Would your world continue to turn if they stole Myra away from you?” he asked, his voice even but unkind.
“No,” Twist answered instantly, glancing away to dim Jonas’s ability to use his Sight against him. The buzzing at his neck itched and burned, making it hard to think of anything other than looking back into Jonas’s eyes. Twist closed his eyes tightly and forced himself not to relent.
“I don’t want to live with a hollow shell of you,” Jonas said, crossing his arms. “And what about you?” he asked, as Twist felt his heavy gaze turn away. He glanced up to find Jonas now looking at Myra with the same deep purple eyes. “Do you want to be taken away from Twist?” he asked her.
“No, never,” she responded just as quickly as Twist had.
“Then what choice have we got?” Jonas asked them both. “We can figure out the details along the way, but right now, all we can do is run.”