Broken Crowns 1
“The city is falling out of the sky,” Professor Leander said. They were his last words. The medicine of the ground was not enough to cure an old man of the sun disease. He refused most of the efforts anyway. He told me that he’d already accomplished what no one else had been able to do. He’d gotten us to the ground. He was quite curious, he said, to know if his spirit would be taken to the tributary, or if he’d go to whatever afterlife the ground believed in, or if there was nothing at all.
Amy was with him when he died, and she called it a peaceful death. A fitting death.
Down a labyrinthine set of hallways in the same hospital, Gertrude Piper opened her eyes after a month of sleep. It was as though the two gods had made an even trade—the life of a man from the sky in exchange for the life of a girl on the ground.
Before that, we all thought that Birdie Piper would die. After I landed in Havalais at the dawn of winter, she was the most vibrant thing in her strange world. She offered her friendship to Pen and me without question; she snuck us through our bedroom window and showed us the wonders of Havalais. The mermaids in the sea. The glittering lights cast upon the water at night. The spinning metal rides in her family’s amusement park.
And then the cold war between Havalais and its neighboring kingdom of Dastor advanced on us all at once, in the middle of the spring festival. I watched as an explosion swallowed Birdie. I saw her body, broken and bleeding and burnt, being kept alive by some coppery machine. Even worse than my brother had been when he’d come too close to the edge.
But nothing is certain, not even death when it’s hovering over a girl. Not in my world, and not in this one. Birdie came back slowly. It took a month for her to open her eyes, and even longer for her to speak, serene in her delirium.
She told us about a spirit that would come into her room late at night to sing to her and to tend to the flowers on the table by the window.
When she had faded back to sleep, Nim slouched forward in his chair and rubbed his temples, anguished. “It wasn’t a spirit,” he told us. “Our mother’s been here.”
Mrs. Piper disappeared some years earlier to see the world. The same madness that brings so many to the edge of Internment haunts the people on the ground as well. One place is not ever enough for anyone, it seems.
It’s August now, and Birdie no longer talks about her spirit. Instead she has returned to solid ground along with the rest of us. She asks her brother about the war. She wants to visit the grave of her other brother, Riles. She is getting well and she is ready to face the grimness that often comes with being awake. She doesn’t wallow in her despair, and does not mind that her soft face has been forever scarred.
Pen is different. She doesn’t seem ready to face anything these days. It has been months since King Ingram left for Internment, taking Princess Celeste with him, and in that time, Pen has been prone to more and more moments of distance. Jack Piper’s guards surround the premises, and we are scarcely permitted to leave unescorted. Not until King Ingram returns with his instructions for us. But every week, Pen gives Nimble a new list of books she’d like from the library. Physics. Calculus. Philosophy. She is drowning in pages and pages of things she never shares with any of us. And that’s when she isn’t off someplace where none of us can find her, even within the confines.
The sun is starting to set, and after nearly an hour of searching, I find her at the amusement park. It would normally be thriving in August, the Pipers have told us, if not for the king’s absence and the war. Now it’s locked. But Pen and I sneak in sometimes.
“Pen?” I step onto one of the metal bars, preparing to climb over the locked fence.
She’s standing high up on the platform with the telescopes that face Internment, and she turns to me.
“What are you doing?” I say.
She shrugs. She presses a piece of paper against the telescope and writes something down, then tucks the paper into her dress. “Nothing. Don’t climb up. I was just leaving.”
She descends the staircase, the steps reverberating under her stacked leather heels that make her taller than me. A girl our age would never be permitted to wear such things back home.
She comes to the fence and grips the bars and leans close, so that her forehead is almost touching mine.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” she says.
“Looking for you. You didn’t come in for dinner.”
“Who can eat?” she says, and hands me her shoes and hoists herself up over the fence. “The food in this place is nauseating. A different animal a night. I’d rather chew on grass.” She lands on her feet with a thud, and goes about straightening her skirt. She takes the shoes but doesn’t bother putting them back on.
I hate myself for trying to smell the tonic on her breath, but it must be done. She finds ways to steal gulps of it. We’ve fallen into an unspoken understanding that I will dispose of anything she tries to hide, and it will never be mentioned.
But if she’s had anything to drink, I can’t tell. Her eyes seem bright and alert when she looks at me. “Has Thomas been trying to find me?”
“Isn’t he always?” I say.
She tugs my hand. “I don’t want to go back inside just yet. Let’s go to the water. Maybe there are mermaids.”
Birdie told us that the mermaids never come close to the shore. They prefer to stay where the water is deep, where they cannot easily be captured or get their hair ensnared on a fishing line. But I don’t mind pretending we’ll spot one. I try to keep pace with her as she runs.
With my other hand I hold my hat to my head. But eventually I let it go, and it escapes. When I’m with Pen, it seems I must always leave some small thing behind.
We are in a valley of green, with shy bright flowers poking their way through. In the wind I see dotted lines. I see red lines and blue lines. I see the maps that my best friend is always drawing as she moves, as she thinks.
“Maybe if we hold our arms out, the wind will carry us up,” she says, and I think she believes it to be true.
Eventually we stop to catch our breaths somewhere along the ocean’s shore. Pen rests her elbow on my shoulder and laughs at my wheezing. I have never been a match for her.
The wind is so loud that I can scarcely hear her laughter.
She drops onto the grass and pulls me down after her. Once I’ve caught my breath, she leans back on her elbows and looks at me. “What is it?” she says. “What’s that worried look for?”
“I don’t like all this wind,” I say, over a roar of it. “It doesn’t feel right.” This time of year is so mellow on Internment. It is surely beautiful back home, the pathways all traced with bright flowers.
“A lot of the breeze comes from the sea,” Pen says. “That’s all.”
“Morgan, we aren’t on Internment. Things are bound to be different. We’ve been here for months. We survived all that snow; this is just a little wind.”
“I know.” What I don’t say is that I’m afraid she’ll be swallowed whole by this whirling sky. This world already tried to kill her once, and Pen is fearless and foolish enough to let it try again.
A flock of birds flies high above us, in a uniform formation. Pen stretches her arms straight up over her head, her fingers arranged like a frame. I rest my head next to hers and try to see through that frame from her perspective.
After the birds have gone, she says, “Suppose Internment were to fall out of the sky.”
“What?” I say.
“Suppose it couldn’t stay afloat any longer and it came down all at once, hard and fast. I think it would coast at an angle, rather than straight down. I’ve been looking at the way the birds come down from the sky, and it’s sort of a sixty degree angle most times.”
“I don’t give it any thought,” I say.
She turns her head in the grass to look at me. “You’ve never thought about Internment falling from the sky before?”
“I have, I suppose.” I stare up at the graying sky, where shades of pink and gold still cling to the sparse clouds. “But more as a nightmare, not something that will happen. I don’t weigh the probability or try to picture what it would look like.”
Pen stares up at the sky again.
“I think it would fall on King Ingram’s castle,” she says. “I think it would kill him and all his men. But the impact would destroy Internment, too. The foundations for all the buildings would shift. They’d likely collapse.”
“Internment won’t fall out of the sky,” I say. I am gentle with her, but firm. I have heard Amy wonder about Internment coming down. I wondered myself, as a child. But Pen is different. She gets ideas like these in her head and they become real to her. She forgets what’s in front of her and sees only what’s in her mind, and just like that she’s lost.
A mechanical growling from somewhere high above us disturbs the tranquil gray sky, and I flinch. Not even the largest beast on Internment could make a sound like that. The sound comes from the king’s jet, descending from Internment for its monthly fuel delivery.
At the start of each month, the king’s jet returns to Havalais to deliver more phosane that it has mined from Internment’s soil. A refinery was built in Havalais to process that soil into fuel. In the mornings when I step outside, I can see the plumes of black smoke billowing out into the air, and sometimes I can smell it, too—like compost and metal.
But in six months, King Ingram has yet to return with his men, and after the delivery is made, the jet flies back to Internment for more. It’s a wonder there is any city left up there at all.
The warring kingdom of Dastor has seen the jet’s comings and goings. Nimble tells us that the war has moved to the home front. Boys even younger than he is are being recruited to fight. If Dastor means to have Internment and its fuel source, it will have to take ownership of Havalais itself.
“It won’t happen,” he’s told us. “Havalais is bigger, more advanced.”
I’m not so certain. I see nothing of the war from the confines of this sheltered world where Jack Piper raised his children, but sometimes when the air is still, I think I hear gunfire.
Pen puts her hand over mine, and I realize that I’ve been holding my breath. I know she’s trying to keep me calm. She has heard me tossing and turning in my bed at night as I worry what news this king will bring when he returns from Internment. Only, I don’t feel worry now. I don’t feel anything, not even the dread that King Ingram usually ignites in me.
“We should go back and tell the others,” I say.
Pen gnaws her lip, and even as she sits up, her face is still angled skyward. “It’s probably just another delivery,” she says, and she is likely right. Five times before this, the jet has returned, and five times we have all waited in silence for word of the king’s arrival, and it never comes.
I pull Pen to her feet, and we make our way back to the hotel, both of us looking over our shoulders as the jet moves at an angle. Like a bird. Like a city falling from the sky.
Basil and Thomas arrive at the front steps moments before Pen and I do. Back on Internment, Pen’s and my friendship was the only bond between them, but since coming here they’ve forged something like an independent friendship of their own, perhaps because if nothing else they have home in common.
They wouldn’t have been able to go very far. Jack Piper has forbidden us to leave the grounds, for our own protection, all on the king’s orders that we are to be kept away from anyone who may have sinister intentions for us now that it’s revealed that we come from the magical floating island above this world. Though, the people of Havalais have more cause to distrust their king than to harm us.
Truth be told, I don’t mind the restriction half the time. It makes me feel safe. Reminds me of the train tracks that surrounded me back home.
Other times, my wanderer’s spirit comes out for a visit and I wonder at when this will all be over.
“We were walking back from the theme park when we saw the jet,” Thomas says. “Did you see it?”
“Yes,” I say.
Princess Celeste became a pawn when King Ingram needed access to Internment. King Furlow up in his sky has only two weaknesses, and those weaknesses are his children. He would allow King Ingram to have anything he asked for in exchange for Celeste’s safe return.
I have worried for her in silence. Pen would be angry if I so much as brought her name up. But I do hope that she’s well, and that her decision making abilities have improved.
Basil’s standing close. His eyes are on me, and whether or not he knows it, he still sets my stomach fluttering.
Another gust of wind comes, and even the fearless Pen hugs her arms across her stomach and shivers.
Thomas frowns at her. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Not all over, clearly, or you’d have found me,” she says.
He stands at a pace’s distance from her, and I can see the worry in his eyes. I can see that he is trying to get a whiff of tonic on her breath. When he can’t find one, he looks to me, and while Pen isn’t watching I give a slight shake of my head. She’s sober.
The jet has quit rumbling in the sky; presumably it has landed.
“Come on,” I say to Pen, and hold the door open. “Let’s see if we can find something in the kitchen you’re willing to eat.”
She follows me into the house, past the smallest Piper children, who are playing a war game in the living room. Annie is a soldier whose legs were blown off in an explosion, and Marjorie is a nurse applying a tourniquet. I have seen them play this game a dozen times, and it is anyone’s guess whether Annie will survive her wounds. Last time, an explosion hit their pretend medical tent and all the nurses and soldiers were killed.
I hate this game, but I think it makes them feel closer to Riles.
Up at the top of the stairs, Amy watches them from between the bars of the railing, not quite ready for human interaction. She has been quiet since her grandfather’s death, and she’s added another cloth around her wrist beside the one meant to symbolize her sister.
“Let’s say I lost my arm too,” Annie says.
“Which one?” Marjorie asks.
“Would you girls like to help me in the garden?” Alice calls down from the top of the stairs. She cannot bear this game of theirs.
Annie sits up from her deathbed on the hearth. “Why do you tend to the garden? We have a gardener.”
“It just makes me happy, I suppose,” Alice says. She reaches the bottom step and holds her hands out to them, and they forget their game and happily follow her outside.
In the kitchen, Pen and I sit at the small table reserved for the maids, and Pen bites into a raw carrot from the cold box.
“I wish you’d stop looking so worried,” she says.
“I can’t play it as cool as you, I suppose.”
She stares at me for a long moment, and then she says, “You’re not the only one who has nightmares about what’s happening back home. Just because I don’t talk about it doesn’t mean I don’t care.”
“I know that you care. That’s what’s so frustrating,” I say. “We’ve hardly spoken in months.”
“What are you going on about ‘we’ve hardly spoken’? We share a room. We speak every day. We’re speaking right now.”
“You know what I mean.”
She takes another bite of the carrot, with a crunch I swear is meant to be pointed. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t entirely trust you with my secrets these days.”
I know just what she means. It has been a source of contention that’s never fully gone away these past several months. She discovered that Internment’s soil contains the very fuel source King Ingram wants for his kingdom, and she confided this secret to me. But after she nearly drowned, I told the princess everything, hoping an alliance could be forged between Internment and Havalais, giving us all a chance to return home.
Instead, King Ingram used the princess as a hostage and has been depleting Internment of its soil as he pleases.
I don’t know the enormity of what’s already happened and what’s to come, but even so I wouldn’t take back what I did. I’m still holding out hope that I’ll be able to return Pen home to her family, to the city that she loves so much that she’s been going to pieces without it.
So I say nothing, and Pen can see that she’s wounded me. “Nim says Birdie has had her last surgery, and can come home soon,” she says to change the subject. “She’ll still be confined to her wheelchair, but I doubt that will last for long.”
I push my chair away from the table. “I’m going to make some tea for Lex.”
“Oh, Morgan, don’t be cross. I didn’t mean it. I’m just on edge because of that bloody jet.”
“I know,” I say softly.
I hope that this time the king has returned, and the princess as well, alive and safe. Whatever news they bring will surely be better than all this wondering and fear.
I don’t know what sort of mood Lex will be in when I reach the top of the stairs, but he’s been especially sour lately. He’s running low on paper for his transcriber, and soon he will no longer be able to spend his days hiding in his fictional worlds.
I knock when I reach his door.
“Alice?” he says.
“No, it’s me.” Back home he always knew when I was the one approaching him, but something about this house and its noises disorients him. “I’ve brought some tea.”
“Oh,” he says, rather unenthusiastically. “Come in.”
He’s sitting in a wing chair near the open window, and the worry on his face mirrors my own from earlier. He doesn’t care for the wind; perhaps it reminds him too much of the edge. “The weather down here takes some getting used to,” I say. I press the teacup into his hand, not letting go until I’m sure he’s got a grip on it.
“I have a bad feeling,” he says.
I hesitate, standing before him, debating with myself whether to tell him what I saw in the sky.
But in the end I’m not given a choice. Even without his sight, Lex is clever at sensing when anything is wrong. “What is it, Little Sister? What’s happened?”
I wring my skirt in my hands. “We saw the jet about an hour ago. Pen, Basil, Thomas, and I. We’ve been waiting for someone to come home and tell us what it means.”
Lex is silent for a long moment. “I heard.” He takes a sip of his tea and then with minimal fumbling he sets it on the window ledge. “So it begins,” he says.
“There’s no need to be so theatrical,” I say. “It may be good news.”
“A greedy king in a wasteland of wealth holds a princess hostage so that he may invade a tiny floating city, and you still think he may return with good news. My sister the optimist.”
I am tired of being called an optimist as though it were a bad thing. Pen has used this word against me as well. “I’m merely trying not to panic, Lex.” I hold myself back from saying anything too combative. I don’t want to fight, and it has taken me so long to stop hating my brother for lying to me about our father being dead. I would like for us to be reasonable with each other.
“Where is Alice?” he asks. Maybe he wants to avoid an argument too.
“She’s in the garden.”
“And she knows about the jet?”
“I told her when we came back inside. We’re all waiting now. Drink your tea, all right? Alice will be up to check on you in a bit.”
As I cross the threshold, he says, “Morgan?”
“I’m only going downstairs.”
“I never know what mad and wild adventures you’ll get off to on a whim.”
I can’t help but smile at the thought. Mad and wild adventures. It’s not something he ever would have accused me of back home, when I was tucked safely in our little floating world.