It had never occurred to Jessaminica that her clan’s name was either ironic or a simple misnomer. The Patient Hawks were well-named in every respect that counted. Their ground-bound existence did not strike any of them as counterintuitive.
Her remaining family had accepted her decision. They had even helped her to pay her way onto the airship Turlington Wheeze. She smiled, remembering the words of farewell. Bring your husband home someday.
She leaned over the rail, her thick braids whipping in the wind. She nearly had to close her eyes against the strength of it. But even blinking would rob her eyes of too much.
Her mother had not been born one of the Hawks. She had come from a city in the sky. Jess hooked an arm under the rail and leaned out to brush a cloud with her face. Her mother had told her about the world far above the ground. Extensively. Every time, she’d appended it with the claim that Jess would have to see it herself.
“Don’t look down,” a rough female voice warned her.
Although she was not rebellious by nature, Jess found herself looking down out of reflex. The woman, the ship’s own Captain Mary Turlington, laughed jovially and slapped a hand on her shoulder to pull her away from the rail.
Jess gave Captain Turlington a tiny, controlled smile, typical of a Patient Hawk expressing amiability. “It’s lovely,” she said. “Like being a bird.”
This earned her another slap on the back, which jarred her. Clanswomen, like the men, were quiet, determined people. Little was ever wasted, be it water or breath. These air people liked everything loud, big, and excessive.
When they arrived at the pillar city port of Seriaga, this impression was cemented. The sounds of her own body–heartbeat, breathing, even footsteps–were lost in the thick, sweaty crowd of shouting people.
It could have been awful. But Jessaminica Nakkerman was done with awful. There were worse things than body odour and volume.
However, there was no point in exhausting herself. She found a shady spot under an awning and leaned against the wall of an unassuming building. From there, she was free to observe the noisy mess.
Her mother had told her that colours were different in the pillar cities. In Jess’s eyes, they were less alive than her home in the lowlands, but possessed of a variety that could not be rivalled. Even the awning above her, although decorated in a reasonable stripe pattern, contained a mottle of reds, whites, and purples, like banded agate.
The universal spirit of tourism was about to compel her to reach up and touch the fabric when she heard a bang against the other side of the nearby door. The vibration rumbled through the rest of the wall.
Without any conscious thought, Jess melted her body into a fighting stance and slid to face the door as though it were an opponent. The sound had been far too loud and violent to belong to a harmless action or accident. A human cry from within snapped her into a decision.
Her rucksack held few things. She reached over her shoulder and pulled out her most important possessions–a pair of arm blades, short knife-blades mounted on leather bracers. Thus equipped, she shrugged her rucksack back into a comfortable position, and attacked the door.
The air people and their love of excess must not have extended to materials. The door crumbled after a single blow, like dried cheese failing to resist a spoon. A cloud of dust and splinters roared silently into the air, but Jess squinted through it.
Two men were standing over a woman. Her clothes were ragged, and she was weeping. One of them had her by the hair, the dark waves contrasting sharply over the white scar tissue of his hands. Both men stared in dismayed awe at the wreckage of the door.
But they recovered quickly. The one holding the woman yanked her to her feet. The other raised a hand. In the gloom, Jess could barely see light glinting off metal. A pistol.
She leaped forward to slash at his midsection, but he fired the pistol before she could get close enough. The bullet ripped through one of her thin braids, barely missing her ear.
He cocked the pistol for another shot, but Jess didn’t let him take it. Patient Hawks used everything. All of her muscles were focused on fighting this man, stopping further harm from coming to the sobbing woman. She whipped past his second shot and impaled him with both blades. His body jerked as he tried to flail away, blood dribbling down his chin.
The blades came free with a sound that obscured the running footsteps of the other man. The injured man hit the floor, hard. He would live, if care reached him in time.
Jess cleaned her blades and returned them to her pack, then approached the woman. She might have been the same height as Jess, but her body was softer, fuller, as was her dark, wavy hair. Very different from Jess’s tight, numerous brown braids.
She looked up at Jess with bright black eyes. Her face was blotchy from crying, and covered in dirt. But she was clearly beautiful, with high cheekbones and lips like a shortbow. Her breath was coming in gasps.
When Jess held out a hand to her, the woman jumped into her arms. Taken aback, Jess stood still. The woman didn’t stop trembling, even after Jess helped her outside.