The raft swayed almost at Mists-level. The shards and pebbles of aerstone studded into its lashed-together wood frame were barely enough to keep it in flight, and the teenage navigator was so exhausted, they could barely manipulate their blade. Their russet head dipped with exhaustion, and the raft dipped too, but the people on board were too worn-out even to gasp. The navigator recovered their wits and cut a quick sigil of loftiness, bringing the raft briefly higher, but it was clear they were almost at the end of their strength.
Then something did awaken the drained emotions of the passengers. A cry went up, first at the front of the raft, then traveling across the dozens of crowded families. The navigator raised their bloodshot eyes and saw, rising in front of them, the unmistakable tiered islands of Twaa-Fei.
The Mists around Twaa-Fei were notoriously treacherous. The navigator gazed doubtfully at their shaking hands, then made a decision, and carved the Fire Flower sigil, adjusting it to communicate a stylized maelstrom, the traditional distress signal. With the last of their energy, they added a second burst of sparkling light above the foundering raft, this in the shape of the Rumikan Chimera.
For what felt like dozens of minutes, they drifted. The navigator felt their extremities going cold with exhaustion. Then, once more, the cry went up from the front of the raft, and on the next surge of current, a ship—no, three!—appeared from the direction of the islands. They were small airships for fishing close to harbor, but the fisherfolk were skilled navigators and made straight for the raft, slinging out ropes to drag it in to port.
As soon as the raft was secured, the navigator let themself drift into a semiconscious state. They roused slightly as they were being helped off the raft and onto solid landmass, enough to note that their rescuers were a mix of Rumikans and others. They were heaved onto a cart with other passengers from the raft, and drawn through lanes that seemed impossibly narrow, between buildings rising like small cliffs. By the time the cart reached the warehouse that had been repurposed as an emergency shelter area, the navigator was once again unconscious.
“Will she survive?” asked Miho, a young woman stirring a vat of tea over a fire in a corner.
“They,” answered her Rumikan colleague. “They are just exhausted. They should be all right with rest. Still, we had better call a healer to be sure. Do you know any?”
“Of course,” answered Miho, with a wink. “We Zenatai are the best healers. Try asking Takada no Yuki, over there.” She pointed out an aged woman making the rounds of the refugees with a pull-cart of broth and poultices. “And now,” she added, “I’ll be off. I’ve got to get to work.” She relinquished her ladle and untied her apron. “I’ll try to come back later.”
“You’ve already helped a lot,” her Rumikan friend told her. “Thank you.”
The Zenatan shook her head. “We, too, know what it is to lose our land to the Quloi.” Miho grasped her colleague’s hand, then set off through the streets of lowest Twaa-Fei. She took the lift to the top level, then followed her usual route through the much wider, cleaner, and well-lit boulevards of that island.
Miho let herself in through the servants’ entrance in the back of the Circle, and changed into the uniform she was required to wear at her job. Once dressed for work, she took her instructions from the duty steward, and set about making tea again, this time a far smaller batch and a far finer blend than she had served to the refugees. She arranged the tea, clover honey, and milk on the amber tray, and carried it carefully into the scrying room, where she set it down on the table, bobbed a quick obeisance, and departed back into the kitchen.
Ojo barely noticed that the tea had arrived, although he certainly needed it badly. He had hardly slept the night before, trying to think of arguments that might work with the High Skies leadership.
“No one will condone this action!” he said as forcefully as he dared. “We will become isolated; Mertika will have no difficulty finding allies against us.”
“Let them!” said Nenge. “Once we have figured out the Rumikan trick and have access to a substantial flow of aerstone again, we will be able to face them all.”
“It is hardly wise,” Ojo argued. Much less moral, he added internally.
“Our spies tell us Mertika has long been searching for an excuse to attack us. Cutting them off before they do is certainly wiser than the alternative,” said Edokwe.
“But this—this is a drastic move—”
“Desperate times,” Nenge said with something that sounded very much like satisfaction. “Desperate measures.”