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Darkened earth stretches beneath my plane, endless shadows and sleepy towns, and a thin band of light smirks ahead. Dawn, telling me to hurry the hell up and find the final target. Should have reached it five minutes ago.
I scan the ground again, a bit more purposeful now.
This Night Navigation exercise shouldn’t be taking this long. I’m supposed to fly cross-country from objective to objective, using only my instruments, but so far my route has taken me in circles. Somewhere back there was the third target—an illuminated munitions factory at the outskirts of town—and next, in theory, is a rail line running south.
“You were only supposed to fly us three degrees off course,” I scold my plane. “Now look what you’ve done. How am I going to correct for this properly when I can’t even see down there?”
She says nothing in reply, propeller thudding in the darkness, its metallic hum a constant tremor through my body, but her wings wobble suddenly as if annoyed I’m trying to pin the miscalculation on her.
Better check my flightbook.
“A good pilot routinely checks his map when flying,” Major Torhan likes to say. “A great pilot doesn’t need to, because it’s already in his head.”
Well, it would be in my head if I’d wanted it to be. If I were actually trying here, I’d have memorized the map before takeoff, followed my instruments perfectly, and this whole thing would be over and done with ahead of schedule. But unlike my fellow Academy pilots, who march around dreaming of spectacular glory in the squadrons, I’m less than eager about the prospect of an early grave. One lucky shot from the other side and all those push-ups will be for nothing. You’re just a bit of finely carved kindling, but no one ever mentions that part. Not to your face, anyway.
And certainly not when you’re the General’s son.
Since I’ve seen the way death looks up close—limbs burnt and black, like charred biscuits, ugly as hell—I think I’ll forget the final target and just enjoy this moment of perfect sky.
Dawn skies are meant to be gloriously on fire.
I yank the stick back and my plane growls in protest, shaking between my gloved hands. “Come on, you old beast,” I mutter. She’s not as impressive as the squadron fighters, more a training animal, and impatience nips as her rattling engine gathers strength for the climb. Thick grey cloud surrounds us, slipping over the wings. But light grows above, reaching through, and then …
The sky is ablaze. Sunlight hits the eastern mountains in the distance, peaks cutting between the rays—a wild temptation of endless pine and jagged cliffs. Desire tightens in my chest, the urge to throttle forward and not look back. For my father, those mountains are power. Rich with coal and oil. Heavy with iron ore. They’re the lifeblood of his army and the foundation of our nation that even kings envy. But no matter how he tries to break them, carve them, exhaust them, they remain larger and more impressive than anything he can build. And one day I’ll crash there. I’ll burn up these wings forever and live by my own compass. Life at the Academy is a daily game of charades where I play my part and follow every order, but all I’d like is for just one person to look at me and ask, “Do you even want to join the squadrons, Athan Dakar?”
I fling my plane into a spin.
All of her shudders with a slight stall, all of me weightless for a moment. “Reckless,” the instructors would call it. “Save it for battle, son,” they’d say. I’m not worried. They’ve never seen my true instinct in the air, how the plane becomes mine, how it becomes a part of my very soul. Hands on the trim and feet on the rudder. Sky goes over sky, my stomach wheeling with it. Heart pounding with exhilaration. It’s like rocking through an invisible swell of waves, a cartwheel of colours, the dawn sea of clouds below, then above, then to the side.
Then sharp orange sun again and I squint, blinded, a large shadow hurtling at me from one o’clock.
I haul back on the stick and throw the plane right.
“Awake now, Athan?” Familiar laughter crackles over the earphone, another plane’s engine growling dangerously close above my canopy.
“Damn it, Cyar!”
He’s still laughing, circling back around. A perfect attack from the sun, I’ll admit that. “And this is why you’ll end up shot down one day,” he announces. “Too busy daydreaming.”
“That was a perfectly executed flick-roll, in fact.”
“Perfectly off course too.”
“Jealousy,” I say. “I’ve seen your rolls—a little too much slip.”
“Yes, and I’m also finished and heading back. Should we expect you around noon?”
“Not if I happen to run out of fuel in those mountains.”
There’s a sound from him. A snort of laughter if I had to guess. Cyar Hajari’s the only one who skims the surface of my discontent, but he’ll never get any further. The truth of my charades would hurt him most. They bunked us together when we first arrived here six years ago, both of us wide-eyed and far from home. He showed up at my door, brown-skinned, black-haired—exactly the opposite of me—and was from Rahmet, the last region to join Savient. A place of lizards and lemon trees. I only knew about it from campaign reports on the wireless radio and from black-and-white newsreels, and since most boys my age were too scared to talk to me, being the General’s son, I expected the same from him.
And I was right.
He hid in his bunk that first night, silent, but I caught him crying over his photographs of home. It was the deep hiccupping sort of grief my father would have cuffed me for, and I’d never seen a boy cry. At least I wasn’t the only one feeling alone.
I knew, then, he’d be my friend.
“Just follow me, would you?” Cyar says now, his plane fading through the layers of smoky cloud.
“If you insist.”
We’re far enough from Academy airspace that no one’s listening to our conversation. Cyar always tries to cover for me up here, and I try to do the same for him on the ground, fixing his math calculations when he isn’t looking. He’s the only person who knows I’m more than my last name, who understands that, but still expects my best in the sky. He believes in me. Which is actually a lot more terrifying than the cold and simple expectation of my father. Expectations can be worked around. Negotiated, if you’re clever. But loyalty—and I know this better than most—is what you die for.
Loyalty is deeper than blood.
We emerge into the brightened world below, motorcars winding down roads, locomotives hissing steam. Cyar quickly finds the tracks and final objective, an old army depot buried beneath a crop of trees. I jot down the time in my flightbook. A perfect twenty-five minutes behind schedule. I can forget being an officer in Top Flight, or even an enlisted pilot, for that matter. Which puts me right on target. I’m aiming to fly in transport. Then I can be stationed at home, and fade from Father’s radar, and then—mountains.
I’m still trying to figure out how to talk Cyar into it, too. His noble soul isn’t built for deception.
“Start studying your maps better,” he instructs. “We’ve only got five weeks left, and I can’t help you on test day.”
“I know.” I fly above him.
“And we’re both making Top Flight. I’m not going to the squadrons without you.”
“I’ll be there,” I say, hating how easy the lie’s become.
“Just have to follow the river south.” Must be checking his map. “Fifty miles back.”
“As long as you know where you’re going.”
“What are you saying, Dakar?”
I make a tight spin to the left, wings dropping, gaining airspeed so fast my stomach leaps to my throat. Cyar tries to keep up with the wild spiral, but it’s too late. I’ve already swung around behind him. He’s in my gunsight.
I grin. “When I’m an ace, I’ll need a wingman who knows how to get me home.”
Cyar groans. “You’re not half-bad when you focus.”
“Be sure to write your girlfriend about this one,” I say. “Tell her how splendid my flick-rolls are and how I nearly shot you down.”
“Sorry, she doesn’t like blonds.”
That’s how it goes, the whole fifty miles back.
Tall lights appear eventually, guiding us to the wide hangars and brick barracks of the Academy. Flags flicker in the dawn breeze, bearing the Safire ensign—a fox between two swords—and runways crisscross along the western side.
Control directs us back onto the circuit and gives clearance to land. Cyar goes first, a perfect show. Wheels kiss the tarmac lightly, then a gradual deceleration. I follow behind and make sure to come down at a ridiculous speed, jolting the plane against the runway with a rookie’s charm. That’ll earn some frowns from the flight instructors.
At rest by the hangars, the propeller spins to a stop and I look at my crumpled map again. It’s a damn mess. Lines here and there and everywhere. No one’s going to believe I found the proper objectives based on this.
I jump down from the wing to begin post-flight checks. Cyar settles his plane, then jogs over. “Let’s see the nightmare,” he says, gesturing for my flightbook.
“I lost it.”
“Right. That will go over—” He freezes, looking past me, eyes wide.
Alarm grazes my pulse.
Let it be Torhan. Let it be only Torhan. Let it be—
I turn. Oh, God. It’s Major Torhan indeed, standing by the airfield fence, arms crossed. And next to him?
The ruler of Savient.
They’re discussing something intently, waiting in the silver light, eyes trained on us. No, on me. Who am I kidding? I move to climb into the cockpit. “Well, I’m off to get lost again. Mountains, hopefully.”
Cyar shoves his map and flight plan at me, hidden by the shadow of the plane. “Take them.”
He’s going to make a scene. There’s no other choice but to accept his selfless offer. And just in time, too. Torhan waves, motioning me to them.
I draw a breath and square my shoulders. Here goes. There’s no sense fabricating answers in advance. Father’s stare tangles them up somewhere between the brain and the mouth, and I can’t afford that. Not at this point. If he figures out my mistakes are not from lack of talent, but deliberate self-sabotage, it’ll be the end of me. And he’s very good at figuring out lies. Just ask any man who dared betray him during ten years of revolution—I’m sure they were wishing for better answers as the ropes tightened on their wiggling necks.
But I walk towards Father as if it’s perfectly normal he’s decided to drop by and check on me. Like I have nothing to hide. I haven’t seen him in at least three months. He’s got a war in bordering Karkev to worry about, a land thick with corruption that’s also conveniently a chance to demonstrate his military might to every royal kingdom in the North.
When you’re the youngest son, you tend to end up lower on the priority list.
And that’s fine with me.
Major Torhan wears a formal smile as I approach. I return it. Father offers nothing, dressed in his grey Safire uniform, green eyes examining close enough I feel them hit my bones. If I wasn’t so well practiced with it—his stare—I’d be sweating a hell of a lot more right now.
“A rather rough landing today,” Torhan observes.
“Came in too fast, sir. Tailwind.”
“You completed the course?”
I nod and hand over Cyar’s pages, guilt threatening to swallow me whole. But I don’t let it show. I can’t let it show. Father watches with brow raised, glancing at the runway. Skeptical?
I rub at my neck. Then stop.
Torhan studies the map. “We’ve finished our third quarter reviews, Athan, and I’m pleased to say that in academics you have the highest grade here. Nearly a perfect hundred in every subject.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Mathematics has always come easily to me, since I was a child. For a long time, my mother was the only one who knew about my gift. She said it was our secret. She’d kneel before me, begging me not to tell anyone else the truth. She said he’d take me away.
I knew who He was.
But I didn’t know where he’d take me.
She wept when, of course, he did find out, when he finally saw me as more than a useless third son and lured me into the Academy testing with a promise of airplanes. I was too young to understand their war over me. Now I know, and I’m doing my best to honour her plea, to not let him take me any further from her, into those graves that certainly already have my brothers’ names on them.
The way I have it, they all think I’m quite clever on the ground, brilliant with numbers and angles, but a lousy pilot in the air.
Torhan clears his throat. “Your flying, however…”
Here it comes. I don’t dare look at Father.
“Your flying needs a bit more work, and that landing today was proof of it. Careless. You won’t make Top Flight with lazy maneuvers.”
“I know, sir, but it’s difficult to remember everything at once.”
“Not a good trait for a fighter pilot.” Torhan frowns. “A shame.”
“Who’s in highest standing for Top Flight?” Father asks, as if he doesn’t already know.
“Cyar Hajari,” Torhan replies.
“And when Hajari makes Top Flight?”
“He’ll be training with the officer corps, of course. We have high hopes for him in the Karkev campaign.”
“Very good.” Father’s gaze returns to me, cool, pointed. “It’s unfortunate you won’t be joining him on the frontlines. He’ll have to find someone else to watch his back.”
I nod and shrink a few inches on the inside.
I hate the very idea of it.
A transport plane flies in low, halting our conversation. It glides onto the tarmac, flaps raised, smoke hissing from the wheels.
“Athan might yet pull it together,” Torhan suggests once the noise fades. “I’ve seen it happen. Some pilots take more time before everything clicks in the air.” Apparently he’s covering for me now. I’d like to be grateful, but it also feels a bit like unasked for pity, which annoys me.
“Then it had better click soon,” Father observes, sharp, and I barely stop my hand from rubbing my neck again.
Torhan gives me a thin smile. “I’d best get back to the office.”
A convenient excuse, and he departs. We stand in silence. I know Father hoped for a better report. He’s been waiting years for one. But he refuses to pull strings for me or my two older brothers. As he likes to say, we’re not princes, we’re entitled to nothing, and therefore we can very easily lose it all if we don’t play our cards right. Which I’ve been doing an excellent job at.
Father adjusts his cap to block the rising sun, the silver fox emblem on it catching light. “You have leave the rest of the week to join us in Valon,” he says. “We’re launching the Impressive for her first sea trial this afternoon, to coincide with the Victory Week celebrations.”
“You want me there, sir?”
“Your mother requested it.”
He stresses “mother” to be sure it wounds, but it isn’t necessary. Of course he doesn’t want me there. He probably thinks I should stay here and practice hard until my piloting skills magically click.
He meets my eye, his steel gaze slightly shadowed by the peak of his cap, and I see the detachment there. It’s louder than any spoken word. It holds the weight of continual disappointment, perhaps an edge of bitterness, cutting me raw in a clean, precise line. I wait for him to say more—what, I don’t know—but I wait. There’s always something like desperation when I’m standing a foot from him. Like maybe he’ll finally say the thing I need to hear and life will make sense. Like maybe I’ll finally feel like his son.
Like maybe he’ll just pull out a gun and shoot me and get it over with.
But all he says is, “The flight leaves at nine. Bring Hajari if you’d like.”
Another cruel reminder that I only have my best friend until the day we graduate, and unless things change soon, and drastically, it will be goodbye to the one person in the world who’s my true ally.
And Father knows it.
With a curt nod, he turns and strides for the office building beyond.
I walk back for the round hangar, where early morning mechanics are muttering to each other, tools striking metal and ringing off walls, the air smelling like leftover kerosene from night lamps. Cyar waits patiently, pretending not to notice whatever’s taken place outside. He’s good at that.
I shed my gear—gloves, boots, charcoal-toned flight suit—and place them inside my locker, next to my notebooks about strategy and tactics, beside pencil sketches of birds and airplanes and mountain huts I’d like to construct by hand someday. And in the middle of it, taped to the door, a photograph of me and my two older brothers balancing on a rock by the sea—young and scrawny and somehow smiling all at once. Father gave it to me when he left me here. “Nothing’s gained without sacrifice” it says on the back.
It’s what he said to us during the teeth-rattling nights spent hiding from shells. What he said to us when our encampments gave way to mud like soup in the summer, flies crawling into your nose and into your mouth while you slept. It’s what he said to his men before they came back split apart and soaked with blood, skin flayed like fish, bones scattered and buried in graves from one end of Savient to the other.
For a long time, I convinced myself this picture was proof of his love. Some bit of regret when he realized he was leaving his eleven-year-old son alone, five hundred miles away from home in a grey-walled dormitory room with nothing warm or familiar. I wanted to believe he’d miss me. I wanted to believe it meant something else.
But now I’m seventeen and I know it’s only ever meant exactly what it says.
Nothing’s gained without sacrifice.
That’s it. That’s all it is, and worse than that, I’m beginning to suspect it’s the goddamn truth.
I slam the door shut with a fist.
Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Mumford