I hate explosions. Not only are they generally bad for one’s health, but they’re just so demanding. Whenever one comes along, you have to pay attention to it instead of whatever else you were doing. In fact, explosions are suspiciously like baby sisters in that regard.
Fortunately, I’m not going to talk about the Hawkwind exploding right now. Instead, I’m going to talk about something completely unrelated: fish sticks. (Get used to it. I do this sort of thing all the time.)
Fish sticks are, without a doubt, the most disgusting things ever created. Regular fish is bad enough, but fish sticks . . . well, they raise disgustingness to an entirely new level. It’s like they exist just to make us writers come up with new words to describe them, since the old words just aren’t horrible enough. I’m thinking of using “Crapaflapnasti.”
Definition of “Crapaflapnasti”: “adj. Used to describe an item which is as disgusting as fish sticks.” (Note: This word can only be used to describe fish sticks themselves, as nothing has yet been found which is equally crapaflapnasti. Though the unclean, moldy, cluttered space under Brandon Sanderson’s bed comes close.)
Why am I telling you about fish sticks? Well, because in addition to being an unwholesome blight upon the land, they’re all pretty much the same. If you don’t like one brand, chances are pretty good you won’t like any of them.
The thing is, I’ve noticed that people tend to treat books like fish sticks. People try one, and they figure they’ve tried them all.
Books are not fish sticks. While they’re not all as awesome as the one you are now holding, there’s so much variety to them that it can be unsettling. Even within the same genre, two books can be totally different.
We’ll talk more about this later. For now, just try not to treat books like fish sticks. (And if you are forced to eat one of the two, go with the books. Trust me.)
The right side of the Hawkwind exploded.
The vehicle pitched in the air, chunks of glass sparkling as they blew free. To the side of me, the glass bird’s leg broke off and the world lurched, spun, and distorted—like I was riding a madman’s version of a merry-go-round.
At that moment, my panicked mind realized that the section of glass under my feet—the one my boots were still stuck to—had broken free of the Hawkwind. The vehicle was still managing to fly. I, however, was not. Unless you count plummeting to your doom at a hundred miles an hour as “flying.”
Everything was a blur. The large piece of glass I was stuck to was flipping end over end, the wind tossing it about like a sheet of paper. I didn’t have much time.
Break! I thought, sending a shock of my Talent through my legs, shattering my boots and the sheet beneath them. Shards of glass exploded around me, but I stopped spinning about. I twisted, looking down at the waves. I didn’t have any Lenses that could save me—all I was carrying were the Translator’s Lenses and my Oculator’s Lenses. All my other pairs had been broken, given away, or returned to Grandpa Smedry.
That only left my Talent. The wind whistled about me, and I extended my arms. I always wondered just what my Talent could break, if given the chance. Could I, perhaps. . . I closed my eyes, gathering my power.
BREAK! I thought, shooting the power out of my arms and into the air.
I opened my eyes, terrified, as the waves rushed up at me. And rushed up at me. And rushed up at me. And . . . rushed up at me some more.
It sure is taking a long time for me to plunge to my death, I thought. I felt as if I were falling, yet the nearby waves didn’t actually seem to be getting any closer.
I turned, looking upward. There, falling toward me, was Grandpa Smedry, his tuxedo jacket flapping, a look of intense concentration on his face as he held his hand toward me, fingers extended.
He’s making me arrive late to my fall! I thought. On occasion, I’d been able to make my Talent work at a distance, but it was difficult and unpredictable.
“Grandpa!” I yelled in excitement.
Right about that moment, he plowed into me face-first, and both of us crashed into the ocean. The water was cold, and my exclamation of surprise quickly turned into a gurgle.
I burst free from the water, sputtering. Fortunately, the water was calm—if frigid—and the waves weren’t bad. I straightened my Lenses—which, remarkably, had remained on my face—and looked around for my grandfather, who came up a few seconds later, his mustache drooping and his wisps of white hair plastered to his otherwise bald head.
“Wasted Westerfields!” he exclaimed. “That was exciting, eh lad?”
I shivered in response.
“All right, prepare yourself,” Grandpa Smedry said. He looked surprisingly fatigued.
“For what?” I asked.
“I’m letting us arrive late to some of that fall, lad,” Grandpa Smedry said. “But I can’t make it go away entirely. And I don’t think I can bear it for long!”
“So, you mean that—” I cut off as it hit me. It was as if I’d landed in the water again, the air getting knocked out of my lungs. I slipped beneath the ocean waters, disoriented and freezing, then forced myself to struggle back up toward the sparkling light. I burst into the air and took a gasping breath.
Then it hit me again. Grandpa Smedry had broken our plummet into small steps, but even those small steps were dangerous. As I sank again, I barely caught sight of my grandfather trying to stay afloat. He wasn’t doing any better than I was.
I felt useless—I should have been able to do something with my Talent. Everyone always told me that my ability to break things was powerful—and, indeed, I’d done some amazing things with it. But I still didn’t have the control that I envied in Grandpa Smedry or my cousins.
True, I’d only even been aware of my place as a Smedry for about four months. But it’s hard to not be down on yourself when you’re in the middle of drowning. So I did the sensible thing and went ahead and passed out.
When I awoke, I was—fortunately—not dead, though part of me wished that I was. I hurt pretty much all over, as if I’d been stuffed inside a punching bag, which had then been put through a blender. I groaned, opening my eyes. A slender young woman knelt beside me. She had long silver hair and wore a militaristic uniform.
She looked angry. In other words, she looked just about like she always did. “You did that on purpose,” Bastille accused.
I sat up, raising a hand to my head. “Yes, Bastille. I keep trying to get killed because it’s inconvenient for you.”
She eyed me. I could tell that a little piece of her did believe that we Smedries got ourselves into trouble just to make her life difficult.
My jeans and shirt were still wet, and I lay in a puddle of salty seawater, so it probably hadn’t been very long since the fall. The sky was open above me, and to my right, theHawkwind stood on its one remaining leg, perched on the side of a wall. I blinked, realizing that I was on top of some kind of castle tower.
“Australia managed to get the Hawkwind down to grab you two out of the water,” Bastille said, answering my unasked question as she stood up. “We aren’t sure what caused the explosion. It came from one of the rooms—that’s all we know.”
I forced myself to my feet, looking over at the silimatic vehicle. The entire right side had blown out, exposing the rooms inside. One of the wings was laced with cracks, and—as I’d so vividly discovered—a large chunk of the bird’s chest had fallen free.
My grandfather was sitting beside the tower’s railing, and he waved weakly as I looked over. The others were slowly trying to climb out of the Hawkwind. The explosion had destroyed the boarding steps.
“I’ll go get help,” Bastille said. “Check on your grandfather, and try not to fall off the tower’s edge or anything while I’m gone.” With that, she dashed down a set of steps into the tower.
I walked over to my grandfather. “You all right?”
“Course I am, lad, of course I am.” Grandpa Smedry smiled through a sodden mustache. I’d seen him this tired only once before, just after our battle with Blackburn.
“Thanks for saving me,” I said, sitting down next to him.
“Just returning the favor,” Grandpa Smedry said with a wink. “I believe you saved me back in that library infiltration.”
That had mostly been a matter of luck. I glanced at the Hawkwind, where our companions were still trying to find a way down. “I wish I could use my Talent like you use yours.”
“What? Alcatraz, you’re very good with your Talent. I saw you shatter that glass you were stuck to. I’d never have gotten a line of sight to you in time if you hadn’t done that! Your quick thinking saved your life.”
“I tried to do more,” I said. “But it didn’t work.”
I blushed. It now seemed silly. “I figured . . . well, I thought if I could break gravity, then I could fly.”
Grandpa Smedry chuckled quietly. “Break gravity, eh? Very bold of you, very bold. A very Smedry-like attempt! But a little bit beyond the scope of even your power, I’d say. Imagine the chaos if gravity stopped working all across the entire world!”
I don’t have to imagine it. I’ve lived it. But, then, we’ll get to that. Eventually.
There was a scrambling sound, and a figure finally managed to leap from the broken side of the Hawkwind and land on the tower top. Draulin, Bastille’s mother, was an austere woman in silvery armor. A full Knight of Crystallia—a title Bastille had recently lost—Draulin was very effective at the things she did. Those included: protecting Smedries, being displeased by things, and making the rest of us feel like slackers.
Once on the ground, she was able to assist the vehicle’s other two occupants. Australia Smedry, my cousin, was a plump, sixteen-year-old Mokian girl. She wore a colorful, single-piece dress that looked something like a sheet, and—like her brother—had tan skin and dark hair. (Mokians are relatives of the Hushlands’ Polynesian people.) As she hit the floor she rushed over to Grandpa Smedry and me.
“Oh, Alcatraz!” she said. “Are you all right? I didn’t see you fall; I was too busy with the explosion. Did you see it?”
“Um, yes, Australia,” I said. “It kind of blew me off of the Hawkwind.”
“Oh, right,” she said, bouncing slightly up and down on her heels. “If Bastille hadn’t been watching, we’d have never seen where you hit! It didn’t hurt too much when I dropped you on the top of the tower here, did it? I had to scoop you up in the Hawkwind’s leg and set you down here so that I could land. It’s missing a leg now. I don’t know if you noticed.”
“Yeah,” I said tiredly. “Explosion, remember?”
“Of course I remember, silly!”
That’s Australia. She’s not dim-witted, she just has trouble remembering to be smart.
The last person off of the Hawkwind was my father, Attica Smedry. He was a tall man with messy hair, and he wore a pair of red-tinted Oculator’s Lenses. Somehow, on him, they didn’t look pinkish and silly like I always felt they did on me.
He walked over to Grandpa Smedry and me. “Ah, well,” he said. “Everyone’s all right I see. That’s great.”
We watched each other awkwardly for a moment. My father didn’t seem to know what else to say, as if made uncomfortable by the need to act parental. He seemed relieved when Bastille charged back up the steps, a veritable fleet of servants following behind, wearing the tunics and trousers that were standard Free Kingdomer garb.
“Ah,” my father said. “Excellent! I’m sure the servants will know what to do. Glad you’re not hurt, son.” He walked quickly toward the stairwell.
“Lord Attica!” one of the servants said. “It’s been so long.”
“Yes, well, I have returned,” my father replied. “I shall require my rooms made up immediately and a bath drawn. Inform the Council of Kings that I will soon be addressing them in regards to a very important matter. Also, let the newspapers know that I’m available for interviews.” He hesitated. “Oh, and see to my son. He will need, er, clothing and things like that.”
He disappeared down the steps, a pack of servants following him like puppies. “Wait a sec,” I said, standing and turning to Australia. “Why are they so quick to obey?”
“They’re his servants, silly. That’s what they do.”
“His servants?” I asked, stepping over to the side of the tower to get a better look at the building below. “Where are we?”
“Keep Smedry, of course,” Australia said. “Um . . . where else would we be?”
I looked out over the city, realizing that we had landed the Hawkwind on one of the towers of the stout black castle I’d seen earlier. Keep Smedry. “We have our own castle?” I asked with shock, turning to my grandfather.
A few minutes of rest had done him some good, and the twinkle was back in his eyes as he stood up, dusting off his soggy tuxedo. “Of course we do, lad! We’re Smedries!”
Smedries. I still didn’t really understand what that meant. For your information, it meant . . . well, I’ll explain it in the next chapter. I’m feeling too lazy right now.
One of the servants, a doctor of some sort, began to prod at Grandpa Smedry, looking into his eyes, asking him to count backwards. Grandpa looked as if he wanted to escape the treatment, but then noticed Bastille and Draulin standing side by side, arms folded, similarly determined expressions on their faces. Their postures indicated that my grandfather and I wouldbe checked over, even if our knights had to string us up by our heels to make it happen.
I sighed, leaning back against the rim of the tower. “Hey, Bastille,” I said, as some servants brought me and Grandpa Smedry towels.
“What?” she asked, walking over.
“How’d you get down?” I said, nodding to the broken Hawkwind. “Everyone else was trapped inside when I woke up.”
“I . . .”
“She jumped free!” Australia exclaimed. “Draulin said the glass was precarious and that we should test it, but Bastille jumped right on out!”
Bastille shot Australia a glare, but the Mokian girl kept on talking, oblivious. “She must have been really worried about you, Alcatraz. She ran right over to your side. I—”
Bastille tried, subtly, to stomp on Australia’s foot.
“Oh!” Australia said. “We squishing ants?”
Remarkably, Bastille blushed. Was she embarrassed at disobeying her mother? Bastille tried so hard to please the woman, but I was certain that pleasing Draulin was pretty much impossible. I mean, it couldn’t have been concern for me that made her jump out of the vehicle. I was well aware how infuriating she found me.
But . . . what if she was worried about me? What did that mean? Suddenly, I found myself blushing too.
And now I am going to do everything in my power to distract you from that last paragraph. I really shouldn’t have written it. I should been smart enough to clam up. I should have flexed my mental muscles and stopped thinking at a snail’s pace.
Have I mentioned how shellfish I can be sometimes?
At that moment, Sing burst up the stairs, saving Bastille and me from our awkward moment. Sing Sing Smedry, my cousin and Australia’s older brother, was an enormous titan of a man. Well over six feet tall, he was rather full-figured. (Which is a nice way of saying he was kinda fat.) The Mokian man had the Smedry Talent for tripping and falling to the ground—which he did the moment he reached the top of the tower.
I swear, I felt the stones themselves shake. Every one of us ducked down, looking for danger. Sing’s Talent tends to activate when something is about to hurt him. That day, however, no danger appeared. Sing looked around, then climbed to his feet and rushed over to grab me out of my nervous crouch and give me a suffocating hug.
“Alcatraz!” he exclaimed. He reached out with an arm and grabbed Australia, giving her a hug as well. “You guys have to read the paper I wrote about Hushlander bartering techniques and advertising methodology! It’s so exciting!”
Sing, you see, was an anthropologist. His expertise was Hushland cultures and weaponry, though fortunately this time he didn’t appear to have any guns strapped to his body. The sad thing is, most people I’ve met in the Free Kingdoms—particularly my family—would consider reading an anthropological study to be exciting. Somebody really needs to introduce them to video games.
Sing finally released us, then turned to Grandpa Smedry and gave a quick bow. “Lord Smedry,” he said. “We need to talk. There has been trouble in your absence.”
“There’s always trouble in my absence,” Grandpa Smedry said. “And a fair lot of it when I’m here, too. What’s it this time?”
“The Librarians have sent an ambassador to the Council of Kings,” Sing explained.
“Well,” Grandpa Smedry said lightly, “I hope the ambassador’s posterior didn’t get hurt toomuch when Brig tossed him out of the city.”
“The High King didn’t banish the ambassador, my lord,” Sing said softly. “In fact, I think they’re going to sign a treaty.”
“That’s impossible!” Bastille cut in. “The High King would never ally with the Librarians!”
“Squire Bastille,” Draulin snapped, standing stiffly with her hands behind her back. “Hold your place and do not contradict your betters.”
Bastille blushed, looking down.
“Sing,” Grandpa Smedry said urgently. “This treaty, what does it say about the fighting in Mokia?”
Sing glanced aside. “I . . . well, the treaty would hand Mokia over to the Librarians in exchange for an end to the war.”
“Debating Dashners!” Grandpa Smedry exclaimed. “We’re late! We need to do something!” He immediately dashed across the rooftop and scrambled down the stairwell.
The rest of us glanced at each other.
“We’ll have to act with daring recklessness and an intense vibrato!” Grandpa Smedry’s voice echoed out of the stairwell. “But that’s the Smedry way!”
“We should probably follow him,” I said.
“Yeah,” Sing said, glancing about. “He just gets so excited. Where’s Lord Kazan?”
“Isn’t he here?” Australia said. “He sent the Hawkwind back for us.”
Sing shook his head. “Kaz left a few days ago, claiming he’d meet back up with you.”
“Talent must have lost him,” Australia said, sighing. “There’s no telling where he might be.”
“Uh, hello?” Grandpa Smedry’s head popped out of the stairwell. “Jabbering Joneses, people! We’ve got a disaster to avert! Let’s get moving!”
“Yes, Lord Smedry,” Sing said, waddling over. “But where are we going?”
“Send for a crawly!” the elderly Occulator said. “We need to get to the Council of Kings!”
“But . . . they’re in session!”
“All the better,” Grandpa Smedry said, raising a hand dramatically. “Our entrance will be much more interesting that way!”
Read the rest . . . buy the book!