From Chapter One
The rulers of the Republic lived atop the great flying city of Heaven’s Spire, their magnificent palaces soaring above the world. From their great manses in the sky came the laws and decrees that kept the country in motion, and the commoners on the ground could look up every morning and see their rulers overhead.
The prisoners of the Republic lived beneath the great city of Heaven’s Spire, scouring the lapiscaela whose magic kept the city aloft. For their terrible crimes, each man and woman served a life sentence, clinging to the pipes with only a mile of empty air beneath them. There was no chance of release, no hope of escape.
Today, however, Loch intended to change that.
“You sure this is the best way?” Kail asked. Like Loch, he clung upside-down to the pipes that anchored the lapiscaela in place, gripping a side-rail with one hand and his scouring broom with the other.
Loch nodded, giving him a lopsided grin, but said nothing. She was a tall, dark-skinned woman, muscular enough that she hadn’t needed the protection of the women’s gangs when she’d arrived last month. Her only concession to safety had been the silence she had maintained since arriving. An old superstition among the Republic’s criminals held that old magic in the lapiscaela would steal the souls of prisoners who talked near them.
“Jeridan doesn’t have what we need yet,” Kail noted, “and we still haven’t talked price.”
Loch shrugged. They had to move while they were still newcomers, watched carefully and checked for signs of resistance. And, frankly, if she had to clean a damn magical rock with a damn magical broom one more time, she was going to go crazy and jump.
“Your confidence is inspiring, Captain. I’d follow you to the ends of the world if we weren’t already in prison.” Kail grinned sourly, his teeth bright white against his dark face, and swung himself upright. His leg-chain rattled against the pipes. “Whenever you’re ready. No sense in putting in a full day’s work.”
Loch pulled herself up, her scouring broom tucked casually under one arm, so that they stood atop the pipe grid. Around them, other prisoners scurried, dull gray in their prison worksuits and lit from below by the great magical stones that kept the city in the sky.
A double grid of pipes secured the lapiscaela. During the day, when they caught light reflected from the great mirrors that hung along the rim of Heaven’s Spire, the power of the enormous violet crystals held the city aloft, and the upper grid of pipes held them in place. At night, the stones sank down to rest in the lower grid, which held them safely while reserve-enchantments kept the city aloft until sunrise.
It was vital that the lapiscaela remain free of dust or grime to maximize the absorption of sunlight. When the ancient magic that polished the crystals failed, the most dangerous prisoners in the Republic had been pulled into unwilling service in what had come to be called the Cleaners, scouring the lapiscaela with special brooms enchanted to clear away the toughest dirt without risking a damaging scratch to the crystal surface. It was said that in the Cleaners, a prisoner’s broom was worth more than his life.
Loch looked around, held her scouring broom out at arm’s length, and let go.
The broom clanged off the lapiscaelum they’d been assigned to clean, rang off the lower grid, and then fell into the distance.
Kail shook his head. “That should get their atten—”
Loch and Kail turned toward the call, as did every prisoner on the grid. The rattle of leg-chains and the slow grunts of labor went deathly still.
“It’s Soggs!” someone called. “South side. He’s still got a grip!”
Loch took the grid-path at a run, one arm grabbing the cross-pipes for balance as she dashed along the narrow surface, the other yanking on her leg-chain as it rattled and jangled behind her. Kail was close behind. The other prisoners watched them run by, some shouting encouragement, most silent. “Which rock? Upper grid or lower?” Kail shouted.
“The Tooth! Lower grid!” Loch grimaced at the reply. The lapiscaela were irregularly shaped, like natural boulders. The Tooth was a jagged stalactite that hung down like a dragon’s fang, its irregular shape so unusual that it necessitated a special frame to lock it into place. The Tooth had killed more men than any other stone on the grid. At the Cleaners, prisoners kept track of that sort of thing.
Loch and Kail had almost reached the Tooth when their pipes hit a junction.
“Guard!” Kail hollered. “We’ve got a man loose!”
Loch hit the corner as if she hadn’t seen it, and her leg-chain snapped taut with a metallic twang that echoed across the grid.
Looking down, Loch could see Soggs—an older man, not a killer, probably in for something he wrote or said or sang—clinging to a tiny spur on the great violet stone. His leg-chain snapped and jingled as he struggled to pull himself up.
“Guard!” Kail’s voice bounced tinny echoes off the shadowed grid. “Switch me over!”
There was no way Loch could reach Soggs, not if she kept an arm on the pipes, probably not even if she leapt and trusted in her leg-chain to hold both their weights. She gripped the pipes until her knuckles turned white, keeping a scream of frustration in check through sheer willpower.
There were murderers and worse at the Cleaners. Soggs wasn’t one of them.
“Guard!” Kail hollered up to the observation level. “Move your damn ass!”
In the maze of gray metal pipes lit from below by the vivid glow of the lapiscaela, the prisoners were completely alone.
“It’s too far, Loch.” Kail gripped the pipes.
Loch nodded, then extended a hand without looking at Kail.
With a sigh, he handed her his broom. “Soggs! She’s coming!”
Soggs could see Loch through the grid of pipes between them. He looked into her dark eyes and nodded even as his sweat-slicked hands began to slip.
When she leapt, her whole body stretched to a single line that shattered into pain when her leg-chain stopped her fall. Soggs leapt as best he could for the broom she held extended for him.
He was perhaps a handbreadth short.
If he’d had a foothold to give him purchase, he might have reached her, even with Loch stuck on the wrong pipe and too far away.
Instead, one more prisoner escaped the Cleaners the only way he could.
He was too small to see after a few seconds, but everyone kept looking. The grid was silent but for the soft tinkle of chains tapping the pipes, and the regular, rusty squeak as Loch swung back and forth, her shackle digging into her ankle and the useless broom clutched in both hands.
Then Tawyer, one of the guards, slowly clambered down from one of the topside hatches, grunting as he hopped down. “You don’t watch your tone, Kail, you’ll spend the night dangling,” he said easily. “Guards don’t come down without a flying charm, no matter how you holler.” He stepped lightly past where Kail stood silent and tight-fisted, then looked down at Loch. “So, your mute friend slipped, did she? Hey, Loch, you hold onto that broom or it’s coming out of your hide!”
Tawyer chuckled. “Don’t worry, boy. You two are good workers. We won’t let her fall.” He unlocked Kail’s leg-chain, locked it back onto another pipe, and gestured for Kail to help Loch. “Byn-kodar’s hell,” he added with a laugh that echoed off the silent grid, “I had money on her to catch the bastard!”