“That would be a bit of a dilemma,” said Izabela as she poured the tea.
Dmitrio let the illusion fade. “It was. There’s a reason why we have a magister system. Families shouldn’t be relied upon for justice when it comes to their own.”
Izabela nodded. “So he was attractive?”
Dmitrio blushed slightly. “And charming. That didn’t help either.” His brow furrowed. “Izabela…”
“Just continue the story,” she said gently.
The balloon floated high over the mountains as they rode a west by northwest current between two peaks. Sunlight glint off the gold lantern sigil on one of the white silk panels of the envelope. Orange and brown panels cast colored shadows on the gondola. Dmitrio winced as a muscle spasmed in his back. Three nights of sleeping on the ground hadn’t been kind to his back. Far below, green trees and valleys gave way to desert sand and low jagged hills. Thin wisps of cloud streaked the dark blue sky above them.
Mal was fussing over the burner and gauges. “How often do you calibrate these?”
Teri adjusted a rope. “Whenever they seem off.”
Mal shook her head. “But they’ll be off before you notice it. Sounds like a recipe for a crash.”
“Possibly. Common sense and good eye are needed to counter instrument creep,” said Teri. “The constantly shifting temperatures as a balloon travels make keeping the instruments perfectly attuned nearly impossible.”
An updraft rocked the gondola and Teri opened the throat of the burner causing the balloon to rise and slowly rotate as it cleared the thermal. Dmitrio twisted around on the trunk he was sitting on as the back became the front.
Teri turned the panel so he could keep an eye on where they were going. “That flat hilltop is our destination.”
“How did anyone get up there? The cliffs are so shear,” said Dmitrio.
“There are narrow stairs carved in the north face,” said Teri.
“You’ve been here before?” asked Mal.
“Once, a couple of years ago. I made camp on top but didn’t realize what it was. I did wonder about those stairs,” said Teri dryly. He brought the balloon down and bumped along the hilltop. He threw a grappling hook over the edge of a cliff to help slow down the balloon. “Grab a line and help me tie down.”
Dmitrio followed him over the side of the gondola with a line and found a large boulder to wrap it around. “The lack of trees in the desert creates an interesting challenge.”
“As will the winds that are picking up,” called Mal. “We need to drive stakes into the ground if you really want to stay up here.”
“There are stakes in the green basket,” Teri said. “Driving them into the rock will be a challenge.”
“A drill would help,” said Mal.
“I’m sure it would – if I had one,” said Teri.
Mal shook her head and grumbled as she dug around in the gondola’s supplies.
Teri asked Dmitrio, “Should I be glad I can’t hear what she’s saying?”
“Probably.” Dmitrio studied the land around them. “This rock is not going to be easy to work with. There is another way.” He took a small jar out of his inner coat pocket and took out a dab of a . It smelled of lavender and sage. After he secured the jar, he rubbed the paste on both his hands as he walked in a circle around the balloon. “Hand me a stake.”
“Is that aetherium?” asked Teri.
“Yes. I’ll use it to secure the stakes.”
“Can you release them later?” Teri asked suspiciously as he handed him one.
Mal popped up and leaned over the edge of the gondola. “Oh. Are you sure that’s a good idea, Dmitrio?”
“Yes, and yes.” He ran his hand along the length of the stake. It writhed and twisted as he pointed it at the rock. The stake burrowed down until it was buried down to the eyelet. “That should hold.”
Teri tied a mooring rope to it and gave a tug. “I should say so.”
Teri and Dmitrio finished securing the ropes in time for winds to pick up. The balloon swayed and creaked but did not take flight. They joined the Mal back in the gondola, coughing from the dust.
“Let’s secure things up here and then get below,” said Teri.
Mal guided Dmitrio to a chest. “Sit. We’ll take care of this. And get that stuff off of you.” She handed him a cloth to clean his hands with.
copyright 2015, all rights reserved, Kimberley Long-Ewing