Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. – Leonardo da Vinci
The storm roared in like Dafeng, the pounding rain and thunderous claps as loud as the beating wings of an immense bird whose name meant “wind”. Zan woke with a start as the workshop shook and rattled. A thin stream of cold water trickled onto his forehead. Lightning flashed, making the small loft above the machine room glow an eerie white blue. He sat up, swiping water from his eyes.
“Boy!” Master Ye shouted from below, “Get down here and help me secure the ships!”
Zan rolled ungracefully off his mat, heart pounding in his chest. It would be useless to light the stub of a candle for how much wind whistled through the cracks of the rickety roof. So, he scrabbled in the dark, pulling on work shoes, and banging an elbow on the small chest by his mat. Sliding down the ladder, he landed with a jarring thump, pain shooting through his knees. He hissed a curse.
Master Ye scowled at him, looking himself none too happy to be awake either with damp hair and rain-speckled hanfu. “Someone has incurred the wrath of Shenlong, it seems,” he said reproachfully, “Did you remember to put out your offering on the equinox?”
Zan didn’t remember, Master Ye always had so many things for him to do. “Of course,” he lied, collecting the rope and tools he’d need for the task. “Must have been our neighbors.”
Ye shrugged, shoving the boy roughly toward the large doors of the workshop. “Well hurry up, before all our work is blown away!”
Zan stumbled, knocking his hip against the corner of a workbench. He yelped, sending a nasty thought Ye’s way, before tripping out into the storm.
The partially completed airships shook, tossed by the howling wind. Rain stung his face as he threaded ropes through iron mooring loops, or around any exposed beam, connecting them to their various docks. It took all his strength and the weight of his 177 cm frame, to make sure the ties were taught. Rain soaked and his palms grew raw from the wet rope, but Zan continued to pull and tie. Master Ye was nowhere to be seen.
“Help, my ass,” Zan snarled, blinking in the dim light from the few remaining lanterns. What Ye had meant was for Zan to do this work all on his own.
A sudden gust of wind rocked the body of the ship he worked on, tearing the rope from his hands. Its end flicked across his cheek, leaving a stinging lash. He tasted blood. “Curse you, Ye,” he said bitterly, red-flecked spittle flying from his panting mouth, “And curse you!” he shouted at the ships.
But they only creaked in reply, loose sails flapping like giant birds.
Beads of red rose to the surface of his palms, washed clean moments later by the heavy rains. For a moment, the pain grew unbearable, and he had to duck under one of the half-finished decks, for a moment’s respite. He took deep breaths and tried to still his frantic gasps, while using a wrist to wipe the spray from his eyes. Pulling a wet, oily rag from his tool belt, he tore it in half and tried to wrap his throbbing hands. Sharp jolts shot through the wounds, and he resisted the urge to curse his master once more, or even Shenlong. Real or mythical, it probably wasn’t wise to curse the divine dragon…just in case.
Zan thought he heard someone shouting from the relative safety of the workshop, and he ignored it, but only for a moment. Ye wouldn’t care about some ripped up hands if the ships were damaged beyond repair. He’d been quick with his cane these last few weeks and Zan’s back still ached. He didn’t want to invite more of his master’s wrath; he still had five ships to do.
The faster you get this done, the sooner you can get dry, he told himself. So, with a deep breath and a stiff flex of sore shoulders, he ducked back into the rain.
Half an hour later, he was tying down the last ship, the largest of them all. He tugged on the rope with all his weight, leaning so far, his backside rested on the dock. A burst of lightning lit up the sky, silhouetting a dark shape against the gray clouds. Zan could just barely make out the shape and his mouth dropped open. Another flash confirmed his suspicion as the craft spun out of control. The wind carried with it the sounds of flight: the sharp snap of sails, a clattering of metal against wood, creaking ropes and shouts.
Shouts? Zan thought, putting the last knot in the rope.
Now he could see it clearly, the airship was flying way too low and coming directly toward the compound. The crew called to each other as Zan watched them scramble about the rocking deck, trying to hold together ripped sails and broken timber. A man swung from the port side on a long rope, disappearing into a hole in the hull—a hole that clearly wasn’t supposed to be there.
Zan cowered for a moment, afraid the ship would crash directly on top of them, but he needn’t worry. It sailed over him and the squat workshop, toward the tea plantation just beyond their compound. Jumping to his feet, he bolted after the airship, pounding rain forgotten. If there were people in there, he had to help them.