As long as the wind held out, he just might get away with it. Francois hunkered down against the cool wicker of Alouette’s basket and stared at his mysterious cargo. Contraband, it had to be. Why else would he have been offered fifteen-hundred louis for a simple flight out of Guildenland?
Yet his curiosity was equally matched by the desire not to know, to be able to deny all knowledge of what had transpired. It hadn’t seemed such a bad idea when they had approached him back in Lepari. Alouette was never going to make him rich tethered on the banks of the Sicaune, offering tourists a fleeting glimpse of bird-like freedom.
It was never long enough, no matter how many times Francois accompanied his customers into the sky above the Francian capital. The smoky air in Alouette’s silken envelope would eventually cool, returning them to the filth and decay of the city streets.
He’d received his cargo in a clearing a little more than a mile inside Guildenland, but the wind had been all wrong, flittering and fluttering and gasping in stuttering gusts every which way but towards the border. Alouette would need a good head of hot air to lift herself and her cargo cleanly over the border, even with the easterly wind which returned at dusk. The heavy wooden box made Alouette sluggish, but still she gathered the fire’s heat and leapt for the sky.
Francois was glad to be leaving. Guildenland made him nervous. Even if he hadn’t been committing a crime, he’d have preferred to stay far from the mechanists and their ungodly machines. He peeked over the wicker. A trio of gulls veered by on wings cast grey by the onrush of night. Alouette held her altitude as the patchwork fields inched past. Where was the border? It had been easy enough to identify in the light of morning, but everything was unfamiliar now.
He never should’ve agreed to this, but it was too late to back out now. You’d better take good care of our package, his new associate had said as Francois had prepared to take off. Else we’ll hunt you down and break your legs.
Alouette started her descent as the fire-warmed air in her belly began to cool. Sometimes Francois wasn’t sure if she could fly at all. No matter how blissfully long each flight seemed, as he skimmed the clouds and talked with the birds, it was never more than half an hour between landings. He could only hope that the smugglers would be waiting for him when he landed. As soon as he could get rid of his cargo he’d be done with this, and he and Alouette could hop back to Lepari on the morning breeze.
A faint phut came from below. Francois peered over the edge of the basket as Alouette drifted. Surely he had to be back in Francia by now.
Phut-phutphut-phut. Francois leapt back with a cry of alarm as a hail of lead pellets splintered the wicker beside his arm. The guardsmen below — both nationalities united in common purpose — fired another volley and the basket lurched. But they weren’t aiming for the basket; Alouette’s silky envelope was the obvious target, and she had already been pierced through.
Her descent was erratic now. Her silken skin crumpled around her wounds, and the luke-warm smoke which held her aloft seeped out like translucent blood. The border guards intended to bring her to ground, and would shed no tears over the accidental death of an amateur montgolfier crossing the border at dusk. Even if he survived the landing, the contraband in Alouette’s basket would damn him, and years of incarceration in one of Francia’s fine prisons was the best he could look forward to.
He had to dump his cargo; maybe it would give him just enough lift to get Alouette to the landing site. He braced himself against the side of the basket and reached for the box. But what would he tell his employers? That he’d thrown thousands of louis’ worth of contraband overboard?
Alouette fell faster now, as the warmth rushed from her veins. There was no such thing as a gentle landing from one of her hops. His teeth were irreparably chipped from endless meetings of wicker and cobblestones. He needed to decide, but there was no time.
What was this ballast that had condemned him and Alouette both? He grabbed the box and tore it open in a flurry of splinters and bent nails. Shiny copper and brass dazzled him, tiny automata of cogs and gears; sparrows and hummingbirds, jackdaws and robins. Beautifully crafted Guildenland clockwerken.
The full weight of his predicament bore him towards the unforgiving ground. He was smuggling clockwerken. The Guildenland mechanists would never allow their monopoly to be broken by some petty crooks. If he touched down he’d never see the inside of a Francian prison cell; he’d be dragged back into Guildenland in chains to endure whatever tortures the mechanists wished to employ.
One last spray of gunfire sent the basket rocking as Francois heaved the box over the side. The contents spilled free across the sky, clockwerken birds tumbling earthwards in a shower of dimly shimmering brass, wiry wings flapping ineffectually as they glimmered in the last rays of the sun.
As the tiny avians flittered away into the night Alouette rallied, as if a weight of guilt had been lifted from her spirit. Her ragged envelope fluttered in the merciful wind as it carried them away from the rain of iridescent clockwerk and on towards the waiting smugglers. Perhaps they’d show mercy. Alouette would never fly again: wasn’t that suffering enough? Somehow he didn’t think they’d see it that way. Dangerous men rarely make idle threats.
But as long as he had his freedom, he could dream of soaring again on silken wings. Alouette would forgive him for moving on. At least, he thought grimly, he didn’t need his legs to fly.
Rob Haines is a graduate of biology working in the field of cancer research. His fiction has previously been featured on the Drabblecast podcast and in the Barren Worlds anthology from Hadley Rille Books. He’s also one half of the Generation Minus One retro-gaming webcomic.