The airship juddered and set down outside of Tzen, Memry cheerfully calling out instructions to the flight neophytes about how to brace for landing. Cabanela, already having discovered how to negotiate his long legs, steadied Alma, who shot him a brief smile. He left his arm around her shoulders as Memry finished her landing checks.
“Weeelcome to the Empire, baby,” Cabanela said, shooting a brief glance at the distant outskirts of the town. “Just a quick stop in Tzen, here, and then we can be ooon our way.”
Alma drew herself up, letting the brief moment of familiarity fade as she shrugged his arm away from her shoulders. “I don’t want to spend much time here, Cabanela. Maybe it would be better to send Lynne in to get whatever information it is you need and let her catch up to us.”
Cabanela shook his head. “My baby doesn’t know where to go or whooo to talk to. These people know me here; old friends, nothing like ‘em.”
Alma shrugged. “All right, then, but you’re not going alone. If you go, we go.”
“I tooold you before, baby, I’m not going to run off again.” He bristled, shoulders stiffening at her tone.
She frowned at him. “I know what you told me, but here’s what I’m telling you: until we see Jowd safe, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
He drew in a long, incensed breath, ready to argue, but Lynne joined the discussion, possibly to defuse the burgeoning quarrel. “We should probably go! We don’t want to draw any more attention than necessary, right?”
Memry joined in, “I think it would be better for the Ladybird and me to stay in the air, rather than hang around here. Have someone send up a signal when you’re ready—we’ll be looking for you.”
Lynne flourished a finger. “You mean like this?” She let a fireball build, then flung it away across the deck.
“Hey! You break it, you buy it!” protested Memry. “No fire on my airship! Just shoot it from the ground—hey! I said the ground!”
Lynne, laughing, juggled another fireball and tossed it to Missile, letting it dissipate as it flew.
Missile pranced, barking, making his breath cold so it puffed out clouds, just for the sheer joy of the noise and the sensation. Cabanela and Alma tried to continue their conversation over the barking, and Memry gesticulated at Lynne as she told her off, until all of them were silenced by a tentative voice.
“…Hello? Um, excuse me?”
Memry peered over the balustrade. “Uh, yes? Can we help you?”
The young woman standing below wrung her hands. “Um, we in town were just wondering if you were bringing provisions, or maybe news…? News of our boys?”
Lynne looked over as well. “Your boys? You mean, like soldiers?”
“Oh, yes, miss, they took all the men away almost a year ago and we haven’t heard anything since. H- have you come from the front? Maybe you know something about the men from Tzen?” She peered up at them, eyes pleading.
Cabanela joined them at the railing. “Iiii’m from Tzen originally, baby, but we don’t know anythin’ about the soldiers right now.”
Her head snapped up at his voice, the appeal in her eyes turning to abject fear. “General Cabanela! I-I didn’t realize this was your p-personal ship, sir. I’m so sorry, I n-never would have dared—” she backed away, bowing deeply, hand going to cover her face in delayed reaction. “P-please, sir, I hope I haven’t offended you. I won’t ask about them again, sir, just please, please…” She wound down into a mumble, face nearly pressed into the dirt as she groveled.
Cabanela straightened and locked eyes with Alma, who stared him grimly down as she stepped to the railing herself. “Don’t worry, we’re not here to harm you,” she said in her gentlest tones. “We have a scant bit of business in town and then we will be away.”
“Anything, anything for General Cabanela,” the girl choked out. “Just, p-please don’t hurt us. We’ll do anything, just please don’t destroy Tzen!”
Cabanela peered at the town, utterly lost. “Baby, I don’t knooow what you’re talking about. I just need to speak to some folks who live here.”
Confusion filled the girl’s voice. “M-my lord, there’s no one left here who knows you. Not. Not, um. After last time you, er, visited…” She looked up, paled, and quickly averted her eyes from Cabanela’s face, putting her hand over her own eyes again.
Alma’s eyes narrowed. “I think you’d better show us.”
She nodded to Memry, who hit the lever that let down the gangplank. Alma, Lynne, and Missile filed off, leaving only Memry and Cabanela, who hesitated at the top of the plank.
“Come on, Mr. Cabanela!” barked Missile. “Don’t be scared!”
Alma stared at him, then huffed out a breath, holding out a hand to him. “Come on. Let’s just get this over with and be on our way.”
He darted a glance at the cowering girl, then carefully walked down the plank, his usual flamboyance muted to near nothing as he put a hand in Alma’s, squeezed with a nearly imperceptible tug, then let go.
“All right, baby, you’re right. Leeeet’s do this.” He stepped out onto the grass, and Memry retracted the gangplank.
“Remember, send up a signal,” she called to Lynne, who nodded and let a brief spark jump off her fingertip, all mirth gone from her face. The airship rose into the air and quickly disappeared into the distance.