i’ll never let her go

Cutter stepped forward. “I don’t know if I can stop it, but if you get me close enough, I’ll get back into the chamber that holds the princess—I can rescue her, Your Highness. At the very least. I owe Maria that much.”

Elias thought it over a moment, then turned to Flippant. “Master Wizard?”

“If everything we have hypothesized here today is true—and this thing is using the princess as a conduit—the Clockwork Knight will await moonrise, when the charge of demosynthetic energy is at its peak,” Flippant explained. “We might have a chance to stop it first.”

“We would need an army,” Elias said.

–excerpt from part 5 CUTTER

CUTTER LOGO

part 6 CUTTER

By Mikel Andrews

THE LIGHTS FLICKERED AND DIMMED. Cold jolts shot from the console up her arm, tingling. The cuff seemed to suckle her fingertips. Aside from the rings around each finger, her hand felt like it was in a void—there was nothing to touch, to graze.

She was a prisoner, and a terrified one at that.

I am Maria Elena Arezza, Princess of the Royal Family of Estham,” she mustered as grandly as she could, addressing the voice that had spoke to her in the dark. “You will release me at once.”

No answer. Same as the first few times she’d tried it. The voice—the one that had called her Princess—was gone.

Maria wiped away tears with her free hand. When she had woke up this morning, she couldn’t possibly have imagined all this would happen. Not even when Old Flip told her they were going to town.

A field trip, he’d call it. She couldn’t help but laugh a wet sniffle. It was hardly that. Everything had changed, all because Flippant needed to get something from Sir Roan’s shoppe. What did he pick up there anyway? She never found out.

Guilt burned in her cheeks. I never found out because I ran away. With Cutter.

Was it really just this morning when she’d met him, dropped everything—everything but that troublesome book, of course—and ran off with a strange boy?

Maria sobbed freely now. Where was Cutter? This was the perfect time for him to swoop in and save her. Swashbuckling and grinning that charming grin. He’d say something hysterically heroic, like Heard you could use a rescue, Princess or What have you got yourself into this time, Your Highness? Maria longed for such a line. Longed to be rescued by Cutter. Her savior. Her—

She straightened and sniffed. Mind your decorum, Flippant’s voice came back to her. She wouldn’t even mind if the old wizard himself swooped in and rescued her.

Besides talking to a voice that wasn’t there and waiting to be rescued, Maria was trying to see that gemstone gleam she’d seen before. Between the blur of tears, Maria watched that spot in the wall, between the metal beams, where she had first seen the violet glow. Perhaps it would shine again and signal the return of whatever magic bound her to this console. Whatever spirit. Whatever it was.

She didn’t want to be alone anymore. And even that cold whisper of a voice was better company than her own thoughts.

Please,” she sobbed quietly, no trace of her father’s royal bellow. “Please let me go.”

The violet gleam flickered again. And then the voice came from everywhere at once. Why, Nadia, why? Don’t you remember me?”

The voice! It was back! The voice was a cool river that ran into both her ears. Something so passionate, devoted. Maria couldn’t help but be soothed by it. But Nadia? Who was that?

Maria found her bearings and shook away the spell of the voice. “Who’s there? I demand to know who my captor is!”

Captor?” the voice asked. To Maria it sounded almost hurt. Nadia, please. Try to remember! It know I appear different, but it is truly me—Avalas. Your knight. Your love.”

Avalas. The name didn’t sound familiar. And it was nothing she’d read about in The Demosynthetic Process—at least not that she’d paid attention to. But now she had a name. She could work with a name. Flippant had told her once that a name was the first key to any lock.

I can’t see you,” Maria said bluntly. “How would I know if you were Avalas or not?”

Maria thought she heard a sigh and then the lights dimmed almost to black. The gem-like gleam from within the wall abated and reappeared right in front of her. In the shape of a man. A man in armor.

The man smiled. “Is this better, Princess?”

For the first time, the voice had a face. A handsome face, seemingly chiseled out of amethyst stone and lit by an ethereal hue. The knight’s hair was long but neatly braided down his back. One stone gauntlet rested on the hilt of a sword. The other he presented to Maria.

Whatever this spirit was, he already had one of Maria’s hands, he wouldn’t get another. She made a display of pulling her free hand away from his grasp. She was surprised that in the mixed bag of emotions she was feeling, fear was no longer one of them. She was staring at a ghost, and yet her resolve had become sharpened to a point.

Are you Avalas?” Maria demanded.

The essence of the knight looked confused. Pained. “Of course, Nadia. Am I so different from how you remember me?”

That’s just it! I don’t remember you! We’ve never met! Have you been listening to anything I’ve said? Maria wanted to scream all these things, but instead she played along.

Yes, Avalas. In fact,” she said, “I don’t recognize you at all. What happened?”

The look on Avalas’ face shifted; his eyes darkened. His lips became a sneer. The purple hue dissipated. The spirit was gone and Maria was once again alone. In the dark. No, no, no. She wouldn’t be left alone again. She was finally getting answers—and that was better than being left wondering.

Avalas—wait!” Maria called out, and was surprised at the longing in her voice.

All this time I’ve waited for you.” The voice of Avalas swam in the dark. And you barely remember me. How could this be, Nadia?”

Avalas,” Maria said carefully. “I am not Nadia.”

In a flash of violet and a gale of wind, the spirit of the knight returned. His hand clutched Maria’s chin and cheek, turning her face to the left then the right. She couldn’t feel his touch exactly, but in its place was a cold heat. A cold heat that nearly snapped her neck.

One wizard breath. Two. Three.

You are my princess,” he said at last. “Whether you are Nadia or not.”

Who is she?” Maria found herself asking. “Who is Nadia? What happened? Perhaps, if you let me go, I could find her for you.”

The knight shook his head. “You won’t find Nadia. That was all so long ago. But there is a king to kill.”

Panic ate Maria’s words. She felt feint. Cold and numb. He was talking about her father!

The king will die by the hand of his own daughter—his princess,” Avalas said. “And the Arezza family will finally fall.”

*                    *                    *

IN A MATTER OF HOURS, the king’s private chambers were transformed into a full-blown war room. The stately quarters that were once the jewelry box of the palace had become nothing more than a gilded think tank. Everyone was speaking the same language: strategy.

Consultants and technicians flowed through the doorways, carrying documents ranging from metallurgic formulas to fairytale legends. Sky pirates, clanging with jewelry and stinking of engine grease, stomped in and out of the chambers with constant updates on the state of Captain Alven’s airships. Occasionally, one of his messenger hawks would have to be let in through the window. Screeching and clawing were the birds’ only doorbells, and barely audible ones over the swarming insects constantly buzzing and thudding against the decorative panes.

Crickets, Flippant thought hotly. I’ve always hated crickets.

Almost as obnoxious as the crickets was the hummingbird hovering of the boy. Cutter. Flippant couldn’t help but glare at him as he traveled from group to group, adding his two toadies whenever he saw fit.

To everyone else in the room, the boy was an asset; his understanding of pentomechanics was surprisingly well-versed for a common street urchin. The knowledge gave him a leg up on airship maintenance as well as speculation on the Clockwork Knight.

The Clockwork Knight he’s been rebuilding and repairing, Flippant seethed. That holds the princess hostage.

Flippant couldn’t help but hold the boy in contempt. After all, Cutter was at the heart of this whole debacle.

No, it’s me. I took Maria to Ralafus. I left her alone. And, worst of all, if I’d paid a lick of attention to that foolish boy, I might have seen what he was up to.

At the very least, Flippant could have warned Cutter that demosynthetics were not for dabbling in. Especially if the dabbler was a Pentomechanic. Two very different kinds of magic; mastery of one does not imply mastery of the other. One could augment the other, but—it was cut and dry.

Pentomechanic magic was not demoysynthetic magic. Period.

Master Flippant?”

Flippant was caught off guard by the boy’s quiet interruption. Cutter, that little hummingbird, had crept up on him. The welts left by Flippant’s Piperscorn ulms were starting to disappear from the boy’s face and arms. His silky raven hair was starting to settle back into the perfect helmet it usually looked like.

What is it?” Flippant groaned.

Cutter looked around sheepishly. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

Flippant’s first reaction was to point a finger and begin to lecture the boy. But he hadn’t expected an apology. And that slight hesitation gave Cutter the go-ahead to keep on apologizing.

I’m sorry that I rebuilt that—that thing. And I’m sorry I always bugged you when you visited Ralafus. And I’m sorry I took Maria from the whistle store. And—”

Whistle store. Byrd’s Books and Whistles. Flippant had almost forgotten about his old friend since they’d moved Sir Roan Byrd to a cot in the adjoining room. And, subsequently, he’d forgotten about the whistle he’d commissioned Byrd to craft. He prodded his sleeves and pockets. Where was it? Who had it?

Elias!” Flippant called out, answering himself. Every head in the room turned and Flippant felt his face flush. So much for that decorum he was always preaching to Maria.

King Elias turned away from the aide he was conversing with and turned a stern look on Flippant. “What is it, Master Wizard?”

Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Flippant replied. “Do you still have the whistle?”

Whistle?” Cutter whispered. Flippant ignored the boy and made his way across the room to Elias’s desk. The king looked confused for a moment, then he too remembered the little slotted disk that had kept him occupied during the long eternities between Alven’s updates about his daughter. Elias fingered the whistle from inside his waist sash and held it up for Flippant to see. The look of hope on his face stung Flippant as he approached. He hadn’t meant to imply he had an answer for its use—just reminded that, according to the prophecy, it played an integral part.

Oh, wow!” Cutter cried. Flippant didn’t even noticed the boy had followed him but there he was, snatching the whistle from the king’s grip and looking at it incredulously. “I never thought I’d see one of these!”

Flippant rolled his eyes. “As if you know what that is.”

Cutter looked hurt. “I most certainly do. I saw it in a book.”

Of course,” Flippant snorted. “Just like the Ferrous Golem, right?”

That’s different. Honest mistake,” Cutter said. He held up the whistle like it was a cookie he wanted to eat. “But I know what this is.”

And what is it, boy?” Elias asked. “Speak up.”

It’s a shattertrill, Your Majesty,” Cutter answered.

A what?”

Cutter sighed, frustrated—as if it were so incredibly obvious. “A shatttertrill. It’s a demolition whistle.”

His explanation was met with nothing but perplexed looks. A few others in the room had circled around the boy to listen to his explanation; Marz Alven of the Skyhammer Guild was the last. Flippant scoffed as the sky pirate captain feigned interest.

Cutter shook his head and went on. “Look, a shattertrill produces a specific tone designed to target the shatter-point of a geometric object.”

More confused looks.

Is this happening?” Cutter muttered. “Every three-dimensional shape has a mathematically-determinable breaking point—a spot that will send fault lines through the object and leave it a pile of rubble. In the old days, when structures were simple, you could use a shattertrill for quick demolition. Here, watch!”

Before anyone could stop him, Cutter had the whistle to his lips and was preparing to blow. Elias, Alven, and Flippant all reached for him at the same time, shouting “No!” Cutter blew into the shattertrill and a shrill shriek filled the air. Flippant couldn’t help but cover his ears. Alven ducked beneath a desk and Elias covered his head, waiting for the roof to come down around him.

Flippant waited, teeth clenched. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes and put his hands down. Cutter stood staring at him, hands on his hips, frowning.

If you’d let me finish,” Cutter continued, “they don’t really work anymore because modern structures are too complex. Nobody wanted a house that could be brought down by a whistle.”

Yes, well,” Flippant grunted, clearing his throat. “The plans for that whistle were the only thing we could find concerning the aversion of this doomsday event. So it’s not so much what the shattertrill does, but what does it affect?”

Cutter shrugged. “Maybe it’s tuned to the Clockwork Knight himself?”

Flippant shook his head. “Unlikely. Even our predecessors must have known the Knight could reshape and rebuild himself. A shattertrill would be rendered useless. It must be for something smaller—something they knew wouldn’t change.”

Cutter snapped his fingers. “The geode!”

What are you talking about, son?” Elias asked.

Cutter pointed to Flippant. “Master Flippant said that the Clockwork Knight was fitted with an enchanted geode that contained the spirit of the king’s prize soldier. That’s a simple shape—perfect for a shattertrill!”

Even as Flippant nodded, he couldn’t believe what he was thinking. The boy is right. A geode, with its crystalline core, would meet a quick end if its breaking point could be determined. But why not destroy the geode right then and there? Save all the trouble of creating plans and hiding it in a prophecy?

That answer was even more obvious to Flippant. They couldn’t.

Even if the technology existed to make such a precise shattertrill—precise enough to map out the interior contours of a geode—the wizards that coaxed the land to bury the Clockwork Knight would have made sure the abomination was impossible to reach. It was only centuries of erosion and bad luck that introduced Cutter to the Knight in the first place.

The plans were the extent of what the metallurgists at the time could produce, Flippant realized. A preventative measure.

So this whistle is meant to destroy something within the Clockwork Knight?” Alven asked out of nowhere. “Isn’t that where the princess is being held captive?”

Flippant only needed to choose a patronizing retort for the good captain, but before he could, Cutter spoke up.

We stick to the original plan, then,” he said. “Get me inside. I’ll get Maria. Blow the shattertrill. Get out.”

It’s not that simple, boy,” Flippant said. “Even if we got someone inside the Clockwork Knight, the second you shatter the stone, chances are the whole thing will come apart. And you’d have to know where the geode is.”

Cutter bowed his head. “I know where it is. And I know how to get in and out. Fast.”

How?” Elias asked.

There’s a porthole, Your Majesty,” the Pentomechanic answered. “Right about where the ear would be on the Knight. It leads directly to the chamber that Maria’s in. If Captain Alven will fly me to the porthole, I can get in, free Maria, blow the rock, and get out. And Marz—you won’t even have to leave. I’ll be quick. Just keep buzzing around the Knight’s head like a gnat.”

Alven gulped. He stroked his goatee. “Simple as that, eh?”

Do you have something that can do it, Alven?” Elias demanded.

Marz nibbled at his thumbnail as he thought it over. Flippant could tell he did in fact have something that would work, but now he was working out how well it would work. No doubt calculating the risk to himself in the process.

Out with it, Alven!” Flippant spat.

Marz sighed, nodding. “We have something—we call it the Treehopper. It’s small, good for precise, quick maneuvering. And hovering.”

That sounds perfect!” Cutter exclaimed.

Almost perfect,” Marz admitted. “It’s built for one. Now I can carry Cutter—not safely, but I can carry him. The princess? Depends on how well Cutter can hang onto her.”

I’ll never let her go,” Cutter said with blazing confidence. “I promise.”

Flippant was honestly touched by Cutter’s bravery, his loyalty to Princess Maria. He flicked his chin and caught the boy in his special lenses. Maria’s aura burned brilliantly around Cutter, but not in the way he expected. The smoky ribbons of color didn’t trail from him or drip from his fingernails. It was as if Cutter was wearing the shreds of the princess’s aura like a coat. Or armor. The old wizard felt a warmth resonating in his chest that he hardly recognized anymore.

You can do this, Cutter, Flippant thought, swallowing the lump in his throat. You can save her.

Just then, another sky pirate, one of Alven’s men, burst through the door. It wasn’t exactly a shocking gesture anymore, but this one had something important to say. Flippant could tell. He recognized the man as Mr. Phantom, Alven’s First Mate. The man had been stone-faced and confident even when first reporting the Clockwork Knight emerging from the ground.

Now, however, the man could barely muster his voice.

C-captain Alven,” Phantom choked out. “It appears that the Clockwork Knight’s army has risen.”

Risen?” Marz echoed.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of metal warriors have emerged. Below ground, caves, beneath Ralafus—they’ve already stormed through the town and are marching here to the castle.”

Flippant turned to the king. “It won’t be long now, Your Majesty. If Maria is being used as a conduit, we—I may have been wrong about waiting ’til moonrise.”

Elias sighed and closed his eyes. “Darbio?”

A young knight clad in full armor up to his neck stepped up. “Your Majesty?”

Flippant knew him as the head of security, but Darbio also acted as the Prime Knight of the Royal Guard..

The time has come to send out the Guard,” Elias told the young man. “Your men will ride out under the cover of Alven’s airships. Alven?”

On it, Your Highness,” Marz replied, then addressed Mr. Phantom. “Call back Scout Flight. Tell them to form up above the king’s Royal Guard.”

Phantom looked confused. “Tell them, Captain? Won’t I be leading them?”

Marz clapped a hand on Phantom’s broad shoulder. “No, Mr. Phantom, not this time. I need you to pilot the Jasmine—”

The flagship?” Phantom questioned. “Surely, we’re not flying that into ba—”

I’m launching from her, Phantom,” Marz said, letting his voice rise then ebb humbly. “In the Treehopper.”

Mr. Phantom swallowed his confusion, his fear, and suddenly had no more questions for his captain. He gave a curt nod and left the room. Flippant saw the calm, dry amusement that tugged at the corners of Alven’s lips. Maybe nobody else saw it, but Flippant suddenly feared that the sky pirate captain’s place in this plan was more dangerous than he was willing to admit.

And that made Marz Alven far braver than Flippant had thought.

Just like that, things were off and running. Darbio followed Phantom, and King Elias began ordering people around. Maps were rolled and books were shelved as the royal chambers were emptied in a hurry.

Well, this is it,” Cutter said as Marz sidled up to Flippant and the boy.

Good luck,” Flippant told him, then nodded to Marz. “And you too, Captain.”

Marz meant to say something. Some snide retort that he was famous for, Flippant was sure. Instead, the sky pirate just nodded back and stuck out his hand. “Thank you, Master Wizard.”

Flippant shook the man’s hand. Suddenly, Cutter’s hand covered theirs, gripping tightly to stop the handshake.

It’s not luck, mates,” he said with a grin, holding up the shattertrill. “It’s science.”

*                      *                      *

MARIA HAD BEEN SCARED when the console had first clamped around her hand. She’d been scared when the voice spoke and when Avalas first appeared. She’d been scared when he told her she was the key to killing her father.

But now, as the contraption began to lurch forward and knives of electricity shot through her hand, Maria was downright horrified. Her sickly empty stomach turned over as the war machine pushed forward.

Why are you doing this?” she asked. “What did my—the king—ever do to you?”

Ever do to me?” Avalas’ voice echoed through the chamber, thunder on tin. Ever do to me!”

Maria couldn’t help but squeak shrilly as the horizon-violet specter appeared again in a gale of light. This time there was hatred in his eyes, and the handsome chiseled face was replaced with a sneer that planed the knight’s cheekbones and frown lines into harsh angles. Again, she couldn’t feel his touch, but the pressure pinched around her small wrist felt worse than anything the console cuff had produced thus far. She shuddered in his grip, turning away as he drew his face close to hers.

Do you have time for a story, Princess?” Avalas asked, then cocked an amused smirk. “What am I saying—of course you do.”

Maria tried to hide her gasp as the ghost of the knight dropped her hand and whirled around the room, thinking where to begin his tale. Fretting, she wondered how long before Avalas spit it out. After all, at the rate this thing was lurching toward her father’s palace, she only had so long to talk him out of it—and she’d need to hear his side first. Maria wasn’t a gifted mechanic, or a wizard, or a king—she wasn’t even a sky pirate when it came to skill. But she could listen. That she took from her mother. And Queen Arga had disarmed many a situation.

She just had to listen.

Fortunately, Avalas seemed ready to talk. He relaxed his shoulders and sighed. “I was once the most prized soldier in Estham. Prime Knight of the Royal Guard. But I was also, first and foremost, in love.

Princess Nadia Morena Arezza—the most beautiful creature ever to come from the royal family. We were going to marry. In secret, of course. Even the Prime Knight couldn’t marry a royal.”

Maria’s interest was piqued. She wondered how she might be related to Nadia, or how long ago she lived. Or how beautiful she truly was.

Avalas went on. “Her father—the king—was furious. Of course. That seems to be the nature of kings. He didn’t just forbid the relationship—he severed it indefinitely.

I was sent on a quest. King Mercuse said if I was successful, he would be willing to rethink the marriage rule. All I had to do was steal back a prized chalice from the king of Portham.”

Portham? The neighboring kingdom? Maria felt herself being weighed down by the mere idea of traveling to Portham. Estham spread so far that to even cross its borders would take weeks.

Avalas shook his head. “But there was no chalice. There was no quest. It was merely a ploy to rob me of my flesh.

My essence—my very soul—was confined to a stone. Then the stone was confined to a clockwork body. A metal prison. It seemed in my absence, the Royal Guard had been replaced by automatons. Mercuse would never again take the chance of entrusting his safety to human men. Capable of love, feeling—and betrayal.”

But,” Avalas smiled. “Even a handful of spells couldn’t contain me—nor my love for Nadia. My conscience rose to the surface and I was able to become myself again. Sentient—mostly. But, by then, Nadia had forgotten about me. She was disgusted by with what I had become. A cruel reminder of the love she’d lost.

And therein lay the genius behind the king’s plan. He no longer needed to forbid the relationship—he had taken extreme measures to ensure Nadia would never love me again, in any form. As I said, severed. Indefinitely.”

Maria found herself crying again. Not for fear this time, but for the story she had heard. How could something so horrible have happened in her own family’s past? She tried to picture her father doing the same thing to her potential suitor.

To Cutter.

I—I’m sorry,” she whispered to Avalas, and meant it.

The soft edge to Avalas’ voice was gone. “Don’t be sorry. You have provided me a means to an end, Princess. You see, I spent years rebuilding my clockwork body, strengthening it to lay siege to Castle Arezza—but I always failed. Some clever wizard, or some roguish knight would always figure out a plan to stop me. I kept learning new and more powerful magic—a side effect from the enchanted stone I was imprisoned in—but still, I was thwarted at every turn.

But then I realized the secret to revenge wasn’t in magic. It was in leverage. So I built this little console, carved a clever inscription, and waited for some fool to bring me a princess. Because I’ll bet all the toadies in Estham that the king wouldn’t dare shoot, flood, or bury the prison that holds his precious daughter.”

Avalas beamed at Maria, begging her to comment on his scheme. Marvel at his machinations. And while she was surprised that she wasn’t the key she thought she was—that the lock was so much simpler than anyone had imagined—she was also still sorry. Sorry for the knight that wasn’t allowed to love. Sorry that one king’s rage had led him to believe this was his only recourse.

Sorry that, to get out of his mess, Maria was going to have to talk Avalas out of a hatred that he had every right to feel. And she knew this because even in the short time she had known the truth of what happened to the former Prime Knight, she felt that same hatred coursing through her.

Maria too had been betrayed. By her family. Her blood.

May I ask a question, Avalas?” she managed.

Avalas seemed taken aback. He must have been expecting Maria to scream, to cry out for her father, to beg to be released. The knight nodded.

Maria bolstered her voice. “How will any of this bring Nadia back?”

Avalas made a face like a sword was being raked across his ribs. “What?”

Maria swallowed. Her throat was dried parchment. “Your plan—it’s all very clever. But how will it bring Nadia back? And even if it could—how will it make her love you?”

Avalas squinted, shaking his head. “It—it was never meant to—she—it wasn’t supposed to bring her back.”

There it was. Maria’s opening. Her key. She feigned a theatrical scowl of confusion. “Forgive me, Sir Knight, but I don’t understand—you spent all this time waiting, learning the greatest magics in the kingdom—to do what exactly? Seek revenge?”

Well, I—” Avalas began, but Maria disarmed that too.

It just seems to me that if you truly loved Princess Nadia, she would have been your top priority,” she said boldly. “Surely in all your studies, you must have come across a spell that can return people to life. Or a love spell perhaps?”

Of course not, that’s,” Avalas began. His eyes flicked back and forth, reading invisible pages. “That’s…absurd.”

Maria may have been playing the silly girl that knew nothing of magic, but even she could see Avalas was questioning himself. Reviewing everything he’d ever learned. Searching the library of his mind for a spell or a potion. One way or another, she couldn’t let him find it.

No? Nothing to change events, undo the passage of time?” Maria pushed on. “What seems absurd to me is that a man driven by love could turn into such a powerful wizard—and the best plan he could think of is to grab a girl by the wrist and use her to kill a king.

A king that had nothing to do with what happened to you and Nadia.”

There was her dagger again. She drove it right into Avalas’ heart. She saw him wince. His shoulders slumped and his hue shaded as he clutched the wall with a shimmering hand. She had him. She even thought she felt the lurching of the automaton fortress slowing.

I can do this, Maria thought. I can stop him.

A whirring, whining drone pierced the steel chamber. Maria had only now become aware of how loud—how close—it was. It had been in the background, true, but she assumed it was just the hum of some large gear.

Avalas straightened. “What is that?” His gaze grew from concerned to stern. Angry. His second-guessing confusion was gone, replaced by that hot, driven sneer.

No, Maria thought. Not now.

*                    *                    *

I hold tight to Alven’s Treehopper. It really is a remarkable little vehicle—pretty much just a cockpit surrounded by a rotor blade—but this gives him amazing maneuverability as he pilots.

It’s the oldest rule of mechanics: the simplest solution is the most practical.

We launch from his great airship, the jewel of his armada. Instantly, I’m buffeted by insects. Crickets, millions of them. They are cloying, choking the skies. The Treehopper shreds most of them, but I can see through my goggles that they’ll soon clog the engine.

Not that it will matter, from what Alven tells me. He says the Treehopper only holds a small fuel supply. A fuel supply meant to support a crew of one. Not two. And definitely not three.

You have to be fast, Cutter, I tell myself. No time for theatrics. You know the blueprints and you have the tools. Just get her out of there.

I nearly lose my grip on the Treehopper when I think of her. Maria. In all that I have learned, accomplished, and invented, never have I ever been more awestruck than the moment I saw her.

How could I have left her alone? How could I have been so wrong about everything?

Stop. You have a job to do.

Below us, I can barely make out the battle. The clash between the king’s Royal Guard and the Clockwork Army. I know this much: the Guard is outnumbered.

You have to be fast, Cutter.

Alven’s Skyhammer Guild provides us escort as we approach the looming monolith that is the Clockwork Knight. Seeing the hulking monstrosity now, I feel foolish for ever thinking it was a Ferrous Golem.

So wrong.

I manage to tap Marz on the shoulder and direct him to the right side of the Knight’s head. That’s where the porthole is. The entrance to my worksh—the chamber where Maria is held. Where the geode is. I feel the weight of the shattertrill at my side, tucked safely into a vollskin pouch.

Marz pulls in close to the head. Make it quick, he tells me with a simple hand gesture. I almost laugh. As if he needs to remind me how fast I must be. I remind myself that their sense of urgency is relatively new, borne in the king’s chambers.

Mine was borne when Quell found me in the forest and told me that Maria was trapped. That, in all my years of mastering spells, the first thing I found to be truly magic was in danger.

And it was my fault.

But instead of laughing at what Marz thinks “urgency” means, I nod and leap for the porthole. The hilt of my whipdrill catches on the outer ring. Part of my sleeve tears away on a stray strand of mesh and razor-sharp wire slices into my arm. I don’t care. Not for a second.

I’m coming, Maria. Please hold on. And no theatrics this time.

Well…maybe one.

*                     *                     *

ALL WITH ONE HAND CONSUMED BY THE CONSOLE, Maria watched as Cutter dropped into the chamber. His whipdrill was drawn as he inspected the scene. He saw Avalas, of course, but the ghostly apparition barely seemed to phase him. But when his eyes found Maria, timed seemed to stop. Cutter pushed a pair of aviator goggles—where did he get those?—onto his forehead and took her in. Maria had hoped he would come for her, of course—but she never expected it to really happen.

She wanted to scream out to him. She had a thousand things to tell him, a million, but none of them sounded quite right. That she was glad to see him. That he was foolish for coming for her. That she had it under control. That she missed him.

Cutter seemed to be waiting for her to say something too. When she didn’t, he forced a weary grin and muttered, “Looks like you could use a hand, Your Majesty!”

Her heart barely had time to flutter before Avalas cried out and rushed the raven-haired boy. Maria screamed as the knight drew his sword of light. In a flash, the blade solidified into rough rock, and the edge became sharpened crystal. It looked like the rocks she had seen in Flippant’s collection.

Cutter, watch out!” she cried.

Cutter didn’t need her warning. He already had his whipdrill up and grinding against the stone sword. He pressed into Avalas’ attack, trying to keep him from parrying as he reached for something—a furry pouch—at his side.

What was he doing? He was giving up ground for whatever was in that little bag. Cutter, this is no time for some silly invention, Maria thought fearfully. Even Cutter, with all his skills in scrapping and swashbuckling, was no match for a former Prime Knight. He was only a boy, after all.

But whatever was in that pouch must have been important because Cutter kept trying to get it out. He parried, twirled, and danced around the ghost of Avalas, dodging swipe after crystal-edged swipe, all the while fingering that bag. Whatever it was, it was important, Maria realized. But Avalas wasn’t going to let up. And all Cutter needed was a second.

Avalas!” Maria cried out suddenly. “It’s Nadia!”

It didn’t matter that it was a lie, the knight whirled around in Maria’s direction first then panned around the chamber at the prospect of seeing his princess again. This bought Cutter the spare second he needed to retrieve a small, metal circle from the pouch. The boy brought the device to his lips.

Cutter puffed his cheeks and blew.

Everything—the sputtering drone from outside, the clang of swords, the grinding of gears—was silenced by the piercing peal of what must have been some kind of whistle. Maria clenched her teeth as the trill rose to ear-splitting.

Nobody was more affected by the sound than Avalas. He groaned painfully, although Maria couldn’t hear anything but the whistle. Behind the wall, where Maria had seen that gemlike gleam, there was an explosion; a rumbling that sent a cloud of dust from between the seams of the wall.

Cutter stopped whistling. Avalas’s hue grew from cold amethyst to sunlight-white. So bright Maria had to look away. She heard him cry out as he flashed out of existence.

I’m coming, Nadia!

Cutter was on the console before Maria had time to even guess what happened. He pressed his left hand to its structure and shut his eyes. Maria watched in disbelief as seams and bolts and notches began to trace themselves in bluish light. The rivets remained even when Cutter opened his eyes. He wasted no time disassembling the console with the help of his whipdrill. The whirling, conical blade made short work of the glowing screws and bolts that held the console together. Very shortly, Maria’s hand was hers again. She rubbed some feeling back into it.

Are you okay, Princess?” Cutter asked.

Maria just wrapped her arms around him and held tight. She never wanted to let go. She squeezed him long past when he began squirming out of her grip.

Your Majesty, we—we need to get out of here,” he said. “Now!”

A series of clunks and metallic groans erupted from around the chamber. While she wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, Maria could see pieces rearranging and falling behind the walls. Wires frayed and popped from the seams. Sparks arced as Cutter’s string of globular lanterns flickered and exploded.

Up the hatch,” Cutter said, ushering her to the ladder rungs. “You first.”

Maria managed to give a quick nod before taking to the ladder. Up and up she climbed towards the porthole. Bits and pieces fell onto her upturned face in the darkness. She tried to make sure Cutter was still behind her, but it was almost impossible to make him out. She had to trust that he wouldn’t leave her behind. Not after all this.

Emerging into a gale of insects and engine fumes, Maria found out just how far the knight’s construct had risen from the earth. Even if she could keep her eyes open long to get a good look at the ground, she wouldn’t have been able to make out much. Nor did she really want to. She hated heights.

She heard Cutter’s voice cry from below, barely cracking the whistling winds. “Grab on, Princess!”

Glancing up, Maria found a strange metal pod with a whipping blade coming near her. She didn’t recognize the pilot, but she recognized his garb. Sky pirate! Like the ones that had tried to kidnap her earlier! Were they under attack? Was the plot to capture her still live?

Trust me, Princess, grab hold!” Cutter screamed. “Hurry!”

No time to question. The strange vessel grew closer and Maria saw a rung that she thought she could hold onto. She grabbed the gritty metal and held tight, screaming as she felt her feet leaving the ladder. Panic stole the sound from her lungs.

Cutter! They’re leaving him!

The little ship pulled away from the Clockwork Knight as Cutter emerged from the porthole. Maria called out to him. He didn’t look afraid, just determined. Maria looked around the base of the tiny airship. There was another rung opposite hers. The airship was already changing its altitude, maneuvering back to Cutter. The sky pirate wasn’t leaving him at all! Relieved, she turned her energy back to her grip. Now wasn’t the time to get butterfingers.

Just as Cutter’s rung reached him, a gale swept the tiny ship away. Maria almost reached out for the boy before realizing she needed both hands to hold on.

Go back! Go back!” she found herself screaming. The ship closed in again. Cutter reached for his handhold.

And then the ladder beneath him gave out. Simply broke away, coming apart like the rest of the contraption. Maria screamed. Hot tears burned down her face and were lost to the wind.

Cutter fell back into the black void of the hatch.

Gone.

The rest of the Clockwork Knight’s monstrous frame began to collapse in on itself as the sky pirate vessel pulled Maria way from where the boy had fallen. Disappeared. Left her.

Cutter was gone, Maria realized. She screamed until she was hoarse. Sobbing all the way back to the large airship that brought her home to Castle Arezza.

Suddenly hanging on didn’t seem so important.

*                    *                     *

IN THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED, Maria spent most of her time in her room. She didn’t have much patience for her classwork, which Flippant seemed to understand. At first, he’d tried to coax her back into a desk, thinking it might keep her mind focused if he buried her in schoolwork. But he could never keep her gaze from drifting to the nearest window.

Maria’s newest hobby, besides going to bed early and sleeping in, was trying to piece together all that had transpired. Without having to ask anyone, of course. The last thing she wanted to do was broach the subject with her parents and see their faces sadden as they tried to coat everything in sugar like they usually did.

No, Maria planned to map it out herself. And so far she was doing just fine. From Captain Alven collecting his handsome reward from her father, she gleaned that the two had struck up some sort of deal in the wake of her failed kidnapping.

What good fortune.

Then there were the charcoal etchings hidden in Flippant’s desk. Plans for something Flippant had titled “The Prophecy Whistle.” Whatever it was, he had commissioned a whistlemaker to build it—or maybe Sir Roan Byrd had become a whistlemaker in order to build it. Either way, Maria learned that Flippant had known something like this would happen someday. That a princess was involved. Thus he’d steered Maria away from any information concerning demosynthetics.

Lucky her.

The rest came from a storybook Maria had come across in the castle library. One particular chapter was a fairy tale called “The Clockwork Knight and the Princess.” It filled in the gaps—although it wasn’t exactly accurate, Maria knew.

That was that. Her life was back to flouncy dresses and heavy jewelry. She ate lavish dinners with her parents. Stood at her mother’s side when local lords paid royalties to her father. Curtsied, and thanked, and clapped—all right on cue. Like a good little princess.

But in her mind, she was still hanging onto that rung beneath the Treehopper. Holding on for dear life. And waiting.

For Cutter.

And that’s when the tears would come. Whenever she thought of him—whenever she didn’t. Even walking under those familiar lamps in the hallway made her burst out in tears. When she dreamt, she saw him. Falling. Again and again.

Despite what had actually happened, in her dreams, Maria reached out to him. Every time. One night, he’d reached back and they’d fallen together—it was the best nightmare she’d ever had.

Often, her thoughts drifted to the mountain of gears and metal that had downpoured in the meadow just outside Ralafus. The pile of rubble left from the fall of the Clockwork Knight and his army that her father’s Guard had only begun to clean up. She wanted to find his body. To search the wreckage and find what was left of him and bury him properly.

This had inevitably led her to searching diners and pubs throughout Ralafus, hoping to find and hire Captain Alven—but the sky pirate had become scarce. Few locals even caught a glimpse of the Skyhammer Guild anymore. Not so much as a messenger hawk had been seen in weeks.

It was just one day.

One boy.

Cutter.

It wasn’t just one day—it was her whole life in an instant. A heartbeat, a blink, a snap—and then everything was gone. He was there just long enough to show her what she was missing. Just a taste, a glimpse. And now? Just an echo.

Eventually, Maria found her way back into the white-walled lecture room of Master Flippant. The old wizard sat at his desk, scribbling away at some parchment, fussing to keep his oversized sleeves out of his way.

Master?” she whispered.

Flippant’s head shot up as if he’d just awoken with a start. As though he’d forgotten her voice. Maybe he had. Maria hadn’t spoke to him in ages.

He found his bearings and cleared his throat. “What is it, child?”

Maria bit her lip. “Maybe—maybe we could resume lessons now?”

Flippant took to his feet faster than Maria ever thought possible. “Well, I—that is to say—well—I just need to get some books! Wait right here!”

Flippant dashed passed her, beaming. Just before he left the room, his frantic face sobered behind his rosy lenses. “We’ll get through this, Your Majesty. I promise.”

Maria just nodded as he left the room. The tears didn’t immediately start to pour down her face, she found. In fact, she was able to dam them up. Swallow them instead.

We’ll get through this.

She took her usual seat at the single desk that faced Master Flippant’s. She straightened the the big bell of her indigo dress, streamlining it until she fit comfortably into the seat. Then, propping her head up on two fists, she looked forward, waiting for Old Flip to return with a boring load of fat books.

She almost didn’t notice the humming sound. Or the tapping at the window. Cautiously, Maria turned her head to face the sound. With a cry, she found herself staring at a hovering figure made of scrap metal. Of clockwork gears and whirling cogs. Rudders and propellers kept him a float.

The Clockwork Knight! He’s returned for me!

The window latch rattled and undid itself, swinging open. Before she could flee, a slatted faceplate lifted away and revealed a human face. A young man’s face, rimmed by raven hair and lit by a stunningly bright grin. Maria’s jaw dropped as she began to shake lightly.

Did you miss me, Princess?”

Cutter!” Maria sobbed. “Is—is it really you?”

In the flesh,” he replied. Then, glancing at the metal running down his arms and legs, added, “Technically.”

Maria’s face felt searingly hot as she choked out her next words. “I thought you—you were—I saw you fall and—I thought—”

Thought what? That a Pentomechanic couldn’t get himself out of a pile of scrap?” he beamed, putting his fists on his hips. The action made him bob and dip. He looked a little unsure, then righted himself. “It took a little while to dig out—but I just kept finding all these great parts! That’s what really slowed me down. Check out this new armor I made! I took a page from the book of—”

He was interrupted by Maria flinging herself out the open window and into his arms. She held onto him so tight—she wouldn’t let go this time. No matter what he said. And he just let her, cradling her while she sobbed.

After a few moments, Cutter pressed his lips to her ear and whispered. “Sorry I’m late, Your Majesty.”

It’s okay,” Maria laughed wetly. She pulled away so she could look him in the eyes. “You’re just in time to rescue me.”

The End

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