The sky-cities are failing, the oxygen running thin, and the future of mankind rests on the bony shoulders of an orphan who goes by the name of Lily Pilldrop.
The Orphanage in the Sky
Lily Pilldrop was lying on her front, resting on her elbows as she leaned over the edge, the edge being the place where the cobbled yard stopped and the infinite drop of the sky began.
The sky was beautiful this evening, like an amber ocean, a depthless sea of golden cloud stretching out in all directions below her, swirling and surging away into the distance, glimmering as electrical storms flickered beneath the surface, the quiet thunder reaching her on the wind.
How far down? she thought. How far down do you go?
Maybe if she had something to throw, something to drop into that endless expanse she could find out. Feeling around, she found nothing, the cobbles all cemented securely into the ground, the dirt around them compacted and hard, the pockets of her raggedy white gown as empty as they ever were.
All Lily Pilldrop had was her spit. She sat up, and glanced behind her at the house that shadowed over the yard, and checked the crooked windows for any sign Madam Thricetin. Satisfied that the old woman was nowhere to be seen, Lily held back her hair –which was tangled and the colour of blood- and let a glistening strand of her saliva fall over the edge.
Down it went, down, down, and then lost, lost forever with the golden clouds and the lightning that glimmered through them, lost in the infinite saffron mists that wreathed the gas planet below.
She spat again, this time aiming for the oil-streaked envelope of one the balloons, one of the bulging, off-blue gasbags that bulged out from beneath the base of this house in the sky.
“Lily Pildrop!” shouted an all too familiar voice behind her. “I do hope you aren’t slobbering all over my fine orphanage!” The voice spoke with a heavy east London accent.
“N-No Miss Thricetin.” stammered Lily, scrambling to her feet, flinching when the woman –who was really too old to be wearing a corset but wore one anyway, black with pink ribbons down the back- came to stand by her, striding out across the yard, boots clicking on the stones.
“That’s Madam Thricetin to you, you little devil!” she said, holding Lily by the scruff as she craned her neck to inspect the side of her orphanage. Both of them saw the girl’s glistening spit, nestled in the netting of the nearest gasbag.
“You’d do well to not lie in this life Lily, mark my words you’d do well to…”
“I’m sorry miss, I mean madam, its just, I just…”
“…you wanted to see the sky, I know. I’ve heard it all before.” said Madam Thricetin, but she released the girl from her grasp and ran the hand through her grey grizzled hair. “You wouldn’t be the first orphan to be obsessed with it Lily.”
“No. Why, half the kids that come here have never even seen the sky, not the lower sky anyway, for they’ve been locked up, trapped in the black belly of that, that monstrosity that they call London…”
At this point she gestured violently towards the soot stained city which floated in the sky about half mile away, supported by millions and millions of multi-coloured, multi-patterned ballons, stripped and spotty, yellow and blue, but all of them faded, all of them worn by the long years off keeping such a massive bulk airborne.
“In London,” she continued, “right in its dank depths, right where the hell is, where the kids stoke the boilers in the blistering heat, starving, bony little things who’ll never get out, never get to see the clouds below their feet.”
“That’s horrible miss…”
“Indeed it is young Lily, indeed it is. Which is we’re doing something about it. Have you got your stuff ready?”
“No miss, sorry miss I was…”
“How old are you now Lily?”
“Twelve? By the SteamLord, when I was twelve I could break a man’s neck with my bare hands, could drink and smoke and deal cards in a heartbeat, and you can’t even get ready? Its good job that I packed for you then isn’t it?”
“Yes miss, yes miss…” Madam Tricetin grumbled, swinging a snakeskin bag from her shoulder and rummaging away inside.
“Pistol.” The women said, pulling out the gun from the bag’s shadows and plonking it in Lily’s hands. It was a brutal little weapon, a revolver, its stubby black barrel decorated with ornate silver curls and illustrations of swordfish, the ebony handle wrapped with ivory and bearing the mark of the Clockwork Navy.
“Pistol.” repeated the little girl, expertly clicking it open to check that it was loaded. All six cylinders contained a brass cartridge.
“Yeah, obviously a it’s a pistol. What kind?”
“A Seraphic Mark 2, multi-cylindered revolver. Gas augmented.” Lily said as she flipped it closed.
Madam Thricetin smiled, and revealed twin rows of jagged metal teeth.
“Looks like my lessons have rubbed off on you after all!” she said, ruffling the tangled mass of Lily’s blood red hair. Lily said nothing, her arms hanging loosely at her sides, the gun resting against the tattered white fabric of her smock.
“Now, do you remember the plan?”
“And you’re okay with the plan?”
The girl looked to the ground and gave a shuddering breath.
“And,” Madam Thricetin sighed, “and are you crying?”
Lily went to speak, but only managed a wimper before clamping her mouth shut.
Madam Thricetin sighed again, and gave a steam of weary curses under her breath, and then knelt down to speak with the girl, the corset’s dress spilling out around her, the frills like pink waves in a black satin sea. She placed her hands on Lily’s shoulders.
Lily hid her teary eyes with her arm, drawing it across her face, the gun still clutched in her pale slender hand.
“I know this is your first mission, I know you have never…never killed anyone before. I know you’re scared, I know you’re worried, but nobody expects a child to pull a gun on them see, and even if they do just think of your training, and the hours, and the hours, and the hours we’ve put in. You’re ready, and you’re strong, and you have to be, you have to be strong for those kids, toiling away in the furnaces. Lily look at me!”
And she shook the girl slightly, causing Lily’s silver eyes to flash up towards her.
“I need you to do this Lily. I need you. They need you. The kids in the workhouses, they are depending on us to bust them out. ”
“Y-yes miss.” she sniffed.
Madam Thricetin licked her lips quickly, and then pulled Lily into a stiff hug, and held her her till she was quiet, till the girl’s hot breath on her wrinkled neck slowed and calmed.
“Well then.” The women said as she straightened up. “London awaits us. Now hide that gun in your dress, the Clockmen will shoot you on sight if they see it.”
Lily quickly obeyed her, and pushed the weapon into one of the hidden pockets that were handily sewn into the material.