Zurfina had insisted that they spend the night at home before going to their respective assignments, and now that Senta reached the field near the Regmont apartment building, she was glad that they had. The men who were assembled there, more than two thousand if Senta’s estimation was correct, all looked bleary-eyed and tired. Then again, Senta doubted that she had slept any more than they had. Her destination was obvious. The late Professor Calliere’s balloon stood, rivaling the eight story apartment buildings across the street. It was fastened to the ground by dozens of ropes and at its base was the large wicker basket that served as the passenger compartment. Wizard Smedley Bassington stood next to it.
“Are you ready?”
“As ready as I can be,” replied Senta.
A small bird flew down and landed on Bassington’s shoulder. It was no bigger than a man’s fist, with a bright yellow band across its belly, and brown and black wing feathers. It chirped several times. Bassington cocked his head and listened. Then the bird took off again.
“New pet?” wondered Senta.
“An informant.” The wizard smiled. “The news is good. The lizzies have deployed most of their forces to support the Freedonians. The attack that we have to face will be much smaller than anticipated—no more than three thousand.”
“Really? Only three thousand?”
“That’s nothing for magic of our caliber.”
“So that means that Zurfina has to face ten to twenty thousand enemies by herself?”
“She does have the Colonial Guard with her.”
Lawrence Bratihn approached the two from the direction of the mustering volunteers. He looked at Senta for a moment as if assessing whether to say something, but decided against it. He looked to Bassington.
“The plan is the same. Have the men fan out around the northern edge of the evacuated area. Let Senta and myself deal with the bulk of the lizzies and then, when we signal, move in and clean out the rest.”
“How far away are they?”
“About five miles,” replied Bassington. “So, let us get into position.”
Bratihn nodded and jogged back to the men, while Senta climbed into the basket. The wizard climbed in next and a woman in a khaki dress and blouse followed him.
“Do you know Mrs. Hollerith?”
“Of course,” replied Senta. “What are you doing here?”
“I learned how to work the balloon when I helped the Professor survey the peninsula eight years ago, though I haven’t been up since.”
“I was hard pressed to find a balloon veteran,” said Bassington, as Mrs. Hollerith pulled a handle from the mechanism suspended over the basket, sending flames shooting upwards.
“Cast off!” called Mrs. Hollerith, and the ground crew unfastened the lines as quickly as they could. In scant moments, they were ascending past the tops of the highest buildings in Port Dechantagne. Senta looked down to see the volunteer soldiers moving away in long snaking lines toward the east.
“How high are we going?” she wondered.
“Just high enough to get a clear view,” replied Bassington.
“I don’t know what kind of a clear view you can get. There are so many trees.”
“We just want to be able to see the lizzies moving into the area.”
“Can’t we do that from the top of a building?”
Bassington looked at her. “Would that be anywhere near as exciting as this?”
Mrs. Hollerith gave one more pull on the handle controlling the ascent, and then looked over the edge along with Senta. The balloon was fastened with only a single long rope, the other end of which was wound around a large spool attached to the ground. The spool was quickly unwinding as two men stood, one on either side, watching it. When the balloon had almost stopped, the men locked down the spool, making the basket jerk as it reached the end of its tether.
Senta pulled the mirror from her belt and looked into it. Her own face looked back at her. She looked terrible. She had dark circles under her eyes and her face was drawn.
“Uuthanum,” she said, touching the mirror with her index finger. Her own image was replaced with a view of Zurfina from above. She was standing in some kind of small wooden-floored room.
“Hello Pet,” said Zurfina looking up, but not quite meeting Senta in the eye. “Are you up in your balloon?”
“Yes. Can you see me?”
“No, but I can hear you. I may well be as high up as you are. I’m in the observation tower.”
“I thought you didn’t want to go up this high. Isn’t that why I’m in the balloon instead of you?”
“No. I don’t want to fall down from this high. That’s why you are in the balloon instead of me.”
“What’s the situation there?”
“Oh the Freedonians and the lizzies are miles away,” said Zurfina, waving her hand in a typically dismissive gesture. “Are you ready?”
“Good. Make me proud.”