Clara found herself at the back of a line of workers heading back from the bunks to their workstation. She couldn't be sure where exactly they were headed, but at the very least, they were moving down.
The lower floors were the floors with the guards. Clara cursed herself for not taking notice of them during her first visit.
But they didn't look all that enthusiastic about their jobs. Clara wondered how much choice they had in their positions here. Clara just kept her head down and tried to look like she knew where she was going. No one stopped her.
Finally, she reached the stairs that led down to the forge. A guard stood at the top, and when Clara tried to walk past him, he threw out his arm to stop her.
"Where are you going?"
Clara glanced at the stairs. "To go do my job," she replied flatly.
He looked her up and down. "I don't recognize you."
Clara cursed internally. "That's because I'm new." At least that wasn't a lie.
"If you were new, the foreman would have come with you here. So what are you doing?"
"I'm new to this section of the factory, not new to the factory," Clara said, desperately hoping that the workers here changed job duties, at least on occasion. "Some new girl came and took my spot upstairs, so now I'm here."
He stared at her, eyes narrowed. Then he just shook his head. "I don't know why you would be trying to get into the forge if you weren't supposed to be there," he told her. "So go ahead. And next time, don't be late."
Clara nodded. "Yes, sir." She glanced at the door. "You don't need to unlock it for me?"
His eyes narrowed again. "Why would we lock the door? You should know better than to try to get out." His hand inched slightly toward his waistband, where an electrified baton hung.
Clara nodded again and decided against saying anything else. She hurried down the stairs, pulled the door open, and slipped inside.
The heat wave slammed against her. She didn't know how anyone could stand working down here. A few people near the entrance looked up as she came in, but no one said anything.
The workers looked worse off than they had been when Clara first visited. Everyone was painfully thin and had dead eyes. Their movements looked physically painful. Some of them barely even seemed alive.
Clara moved around the edge of the cavernous room. Every once in a while, she passed under a vent, the fans running to eject dirty air and pump filtered air back in. Workers tended to cluster in those spaces—it was the closest thing to fresh air that they could get.
As Clara got halfway around the room, she began to feel panic rising within her. What if she couldn't find Ezra? What if he was in the bunks right now? What if something worse had happened to him?
She shook her head, clearing her mind of those thoughts. One step at a time, and she hadn't even gotten around the entire room yet.
Clara's heart skipped a beat. With only a quarter of the room left to search, her eyes landed on Ezra. His hair was long and messy and he was skinnier than she had ever seen him, but it was definitely him. He stood at a workstation along the wall, next to an open fire pit. A vent above him sucked most of the smoke away from the area, but Clara's eyes still began to sting as she approached.
Ezra struck at a metal beam with a hammer, over and over and over again. He didn't look up. It almost seemed as if he didn't have the energy to pick his head up.
Ezra stopped his arm mid swing. He stood frozen in the place, and Clara wondered if he believed that he had actually just heard her.
"Ezra." Clara spoke again, this time a little louder, but still trying to avoid picking up the attention from other workers.
Now Ezra looked up. A wide range of emotions flashed across his face: shock, disbelief, panic, anger. He put his hammer down and came around his work station. He gripped Clara's shoulders tightly.
"What are you doing here?" His voice was hoarse and his eyes were sunken and tired. But he held his intense stare strong. "Clara, what are you doing here, how can you be here? Are they taking more people? Are the others alright?"
"Ezra, Ezra, Ezra." Others were starting to stare, and Clara noticed several people throwing her dirty looks. "Calm down. The others are fine. I'm fine. And they didn't take me. I'm here for you."
Ezra let go of her and straightened up. He went back behind his work station and jerked his head, motioning for her to come closer. "What do you mean you're here for me?"
Bang. He hit the metal rod again with the hammer.
"Technically, I'm here for everyone," Clara admitted. "Or at least I hope I can help everyone."
"By getting everyone out?"
Bang. Ezra stared at her. "There are guards everywhere, Clara," he whispered. "You can't just walk out the front door."
"Yes, I know that," she said. "And look, this whole plan was thrown together rather hastily," she admitted. "The best we could come up with was to create some type of diversion. Create chaos. And at least people might have the chance to make a run for it."
Ezra blinked and leaned against his workstation. "This place runs like clockwork," he said. "Out of any department, the forge would be the place for chaos, all of this open flame. But everything is controlled. I saw someone's clothing catch on fire once, and the guard was down here in less than ten seconds, and the fire was out in another ten. Nothing goes wrong here, and if it does, it's fixed in less than a minute."
"That's because they know exactly what to expect. But they won't expect this." Clara carefully wiggled the flour packet out of her hair. "I have two more of these, one in each shoe," she told him.
"What is it?"
"Remember when I told you this plan was a hasty one?"
Ezra slowly nodded.
Ezra stared at the packet in her hand. "Flour?" he repeated.
"Highly flammable," she said. "Apparently it destroyed half of the Llewelyn kitchen once."
"You want to light this place on fire?"
"I want to light this place on fire carefully," Clara amended. "But in a way that gives everyone an excuse to get out of the forge."
"And everyone else?"
"If we get lucky, we'll trip the fire alarm system. I told one of the women I worked with that if she got a chance, she should pull the system that keeps everyone trapped at their workstation. I don't know if it'll cause enough chaos to get everyone out, but even if it doesn't, if you and I get out, we can shut this place down."
"Clara, hold this," Harrison hissed at her. He shoved the end of the rod he had been hitting at her.
"Just do it!"
Clara did as he ordered, holding it still as he went back to hitting it with the hammer. A few seconds later, the guard came around, staring everyone down. A few moments later, he was gone.
Ezra relaxed. "They come and inspect periodically," he told her. "But the guards don't want to stay down here, it's too hot."
Clara could agree with that. She already felt sweat dripping down her back.
"What did you mean, that if we get out of here, we can shut everything down?"
"It's a long story." Clara needed him to get on board right now. "And I wish I could tell you all of it right now, but I can't. But what you need to know is that I know who is responsible for this entire operation. We have some proof against him, but it's not enough. Not without a witness, someone who's on the employment list, someone who can say exactly what's been happening here."
"Someone like me."
"Who is 'we?'"
"Ezra." Clara grabbed his wrists. "I'll tell you everything once we get out of here. I promise. But this plan is a bit time sensitive. So we need to go."
Ezra looked down at the flour packet. "Flour, huh?"
"Open the package, fling it into the fire, and apparently it'll go up like crazy. So, uh, stand clear." Clara got a spark of inspiration. She picked up the hem of her skirt and began tearing long strips from it. When she was done, it hung about six inches from the floor.
"Lay these going from the fire to the center of the room," she instructed. "Then throw the flour on the flame. The fabric should catch on fire and travel toward the middle. It'll make it look worse that it really is."
Ezra nodded. "You said you have three of those packets?"
Ezra looked around for a moment and then let out a low whistle. "Renji!" he hissed.
Another man came up to the pair and looked at Ezra expectantly.
Ezra handed him a flour packet and a couple strips of fabric. He repeated the instructions Clara had just given him. "And make sure to back up the minute you throw," he advised.
"We getting out of here?" Renji looked at the other two, a mischievous grin appearing on his face.
"That's the idea."
Renji swiveled his head. "I'll go to that fire." He pointed across the room and then took off.
"I'll go over there." Ezra pointed to the other side of the room. "Meet me at the bottom of the stairs."
Clara nodded. "I'll see you soon."
Ezra slipped off, and Clara carefully laid out the fabric strips toward the center of the room. A few people looked at her curiously, but most were still hostile. Maybe it was because she had spent the last several minutes not doing work. Maybe because she didn't look completely starved and emaciated. Maybe both.
Clara really hoped this worked.
She hurried back to the fire when she saw a fireball go up. She ripped open her own package and swung it in an arc toward the flame. A fire ball went up, spitting sparks and igniting the fabric. The flame traveled down the fabric strips.
The third flame went up.
People began to panic.
There was a mad dash for the staircase. The flames leapt fairly high, although they were already settling down as Clara reached the bottom of the stairs. The door opened above them, the guard looking down, but he couldn't stop everyone. The crowd pushed past him as he struggled to get down into the forge and deal with the crisis.
Clara felt someone grip her wrist. "Let's go," Ezra muttered.
Together, they pushed their way up the stairs, knocking past the guard. At the top, the rest of the factory seemed calm other than the dozens of frightened forge workers.
Then the alarm went off.
"Move!" Clara ordered. She pulled Ezra toward the foreman's office.
"Where are you going, this isn't the way to the exit!" Ezra cried.
"Can't go out without oxygen filters," Clara said. "And I know where they are."
She pushed Ezra into another room, just barely staying out of sight of the foreman as he came barreling around the corner. Breathing labored, Clara waited a painful ten seconds before going back out into the hallway. She and Ezra sprinted the rest of the way to his office, and Clara grabbed two boxes and threw one at Ezra.
"Now we get out." With a filter on her face, Clara started running again, this time toward the exit. She didn't have any goggles or scarves to protect the rest of her, but it would have to do for now. They should be in a transport up soon enough, anyway.
Several others seemed to have gotten the will to escape, and many were dashing away from the factory as Clara and Ezra pushed their way out and into the street. The guard was gone. Maybe he went inside to help, or maybe he didn't want to deal with the fleeing prisoners. Clara didn't care.
And they were free. Clara could smell smoke, clearly something was still burning. But she had a vice like grip on Ezra's hand, and she pulled them away and toward the transport station.
"Clara, Clara, stop."
She looked back and saw Ezra stumbling along. In all the excitement, she had forgotten that Ezra was in no shape to be running for any length of time. She slowed to a walk and allowed him to catch up.
"There are still a lot of people who didn't make it out. You and I both know that," Ezra said.
"And I know how we can help them," Clara said firmly. "But there's a lot you need to know."
She started with the masquerade ball. It didn't take long for Ezra to interrupt her.
"You went in Araminta's place?"
"Ezra, we're never going to get through this all if you interrupt me at everything you disapprove of." Clara had her head on a swivel as they walked through the streets. No signs of trouble, at least not yet. The police were probably arriving at the factory, but they would be focused on regaining order. They wouldn't look for escapees. At least not yet. "And trust me, there's a lot you're going to disapprove of."
She rushed through the remaining events. Ezra did as she asked and didn't interrupt, but she could almost feel his disapproval over her developing relationship with Harrison. When she got to the part about Mrs. Norrington's attempted murder, Ezra couldn't help himself.
"She tried to do what?" They had reached the transport station, and Ezra froze in place, staring at her.
"Yes, she tried to kill me, and no, I didn't die. We need to keep going."
Finally, Clara got to the end. "We don't have a lot of time to get back up there," she told him. Clara had already called a transport, but it was taking a long time. "But if we can make it, we can stop the wedding, and we can get this whole story blown wide open and get everyone out of that factory."
Ezra was silent for a moment. It was all a lot to process. "So, you're not just doing it for the workers," he said. "You're doing it for your rich mistress, too."
Clara let out an impatient sigh. "Ezra, I know perfectly well how you feel about people who live in airships," she replied. "But I need you to realize that I know them better than you. And many of them are as bad as you think, but many of them aren't. Yes, I'm doing this in part for Araminta. And for Harrison."
Ezra turned his head away when she mentioned his name.
"He's a good man, Ezra," Clara said. "And I like him. I really, really do. And I know you don't approve, that's why I never told you. And I don't know if our relationship can go anywhere but where it is now. Trust me, I'm not doing this because I think we're going to get married one day or something." Even saying the words sounded preposterous. "But neither of them deserves to be trapped in this type of marriage. You don't have to like them, Ezra. But you need to trust me."
Ezra sank to the ground. Clara could see his entire body shaking. "I just want to go home, Clara," he whispered. "I want to see Amyeliana and Archibald and Emme. I want things to go back to normal."
"I know." Clara knelt down next to him. Her heart broke at the hopelessness in his voice. "But things are never going back to normal, Ezra. And if we do this, maybe what's on the other side of normal will be a bit better."
"Why can't you just do it? You're a witness to what happened in the factory."
"Because there's no proof that I'm not just making it up. Your name is on the employee roster. You're much more credible than I am."
Ezra let her words sink in. He lifted his head to meet her eyes.
The transport docked, and the doors slid open.
"I'm getting on that transport, Ezra. With or without you." Clara hated giving him an ultimatum, but it was all she had left. "Don't let your dislike of the rich keep you from helping the people down here."
Ezra took a deep breath. Then he pushed himself off the ground. "My first airship ride," he said. "How exciting."
They entered the transport together and turned around to watch the doors close. Then Clara pulled Ezra into a hug, burying her head into his shoulder and squeezing him tightly. "I missed you."
Ezra wrapped his arms around her. "I missed you, too."