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Winged a novella (of two.., p.2
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       Winged: A Novella (Of Two Girls), p.2

           Joyce Chng
 
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  There was First Light when the lights came on at the break of dawn, waking the students from their slumber. After First Light and breakfast, the morning began with Athletics and other exercises. Lessons began promptly after Athletics and continued until late afternoon, near Tea. Last Light was turned on before bed and it was a time for students to rest, play games and converse with their friends.

  She had to agree that she enjoyed the academy, more so when she saw the leo-fins in their glory and to be so close to them. She would only fly next year, “when you find your balance, young lady!” Captain Sagan told her once, kindly but firmly enough for her to take note of the lecturer’s words.

  She knew she was simply awful at balancing. Stenton thought she had a problem with her inner ear. She just simply could not balance well on the beams. A problem, she felt her heart sinking, at the helm of a leo-fin.

  “Katherine,” Alethia’s voice was more persistent. “Katherine?”

  “Oh!” Katherine shook herself and finished her by-now cold stew.

  ~*~

  When Last Light illuminated the Great Manor, Katherine found herself at the Exercise Hall, staring thoughtfully at the beams.

  The beams criss-crossed each other and were designed to teach poise and equilibrium. For her, they were … obstacles. Frustrating, harrowing obstacles. She saw the rest doing it with various degrees of grace and poise and she felt like a lumbering cow whenever she stood on one of the beams.

  In the dim light, she touched the beam, already polished smooth by countless soles and hands. She lifted herself up onto the wooden apparatus, feeling it creak ominously beneath her bare feet. She inhaled deeply and began to walk, placing her right foot before her left carefully. She lifted her arms to give her enough balance.

  At first, it was fine. She was doing remarkably well and Stenton, if he saw her, would have been pleased.

  Then, her ankle, that accursed damned ankle, gave.

  She fell awkwardly onto the cushioning mats, bloomers and all. For a moment, she lay flat on her back, staring at the high ceiling, breathing quickly in the darkness, glad nobody saw her embarrassment. Far away, she could hear jocular music, some people playing the violin and the pianoforte. There was some singing and general laughter.

  And she was flat on her sore back, her hands still stinging with the morning’s yield of blisters and her ankle throbbing dismally. If she could cry, she would. But she did not. Captain Sagan would have choice words to say if she did see her in this present predicament.

  Something about balance, she thought gloomily. Somewhere in her head, a shriveled old woman laughed harshly like a blighted harpy.

  ~*~

  She was back in that cramped classroom again. Back with the insipid simpering girls who would have been her friends but were not, would never be. Their minds were always on lace and how to catch the eye of the nearest farm-boy. Hers were mathematics and flying. Always flying.

  They were whispering and watching her side-ways, while she sat next to the window. She could see the rare blue skies, glorious and inviting, without being obscured by the black smokes from the nearby factory.

  She appeared.

  Uptight, wearing a prim dress and a pair of proper black shoes, the old woman walked into the room. Her face was creased, her nose hooked and her eyes were like cold gimlets. Her hair had long gone white and there was no use trying to guess her actual age. She always held a brown belt, “for strict discipline”, she would say proudly.

  “Good morning, Miss Sharpton,” the girls sang sweetly.

  “Katherine!” Her voice was shrill.

  “Good morning,” Katherine said quietly.

  Miss Sharpton glared at her, basilisk-like. Katherine knew she loved the simpering idiots, because they were “lady-like”. She laughed. These girls would know only Dorset for the rest of their lives. Not her, Katherine Riley.

  “Katherine Riley,” the old woman’s voice was icicle-cold. “Explain to the class what balance is.”

  Now, it was wrong. All wrong. What kind of question was that? She did not know how to explain balance. Nor did she understand balance. Physics? Physical balance? Mental balance? What kind of balance?

  She gasped as the old harridan’s eyes flamed red. Katherine shook her head hard, trying to wake herself up. This is a dream. This is a dream. This is a dream.

  The old harridan stalked towards her, witch-thin and witch-terrible. She had her belt ready and Katherine was quite well acquainted with the belt. Her ankles bore previous scars.

  “So, Miss Riley,” the old witch snarled. “What is balance?” Her bony fingers twitched, as if in wicked anticipation.

  “Balance is…” Katherine stammered, suddenly at a loss. The tittering in the background had a cruel edge to it. Everything around her went dark, except for Miss Sharpton, whose visage filled her entire vision.

  “What is balance?” Miss Sharpton demanded. “Miss Riley, do not tarry with your answer!”

  “Balance is,” Katherine took in a deep breath, knowing that deep down, even in the dream, she was shaking like an aspen tree. “Balance is learning to stand on two feet.” The answer came forth from her mouth unbidden.

  “Wrong!” Miss Sharpton crowed triumphantly and down came the brown belt, hitting Katherine at her right arm. It stung like fire, even in the dream…

  She woke up with a start in the moonlight. The bed-sheets were damp with her perspiration. She was surprised that everyone else was sleeping soundly. Her arm smarted with phantom pain.

  Alethia sat up on her bed.

  “I heard you shouting,” the girl explained. Alethia was a light sleeper. “Did you have a nightmare?” She patted the area around her, as if trying to get her bearings.

  “Yes,” Katherine said, half-apologetic for waking the Forrester girl up. “Please go back to bed.”

  Alethia seemed to open her mouth to say something, changed her mind and lay back down again. The moonlight cast a faint white glow on her pale hair. Soon, Katherine heard her breathing regularly, meaning that she had finally slept.

  Katherine slowly sank back into her own goose-down bed, her heartbeats finally ceasing their mad drumming. It was a bad dream. A nightmare. Yet, she remembered what she said in the dream, to the nightmarish Miss Sharpton. And there was truth in it.

 

  Chapter Three:

  Balance Of The World: An Interlude

  The balance of the world was not just the balance of an antiquated globe left behind by history. It was not a fixed world, with arcane words and ancient creatures with “There Be Dragons” marked on perceived dangerous areas. It was always shifting, like the shifting clouds and currents. Continents were shifting boundaries with the Powers making conquests everywhere. In the Far East. In the Indies. In the Spice Islands.

  If the antiquated globe spun like a child’s top, it would not change the world’s continents and countries. Nor its diverse politics.

  Especially the politics, the Asian man contemplated thoughtfully as he placed his hand on the old globe, starring at the lovingly crafted words “Middle Kingdom”, feeling a pang in his heart. He had not been home for many years, having considered himself a political migrant and left Shanghai for all its worth.

  And the Qing emperor is laying claims in the Indies, he mused quietly. Not a gutless man, this Qing emperor, and definitely not under the Dowager’s thumb. The winds might change with this man.

  He strode over to his worktable, currently piled under by stacks of registration forms, blueprints and flight schedules. He felt his age today. He was only fifty and yet he felt a hundred. It must be the students, he thought with wry humor. Seeing the youths in their classes and at the Flying Field reminded him of his own exuberant and often reckless youth.

  If I would have studied hard for the Imperial Examinations, he chuckled to himself, sorting out the paperwork. He had a lecture in about an hour’s time – he had the clock to remind him. I wou
ld have been made a magistrate. But then again, I would be stuck behind some musty desk, with fawning cronies and corruption in the civil service.

  His mother would be proud if he was made a magistrate or even a governor of a province. She would forgive him then, for the troubles he had caused her when he was a child. He liked to experiment with gunpowder, gleaned from the firecrackers used for the festivals. She probably had not forgiven him for the flying gunpowder ship.

  Old Liu was particularly angry, he recalled the old retainer’s face, reddened from furious shouting and half-blackened with soot from the gunpowder ship which exploded mid-air, right in the middle of the family courtyard, much to everyone’s consternation and horror. Old Liu looked just like Kwan Kong, the red-and-black faced god of justice.

  His sisters hated the smoke and tried to fan it away, more concerned for their silk garments. His father was not impressed. His mother appeared as if she was about to faint. The servants gaped and some hid their laughter. The main body of the ship, modeled after a Chinese junk, broke apart, mid-flight, and fell onto the main dish, a roasted pig procured by Old Liu. It was a Yuan Xiao dinner with invited guests and a slew of festivities to celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year period to follow soon after. Of course, he had to go spoil it all. After the festivities, he was scolded and caned by his father.

  He was ten and already bored of the world.

  Of course, Old Liu was probably dead by now. It had been years. For him, he had cut off his queue of hair, mark of a Qing man, and left for England, vowing never to return.

  There was a discrete knock on the door. He knew that knock and smiled. Before long, the door creaked open and Captain Sagan walked in, proud like a red-haired lioness.

  “You will be late for your lecture,” she said without preamble. Such a woman and such a character. She was attired in her characteristic shirt and riding breeches. The suffragists loved her. Her Majesty, the Queen herself, had heard of her exploits too.

  “I know, I know,” he said and fetched his notes from the table. He would organize it later. Oh, time was of the essence and he knew it all too well.

  Ah, the balance of the world, his world, was right at the moment. London was the center of commerce and invention, both fueling each other, much like his friendship with Captain Sagan. His mother would be shocked. A friendship with a foreign woman, a “red-haired devil”? It would have offended her delicate sensibilities. But she was Shanghainese, born into a world of privilege. Her world was a world of lazy mahjong sessions and serene embroidery, sheltered from the real Shanghai, itself attracting people of all races and sorts.

  We exist in many worlds, he thought as he exited his room with Captain Sagan beside him and strode purposefully to the auditorium. It is how we balance the worlds. But the winds of the world are fickle.

  Chapter Four

  Finding Her Balance: Walking Aware

  The air was suitably chilly for an early-morning Athletics. There was fog rolling in from the Flying Field, a fleecy sheet coating just about everything and making flying lessons for the final-year ensign class impossible.

  Stenton made them all stand in a large circle, including Alethia who shivered in the cold. They had their jumpers on but the Autumn cold was indeed bone-deep. The students hopped from foot to foot, trying to keep themselves warm. There would be a lot of howling and complaining later. But now it was not the time to. Stenton’s sharp tongue would whip them into shape.

  Katherine’s skin broke out in goose pimples. She hated Autumn, even when she was back in Dorset. The house was always clammy, the cold having seeped into the very bricks and stayed there like a stubborn ice wall. She would pile on several layers of blankets and the cold would still permeate through. Little Alice, her sister, hated it and often fell ill with winter colds.

  “You must be wondering why you are all standing in a circle,” Stenton began. He was a stocky man, in his late thirties, his salt-and-pepper hair close-cropped to the skull. He was a Cockney man by birth and he was proud of it.

  “We are going to do an exercise,” he continued, watching the students and their discomfort in the chill air with amusement in his eyes. “I want everyone to start walking in three paces, at your own will, within this circle.”

  The students eyed one another and then at Stenton who grinned back. “Walk normally, breathe normally, making sure you do not come into contact with your peers.”

  Katherine darted a glance at Alethia anxiously. For this exercise, the blind girl would have found it difficult in doing so. But the girl showed no sign of anxiety or indeed nervousness, standing with a faint smile on her lips.

  “You can begin … now!” Stenton whistled sharply and the students began to shuffle, pace and walk, each in his or her own style of movement. Three paces, Stenton reminded them, three paces.

  The strands of fog made perception fair tricky, clouding in-coming traffic and playing games with the eyes. Katherine tried to breathe normally, listening to her heart, trying hard not to knock into her classmates. Someone brushed too closely to her and it was Thomas Von Dyke who grinned at her wickedly and moved away, like a dancer. Everyone was shifting around her, each in his own world but slowly becoming aware of the others. Even Alethia moved remarkably well, steering herself with her walking stick.

  Katherine was aware of the currents around her, the shifting flows and eddies. For a few breaths, she paused, perceptive of the dance and the dancers. Then, someone approached her and she neatly stepped away without missing a beat. The fog simply added to the flow, becoming part of it, dispersing when one of the students moved through it and merging back again seamlessly.

  Is flying like that? She wondered, listening to her heartbeats. Knowing the flows and currents of the air? Like a bird? Or knowing who I am?

  She was reminded of the nightmare she had a while back and she shuddered, almost losing her concentration when Thomas passed her again. She caught herself and swirled away, almost hitting another boy who glared at her indignantly.

  The dance carried on, everyone moving – by now – easily. At the sidelines, Stenton watched pleased.

  ~*~

  “That is a fine exercise!” Thomas commented as they retired to the dormitories to refresh themselves before the afternoon classes. His German accent was almost gone with the number of years spent in London, only a faint hint of it showing when he became excited.

  “It is,” Katherine nodded, feeling the exercise still lingering in her bones. Alethia walked beside her.

  “You almost knocked into me twice,” the boy laughed cheekily. He was almost nineteen. At times, Katherine swore he acted even younger than his real age. She was the oldest amongst the three, having reached the maximum age of registration for the academy. She was passing glad she made it into the academy. Passing glad …

  “Hmph,” she retorted back and Thomas shrugged. He was in a jolly good mood. Alethia merely smiled, no doubt understanding the nuances in the conversation.

  Now Alethia’s professed vocational training astounded her. She was not training to be a pilot. Instead, she was training to be a controller, the person tasked to give directions to the leo-fin pilot. Now how she was going to do so remained a mystery, even for Katherine. Alethia’s senses of perception were uncanny; she claimed to hear the leo-fins by color and was hence – or she said – able to direct the leo-fin when it took off or landed.

  “I do not mind working with you,” she once told Katherine privately. “If we both graduate from the academy first!”

  Alethia sounded confident and she seemed to know herself well. She seemed so solid, so self-assured. So aware, even with her disability. Katherine had to admit that she admired the blind girl.

  “Off with you,” Katherine mock-scolded Thomas who bowed cockily and peeled off to the nearest washroom. When he was gone, she breathed a sigh of relief. “He is such a frustrating lad!”

  ~*~

  Doctor James Ash was a busy man. Not
only did he have to look after the health of the entire student cohort, he was also part of the Faculty. Biology was the subject, even though his own specialty was general surgery.

 
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