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Winged a novella (of two.., p.4
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       Winged: A Novella (Of Two Girls), p.4

           Joyce Chng
 
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  When the carriage passed by the Thames, she marveled at the river barges steaming their way up and down. She could hear their haunting horns echo in the evening darkness. Somewhere she knew were the larger ships coming in to unload their exotic cargo, clad in steel: heralds for a different age of commerce.

  From her warm seat in the carriage, swaying gently as the horses trotted down cobblestone streets, she watched the women in their elegant gowns and thick winter muffs as they stepped daintily on pavements covered with dirty snow. There were also women who wore breeches, like Captain Sagan – and they were laughing cheerfully as they strode together down the street, Yuletide packages in their arms. It was indeed a grand age for women.

  She rested her chin on her fist, watching London rush past her in a pastiche of sounds and images.

  “A penny for your thoughts?” Alethia’s soft voice broke the silence and Katherine turned to look at the blind girl.

  “Just thinking,” Katherine said quietly.

  “London can be quite overwhelming,” Alethia smiled. “It is called a city for a reason.”

  Katherine smiled back, knowing that Alethia had somehow acknowledged her smile.

  “ You will like my father,” the fair-haired girl said, grimacing slightly as the carriage suffered a jolt as it dipped into a pothole. They both heard an apologetic “Sorry, ma’am!” from the coach-driver and they laughed. “He spends a lot of his time in his workshop. Just be careful not to step on his inventions.”

  Just then, the carriage slowed to a halt. Alethia’s face instantly broke into a radiant smile. Katherine could see a plump older woman in prim clothing and an apron standing outside a mahogany-colored door, carrying a glowing lamp.

  “We are home,” Alethia said. “Mrs Potts!”

 

  Chapter Seven

  A Moment Of Lift

  The Forresters’ house struck Katherine as extremely intriguing. The moment she walked into the warm interior from the chilly outside, she was met with a study, of sorts, replete with shelves of books and a plain-looking settee. As she walked in further, she could see a large brown door marked “Workshop” with solid black ink on the left. She could hear faint banging and metallic sounds.

  The right side of the house was dimmed, lit only with an electric lamp. She could see something glittering – winkwinkwink – and could hear a soft tinkling when a slight breeze whispered through the house. She found herself curious but resisted exploring the house immediately. She was, after all, Alethia’s guest.

  Mrs Potts – Alethia’s nanny – showed her the guest room, a comfortably appointed chamber with a goose-down bed and thick warm blankets. There was a table with a Ming porcelain bowl (“For the washing of hands”, explained Mrs Potts to her curious young visitor) and a jug of water (“”For drinking”.)

  Alethia bid her goodnight and was guided back to her own room by the older woman. With a sigh, Katherine closed the door and observed her surroundings. It was definitely more comfortable than her room in Dorset. She quickly slipped off her clothing and into a wool shift provided by Mrs Potts for the night.

  The goose-bed bed was magnificent. Soft and almost inducing her to sleep immediately. Her mind was still crowded with images of her travels through the London streets. She lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling. London was slowly slipping into slumber.

  ~*~

  She awoke, to the smells of breakfast wafting into the chamber. She did her morning ablutions, dressed and found her way down to the kitchen where Mrs Potts shoo-ed her away good-naturedly and bid her stay in the study room. Grinning, she wandered around the house. She remembered the faint tinkling sound she’d heard last night and made her way to the source.

  Light from the emerging dawn sun was glistening off crystals. Or clear glass of some sort. She stopped in her tracks and simply stared. She was looking at row after rows of crystal shapes, mostly birds and winged shapes, hanging from the ceiling. They filled the entire area. Like delicate wind chimes, they gave forth a sweet tinkling sound.

  It was a beautiful sight.

  “It is my garden of crystals,” Alethia’s voice startled her and she wondered how the blind girl was able to locate her. “It is my favorite place.”

  “It is beautiful,” Katherine admitted, lingering for a moment to look at the crystal shapes again.

  “Yes, it is,” Alethia said with a soft smile on her lips. “Come. There is breakfast on the table.”

  Breakfast was hearty scrambled eggs, with freshly baked scones. All from our own garden, Mr Forrester declared proudly. He was a tall man with fair hair and a shocking bush of a moustache. His eyes twinkled merrily when he spoke, much to Katherine’s growing sense of curiosity. Alethia edged ever so closer to her and said that she would elaborate further later in the day.

  ~*~

  Mister Forrester retreated into his workshop to work on his new automata after breakfast while Mrs Potts prepared the Yule dinner in the kitchen, together with Marjorie, a maid. Alethia drew Katherine aside, to the crystal garden.

  “My father believes in growing our own food,” Alethia began and Katherine blinked, in amazement and total disbelief.

  “Surely not in this weather?”

  “Come. Let me show you.” Alethia led her puzzled friend to a door, close to the the kitchen. She opened it. Katherine expected it to be extremely cold but the air meeting her face was warm.

  She stepped out into a summer’s day.

  “Basic sun-lamp and strong netting to keep the cold and garden pests away,” Alethia explained in the background while Katherine looked around, shocked. There were vegetables. Wheat. Oats. Clucking informed her that there were chicken. Plump white plover hens pecking away at seeds. “Our neighbors think we are lunatics. But the idea is successful.” A large flower-like lamp shone down upon the vegetables and assorted crops.

  “The turkey has to be bought,” the blind girl said ruefully. “That is our annual indulgence. It is Yule after all. Mrs Potts saves all the feathers and turns them into decorations.”

  Katherine shook her head, almost spinning with the influx of new ideas and concepts. There was a summer’s garden right under her nose and flourishing well, even though she knew it was actually winter beyond the netting and the strange sun-lamp. It was definitely a marvelous invention.

  Throughout the day, she had tiny tin-men underfoot as well as steel-puppies nuzzling her ankles in strangely canine affection. Sun-fliers, fragilely made like the hummingbirds from South America, darted about, their metal wings beating rapidly. She allowed one to alight on her finger, only to have it whiz away in a blur of bronze wings. The steel-puppies – metallic bulldogs – bowed and wanted to play, their cogs whirling away in excitement while the tin-men marched around, fetching workshop material for Mr Forrester and causing merriment amongst the watchers.

  She decided she had grown to like the Forresters.

  ~*~

  Katherine played a game of Fox and Geese with Mister Forrester before the Yule dinner proper. Alethia sat quietly on the settee, “listening” to the game-play. All of them could smell the tantalizing aromas coming from the kitchen and hear the cheerful voices of Mrs Potts and Marjorie as they worked over the last-minute preparations. There was an air of anticipation in the house. Outside the window, they could hear the voices of carolers making their way down the street. It was the eve of Yule and Katherine could not help but think about her parents and little sister in Dorset. Would they miss her during this time?

  Mrs Potts stepped into the study and announced that the Yule dinner was ready. Katherine led Alethia to the dining room where Marjorie was placing dinner plates on the large wooden table. It was a glorious spread with golden-brown mince pies, a basket of candied fruits and boiled brussel sprouts with a good dollop of creamy butter. They seated themselves with Mr Forrester at the head of the table. He laughed with mirth and had Mrs Potts bring in the turkey.

  They joked and laughed
as they ate, savoring the splendidly cooked turkey and sampling the mince pies. Katherine had some sweet port that streamed down her throat like warm fire. Soon, Mrs Potts and Marjorie joined them at the table and the humor grew exponentially with the flow of good food and delectable wine.

  It was a good Yule dinner, complete with fancifully shaped ices and mints. Mrs Potts made them cups of hot mulled wine, spiced with cinnamon and anise, and plates of freshly-baked fruit cake stuffed with orange peel and raisins, after which they all complained (good-naturedly) that they were full and could not eat anymore.

  As she sat on the settee with a delicious warm sensation filling her body, Katherine held her cup of mulled wine close and felt happy. Perhaps it was all the good food and pleasant company with the Forrester family; she experienced a sense of contentment, something she had not encountered ever since she had left Dorset.

  She knew that she could not replace her family with a new one. Yet, the Forresters were pleasant and diligent folk of grace and good humor, a quality she realized that dour Dorset sorely lacked

 

  Flight

 

  Chapter One

  Fledgling

  Cadet Katherine Riley of House Sable struggled to keep the blimp-fin under control; it pitched and rolled in the prevailing winds, feeling more like a bucking horse than a functional flier purpose-built for the Academy. She fought the controls and the controls fought back harder, resisting her attempts to balance the vessel.

  She felt her heart sinking. This training flight was also a test flight, with the Academy’s teachers acting as official examiners. She knew Pilotmaster Lee and Captain Karlida Sagan were watching below, on the relative safety of the Flying Field grounds. Probably jotting down notes and marking her performance as less than satisfactory. Her thoughts ran dire for a brief moment, fueling her lack of self-confidence. She breathed in deeply and tried more once.

  The blimp-fin, without the charm and beauty of the leo-fin, rolled hard to the right and Katherine steadied herself. The winds were strong today. Better than a calm day, she mused grimly, wrestling with the controls once more and this time, the blimp-fin obeyed and stabilized.

  Her ankle throbbed with the strain and she wondered if she had to put ice on it. The pain just would not go away. As she steered the blimp-fin on its designated course, she let one part of her mind dwell on the strange conversation she had with Doctor James Ash earlier in the morning, when the dour-faced man caught her before she made her way to the Flying Field.

  He had talked to her about her ankle, that it was not merely a physical injury but a psychological one. It had affected her, a niggling persistent problem; it would continue to persist to hurt her, unless she chose to move on from the pain. She was a little wary of the physician’s words, no matter how truly concerned he came across. Who made him a phrenologist? Yet, as she mulled on the topic, she knew that she was being petty. The man was a doctor and he did have the welfare of the students at heart. And she knew he was also an excellent Tutor-in-charge of College Azure; he did care for the students. But why did he single him out?

  Somewhere in her mind, a harsh cackle could be heard. The cackle made her heart cringe instinctively. And the throb in her ankle grew to a sharp pain. Not this again, she raged quietly. Oh hush, Miss Sharpton! She pushed the mental image of her old nemesis away and focused on landing the blimp-fin. Perspiration was trickling down her back in a constant stream.

  She was here at the Academy to excel. To become a leo-fin pilot. She was not going to let some hoary old schoolmistress stop her.

  She could see the Flying Field now, with its crowd of tiny people now growing larger and larger as she brought the blimp-fin down. There was some faint cheering and it grew louder as she landed the vessel with an audible thud.

  For a moment, she simply rested her head against the controls and breathed slowly. Her heartbeat was going back to normalcy. Her knees felt like water. She had flown training flights before but this one was so different. It would mark her transition from Cadet to Intermediate Pilot-In-Training. If she failed, all her efforts would go to waste and she would slink back to Dorset with her tail between her legs. No. She would not want that.

  As she opened the door, letting the fresh morning air cool her skin and fill her lungs, she could see Pilotmaster Lee and Captain Sagan conferring amongst themselves, their heads inclined towards each other in intense discussion. Captain Sagan looked animated, gesturing and showing her notes to Lee who shook his head and said something which made the House Tutor for College Sable, Katherine’s House, more animated, even forceful.

  That is it, Katherine thought as she limped out of the blimp-fin. I am done for. Her heart lifted at the sight of her friends rushing to greet. Alethia was there. Even Thomas, pompous and competitive Thomas, was walking up to her with a big grin on his fair face.

  “A little shaky there,” the boy said to Katherine, referring to the blimp-fin’s loss of balance. “But you recovered right soon after!”

  “The winds were strong today,” Alethia said mildly. The blind girl could have ‘seen’ the colors as she had explained once to Katherine. “It was a challenge, no doubt.”

  “Well, Captain Sagan seems to be arguing for you,” Thomas pointed out. He could be so blunt and cruel at times. He was always constantly looking out for flaws in Katherine, no matter how well she did in her studies and her training.

  Alethia squeezed Katherine’s hand once, reassuringly. The results would be made known publicly, right after lunch.

  ~*~

  Lunch was an anxious affair, with surreptitious glances at the Administrativa building where the results would be posted for all to see. Today was College Sable’s turn with many of its students for the test flights.

  Cook had made vegetable stew with fluffy white rice and Katherine ate it with false gusto. She was that nervous.

  No more Dorset, she cried silently. No more mocking. No more tears.

  “You did well, Katherine,” Alethia’s voice shook her from her reverie. “You just worry too much.”

  “I just do not want to go back,” Katherine said quietly, solemnly. “Not now. Never.”

  Alethia’s forehead creased in a frown. “Is Miss Sharpton really that horrible?”

  Katherine could hear the cackling and the cracking of the whip. And the tittering of the girls in the cramped Dorset school-room.

  “Yes,” she found herself hunching down. Her ankle ached dully. She really needed to put ice and ointment on it.

  “Katherine,” her friend’s voice was gentle. “It has been two years. Surely she has changed? People do change, you know.”

  A bitter, biting and sarcastic reply almost came out of Katherine’s mouth. Alethia meant well. She had always meant well, being so mild and gentle, a salve to her troubled soul. She stifled it down and swallowed her stew instead.

  “Look,” someone shouted and there was a flurry of excited voices in the Hall. “They just put up the board.”

  Katherine’s heart lurched. It was time.

  ~*~

  Captain Karlida Sagan nursed a cup of Lady Grey, still faintly steaming and aromatic, reminiscent of home’s comforts. She stood at the window, watching the students stream from the Great Manor to the Administrativa. Their thoughts would be so tumultuous, she sipped her tea, I was.

  Frantically scanning for her name on the board…

  With a sigh, she turned around and faced the gentleman in the room. She smiled at him warmly, tenderly. They had a heated argument a hour ago, debating on the fate of certain students. She hated doing this vital part of assessment, even though she knew it would differentiate the wheat from the chaff.

 
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