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Winged a novella (of two.., p.5
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       Winged: A Novella (Of Two Girls), p.5

           Joyce Chng
 
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  “You were exceedingly harsh on Katherine Riley,” she began and Pilotmaster Lee looked at her with a stern expression on his face.

  “She was exhibiting anxiety,” Lee said curtly. The memory of their argument was still raw, fresh. “A careless pilot makes a dead pilot.”

  “For Jove’s sake,” Karlida put her cup down on the side-table next to the window. “It is their first test-flight. And mind you, Lee, the winds were strong today. She did exceptionally well, controlling the blimp-fin. Many of our students had luckier days with calm winds. Imagine them tossed into a real situation.”

  “You do have a point,” Lee replied, his words still tense, and went back to his reports.

  Karlida strode to him and sat down right in front of him, forcing him to look at her. “Lee, how long have I known you for?” Something in her tone made him glance at her, momentarily startled. He gave a small smile and placed his right hand on her knee, an expression of tenderness, of trust.

  “More than a decade,” he said softly.

  “How many times was I known to be wrong in my judgment,” Karlida continued, responding to his smile and his words with a wry grin.

  “You know I have always trusted your judgment, Karlida.”

  “True.” Karlida nodded and stood up once more. “I am glad we have both reached an agreement.” She walked back to the window.

  Lee rose from his chair and joined her. “I am just concerned about biased perceptions…”

  “… that Katherine is in my House?” She chuckled. “I have thought about that too.” She said nothing else and remained silent.

  ~*~

  It was evening when the students finally made their way back to the Great Manor. After the public announcement of results, it was back to lectures and classes. The evening air was tinged with an undercurrent of chill: Autumn was arriving and the trees in the Academy were already donning their vivid autumnal colors of orange and red. Even the steepled Administrativa was covered with crimson leaves, rippling in the breeze.

  Katherine found herself walking alone on the path leading to the Great Manor. She passed. She was now officially an Intermediate Pilot-In-Training. She should be feeling happy or even relieved. Yet, no matter how she tried to feel joy, there was a nagging sense of failure. Alethia would say that she did well and it was good.

  I am my worst critic and enemy, Katherine could hear cheerful laughter and chatter from the Great Manor. Perhaps Doctor Ash was right. It was a psychological problem. My mind’s problem. How do I make it go away?

  She shivered as the breeze turned cold and hurried on, glad for the imminent welcome warmth in the Manor. She passed a tree, now almost bare of leaves, looking tragically gaunt in the evening light. There was a nest, empty of birds. Something dark on the grass beneath the tree drew her eye. As she moved closer, it moved.

  It was a tiny goldfinch fledgling, looking as if it had fallen from the tree. It chirped when she knelt down. The little bird was almost fully fledged, with its feathers showing signs of its adult colors of golden brown and bright yellow.

  Katherine picked the fledgling up, cupping it carefully in her hands. It squirmed restlessly and made soft chirping protests. One of its wings appeared to be crooked and Katherine knew it might just be a broken wing.

  With a sigh and a rush of uncommon compassion in her chest, she brought the fledgling indoors.

  Chapter Two

  Hardening The Wings

  The news of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee came via telegraph code and was received with great excitement. Her Majesty had invited delegates from all the nations of the Known World to participate in the celebrations. Britannia would have its own Aerial Fleet to show off to the visiting ambassadors and their own flying machines. It was truly a stirring piece of news and it went like wild fire throughout the Great Manor. Groups and clusters of students huddled together, talking about it.

  Indeed there was already talk about a new kind of flying vessel to be launched at the Great Gathering, as it was termed by the broadsheet commentators and journalists. The identity of the inventor was a mystery and so was the design of this new flying vessel.

  The Academy was to send a small contingent to join the illustrious Aerial Fleet with the brightest and the best cadet pilots and handlers selected from the four Colleges of Sable, Azure, Orr and Vert.

  ~*~

  Alethia was one of the fortunate few to be chosen from College Sable and there was much felicitation going around the dormitory. Katherine cheered and whooped; she was initially disappointed that she did not make the cut. But it was for the “brightest and the best” students the Academy could offer and Alethia was one of the brightest, the most gifted.

  “My father will be there too,” Alethia said laughing breathlessly as Katherine spun her around the room. Paul Forrester was a gifted eccentric who adored his daughter. Katherine had often seen the wonderful inventions in the Forresters’ house whenever she visited them for Yuletide. The inventors would be there, of course; their inventions would be showcased in a great parade of magnificent flying fins, blimps and other air-borne vessels from various nations.

  Soon the two young ladies sat down on their beds to catch their breath and to rest. Katherine checked the little fledgling in its little cage. It was eating well and the feathers were looking healthy. The eyes were bright, shining. Sadly, the injured wing remained slightly twisted and she fretted. She had named it Tito and had grown fond of it. Captain Sagan had already given permission; Katherine would have to free the fledgling once it was healed and matured.

  “The wings look like they are hardening,” Katherine examined Tito closely. The little goldfinch chirped and waited impatiently for its juicy worm.

  “It has to fly one day,” Alethia cocked her head to listen to the chirping.

  “It is the wing I am worried about,” Katherine murmured, feeding Tito a fat white grub she found in Cook’s vegetable garden.

  “Is it not broken, isn’t it?” Her pale-haired friend came over, feeling her way to the table where the cage was.

  “I certainly hope not,” Katherine watched Tito hop around in a lively circle. She swore that she had seen the little bird stretch its wings before.

  “Stenton should know. He is quite knowledgeable about birds.” Alethia suggested and smiled as Tito chirped curiously at her. “He is such a charming little goldfinch. All white, like a candle’s glow.”

  ~*~

  Elsewhere in the Administrativa building, Lady Judith Westmoreland was hurrying about, preparing notes for an important meeting just announced out of the blue. She was dressed in a fashionable blue dress and comfortable heeled boots; she was a favorite with he first-year cadets, not only of her cheerful disposition but of her kind heart as well. She would be good-humoredly sarcastic, never heavy-handed in her teaching and the younger students loved her.

  She readied her vox-reader and was about to carry it, all heavy load and all, when she met Stenton coming her way.

  “Have you heard about the meeting?” Stenton began, catching his breath. He had come running from the Flying Field at the news of the meeting.

  “Yes. Sounds urgent, I believe.” Lady Westmoreland nodded and lifted the vox-reader carefully. “I hazard a guess that it has something to do with the Golden Jubilee.”

  They walked briskly to the meeting chamber where the other lecturers and teachers were already milling about.

  “Some were saying,” Stenton nodded to a few of his friends and opened the door for Lady Westmoreland, “that the Jubilee was meant to be political.”

  Judith glanced at him while she set the machine up. “It is always political, Stenton. Everything is political.”

  She was a well-read suffragist and had come across (and collected) numerous tracts, including her personal favorite, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There were new ideas and concepts coming in, thanks to the explosion of the popularity of the printing press. With the nations converging on Lon
don a few months’ time, she foresaw an explosion of ideas, some of them potentially negative and dangerous. She normally kept these thoughts to herself and contemplated sharing them with Karlida privately over tea and warm scones.

  “Talk is rife about the new flying design,” Stenton helped to hand out notes while the group of lecturers flowed in, taking their places and muttering in groups. “It is supposed to be revolutionary.”

  “I see,” Lady Westmoreland inclined her head politely. “But talk is talk.”

  Then Pilotmaster Lee appeared, stern and cold, and the meeting began in earnest.

  Chapter Three

  Dynamics

  It was going to be Her Majesty’s Aerial Fleet, a proud assembly of her finest fins and other aerodynamic marvels. It was going to be a great display of Britannia’s ingenuity and talent – and Paul Forrester mused as he scrutinized the blue prints before him closely – and military prowess as well. As much as he hated war and politics, he knew that the Queen was keen to declare to the world that Britannia was a strong military nation, even in the New Age of Science and Logic.

  He had read many historical texts and knew that wars, bloody and destructive as they were, were products of dynamics. Like the cog-wheels in his machines and inventions, these dynamics depended on each other in a deadly symbiosis of needs, desires and interests.

  The blue prints were not lying. The clear lines were there, drawn, defined. He managed to get a copy from his colleague Smith who obtained it from the inventor designing the ship.

  Are we going to be minnows in a vast ocean? Forrester stared at the shape of the vessel. Everyone would just end up eating one another.

  Mrs Pott appeared with a tray of tea and some homemade oatmeal cookies. The fresh sweet smell filled his workshop. It was a comforting scent, reminding him of the warm kitchen.

  “Just received Alethia’s letter from the Academy.” She flourished an envelope dramatically. It was the color of parchment, sealed with red wax.

  Alethia. His precious daughter. He looked away from the damning blue prints and thanked the housekeeper warmly. She had looked after his little girl ever since she was a baby, pulled from her mother’s stomach to save her life. She was the only mother Alethia had known in her whole childhood. She would be turning twenty soon, no longer his little girl, but a young woman.

  His heart sank when he read the letter. She was one of the chosen few to take part in the Great Gathering. He should be brimming with fatherly pride. Yet… yet, seeing the blue prints and knowing what kind of vessels would be launched made him more perturbed.

  He kept seeing her in front of him. Pale, almost white hair, smooth-skinned, looking as if she was fragile. She was not. She was no porcelain doll. She was made of stronger stuff, all steel inside. When she was just a toddler, people would make comments about her blindness, that he should be pampering and coddling her. She was not an invalid, as he always told himself. Never. She had her mother’s fierce determination, a fiery spirit, though she did not display it often.

  It would be a Great Gathering. Of what manner of greatness, Paul Forrester did not want to think about. With an heavy heart, he went back to the blue prints and started to make notes about it.

  ~*~

  Far away from the machinations of London, Cornwall was a quiet county and Victor very much preferred it to remain that well. He was only a fisherman, from a long line of fishermen. The sea was in his blood and he was more than happy to spend his mornings in his boat and netting fish.

  There was some talk in the marketplace, where the fishermen would gather and sort out their catch, about the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. God bless Her Majesty. And life would still go on. His wife, Martha, had just given birth to a boy, his fifth child. Food on the table and clean clothes to wear were more important than courtly pomp and pageantry.

  Oh bloody hell, the net was exceedingly heavy today. Heavier than his usual catch which he would easily haul with his considerably strong right hand. Must be something big – a large salmon, perhaps – caught in the net. A fat salmon with roe would feed his family well or fetch a few shillings from the market. Either way, it was good.

  He pulled the net, heaved it into the boat dripping with seawater and writhing with live fish. Looked like a sizeable catch. As expected, there was something large bulging the net. He leaned forward to look at it…

  … only to stare into baleful eyes, the color of black polished stone. And a crescent-grin filled with toothy malice.

  Victor jumped back. He should be accustomed to the sight of sharks. But this one was an odd blighter, with a long horn protruding from its head. And what a strange tail. It was more serpent than shark. He prodded it; it was already dead, probably of exertion, crimson blood trickling from its gills.

  A serpent shark. Now that would scare his children, though his oldest – Henry – might just relish the tale as all pre-adolescent boys would when it comes to the macabre and the strange.

  He yanked it to one side of the boat, noting how heavy it was, though streamlined. It must have been beautiful in water. This random thought startled Victor and he laughed at himself for being such a sentimental fool. Back to work.

  ~*~

  The streets of London teemed with her citizens. There were boys holding the day’s broadsheets, shouting to attract business. Fashionable ladies and well-dressed gentlemen, dapper in well-tailored coats and pants, walked down Hyde Park. By now, the word that there would be a Golden Jubilee and a Great Gathering had spread throughout the city like wild fire. Extravagantly painted posters were pasted in prominent areas, so that people would take note of the date and the time.

  Gossip was rampant in the salons, in the coffeehouses and in Kew Gardens where spectators had gathered to watch the blooming of yet another exquisite tropical orchid species. Who were the nations invited? Japan? Austria? France? The protectorates of the British East India Company? What kind of flying marvels would be showcased? What kind of Fleet was Her Majesty putting together? Was it solely Her Majesty’s idea or was it by her ambitious Chamberlain and his cronies?

  One thing was for sure: they could hardly wait to see the new flying vessels. A new design, purportedly by a secret inventor. It would be grand. Magnificent.

  Chapter Four

  Earning The Wings

  She was in the same blimp-fin again, its controls familiar to the touch. For this training run, the winds were favorable – calm, without bustling gusts, considering it was now Autumn and the wintry currents were arriving soon. She self-consciously touched the half-wing brooch on her left breast, the badge of an Intermediate Pilot-In-Training. Captain Sagan pinned it on her chest in a private ceremony and whispered quiet words of encouragement like “Work harder.”

  Beside her, Misato Kanaka took her place as navigator. She was an exchange student from Meiji Japan, roughly around Katherine’s age. Her jet-black hair was pulled back in a severe bun and she wore the same kind of uniform as Katherine: light brown, the color of a senior student. On her left shoulder was the House emblem: she was assigned College Sable. Misato had the same quiet mildness as Alethia but when it came to games like lacrosse or even gymnastics, she excelled and positively thrived.

  “Check the wind gauge,” Katherine said, keeping her eye on their goal: a red-stripped flag. It was a training flight, with an element of competition. They had to collect ribbon-ed rings along the way. Misato was issued a pole so that she could collect the rings positioned at certain locations.

  “Wind gauge normal. Wind is easterly.” Misato reported dutifully. They were coming up to a set of three rings and Misato readied her pole.

  A flash of grey passed by beneath them. The passage of another blimp-fin. The blast of air left by its wake rocked Katherine’s own vessel and Misato stumbled, shouting something in Japanese. She sounded alarmed and rightly so. It was an illegal move and it had already gotten the rival blimp-fin ahead of them.

  “You alright?” Katherine asked the shaken Misato who nodded. T
hat was not a nice way to fly. In fact, it was not a safe way to fly either, not thinking about safety at all. Thomas Von Dyke had gotten too cocky for his own good. She powered the blimp-fin forward, furious.

  Thomas and his navigator – Edward – were already in the act of collecting the rings – our rings, Katherine thought angrily – when she piloted her blimp-fin towards the errant vessel. With a growl, she nudged it against the other blimp-fin, knocking it out of its position. She opened the pothole and shouted, “You do not have to cheat, Thomas Von Dyke! You nearly got us killed!”

  The rings scattered, fell. Edwards almost lost his balance and hung on for dear life. Thomas’s face emerged, ruddy with anger. Katherine had enough of Thomas and his tendency to needle her all the time. With a quick word to Misato to hang on, she pushed forth and her blimp-fin barreled forward, approaching another marker with two rings. A look back saw Thomas’s blimp-fin pursuing her.

 
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