By noon, everyone clustered near the auditorium, waiting for more news. A major factory, situated near London central, had exploded. It was a factory processing metals and ores. Alethia said that there was an explosion of red and orange in her head, just when the jolt hit the academy. It scared her to the core and her face was still ashen.
Captain Sagan regrouped her College and gave them words of comfort and encouragement. It was an Age of Invention and Discovery. But nobody said anything about Safety and Health. The air smelled distinctly of burning and of metal.
The leo-fins had been dispatched to help with the firefighting. London burned with a ghastly yellow-green light, turning the layer of smog into something out from Hell. There were the faint sounds of bells as water-bearing teams rushed to extinguish the raging fire.
For a while, lectures were suspended as some of the lecturers had gone to pilot the leo-fins. Even Captain Sagan took her leave and left with her leo-fin to help combat the fire.
The academy throbbed with undercurrents of disquiet and fear. There was a sense of desolation in the academy grounds and in the Manor while the whole of London was in turmoil. Fortunately, no more explosions followed and by late night, the fire was contained.
Everyone – even the cook and her maids – kept vigil, watching the skies for the returning leo-fins. In the cold Autumn night, students huddled together in small groups, sitting around gas lamps and watching their breaths plume white in the air. Alethia was the most affected – her father was in London central. She perched, white and silent, beside Katherine who draped a blanket around her thin shoulders and only prayed for the best.
Suddenly, Alethia became ramrod straight and said, “Rainbows. They are back.”
Immediately, someone shouted and pointed at the skies. “They are back! They are back!”
Eyes peered into the foggy darkness lit intermittently with flashes of yellow-green. There were bright spots in the sky, like stars. The stars gradually became brighter and brighter, until they became the form of lamps on leo-fins. A flight of leo-fins, all six of them, appeared, bold as courage, and lifting everyone’s spirits instantly. Everyone cheered and watched the leo-fins land in a disciplined V-formation on the Flying Field.
Doctor Ash strode forward, medical bag in hand, in case of any injury on the part of the pilots. The first to appear was Pilotmaster Lee, pulling his dark goggles off from his tanned face tiredly. The second was Captain Sagan who had her right arm in a makeshift sling and causing a few pangs of horror in the breasts of her College students. Ash spoke to the pilots quietly and examined Sagan’s arm with a careful eye, nodding as he listened to her exhausted explanation.
A few other pilots followed slowly behind the more senior pilots, their bodies showing signs of weariness. Their leather uniforms were covered with soot and one or two looked as if they had very minor burns.
Students surged forward to their lecturers, questions on their tongues, eager to know what had happened. Lee’s face had a warm smile though.
“The Queen is safe. Buckingham Palace is far from the fire and Her Majesty is away at Windsor.” He said, accepting a bowl of hot clear broth from Cook thankfully.
Alethia pushed herself forward. “Sir?”
“ Miss Forrester, your father is safe,” Sagan’s voice was calm and Alethia’s furrowed brow became smooth.
After this brief interlude, the pilots were led back to the Manor by Doctor Ash, no doubt for further questions and examinations. Katherine tugged Alethia gently on the arm. It was past Last Light and she was starting to feel really sleepy. The wave of excitement was finally fading away.
It was then she got sight of a familiar face, amongst the few pilots straggling from behind.
“Eddington!” Katherine breathed and the familiar face turned to face her, surprise writ on the handsome features.
“It was very hot, like hell-fire. We had to fly directly above the flames, just to pitch the water in. It was quite a challenge! Wes got himself burned when he flew too closely to the fire but it was a minor burn.”
Richard Eddington sat with a mug filled with warm cider and a bowl of beef stew, courtesy from Cook. It was noontime when Katherine had the opportunity to meet him. The lectures and lessons were back in schedule.
He had scrubbed up well and was looking like his old dapper self. He had changed his uniform for a simple brown coat and trousers, looking like a relaxed gentleman out on an afternoon jaunt. Only the dark shadows around his eyes spoke eloquently of his exhaustion.
They had met before. It felt like another lifetime. In fact, Eddington had flown her over from Dorset to London.
“The fire was hard to contain. It was a raging beast. But by Jove, we tamed the beast!” Eddington said with a bright grin and drank the cider deeply.
“You made it sound as if it was a walk in the park!” Katherine laughed.
“Well, it is part of a pilot’s job, doing chores and running errands, even something as big as this fire.” Eddington tasted the stew and began to shove it down with gusto. “Just look at you. You look different!”
Katherine felt self-conscious and stared at her booted feet. Her face blushed, a slow heat pooling in her cheeks.
“You have become more … self-secure.” Katherine did not like Eddington’s expression as he gazed at her appreciatively. “Definitely more self-secure.”
“Richard Eddington!” She snapped at him. Within her chest, something blossomed, something like joy.
The man laughed and went back to his beef stew. Katherine sat quietly, watching him. A shadow fell across the table and it was Captain Sagan, her arm still in the sling.
“Now, Mister Eddington,” Sagan was half-amused, half-stern. “It is unseemly of you to sit with female students.”
“Captain Sagan, madame!” Eddington stood up and snapped to attention. His eyes though gleamed with mischief. “I was once a student!”
“Not anymore, young scoundrel,” Sagan’s tone remained stern, even though her lips curled up slightly. “You are a proper pilot now. Should you be on a flight run by now?”
“Aw,” he rubbed his jaw. “A tired pilot makes a careless pilot.”
“Do not be glib,” Sagan shook her head. “Just for a hour and no more.” She saluted and walked away slowly.
Katherine stared at him. “You are impossible.” She stood up, preparing for the afternoon lectures. She was about to leave with her dignity still intact when he spoke.
“So, we will meet again?”
The activities before Last Light buzzed mainly about the London factory fire, everyone with their own theories of the origins of the fire. Some said that the factory was an ammunitions factory and something caught fire in that, causing the inevitable explosion. Some said that the fire was just a careless mistake, caused by negligence. Everyone became quiet and wondered to their selves if the company who owned the factory was to be shut down. The broadsheet writers and the union movements would have aired their irate complaints by now.
Alethia retired early, drained by the aftereffects of the fire. Katherine made her way out of the Manor, to catch some fresh air, suddenly finding the dormitory hall too warm and stifling to her liking.
Richard Eddington left in an hour, exactly as he had promised Captain Sagan. Katherine saw his leo-fin lift off and disappear into the distance. She was surprised to feel a sense of bittersweet melancholia and suppressed the feeling quickly.
It amazed her that she could still see snatches of stars in the night sky. London was normally cloudier than Dorset, because of the greater numbers of factories and refineries. Dorset had one factory and even then, the smoke obscured the sky occasionally. She looked up. It was a clear night, exceedingly rare. It seemed as if the heavens pitied London and gave her a starry night to cheer her waning spirits.
She stood, inhaling deeply. The London fire was shocking. However, by the end of the year, people would have moved on and the fire would have become just a memory, something to talk about during salon gatherings. “People are more concerned when their bellies are concerned,” her mother once told her in one of her rare conversational moments.
Katherine gazed at the stars while the constellations spun their slow orbits around her.
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.
It was common to see the bearded tall gentleman stalking down the corridors of the Manor, simultaneously physician and teacher. He would check on the students, especially those who were sick and were in quarantine, regularly, making they had their ample rest. Likewise, he would supervise his students in the laboratories.
He was a busy man. One would expect him to be scatterbrained, the very image of an university professor. He was not. He was sharp. He was acerbic. Mind you, he just cut young Joshua Baker into fine shreds for being tardy in his homework. Mister Baker was an intelligent young man. He just frittered his time away with his laziness. He would have words to say to Pilotmaster Lee. And as Tutor-in-charge of College Azure, he needed to make sure the students were in tip-top condition, academically and physically.
Now why was he so concerned about a simple ankle? He was constantly on the move. Yet, a simple ankle was causing him some a degree of concern.
It was not just torn tendons and broken skin. It involved the whole person. Common sense, in the form of adequate nutrition and rest, would help remedy the ankle’s problem. If he could get that into the head of the said person with the problem ankle, he would.
She did not tell him how the injury was caused or inflicted. And by what, she was not forthcoming. As he observed her quietly as a calm clinician should, the ankle seemed to be getting worse, not better. Of course, with all the exertion she was putting on it.
He would recommend bed rest. Barring that, simple surgery. Other than these options, it was not just an imbalance of humours. It was a psychological reason.
And no, he was definitely not going to the nonsense of phrenology. Lumps on the skull were not going to tell him about her mind. Lumps were lumps. Not real problems.
If she is aware of this fact, he mused, looking sternly at a few students who quickly went back to their schoolwork. If she wants to be a pilot, that is.
Katherine dreamt again. This time, she found herself moving around with Miss Sharpton. Avoiding the ancient harridan became a dance of shifting eddies and currents. The woman would try to hit her with the brown belt and she would evade it simply by sidestepping or moving away quickly.
It was a pleasant dream, because the dream Miss Sharpton grew increasingly furious and annoyed with her failures to hit Miss Riley. Katherine slept on without waking up.
It was First Light when everyone was jolted awake by a loud rumble. It felt as if the earth was quaking in fear, rumbling and groaning away in travail. Alethia cried out, greatly alarmed by the sound and how sorely it impacted her senses. Katherine fell out from her bed, nearly spraining her already-aggravated ankle.
London was burning.
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 would 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.
Finding Her Balance: Standing On Two Feet
The ground looked ominously far away from her dangling feet.
“If you keep on paying attention to your feet, Miss Riley,” the voice above her boomed out sternly. “You will remain in the air until the end of the day!”
She hung onto the rope, feeling it rub against her already-sore palms. She forced herself to move upwards, focus on the voice above her. The wind tugged at her fiercely, pulling at her breeches and making her feel extremely naked… cold. She swayed, because the rope was swaying, because the leo-fin was swaying gently in the incoming wind current. She could hear the leo-fin sing its own unique song. Shaped like the lion fish, a fish from the distant tropics, it had captured her imagination ever since she saw it land in Dorset.
Or rather, its creak-creak-creak voice as it flew suspended in mid-air for the flightmen’s basic training. That creak voice was the result of its engines working hard to keep the entire craft airborne, combined with the lift of air currents.
“Rainbows,” Alethia would say during meal times in the Dining Hall. “They speak in rainbows.”
Rainbows. How she wished she could see one now. Not while she was dangling in the middle of the sky, feet wishing for terra firma. Maybe, she was not destined to fly anymore.
“Pay attention, Miss Riley!” The voice boomed out again. Stenton, their instructor.
She looked up, almost lost her grip and quickly clung onto the rope, her heart pounding in her chest. Come on, come on, she goaded herself. She called up images of a shriveled harridan shrieking verbal abuse at her and it got her most motivated. She began to move slowly and when she faltered, stricken with exhaustion, she would think of the shrieking harridan and she would have energy.
It was a sense of immense relief when Stenton pulled her into the compartment area of the leo-fin and she collapsed onto the floor. Her hands were red with new blisters and she felt as if she had run a mile without stopping. Her arms ached terribly.
“Less tarrying, Miss Riley,” Stenton said, not unkindly. “More focus on your task.”
She nodded, knowing that she had accomplished her own personal best. As for her personal demons, she still needed that extra energy to repel them away.
“Heard that you almost fell from the leo-fin.”
She met Alethia during the mid-day meal. How Alethia got to know about her disastrous training session was a mystery. Then again, the academy was closely knit and news spread easily.
The fair-haired girl navigated around with a walking stick. She also used her hands to touch the surfaces around her. She was uncanny though – she was adept at knowing spatial direction. In College Sable, she was nicknamed “Ghost” by a sarcastic student and the name seemed to have caught on. She seemed to shrug off the nickname nonchalantly. Katherine knew that she was actually quite hurt by that rude comment.
The mid-day meal was a hearty vegetable stew with freshly baked bread. Most of College Sable sat at their designated tables. Katherine and Alethia sat at their own spots. Katherine soaked the bread thoroughly with the savory stew. It reminded her of her mother’s cooking.
“I almost did. But Stenton was a cruel taskmaster and made me climb the rope in a jiffy.” She said, chewing on the bread.
“Stenton is well-known for his cruelty. But he is actually quite a kind man.” Alethia’s voice was always soft, gentle. Katherine had never heard her raise it in anger.
Katherine glanced at her blisters, still raw from the morning’s climb. They would heal in time. No doubt, there would be more in the future. She was not so sure about her ankle. It was painful when she walked. Stenton had already made note of it. So did Doctor Ash, the academy’s resident physician.
By Jove, she really wanted the ankle to be well. Inwardly, she cursed the person who caused it, only to pause. It was bad enough to curse. Her mother did say something about curses coming back to haunt people like spirits of old.
Alethia’s voice broke her reverie.
“You are unusually solemn,” the girl continued and Katherine could see a slight frown creasing the smooth pale brow. The sightless eyes were forever open. Yet, Katherine knew that Alethia could easily feel her emotions.
“I am just thinking, that’s all.” Katherine said, realizing her excuse sounded flat and unconvincing. Later, Alethia would sit down with her again and probe it out of her in her gentle, unassuming manner.
She wondered if she was indeed adapting well to the Flight Academy. The lessons were agreeable – more so than a small Dorset class-room – and she was learning everyday about flight and the basics of it. There was time for rest and for work – the Pilotmaster and lecturers made sure of that. A tired pilot, they said, makes a careless pilot. The Great Manor was a splendid building. There was hot and cold water in their dormitories, a luxury – she knew – especially in autumn and winter. There was a hydraulic pump-core working underneath the Great Manor, powering the electricity that in turn powered the lamps and other sources of light in the Manor. It was said that the Manor was a Marvel for its age and there were many people who wanted to do the same for their own endeavors.
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.
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.
Beginnings: First Steps
The academy’s main building reminded her of a cathedral, with soaring steeples and grave-looking stonework, befitting more perhaps a monastery or a convent. Yet, as she walked towards the large brass door leading to the auditorium, she could hear merry laughter coming from the courtyard. It lifted the somber mood and she felt less intimidated.
It was an exceedingly large area. A crisscross pattern of roads and paths led to the main building that served as the center of the academy. Directly facing the cathedral was a splendid-looking manor, constructed in the form of a H, with the extreme wings serving as dormitories for the academy students. Between the two wings were the classrooms and lecture chambers as well as a dining hall.
What drew her attention immediately was the Flying Field, a magnificent sprawling field probably the size of Dorset. There were two leo-fins flying in the middle of it while a group of students watched. A tiny figure – the pilot? – threw down rope from one of the leo-fins and as she watched in amazement, the students began to climb up the rope one by one. The figure/pilot shouted encouragement.
The activity on the Field sent a thrill of excitement through her. To be able to fly! She would do anything!
She pushed the brass door and it opened with a low stygian groan. Eyes stared at her: a thousand pairs of them, as she walked in, feeling – suddenly – immensely small. The auditorium seats were arranged in terraces. Row after row of seats and students wearing their college designations. She swayed, dizzy with the sensory overload. The noise. The colors. The people.
To make it worse, the lecturer standing in the middle of the auditorium was watching her like a hawk. The lecturer was a tall handsome-looking woman, with a strong jaw and shoulder-length russet hair. Her skin was tanned, bearing testimony to the hours spent in the open and under the sun. She was dressed in a simple white shirt with long sleeves, covered with a manly black vest, and khaki riding breeches. Black boots shone with dedicated polishing and she held a riding crop in her right hand., tapping it impatiently.
It was an astonishing sight.
Clear-blue eyes bore into her critically and she ground to a halt, realizing that she could hear muffled giggles and whispers coming from the students.
“Name and College? You are terribly late, young miss.” The woman said, her voice husky but firm.
“Katherine Riley. College Sable.” She replied, almost biting her tongue. She knew that the woman was looking at her injured ankle and her slight limp. The injury was an unfortunate reminder of her past; it had not healed properly, forcing her to limp. Icy anxiety spiked uneasily in her stomach.
“Good! I am the Tutor-in-charge of College Sable. Please find a seat, Miss Riley.” The woman’s voice held a hint of amusement and tapped the rostrum sharply with her riding crop. “The rest of you, make haste back to your task. The chapter on bird flight, please.”
She walked up the aisle, desperately looking for an empty seat. Most of the seats were occupied and jealously guarded. She was about to give up hope when she saw one beside a pale looking girl, about her age. Embarrassed and muttering a rushed Iamsorry, she eased herself in, knowing that she was distracting others from their studies.
The girl beside her appeared fragile, her face framed with fine flaxen-colored hair and her skin the shade of delicate porcelain. Her fingers were slender, caressing the open book in front of her. She noted that there were tiny notches on the page and wondered why. The girl’s eyes were a startling green and they stared straight ahead.
“Don’t be embarrassed. Tardiness is a problem, even though Pilotmaster Lee doesn’t really like it.” The girl whispered softly.
“I am Alethia Forrester,” the girl continued, still staring ahead. “I am College Sable too.” She noticed the red band around the girl’s slim left arm.
“You are a muddle of red and orange, aren’t you?” The girl finally faced her and she realized, with shock, that she was blind.
“I am not!” She hissed back, stung and offended, and some students glared at them. The nerve!
“I think in colors,” Alethia said mildly. “I am blind. But I perceive and feel things in different hues.”
“People assume I can see.” The girl smiled and it was a warm genuine smile. “Come, I do not want Captain Sagan to hound us later.” She inclined her head towards the direction of the tall woman at the rostrum.
She opened her book but she kept glancing at Alethia’s fingers stroking the notches. It was rather fascinating. By now, Captain Sagan had begun the lecture. She noticed that there was another woman, dressed in a more lady-like black gown, seated before a strange metallic contraption. She looked as if she was playing pianoforte. The contraption made clacking sounds. As Captain Sagan spoke in her strong voice, the woman moved her hands quickly over the odd object, click-clacking away.
“That’s the vox-recorder,” Alethia explained as if she somehow sensed her curiosity. “Captain Sagan makes sure her words are written down for laggards to peruse in the future.” There was gentle humor in her words and she found herself smiling.
Captain Sagan was talking about the basics of bird flight, using detailed drawings of bird skeletons. She settled down to listen, knowing somehow that the academy was going to be an interesting place. She was going to fly and she knew it deep inside her bones.
I am on hiatus at the moment, giving birth tomorrow!
At the moment, here’s the 1st chapter of The Basics Of Flight to whet your appetite.