Norris sighed despite the gorgeous surroundings. The scenery was, of course, brilliant. The sky was a crystal blue, and fluffy clouds swam by. He stood on a modern miracle of metallurgy, engineering, aeronautics, and thaumaturgy. He was bored. The airship Columbia XII made its way over the Swiss Alps, delivering a cargo of something or other that was probably very expensive, very urgent, and absolutely positively had to get to England on time.
He shook his head, looking out over the side. The whole thing had seemed so romantic and adventurous when his Talent had first made itself known. Now, eight years of discipline and hard work later, he had to confront the fact that there were simply no real adventures any more. Or at least there weren’t for him.
He caught a glimpse of Ms. Bennett stalking down the length of the airship, and immediately came to attention. Her eyes would catch any out of place detail, and her tongue was wickedly sharp. One of the other cadets working protection for the airship claimed that she’d been married once, and that the husband had died under mysterious circumstances. Norris had no doubts at all about what had happened. Her husband had done something wrong, and Ms. Bennett had killed him.
He shuddered involuntarily at the thought, but he didn’t doubt for a moment that’s what had happened. It had probably been very precise, very quick, and there’d been nothing left of Mr. Bennett but a slight charred spot and a bit of ash drifting through the sunbeam coming in from the window.
The fact that Ms. Bennett only came up to his sternum was by no means an indication of her prowess. She’d run the cadets through their paces when they’d arrived at the Columbia in Turkey. Their posts were assigned with a few curt words, delivered in her New World colonies accent. “Good flame work. Engineering.” “Nice focus. Navigational detail.” She’d come to Norris, and paused for a moment. “Security.” she’d said. No other comments, no compliments. Just the single word, and she’d moved on.
Once they’d gotten underway, she’d found plenty to talk about, from his appearance (judging from your size and the generally sloppy nature of your dress, I’d say we’d accidentally captured a blonde gorilla, Mr. Tilney) to his clumsiness (do try not to tread on the passengers if you must go below, Mr. Tilney), to his eating habits (I daresay, Mr. Tilney, that I’m amazed at how you’ve managed to develop so robust a physique on a diet of nuts and berries).
The one thing she absolutely insisted on was constant drilling. Norris saw the small collection of targets in her hand and shuddered. He had yet to hit all five targets, although he’d done slightly better than Barrington. Poor Ted had only hit two the last time, and Ms. Bennett had assigned him the enviable duty of scrubbing the metal fixtures… on the bottom of the airship.
Still, that hadn’t been as bad as what had happened to Chalmers. Chris Chalmers had been all confidence and smiles when he’d come aboard. He’d let fly with a fireball at the first target during his initial test. Before anyone could see what had happened, he’d been tumbled to the ground, and Ms. Bennett had been pinning him to the deck with a boot to the chest, and her wand had been inches from his face. “Tell me, Chalmers, have you had your brains burned out, or is that rather unusually shaped melon above your shoulders in fact hollow?” Chalmers had gaped and tried to respond, but Ms. Bennett had backhanded him in the face with her wand hand, and he’d been too dazed to say anything. Then she had turned her icy glare to the rest of the cadets. “Can anyone here identify how Mr. Chalmers has almost killed every single man, woman, and child aboard this ship?” No one had dared respond. “These airships are full of hydrogen gas. Highly flammable hydrogen gas.”
Chalmers had been temporarily reassigned to the kitchens, and word was he’d be sent to engineering after this cruise.
Ms. Bennett strode by Norris. He had just started to feel his spine unclenching when she turned on her heel, and strode back. Her loose brown hair framed an oval face. Her blue eyes sparkled with what he assumed was malevolent glee at the prospect of putting another one of her cadets through his paces. A uniform consisting of loose white breeches and shirt would have been scandalous on a more socially appropriate woman, butwith Ms. Bennett it was simply what she wore. “Well, Mr. Tilney, we come to it again. Let’s see if your eyesight has improved in the last two days, shall we? Of course, the undercarriage could always use a brisk swipe and a polish.” She said it all with a smile, but there was iron in her tone, and her blue eyes were hard.
“Very well, ma’am.” He removed his wand from its place on his left sleeve, and stood ready. Mentally, he was considering whether the undercarriage safety harness would fit him or not.
Five targets floated above Ms. Bennett’s hand for a moment, then one of them shot away. Norris carefully considered his aim, and let fly with an icy blast. The target was instantly frozen over, and plummeted towards the ground. Two more targets sailed away, one of them zigzagging furiously. Norris blasted the easy one first, then squinted slightly and let fly. He clipped the veering target, but it continued to maneuver. Norris saw it swinging around as though preparing to make a run on the airship. It continued to dodge and twist.
The fourth target sailed off, and Norris gave it a blast before it could get too far away. He blasted again at the dodging target, hitting it solidly. It hit the surface of the airship with an audible THUNK and slid down the silk canopy. Norris glanced down at the fifth target, but it was already gone. He looked up and back, where the last target was sailing off into the distance. He raised his wand and let fly, firing lower than perhaps was ultimately warranted. He narrowly missed a gentleman taking the air on the deck, but the target went white and dropped.
Mr. Tilney turned back to see Ms. Bennett’s thoughtful expression. “Well, I suppose you haven’t completely dishonored yourself, or me.” She gave a level gaze at the shivering gentleman on the causeway. “Although our esteemed passengers may beg to differ. I daresay he’llÀ be looking to walk by the engines to warm up.”
“However, your ability to hit anything that can actually maneuver leaves something to be desired.” She pointed at the slightly damp place where the zigzagging target had impacted the side of the airship. “Were that anything larger than a small bird, we’d have a tear in the outer canopy to deal with, and possibly a damaged gasbag. You realize what that would mean, correct?”
Norris gulped. “I expect at that point we’d begin to sink, ma’am.”
Ms. Bennett nodded. “Well, you may redeem your primate ancestors yet, Mr. Norris. And in order to prevent our sinking down to the mountains below?”
“We’d have to repair the damage, and possibly lighten the load in the meantime, until the engineers and mages could repair the damage and replace the lost gas.”
“Indeed. And I’ll give you one guess at the first thing I’ll be throwing over the side, Tilney.”
Norris blinked. “I imagine I’ll have a pleasant view on my way to the ground, ma’am.”
At that, Ms. Bennett actually laughed out loud. It was the scariest thing Norris had ever heard, and he involuntarily stiffened further into attention when he heard it. “I dare say you will, Mr. Tilney. Perhaps you’d better devote some time to studying the potential for using magecraft to enable human flight. I believe the ship’s library has a volume or three of Newton.” She considered him again. “Very well, cadet. Carry on.” She turned and continued down the length of the airship.
Once she’d gone below, Ted Barrington came over. The slight cadet peered around Norris’s bulk at the staircase where Ms. Bennett had descended into the airship. “Good job, Norris. I never would have gotten that one that was reeling all over the place, and the fifth one – that was a very good shot.”
Norris shrugged. “I don’t know what she’s so worried about anyway.” He scratched at his blonde muttonchops. “Hasn’t been a dragon sighting around here in months, let alone an attack.”
“I heard the engineers talking, and they’re wondering if the dragons have started migrating, like birds. Or hibernating like bears.”
“Or they’ve all flown off to Australia, where they’re being trained and ridden like horses, no doubt.” Norris sighed again, staring off into the sky. Dragons. Might as well be concerned about a plague of frogs, for all the likelihood that they’d see any real adventure. Twelve months of cruising back and forth from Turkey to Dover, with nothing to look forward to but the occasional grilling by Ms. Bennett, and target practice.
At the academy, they’d spoken about some of the different kinds of assignments they might get. Some would be assigned research, others would train new magi. Alexander had hoped for anything that would allow him the possibility of travel. His head was full of wild surmises. Perhaps he’d be assigned to guard an embassy in far off Bombay, or Shanghai. Even Italy would have been something. He’d wondered if he would be assigned to protect the silk trade with the Orient, or grain shipments from the colonies in the New World. There he would have to deal with native shamans – powerful magi indeed – and perhaps have learned something of their methods.
But no. Here he was, stuck on an airship plodding its way through the sky. The first day had been exciting. But all too soon, Norris had come to understand that the scenery never really changed. The sky was still blue. Clouds were still white. The ground changed a little, but it was so distant to see over the curve of the canopy that it may as well have been a rug in his mother’s parlor.
Ted was still talking. “… and they say an attack could come at any time.”
“I’m sorry, Ted. What were you saying?”
Ted looked hurt. “You weren’t listening? Honestly, Norris. Sometimes you really do try one’s patience.” Barrington stamped his foot in consternation, but he quickly regained his conspiratorial glancing. “Cookie was saying that he’s heard rumors of pirates moving into the high places around the Alps. Pirates who are working with the dragons – maybe even offering to share treasure with them.” Barrington was practically bouncing with excited anticipation.
Alexander waved a hand to dismiss the story as yet another one of Cookie’s wild tales. Cookie had once insisted that he’d been in the seraglio of the Sultan himself while visiting in Turkey, and been forced to cover himself with a veil when the Sultan’s eunuchs entered. Obvious poppycock. “If Cookie could bake bread half so well as he tells stories, we’d be eating like the King of France, Barrington. You remember that tale he tells about the seraglio, right?”
“But he’s got the veil to prove it, Norris.”
“He could have bought that veil anywhere. You can pick one up in Dover if you know the right places, and then tell all the stories you like so people don’t pay attention to the way the food actually tastes.”
Ted smiled and shook his head at his friend. “I don’t care what you say, Norris. I believe him. And if the Sultan ever found out…
Norris rolled his eyes. ”It would be considered an act of war. Yes, yes, of course.
Ted laughed, and headed back to his side of the deck.
Norris considered Ted’s story for a moment. If only it were true. If only it were the kind of thing that really happened. He began pacing the deck side of the airship he’d been assigned to, staring out over the side of the Columbia XII at the unchanging sky. He’d wanted a life of adventure and excitement. He’d thought that his magical talents would get him there. Instead, he would be spending the next year or so bouncing back and forth between Turkey and Dover like a shuttlecock. At least he’d have the occasional opportunity to see Istanbul. Once a month or so.
He shook his head again. Eventually he’d probably get used to it, and it would be all over for his dreams of adventure.
He frowned at that thought. For a moment he considered the possibility that he’d wind up like Cookie – spinning stories for gullible cadets who didn’t know any better and already had their heads full of the nonsense that this would be a life of adventure. He suddenly pictured himself surreptitiously showing a tiny cadet a veil he’d purchased from a shop in Dover, and blanched.
At this point, dragon riding pirates would practically be a mercy.
Buy the full story now for $1.49 for your Kindle (.mobi) or Nook/iDevice (.epub)