Among the great city states in the sky, no guild is more respected than the Aviators’ Guild. Those heroes and heroines who tie civilization together; piloting their airships along the bird roads.
In recent history, no pilot is more famous than my mother Eve Swift, aviatrix and one-time mayor of New Frisco. And no mystery so great as her disappearance on an archaeological expedition, leaving me, her daughter, orphaned.
On the day I turn twenty-one, I receive two packages by post: a mysterious brown—paper parcel from my Uncle Felix and a slim envelope from the Aviators’ Guild.
Frantically, I tear open the envelope to extract the small card inside. I catch a whiff of fresh ink as I turn the smooth card over and over in my hand. As expected, the card is a license that permits “Nina Swift—Aviatrix” to pilot airships. The first and lowest rung on my piloting career. To me, it is like gold and my heart sings.
I kiss the card in triumph, slot it carefully into the leather wallet provided, and place it in a pocket of my flight jacket. Time to put my long cherished plan into action—today I am going in search of my long lost mother.
Scooping up the paper wrapped package, from the post office counter I toss it carelessly into my shoulder bag, unopened, as I step out into the street. I have work to do. I hoist the bag onto my shoulder and stride down the street to my crucial meeting at the Square Balloon café.
I stop on the way to complete a financial transaction. At twenty-one, the state no longer controls my mother’s legacy, so I can spend what is left of her money in any way I like. And what a magnificent purchase it is—the second stage of my plan.
I stop to examine myself in a shop window: tall, slender, auburn haired. Dressed and booted in my leather flying gear, some would call me striking—I call it angular. I’ve taken enough care with my appearance today to wow the boys.
When seeking to drive a hard bargain, looks are just another weapon in a girl’s armory.
I enter the Square Balloon, a favorite hang—out for us apprentices from the Aviators’ Guild. Compared to the bright sunlight outside, the café looks dark and bland. Polished bare boards gleam under my feet and pictures of famous airships, aviators, and aviatrixes line the walls in an attempt to brighten things up. The tangy smell of coffee and sweet smell of chocolate battle each other in the air. I inhale deeply. It’s like coming home.
I order my usual: strong coffee, no cream.
Scud and Fernando are already seated around a window table, flight jackets hung on the back of their chairs. They’re getting to know each other, though they aren’t saying much, which is no surprise. Hot mugs steam in front of them on the scrubbed wooden table. A coffee for Fernando and a hot chocolate for Scud.
Fernando stares unwaveringly at Scud, which causes Scud to look anywhere except directly at Fernando.
I collect my drink, slide in between the boys, and take a deep breath. “Hi, guys.” Now for stage three of my plan.
Scud tosses his mop of brown hair out of his eyes and looks past me, “Oh...yes...morning, Nina.” Scud never meets anyone’s gaze, even mine, his best and oldest friend.
“Fernando, this is Scud. Scud, this is Fernando.”
They know of each other, of course. That’s why I’m annoyed with Fernando’s behavior.
He thrusts his hand straight across the table, smiling radiantly. “Hi, how you doing, mate?”
Scud stares out the window, ignoring him.
Fernando turns his attention to me. “What’s this all about, Nina?” Swarthy, full-lipped, and handsome, he has auburn hair like mine. His dark brown eyes are deep watery wells you can just dive into.
I have never been one of his conquests, though I might admit to flirting with him once or twice at parties. He’s just not my type. The way my parents behaved has left me with a deep desire for someone trustworthy. Someone I can respect. Fernando is neither of these things, though he might be my equal.
“Well, if my mother was here—” I catch Scud rolling his eyes, but I don’t let it put me off. “She would say, ‘A great opportunity has arisen and you are the lucky recipients’.”
Fernando leans across the table. “Meaning?”
I stare longingly into those deep brown pools. Sometimes I just want to throw myself in them without a care; then I remember who owns those eyes and crawl out again. “Meaning, that now flight school is out; I’m recruiting a crew for the summer.”
“You’re not looking for intern work?”
“Not this year—I’m following my own path.”
“What about a ship?” he asks.
I am prepared. “This morning, I used the remains of my mother’s estate, my inheritance, to purchase a gorgeous airship.”
Fernando knows all about inheritances.
He doesn’t look very impressed, so I try again, “I’m offering you a job on a secret mission.”
Scud nods once. “I’m in.”
“How can you, ‘be in’?” Fernando demands. “You don’t even know what the job is yet.” He glares at Scud, who stares out the window again.
Molding these two into a team could be a challenge. Maybe a bigger threat than either of them would do the trick; perhaps I should make them both hate me, though I don’t believe Scud would ever hate me, even if I gave him good reason.
Scud shrugs his shoulders. “It’s Nina—how can I not be in?” He is so pathetically cute sometimes.
“You’re going to retrace your mother’s last expedition and find out how she died,” Fernando states.
“You’ve told everyone, Nina. It’s no secret.”
“Oh.” I fix my lilac eyes on him. “Well I need your navigation skills.”
“Standard Guild rates.” We all belong to the Aviator’s Guild, as officer apprentices. Soon, when we pass our exams, we will gain promotion to officer grade on commercial airships. At twenty-one, though, we already qualify to pilot our own private craft, which is exactly what I intend to do.
“Why bring a klutz like him along?” Fernando hisses, as if Scud can’t hear him.
How do I explain a lifetime of friendship and mutual support? When my mother left, I became a pariah at school: all my friends’ parents stopped encouraging their children to pal up with the ex-mayor’s daughter. Those I thought were friends disappeared, like a breath of wind, leaving me alone and isolated. At six, I learned to be wary of those who love you for what you have rather than for yourself—a suspicion I retain, aggressively, to this day.
As a loner, I gravitated naturally towards the other loner in my year: Scud. The awkward, rude Scud. The genius Scud. The Scud whose personality skills are virtually non-existent. Scud, who is incapable of loving someone for what they do, or what their parents do, or for their connections. Even as a child, it took me a long time to accept Scud on his own terms. I needed to learn to love him for himself.
Scud sailed through the entrance exam for flight school, but it was me who coached him for weeks to get him through his Guild interview. “If you can’t look the interviewer in the eye, Scud, look at their nose, or forehead, or at the wall behind their head––it is close enough.”
Scud will never make it as a captain or any other sort of leader, but as a ship’s master he will know every intimate detail of any ship he ever steps on board, right down to the number of rivets. Especially the number of rivets.
When he’s agitated, which is often, Scud counts. He counts rivets preferably, but anything will do. I bet he’s counting something now as he stares out the window trying to avoid intimacy with Fernando.
“Because I need him.” It’s the best I can conjure up.
“This airship, it’s not the wreck moored on the north pier is it?” For all his charm, Fernando can be cruel, which is another reason I have never hooked up with him.
It is my very first airship. It might be old and it might need some reconstruction, but it is glorious. “It might require a few running repairs,” I admit.
Fernando laughs, raucously. “OK then, I got nothing else to do this summer. I’m in.”
I suspect the large—living Fernando desperately needs the money and a summer away from his creditors and many girlfriends—just as I hoped. Step three of my plan has fallen neatly into place.
A waitress slides into the spare seat opposite me. I wait for the boys to react.