The pale, bright sun reflected on endless fields of white clouds in a familiar way. Joanna adjusted her brass goggles to shield her eyes from the reflection’s glare. Staring into the clouds mindless, gives a fool cloud blindness her mother used to say.
From the top of her ship’s bridge, Joanna read the shapes and drifts of every nimbus and cirrus floating by. One could divine much from her current vantage point, looking over the clouds like a celestial. It gave a sense of freedom unmatched by anything any land dweller could experience.
Joanna raised the collar of her wool-lined coat against the cold, biting wind. The sound of air rushing by masked most of the rattling of cogs and chains below decks. She rarely notices the familiar mechanical sound of the engines and propellers nowadays. Each Flotilla ship had its own unique tone and rhythm, a comforting and distinctive sound like a mother’s voice. Her own ship, the Skylark, had a higher pitch than most.
In the distance, the first hints of brass flag poles jutted through the white mists. Joanna scanned the clouds ahead with her trusted spyglass. She could now clearly identify the drawings on the flags: four red cogs between two thick blue lines. She finally reached Riverend.
As the Skylark coursed ahead through the nimbus, the city slowly revealed itself. An endless sea of rooftops and chimneys extended in all directions and numerous floating wooden islands dotted the sky. Patches of thick black smoke rose from the various factories in the distance. Joanna was mesmerized at the scale of it all. This city could easily house everybody from the Flotilla twice over.
Up in the distance, Joanna could make out a tall cliff intersecting the city. It matched the descriptions from her father’s journal. The cliff divided the city into an upper and lower district. Here, the river Tanarus turned into a large waterfall, crashing down into the small lake at the foot of the cliff. She could clearly make out the inhumanly large brass water wheels at the cliff’s side, glistering in the sun. The Water Engine of Riverend powered the giant cogs and industrial chains disappearing into various buildings around the falls. Riverend was famous for its industrial strength, and the Coal Lords were amongst the wealthiest and most influential in the empire. Almost every machine was bound to have rivets, clicks, or gears made in one of these factories.
On top of the cliff, Joanna spotted her target. The Academy of Riverend was easy to recognize, with its large towers of white stone and domed glass roofs. She’d have to find a way to get into the upper district. Perhaps one of the steel cliff cranes or the stone arch bridges used by the city’s cross-district trains could help her out.
The sound of air horns brought Joana’s attention back to her ship. From the nearest floating island, she could see a guard of the city watch signaling her with a pair of red flags, directing her to one of the city’s docking towers. The large platform was a good three stories above the regular rooftops and broad enough to land a ship three times the size of her Skylark. Waving in the wind from the platform’s rooftop arcs, she spotted a typical Riverend piece of propaganda. The large banner portrayed a strong-armed man in the reds of the city watch, his big smile welcoming travelers while his muscled arms and the rifle on his back reminded newcomers to make no trouble.
With a slight turn on the ship’s wheel, Joanna steered the Skylark towards an opening between the platform’s stone arcs. Several raised landing platforms formed an outer perimeter on the docking tower’s floor. The inner area was a bustling place of people boarding or leaving the various ships and blimps present. Patrols of city watch guards made their rounds to keep an eye on those arriving at the city. The little sitting areas accompanying each landing made Joanna frown in bemusement. The wealthy of Riverend apparently had nothing better to do than to idle on benches and read a newspaper while waiting for their transport to arrive. All the while the precious seconds ticked away on the copper clock tower in the center of the floor.
Her small airship easily passed through the opening between the arcs as she neared one of the empty landing platforms. Smells of lingering steam and pipe tobacco reminded her again what messy place cities were compared to the airs she claimed home. As the Skylark cleared the entry arcs, Joanna noticed a distinct click and rattle behind her as a set of bars lowered to indicate this landing platform was now occupied. With a pull of a lever, she vented the engine chambers, releasing the steam pressure in the ship’s cylinders and stopping the surge propellers. The familiar mechanical rhythm and vibrations of her ship faded away as she landed. It always made her feel a little on edge, trapped like a land dweller.
A pair of guards approached as Joanna disembarked. They were distinctly recognizable by their militaristic red coats with Imperial insignia, their characteristic black-cocked hats, and their holstered muskets. “It’s five shillings for the docking space, and we will have to see your identification papers madam” informed the taller of the two, holding out his hand.
Joanna faked her best grimace of annoyance and briefly revealed a set of papers. “I really cannot be delayed gentlemen, I must be on my way.” She tossed a few coins in the waiting hand, “Now if you will excuse me”. Without waiting for a reply she moved past the two guards towards the clock tower’s doors.
“Hey! We’re not finished!” called the taller guard and went after her. He grabbed Joanna by her right arm and turned her around. The movement slid the sleeve of her jacked up, revealing the hummingbird tattoo on her wrist. I so hoped to avoid this trouble Joanna cursed to herself.
“Now what have we here?” the guard said with a menacing grin, “An Aeris. For your kind, it’s fifteen shilling for a docking permit, and another fifteen as city tax for the trouble you’ll inevitably cause.” From the corner of her eyes, she could see the disapproving and worried glares of bystanders.
Thirty shillings, that’s more than an average month’s wage! So much for a peaceful way in. With a flick of her wrist, she freed herself of the guard’s grip. The palm of her other hand connected with the guard’s chin. He stumbled back in shock. She dashed away, towards the edge of the tower platform. She heard the clicks behind her as the second guard armed his musket. By instinct, she dove over the edge of the platform and turned around midair. Just in time, she saw the bullet passing overhead that would have hit her.
Air rushed past her and blood pounded in her ears as she sped towards the ground. Quickly, she reached for the grappling gun at her hips and aimed for a nearby anchor point. With a blast the hook left the gun’s barrel, latching onto an overhanging freight bar. The taut rope swung her towards a nearby rooftop. Horns blared overhead and Joanna barely dodged the bullet landing next to her.
With a dash, she moved away from the docking tower. She leaped down from the rooftop onto a balcony. A hailstorm of bullets flew past her. One scraped her shoulder with a sharp sting. That was a close one.
Out of sight of the landing platform, Joanna paused to determine her location. The balcony overlooked a narrow alley that connected to a more busy thoroughfare. A crowd, perfect.
Joanna stepped over the railing and hopped down into the alley proper. As she walked towards the main street, she mentally focused on the diamond dust hidden in the linings of her falsecoat. Subtle weaves of light started to leak from the fabric. With a mental nudge, she lured the light across her clothing and hair, subtly changing the color of both.
With her new disguise, she hurriedly made her way, mingling between the busy folk on the thoroughfare. The small amounts of diamond dust in her falsecoat wouldn’t last for long, but it was long enough to disappear.
Once she made sure she was not being followed, Joanna reached into one of the pockets inside her coat. Dad’s journal was still there. Time to find this professor of yours, Dad, hope it is worth this adventure.
Behind the Story
Word count: 1457
This is a rewrite/edit of a story I wrote for the NaNoWriMo challenge in 2020. This is the first viewpoint in a series of connected stories. I wanted to do something with a steampunk theme and add my own magic system. It is a practice in writing more character-influenced descriptions.