Prologue: The Boy and the Birdcage

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In Clementine, the air always blew crisp and cool. Thomas breathed it in deep, felt it on his face and through his threadbare tunic. He loved watching the airships come in, great plumes of steam billowing from their chimneys to join the pink and blue clouds of the sky above and below him. It was often that he stood where he did today, at the edge of the skydocks, watching the zeppelins break through the clouds, heavy with jewels or spices or strangers. Today though, he had eyes only for the Goliath skyship docked on the bridge beside him.

The docks were held suspended above the abyss by colossal balloons, tied to the wooden planks with great knotted chains. Below roared a sightless pit. Grandpa forbid the kid from ever stepping near the place, but Thomas knew better. Soon enough, the boy imagined, he would be walking these very docks to his own crew and airship. Better get familiar.

It wasn't hard sneaking past the old man. He'd grown forgetful in his old age. Thomas told Grandpa he'd been taking dance classes at school, but while the children danced, Thomas snuck past the forests and farms and squat Clementine cottages on the way to the skyship terminal. Vaulting past the terminal gates, Thomas would perch himself on the edge of a dock, staring with wide eyes and a blooming imagination at the myriad of travellers coming from lands unpronounceable and unseen.

The passengers, depending from where they'd come, would come leading strange animals and dragging heavy boxes, dressed in bright fabrics and foreign garbs. Sometimes Thomas would help them carry a box or two, maybe strike up a conversation on the way. It's amazing the things one might glean from these travellers. The boy hides in a box under his bed all the gifts he'd been given. Two mints wrapped in bright green foil, a crumpled bill from a land over the sky, three little seeds of an alien tree, even a postcard with the words "Wish you were here! - Lotusland Greens" embossed in green cursive. The postcard showed an aerial view of a great city, full of sandstone spires and bustling street-side market stalls. Lying awake in his cot at night, listening to the deep horns and roaring steam engines of the airships overhead, Thomas would imagine himself not in his cot and room but on a hammock in the crew quarters of a great skyship, sailing with the sun and casting its shadow on the great city of Lotusland Greens. He traveled a great deal in his dreams.

The deep, thunderous blare of an airship's horn knocked Thomas from his thoughts. Last call for boarding. On the bridge beside Thomas', the remnants of a hurried crowd struggled to board the ship, which had already begun impatiently moving. This ship was massive and beautiful, a real masterwork of dark oak and gold gilding. On its hull, The Wax Wind was engraved in large bronze letters. This was what he'd come to see. This ship, this masterpiece, was the only one of its kind. By far the largest functioning commercial skyship, it boasted a quad-balloon setup paired with six steam-powered propellers. Its four massive balloons nearly blotted out the sun. Even from his distance, Thomas could smell the hot metal and oiled wood of the awesome craft.

It was all over the news. Everyone heard when the reclusive Lady Isabella Porter went missing decades earlier. But now, after no progress whatsoever on her disappearance, the authorities finally decided to declare her dead. There was an uproar of course, but with so few friends and family, the reception to Lady Porter's death was not one of mourning but rather of a nervous anticipation over her enormous wealth and will. Inexplicably, of her vast riches, she'd left her personal luxury airship, the Wax Wind, not to her few acquaintances but to the Albatross Flight Company. Now, after years of disuse, the repurposed Wax Wind would fly again, this time on its maiden voyage as a commercial skyship. Thomas could only dream of the places it would go.

Suddenly something caught his eye. Thomas had seen the woman in the crowd earlier, her and the large, covered birdcage that sat on the cart with the rest of her luggage. She was hard to miss, after all, with her frizzled shock of bright pink hair cut to graze just beneath her jaw. So, when she moved to board the vessel and her birdcage didn't, Thomas felt his brow furrow. The birdcage, seemingly forgotten on the dock, sat undisturbed by the passing crowd. Surely someone other than him had seen it fall from her cart, thought Thomas. But to his frustration, the thing went ignored. The passengers, in their own rush to board the ship, stepped over the cage like it was part of the scenery. Soon, the ship would leave and it would remain forgotten forever.

Not if he had anything to say about it. Thomas didn't take long to make his decision. He was off like a racing ferret, bounding across his dock and onto hers.

"Miss!" he cried, "Miss, you forgot your cage!" Even as the words left his mouth, he could hear them drown in the incredible sound of the Wax Wind's six propellers. There was no way he'd get her attention in this noise. He'd have to bring her the cage himself. But by the time he got to the thing the dock was emptying rapidly, the last tardy travelers already struggling aboard. In a smooth swoop, Thomas grabbed the cage by its top bronze ring and sprinted toward the ship.

The cage, which was half as tall as Thomas and disproportionately heavy, bumped along on the rough docks behind him. Whatever beast it contained must have been remarkably well trained, because throughout the whole rocky journey, it never made a sound. "Miss!" Thomas continued to cry, "Miss, wait!" It was easy to see the shock of pink hair on deck, but she made no indication that she'd heard him at all. Thomas watched in horror as she walked through a door on the ship's stern without so much as a glance back.

The horn blared again, and the ship began to pick up speed. Thomas wouldn't make it. He limped on anyway. Grandpa always told him to try his very best, especially when helping others. But the cage was so cumbersome, and it seemed to grow heavier with his every step. Sweat beaded on his brow and his arm burned. His head felt woozy. The cage, it was an anchor, it was immovable. The effort of running became all that he could focus on, and soon, he could barely even walk at all.

The boy was so tired, he didn't register that the arm that held the cage had grown numb and cold, or that the same numbness was spreading like kudzu into his chest and stomach. He didn't notice the Wax Wind leaving port without him. He didn't see that the bridge lead to open air. Dark tendrils crept over his vision and blood pounded in his head. He smelled rust, tasted it on his tongue. What was he doing here? He couldn't remember, but there was a good reason to keep walking. He'd remember it later.

It was a horrible miracle that no one was watching the dock when the boy walked to the edge and kept on walking. He didn't scream when he fell below the clouds, but even if he did, it would have been drowned out by the whirring of steam engines and the deep resonance of ships horns. Had someone been watching, they might have noticed the large veiled birdcage that fell with him. Had they been observant, they might have peaked beneath the veil as it fell, and glimpsed the strange machine within, which hummed and pulsed like a beating heart.

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