Searching for balance when up was down, Clarta Baris staggered sideways to a collision with the closest seat. Breathing too fast, it turned out, was the same as not breathing at all.
Meanwhile, her dislike for dying a horrible death was doing quite well.
Atop Portal Tower One, the first completed terminal in Arthune, and the tallest in all of Pannulus, an airship was readying for departure to Dalewater.
At the waiting area’s epicenter, she dropped her gaze to escape the spin, smoothing her skirts with erratic hand motions. “I can’t do it. I thought I could do it, or that I’d be able to do it once I arrived, but it’s obvious I can’t do it. No, I’m quite certain now. Impossible.”
Sitting in the seat beside her, Janley retaliated with drooping brows. “Seems to me you’ve done plenty of impossible.”
“There’s impossible impossible and then there’s impossible impossible.”
“That’s pessimism talking.”
“Actually, pessimism is screaming.”
Jan rolled her eyes. “You’re overanalyzing yourself again.”
“And you like fixing. It’s why you work at an airship tower, there are lots of terrified people needing fixed.” She fingered the cameo at her throat to escape eye contact.
“You’re doing it again.” Jan gestured at the airship beyond the glass. “You took one look at the landing platform and let your fear back in.” She added raised brows to her big, brown eyes. “We’ve talked about this, Clarta.”
How was she able to come across as best friend and stern mother figure at the same time?
“We … we’ve talked about a lot of things.”
“Oh no, no tip-toeing out of the conversation. You know I’m right.” Jen grasped her hand, darker skin on lighter, the warmth an anchor. “Didn’t we have this same conversation before your realignment?”
She diverted her eyes. “That … that was life or death.”
“And you’re happier for it.”
“This is just a conference, so—”
“Where you’re to talk.”
“Don’t get me started on that.”
“We talked about that too. One-on-one, I can’t shut you up. Just pretend—”
“I’m talking to one person. I know.”
“Remember, you’re a successful author and researcher. That’s why they want you to talk.”
“Don’t.” Jan held up a finger and transitioned from scowl to over-sweetened smile in an instant. “You’re a cute, petite blonde. What’s not to like? People will love you.”
“You know, I have a job I need to return to, but I also know if I leave you’ll flee.”
“And your point is?”
Jan covered her eyes. “I knew it! I should have hired someone to carry you onto the ship.”
The ship. It was dead weight lurking on the platform. Nothing so heavy could travel through the air. After all, she was lighter and she couldn’t fly.
Those were bad thoughts. She slouched. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. Your stubborn streak helped me graduate from the university’s management program.”
“Why’d they have to have the conference in Dalewater?”
“You’ll like it. The Evertree Mountains. The waters of the Kobalt Passage. It’s pleasant. Didn’t you feel better the last time you flew once you were in the air?”
“Why do I tell you things? You always use them against me.”
“Because when we’re alone you don’t shut up.” Jan pointed at her. “And don’t pout.”
“I don’t pout.”
“You do when you know you’re losing an argument. It’s a reflection of your misaligned gender spirit for twenty-two, awful years. That was six years ago. Time to fully live, Clarta Baris.”
Yet again, Jan was right. Since visiting the witches in Raspell she’d aligned her physical self with her true gender spirit. It’d made a flourishing writing career possible. Her personal self? It was languishing.
Jan’s grin projected far too much delight. “I knew if I set you thinking in the right direction you’d talk yourself into rational thought.”
She huffed and folded her arms. “You’re annoying.”
“When I have to be.”
A woman in an oversized hat passed with a screaming toddler. He knew better than to board an airship.
On the landing pad, men were inspecting the long, rounded fuselage suspended from the three massive tanks above. Beneath, massive clamps anchored it to the landing pad. The larger, centered tank was for mixing. All three were made from some lightweight material.
Knowing such things was what happened when she was seated beside an engineer. He’d explained the technology for the entire flight. With a smile, he’d pointed out how, when it was warm, she could enjoy the observation deck.
That had elicited nervous laughter.
Bad enough was the possibility of loose bolts, leaking gas cylinders, and inebriated pilots.
Math was evil, but she had to remember the odds of crashing were low. After all, she survived the flight to Raspell, though that was only three hours.
Jen prompted. “So, you’re once again a strong, confident woman?”
“Great! Remember, once you’re on the airship, deep breaths. You have your favorite pen so you can start drafting that next book.”
They were preparing to open the outer doors. So many people to hoist into the air, and one of them looked like—
She sucked in a sharp breath. “No, no, no, no, no…”
“What?” Jan looked up.
“Mother of all, someone I used to know. You know, before.”
“Sorting through the brown folder.”
“Really?” Jan sat straighter. “The perfect male specimen in the dark pinstripe suit?”
No words. There were no words. It was all going terribly wrong already. Ten hours on a flight with someone from the past? It was madness.
Jan touched her arm. “Where do you know him from? I don’t remember him and—Haden’s fires!—I’d remember him.”
“Upper … upper school. Not close … I mean, we weren’t close, but I tutored…”
“You tutored him? Really?”
“History. He was a math and science wizard, but history … I helped him see it was just a big story. At least, I tried. He passed, so, I guess … oh no, no, no…”
“Stay calm. You said you weren’t best friends and it’s a big ship. What’re the odds you’ll even make eye contact?”
“Whatever they are, he could probably tell me.”
Jan laughed. “You’re forgetting, you look like your old self’s sister over a decade later. If you see him onboard you nod, maybe smile, and draft your book.”
She shook her head. “This isn’t good. It’s like foreshadowing in a disastrous tale called, Forty People on a Tragic Flight to Dalewater.”
“It’ll be fine, little miss negativity.”
Coat removed, Clarta sat, primped her blouse, and clutched her leather case. Maybe it’d serve as a life raft if they crashed into the Akasha Sea? As if she’d survive the impact.
How in all of Pannulus did she end up next to the window? If she lived, she’d strangle the certain someone who booked her flight. The someone was no doubt sitting at her desk and laughing. She lowered the panel.
The ship was a wingless bird, and that was before attempting to carry screaming humans to their deaths. No wonder they tried to mask foreboding with leather, mahogany, and brass. Even the ornate spiral staircase leading to the observation deck was a thing of beauty.
Temptation for the foolish was what it was.
She started. A wide body in an all-too-familiar suit was stowing a bag near.
No! An entire airship and he was going to sit near her? So much for the odds. Odds were stupid.
She turned to hide her face. Oh, didn’t she look smart gazing out a closed window. She reopened the polished mahogany cover.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
She jumped at the female voice, nearly managing a somersault over the back of the seat. How nice that’d be, upside down with her knickers showing.
The attendant in her smart uniform leaned close. “Ma’am?”
“Wha … what?”
“You need to buckle the belt.” As if that’d save her in a crash. “The ship rocks a bit when we lift off the tower.”
“Right. Okay. Of course.”
The woman, about her age, provided a rehearsed smile. “You’ll be fine, just don’t forget to breath. Remember, the pilots want to arrive home too.”
Did she know that for a fact or was she just hoping? “Okay.”
She gripped the case tighter and her fingers cramped. How was she going to write? Jan had her confident and full of big plans, but instead she’d be ranting like a fool before they were a hundred feet in the air.
What was she thinking? They were atop the tower so they were already over a hundred feet in the air.
“Hello, ma’am.” A deep voice shook the past loose.
She forced eyes stuck in glue to shift right.
No, no, please no—
He was sitting in the seat beside her? What a fool she was. She should have feigned sleep the entire flight.
“Oh, ah, yes, hello, sir.”
“You’re supposed to buckle that.”
He pointed. “The belt.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Right. Silly me.” She nodded fifteen, maybe sixteen times before renewed brain activity stopped it.
Jan was always telling her not to overcompensate. So what if she’d had her gender spirit aligned? It was no one’s business. Okay, it was barely tolerated, even by the government, but it wasn’t illegal.
“Uh, ma’am, you’re still not buckling it.” How wonderful, he sounded amused. “Do you need some help?”
“No! I mean, I can get it. I … I was distracted.”
“Okay…” More amusement.
He wouldn’t be amused if he figured out who she was. Correct that. Who she used to be. Correct that too. Who she used to pretend to be.
Marshton, dear sweet Marshton, was snickering. “Uh…”
“Right!” Her cheeks aflame, she strapped herself in. She was ready to face her impending death.
“Flying requires some getting used to.”
Fissil! He was going to keep talking? Didn’t he have algorithms to write or solve or whatever they did with the things?
“I’m … I’m sure I’ll manage.”
The door to escape closed, the sound akin to a dropped lid on a casket. The gases in the pipes were flowing or mixing or just hissing so as to terrify her. The propellers initiated their mournful howl. Their spin still slow, it was enough to send a shudder through the ship.
The airship attendants explained the rules to follow that sounded good while they were still on the landing pad.
The huge clamps released, slamming into the cavity beneath and sending shock waves through the ship before it lifted and swayed.
“Mother of all…” Sucking in a breath, she grabbed the arms on the seat, her muscles cramping.
The landing pad fell away. In seconds the view included Arthune, Taleteller Bay, and Lake Arcana.
Oh no, that wouldn’t do! She slammed the panel closed. Just let him complain.
So much for demure hands clasped lightly on her lap. They were white-knuckled on the seat arms. How did people fly all the time and stay sane when so many books told of airships plunging into forests, mountains, seas—
“There you go.” Marshton’s tone remained light. “That wasn’t so bad.”
Not so bad for who? Would it ease the terror if she slapped him? It might. “I … I suppose…”
He released an audible sigh that had to mean—something. How could she have spent all those years trying to imitate male behaviors and never understood them?
She’d ignore the sigh. That was safest. She’d fold down the nicely crafted writing tray and scribble something, anything.
“So, ma’am, what do you do? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Truthfully, she minded. “Do?”
“Your job, your profession? Or are you visiting family?”
“I … I write, and conduct some research on the side for the university.”
Was he baiting her? Had he already recognized her and was leading up to exposing her—before throwing her out of the ship? She’d suffered hostility to rival such a scene. It was as if her very existence was a personal affront to humankind.
Propriety demanded reciprocation. She prepared with a deep breath. “You, sir?”
“Banking.” The mathematical genius was a banker?
“Oh, that sounds nice.”
“I hate it.”
How was she supposed to respond to that? “I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t go on about it. I let myself be pulled into a career I despise. It happens. A lot, actually.”
“Yes, sir, it does.”
Before the first novel she was lucky to find a job as a typist, and that was with a degree. It was what happened when the problem wasn’t the degree, but the person holding it. Whoops, that was her bitterness resurfacing. It was time for more deep breaths.
Marshton pulled out a book. The way the flight was going it’d be one of hers.
Well, at least there was that.
Instead, it was some tome about engine design. Basically, math and physics. Yuck.
She extracted paper and the case for her pen. Too bad it was necessary to leave the heavy typewriter behind. Regardless, she’d write the same sentence over and over again for the entire flight to avoid further conversation.
She set the nib to the paper.
“What do you write?”
Clarta’s hand entered the rigor mortis stage. Couldn’t he see she was pretending to write?
He pursued the topic without her participation. “Is it technical writing, or do you work for a particular publication?”
“Like as a reporter with one of the Arthune papers?”
Did she look like someone who island hopped for a living? “I write fiction.”
“Really?” Oh no, he sounded interested.
“Any success yet?”
“Some. That’s why I’m traveling to a conference in Dalewater.”
Stupid, Clarta, stupid. He was more interested and—oh no—he was shifting in his seat to face her with the strong jaw and soft eyes that were to be avoided. The years since school had been kind to him, mixing youthfulness with graceful aging.
“Yes, but it really isn’t a momentous engagement.”
“I assure you, it isn’t.”
“Then why are you flying when you’re obviously—not comfortable?” Was he taking psychology lessons from Jan?
“My publisher insists it’ll increase my sales.”
“So, it is a big moment.”
She closed her eyes and ran her tongue over her teeth. Glaring at the backside of her eyelids was better than attacking him like a werewolf.
Her words were forced, reluctant. “I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.”
“So, what genre do you write in? Are you someone I’ve heard of?”
“I doubt you have.”
“Not really. His historical tales are fiction, but they’re based in military history. My perspective is more romantic.” There, that’d scare him off.
“You sure I haven’t heard of you? You look a bit familiar.”
She choked and coughed. It was her fault, she’d become overconfident and allowed him to see her straight on. It wasn’t like her old self was obvious, but he had sat across the table from her for hours fifteen years before.
“You probably saw an ad or my face in a newspaper article or something.”
Go on the offensive? “Unless you read my books I really don’t know how else you’d recognize me.” Whoops, that was dangerously close to a lie.
Still, he was preoccupied. Good. As long as he didn’t reach back into his memory too far.
“What’s your talk about?”
“At the conference.”
“Researching the roles of women during the period immediately following the Empire’s collapse on the mainland.”
“That level of detail is necessary?”
Okay, that was worthy of a slight chuckle. “Yes, it’s necessary.”
“So, had you wanted to be a writer all your life or did you just suddenly sit down one day and decide to write a book?”
“I’ve been writing since I was very young, but it wasn’t until about six years ago that I became serious.”
“Really? What changed?”
No! He kept pulling her in. Didn’t he have a wife and children to think about instead?
“I reprioritized my life.” She lifted the pen.
“Sounds like what I need to do. Was it a particular person? Religion? I hear there are witches who help with such things.”
Not like how they helped her.
If she told him the truth? There’d be the usual shocked expression, mumbled congratulations as if a prize was won at the fair, and then—the groping eyes.
That was the worst.
The groper’s gaze would move over her looking for transformation clues. The problem wasn’t self-consciousness over nonexistent scars, but the rude search. Frustrated with finding no hints on her face, the intrusive gaze would wander to her bust and then—her skirts.
It didn’t take imagination to know what they were wondering.
It took mere seconds to go from woman to curiosity.
“Just believing in myself for a change. That, and a good friend who believed in me and gave me a kick whenever I slacked.”
Was he expecting magic? Well, okay, magic fixed her body by activating the misaligned gender spirit. Still, it’d been up to her to shed the depression and social conditioning she’d suffered. Not that the month long realignment was easy, or having to take medicine for the rest of her life.
She flashed a smile and lifted the pen.
“So, this research…?”
Mother of all! Really? As if he actually cared about the research.
“Women’s lives have changed a lot over the centuries.” But not enough. “Writing historical fiction requires knowing the time period, but more importantly, the people who lived it.”
“So, you have to know everything?”
“Not everything, just what I need. It really is only a backdrop for plot and characters.”
“You really know about this.”
She raised her brows. “That’s why I’m going to—”
“Talk at the conference.”
She laughed. “Yes. Exactly. Researching is a lot of work, but there are tricks to minimize the effort.”
“Doesn’t sound like fun. I struggled with history in upper school.”
“Well, there are always tutors.” Whoops…
“How’d you know—”
“It … it’s just that many people use them.” She really needed to shut-up, but even after so many years he was still easy to talk to.
“Right, of course, that makes sense. I was lucky to make it through, to be honest. If not for my tutor I wouldn’t have.”
“Oh.” It had become a dangerous conversation going in entirely the wrong direction. “That’s good.”
“So, you did well in history?”
He laughed. “Right. Of course you did. I’m sorry, but are you sure we haven’t met? There’s just something about your easy manner of speaking.”
“I’m sure I’d, ah, well, so, do you have children?”
“I’m not married. When I do have children, though, she’ll have to help them with their—you guessed it—Pannulus history.” His face lit up.
“Simply have her tell them to worry less about dates and more about how it’s just one big story.”
She froze. “What?”
“What you said, about story.”
“Story? You mean history?”
“I … well, wow, what do you know, whatever I said it’s just gone right out of my head.” She forced a laugh. “I hope it wasn’t profound.”
His brows lowered.
Oh no. The look. The suspicious look.
He glanced away, his eye movement suggesting he was thinking hard to solve a mystery.
Dear Genessa, what had she done?
He turned back. “Actually, it was kind of profound.” No, it couldn’t have been!
She wet her lips. “I’m glad.”
“Strange, though, it was word-for-word the same advice someone gave me in upper school.”
Fissil, of course. How could she be so stupid? To hide the trembling in her hands, she brushed at her skirt as if excessive dust was a problem.
“I … I, ah, certainly don’t have a, you know, ownership on good advice. It’s uncanny how often I hear the same advice from different people.”
“I guess.” He turned so he was facing front. “You made me think about someone I haven’t seen since upper school. I always wondered what happened to him. I still feel bad that I never thanked him for what he did to help me.”
She held her breath.
No, she wouldn’t feel guilt. She wouldn’t. It wasn’t her fault that he was suffering an attack of idle curiosity. Everyone had a score of old classmates they’d lost touch with. She’d lost touch with all of hers.
Anyway, it wasn’t like they’d been fast friends. Well, okay he had treated his tutor with respect. Few had done that in upper school. Even so, surely he didn’t care that much about his tutor’s fate.
Clarta faced unseen blank paper and let a sigh slide over her lips. She’d suffered for over two decades, yet felt guilty because she had privileged information about what happened to Marshton’s tutor?
Hadn’t she suffered enough? There’d been no girlhood. Instead, there was a dysphoric gender spirit, hostile family, and prejudice. Later came the month-long realignment. It was worse than burning in Haden every minute of every day.
Some days she was certain death would have been a better plan. Her recovery after required another month of agony.
If not for Janley…
At last, she was herself, but society seldom approved. Part of it was a birthrate struggling to maintain the status quo. Removing potential children was frowned upon and everyone was expected to do their part.
Oh, sure, the government didn’t ban what she’d done. They also didn’t help. Meanwhile, there was an overabundance of judgmental Pannulus citizens.
Maybe if they hadn’t fought so many pointless battles on the Klyndor Peninsula there’d be more men? Maybe if they addressed some of the darker inclinations of those living on Scurpia Island there’d be less violence? Maybe if they remedied the cruelty against certain citizens?
On the other side of the scale was Marshton. He was the popular boy who’d treated his scrawny, reclusive tutor with kindness.
She turned and wet her lips.
Why was she making him feel better? Because that’s what she did. At least, that was what Jan always told her.
She had to at least make an effort. “I’m sure your friend is okay.”
“I’m sure you’re probably right. No doubt he’s teaching history on one of the islands.”
“People scatter after upper school, go off in directions we’d never guess when we knew them.”
“To be honest, I always felt bad. He was clearly struggling with—something. Even when he smiled it was scarred with melancholy. I knew his home life wasn’t good, yet I never tried to help. I could have at least listened. I was always thinking of myself.” His eyes narrowed. “We didn’t go to upper school together, did we?”
Mother of all, she’d walked into the seemingly innocent, yet dangerous questions that were difficult to sidestep. What kinds of boys did she date in school? Did she suffer horrific menstrual cramps? Had she had any difficult pregnancies?
Well, okay, those weren’t questions he’d ask, but they had an uncanny way of coming up among other women.
It’d be easy enough to look the other way and lie. So easy. For most people. “I, well—”
“The reason I ask is that the longer I sit next to you the more familiar you seem.” He covered his face. “Haden’s fires, we didn’t go to the same school and I was a complete louse towards you, I hope?” He laughed. “As if you’d want to tell me. Believe me, I know I wasn’t the nicest person. I was wrapped up in my popularity.”
“That’s common in upper school.”
“I had a swelled head and at the last minute decided I was going to change the investment world. Well, fate cast an evil spell. I’ve been miserable. I should have become an engineer.”
Maybe she could escape the conversation if she let him explain how the ship worked? Suit aside—and he looked exceptional in it—his disheveled hair, alert eyes, and curious mind more suggested an engineer. It was easy to envision him writing calculations with greasy hands.
He laughed, but it was a wave breaking on jagged rocks. “Sorry. I’m telling you all my problems and you don’t know me.” He laughed again and it carried more force the second time. “I don’t even know your name. No self-respecting gentleman should be so rude. I’m sorry, I’ll shut up.”
“No, it’s okay. You can talk if you want.”
“I’m successful, yet lack someone I can talk to as easily as you, whom I just met. I know I should return to the university for the degree I was meant to have, but … I don’t know. I won’t bore you with this.” He grinned. “Unless you love talking about the possibilities in motorcar development?”
He laughed, and it was a bit more mirthful. “Not surprised. That’s okay.”
She clasped her hands together and leaned closer. “Then go ahead, close the book on the banking career and follow your heart. Take the risk. I bet once you start, your newfound enthusiasm will carry you through.”
Marshton covered his eyes with one hand and shook his head, a grin spreading. “There you go again sounding like someone else.”
How did she keep doing that to herself? It was because real life was endless hazards forcing her to divulge what it wasn’t fair she had to divulge. It wasn’t like other people went around explaining their pasts.
Except, Marshton had. He’d poured out his heart.
She emptied her lungs. “If your engineering degree requires any historical knowledge just let me know, Marsh.” There. She’d done it.
He laughed. “Okay, I’ll—” He recoiled. “You know my name?”
She could still retreat and escape. “We did go to school together. I’m sorry, but, truthfully, I recognized you at the tower.”
“Haden’s fires, I feel awful. I’m sorry, but I can’t place you.”
He was serious? All that talk about how familiar she was and then he couldn’t place her? Why did people become dense once she found the nerve to explain?
“Think back to when you were studying history in your sitting room.” No need to brush aside her hair when it was pinned up. Anyway, as Janely had said, she looked almost nothing like him. It was her heart betraying her.
“In my sitting room? But that was with—”
That did it.
His brain aligned her words with his memories and his eyes widened. His jaw surrendered to gravity.
In ten or twenty seconds she’d become a curiosity. After that, she’d become a mentally unbalanced pervert who preyed upon children. Once-in-awhile there was the man who thought she was a gift. She had to have been created because—of course—she was obsessed with performing sexual acts.
Okay, she was being cynical, or so Jan would say, but that moment when the face transitioned between surprise and disgust couldn’t be forgotten.
She displayed a fragile smile, but there wasn’t enough bravery inside to meet his eyes. Jan would lecture her about that—if she knew.
“But, I mean—” His lips formed how, but he bit back the word.
“I’m Clarta now, Marsh, Clarta Baris.” She dug in her bag, extracted the latest book, and displayed the cover.
His imminent-crash victim eyes stared at the book and back at her. He was looking at her face. Dear Genessa, he was trying, he was actually trying. His gaze was staying above her neck.
On the other hand, did he know his mouth was still hanging open? Of course he didn’t. He was still in the shock stage, which then always became a sneer and recoiling disgust.
“I’ve never—” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m being stupid.” He extended his hand. “Hello, Clarta Baris, I’m Marshton Glanders.”
She closed her mouth because hers was hanging open. “What?”
“I’m introducing myself. I know we have shared memories, and I don’t know how this is possible, but, well, this just seemed appropriate. Is it wrong?”
“What? No!” She extended her hand and he grasped it with a light touch, his darker hand dwarfing her own. “Nice to meet you, Marshton Glanders.”
“Okay, Clarta Baris, you know what I want to know?”
Oh no, were his good manners nothing more than teasing? “I think maybe I don’t…?”
“I want to know everything—about your stories.”
“Sure.” He laughed. “I know, probably people ask about—something else.”
“Ah, yeah, like is this a temporary potion, which it isn’t.”
“That’s good because I like the new you. I like the sunshine happiness in your pretty features. Fear of flying aside, there’s a serenity that’s coming through that was missing before.”
“Okay…” Was it safe for her heart to beat so fast?
“So, what I want to know is how fixing your life has manifested itself?” He tapped a finger on the book. “I suspect the answer is tied to these.”
“Are … are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I’m looking for inspiration and to get to know the intelligent woman beside me. I think you’re the only person who can provide me with both. Yet again, Clarta Baris, you’ve entered my life at just the right moment.”
She was going to cry. Mother of all, she was going to cry. He was disappearing behind the veil of water in her eyes and she was having to bite down on her lower lip.
He hunched down so he could meet her gaze straight on, and smiled. “Please?”
She cleared her throat and blinked her eyes until they dried.
“I…” She swallowed the massive tome in her throat and forced a smile that was surprisingly easy to summon. “Okay, Marsh, I can do that. You see, there’s this story…”
©April 2020, Christina Anne Hawthorne