Chapter One - Grandsville

"Thomas!" Sula shouted. "We'll hit the lake at this rate!"

"I know that! Cammy is diverting our power now!"

The Manchester was dropping altitude. Smoke billowed from the propellers in the back, and of the three eight-foot blades, only one turned. The bronze color of its wood hull was charred black. Holes ranging from the size of bullets to cannons splintered wood across its body. The ivory white sails billowed frantically as wind tried to keep it afloat. The large aerial ship oscillated as if riding invisible waves.

Thomas bent over a pear-shaped microphone. "Grab your knees people! This'll get ugly!"

The Manchester dipped and then climbed into the air. A large teal lake shimmered under the weight of the sun. The reflection of the ship skid across its surface then disappeared into the forest. Thomas pulled hard on a lever and the ship groaned. The propellers jerked and swung up into a locking position. The ship dropped faster.

"There!" Orion pointed. "The clearing!"

The Manchester turned slightly to its side and yawed to the left. It shuddered against the canopy of the pine forest. Tree branches clawed at its body and it began sinking into the dark green. A large snap echoed through the forest, scattering deer and rabbits. The ship escaped into the clearing, knocking down a handful of trees. A black shadow enlarged across the field.

The hull of the Manchester sliced a line into the prairie. After a shallow bounce it creaked and trembled. Birds took refuge into the sky, flapping their wings to move higher. A fox eyed the wreck suspiciously. When the noise and quaking stopped, only the sails billowed. The smoke turned ash grey, then ceased.

Aboard the bridge of the ship, a calming atmosphere replaced the fearful stupor just moments before. Ambience in the form of cranks and gears chirped. Then a boy crawled out from under a white and red flag. He gasped for air and looked around. After taking in the damage, he sighed with relief.

"Good grief," Orion said. He pushed a large bookshelf off his body and stood with ire. His heavy black brows and wild beard intensified the look on his face. "If I never see a Bowler again, it'll be too soon."

Sula rubbed her bottom as she brought her knee up. She lied on her back but showed a disoriented face. Her skin was dark and tan but her hair was an opposite sunny yellow. As she looked up at the ceiling, a large axe dangled above her. It fell from its hook and nearly skinned her ear.

Thomas, the boy, wriggled to his feet and hunched over the microphone. "Cammy, how does it look?" he asked.

"The third propeller will need a new gear box and the secondary sail is torn." The voice that answered was watery and vague. "The hull will need a lot of work too."

"Thomas," Sula called. She used the axe still impeded in the deck to stand. "It's great we're alive and well, but just where the hell are we?"

Thomas tiptoed and reached for a scroll in a bin. He undid the corner and read off its title. He did this three more times until he found the one he needed. After unraveling it, he traced his finger in a circular pattern.

"We're outside Grandsville."

"Lady Tina," the maid called. "Please, your mother will be leaving soon."

"She's not my mother," Tina reminded her.

The room was decorated with a flowing yellow and white motif. The sheets adorning the bed matched the silk canopy above. Ornate rugs from as far as Turpula divided the floor into equal proportions. Above the mahogany dressers various jewelry boxes contained trinkets, standard accessories for princesses. Tina sat on a white velvet cusion, back pressed against the chair's rest. She stared past the shining curtains into the purple tulips and white roses peppering the gardens. A stone walkway led to a pair of large black gates. Inscribed in metal was a cursive 'M'. Perched atop the gates and walls were statues of birds with expanded wings.

Tina tore her gaze from the window and strode to the maid. She took a seat in front of a body-length mirror and sat with rigid posture.

"I do not like her," she said.

The maid found a brush with rubies imbedded into its frame. "I believe she is trying her best."

Tina stared into the mirror with solemn eyes. She was a girl with pale skin. Other nobles and duchesses often complimented her. They would say her skin was as unblemished as the snows of Caspia. They would say her eyes were as deep and clear as emeralds and her hair rivaled the most jet black diamonds.

"All royalty is the same," Tina whispered.

"Your highness?" the maid asked.

Tina quickly shook her head and stayed quiet. The maid dug thin fingers into Tina's long straight her, unfurling tangles. She then took the brush and with gentle strokes, fine-tuned the strands until it felt closer to liquid.

Tina dressed out of her silken pajamas and reached up with her arms. Another pair of maids came into the room carrying a pink and red dress trimmed with frilly extensions. Then a woman stood at the door. Her fingers were slim and her hair was long and dark brown.

"Tina, are you ready yet?" her stepmother asked. She smiled with clasped hands in front of her waist.

Tina blushed at the floor. She closed her eyes as the dress was slipped past her face, opening them when the dress rested upon her shoulders and chest. Her stepmother watched a few moments longer, straining to keep her smile. She stepped back and walked away in defeat.

"I hate her," Tina said.

The maids did not comment but smiled unnaturally. When they finished, they bowed their heads and also stepped out. Tina was alone in the room, but went back to the window with a heavy heart. She gazed at the city beyond.

Duke Alexander Marionette sat inside a large white carriage. Gold décor weaved along the body signifying his prestige. Beside him was his mistress, Ezra, Tina's stepmother and the new duchess of Grandsville. Tina was also in the carriage, but refused to look upon her father's happy face.

"I desire to come out more often, but time has been cruel to me," he said.

"Oh, dear, if you would like me to handle matters I will. The townsfolk adore you and their happiness can be infectious."

"Indeed, Ezra." A pair of men stood in front of their bakery, bowing their heads with smiles. Duke Marionette turned to his daughter and dropped his shoulders. "My sweet Tina, what do you think?"

Tina sat across from them, alone. Her eyes had remained on the townsfolk outside until her father pressed her with the question. She turned and mustered courage for her words. "Ezra is right Father, but I believe in whatever course you take."

Ezra's face colored at the compliment. But when her father turned back to the window, Tina scowled. Ezra smiled sadly and pretended to fix her hair. Tina returned her eyes to the townsfolk.

The carriage stopped outside the Place of Row, a locally famous theatre for concerts and plays. There, Duke and Duchess Marionette spoke to the crowds of commoners that had come to watch. Lady Tina stood with great posture but did not speak. Once the tidings and blessing had passed, the nobles gathered in the main hall and spoke of the weather.

"Tina, would you like to watch Maestro Gorbachek sing The Irony of King Solmon?" Alexander asked.

"May I go to the Trinity Grounds instead?" Tina replied.

Ezra carefully leaned into Alexander's arm, hooking it with her own. "Are you certain Lady Tina?" she said. "Dear, why not watch the play with us? It can be very entertaining and I can explain the bits you don't—"

"I would rather not, but thank you," Tina said.

"If you really would not care to," her father said. "Michael, please escort Tina."

A man with gentle blue eyes strode toward them garbed in a decorated vest. He wore a rapier at his side. "Yes milord."

A white-gloved hand extended toward Tina. She took it and squeezed. Michael released a light chuckle and led her out of the theatre. But as Tina held Michael's hand, she looked backward. Ezra looked on with remorseful eyes.

Once on the streets, Tina let go of and folded her arms in disappointment. "That woman, I can't stand her," she said.

"Now, now, Princess Tina, such unkind words are wasted through precious lips."

"Shove it Michael," Tina said.

Michael held a hand to his head and smiled shamefully. Tina often reverted to crass language when she was moody and had no reason to impress her audience. The reason for her intensity was beyond his grasp. As Tina walked forward—her flashy red dress drawing eyes and gestures from the many people on the street—Michael followed behind. He always kept a hand on the hilt of his blade but never a face that intended to use it.

"Why does my father wish to replace my true mother's memories? Am I the only one that cares for her in death?" Tina asked.

"I do not judge nor wish to," Michael answered, "but you are being unfair to the Duchess. She loves you as much as a stranger could. If you were to answer her invitations, she would love you more, and you, her."

Tina stayed silent but walked faster. Michael sighed and quickened his pace.

The Trinity Grounds appeared over the next hill. Carts carried goods to and fro, led by men with wide hats. The ones on their way to the grounds were moving equipment to the tents. A circus had come to town and would be staying for a week. Many actors and jesters did lines for curious audiences for advertisement and practice. A man with a wool vest and hairy chest handed out pictures of himself lifting a horse.

Tina stopped beside a stand selling dumplings. Michael took one first, tasted it, and then complimented the chef. He then allowed Tina to have a stick which she held up as she visited the attractions. A boyish cry caught her feet and she traced her steps to a previous spot.

"What are you, lame? I thought all cities in Villa Medi took Churs?" Thomas said.

The man in front of his wagon of metal parts winced at the insult. He leaned forward and shouted clearly, "Well I don't! Gold! That's what I take! If you want to do business with me, turn in your paper Churs to the bank and exchange it for real money!"

"I would if they'd keep the damn bank in the same spot!" Thomas retorted. "I checked, and its not there!"

"Far side of town! Now off ya go, ya little snot!"

Tina watched the heated exchange and couldn't help but laugh. When Thomas heard the muffled giggle, he immediately disregarded her appearance. If she joined in his insult, she was no better than an ugly seamstress.

"Oh, I suppose you think it's funny?" Thomas said. He pointed a shaking finger.

"Please excuse me, I did not mean to laugh," Tina answered.

Thomas didn't believe the apology. "Yeah, I bit you didn't, you noble." He smirked and tapped a foot. "Let me guess, the nobles teach their children to be pompous and arrogant young these days?"

"What was that?" Tina reddened at the show of insolence. "How dare you speak to me that way? Do you know who I am?"

"Not a chance in hell." Thomas jeered.

"I'll knock that stupid smile right off your face, you dirty rat!" Tina shouted.

"Oh, you've got a sharp tongue don't ya? I guess Nobles are also really loose with their children, such bad parenting."

"And where are your parents, stupid boy? Did they leave you for the unloved brat you are?"

Thomas dug his heal into the ground as his face distorted. "Now you've done it." He grabbed the end of the small sword at his hip and tugged.

Michael slid in front of Tina and drew his sword first. The blade slashed through the air but stopped short of the boy's chest. Thomas gulped in fear. He didn't see the rapier at all. "I do not forgive insults to her highness, Princess Tina Marionette," Michael said. He then turned his head.

"You'll have to forgive the boy, he has a big mouth," Sula answered. She had a longsword pointed at Michael's neck. "My name is Sula, the kid's babysitter. He wandered off from me while we were shopping."

"Oye, Sula," Thomas said. "You're not my babysitter and I'm not a kid."

Sula kept her eyes on Michael. Her body looked like a bronze statue, ready to come to life and kill at the drop of a leaf. Thomas let go of his sword and waited for the serious air to dissipate.

"All people have their place, and nothing can work without the other's help," Michael said. "I wish not to harm him, but he should apologize for his rudeness."

"Again, you'll have to forgive us, but we're from elsewhere," Sula said. "As for his apologizing, I can no more make him apologize than you can tell Princess Marionette she was also rude."

Michael moved slowly, relaxing from his previous posture, and sheathed his sword. Sula walked to Thomas and also sheathed her sword.

"Michael, what's the meaning of this?" Tina said.

"If bloodshed can be avoided, let it be. Sometimes there will be people such as this, and its better to keep cool then to let emotions get the better of you."

"Well said," Sula complimented. She struck Thomas against the back of the head and frowned. "Thomas! Don't go picking fights you can't win! If I weren't here, Sir Knight would have cut you into cubes!"

Thomas rubbed the wound as tears forced their way to the corners of his eyes. "Blame the princess behind him, she laughed at me first."

Tina's cheeks prickled with shame. She crossed her arms and looked away. "I said it was an accident."

Sula picked up a wool sack and hiked it over her shoulders. She shook her head and began walking away. Thomas pulled on his leather vest and made a face. "You nobles are all the same." He quickly went to Sula, fearing Michael's speed.

"You dirty scoundrel!" Tina called. "Rat! Pig! Chicken!"

Thomas ignored the humiliated cries. He made noises with his teeth and seethed at the thought of such bad luck. First the Manchester was attacked by pirates using Bowlers. Then Cammy told him it wouldn't be repaired for another week. Now he was just insulted by a stupid princess with as much arrogance as there was air in the world. In fact, he could feel her arrogance still choking him.

"Is it me, or is hard to breathe?" Thomas asked.

Sula's eyes twinkled with delight. "Oh, does the Little Master's lungs tremble with frozen air? Does his heart beat twice as fast for no reason?"

"I don't get you woman," Thomas said.

Sula gawked at the denseness of his head. "If you've fallen in love with a noble girl, it'll mean the death of us all, you know that right?"

"Love!" Thomas shouted. He gagged at the idea of it. "A spoilt brat like her who's idea of hardship is to bath herself?"

"Actually, they don't even have to do that."

Thomas gagged again.

Orion waited near a large metal pole with a stone bird riding its top. He looked around and found many other depictions of birds. He heard once, from a traveling salesman, that Grandsville was the place where men first touched the skies. Originally, flying ships like the Manchester had come from this city. Investors erected a huge dock and factory on the outskirts of town. When other cities in the country, and other countries mimicked the technology, Grandsville found it did not have the resources to compete. Ruins are the remnants of such a past. Now only small shops sell specialized parts.

"Orion!" Thomas called.

Orion stepped away from the pole and waved to Thomas and Sula. "Thomas, I've been wondering, why is it you don't like Grandsville? You know, the Manchester's legacy originated here."

"That's exactly why I don't like it," Thomas said.

"So, what did you find?" Sula asked.

"I've got three wagons moving parts to a bend in the railroad. We can take them to the ship on foot afterwards. It's our best bet to stay discreet without having anyone know who we really are."

"Good, the sooner we get out of here, the better," Thomas said. He put his hands in his pocket and walked away, kicking stones with his feet.

"What happened to him?" Orion asked.

Sula smiled with girlish eyes. "He's in love."