The World Ablaze (6.2)

11th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Territory of Pallas – Royal Airstrip

7 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

Skeptics once took it as fact that flight would never catch on.

No average person could even conceive of a reason to venture from their country and cross the seas, they said. Especially not in a flying metal cylinder. To visit a neighboring region a train was more cost-effective; for most people even leaving their village was a waste of time. At best, people conceived of airplanes as military and diplomatic tools.

However, the Queen had always been enamored with technology.

She ignored these detractors completely. Twenty years ago she had laid down Lubon’s first major airstrip, within sight of the Royal Villa at Pallas. Over time the importance of the Royal Airstrip, as well as its size and its contingent of planes, had increased. It was now fully stocked with all manner of aircraft: there were small biplanes, short monoplanes with twin engines and room for a few, and a couple of large passenger craft.

As usual the royal delegation would be flown to the territory of Nocht across the North Sea by the official Pellicano royal plane that was festooned with Queen Vittoria’s sigils and the oak tree flag of the Kingdom. This was a very large craft considering the few people that were to board it. It had 4 propeller engines, and a 30 meter span.

Princess Salvatrice felt small next to the mammoth craft. She had never flown before.

She did not board with her mother the Queen: she had not, in fact, even arrived at the airstrip with her mother. She had been hastily taken from her studies at the messianic academy and taken via private car to the airstrip, unceremoniously and without any of her possessions, and no guarantee that her attendant would make it onto the plane. Now she approached the craft and boarded from a hatch opposite that which her mother would be using. She could see her mother’s car parked on the other side of the strip.

She wondered dimly if Clarissa would be joining them on the plane as well.

Two black-clad men led her up the ramp and into the aircraft. They were gentle and deferring, but the princess could not help but feel that she was being forced, pressured, driven to move against her will. Their task was not to protect her but to compel her.

Inside the aircraft she met her mother for the first time in what seemed like years.

Tall and majestic, the Queen approached from the other end of the plane like an opponent, with a gliding stride, guarded by two blue-clad, rifle-armed cavaliere, Lubon’s revered Knights. Salva bowed her head to her mother, whose appearance seemed to shift the gravity in the room. She had a powerful and beautiful countenance, framed with bountiful and perfectly straight golden hair, accented by intense green eyes and the long, sharp ears characteristic of pureblooded Lubonin. She wore a brilliant silver dress that glittered from the gentle curve of her shoulders to the hem of her dragging skirt.

“Raise your head, Salvatrice,” commanded the Queen.

Her voice sent a shill down the princess’ spine.

She curtsied, and stood as tall as she could.

Reverita Madre. Dio vi benedica.” She said, a trembling in her voice.

Dio vi benedica, figlia.” Queen Vittoria replied.

The Queen raised her hand. Her guards relocated to the front of the plane.

Side by side the royals walked down the aisle, along the plush seats in the interior of the plane, to a table laid down for special guests, bolted to the floor near the very back of the craft. Servants greeted them with desperate kindness. There were two chairs for them, held down with adjustable clamps that allowed the air crew to unfasten them, move the seats to new positions and then clamp them again to keep them immobile in flight.

Princess Salvatrice took a seat across from her mother. She felt the backrest of the chair forcing her spine straight, it was so rigid and flat. A procession of servants appeared from another room with tea and pastries. Princess Salvatrice did not fancy eating. She had been made to change into a dress before travelling out. It was a functional and form fitting gown compared to her mother’s, with tight sleeves and a high neck and a restrained sort of skirt, like the bulb of a tulip. But it was still mostly white, and could so easily stain.

“It is an honor to be with you this day, mother.” Salva said.

“Merely an honor?” Queen Vittoria replied, grinning a bit.

Salva stared down at the cups, silent, stewing in a brief and painful shame, until she saw her mother’s hand glide closer to her face. The Queen’s long, elegant, bejeweled fingers gently lifted her chin, as easily as raising a feather from the ground.

Her mother’s stark green eyes narrowed as they took stock of Salva’s condition.

“My poor, sweet child. Doctors said exercise and sun and southern air would improve your constitution. But oh, my dear, all it has seemed to do is darken your complexion even more than normal. You will need to build strength for what lies ahead of you.”

Vittoria’s fingers brushed aside the long locks of reddish-blonde hair covering the sides of Salva’s head, cut close to the shoulder. She pulled her daughter’s hair back enough to see her ears, shorter and blunter than those of pure elves like the Queen and the Knights. Her hands then traveled down Salvatrice’s narrow shoulders, across her skinny arms.

Salvatrice had the terrible feeling that those piercing green eyes, the only thing in common between them, were harshly judging her. She felt like flinching away from her mother and waited for the sting of some cruel word or another, but instead, the Queen’s expression was unnaturally tender and her words were uncharacteristically gentle.

“You remind me of your father. Take that as a compliment. He was a beautiful man.”

The Queen’s fingers retreated from her daughter’s flesh. Salva nodded her head.

“Nocht is an exciting country.” Vittoria said. “I’m sure it will lend you energy.”

Salvatrice finally touched her tea and even bit into a scone, anything to excuse herself from speaking. Her mother also began to eat, until the plane was made fully ready.

After tea time they sat next to each on other on one of the benches, a fancier piece of furniture even than the lounge seating at the academy. Servants appeared to fasten Salvatrice and Vittoria’s seat belts as the propellers turned and the plane charged down the runway. They had scarcely managed to seat themselves by the time the plane took off, and a few almost fell. Salvatrice gasped, watching them. Vittoria paid them no heed, as though they had ceased existing the moment their hands stopped performing a service for her.

She had envisioned flight as a romantic experience. Air rushing past her, a sense of freedom, like swimming in mid-air; the plane satisfied none of those feelings.

High in the sky, she felt heavier and more tied to the ground than she ever had.

The vibrations of the metal craft seemed to travel across her legs and cause her to perpetually shake. She felt them in the middle of her chest. She did not know how her mother kept steady during this violence. Looking out the window made her feel sick.

Beneath them the green landscape and the blue sea became a disorienting blur. And there was no escaping the fact that she was essentially chained down next to her mother. She prodded Salvatrice about her studies, about her health. She asked her questions, as though to quiz her, but she never corrected her or revealed the current score.

It was maddening. Silence between each fragmented episode made it only more so.

Several hours later, there was once again land beneath the plane.

Snow-covered, mountainous terrain quickly gave way to pale tundra.

The Pellicano had taken them from the center of Lubon to the northern edge of Nocht. They would be in Citadel Nocht in another hour or two at this rate, which was absolutely astounding to Salvatrice. These two countries were once an ocean apart!

While she looked out the window and marveled openly, the servants very carefully brought them goblets of wine and laid down an antipasti plate for each of the royals. Neatly arranged cheeses, cured meats, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and mushrooms adorned the plates. Beside each plate, the wrapped silverware was truly made out of silver.

“Did you eat well at the Academy, my dear?” Vittoria asked.

“I ate better than my classmates.” Salvatrice said.

“Good. You should. I made sure of it. I realize that I could not be there for you personally throughout your studies, dear daughter. However, I hope you realize in turn that I personally arranged for your life to be one of comfort and good health.”

“I know, honored mother. Thank you.” Salvatrice replied. It felt like talking to a stranger in a stranger’s voice. None of this was natural. All of the formality and care between them made it seem like a puppeteer’s play of a mother and a daughter.

Vittoria smiled. “I hope that my love and my care shone through to you in the resources that you enjoyed. As my daughter, a light upon Lubon, you deserve the best our Kingdom can offer. Food and clothing, a thorough education, and the best doctors in the world to help you be the princess that you were born to be; in all these, I hope that through the years you have seen my warm hand at work, though you could not feel it in flesh.”

Salvatrice nodded meekly. All those were things she could not have honestly said she had felt. In reality her mother was so distant that she needed a special voice to speak to her and could not use her own. This was at best an alien idea of love. Her mother had certainly given her doctors and teachers, places to stay, and finery to rival the petite bourgeoise of their country. Could a mother truly refer to such things and such things alone as love?

“I say this because I hope soon to overwhelm you with the love that I had previously not been able to give. I feel regret that I did not sooner take you from the countryside and into my bosom.” Vittoria said. “I am thinking, my daughter, that I want you close.”

Salvatrice’s lips contorted into a false smile. To all eyes, it seemed sincere.

“I am overjoyed to receive your attentions, dear mother. I have longed for this day.”

She knew better than to ask what had happened to her older sister, Clarissa.

All of their conversation, bereft of this fact, denying this context; it was nothing but a torrent of pretty lies. From the instant she boarded the plane she had known something was amiss. Clarissa had not been there beside the Queen, in her rightful place.

But Salvatrice knew not to bring it up.

This act of evasion was not something she had learned previously, not a technique of the court. This was her common sense, the barest fact of the existence.

Always she had been painfully aware that she was a discarded second.

Clarissa had direct access to the Queen throughout her life, direct access to matters of state, a private tutelage in Pallas and not in an academy miles and miles away from the nerve-center of power. Clarissa didn’t need doctors to correct her. She did not need to be moved from place to place as a child to be kept away from the matters of court.

Her sister had been revered, and she had been abased, as much as a princess could be.

And yet, Clarissa was not on this plane giving contrived graces to her mother.

Salvatrice was; and so she smiled, and she played along in this strange new world.

Knowing all throughout, that she, the second daughter, should not be here.

She, the scandalous offspring of a foreign man, should have remained hidden away.

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