So. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.
AUGUST 8, 1709
August tugged at Muninn’s wing. “They can’t see me, can they?” he asked, anxious and a little overwhelmed.
“You know that they can’t,” said Muninn. “No-on has seen you so far, have they? Not even yesterday, on the raft. It was only a raft, August, and there was nowhere to hide on it. If you were visible to anyone you would have been visible there.”
“It’s not the same,” August mumbled. The raft was one thing. The men there had been half-dressed, their clothes salt-stained and fraying at the edges. The people in the Casa da Índia were frayed nowhere. They wore silks and satins and lace, with heavy cloaks and giant skirts and they were covered in jewellery. August stood and watched them, awkward in his pyjamas, in his plain little slippers and with his tiger blanket wrapped around. There were stains down his shirt from where he had spilled his dinner.
“Besides,” said Muninn repressively, “the king has better things to do today than look at little boys with dirty shirts.”
“It’s not that dirty,” said August, scrubbing at the fabric so as to make the stain less noticeable and succeeding only in wrinkling himself further. “There’s a king?”
“We are in the Tower of the King,” Muninn replied. “Part of his palace, as the Casa is part of the Tower. It is a place for administration and trade and travel. It is the last that we have come to see, the last which Bartolomeu is concerned with. But there are a few minutes before his presentation. If you are well enough you might want to explore. No-one will bother you.”
And August, sceptical at first and then with growing curiosity, scampered as quickly as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all, for all he was feeling better than the usual in a brief period of grace that came with excitement and novelty and thoughts of things other than dying. The Casa was like a great museum, with compartments and collections and artifacts: gold and silver and precious stones brought in tall ships from the ends of the earth and laid out with spices and with spoils, and all the time there were people around him talking in words he did not understand, talking and laughing and dressed in outfits too heavy for them, that looked as if they could have stood up on their own.
“Is it a ball?” he said to Muninn, breathless, when he returned from his wanderings. “Will there be dancing?” Not that he wanted to dance, which was always the least disappointing opinion when dancing was so often beyond him, but he could have watched and tried a few steps, perhaps, where no-one would see him and worry he was exhausting himself.
“Not a ball,” said Muninn. “But a royal dinner, and an exhibition. See that man there, the one dressed in black with his hands full of paper?”
“Yes,” said August, although he could see more than paper. There seemed to be a bowl of some sort, almost a ball, and thin little ropes between.
“His name is Bartolomeu,” said Muninn. “And that is his hot air balloon. He has come to show it to court, to the king. To show that heated air will make it rise.”
“How’s he going to heat it?”
“There will be a flame beneath, and tiny pieces of kindling in that container.”
“But Muninn,” said August, “Muninn, the balloon’s made of paper!”
“Yes,” said Muninn. “A bold choice, I grant you. He tried this a few days ago and nearly set the palace alight. The fire was put out, but the curtains could not be saved.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to try it outdoors, then?” said August.
“What if the wind took it away? Or it just kept going up? At least with a ceiling to bump into the balloon is retrievable.”
And retrievable it was. Bartolomeu crouched on the floor in front of the king, the kindling thin and dry beneath his fingers and soon set alight, and the little paper airship sprang into the air, soaring upwards until it hit the ceiling and hovered, until the kindling burnt out and the air cooled and the balloon came back to earth, came down to applause and commendation and with only a few singed bits.
“See?” said Muninn. “Success. He has shown the principle as sound.”
“He’s not going to try and build a real balloon out of paper, is he?” said August, noting the servants circling the room with discreet buckets of water. He braced himself to be told that the small device tested was a real balloon, but he meant something that would carry people, something more than an interesting and slightly dangerous toy. While August liked to believe he was adventurous–not every dying child would consent to fly with ravens–and that he would have been more adventurous still as a grown-up, even he could not picture trusting a paper balloon to hold his weight and avoid combustion. “Because that seems like a bad idea all round.”
“He wanted to build a bird, actually” said Muninn, musing. “It was to be called Passarola. This was a first step.”
“A bird like you?” said August, and from across the room Huginn gave a derisive caw as he poked his beak into paper, shuffled amongst it with his iron feet.
“Nothing like me,” said Muninn, and her wings flattened against her back. “Do I look like I’m made from balloons, an empty thing for carriage?”
“No,” said August, backpedalling. “It could have been a raven, though,” he said in a small voice. “In the shape of one, I mean.”
Muninn snorted. “A belly like a ball with a head attached at one end, a tail at the other and a man inside to pull on wires. Mock wings and magnetism. Yes,” she said, sarcastic. “Very like a raven.”
“Well it’s not like you’re a typical example either, is it?” said August, staring at the paper balloon blackened about the bottom and thinking of goose-pimple flesh beneath warm wings, of feathers that were fragile in the air and never left patterns imprinted in his skin.
Muninn glared at him in response, frosty, as if he had been impolite and she too well-mannered to correct him, her feathers ruffling despite herself. Feathers that shared a colour with other ravens if they were not fixed to the same fabric, and it struck him then that the Passarola would likely never have been a raven.
“Look at this lot,” he said, of the bright coloured dresses, of the ribbons and the silk of a royal court that had set him back on seeing them. “They’d want colours all over any airship bird, they would. They’d never paint it black.”
But the change of subject didn’t seem to make a difference, for Muninn’s eyes were still flat and black and their clockwork was stilled, having ground unimpressed to a halt. August supposed he could not blame her, having been set apart his whole life and ringed about with the subjects of his differences. It made him feel like a freak, and he wondered at the comparison and sank inside himself, cast about for something else to say. “It’s not like you can blame him,” he said of Bartolomeu. “Wanting to build a ship like a bird. It’d be like being one himself, almost. He’d get to float about like he was flying. He’d get to leave everything behind.”
“Some things are worth keeping,” said Muninn, mollified. The frost had left her eyes, the gears starting to move again. She hopped closer to August, laid her head against him, a brief black brush of iron. “And some will not be left behind.”
“Still,” said August, eyeing the remains of the balloon and then gazing up at the ceiling, at the small point the balloon had bumped up against and come back down to earth. “It’s nice to dream about, isn’t it, that you can just fly off and escape.” Fly off into past and into continents, both a strange country and a stepped one, with August at the peak and no further room to climb. “Sometimes I wish I could fly with you forever,” he said.
“You can’t,” said Muninn. “Not with me, not forever. Your flights are your own. But they are not over yet.”
Before them, Bartolomeu was showing off his balloon, the paper and kindling and flame, the rise and fall of it. The way it could be made into Passarola, and take him to the sky.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Lise Meitner talk to Eleanor Roosevelt, on the day of the Nagasaki bombing.
If you’d like a copy for yourself, The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!
© Octavia Cade