Chapter 1:  Parting   QE 115

            Esmerelda stared up at the airship from her perch on the roof of the Allegany Inn, watching the skies as two airships danced nimbly amongst the clouds, playfully chasing each other.  Both were resplendent in the maroon of the Royal Aeronauts, both with streamers fluttering behind them longer than the ships themselves. Further out, there were a few other airships, but rather plain trade barrages with none of the splendor to be seen.

            Esmerelda had spent so much of her youth watching the skies and every airship that she could with wonder, dreaming about being on those beautiful airships as they whirled and danced through the sky.  Now even as she looked at watched them, it came with a twinge of bitterness that she couldn’t help but feel.  Which left her realizing that she came up to the roof for an escape from her life, but even up here, she couldn’t escape having to think about the Aeronauts. It made her heart ache all over ago, and quickly turned around and walked towards the stairs.

            Just as Esmerelda reached the stairs, someone came up the stairs, appearing right in front of her.  Esmerelda saw the crisp maroon uniform, the gleaming brass buttons, and the heavy boots polished lovingly, which slowed her reaction in recognizing her best friend, Lily. 

            “There you are love.  I’ve been looking all over for you!”  Lily said excitedly, greeting Esmerelda with a quick hug. 

            “I, I guess I needed to get some fresh air,” Esmerelda replied.  Despite everything else, she was happy to see her friend. 

            “Oh, I get that!  There’s been more than a few times over the last days I’ve had to take a break and find a window to sit out of.”  As Lily spoke, she took Esmerelda by the arm and guided her back to the spot in the railing that she had just been standing at. 

            “That doesn’t really sound like you,” Esmerelda replied, looking at her friend.  Lily was tall and lithe, and loved nothing more than to run and climb things, while Esmerelda was on the short side and had always done her best, but she had always struggled to keep up.

            “Of course, it is!  All this is exciting, and terrifying, and even overwhelming at times for me.  It’s what I’ve wanted my whole life, but to actually be here about to start it, well, sometimes it’s just hard to breathe under all that pressure,” Lily said, tugging at the sleeve of her Aeronaut’s jacket.

            Esmerelda didn’t say anything to respond, instead she just leaned against her friend, resting her head into Lily’s shoulder, hugging into her. 

            “Are you doing okay, Esme?  As much as I’ve been excited for being accepted, I think maybe I haven’t been as great of a friend to you as I should have been.  It almost seems like not being worth going when you’re not going to be attending the academy with me.”

            Esmerelda shook her head stubbornly, though it was awkward with her leaning against Lily.  “Absolutely not.  We’ve already had that conversation, and I would feel terrible if you stayed because of me.”

            “And you can always apply again next year.  There’s no way that they wouldn’t accept you two years in a row.”

            “The worst part is that you’ll be there, and I’ll still be here.  I mean, I would never ask you to leave, but we’ve been best friends since we were six.  The thought of being away from you hurts so much more than not being accepted by the academy.”

            “I know, and it hurts me so much too,” Lily replied, wrapping an arm around Esme and hugging back, “I mean, I know that we would probably end up being in different classes anyway, but that doesn’t make it feel any better.  I mean, sailing the skies have been my dream for my entire life.  But it was supposed the two of us going up there together, and anything less than that just leaves a bitter taste in the back of my throat.”

            Esme stared back up at the airships, still fluttering amongst the clouds.  They were still beautiful, graceful constructions, but she also looked at them remembering that they were also instruments of war.  It was too far away to pick out the details, but in her mind’s eye she saw the naked cannons that were also part of those ships.  There was no beauty and grace to those guns; they were solely made to kill, wound, and maim.  There was beauty to be found amongst the clouds, but there was still the ever-present need for those cruel cannons as well.  And that reality was never something that her dreams had prepared her for leading up to the Aeronautical Academy’s tests. 

            “I always wondered if I would get tired of watching them.  But still, here I am, watching them fly with just as much wonder as when I was but a girl,” Lily said, also watching the ballet of the airships. 

            “There’s always next year’s tests.  And even until then, we can still write each other.  And I’m sure that you must get leave every now and then.  I’m sure that we can work it out so that we can meet up at some point.”

            “Of course! You mean so much to me, and even if they post me in some far-off corner of the world, I will always find my way back to you.  Even if I had to ride a boat to get there,” Lily said, giving an exaggerated shudder as she mentioned the boat.

            “Of course!  Not even an overland trek could stop me,” Esme said, pulling away from Lily and smiling at her.  It still wasn’t much, but Lily always had a way of brightening up her moods, even when they were at their darkest. 

            “There’s no hurry, but whenever you’re ready, there’s still plenty of people downstairs, and I would love to have you with me for the rest of it. It seems like there is barely any time left until dawn, and I want to spend every free moment that I have left with you. 

            “Maybe just a few minutes more up here.  You know me, dealing with all those people is exhausting,” 

            “Anything you want,” Lily replied, and then the two settled into a comfortable silence of friends.  They watched as the two airships finished their aerial dance with no fanfare, then both turned and drifted away, the crew pulling the streamers back onto the ship. 

            Dawn came sooner than Esme would have liked.  The Allegheny Inn had given Lily their Grand Suite for the night in recognition for her years spent working there.  There was only a single bed in the suite, which was luxuriously soft.   Lily had tried to get her to take the bed, or at least one side of it, but Esme had insisted on taking the couch.  It was still far more comfortable than her own bed, and she knew better than to think that she was getting any sleep anyway, so she didn’t want to risk waking Lily with her own insomnia.  Instead of sleep, she spent most of her night staring at Lily, alternating between trying create a perfect mental picture of her friend, and her thoughts racing in the night, worrying about all the things that could happen to Lily, and wondering when she would ever see her again.

            Lily woke up on her own with the sunrise.  The first thing that she did, after a quick stretch, was turn over and look at Esme.  “How did you sleep?  I see why this room is so expensive, this bed is amazing!”

            “The couch is nice too.  Didn’t get much sleep, but that was my own fault.”  Esme replied, sitting up on the couch.

            “Oh, I’m sorry for that.  I thought that I wouldn’t get any sleep myself, but I must have been exhausted – I think I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.  I’m sure that it will be a long time before I get to sleep in anything that comes close to this bed.” 

            “Me too, I think”

            Lily got out of her bed and walked over to sit beside Esme, gently grabbing her hand, “It’s almost time for me to go, Esme.  I’m excited and worried for myself, but most of all, I’m worried about you.  Are you going to be okay?”

            Esme nodded.  She wasn’t really sure if she believed herself, but at the very least she wanted to convince her friend.  “I won’t lie to you, Lily.  I’m going to hurt for a while, but I’m so happy for you.  I know that you’re going to be amazing.  I’m sure that you’ll be captain of your own ship in no time at all.”

            “Nawww, but that takes years.  I’d be happy even if I were a steamer, as long as I had a window to look out of,”  Lily said, then sunk her head against Esme’s shoulder, “look, I know that you’ll do absolutely amazing next year, but I want you to know:  even if you don’t ever reach the skies, I don’t care!  You’re the best, most amazing, caring person I’ve ever met, and I will always come all that distance for you, whatever else happens in either of our lives.”

            Esme nodded, blinking back tears.  She knew that it was only a matter of time until the tears came, but she just didn’t want to waste a second of her remaining time with Lily with crying.

            “I do have to start for the aerodrome soon.  I would love for you to see me off, but only if you feel like you are up to it.  I’m sure that it’s could get intense for you.  And the last thing that I would ever want to do is hurt you.”

            “Of course, I’m coming with you!  I wouldn’t miss sending you off for anything at all.”

            “I’m really happy to hear that, but I just didn’t want it to be an obligation for you,” Lily said, smiling brightly at Esme. 

            “How long do we have?”

            “We can sit here for a few minutes, but then we have to get dressed and start walking. There should be a walking breakfast downstairs waiting for us.  It will probably be my last chance for good for a while.  At least, I doubt that they’ll have any of our local delicacies.”

            “Good point,” Esme replied.  The two women then shared a few minutes of silence until Lily declared that it was time to get moving.

            Finally, they were at the airship.  It was festooned with all sorts of streamers and banners, looking every bit like an example of the pride of the Aeronautical fleet.  The crew stood at attention on the deck, dressed in their finest uniforms, honoring those who had been accepted into the Academy.  By tradition, all the new recruits only had up to two guests to see them off, and there were already a few dozen cadets there recognizable by their pristine maroon uniforms, each standing in little groups surrounded by their loved ones for their farewells. 

            “Well, this is it.  We only have until the Captain calls before I have to board,” Lily said, her attention flickering between the up close Royal airship and Esme.

            “That’s so little time left,”

            “It’s okay.  This parting is only temporary, after all.

            Esme just nodded.  If she tried to say anything else right now, she was sure that she would just burst into tears.  Instead, she leaned in and hugged Lily tight, feeling the warmth between them.  She looked out at the other little groups in the clearing.  Some were with parents or older relatives, so with younger siblings.  But some of them were with partners, sharing in one last passionate moment together.  Esme realized that those people seemed to be the most similar to her and Lily.  But then the call came out from the airship, and the moment was gone.

            “That’s me,” Lily said, reluctantly pulling away from Esme after their hearts beat together a few more times.

            “Be amazing,” Esme said, too heart-fatigued to think of anything better farewell words.

            “I’d say the same to you, but you already are so amazing.  Be your kind, beautiful, wonderful self, and we’ll see each other before we know it.”

            With that, Lily turned around and joined the rest of the recruits in boarding the airship.  Esme stood and watched with the rest of the people, waving as the engines came to life and the airship came to life.  She watched it flying until it was nothing but a speck in the sky, and then until it was nothing, long after most of the rest of the people had began to leave.  She waited as long as she could, until there was no one around her to pity her before the tears finally came out.  She sank down to the ground and lost herself into the crying.  Her heart ached more than she ever thought possible, and the prospects of her future seemed darker than they had before without Lily at her side.

            Finally, after hours had passed, Esme pulled herself together enough to listen to the pangs of hunger.  She’d had no appetite for breakfast, and she couldn’t exactly remember if she had ate anything amongst all the celebrations.  She managed to climb back up to her feet and set off back into the city, staying clear of any of the places that she and Lily had frequented together.

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