#fridayflash: seeing out the angel

"Land!"

It was good to hear it, but Matthew was too busy feeling ill to look. He and Master Thomas occupied the stern of the little boat, or at least the space between the cooking-stove at the very back and the pile of academic instruments in the exact centre. Mistress Angelica and Foster sat at the bow. No-one could get 'round the gigantic globe mapping the world, so no-one had been able to change places. Even passing plates of food at meal-time involved Thomas leaning out over one side while Matthew leaned out over the other, stretching to reach Foster's waiting hands.

Matthew hadn't partaken of many meals, because everything he swallowed came back up again. Still, his and Foster's lessons had continued. Mistress Angelica told him that while the symptoms were in his stomach, his seasickness was located inside his ears. Matthew suspected, not for the first time, that she and Thomas occasionally made things up to keep him and Foster sceptical apprentices.

He heard Master Thomas say they could see the buildings now, and he eased himself up, using the cold cooking stove as a brace. Thomas and Angelica had both declaimed loud and long about the beauty of the university and the nearby library tower, and Matthew was looking forward to seeing some architecture that was intact.

It was clear that the buildings Thomas was so pleased about belonged to the dead era. Matthew could see they once were very tall, maybe even a hundred storeys, but now they were crumbling and shattered, like everywhere.

"Where's the university?" he said, the words themselves triggering a fresh gush of nausea.

"About a day inland," said Thomas.

Angelica clapped her hands. "Tomorrow morning we'll be sailing over the land."

They've gone insane. We're done for, thought Matthew. He angled himself so he could see around the globe, the better to check Foster's demeanour without tipping the boat. But Foster was facing away from him, leaning forward on the prow as if he'd assigned himself the job of figurehead.

Matthew settled himself deeper into his robes and sulked.

They landed just before nightfall, and spent the night in a gigantic inn Master Thomas informed them had been built as a "shopping mall", whatever that was.

The next morning they navigated their way back to the docks under pale grey light. Angelica and Foster ducked into a grocery stall and emerged laden with dried sausage, hard bread, apples, and cheese. "No cooking with the stove anymore," said Thomas. "Too dangerous."

A block away from the dock, Matthew's nausea returned. There was a strong smell both of dead fish and recently-tanned hide. "What is that?" he said despite himself. Apprentices weren't supposed to ask questions until a teacher introduced a topic.

"It's how we'll complete our journey," said Angelica. "It's a whaleskin turned into a bladder." She giggled.

Thomas chuckled. "We'll use a lodestone and wind maps to travel the rest of the way. Something to remember when you're old professors yourselves, boys."

Matthew heard Foster asking what the whaleskin would be inflated with, but didn't pay attention to the answer. They reached the dock.

Workers had tied ropes to the gunwales and placed the contents of the boat on the dock. The mostly-inflated whaleskin rested on a huge raft the dockworkers had drawn alongside the boat, and Matthew watched them attach one stout cannister of gas after another to a valve located where the whale's mouth must have been.

Some gentle pushing from the workers, and the inflated whaleskin bumped into the air above the boat. The workers added some more ropes to keep the boat attached to the dock itself, and Angelica stepped forward to guide them in the task of replacing all of their gear.

The last item to return to its place was the cooking stove, into which they stowed the food they had just bought.

"All right," said Thomas. "Students in the bow this time. Angelica and I will need to consult together to get us where we're going."

Matthew and Foster clambered into the boat after their tutors. Thomas called out to the workers, who pulled off the ropes attaching them to the dock. The boat rose into the air as if it were too distracted to obey the laws of gravity.

They hung motionless for a moment, just long enough for Matthew to realise they were higher up than he had thought possible. Then the faintest gust of wind propelled them forward.

"The alternative is to change to a donkey wagon," called Thomas from the stern. "It's three days to ride, with highwaymen to worry about and rotten roads to smash the instruments."

The boat meandered through the air, copying the movements of the huge grey clouds that travelled above them. Every time Matthew became certain they would be drenched in rain, sunbeams of faded gold would break through and prove him wrong.

At midday Thomas passed Matthew and Foster some lunch, which they both ate slowly, distracted by the view.

"It's very like when you took us up that mountain, except you can see all around," Matthew shouted.

"Just don't fall out," said Angelica.

They spotted the university and library in the afternoon, and came upon them in the early evening. Matthew was surprised at how far apart the two buildings were, but Angelica explained they were both ancient structures built four hundred years before the dead era, and once an entire city had lain between them. From the vantage point of the boat, Matthew could only see the occasional broken rock.

Matthew's nausea had disappeared once the boat took to the air, but Foster complained he was cold and sat hunched into his robes. As the library tower neared, the clouds over them grew black. Matthew was sure they would get rained upon at last, but the sun slipped below and lit the library up in brass and flame.

Matthew startled to make out a figure standing on the library roof, a woman with long pale hair the evening sunlight made look like real gold.

"That's Elizabeth," said Thomas, "the head librarian. We'll present ourselves to her as soon as we land." He reached over and rang the bell suspended from the belly of the whaleskin, then gave the bell-pull a practised jerk.

The whaleskin gave a loud shushing sound, and the boat drifted down the hill between the library and the university.

Update!

I tried the image drag 'n' drop Google feature Larry Kollar described in the comments, and was able to trace the image back to its original creator, Bartłomiej Jurkowski. You can find the original image and lots of other gorgeous work at his web site.

The image shown here will appear in larger size if you click it. It's from this Flickr stream, which has an "all rights reserved" setting even though it's a collection of images from around the net. Which just goes to show this on-line image management concept has a ways to go.

Also, yes, the title of this comes from the Simple Minds song of the same name. I haven't been able to get it out of my head for days, and weirdly enough it goes with the image.