The Night Ride
“Slow down! You’ll kill us both!” Brier cried, her fingers pressed deep into her sister’s sides.
Adrenaline spiked Harlow Morgan’s blood as she sped through London’s darkened streets. Several feet off the ground, she soared forward on her dirty green hover-cycle. Wind thrashed through her thick red hair and stung her skin. The engine and her heart raced in time. With her sister gripping from behind, she shifted her body from side to side, swerving past the steam cars littering the cobblestone thoroughfare.
Flanked by mammoth industrial buildings and a sea of umbrella wielding pedestrians, the streets narrowed, and the gaps between cars thinned out. Wafts of kerosene drifted from gas-lamps lighting the obstacle course ahead, overpowering the scent of oncoming rain. Each turn hailed a chorus of beeps and honks, praising her maneuvering skills.
Right before the street widened, a brick red steam bus angled to turn in front of her. Harlow leaned over her handlebars, tucked her legs in tight, and squeezed through the closing gap between the bus and a three-wheeled carriage.
“Har!” Brier cried, “You nearly hit that one!”
Harlow looked back at the steam bus, the space between its steam puffing engine and the carriage now completely gone. “Did not. Had plenty of room.”
“Had plenty of - Any closer and I’d lose my head under their wheels!”
“Only if you fell off. Hold on, Thorns. Next corner’s real tricky.”
Brier’s grasp constricted around Harlow’s waist. “Don’t call me that!” she cried, “especially when my life’s in your hands and-”
Harlow slammed the accelerator with her foot, drowning out Brier’s complaints with the roar of the rear fan. Sheer exhilaration sent chills down her spine. She checked her speedometer one more time.
Faster. Have to go faster.
She waited until the last possible second, tapped the brakes enough to make the turn, and banked right. The momentum carried the back of the bike off to the left. She twisted the handle bars quickly, stabilizing the craft before veering out of control.
But victory was short-lived. As she neared the end of the street, a massive brick building loomed only seconds away. Her room for error on the next corner dropped to nothing. This was it. Time to see what she was made of. She squinted behind the glass of her scarlet lensed riding goggles. Determined. Focused.
“Har?” Brier’s finger shook beside Harlow’s cheek. “Har!”
“I see it.”
Their only escape, the small street hidden amid the buildings, seemed to jet out of nowhere. Within feet of slamming into the brick wall, Harlow dropped her whole body to the left and forced Brier down with her. The bike’s underbelly shot up nearly parallel to the buildings. Swinging around the corner, she was met with a group of children rolling metal hoops through puddles. Her heart pounded. She fought against gravity to twist the bike upright. Air from the fans collided once more with the gravel below, lifting her above their gasping heads.
She let out her tension in a satisfied sigh, her cheeks burning from the smile stretched across her face. From her head to her toes, she felt alive. She glanced back to savor her sister’s assured state of awe, but was met with Brier’s fiery glare instead.
“That’s it! Take me home,” her sister yelled. “I want off this deathtrap.”
“Oh, come on, I made that turn perfectly. Just a few more tries and I’ll make the other ones just as-”
“No! No more tries. Take me home, now.”
Harlow clenched her teeth. “Fine.”
Just like her twin to foul up her fun. Queen of killjoys. She turned at the end of the street, toward Eastern Quadrant border and the tall houses swallowed up by the night sky.
Brier loosened her death grip around Harlow’ waist when the hover-cycle slowed. “Better. Crikey. Next time I have to go to the ribbon store, I’ll walk - no matter how much you beg.”
Harlow rolled her eyes. “I didn’t beg.”
“No? So when I said ‘I’m off to get some new hair ribbons for First Day’, you didn’t say ‘please, please, let me take you’?” Brier said, mimicking her sister.
Harlow laughed. Brier’s imitations made everyone sound like a deep chested old man.
“Oh yeah, that’s how I said it. Except more like ‘I need more practice for the hedge race tomorrow. I’ll take you if you give me some pointers.’ Which, by the way, you haven’t.”
“Not sure what you mean by pointers, but here’s one. Don’t kill yourself. Better yet, that race is silly. If they name you flight captain tomorrow, don’t do it. Simple.”
Harlow shook her head. “You don’t get it, Bri. The hedge race is a rite of passage. Every flight captain does it. Lose the race, lose respect. Without respect, leading people on an airship is right near impossible. I have to do it. Now come on, you’re a Smith. Tell me what I can do better.”
“I’m not a full Smith yet. We’re working on small gadgets this term, not flying vehicles of death. Why don’t you ask Father?”
Oh right, Father. The great Smith-Consummate himself. Harlow cringed. Might as well kick a sleeping bear. No one hated being disturbed more than Percival Morgan. The man practically breathed his work. From slaving away over endless creations in his smithy, to presiding in his high level government seat, he definitely didn’t rank a school race anywhere on his worth-bothering-me scale.
“And what, get my head bit off? No thank you.”
“He’s not that bad,” said Brier. “Just ask. He’ll help.”
“So says his prodigy daughter. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he gets all testy when I ask him questions. Like he knows I won’t understand anything he spits out before he even opens his mouth.”
The white stucco of their terraced house came into view. Harlow drove past the long row of connected homes before reaching their house on the corner. She slowed to a stop beside the tall cherry tree that grew next to her bedroom window. Touching the ground with her tiptoes, she flipped the switch by the hover-cycle’s handle bars. The machine clicked and buzzed, rotating the front and rear fans until they rested like bicycle tires on the street.
The engine died with a puff of steam and Brier immediately jumped off, unstrapping her black metal helmet. “Ugh,” she grunted, running her fingers through her long, wavy brown hair. “It’ll be a miracle if I survive the ride with you tomorrow.” Taking a few steps to the entryway and opening the wrought iron gate, she looked back at Harlow, who hadn’t moved from the bike. “What are you doing?” she asked with a tilt of her head.
Harlow turned her gaze to the emptying dark street ahead. “Think I’ll give it a few more laps.” Even without Brier’s help, she had to try again. Sloppy didn’t begin to describe half those turns. Maybe if she waited a bit longer before decelerating at the curves, she’d shave off some time and-
Brier snapped her fingers, shaking Harlow from her thoughts. “Are you out of your mind? Father said he’d be home in, what-” She pulled out a chain from beneath her blouse and flipped open the small gold watch around her neck. “A quarter of an hour. He’ll be livid if you’re not here.”
“That’s plenty of time. I’ll make it back.”
“You’d better. I’m tired of making up stories for you.”
White puffs of smoke bellowed from the back of the bike as Harlow turned the hover-cycle back on. The fans hummed. The blades spun. In seconds, her feet left the ground.
“Since when did I tell you to make up stories for me?” she asked.
Brier crossed her arms and lifted one brow.
“Doesn’t matter,” Harlow said, waving her hand before Brier could answer, “I’ll beat him home.”
With that she took off, leaving Brier, and soon London’s Eastern Quadrant, in her wake. Street after street, she felt her turns tighten. After riding all day, the city maze became easier to navigate.
Huh, maybe I won’t foul it up after all. Then again, the streets had landmarks and names that told them apart. It was easy to get her bearings here. In the hedge maze, everything looked the same-tall, bushy, and green.
If only she could practice on the school grounds, then she’d know for sure if she were ready. But with the school closed for summer holiday she’d only be able to get a look at the hedge.
A look. Of course! The thought put a smile on her face and she rounded the bend toward Featherington Academy. She’d seen the inside of the maze a few times, but never the top.
She arrived mere minutes later, staring up at the four story structure. Even in the dark, the academy stood with intimidation and arrogance seeping from its brown bricks. And nothing said Featherington pride more than the Smith alumni statues lining its front gate.
Veering around statues, she came to the north side of the school. She pulled the handlebars toward her, lifting the hover-cycle a few feet higher and saw it. At the far end of the garden, illuminated by lampposts and the moon, the maze stood like a massive leafy wall. A wall she still couldn’t see over at this height. Giving the bike a little more thrust, she caught a glimpse of the maze’s roof with its windy paths. Just a bit more-
What in the-
Startled, she jolted back and accidentally knocked the kill switch, ceasing the cycle’s flight. Her stomach lurched at the sudden drop. In a heartbeat, she reacted, flipping the switch and yanking the bars back. The rear fan scrapped the pavement with an ear piercing crunch of metal before lifting off the ground.
She looked up. The sound came from Featherington’s clock tower.
Frantic, she rubbed the dirt smudge from the small clock on the bike. Its tiny hands confirmed her fear. Where had the time gone? Father would have her head, or at least give her the lecture she had both memorized and dreaded since primary school.
Speeding into the East Quadrant, sweat fell from her brow. It seemed like she couldn’t help but disappoint the man. But maybe, just maybe, she’d beat him home tonight-when he was supposed to be there at ten, yeah right. She slammed her fists on her handlebars and turned onto her street. The moment she saw her house, she felt the blood drain from her face.
Father’s carriage. Lovely.
The light in her third story bedroom was still off though. Hopefully, he had just arrived. She parked the hover-cycle a few houses down, so it couldn’t be heard, then took off on foot. The tree-her only hope.
Quickly and quietly, she snuck past the rows of houses then slowed, reaching her own. Stepping behind Father’s carriage, she avoided the light shining through his study window. But when she peaked through the glass, her pulse raced. In the glow of the study, Father paced furiously. With a scowl on his face, he came to the window, threw off his top hat, and yanked the curtains shut.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and for a second imagined what he’d do to her. Ground her for a week. A month. Take away her hover-cycle . . . again. She shuddered at the thought. Or maybe he had a bad day. Surely that was it. Giving in to hope, she made for the tree.
The moment she touched the familiar bark, her limbs seemed to move on their own, navigating up the branches out of habit. Midway up the tree, she inched forward on the thick branch that grew right above her bedroom. At least she left the window open. The jump from the tree to the ledge was hard enough without having to worry about opening the thing once she got there.
With a tight grip on the tree, she lowered herself down until she hung by her arms. Stretching her toes to the windowsill, she met nothing but air. Cursed with a four foot ten inch frame, she let out a sigh. Since turning fifteen, she had grown two whole centimeters, passing Brier up as the tall twin. Not that it did her any good now. She still had to jump.
Oh well, here goes.
She swung her lower half, gathered momentum, and then let go of the branch. The brief freeing sense of flight quickly turned to panic. Her feet slammed on the ledge and her shoulders fell backward. Gravity yanked her down, and she fumbled for the curtains, grabbing them right before her foot slipped.
Regaining her footing, she hugged the coarse fabric against her chest. Made it. Worse attempt for sure, but still, surviving a three story fall, and an even worse lecture, wasn’t anything to snub at.
Separating the curtains, she slipped into the darkness of her room and sat on the inside ledge of her window. She couldn’t see a thing, but didn’t need sight to get in her bed. Right beneath the high window sat her cluttered dressing table. Just a hop down from there to the floor then she’d crawl in her bed, scot free. Father never had to be the wiser.
She lowered her right foot, moving it about to clear some room but didn’t touch a thing. Odd. She swore that big annoying cuckoo clock Father gave her was right by the window. Over and over last term he insisted she use the blasted thing, probably due to the giant pile of late slips she’d collected. But its bird’s shrill drove her insane, so she turned the clock off and put it to better use-judging the distance between the window and her dressing table. Only, she couldn’t feel it. Maybe she just had to stretch a bit further. She extended her leg, slipped from the windowsill, and fell forward.
Landing on the floor and twisting her ankle.
Pain shot up her leg. “Oww! Holy-” She covered her mouth, but it was too late. The gas lamp in her room flicked on, burning her vision. She briefly shielded her eyes before looking up to see Father standing over her with the clock in his hand.
He gave her a disappointed huff then set the clock on the dressing table he must’ve moved several feet from the window. After he messed with a few gears on its backside, her cuckoo clock hummed to life, and he faced it forward.
Without asking where she’d been, if she knew what time it was, or heavens, if she were all right, he stepped past her and moved to the door.
“I hope you’ll use that clock of yours this time,” he said, more as a command than a wish. “And Harlow, tomorrow isn’t just First Day for you. It’s First Day for the daughter of the Smith-Consummate. With all this hysteria over sorcerers invading the Smokestack, the Council is breathing down my neck to get results. Everyone in this city is itching for an excuse to remove me from my post. They’re watching me, Harlow. And they’re watching my daughters. Do not repeat your rash behavior tomorrow.”
As he slammed the door shut, she wiped away the tear trickling down her cheek-a tear surely brought on by the pain in her leg. Putting her weight on her left leg to stand,she caught a look at her right ankle and her heart stopped. In mere seconds, her ankle had blown up like a blimp, and with it so had her chances of winning the hedge race.