By: Lillabeth B.

As Lady Hermione Everlark and Madeline Hinny, daughter of the Crowned Tawny's cook, turned a corner, they saw a gleaming silver spiral staircase that lead up to the ceiling, and to a bronze trapdoor with a golden handle. "That leads up to the Observation Deck?" Lady Everlark asked Maddie.
"That's right," the servant girl responded in her trademark cockney accent. "It's right between your room and the command center. But Hermy," she continued, grabbing the Lady by the hand, "There's a strong wind up there. Be careful, okay?"
"Oh, Maddie," Hermione responded, grasping Maddie's other hand with hers, "I'm always careful." And with that, she released Ms. Hinny's hands, gathered her skirts in her palms, and hurried toward the staircase.
            As she ascended the staircase, she transferred the skirt she held in her right hand to her left, and grasped the iron handle with her now-free hand. She took a deep breath and continued up the staircase, one step at a time, watching Maddie become farther and farther away. At last she reached the trapdoor, and, bracing herself, she pushed it open and walked through.
            It felt as though she had been hit by a two-ton bull. The wind slapped her cheeks, pulled her hair, and pushed her against the frozen black steel railing. Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. It was a most curious sensation; it was as though the wind was just outside her reach, stinging her skin with the close proximity, but no matter how far she stretched her arm, she couldn't reach it. It was as if the wind had created a sort of bodysuit around her, though she knew this wasn't possible.
            "How curious," she said to herself.
"You should see it from here!" a voice yelled at her, and it was then that Hermy realized she wasn't alone.
            There was a man on the other side of the Observation Deck. He was strapped into a leather harness, which was in turn hooked onto the railing.
The man was tall, thin, and bony as a twig. His chin was dotted with stubble and the few wisps of white hair that poked out of his brown leather newsboy cap were tossed back and forth by the wind. A thin smile decorated his face, and his small eyes crinkled with pleasure. He wore tall black combat boots, black dress pants with several patches sewn onto them, and a faded, worn dark blue Air Navy uniform jacket with so many badges and awards sewn above his breast pocket that many overlapped.
            "The winds have accepted you, child," he said.
            "You are the captain of this grand, majestic vessel, I assume?" Lady Everlark asked formally, curtseying low, though her hand still wrapped around the railing, just to be safe.
            The captain waved it away. "Oh, cut the small talk. You're not built to be all fancy-schmancy, and you know it."
            This gave Hermione pause. He was right, of course, and she'd known this all her life, but even her father hadn't realized this. So how did the captain know?
            "Your mother was like you, a bird that longed to be free," he began, answering her unspoken question. "Your father met her flying on this ship. She was a wild, spirited beauty, our resident tinkerer and my apprentice. She stole his heart, and he stole hers. They were two lovebirds ready to fly off."
            "But they didn't," Hermy said with dread, sure she could guess what happened next. "Indeed. The Duke's a bit more of groundhog, really," the captain responded, chuckling a little. "He wanted her to settle down in his mansion, have kids, be ladylike and prim and, well, grounded." He shook his head. "It was never going to happen."
            "How did she get away?" Hermione asked. The captain looked out at the sky. "Now this, I don't know," he admitted. "One day she never came back. I heard she was gone by word of mouth. Quite embarrassing for your father, really, but at least he still had her beautiful daughter, Hermione Harriet." He gave Hermy a meaningful look, then turned back to the sky.
            The Lady looked around too, and saw that the Observation Deck was actually quite grand. It was round and about the size of her bedroom. The floor was light birch hardwood, dusted with flakes of ice, and every other post of the railing rose up to twice the captain's height, ending in a point. The black metal gleamed in the light of dawn.
            "The crown of the Crowned Tawny," the captain joked, and Hermy walked over to join him as easily as if she were on solid ground. She looked down and saw the green and brown patchwork quilt of earth whizzing by, and getting smaller and smaller by the second. "We're rising in altitude," he told her. "There's a right speedy wind blowing up there, and we want to catch it so as to get quickly to the palace.”
            From their perch, Hermione could see that the Observation Deck rested right on top of the Tawny's head, and its ears poked up right to the left and right of herself and the captain, perking up and curling as though it were alive. She reached out to feel the ear closest to her, the one on the right, and as she stroked it, the ear curled up and warmed. Hermy gasped.
"It's alive!" The captain raised an eyebrow. "You're the first to discover that since your mother!"
            Hermy suddenly remembered the painting in her room. "Speaking of my mother, did you put that portrait of my mother in my bedroom?" The captain's eyes widened a bit in surprise.
"How did you know it was your mother?"
The daughter stared at the horizon. "I'm not quite sure. I just felt it with a sense deeper than my bones.”
            A look of curiosity passed over Hermione's face. "I don't believe I ever caught your name," she said. The captain let out a cackle.
"My dear Miss Everlark, I don't believe I threw it!" And they both looked back out at the sky with smiles on their faces.
            Lady Everlark didn't believe anyone could persuade her to leave. The sky was a light blue, and the rising sun tinted the clouds pink. She could see the horizon, a bluish-white line in the distance, and she felt as though the entire world was spread about before her. With the sky reflected in her eyes and the wind in her hair, she could sense a change within her, from lady to bird. Oddly, it didn't worry or even surprise her. She wouldn't go back for the world.
            As she stared into the heavens, Hermy spied a large white bird, with bronze-colored wings and a long white tail. "What sort of bird is that?" she asked, pointing. "I didn't know birds flew at this altitude." The captain stared at the bird with wide eyes, and a look of intense worry crossed his face.
"They don't," he whispered. "Hermione... They don't!"
            The bird flew behind a cloud, but though it was gone from their sight, it was not gone from their minds. The captain was on a brainstorming rampage. "Birds die at this altitude! They can't breathe! It must be genetically or mechanically enhanced! Or maybe it's a mechanical bird disguised as a normal one! Or a human disguised as a bird! Or a bird-human hybrid! Or maybe…"
            But the captain was unable to finish, for as they both stared at the sky, the clouds parted before them like gates to a kingdom, and what they saw through these gates would shape the future of humanity itself. A field of white fluff spread out below them, and resting on it were small structures of white fluff, with triangular roofs and walls rising up to meet them, built of small white blocks. There was a little church with a steeple in the center of the little town, and a little ways off light gray clouds formed and a little ways off from that rose a wall of darker clouds; and beyond that, there was a great fortress of storm clouds, with spires twirling through the blue, reaching for the sun. Walking through houses, going about their daily business, were figures of white fluff, doing their jobs in their city in the sky.
            A city of clouds.

What will Hermione and her friends find in the city of clouds? Find out in chapter 4 of The Unexpected Radical Adventures of Lady Hermione Everlark and Her Abnormally Small and Consistently Quirky Crew.

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