Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Wingmaker

The King's Wingmaker hurried through the stone halls of the palace. Dignitaries standing in shadowed alcoves ceased their hushed conversations as he passed, pausing to shoot curious glances at the harried young man in his truncated conical hat. That hat with a golden braid running its crimson circumference spoke to all of his office and the urgency of his commission. Heralds and porters snapped to attention as he approached, smoothly opening doors for him so that his desperate pace never faltered.

Under his arm he carried a sheaf of paper, rolled up diagrams, a secret that could remake the world.

Since receiving his station the Wingmaker gave up his name and his family and became his work. He laboured from the first rays of the morning sun till the last flickering of his candle at night. When the work became tiresome he would sing romantic songs learned in his teenage years though those ballads of desire and despair seemed distant to him now as a part of someone else's life read about in a book.

At night, when there was no more work left in his hands, the Wingmaker slept beneath a rough woollen blanket on a canvas cot in the corner of his workshop. Sometimes he would dream of the village where he grew up, of the one or two girls he had known there or of his father who made and maintained all the brass clockwork of the village and occasionally built ingenious mechanical toys for the children. These nocturnal reveries also felt distant, a part of somebody else, and mostly he did not dream at all.

The twinned doors of the throne room were taller than three men and decorated with gilt details that defied the eye. The doors opened in a smooth silent arc anticipating the Wingmaker's entry into the vaulted chamber beyond. A ribbon of carpet as thin as it was soft bisected the stone cavern leading from the ornate doors to the enthroned Monarch watching the young engineer's hurried approach. The Kings eyes narrowed beneath his golden crown noting the papers the young man carried. His mouth buried beneath a straw coloured beard remained impassive.

'Well?' The King said dryly.

'My liege,' the Wingmaker started, "great tidings. I believe I may have a solution to the theoretical problems that have been plaguing the project.' He unfurled a large sheet of velum and displayed for the King an elaborate diagram annotated with arcane formulae. 'I have been studying some of the older texts from the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences and Speculations on the methods of locomotion of the larger and rarer species of bee. As you can see here," he gestured to an exploded detail of the drawing, "the wings are particularly and peculiarly jointed. A certain frequency of oscillations are possible with a mechanism I have devised, utilising the principles of clockworks and driven by a rock-oil engine.'

The King took the schematics and studied them closely as the Wingmaker fumbled through the rest of his papers and documents all the while describing and elucidating the technical components of the device he had envisaged.

'I do believe, your Majesty, that the goal is within reach. Mankind stands on the threshold of flight and we will soon soar through the Heavens in the company of the Angels.'

* * *

The next several weeks were a blur of frenzied activity in the workshops of the Wingmaker. Eight skilled craftspeople were assigned to assist in the construction of the flying engine. Although technically proficient these assistants were purposefully kept illiterate and upon completion of their assignment would have their tongues removed to prevent them ever sharing the secrets of what they had helped to build. Despite the help of extra hands in the workshop the Wingmaker still relied on potions and remedies to keep sleep at bay and bring in the project on time and on budget.

* * *

Finally the day of the first flight arrived, like a hallucination. The King and a handful of his trusted advisors, the Wingmaker and his mute assistants gathered atop the West Windward Tower of the palace, watching the sun go down as the first Angels appeared twisting slowly through the darkening sky. Two of the Wingmaker's assistants helped the King into the harnesses of the the flying engine while four others stretched out the gossamer thin wings made of flayed whale hide. The Wingmaker himself ran a final check over the control cables that led from the brass carapace of the engine strapped between the monarch's shoulder blades. The King himself maintained a solemn air of regal indifference his gaze fixed on the slow moving Angels emerging far above in the moonless sky.

The Wingmaker made some tiny last minute adjustments to the engine, motioned the assistants to step back from the reach of the wings, and then started the device. A thin cough of black smoke issued from small vents in the brass carapace as the engine began to hum with that strange internal life of machines.

'I believe we are ready, your majesty,' the Wingmaker said.

The King nodded and turned to face the small assembly from the parapet of the tower.

'My dear and loyal subjects,' he began, 'tonight we shall achieve what no other nation has achieved, we shall do what those who have gone before us could only dream. Tonight mankind shall fly free of the earth for the first time, he shall journey amongst the Angels and divine the secrets of the universe. I thank you all for making this journey possible.'

With that the King pulled on the control mechanism and the hum of the engine pitched to a shrill whine as the wings vibrated into a blur. The King's frame lifted perceptibly as he turned to face the yawning space around the tower. Staring defiantly at the flickering lights of the Angels above, he stepped from the parapet and spun in a lazy, graceless arc towards the stone courtyard below. Traced by a thin line of oily smoke the King's doomed descent ended with an inaudible impact on the flagstones where he lay broken and unmoving as the beating of the wings slowed and stopped.

'Hmmm… I think I see now,' the Wingmaker said mostly to himself. 'If we can recalibrate the ratio of the sixth and eight gears, yes, that should…' He turned and hurried back towards his workshop. There was more work to be done. There would always be another king and meanwhile far above the glowing Angels waited, untouched and unknowable.

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