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Chasing Christmas Past
An Airship Racing Chronicles Short Story
By Melanie Karsak
A light dusting of snow covered the bowsprit of the Stargazer. The wind blew gently. A cascade of fat snowflakes gusted across the deck of the airship. When the flurry hit the bulwark, the flakes became a little whirlwind that drifted upward into the purple and blue twilight. I rubbed my hands together. It was Christmas Eve, and it was bitter cold. I sighed deeply, my breath fogging the air. From the streets of London below the airship towers, I could hear the holiday revelers singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The scent of roasted chestnuts perfumed the wind. My stomach growled hungrily, and I began dreaming of the mug of mulled wine waiting for me at my favorite haunt, Rose’s Hopper. Nothing sounded better than sitting in the corner of the tavern, drinking Christmas Eve away. Leave the roasted geese, plum pudding, and midnight mass to all the joyful mums and dads and fat-cheeked children. Tonight, I would drink. Tomorrow, I would race.
The balloon of the Stargazer shifted in the breeze. I’d already started strategizing. Cold air meant the balloon would get better lift which we could use to our advantage, but flying in snow was annoying as hell. Not that it mattered much. I knew what to do. I’d run in the Yuletide Airship Race since I was a girl. What made the 1820 race any different? I wasn’t going to let a little snow get between me and the fat stack of coins waiting in Calais. This year I would win for sure.
I pulled out my little bottle of laudanum. My fingerless gloves were good for more than just gripping the wheel of the Stargazer. The cap on the laudanum bottle was always annoyingly tricky. With shaking hands—the chill of the wind, of course—I undid the lid then took a drop. I quickly stuffed the bottle back into the pocket of my wool trousers just as Angus came out of the gear galley.
“Bloody hell! I think my balls are frozen,” Angus said with a laugh as he attempted to smooth down his kilt. “Are you done fussing, Lily? The ship is set to go. Let’s head to the Hopper. Jessup is probably half-drunk already.”
Grinning so hard the muscles on my face ached, I asked, “What possessed you to put on a kilt on this freezing night? And don’t tell me you’re commando in this kind of weather.”
“What kind of Scotsman would I be if I wasn’t natural underneath? And didn’t you see my festive adornment?
Instead of a sporran hanging from his waist, Angus had tied a bunch of mistletoe. “Christ, Angus. What…what the hell,” I choked out, laughing so hard I started to cough.
“All that opium smoke is burning your lungs, lass. Now, let’s go. If that buxom Rebecca isn’t at the Hopper tonight, I think I’ll cry,” he said with a grin, extending his arm to me.
“Well, you can always hope for a Christmas miracle,” I replied with a wink.
Angus and I headed to the lift that would lower us from the airship tower to the city street below. As we rode downward, I gazed out across the city. The rooftops were covered with a powdering of crystalline snow. The gaslamp light made everything sparkle. The waves on the Thames twinkled with golden light. While the revelers had moved off, I could hear their dulcet tones from a distance. They were singing Silent Night. It really was Christmas Eve. I gazed up at the darkening sky. One shining star—was it the north star?—glimmered. I wondered, just for a moment, about Byron. Where would the illustrious George Gordon, Lord Byron spend Christmas Eve? What shenanigans would he be up to? I hadn’t heard from him for more than a month. Who knew where in the world he was and what misadventures he was wrapped up in. I missed him.
“Happy Christmas,” Edwin, one of the tower guards, called cheerfully when Angus and I reached the bottom of the lift. “Here, Lily,” he said, tossing a package to me. The brown paper package was warm to the touch and smelled heavenly: honey roasted walnuts.
“Happy Christmas! And thank you. Want to come to the Hopper with us?”
Edwin shook his head. “Shift is about to start. Get some sleep tonight! You damned near had it last year,” he reminded me encouragingly then headed to the lift.
I sighed deeply, looped my arm in Angus’, and we headed to the tavern. I clutched the small package of walnuts against my chest. Maybe the laudanum was already playing with my emotions, but Edwin’s small gesture moved me. It wasn’t like my foster fathers, such as they were, ever saw fit to give me a Christmas gift. I hated to admit how much I adored receiving even small things like Edwin’s gift. They felt like affirmations of love.
Angus and I crossed the snow-dusted cobblestone street to the tavern. The gaslamp outside flickered, casting blobs of orange light on the ground. Inside, someone was playing the piano very loudly, over-striking the keys. Raucous voices sang Christmas carols. Over the crowd, I could hear Jessup, my teammate and balloonman, singing Here We Come a-Wassailing.
“Christ, sounds like someone is squeezing a cat,” Angus said as he pushed the door open.
“That’s Jessup,” I replied with a giggle.
Angus winked at me. “I know.”
“Stargazer!” Several of the tavern patrons erupted in cheer when Angus and I arrived.
“Just in time,” Ollie, the tapster, yelled. “Lily Stargazer, get over here! We were about to parade the Yule log! Come for a ride! It will bring you some luck tomorrow. Come on, Lil’!”
They had just hauled in the Yule log from the back and were adorning it with holly boughs. Snow dripped from the bark onto the stone floor.
“Not me,” I called back. “Make Angus ride!”
“I can’t ride in a kilt. The bark will chafe,” Angus retorted with a laugh.
Without another word, Angus threw me over his shoulder and carried me across the tavern. The patrons cheered. I was hanging on haphazardly, but Angus set me down on the log gently. For all his brawny shenanigans, I knew Angus would be careful with me. He and Jessup were the only men I trusted—save Byron, in his own way—and I loved Angus like a brother.
“Okay, okay,” I said, situating myself on the log like it were a horse. I sat astride, Yankee style. I gripped the gritty, wet bark for dear life, seriously wishing I was already drunk.
“Got it, gents?” Ollie asked. “One, two, three!” They heaved the log into the air.
Laughing, I clung to the log as they careened around the room. Once I felt stable, I waved to the patrons, princess-style, as I made the tour. All the usual faces were there, other airship jockeys looking worn down from running transports in the freezing wind, some travelers waiting to hop the next airship, and a handful of tinkers. I even spotted one of the new tinkers, an Italian, who had recently set up shop at Hungerford Market. His name was Salvatore something, but everyone just called him the Italian. He winked at me, lifting a mug of wine in toast as I paraded by. I smiled at him. Nice looking chap. I needed to find a reason to stop by and meet him.
I spotted Angus crossing the tavern toward Rebecca. The moment she saw the mistletoe hanging from his belt, she burst out laughing. A pretty girl with curly brown hair and red cheeks, she seemed like the kind of woman who could keep you warm for the night and make you a hearty breakfast the morning after. Maybe Angus would get his Christmas miracle after all.
When they finally stopped in front of the fireplace once more, they helped me off the broke into the traditional Yule log song. The men loaded the heavy log into the fire:
Old lady ash, you’ll burn so bright
And light the way for all the night
Mistress Yule, keep away the cold
And help us burn away the old
Mother forest, bring us luck
Cleanse away the mire and muck
This Christmastide let dreams come true
Make your wishes on the Yule
After that, the patrons threw small sprigs of herbs into the fire with the Yule log. I saw Mary, the ever-cheerful barmaid, kiss a sprig of parsley, close her eyes, then throw it into the flames. If I knew her right, she was wishing for a way out of the tavern—preferably via someone male dressed in velvet and silk. A basket of herbs and flowers was passed around. I took out a small purple flower. I wasn’t keen on superstition, but I pressed the flower into my palm and closed my eyes: let me win tomorrow…and let me see George soon. I tossed the flower into the fire. It crackled as it burned. I sighed heavily. Around me, everyone was smiling and feeling cheerful. They had even roped me into the merriment, but the feeling had been fleeting. In the end, I felt…detached. It was like the joy everyone else was feeling was always just out of my reach. I was always racing after bliss. My whole life seemed to be filled with chasing, not catching, butterflies. Sure, I’d had moments of passion or the thrill of an opium high, but I’d never known true contentment. That was something reserved for other people, better people.
Ollie pushed a mug of mulled wine, a Smoking Bishop, into my hands. “Happy Christmas, Lily,” he said, kissing me on the cheek. I watched as he made his way through the crowd, passing out more mugs filled with the steaming nectar. The scents of orange, cinnamon, and cloves wafted from my mug. I sipped the liquid, burning my tongue. The drink left a sharp aftertaste of spice behind. Tonight, the tavern smelled divine. The scents of the pine boughs decorating the fireplace mantle, the baking gingerbread, and the mulled wine, fragranced the air. The scents delighted the senses, but still my heart felt empty.
I cast a glance at Jessup, my teammate. He was still lingering by the piano.
“Lily, come sing!” he yelled to me.
I smiled fondly at him, shook my head, then headed for a table in the corner near the fireplace. I wiggled into the corner bench and proper my feet up on the chair closest to the fire. I pulled my gloves off then unwrapped the crinkly brown paper on Edwin’s package, popping a toasted walnut in my mouth. I savored the sweet flavor, chewed and swallowed, then washed it down with wine. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the wall. My whole body felt tired. Beside me, the fire roared. I could hear the wood popping and crackling. It was such a sweet, calming sound. The radiating heat warmed me; I had felt frozen deep into my core. When I opened my eyes again, I grabbed the mug, the wine now cool, and finished it. No absinthe for me tonight. It was Christmas Eve, after all. Even the green fairy needed a night off.
Ollie brought me another drink. The tavern patrons had started dancing. They waved for me to join them, but I shook my head. I watched as the Italian rose, set a few coins on the bar, then headed back into the night with the rough-looking aircrew of the Mockingbird. Where was he off to with that motley troupe? Just as he was about to exit, he turned, smirked slyly at me, then left. Yeah, I definitely needed to find a way to introduce myself to him. Later. After the race.
I gazed back across the tavern. Everyone was having so much fun. Angus’ mistletoe had done the trick. He and Rebecca were already lip-locked, and he was putting a firm squeeze on her backside. Jessup was surrounded by boozy revelers who sang song after song. I loved a good party, but tonight I felt…lonely. How could that be? I was surrounded by people I knew, whose company I enjoyed. And it was Christmas Eve. I smiled as I watched the revelry, but my chest ached. My mind kept rolling back to Christmas Eves past. Never, not once, had I had what others would consider a normal holiday. Certainly not with my foster fathers. And before that, we kids at the orphanage had never been given anything. As for my mother and father in my distant memories…there were no memories, not good ones anyway. I had no memory of feasting on roasted duck or receiving nicely bundled gifts. Not once had I ever felt the magical glow of love, something people talked a lot about, on Christmas. The holiday made me feel really…alone. I pulled out my bottle of laudanum and took another drop…and then on second thought, another. Soon, my head started to feel drowsy. The lonely feeling drifted away. Soon, I felt nothing…what better gift was there on Christmas Eve?
* * *
Thank you for reading! Part Two of this short story will be released the week of Christmas. Subscribe to the author’s newsletter to learn more details on where to get part two of the story!
If you are impatient to read the full story NOW, get it on Amazon US/UK!
If you are impatient to read the full story NOW, get it on Amazon US/UK!
If you enjoyed this brief look into the life of airship racer Lily Stargazer and her crew, the main characters of The Airship Racing Chronicles, you can find Book I of the series, Chasing the Star Garden, on Amazon
Thank you so much to Karina for inviting me to share this holiday tale with you! I hope you enjoyed this little view into a steampunk Christmas in 1820 London!
Melanie is giving away TWO of her ebooks in The Airship Racing Chronicles, Chasing The Star Garden and Chasing The Green Fairy to ONE commenter. The giveaway is international.
Comment below to win and good luck!
The winners will be chosen on Jan 2nd, 2015.
The winners will be chosen on Jan 2nd, 2015.