Helen looked quickly around the gondola but could see no sign of her raven. A pain stabbed her heart. She had had the bird since childhood, ever since she had found the fledgling had tumbled beneath the towers of the old house.
With Thompson, the head groom, they had been able to return the small heap of feathers to the nest high in the blackened ruins, but the bird had remembered the girl's kindness and often flew down near her as she gamboled among the fallen stones and timbers.
Over time, the friendship grew apace and Tuppence began to follow her around and finally all the way home. While she would often fly away for days at a time in her younger years, the raven always returned. Eventually, she would not part from Helen for more than an few hours. The two had an unusual bond.
Helen's father had named the creature whose croaking often seemed aimed at his grumbles. He didn't see why the bird should offer its two pennies to every conversation, but after the outburst, the name stuck and Helen became more curious about the bird's language.
The mood of her speech she found simple enough to parse. The raven's animated body language also contributed to her understanding. Helen learned to appreciate the different croaks and click, whistles and whatnot. Amusingly the bird had learned to make a noise uncannily like her father clearing his throat, which irked him more than anything.
Gradually she had discovered that Tuppence understood her better than she imagined, responding to questions and performing small tasks like finding her horse in the meadow and a good shelter for them both when they were caught out on the moors in a sudden gale.
"A hundred years ago," Helen's father found it amusing to claim, "They would have hanged you for a witch."
There were some in the town who regarded the pair of them with something approaching suspicion. It irked Helen who knew the close friendship between the two of them relied on careful observation and repetition of patterns.
All very scientific!
But this ought to have been an indication of the further path she followed. There were those who continued to think flying machines were unnatural, who considered the very idea of human flight to be some horrifying kind of hubris.
Encountering these reactions, Helen had often been inclined—uncharacteristically—to agree with her father that the world had more than its required share of ignorant and small-minded people.
Unlike her father, however, she generally thought that they could be won over. Helen's hope was that pioneers of flight like herself (and, grudgingly she thought, also the Lintons) would make the idea not only acceptable but popular and one day flying in a dirigible would be no more unusual than riding a horse.
In fact, it would be far superior as ships could carry a much greater number of passengers than any horse-drawn vehicle. The whole of the future could open up before them with new opportunities for travel around the world!
Of course they would have to sort out little things like flocks of birds sharing the airways, too. Surely that was the nature of exploration.
But where was Tuppence?
Signor Romano occupied himself with brushing the little bodies and feathers away from the console. "Everything seems to be in perfect working order, signorina."
"Excellent, excellent," Helen said teetering across the gondola as a gust of colder air jostled the ship. "Have you seen Tuppence?"
"Papa, I don't suppose—"
"One of the damn things is in my pocket!" Her father threw the offending creature out of his hand. They were all surprised to see the little black shape unfurl its wings and swoop out from under the curves of the ship and disappear in the wake of its colleagues.
"I hope to never see another starling." Her father harrumphed as if to put an end to the issue. He looked a bit shaken however, and Helen thought something bracing might help.
"There's some brandy in the medicine kit," she said and her father flung the cover back immediately and grabbed the bottle by the neck. "Papa!"
He ignored her protest and drank a swig from the bottle's neck. "Best thing."
"Papa, that's enough."
"You want some?"
"No, Papa. Signore?" Romano shook his head and continued to clean feathers from the dials. "Well, I can't imagine what has happened—"
A familiar croak reached the gondola and Helen turned with a smile. "Tuppence!" The raven sailed in and perched on Helen's chair, shaking itself and clicking loudly.