She knelt by the bones in the scorched and blasted shadow of the last standing wall, a shadow indelibly etched in stone by the force of what blasted him, and impermanently scrawled by the damp, straggly ashes of her father. While Shaul was not only unrecognizable, but roasted and mauled to an inhuman shape, she knew it was father by his wood knife, which she bought in Vanoor.
Beast hunkered behind her and covered Elessa with her wing. While the griffin was a growing man-eater, and as likely to devour a charred father as armored knights swallowed in the shell, when Elessa hid her face in her hands and choked back the tears, Beast only trilled.
When Elessa’s spine shivered, the sniffling dried up. What was she, to comisserate with a monster over the corpse of her father? If they shared tears, she might herself become monstrous.
Striding through their shattered corral to the mud-churned soil outside the broken fence, Elessa hacked the mud with the knife and her hands, and Beast stooped beside her and dragged her talons through the mud. As each slash clawed vast quantities of mud, Elessa was not only grateful, but happy for the empathy, for if Beast was dumb to the why of Elessa’s grief, even monstrous empathy is compassion. She embraced its neck with her mud-streaked arms, and did not flinch from the horrid smell of wet bird and drowned cat.
However bad Beast smelled, it was a living smell she wanted more of, and she clung to her loyal griffin until she steeled herself to the malodorous task of burying the foul odor of death in the fresh but creeping aroma of earthworms, while not sealing something rotten behind that moment of closure.
Soon the deed was done. While not as bad as she feared, she was nonetheless queasy, and despite being starved, parhed, and weary--not having eaten, drunk more than rainwater, or slept since her flight from Andercruik’s manor--Elessa only wanted to fly.
When she clutched Beast around the neck, the griffin seemed to know her intent, and knelt deep, so that Elessa mounted so easily and thoughtlessly onto that loyal bed of feathers that she was reminded of the ladder to her childhood loft, a recollection that brought home the death of her father most piercingly of all, for the bed where she had dozed above her father for nineteen years, along with the loft, the ladder leading up to it, and the dresser holding both her tatterdemalion farm clothes and her best dresses, as well as the tiny frock she had worn in their trip to the capitol so many years ago, were debris where they were not embers.
Beast galloped free from the mud, then leaped the corral fence, the leaning wreckage, and the oat fields to land in the stream running under the bridge to Vanoor.
Except it wasn’t only a bridge to Vanoor, it was a bridge to Ardem.
If Andercruik did not seek vengeance himself, he could make Elessa an enemy of either warring king. Moreover, Ilmar no doubt was laughing up his sleeve when she played the part of Leonidas’s messenger. Having just buried the proof of the wizard’s grudge, she was tired of being one of the murderer’s projects, and would revenge herself not by spite or bearing a tale to the king, but by acquiring an equally dangerous education.
In Ardem were towers of welded metal and glass, buzzlights glimmering on concourses, magic shops, and the tripartite stage of the Dramagora, where arguments were dramatized in the intermissions of epic plays that passed from there through the three lands. In Ardem University, the classrooms were built not on floors, but gears that turned to facilitate classroom breaks, so that students might choose where the door exited.
Once an exodus of the academics neither king wanted undermining their reigns, in exile the Ardemians became explorers and architects, built a haven of wonders magical and scientific, and soon derived such autonomy from their distance that the professors found themselves unwilling politicians, and their dean an involuntary prince. A nation ruled not by law, but philosophy and rational argument, with the creative intellect of science as much as rigorous logic forming the basis for government, for bad or good.
While the forward thinking Ardemians had granted all sexes, races, nationalities, monsters—in short, anything thinking—a place in Ardem, more arbitrary matters—such as when adulthood begins—remained an undecided argument, and hence one professor, Kazzzinika Trean, was an eight year old Klyrnish wonder who had never learned the efficacy of concision, and hence lectured by way of one circumlocutory sentence, much like this one, only to the nth degree.
Moreover, Ardem’s second generation saw the birth of the twin engineers, Klem and Woza Jandan, only now eleven years old; and, ten years ago, the current dean, Eriva Kamadne, was voted in on the eve of what might have been her coming of age, had she not emigrated from Klyrn.
Beast drank her fill, and Elessa swallowed all she could stand of the bitter, rain-swelled, river.
She would go to Ardem. What choice did she have? The monarchs of two lands no doubt desired her death, and the Andercruik cousins were lying in wait, one in the capitol, and the other in the clouds.
Not only would Ardem be no hardship with Leonidas’s bribe, which jingled in Beast’s saddlebags, but there were books, and better than that, teachers stuffed with living knowledge.
If magic could be learned outside of the traditional route of apprenticing to a madman, it was in Ardem, where wizards and scientists sprouted every year, and clever ideas every day.
As Elessa and Beast walked up the banks toward the covered bridge, she rustled through her saddlebags for the dried fruit, and her other hand reached for the scrunched theatrical poster she peeled from the bridge wall last year.
She unrolled the yellowed tube to look mournfully at faded, wrinkled, and rain-streaked Prince Cloudmore. She wished she had a picture of her father instead of an advertisement for an unknown fantasy. If Shaul ever had the patience to sit for a portrait, they could not have afforded it. Her consuming grief subsided as her curiosity surged—would Ardem University have Prince Cloudmore in folio?
Self-loathing roiled in her. She had just buried her father. She rolled the poster tightly, then raised it high, as if to throw it, but her arm would not budge from its lofty position. Having stripped it from its decaying place of honor, this faded memory of an old traveling play was now her responsibility. Would Ardem University discount her tuition if she donated this historical artifact?
The road to Ardem was wet for miles from the constant scourge of Wysaerie scouring Vanoor with unrelenting rain, and in the damp villages populated by melancholy rustics in drizzling rags, Elessa only stopped at market booths, for only the merchants emboldened by the sight of gold were willing to talk. While Elessa made a prepossessing figure in her Andercruik livery, and dressed also to better advantage with the easy smile she forced, Beast was more fearsome with each passing day. While not yet ten months old, the griffin grew long and rangy, with a saber-like edge to her talons. Moreover, Beast was not one for masking her appetite, and looked with hunger at passing cats, dogs, pigs, children, the elderly, and any other dainty mouthfuls.
This meant that Elessa’s first order of business in passing through was to purchase a bloody slab of beef or bacon for the griffin, and her second was to conduct her business quickly, for she soon lost all interest in the sport of haggling when the merchants bent over backwards to accommodate her niggardly offers with a shudder while Beast shredded flesh into bloody gobs. Gaspar would have taken advantage of their cowardice to take them to the cleaners.
Though it distressed her, she couldn’t help wondering about Gaspar. How could any part of her miss Gaspar? Surely it was only time and distance erasing the failures betrayed by his fundamental flaw, which proved nearly as injurious as the deliberate treacheries of the Andercruiks; when she trusted to his friendship, his weakness let her down, and he had never surpassed his native powerlessness in pursuit of freedom.
When a brewer offered them the stable loft, Elessa declined with as much courtesy as she could muster, given her frustration at being unable to enjoy a dry loft without Beast nibbling on horses, and they slept in the cold, breezy yard of a brewery. The next morning, there were so many armored Vanoori that the town looked like it was occupied by an invading army. While the unshaved, unwashed soldiers gave her a wide berth, pikemen took position at every village corner.
When Elessa stopped at a fruit vendor’s stall, Beast tapped a basket of gourds, and the guards flanking the fruitseller shimmied back a step as their hands fidgeted on their pikes.
“What is this?”
“You mean his majesty’s finest?” roared the merchant with a grotesquely fawning smile, before bending in for a stage whisper more intended for the soldiers. “Where were they when the walls fell, that’s what I’d like to know.”
“The walls fell? Are they deserters?” Elessa said.
“Shh!” said the mealy-mouthed fruit seller. While his face was still crushed in by his gaping, wet smile, the whisper was now an honest hush that scraped only into Elessa’s ears, and saw the soldiers leaning in an inch. “Let’s not put a label on things, especially curse words like deserters, bandits, or bureaucrats, the tax-levying monsters to whom they report.”
“They’re staying here? Won’t someone come?”
“Why should the Klyrnish leave the pleasures of the capitol for our slice of sunshine?”
“These renegades will look like rebels to the Klyrnish.”
“Though not half so noble,” snickered the fruit seller.
“Is this Klyrn now?”
The shout left a resounding silence in its wake. Elessa pretended not to hear, as if anything else at market could have attracted that military outcry but the redhead riding a griffin.
Their crunching march stopped a few yards away, which was a respectful distance, but not an effective one, as from her listless squat, Beast could pounce on anyone in the square, meaning that at no point was anyone less than one second away from a griffin’s stomach.
“You!” the soldier repeated. “Identify yourself.”
“In the name of who?”
“In the name of who?”
“Never you mind!”
“Who’s your king?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Everything was up in the air when I left Vanoor. Well, I was.”
“Then identify yourself in the name of Baltor!”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Lycinia. Lycinia Mabruk.”
“Are you here for employment, Ms. Mabruk?”
“That I am not.”
“Then move along, Ms. Mabruk. You are unwelcome in this village.”
“We are in accord. I was leaving.” Having selected a melon, three apples and a basket of strawberries—she paid the fruitseller, then placed the provender in Beast’s saddle bags.
“Where are you headed?”
“First you hurry us along, then poke your nose in my business?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Don’t fret. I’m no talebearer. I’m headed to Ardem.”
“What’s in Ardem, other than vivisectionists to marvel at your dead griffin?”
“Beast’s not dead,” said Elessa hotly. “And vivisection cuts the living, which you’re in danger of experiencing firsthand every time you wag your finger at me.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“I don’t even have a blade. You’re so used to trafficking in words that you’ve already forgotten my griffin. Just because she’s not talking, don’t think she doesn’t have any opinions about you.”
“Yes, your noble beast would be an excellent asset. Why not stay with our regiment? The work is easy.”
“Be a soldier without the king’s commission? My days of working for free are over, and with luck my days of soldiering will never come to be.”
“The pay is good—as are the fringe benefits.” When the fruit seller’s nose wrinkled, and his jowls sagged into a deep frown, Elessa guessed who paid the fringe benefits to these renegades.
“I seek a place in Ardem, where I will pay my way honorably.”
The soldier bristled at this. “Then move along, and you’d best not come back. We’re likely to distrust a change of heart.”
When Elessa stroked Beast’s neck, the griffin croaked a squawking yawn and commenced such a deep stretch that its breast grazed the ground, causing the jittery deserters to scramble back and hide behind their swords. The next instant, the griffin vaulted into the skies, and Elessa reeled clinging to Beast’s feathery back. Beast may have been jumpy as well, for she only signaled the griffin to walk. When Beast leapfrogged that order, Elessa had her feet in the stirrups, but the leg straps were not fastened.
When Beast flew and flew, Elessa buried her face in feathers and pretended not to exist. It seemed they were only a thought away from the griffin reverting to a wild beast, and the woman also becoming more spirited, not so much a rider as a ghost haunting a monster, and both casting a scudding shadow upon oppressed Vanoor.
Thin clouds wisped through the soothing, warm upper airs in a deep azure sky. For the first time in days, she couldn’t see Wysaerie. Though a natural horizon unblemished by thoughts of Ilmar was deeply relieving, and she felt like she could exhale for the first time in a year, she could not smile, for the dark and crushing turmoil of what the arrogant wizard took roared in her ears like pent-up electricity. Though many lost their lives in the griffin deluge that fell beak and talon on Vanoor, she lost her house, her dogs, her friend, her way of life, her pride, and even her solitude, for Beast would chase away loneliness for as long as she lived. Though she loved it in her heart she cursed it in her heart of hearts.
She felt the absence in her list, just as she felt the absence in her life, as it was an absence she craved, having stared his skull in the eyeholes to ascertain it once wore a face she had kissed, and now unable to face the image of his death. But it was his living image that banished all temptation to look back, for as the back of her mind was flooded with nothing but her father’s face, she kept her own face forward, and was blind to the arrows soaring until it was far too late.
Privately, Gaspar thought the performance honeyed and cloying; though the staged love seemed genuine, it was stilted, circumlocutory, and tending toward monologue. That said, however dissatisfied he was with Bryttienne’s show of affection, Madame Curvalot had never been better. While he missed the salacious lines deleted by the Klyrnish king’s censors, the actors had hammed what was left of the comedy into a farce, and Gaspar always loved a send-up.
“Gaspar, change seats with me!”
After Gaspar shuffled aside to accomodate Bryttienne’s ruffled golden gown, he turned to his new seat, bowed ingratiatingly to the wigged and powdered faces behind them, and grasped his new armrests, only to have one squish back,venting wine between his fingers. Wiping it clean on the back of the seat in front of him, Gaspar then settled into his seat, but with one armrest soaked, he was forced to lean into his playacting wife.
“That’s amazing!” Bryttienne shouted, though those offended only froze, afraid to offend the overdressed Klyrnish darling, whose hoops fluffed up in her lap and tapped the tall man seated in front of her in the back of his head. “That’s so funny! I love that king! How do I meet that king?”
“He’s not a real king, you know.”
“I know he’s a pretend king. Pretend kings are better lovers and better dressers than real kings.”
While couched in a bon mot, this revelation took Gaspar aback. “Did you have his royal highness before or after our pretend wedding?”
“Why would I marry my king, Gaspar? I could only hope to be his concubine, and a harem woman has no social circle, no night life, no bon vivants, and no calendar. But I did have your king, Gaspar.”
“You mean Algus?
“Did Vanoor have another king? A kind of a back room king?”
In spite of himself, Gaspar chuckled. Bryttienne overflowed with not only cruelty but hilarity. “No, just the one.”
When the scene cut from the murder plot to the funeral, Curvalot skipped over not only the bordello scene but the assassination, substituting only a long-winded chorus.
“Now this won’t do.”
“What is it now, Gaspar?”
“It’s all different.”
“Why do you care? I’m here for the theater—you’re here for my company.”
“My love, you’re not only the beauty but the ballad, brimming with praise for your own charms. I’m at best the footnote, suited not for company but commentary. As well as a spare sleeve to blot your spills.”
“Don’t sell yourself short—you’re a born martyr, Gaspar.”
When Bryttienne stormed down the aisle, the audience stopped murmuring, and the players froze mid-iamb, for they feared the Chief Scribe’s wife would complain to the Emperor.
After their victory, the Klyrnians declared Vanoor no longer a city-state, but a protectorate, and a garrison of Klyrnish soldiers, including several dozen Stingwyrms, took residence. The Klyrnish king, now styling himself Emperor, moved his throne to Algus’s palace, and made the former King of Vanoor his steward. Had he been cruel, the emperor might have made him ridiculous, and demoted him to fool, jester, scullion, or stableboy, but a deposed king in a respectable but harmless position invites the wonder of enemies and allies. Algus might have been happy with his new lot, especially given that his head, neck, and life remained intact in this regime change, was he not vexed by one detail.
As Chief Scribe, Gaspar was more trusted than those functionaries and aristocrats that inherited their authority. Not only did he issue the emperor’s proclamations, he drafted them in both languages, dressed them in the witty literary style envied by the Vanoori and adored by the Klyrnish, and even attended to the minutiae of language, rendering untranslatable idioms and puns with unequal but parallel expressions.
As Chief Scribe was the fourth most important personage in Klyrn, and the highest proxy for the emperor’s legal authority, so Algus found himself not only evicted and deposed but under the thumb of that worm, Gaspar.
When the arrows lodged in Beast’s ribs and foreleg joint, the griffin’s head wavered, and her wings half-flapped, then quarter-flapped, then only shivered, each lurch bucking under Elessa, who blinked wide as Beast spiralled woozily to the rocky mountain pass, landing with a sideways stagger, and nearly tipping before settling on her haunches. With a yank, Elessa loosened her leg straps, vaulted from the saddle next to the shaken Beast, then stroked the griffin and scrutinized the wounds. While one arrowhead had crushed against the griffin’s joint, leaving only a cruel welt, the other lodged between Beast’s ribs. If she did not carefully wrest it free, not only might the point be lost inside Beast, but her patient was a taloned, beaked monster that might shred her memory of Elessa’s face after a particularly painful twinge, slash her in two or more pieces, and thus lose the point of their entire expedition. Moreover, she must check for venom and clean the wound, for many arrows killed not by their inch of steel but by their payload of poison or infection, which could lay low even the mightiest of beasts.
But when Elessa grasped the arrow shaft and began to work it out of the wound, in a great moment of bestial mastery worthy of a fable, Beast closed her eyes and stretched her wings, giving Elessa better access to the monster’s ribs.
The barbed arrow was more deeply knotted in the thick musculature than the stoutest cord. As she slowly retracted its sharp edges from the lacerated flesh, she strove not to tear Beast further, but couldn’t help a long snick, or the griffin’s wincing trill. Rabbits hopped near, their noses tweaking, and crows alit with hungry eyes.
The extracted arrow was covered with iron-rich, burgundy blood, and when the wound leaked more red-black, she stripped the Andercruik tabard from her tunic and pressed that to staunch the flow, then tied it on with half the lace from her left leg strap, leaving it just long enough to lace in her ankle. Though the Andercruik lion was crumpled in the embroidered wad, she could see its hindquarters and tail blacken.
While she was glad to have the tabard, she despised herself for being so lost to herself that she didn’t discard it earlier. She wanted nothing to remind her of the name Andercruik. Only their faces were worth remembering—for targets.
Elessa wondered whether flight or walking would antagonize Beast’s wounds more. While the wings were whole, in Ilmar’s diagrams and illustrations chest muscles powered flight, and the first arrow scored just under that area. While flying would worry and widen the gash between Beast’s ribs, land travel would inflame the wounded joint, and both modes of travel would leave the wounds open to infection.
In their dizzy descent, Elessa had glimpsed a small fort nestled in the mountain pass. If the source of the missiles, its garrison would not help, and might be on the way now with more malign motives—at the very least, to retrieve their arrows, and if more ambitious, to claim their monstrous trophy.
The mountain pass was no place to hide. Before them was the keep, and beyond that Ardem, while behind them, foothills sloped to a scrubby flatland. Both options seemed bad--if she backtracked to the grass, the soldiers would overtake them, and after many volleys, Elessa would be as feathered as the griffin. But if Elessa advanced toward the keep, making overtures of surrender, their fate would be resigned to those twitchy fingers.
After scrounging for a third alternative, Elessa knew their only hope lay in literally scrounging the mountain pass for any nook capacious enough to hide a girl and her beast. Beast limped along as Elessa trudged up and down the gentle slope. Dry earth and loose pebbles tumbled in the clumps she pulled. Though it was slow going, luck smiled on her in the shade of a promontory, where she pulled free another clod, and a coarse eruption of dirt and stone unearthed a hollow, in which the setting sun blazed along the coppery brown of laid brick. This was no cave, but a walled room in a false crag built by human hands. The only question was whether she stood in an ancient abode, a tomb, or a bandit’s cache.
When Beast lumbered in, blocking the light, Elessa reached for Beast’s flank to steady herself in the dim chamber, and instead grazed hard, cold metal. By squinting, she saw an ensconced lamp of white glass with a brass spout on top, a wiggling key in the base, and no candle.
Although she had never been to Klyrn, she had heard not only of their marvelous gas lamps, but the volatile mesh of pipes that supported them, and clammy fear settled over her when she considered whether to risk turning the key. While there either was gas, or no gas, it was more complicated than yes or no, for if there was gas, there might be only a trace vapor to cast a wispy glow, or there might be enough to blow her sky high, as well as a whole sliding scale of conflagrations between those two points, that might singe, roast, or cremate. She liked this problem less than the puzzle of the mountain pass, and, not for the first time, decided Ilmar’s lessons were a grievous thing, for where she was once ruled by common sense, now she was governed by a malicious logic that overcomplicated her happy career.
On twisting the key, a whir of gas, a click, and a spark blossomed into full flame in the dusty glass globe and flooded the disused entryway with a stale but steady brilliance. While the rear passage was rocked in, and the path in front tapered into darkness, the rush of gas roared down the line slowly, and every two seconds another lamp added its spark to the series, then another, until the corridor was lit in a golden light.
While Elessa was no expert, she guessed these were not Klyrnian gaslamps, as the sign on the wall was Ardemian. No, this ancient conduit was forgotten by the Ardemians.
As Elessa and Beast progressed on their underground journey, the walking path paralleled gray metal rails. Periodically, she heard a tinny rattle.
As they walked, the gaslit corridor continued in the left side of a divided bridge that funneled over a chasm. On the right side, a metal cart creeped on a rotating belt jangling like a sprung clock. Despite being unpiloted, the odd mechanism moved confidently, pinging near each gaslamp.
When Elessa drew near to the curious crawler, a rotating knob on its pyramidic top swiveled towards her, then froze. When Elessa bent over to scrutinize it, it was cold to the touch, and moved neither its head nor its treads. While there were several shining filaments flowing from the pyramid, they did not twitch. But when she finished her investigation and stepped away, the automaton slid parallel to her, its treads grinding, and Beast growled, lunged with a wince, chomped the rotating crown, and swallowed the metal mouthful.
“Beast!” Elessa grabbed the side of Beast’s beak and twisted, hoping to get the griffin to disgorge its bite, but the metal was already gone.
When the autonomous crawler’s sprung pings rattled loudly, with a flick of her talons, Beast upturned the machine and pecked at the undercarriage until Elessa grabbed the feathers between her wings and pulled; although this had no physical effect, the griffin acquiesced to her master’s wishes, rolled back on her haunches, and closed her eyes.
Swirling gray mist blew from the upturned framework, followed by spurts of steaming water, a deafening whistle, and the retort of bursting brass in a cacaphonous detonation. Though shards flicked past Elessa’s ringing ears, and seething vapor irritated her hands and chapped her face and lips, she was otherwise unharmed. She waded through steaming wreckage, ignored the exposed sparking gears and glinting instruments, and stepped over pulverized glass, only to find that Beast had spelt through the destruction.
“Come on, Beast.” Elessa gave the griffin the requisite taps and strokes to produce its obedience, but had to shake the bleary-eyed griffin’s foreleg to get her to advance.
As they tottered down the ringing hallway, Elessa recalled Prince Cloudmore’s game-playing mannikin, Tekki, a sprightly, stringless puppet that plied Cloudmore with grace, charm and the illusion of free will, all the while hanging on the whim of her owner. Though the steaming automaton was not formed after the image of woman or man, its whining clockworks reminded Elessa of the whimpering machine woman, whose eyes and heart failed waiting for a sign of gratitude after taking a blow meant for Cloudmore.
Elessa felt for this lonely machine. No matter how many intruders it ran over, it followed its routes with the innocence of a dumbwaiter. While love for the dead had no reward, and love for a maneating monster carried a moral responsibility, she felt a selfless, cathartic release in contemplating the shivering junk, and a profusion of tears trickled down her cheeks. While this grief flowed from her father, the dead she left in Vanoor, and exhaustion from her unending odyssey, the gizmo had sprung the leak.
Elessa scowled over her sniffles. “You’ve done it this time, Beast. Come on.”
Shrapnel embedded in the wall had severed the gaslamp pipe, and as gas whined, escaping in a noxious, flatulent flow, Elessa held her sleeve to her nose and mouth as they continued down the dim hallway. Since the metallic slivers were long enough to have cut her throat or pierced her heart, she was glad only to suffer this stench.
Though the light resumed further down,
Though the gas lights flickered in the stinking undercurrent of lingering gas, the light resumed further on, and Elessa stumbled woozily less towards the light than to the promise of clean air.
When another screeching momentum buckled the tracks, two pinpricks of light expanded into lantern beams so glaring that Elessa averted her eyes, and Beast squawked, reared on her hindlegs, and puffed her wings to seem twice as large. When the shrieking deceleration came to a sudden, screaming halt, Elessa’s squinting, light-flooded eyes spied a long iron coach with steam flowing from its underbelly and doors screeching crosswise, venting a dozen people clad in smooth white plate from head to toe. As the armor looked not metallic, but ceramic, they seemed animated statues come to defend their brother automaton.
“This passage is closed.” The speaker strutted near in an oddly mechanical way, clasping to its chest something the size and heft of a shovel.
When Elessa backed up and into Beast, the griffin growled and plucked at her sleeve with her beak. At this tremor in Beast, the ceramic man backpedaled, and raised his implement horizontally, as if fending the griffin.
“Is that registered?!” he shouted.
“It’s only Beast.”
“She won’t hurt you...unless you intend to hurt me, in which case there’s no hope for you.”
“Why would I hurt you?” the man said incredulously, his voice tinny and timorous behind the mask. “This is a combinator.”
“It’s a heavy duty multi-purpose tool, like a shovel, pick, hammer, torch, and beamer all at once. Speaking of introductions,” he said, extending his hand, “I’m Roric.”
“Are you Ardemian?” Elessa wanted to ask what a beamer was, but let it slide.
“Aren’t you?” The man took back his hand, rested the butt of his combinator on the floor, and lifted his visor. The face was more expressive than the mask, with loud freckles spangling his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose, and pale blonde hair peeking from under his ceramic-capped coif. “I missed your name.”
Though she didn’t like Lycinia anymore, she was strongly tempted to speak that name and summon her alter ego, which, like an expensive, seductive, and demonic dress paid for with days from her own life, now had a life of its own. What tipped the tables in favor of her natural born personality was a desire to be known as herself in Ardem, and possibly, although she would never admit it, an appetite for fame. Anonymity had proved to be less a shelter than an altar on which she sacrificed her desires. “I didn’t. Sorry. I’m Elessa. No, I’m not from Ardem.”
“How did you get in?”
“Luck—I won’t call it good. But finding it saved our lives, as the Vanoori in the pass shot at us, and wounded Beast.”
“What do you mean luck?”
“When I was scrounging for a hiding place, I uncovered an opening that led to this corridor.”
“How big of an opening?”
Elessa grinned sheepishly. “I may have widened it a little.”
“Tell me you covered it up again?” Roric groaned.
“If you were chased by archers, would you stop to plug up a hole?”
“It would be better strategy than letting the Vanoori find a travex tunnel.”
“It’s too much to explain, Vanoori. Velia!”
“How do you know I’m Vanoori? And my name isn’t Velia.”
“Not now. ” Roric raised his wrist to his mouth, and held it there, without even scratching his nose. “Velia.”
“Did you break too?”
Roric scowled and shouted “Velia!” He seemed to cross his eyes as he frowned at his wrist. While his wristlet was too small to be a timepiece, the gleam was too tawdry to be jewelry.
First there was a hissing, then a crackling, and a crisp and autocratic voice, female but not feminine, boomed in the corridor. “What! What! What do you want, Roric!”
Elessa couldn’t help craning her neck around to look for the shouting woman, but all she saw were the ceramic-clad Ardemians surrounding the automaton, and adding to the din by prying free its tinny armor to clatter onto the floor.
“There’s a Vanoori in the travex, Velia.”
“Then kick her out of the travex, Roric. No one will believe her story.”
“Archers followed her,” said Roric.
“In the tunnel?” blasted the unseen Velia.
“Why did you call me for? Find out, Roric!” When the hissing died, there were only the sounds of the Ardemians repairing the automaton.
“You don’t know my name, do you?” said Elessa.
“Of course I do. It’s Eliza. I thought you’d be curious about the thaumatuner?” He tapped the wristlet.
“Of course I’m curious, but only to the point of self-respect. And it’s Elessa.”
“I knew that.”
“Then stop calling me The Vanoori.”
“I wasn’t about to make introductions. We have a situation.”
“Yes. You’re coming with us.”
“Back to the entrance? Absolutely not.”
“You can’t stay.”
“Why not? I was on my way to the University.”
“A prospective student? We’ll be happy to have you by the official roads. Not that you’ll ever feel settled in. We’re curious past the point of self-respect in Ardem. Cilicia.”
“Elessa.” She sighed.
One of the Ardemians stepped away from the sparking automaton, drew near, and gave a hastily abbreviated salute--barely a tap to her temple. Her smile was warm but her eyes were insolent. “Leftenant.”
“Escort Miss Elessa onto the travex, Cilicia.”
While Cilicia was short, she was sturdy, broad, and manlier than Roric, and no doubt thought herself capable of manhandling Elessa, who only squared her shoulders, planted her feet, and looked at the other woman as livestock to turn. But when she reached for Elessa, the feathered heap shuddered, blinked gigantic, bloodshot yellow eyes, issued a piercing shriek, and raised her right talon.
When Elessa backed into the unpleasant smell of blood crusted feathers, Beast settled back with a wince, laid her head on her paws, and was soon half-asleep
“On second thought, board with the others. I’ll deal with the Vanoori, Cilicia.”
Cilicia snorted, turned on her heel, shouldered her combinator, and boarded the travex.
“Shall we what?”
“It would be murder to send us back into the pass.”
Roric’s freckled nose wrinkled and his smile zig-zagged as he tried to suppress a scowl. “If you insist. The corridor is yours, though you are miles from Ardem.”
“This goes all the way to Ardem?”
“Where do you think we came from?”
“But when we were flying, Ardem was no bigger than a beetle on the horizon. It must be twenty miles.”
“Twenty-nine. See you there.”
“You’re not making us walk?”
“If you must travel there, I can’t be blamed for it. As you heard--to my everlasting mortification--I’m already riding on rubber rails.”
When Roric bowed, turned, and darted in the travex doors, they slid shut, and the machine’s hurtling resumed, spraying Elessa and Beast with thin sparks. The ceramic-plated hoods turned to watch them fall into their wake. The tracks screamed long after the travex vanished down the flickering hallway.
“Come on,” When Elessa irritably tugged at Beast’s feathers, she found them cold and wet from the seeping chest wound.
“You loosened your bandage, you dumb monster.” Elessa laid her hand on Beast’s shoulder, and the griffin settled on its haunches. Though there wasn’t a white spot left on the tabard, and she knew she ought to change it, she flipped it to the dried side. “And you tore your scab, you idiot beast.” She retied the wadded embroidery, then sat next to Beast.
“We can rest here, Beast. Have the decency not to chew off my head in my sleep if you get hungry. Wake me first.”
Hearing the humor in Elessa’s voice, Beast’s eyes twinkled as her head drooped in Elessa’s lap, bumping her hand until Elessa stroked the matted feathers.
Elessa awoke with a shuddering start at the klaxxon-like screak of the rails, then raised her arm to ward the glare from the beaming lamps.
“Vanoori!” Roric leaned from the opened doors of the travex.
“I’m still offended by that.”
“I’m sorry, Elessa. Are you in distress?" Of all things, Roric winked at Elessa, lending the word distress a strange emphasis, much more erratic of a stress than his Ardemian accent would justify.
“Yes,” Elessa said, “I suppose I am...in distress.”
Roric sighed. “I’m sorry to hear that, Van...Elessa.”
“No, it’s just Elessa. I don’t have a title or lands, I’m just a commoner.”
“A slip of the tongue. Will your friend awake?”
“I don’t think so.”
She stroked Beast’s flank, and looked in her slitted eyelids, but there was no sign of consciousness. Beast was so somnolent that she only quivered with snores when the Ardemians rolled out a wheeled freight palette, which groaned and dimpled under the weight as they labored in concert to shift the sleeping monster to the metal surface.
“This is meant for hauling samples back to Ardem.”
“Don’t get any ideas. Beast isn’t a sample.”
“I only meant he might break it.”
“If she breaks it,” Elessa said, “you can send me a bill.”
“That’s a girl?”
“I thought you were a scientist? You don’t think all griffins are boys, do you?”
“I’m an engineer, but point taken. As to charging you for property damage, my job is keeping the travex tracks in good repair and answering distress calls. While I’m meant to monitor the thaumatuner for distress calls, it’s a grey area.”
“What’s a thaumatuner? And a travex? Also, what’s a beamer?”
“Have you studied magic?”
“Not by choice.”
“Then you haven’t heard of the thaumosphere. Have you ever wondered about the source of magic?”
“Only at first. It’s like swimming. At first, you wonder why you wouldn’t sink, but when you learn a stroke, you just want to learn a few more.”
“I understand. Like I said, I’m an engineer.
Theory stretches the imagination and is good at getting funding,
but I only think of it peripherally while assembling what’s in my central vision.”
“My imagination is already at its breaking point, Roric, and I still don’t know what a thaumatuner is, or for that matter, what I’m riding in.”
“The thaumatuner sends messages via the thaumosphere, the medium through which magic travels.”
“You could have said that first.”
“It’s a twenty minute ride. I thought to pass the time.”
“Twenty-nine miles in twenty minutes! How?”
“The travex combines compressed air and...um, canned lighning?..to propel us along the tracks.”
“Canned lightning? I know a nothing when I hear one.”
“We don’t have enough time to explain it, and you wouldn’t believe me.”
“More unbelievable than magic?”
“I didn’t believe anything at first. It’s better that you experience Ardem firsthand.”
As the travex hurtled along the tracks, the gaslamps gave way to an eerie blue illumination. When they turned a corner, the iron coach rattled, its wheels stamped down on the side opposing their turn, and they swayed and jounced in their seats during a teeth-numbing screech of deceleration that ended with a chuffing gust of steam and a long-drawn, metallic creak.
“Roric, you never told me what a beamer is.”
“Save it for class, Elessa. No one likes a know it all.”