Having started in the food stalls, where they nibbled, sipped, and sampled the best of the Grand Exhibition, the fashionistas then headed for the bazaar, where the dear old bat flirted not only with the salespeople demoing this year’s crop of innovation--their eyes, wide with optimism and fear, meeting hers, winking only with poorly-concealed salacious intent--but with her junior partner, who at half her age was finding it difficult to pour out such milky tones for no-names without curdling his carefully-cultured flattery and souring his long-distilled ambition.
While he leveled eyes darkened not only by eyeshadow, but by unrecognized malevolence, he yet loved her, the first to believe in him and bear his projects to the world. That said, if he deigned to leave his memoirs, he would set the record straight: sycophancy was hard work. While he mirrored her sneers as they turned their noses up at subpar creations, his scorn snarled at its edges. He smoldered as she treated every location as a setting, every person an extra, and every object her prop, all theatrical effects basking in her magnanimity. She condescended to the world, as if she thought herself not only the center, but the zenith of creation.She still thinks herself beautiful, he snorted. She is venerated only because of her great venerableness. They allow her to act precious because she is ancient, delicate china.
As if responding to his train of thought, in one curious booth, contrary puppets spun and reeled their masters, and by ventriloquism, threw their voices to embarrass the dangling puppeteers.
Another’s air-sown seeds rested in the palm with their feather-weight of gravity, but when cast in the air, hung there, sprouting all directions, so that until the blossoms budded, there was no way of knowing the roots from the fruits. At this point in the demonstration, the bristling seeds bobbed mid-air like aerial caltrops. Venos took mental notes, for they had immense potential as pratical jokes, if they were only mildly interesting as an agricultural advancement. Until they could not only grow in the breeze, but root there as fixed as in soil, a garden sown in Vanoor might be blown to Klyrn.
Three tents down, an orrery represented not only Lamuna as a gleaming brass orb with continents in raised relief, and crowned by revolving circlets begemmed with its satellites and every planet known to astronomers, but circuiting in a very close orbit, a tiny copper fleck to stand for the cloud island Wysaerie, and a few fabulistic satellites, like the dragon Adomavok. The mythic monster was sculpted larger than Wysaerie from bushy silver filaments flowing into bow-tied wings. It was obviously not rendered to accurate scale, as the western hemisphere was currently eclipsed by the dragon’s outline; despite that impressive visibility in miniature, no one had seen Adomavok in centuries.
While a clever sophomore project, this pipe dream had no practical application in the world it represented, other than a hopeful bid to gain the attention of investors, so that its mythical realism was a kind of makeshift religion ready-made for a single angel investor, one already aglimmer with this starry-eyed point of view.
While Lucina did not linger at the booths advertising youthening cream, they turned her head for a fraction of a second,until she angled her chin up, adamant and proud.
Flirting, sycophancy, and biting sarcasm proved to be such hard work that they allowed themselves to be tempted by another row of food vendors, having been allured by the warm, yeasty aromas of cracked bread; thick, oily soups fragrant with rosemary and sage; and the sweet, syrupy zest rising from liquored decanters, wineglasses, and snifters, tangy scents that urged a huge thirst.
“We’ll eat here.” Lucina promenaded to the largest available table and waited for Venos to pull back one of nine chairs. Seating herself side-saddle to prop her feet on the crossbar joining the legs of a neighboring chair, she thumbed through the menu, a handwritten publication bound by a single leathern cord at top left.
“This is rich fare, indeed.” While Venos daintily pinched the menu corner to turn its page, one might wonder how he could evaluate the bill of fare with his sardonic pout turned to Lucina. “They tried too hard. This rabble will never order anything but the plainer entrees, leaving a half-dozen untasted rarities.”
“That is precisely why we must order them, Venos. Well, not the orange-infused mussels--the idea is too nauseating for me to appreciate its taste. Is it good? Is it bad? No one shall ever know.” She tittered. “Moreover, spare me dracoil belly pie, griffin-liver pate, and whatever is worlds within worlds.”
Either by an accident of bad taste, or simply to spite Venos, Lucina had anticipated the very items which Venos singled out as culinary curiosities. Tilting his head in an indifferent nod, he said, “while the rest is dross, we must try the worlds within worlds.”
“We are already gods, Venos.”
“Having declined the dreams of too many upstart magicians today, I would move from devouring mere worlds to savoring their offspring.”
“Very well,” she sighed. “Not more than a taste.”
“Why should you? With so much to sample, what deserves to be eaten in its entirety?”
Having placed their order, they reposed like statues, neither akcnowledging nor speaking. Having contemplated curiosities, displays, and demonstrations all day, he now winnowed them away one by one, until he was left with the unforgettable commodities. As invention and inspiration were a common grace in Ardem, what distinguished the bright stars from the mob of geniuses were not their contraptions or enchantments, but their faces and personalities. Having burned away the chaff, the only bright spot of the day was the red-headed Vanoori bumpkin who had so excellently singed Lucina’s ego. When their samplers and entrees were served, this rustic’s wide-eyed expression remained superimposed on every delicacy, so that the worlds within worlds first had to be peeled from her freckled image.
Venos supposed he must revise his top twenty of the Grand Exhibition to accomodate this clever appetizer, if only somewhere at the bottom, for it tended toward the inspid, its chef having declined to be as adventurous with the spice as the substance. And this was a missed opportunity, for having already injected an omelet into an apple, all of which had roasted chestnuts at its core, and a buttery crust for its outer shell, it seemed to simply be an experiment in textures, not a creation of a new taste. While he admired it involuntarily, he savored it just as reluctantly and could not bring himself to appreciate it.
“Well,” said Lucina. “One bite, and I’m no longer hungry.”
“You always find something nice to say.” Venos rested the rest of the bizarre dumpling on his plate. “Was it baked on a dare?”
“Baked? This is some new method of cooking, for the egg is more cooked than the apple, but not as much as the crust. This isn’t food, Venos. It’s just another demo.”
She was right, of course. This was new food not only in its conception, but in its preparation. Venos was also thinking along those lines moments ago, but had said baked because he lacked the energy to coin a new word, and now latched onto the opportunity to take another bite, which he could excuse as exploratory research. He didn’t know how the old bat could be indefatigably bitchy after walking around the Grand Exhibition all day. While he was famished, weary, and so cranky that his polished sycophantic exterior was beginning to crack, he only said, somewhat more hoarsely than usual, “you’re right, Lucinia. How clever. ”
“Clever? You mean showing off. Is this vendor slated for any demonstrations? While I would never recommend this trash, I’m curious to know how it was wrought.”
Venos raised an eyebrow. Lucina, as usual, sized things up quicker and more thoroughly, which is why he was the more gracious interviewer, having genuine questions he aired to satisfy his curiosity. As Lucina already knew everything on first sight, on first hearing, on first taste, or from a single touch, she often dismissed applicants out of hand, and rarely deigned to waste time on an explanation. From Lucina’s point of view, having her ear was a privilege, and currently one reserved for Venos.
“Are we done grandstanding? I’m sure this poor food scientist needs this table,” said Venos.
“I’m never done grandstanding. The whole world’s a stage and all that.” Lucina’s tipsy giggle jingled on Venos’s eardrum like an alarm. “Escort me to the tavern, if you must.”
“All the way to the tavern?”
“Whatever passes for one in a Grand Exhbition.”
“Look, Lucina. Here are two couches. We’ll continue our refreshment there.” With luck, Venos might leave the besotted harpy to sleep it off, not that he would trust these foodies with a harpy, or any mythical poultry, without expecting it packed into a pie. Even if he was only half sure he could trust them with his drunken friend, they had much more inspired limits than he did. Even a mad chef might know where the line was between epicureanism and cannibalism, and the old bat had bitten off his own head more times than he liked.
The old cronies cackled until their laugh lines cracked, as if they were folded paper, not flesh and blood. While the bumpkin had landed a few hits, even the most fertile soil was dirt and hayseed until sown and cultivated, and they dug the ripest remarks they could, then mined deeper, venting their weariest, gassiest material, not caring if the stinkweed was there to air her own defense.
Lucinia sank into the divan as she reached for the flagon. Its neck noodled like a flamingo, and the wine followed the winding glass. Under her buzzing scrutiny, the bottle externalized her frustrated guts, which had been stopped-up by the rustic wench, to whom she was transparent as glass. It wasn’t just that Lucinia felt shattered everywhere, it was a subtler fixation.That smile had flashed like red satin drawing back from apple-white. Purity cloaked in knowing.
She blinked, and Venos vanished. Bringing her lips sloppily together and hamming up the alliteration and the hissing half-rhyme, she murmured Venos vanished several times, appreciating the sound in the way only drunks do. Though her head sloshed left, then bobbed right, she saw only lonely drunks whispering to themselves, a monocled fat man with two snoozing beauties drooling on his rounded shoulders, a skinny young student with a half-dozen books in reach of his mad eyes, and hands that scuttled nervously, and the bartender, nodding off at the booth counter. How long had she slept?
She didn’t rise to her feet so much as slosh and sway, then teetered as she straightened her gown and swaggered out the tent, much too inebriated for the mincing step appropriate to her condescending status.
Hadn’t she only had one glass? Bless her wiry, wrinkled crone fingers--which she lotioned and oiled to no avail--for not relaxing their grip on the stem as she slept. She was holding it even now. Had the vintner spiked her glass? Had Venos? Her eyes were so fuzzy that they tingled. Now she could only see hazy bodies milling between foggy tents, and the sky was a blinding, wispy field. It was like walking into a cotton ball. Her hands shook, her heart stammered, her knees knobbed together, her bladder welled painfully, and her bowels swelled with such a hot, undeniable urge to void that only shame kept her on her feet, and by some witchery she didn’t know she had, she screwed up all her orifices with one prunish grimace.
While she didn’t know their tent by sight, by chance her hand fell on the tapestry,
a brocade picked not only for visual appeal, but the fineness of the weave. Having rejected many craftsmen until she found this fabric, she knew it as intimately as the short list of what she took pride in: her fine features, her girlish figure, the admiring eyes of her students, and the lying eyes of the lustful.
“Who’s there?” Lucinia asked. While the exhibit was not only just as hazy, but dimmer, she guesed she was not alone from the rippling tapestry.
“Is that you, Venos?”
Silence. Lucinia groaned. “Help,” she gasped.
It felt like she was wading in a wintry river. When her feet became numb, her knees clacked like ice. Unable to reach their makeshift workroom behind the tapestry, she collapsed on the sofa they rented from the dormitory, ostensibly to allow attendees a quiet space to admire the display, but primarily as a kind of stage, the better for Lucinia and Venos to mock them from their vantage point behind the tapestry. When she seemed to hear their catty whispers now, she realized that she had never had such an easy target on the couch.
The light passing through the tent was so spotted, and the sofa so soft and cool,
that, for a moment, Lucinia thought herself laying in a shaded woods, with sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy. Sbe despised the artifice of the effect. It must all be remodeled. There was still time, she assured herself, before drifting off.
While Beast’s evisceration of the horse was gory and bloody, its owner proved numb to the shock, and more drawn to the rarer spectacle, her griffin.
“Is this beast yours?”
“I’m hers,” sighed Elessa. “I’m so sorry.”
“Please,” said the merchant, “it’s easily mended.”
Elessa’s brow creased as she considered the stupidity of what was just said. “A horse is not so easily mended, even in Ardem. How can I repay you?”
“Of course,” bowed the merchant. “That’s what I meant. Would you consider me when it comes time to part with one?”
“Griffin.” His oily grin seemed to flow into his broad, coppery beard. “Not that one, of course. If I didn’t already know that her loyalty could not be bought and sold, I could guess from her child’s eyes for you.” If the diminutive merchant wanted to give Elessa a level stare, it would be somewhat inappropriate, for even if he drew himself up to his full height, his eyes would be on the level of Elessa’s chest. Deprived of this method of conveying seriousness, he stared up with as much sincerity as he could muster at his woeful altitude. “Where are my manners? I’m Elusko. Auctioneer.”
Elessa took his hand even as she shook her head. “You know I can’t sell her, Elusko.”
“What of the eggs?”
“She’s not with young.”
“But she is female.”
Elessa stared down at the unwavering, greedy eyes of the auctioneer. “I’m not about to lay eggs either, no matter how hard you stare.”
“I am only saying that if you take my card”—from the lining of his vest, Elusko produced a slim card on off-white stock—“I can forget the cost of one cart horse.”
“That’s very generous,” said Elessa. “What if Beast wants to keep her offspring?”
The merchant laughed weakly, smiled weaker, and seemed to gaze through her with his watery eyes. “If you should think of selling, reach out to me. My shop is in the old city section of Ardem. Above ground. Behind the dormitories. Not far from the animal hospital, actually. If you would like, I can accompany the orderlies to make sure nothing happens to your steed.”
“She’s not my steed,” growled Elessa.
“Oh, you do not ride...”
“Of course I ride Beast.” Having become very cross in spite of herself, Elessa crowded forward into the tiny but persistent man until he backpedaled, but when a wave of anger surged into his taut face, she began to reconsider, knowing it would be impolitic to decline his courtesy and pay the judgment; while she would never deprive her beloved monster of her fledglings, neither did she wish to part with her modest fortune on the day of her arrival, before setting foot in a single class. Elessa stopped and smiled sweetly. “Your offer is very generous. Thank you.”
When he glinted with an effulgent smugness, her sweet smile died. “Thank you,” the merchant bowed, shaking either from anger, fear of confrontation, or perhaps both. In his own petty way, the tiny man was a peacekeeper, she supposed, who preferred to hope in profitting from his loss than to have her brought up on charges and Beast slain.
Having pocketed his business card, she turned to find Cozcecia.“Were you there the whole time?”
“I came when you did. Elessa, I’m partial to strays, but I hope you don’t think...” When a frigid breeze, spotted with a chill rain, set her coat flapping, Cozceccia trailed off, buttoned up, clutched herself tightly, and shivered quietly.
“Where will it sleep?”
“Why can’t she stay with us? Isn’t your nickname Cozy?” At Cozceccia’s raised eyebrows and nonplussed, affrighted, speechlessness, Elessa said, “I’m only joking. She’s going back to the hospital.” The griffin’s scabbed wound had cracked, oozing pus and blood. “After tomorrow, I won’t be your problem either, Cozy.”
“Really?” Cozceccia’s brow furrowed in annoyance as her bangs blew upward from an explosive sigh. “You’re leaving me? I had hoped you might overstay your welcome until we have our first proper fight, when I would toss you out, and in making up, we would become true friends. Please don’t go. You could be my new best friend.”
“That could never happen,” Elessa laughed gaily. “I’m too troubled, you’re too careless, and we’re both too independent.”
“I’m not that independent. For instance, I’m such good company that I’ll go with you now. I’m curious to to see this animal hospital.”
One of the animal hospital orderlies, a muscular fellow, interjected, “it’s much too late for visitors, miss.”
Elessa scowled. “Are you saying I’m not allowed?”
“As the owner, you might come and inspect his fetters if you wish, but your friend need not come.”
“Fetters? There weren’t any restraints in his stall.”
“That was then. He’s a dangerous beast now.”
“She’s not dangerous. She’s a good girl. You won’t even need those mule catchers.” Here Elessa pointed dismissively to their long poles, upon which hoops and hooks were mounted for wrangling beasts.
“The head doctor will make the official classification tomorrow. Until then, I make the call.”
“I’m not disputing your authority to make this decision,” blurted Elessa, “I’m saying it’s the wrong decision to make.”
“Maybe.” The burly orderly made a sour expression. “But no one would blame me for erring on the side of caution, given those eleven inch claws.”
“Fine.” Elessa shrugged and loosed an exasperated sigh. “I’m coming along.”
“I’m afraid not.” The voice was buoyed as much on disappointment as on amusement. You’re coming with me, Ms. Mabruk.”
While her initial reaction to Roric’s sarcastic tone was to roll her eyes and sigh theatrically, when her pseudonym was stressed with vehemence and scored with acid, she froze. As he well knew her name, having used it many times, why bandy the pseudonym she had uttered by a slip of the tongue on first meeting the Ardemian? Was it a signal? To what was he calling attention?
Having left the Ardemian peace officer only a few hours before, he was dressed the same, if a little more frumpled. His multi-tool was slung on his back, and from his belt dangled manacles of a resinous, dull black glass.
“If tomorrow isn’t soon enough, Roric,” snickered Elessa, “you don’t have to use chains to see me tonight.”
“This is for when you don’t come quietly.”
“Go quietly where?”
“Where do you think, Ardemian?” Roric’s breath of exasperation seemed to deflate him to a wry sulk. “Don’t think I’m happy about it.”
“Roric.” When Elessa tried a patient tone, it came out as petulant, and she winced to hear it. “If you try to put those on me, these mule doctors will have another mule for a patient.”
“While I’m happy for you to come on your own cognizance,” sighed Roric, “my orders are very specific when it comes to murderers.”
“Murderer? I’m no murderer! Even if murdering was my hobby, I wouldn’t have had time to add a body to my collection!”
“A prosecutor would take cheer in your gory argument, but fortunately, I don’t need to be perusaded. I know you’re innocent. I was there.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“I’m not doing this maliciously, Mabruk.”
“You know that’s not my name.”
“You were so quick to revise it that I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here.”
“My mind was elsewhere, Roric. When I wasn’t half-asleep, I was fearful for my wounded griffin.”
“Then let me assist you, Vanoori. After stabling your beast, at the very least a bed is something I can provide. Forgive my calling you Vanoori, but other than my partial knowledge of your whereabouts, it is the only thing I hold true about you. That said, I do have an investigation to conduct, and I should like to remove you from my list of suspects
While we’re unlikely to prove such a double-talker and double-dealer innocent of any mischief, we might rule you out in the matter of Lady Lucinia’s death.” Elessa fumed as Roric turned to the orderlies, bent into a supercilious bow, lifted his chin in an attitude of perfect magnanimity, and cocked his eyebrow in snide amusement. “Gentlemen?”
“Sir?” The grumbling orderly raised his head with a near-theatrical modicum of impudence, his lip protruding just so, his nose wrinkled, one eye squinting, and the other wide in a feigned attentiveness. “You were saying?”
“You have this well in hand, do you not?”
“If by ‘this,’ you mean the griffin,” the man said, “well, no, it’s not in hand at all. While it’s calmed since your friend arrived, if she wasn’t here, we’d be fending it with our staves.”
“Is she needed, then?”
“Well, no,” said the man reluctantly. “We could manage. It might maim or maul us in retaliation, but we could manage.”
From the way Beast balked, inch by inch, at being goaded toward the orderlies’ wagon, Elessa knew they would never make it. When the griffin screeched her displeasure, and buffeted the wagon with its wings, Roric turned his head and rolled his eyes skyward.
“Lady Mabruk and I will be your shields.” While he extended his arm gallantly, his eyebrow arched belligerently, as if his presented arm was a matador’s cape, and she the beast provoked to a staged death.
“I’m sure the driver knows the way,” Elessa said frostily.
“I’m afraid I must insist.” When Roric’s limp grasp laid hold, it felt like a kitten laying on her arm. “If you won’t wear the bangles I’ve so thoughtfully provided, I’m obliged to keep you even closer.”
“I’m sorry, Elessa.” Conzceccia started up the dormitory stairs. “I know you’re in for a long night, but I’ve already missed too many classes.”
“That’s all right, Cozy,” said Elessa. “Keep the door unlocked?”
“Her accomodations are provided for,” Roric said with a wry smile.
“Take it easy on my friend, will you?” said Cozceccia. “Or my father will hear about it.”
“If he didn’t know already...” Roric tipped his hat, dipped his head in a curtsy so shallow that it was plain he intended discourtesy, then feigned a yawn. “I might be alarmed at your insinuation.”
“As if I would bother veiling a threat to the likes of you,” snorted Cozceccia. “And if you mean that I suggested anything else, I don’t like your chances of promotion.”
“I don’t like them either...” Roric’s yawn was so deep that it might be taken for genuine. “...considering you’ve deadened me with your tiresome terrors. Have you any more ultimatums to spend from your priviliged allowance?”
When Cozy threw her shoe, Roric took it on his raised forearm, then took cover behind Elessa, who was struck in the chest by the other shoe.
The screech bent Cozy and Roric into a cower, clutching their ears, but Elessa, who was used to Beast’s tantrums, turned to the orderlies struggling to contain Beast with one-handed grips on their staves, as they cupped their ears with the other hand, tucking their heads down like so many turtles, and, stupidly, squeezed their eyes tight.As Beast strained against their weakly-propped staves, a shaft snapped in half, a hook bent, and a third whipped free from its wielder’s grasp to crack an orderly’s skull and send him bleeding, dazed, and reeling.
Elessa first assumed the griffin clawed towards Roric, until it dawned on her that Beast also saw the effete poser as no threat at all, and lunged for the one who had struck her with a shoe, Cozceccia.
Elessa held up three fingers, the signal Ilmar had chosen for “stop,” despite Elessa’s argument that requiring any number of fingers in a griffin trainer showed little foresight, considering griffins’ indiscriminate appetite for anything they could cram in their craw. While up until now, Elessa trusted that her monstrous pet would never attack her, having imprinted upon her at birth, Beast was not only wounded, but half-drunk on delirium, blood-loss, and Ardemian medicine, and Elessa’s stomach clenched into a cold, sour swell as her eyes flinched, for the first time, from Beast. While she hadn’t flinched when the griffin had once spat up a pellet of human bones, now, as her life flashed before her eyes, she imagined those recalled days folded into a wad of bones, then choked down by Beast.
When she turned back, and raised her eyes, one squealing orderly squirmed under Beast’s right paw, while the others had hooked her other legs and strained with all their might. When Beast’s eyes contracted, and she swayed a step back, the pinned orderly heaved a ragged breath and crawled free, while the others staggered, sent off balance from the sudden slack, and a staff broke when the griffin sat into a meditative squat. While he wasn’t missing any fingers after Beast’s manhandling, the bruised, disheveled orderly seemed less of a man, and his compatriots nearly as shaken, as they staggered in flanking Beast, hunkered down and warily clutching their staves, the hooks pointed down like so many descending scythes.
When Beast’s breath faltered, and her head swayed, they goaded her up the wagon’s ramp, they signaled to Roric, who led Elessa aboard, then secured the back gate.
As they drove across the quad, late night stragglers squirreled aside, while actual squirrels, roused from their knotholes, scurried along, chittering curiously from tree to tree. As they headed along the shadowy concourse, lovers distentangled on benches, and drunks stopped their singing. Beast’s left forepaw left a shadowy pawprint, fringed by wet pink, on the wagon floorboards. Blood had trickled through fur and feathers from the griffin’s wounded breast.
At the battered entrance of the animal hospital stables, one worker in oilstained coveralls held a long black bar in place while another welded it to the mangled gate
with the short blue beam of a combinator.
“Did Beast do this?”
“While I wasn’t privy to this,” said Roric, “it fits the facts. Exhibit A: one fence of wrought iron, mangled and twisted; exhibit B: one eight hundred pound griffin, somewhat out of her gourd, walking, er, stumbling free.”
When Beast clambered down from the wagon with a ruffled flash of her wings
that yanked free an orderly’s staff, then lashed out with her foreleg to trip another, it was clear she was not only far from remorseful, but that she resented not only the gate she had wrecked,
but whatever pretenses the hospital had to healing.
An orderly rubbed his chin. “Let’s do something about that walking free,” he said, a little too slyly for Elessa’s taste. His ominous intimations summoned awful images of scalpels not used to heal, but drawn across the griffin’s hindleg tendons, to hamstring poor Beast.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Begging your pardon, miss. I know she’s a rare beast, and you’re an even rarer bird, having befriended that man-eater, but until the doctors decide what to do with her, she must be hobbled, for it’s the only way I know to contain such a monster. Unless you’d rather we declaw her and clip her wings?”
“What do you propose?” Elessa said doubtfully.
“Just what we’d do with a rude horse, miss. It won’t be comfortable, but she won’t be harmed.”
While his eyes were earnest, his sly grin was so repugnant that she turned with a cold shrug, fixing Roric with eyes wide enough to encapsulate not only her honest loathing, but her sarcastic appeal. “Do something,” she said weakly, too breathless from her journey to seethe, and lacking even the spark of vitality that would roll her eyes.
“A farmer that’s never hobbled a horse, Vanoori?” Roric’s inquiring look seemed to gaze far past her face frozen by fatigue to rifle through her backstory, which he had no doubt lumped in with her name, assuming it also to be a lie.
“I never needed to hobble a horse,” said Elessa. “I was born with patience and bred with common sense. My father said...” A pause. “...he said...” Another pause.
While Roric did not see her face flush, her nostrils flare, or the pooling tears--or while he pretended not to see—the orderly’s smug smile flattened as he lowered his eyes and murmured, “I was born here, miss. I’m second generation Ardem, with hands fitted for tools and books, no doubt insensitive to the living world we’re laboring to cover up with machines and enchantments.”
“You’re disguising an insult in that self-deprecating nonsense. By framing such a contrast, you insinuate the reverse--that I’m a yokel, unfit for life in Ardem.”
“Not at all, miss.” While his tone was apologetic, his eyes sparkled with trapped amusement. “But I can see why you would think that. Forgive my careless words. But there are misapprehensions all around.”
“Meaning this is a hospital. I’d be let go if I caused a patient any lasting hurt, don’t you think?”
“Logic!” Roric said happily. “I knew you would get there, although I had hopes the Vanoori would get there first. Go on. Do your worst--I mean your best,” he amended, heading off Elessa’s glare with an inane grin.
Having tugged the griffin in a stable with their hooked staves, they turned Beast to squat against the rear wall, facing the gate. As two orderlies cupped the inner edge of their hooks to her neck, the others sidled along her flanks, ducking her flinching, ruffling wings, then slid the wooden hobbles on her hindlegs and tightened the cords.
“There,” said the orderly. “So she can tear her own meat, we won’t even hobble her forelegs.”
“That doesn’t hurt?” said Elessa.
“Why should it?”
“Bring me another, and I’ll see how you like it.”
After a pause, the orderly said, “you know, we hobbled another odd beast tonight.”
“What do you mean? Surely not another griffin?” While Elessa tried a flat tone to put a lid on her terror, her fearful excitement proved irrepressible, and “surely” squealed out like a hot teakettle.
The orderly shook his head. “Odder.”
“Than a griffin?” Disappointed that they had not embarrassed Ilmar by impounding Deathspell, Elessa raised her head slowly from its slump to rake him with a skeptical stare.
“As its owner didn’t speak Ardemian, Vanoori, or Klyrnish, I don’t even know where the creature’s from.”
“I know you would love to see it,” said Roric, “but we’re already delayed, Vanoori.”
“Oblige me,” said Elessa. “I haven’t slept in two days.”
“You’re exaggerating, of course.”
“No, exaggerating would be adding an eternity for your monotonous tour of Ardem. Saying that I haven’t slept in two days is, literally and unfortunately, true.”
“Oh, very well,” relented Roric. “If you don’t mind, sir.”
“I wasn’t supposed to show anyone,” said the orderly with a dodgy look.
“Why am I not surprised?” sighed Roric. “Pay the man, Vanoori.”
“Don’t play coy with me,” sneered Roric. “You have too many names for that.”
“Are you saying he wants a bribe, Roric?” When her voice echoed down the aisle of stables, the orderly cringed, but Roric drew him and Elessa into a huddle.
“We would never say such a thing, Vanoori. Nor would we ever see such a thing.”
“It isn’t that,” said the orderly, “I’d lose my job, I’m sure of it.”
“Well, color me curious,” said Roric. “It sounds almost like it might be my business.”
“How is it your business?” cried the orderly.
“You’re much too afraid,” said Roric, “and I am a peace officer.”
“It’s nothing,” the orderly said hastily.
“You mean anything but,” said Roric. “By now, I know the difference between nothing and something. People never hide nothing, but they’re always hiding something.”
“If I show you,” whispered the orderly, “will you say you found the doors open? And leave my name out of it?”
He led them to the back of the stables, through the hospital door, then turned left down a stairwell, which turned for several floors. “I thought this other monster was in the stable, too,” asked Elessa.
“I never said that,” said the orderly, “only that we hobbled the beast. For all I know, it’s still trying to break free from its restraints.”
“How far down do we go?” Elessa said with indignant astonishment. “This is a dungeon, not a hospital. You’re not keeping animals down here, away from light and fresh air, are you?”
“I’m sorry to say we are,” said the orderly. “And this is as far as it goes.”
At the base of the stairwell, the orderly held the door for Roric and Elessa.
While the corridor was brightly lit, the walls and floors were scrubbed, and every barred stall was empty, the dark, echoing subbasement felt full to the point of overflowing,
not only with the repugnant aroma of moldy socks and rotten bananas, but with vacant shadows.
“It’s only the first day of the Exhibition,” said the orderly, “so he’s the only one here. In a week, it’ll be packed with strange beasts.”
“He?” sniffed Roric. “Are you on a first name basis as well? Could you pick his face out in a crowd?”
The guard had an uneasy look. “Even during an exhibition, we rarely tend a patient with a face.”
“Animals have faces,” scoffed Elessa.
“I’ll take your word for it. Even after two years here, I can’t tell two horses apart, and I’d have a better chance picking the better of two plucked, butchered hens than two strutting roosters. But this one’s eyes are still as stone, and it crouches like it’s sitting for a portrait.”
“There’s a person? Here? In the animal hospital?” Roric’s voice reached a strident pitch as he cornered the orderly. While he did not lay a finger on the larger man, the orderly cowered under the brunt of Roric’s personality.
“I th-think,” stammered the orderly, “that you’ll agree we lay half a claim to this one. It might be a fuzzy line, but if you followed him on a foggy night, you’d be checking the bottom of your shoes.” He lifted a shaking forearm and stretched out a quivering finger.
By no stretch of the imagination was it a stable, but a cage of poorly painted iron bars, the fading black disclosing rusty patches that indicated just how long ago the animal hospital had installed this private kennel for legally ambiguous rarities. As there was no attempt at a door, just the wall of iron bars that partitioned the funneling hallway from the dingy stone chamber, its inhabitant had neither privacy nor dignity. It slumped against the wall, its legs folded under a tangle of coarse hair mingling with its unkempt tail and the profuse mane its light green hands idly but defly braided, as if this was an activity it did less for grooming, but for meditation, repeated not hundreds, but thousands, of times before.
“Have you ever known an animal to tie knots, keeper?” Roric’s voice was low and civil, but held a menacing edge.
“Spiders?” At Roric’s glowering frown, the orderly averted his eyes. “It might be intelligent. But it’s hardly a person. My dog brings me my shoes, but I don’t let him sit at my table.”
“This is no dog, sir,“ said Roric. “Even in Ardem, this is a wonder.”
As Elessa struggled to take in the wonder, its ice blue eyes met hers, then it burst up with such a flurry of hooves that, iron bars notwithstanding, she backed up until cold stone pressed into her back.
As he brushed forward into the harsh hallway light, she saw that both halves were piebald, with a hair coat of calico cream, brown, and sun-gold, while above its navel, it ranged from light green hands to its snakeskin green and midnight blue chest, which shimmered as it rippled.
When she found her voice, she could only squeak one, stupid word, the blatantly obvious one.