While Roric was lazy, he was professionally lazy, and while he waited until twenty minutes before his appointment, when he at last deigned to awaken, his eyes snapped open with an abruptness and intensity not unlike a parody of military discipline, and, in no more than one and a half motions, rolled out of his bed and into his boots.
Boots, he reminded himself with a smile. This was going to be a wonderfuld day.
Donning his overcoat with a flourish that twirled his arms through both sleeves and ended with a snap of his fingers—worthy of this contortionist-turned-street magician that failed up into a student, then peace officer—Roric used the remainder of his wayward momentum to snap his belt, crack his fingers, and slip on his tie.
Like sprung clockwork, this gangly ambidexterity--uneven to the point of asymmetry, but seeming all the more balanced for all that—ticked to a halt as he faced the mirror, painstakingly fixed his tie, combed his hair, smoothed the folds of the cape still attached to his overcoat, then took a small scissors to the edges of his moustache and the corners of his eyebrows.
Two minutes after lurching from bed, Roric ambled down Evenlam Avenue. While the peeking sunrise was turning Old Ardem a cool, crisp blue, the gaslamps still glowed a sullen orange, and the foot traffic was that curious mixture of dissheveled workers and well-dressed drunks. Coaches and wagons clopped and rattled down the throughfare, their beasts moseying with heads down, as if they stumbled half-asleep, relying on the reins.
Having stopped in Corner Cafe—which, eight years ago, was on the corner of Everlam and Reyus, before Old Ardem’s expanding commercial sprawl sandwiched it between Keener, a sharpening business, and Vulgus’s shoe importing shop, so that the Corner Cafe was now two hundred feet from its namesake intersection--Roric sat at the shabby, cutlery-scarred counter, quaffed three coffees as quickly as if he had gills and a second set of lungs with the express design of engulfing coffee, then downed an even shabbier sandwich ringed with tatters of crisp lettuce, tangy bacon, and wet tomato on buttered toast that had been cracked and nearly blackened by the toasting jet, per Roric’s order. While the sandwich crumbled and crackled as he devoured it, he was so intent on what he had planned that he was pinching the last corner of toast between forefinger and thumb before he realized that he had forgotten to savor his breakfast in his rush to relish the day.
After a fourth coffee to wash it down, this one with an extra teaspoon of sugar and a sprinkling of cinnamon, he left a larger tip than normal—large for the frugal Roric, if still modest by the spendthrift standards set by the lordlings, heirs and merchant princes that had the run of Ardem—then left Corner Cafe, having not once returned the admiring looks of the owner’s daughter, the three freshmen in a booth, nor the voguish young woman who had sidled next to him, layered in so much lacy swank that he had guessed her for either a prostitute or a rebel on her father’s coin, and, in either case, none of his business. While an attentive eye might have gathered from Roric’s inattention to his surroundings and admirers that he was, like a crab, both introverted and insensitive to his charms, a keener observer would see that it was indifference, for Roric knew himself to be much too conceited to care for anything but his own interests. As there was no shortage of beautiful people in Ardem, Roric found them a crashing yawn unless they piqued his interests. Unfortunately, as the young officer became more and more jaded in his university career, his standards rose and his interests dwindled, until they could be numbered on one hand most days, while on a bad day, he might have only one rude finger to spare the world. But yesterday was a good day, Roric thought, smiling to himself. Not only was the Grand Exhibition shaping up to be a good one, but he had Elessa Whatshername, a self-absorbed Vanoori liar, and Dranwen Jugus, the moneyed and mad-eyed heiress inventor, to call on.
While intrigued about the ugly little heiress, Roric lied to himself about what drew him down Reyus Street, but being a born sophisticate who knew when he lied to himself, this only whetted his anticipation. Although willfully immature and a boy by design, Roric was not so naive to feel himself a boy at heart—at least until his long-corrupted and utterly annihilated boyish nature was resuscitated by an idea so daring he dared not think of it directly, and instead shaded in its probable outctomes, as if capturing the bold silhouette of an eclipse on paper. As he walked, he contented himself by thinking what lay beyond the immense risk: a green land, a bold, cloudless sunshine, and, perhaps, the hospitality of a notorious alumnus.
Reyus Street had constricted to a single lane thick with tents, booths, and stages where magicians and inventors demonstrated prototypes. As the better displays were reserved for Everlam Street, much of what passed for science or enchantment on Reyus was either an also-ran or a less than fresh take on last year’s crop of inspiration. For Roric, however, Reyus was a more interesting venue, given the faces on display were the true exhibit, being excellent samples of desperation, doubt, the promise of hope, and faith both bad and blind.
Not so the hasty shamble of tin slats, in which smiths wrought shining sheets of copper, brass, and iron on a hulking workbench into clockwork animals. No sooner were they molded and tinkered than they sprang to such a semblance of life, chittering, scampering, and clinging to the legs of the workbench and the audience, that their chugging, clinking mechanisms, far from disrupting the illusion, made them more wondrous. Real rats, mice, and groundhogs would have been pests; these clockwork rodents were the instant darlings of the onlookers, who crowded each other to gawk at and fondle the cunning toys.
“You’re early.” Dranwen bent over a malfunctioning machine squirrel, its legs chopping at the air, and its head spinning like a windmill.
“I guess I was late,” said Roric. “Judging by this crowd.”
“I assumed Everlam would take the early risers,” said Dranwen, “but word of mouth seems to have drawn some here.”
“I assure you it wasn’t me. While I haven’t thought of anything else since yesterday, I couldn’t breathe a word to anyone without my excited squeals being thought the ravings of a lunatic.”
“You’re going to look like one,” said Dranwen. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“More than I’ve ever been,” said Roric. “In fact, rather than a piddly little test to wow the crowd, why not a proper trial run?”
“What did you have in mind?” Having dropped the deactivated squirrel to the workbench with a clatter, Dranwen reached underneath, grabbed a box, and dragged it into view.
“Hear me out,” said Roric. “Despite Ardem’s myth of upward mobility, a man may only rise so high here playing by the rules. My eyes are set higher.”
Tilting his neck slowly, he raised his eyes by degree until they rested on the underbelly of the vast cloud island. As sprinkling rain spat on his upturned face, something hard and cold poked into his chest. Looking down, he saw that Dranwen had prodded him with one pair of metal boots, while another were clutched in her left hand.
“While it will be quite a show,” said Dranwen, “you won’t be breaking new ground, since I flew there only yesterday.”
“Shh!” said Roric. “I don’t mind if you disillusion me, but have a care for the crowd. Why should they know any better?”
“Quite right,” said Dranwen, then hissed, “what are you waiting for? We might lose this crowd.” Dropping to a chair behind the workbench, Dranwen latched on the boots, and although Roric thought he mimicked her perfectly, she nonetheless found slack, and tightened the fastenings until his pinched feet tingled. Having satisfied herself of the fit of the Firewalking Shoes, she turned to address the crowd.
“No doubt many of you are here to witness what I demonstated yesterday.”
“Jet Boots!” called the crowd.
Dranwen’s scowl flickered only for an instant before she curled it into a much too broad smile.
“You’ve heard wrong, then. These aren’t any generic model, but Jugus-brand Firewalking Shoes. Yesterday, we flew to the animal hospital and back, but today our sights are set higher.” Turning to Roric, she whispered, “on my mark.”
He hissed, “I understand shoes just fine, and can walk to the store for a pound of sugar if you’d like, but the Firewalking part is still a mystery.”
“On your toes.”
“Look where you want to go, then rise on your tiptoes.”
“Are you telling me that if I had taken a good stretch, I might have splattered on Everlam Avenue?”
“You make them sound unsafe,” Dranwen tsked. “But yes. Tiptoes. Now!” Rising to the balls of her feet, Dranwen soared into the sky.
As Roric gawked, feelings rushed in, cramping his stomach with the sudden reluctance to fly, cramming his mind with a flaring inferiority at Dranwen not only showing him up but taking a huge lead, and scorching his spine with a burning fear that he did not know how to descend.
Repressing his anguish, Roric rose on tiptoes towards the dark, drizzling cloud, his face soon streaming with pelting rain.
When Dranwen cocked her head to observe his dallying ascent, she veered along a delicate arc,
then by some slight motion of her feet, throttled her climb to a sputtering crawl until Roric had caught up.
As the dark cloud hulked and blackened, it seemed some murky, shifting seafloor, while a deeper darkness shaded Old Ardem below like the dead of night. When Dranwen pointed, and inclined her head, she cut left, and while Roric copied her trajectory, the thrust of the Firewalking Shoes buckled his knees and strained his back.
As they headed for the edge, it glinted, then gleamed, then became blindingly bright, so that Roric shielded his eyes from the bright fringe.
When the sputtering boots coughed, spattering hot oil on his shins, Roric steeled himself, resisting the instinct to double over and tear them off, which might have relieved the excruciating pain of the searing oil, but would have tipped his wavering flight into a spin toward the crumbling, ivied stones of Old Ardem.
When his shuddering spasms and the knocking stammer of the malfunctioning boots fed into each other, it was all he could do to brace his lurching ascent, so that his upward spurt slowed to a crawl, then stalled, and he had certainly tumbled to his doom had Dranwen not clutched his hand, bit her lip, and pulled. Not that she took him to the skies by any muscular effort, but the combustive tug of her Firewalking Shoes, now whining under their combined weight, which would have certainly shook him away had she not the white-knuckled vise grip of a lifelong machinist. If it was also callused and leathery from handling tools, Roric’s snobbery was overshadowed by his ascendant self-preservation,
and he held it more fervently than he had ever held a hand. Still while he suppressed the snide remark, his catty instincts were flexing their claws, and even as the boots screeched and shrieked, he thought of ways of inflicting a more delicate scratch.
They flitted through wispy cloud tendrils so wet that each was like a smack to his face, and his eyes, drizzling and blurry with cloudwater, saw only the sun’s bright glare, the closely cropped reeds lashing head, shoulders, and forearms—which, raised to protect himself, were pocked with stinging welts—and the dank pond where they floundered, splashing, gulping and spitting the muddy water as the Firewalking Shoes steamed and crackled.
“Get out!” shouted Dranwen.
“I only just fell in,” gasped Roric. “Give me a moment to breathe.” Staggering to his feet, the puddle oozed off of him as much as it drizzled.
Having stamped to the banks, Dranwen kicked and stomped, spattering mud, including one drop that flew to the bridge of Roric’s nose and made him blink. “Stumblebum! Have a care for yourself, if not my jet boots.” In her frustration, she seemed to have forgotten the more stylish name of her invention. “The sky shore is just over there.”
“Island? Shore?” In his daze, not only had Roric forgotten where he was, but his woozy eyes still drizzled rain, pond water, and mud; not only was Dranwen a blur, it was all he could do to see the pond. “So what if it is?”
“Numbskull! We’re on a cloud!”
Roric gazed at the leafy tree shading the pond. While the surrounding terrain was rife with tall grasses and trees swarming to a vast treeline a mile distant, one rogue tree had encroached on the pond, its columnar base, wider than a wagon wheel, stretching on and on to a frost-crinkled top. Surely that was a trick of the light, he told himself. Had it really grown all the way into the cirrus? “Unless you’d care to take a running leap, you’re in no danger of falling back to Ardem. Just look at this monster. It’s been here a long time.”
“How thick is the soil?” Dranwen groused. “What if there’s a sinkhole?” Sitting in the grass, she pulled off her Firewalking Shoes.
No sooner had Roric sighed and stomped from the pond than Dranwen rose to her knees, clutched his kicking foot mid-stomp, and yanked off a boot, so that he lost his footing and sprawled on the grass.
“Really?” he shouted. “Give me some warning, next time.”
“Next time? Give me my product, or I’ll rip it off of you. At least, if you want to go back to Ardem.”
Roric wasn’t much of a realizer. Not only had he never had an epiphany, buy he seemed to learn by taking a roll in the facts until they stuck like so many leaves, or, in the case of the more painfully learned lessons, pins, such as the succession of actualities that struck him all at once: miles above ground; on a wizard’s private estate, stocked with griffins that wouldn’t turn up their noses at the occaional human in their diet; not on terra firma, but riding a cloud; jet boots that had filled him with amazement and set him sailing on fantasy, but were now broken, and likely to become a dusty relic on this magical land. “Tell me this wasn’t my idea, Dranwen.”
“Don’t call me Dranwen.”
“Why?” she shouted. “You broke my prototype, Roric.”
“It wasn’t intentional. Ask anyone. I wouldn’t hurt a fly, and as to breaking things, I wouldn’t even break wind without permission.” Throwing his hands in the air, Roric shrugged his shoulders and cocked his head in a comical, sidelong glance that might have caused a dozen humorless engineers to roll with laughter. “Everything has a time, Dranwen.”
“You’re saying it was their time to go?” fumed Drawnen. “It’s time for you to go, Roric. Goodbye.” Picking up both pairs of boots, she strode off briskly, leaving Roric not only dumbstruck but bootless in an island wilderness.
“Where will you go?” As Roric trailed along behind her, branches smacked his face, and mulch, burrs, and tree roots raked the soles of his feet, making him occasionally rise on his tiptoes, or hop over particularly obdurate obstacles.
“This was your idea, Roric,” said Ardem. “What was your plan?”
“I just wanted to knock on Ilmar’s door and welcome him to the neighborhood.”
“That’s stupid—he’s been here two days.”
“Manners are never stupid, Dranwen. In addition, I also meant to cooperate in your street show.”
“I should have said no, ” said Dranwen. “Having just done it yesterday, I could have only hoped to upstage myself.”
“One-upmanship,” sighed Roric. “The curse of sequels. While not here for the first outing, I can sympathize. When things return, they want to be louder, flasher, and showier. Speaking of which, I doubt we’ve seen the last of that rude Vanoori.”
“She was nice enough.” Dranwen stopped, then turned to Roric with her hands on her hips. “Despite my clearly stated desire that we go our own ways, you have this way of insinuating yourself into my business.”
“If we call it recreation,” said Roric, “it will make the time go faster. And on returning to Ardem, I’ll be only too happy to honor your wishes, and leave you to your business of selling cruel shoes, Ms. Jugus.”
“You can call me Dranwen,” she said.
“But we’re talking business, Ms. Jugus.”
“Are you always this literal?”
“I am a peace officer, Ms. Jugus. Without facts, there would be no offenses, only the slippery slope of my easygoing interpretations.”
“While at first, I thought you were in the wrong line of work, Roric, you seem to have grown into the role. Where are we, anyway?”
“It looked like you knew where you were going,” said Roric.
“There was a river here only yesterday.”
“What’s wrong with the one we landed in?”
“I’m trying to clean them, Roric, not get them muddy again. As to knowing where I’m going, from your confidence I assumed you a friend of the wizard’s.”
“While I’d never call him friend, I sat in on his seminar freshman year. Sad to say, only mere acquaintance and circumstance has led us to our current situation, being stranded and lost on a cloud island.”
“We’re hardly lost.” Dranwen scowled then smirked. “You can get home in under a minute anytime you want.”
“If you mean walk to this island’s shore and hurl ourselves into the skies...” Roric’s sardonic grin stretched so wide in his next gasp that he was left stunned and breathless. “Dranwen, look!”
“The river!” Ignoring Roric’s strangled cries, Dranwen smiled and strode to the river’s edge, where a misshapen promontory protruded so far from one bank that it shaded the other. On second glance, this spur seemed to be a stone shed tapering to a rocky flange, but when this jutting stone turned, revealing two sunken sockets glinting green, Dranwen backpedaled into Roric, who, by reflex, clutched her in a tight-knuckled grip. When the hulking, stony heap rose from its bouldery knees, and plucked Dranwen up as easily as a tulip, Roric latched on so tightly that he rose into the air, lost his grip in astonishment, then lashed out to grab her stockinged feet.
Now both dangled from the creature’s grip. Having uprooted splayed stony feet the size of small boats, it raced for the horizon, its hurtling momentum so great that as the mountains shot up and up, the earth seemed not beneath their feet, but before them, a wall of rock and earth stretching to eternity.
“Roric!” screeched Dranwen. “The boot!” Having clutched the boots to her chest when the giant snatched her, that awkward armload of footware had jostled until a boot shook out, tumbled down, and jogged beside them for an instant, rolling in the dust. When Roric snagged it by the trailing bootlace, it snapped back to kick his hand, and he nearly dropped it.
“Did you get it?” she shrieked.
“Ow!” This time, Roric inflected the interjection with the sting which had spread from his fingers to his wounded ego. “I should have let it fall, the useless contraption.”
As the giant ran, his feet smacked the ground like falling boulders, a grinding tread that wore away ledges as if mountains were flimsy as shale. When its path veered up, the ascent was so sheer that it sprawled flat and shuffled to the top. Although it still clutched Roric and Drawnen, this was no impediment to its granite elbows and knees, which crunched deep in the rocky wall.
As Roric was snatched up facing the giant, in their ascent, he now faced the downward slope, and Wysaerie’s expanding vista.
“Impossible,” he sputtered.
“Believe it,” said Dranwen sullenly. “It’s happening.”
“No, look,” insisted Roric.
“What? You’ve never seen an island?”
“That’s no island!” cried Roric. “It goes on forever!”
“No, it doesn’t,” sighed Dranwen. “It stops at the mountains on the other side. Do you see Ilmar’s castle?”
“You mean that one, miles away? No cloud is this big.”
Dranwen fell silent. “You’re right. If something this big was above Ardem, we wouldn’t know night from day.”
“And it is above Ardem.”
“How can it be bigger up here than down there?” sneered Dranwen.
“Why not? There are giants here and not there. Why shouldn’t everything be bigger here?”
“Your ideas aren’t any bigger,” said Dranwen, in a particularly nasty and scathing tone.
“They never are,” Roric said stiffly. “If I mocked you, it’s only part of the show. My only satisfaction is in being helpful.”
“That was you helping?” She sounded incredulous.
“Now that’s just unfair, Dranwen. So far, everything is at least half your fault. If I helped along your error, rather than helping you out of trouble, you can’t fault me for helping.”
“Noodles have more spine,” Dranwen grumbled.
The steeper the giant’s insect-like grind, the more it leaned into the cliff, at times so close that its chin nestled in the crevices.
“I ca...can’t...” Dranwen’s sagging faint so loosened the giant’s grip that she nearly pitched over its fingers.
When Roric’s gasping wheeze became giddy, he laughed and rasped until the air was so thin that he sucked and sucked but couldn’t draw it in. He somehow remained awake, though his eyes grew red, and the lukewarm breeze wouldn’t stay in his gaping mouth; though his consciousness dimmed and his sight became porous, splotched here and faded there to bright, vivid patches that haloed their eerie mountain crawl. Tapering near where the peak should be, the mountain mushroomed to an inverted pyramid joined to the apex by a stone column a castle’s width and reinforced with dull metal pillars, one of which concealed a black iron stairwell which the giant climbed. <
Having passed Roric to his other hand, where he balled him up with the unconscious Dranwen, the giant popped inward a large, black door on the first landing, rattling Roric’s eardrums and awaking Dranwen with a pitiful, teary-eyed wail and a foul curse on her lips, that then gave way to one filthier curse after another. Having sealed the door, the giant continued his ascent and soon seemed to forget his indignant fistful of squalling humans. No doubt they were tinier and less irksome than a giant infant, and hence unworthy of notice in their carrier’s eyes.
Or were they? As Dranwen continued her stream of profanity, the humongous eyes flickered to her, then rolled a little above what seemed to be a smile, curled more in frustration than in mirth.
When his vision cleared, his mind was less frayed, he breathed easier, and sounds settled in at their normal speed, like the onrushing air through the vents along the spiral stairwell.
“Hello! Where are you taking us?” Not only was he breathing easier, but his voice was so resonant that he sounded nearer to himself, if that were possible, as if on the earth below he had been a mere whisper, shouting at his life from a distance. “For that matter, why are you taking us? Also, who and what are you, taking us?” While the vibrant timbre of his own voice was so reassuring that he felt stronger, and Dranwen stopped cursing, frowned, and eyed him quizzically, the giant spared him not a glance, and pounded up the metal stairway with such a titanic spring, the black steps shivered and clamored.
“I don’t think he understands you. Who does?” As they were still clenched together in the giant’s fist, Roric heard Dranwen’s mutter as clear as day. When she glared up, her anger seemed to drain away, until her head rested on Roric’s skinny chest.
“Are you alright?” asked Roric.
“No. I can’t get a hand free to wipe my eyes. I’m sure I look a mess.”
“Perfectly understandable. I had a good cry when you fainted, too,” he lied.
“And something’s poking me,” said Drawnen. “Do you feel that?”
Having a good idea exactly what that thing was, and knowing it would prove a source of embarrassment to indicate that he was, on some lower level, the source of the poking—for it was hard to be clenched in a giant’s hot, moist fist, even with a plain to middling woman, for any length of time—Roric lied, “oh yes. Quiet gods, that hurts. It’s like a sword’s point!”
“No,” Dranwen said, “it’s not that bad—more of a cat’s foot. It’s just a prick, really.”
When his face and forehead burned hot, to mask this growing redness, Roric sniffed, and tossed his hair. “Of course you’re a cat person.” He sighed. “Hopefully this giant isn’t a cat person.”
Dranwen’s eyes widened. “I’d like to see that cat.”
“Not from the inside, you wouldn’t,” said Roric.
“Well, he’s not a cat person, is he?” said Dranwen. “He’s a people person.”
“You’re assuming he sees people as people, not as pets.”
“Why would that be bad? I pamper my pets.”
“By pamper, you mean you lock them in, stuff them with a monotonous diet of rich, fatty foods, and deny them the exercise they need by nature?”
“You’ve never had a pet, have you?”
On the top landing, the giant’s stomp echoed up and down the stairwell shaft as it crossed to the door, and when it pulled the door open, Roric’s answer was drowned out in the din.
Shorn of clouds and sky, the bright white sun poured through the columed hall. Looming pillars cast shadows on the right hand wall as they swept hundreds of feet to a mural of seven slumbering gods. Their dreaming heads, strewn with tangled locks, pointed to painted icons of the silvery moon god, Namoz, bearing a gleaming tray to Ferora, the sun goddess, not the ghost-white specter she seemed here, as she lit these highest reaches of Wysaerie, but in her golden, life-giving aspect, as she appeared to the world below.
If Feror the sun god’s twin, Ferora, had been forgotten, no one had bothered to tell these giants, who clung to antiquity as fiercely as this inconceivable pedestal, balanced atop a vast mountain on a cloud five miles above the world.
“What do you see, Roric?” Looking to Dranwen, Ardem realized not only that she had lost her spectacles, but that he had been too preoccupied to pay much attention to when; he hoped it was only moments ago, in the stairwell.
“Tell me you’re not blind without your glasses,” groaned Roric.
“Practically. The important thing is I can see my hands, so if you pry me from this fist, find me a table, and give me my boots, I might save us.”
“Surely we wouldn’t have the fuel to launch from this sky temple.”
“By combining what we have, one might flee.” Dranwen glumly arrived at the necessary conclusion: “it must be you, Roric.”
“Why me? Your contraption almost killed me once today.”
“Right now, you’re a better flier than I am, seeing as I can barely see what’s in front of my face.”
“Then I will lead you down the stairs,” said Roric.
“Will you also lead me down a mountain?”
“Where did you lose them?” demanded Roric. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t stand a good chance of finding your glasses.”
When the giant droned like a brass foghorn, its face creased into an ugly mask that might be hunger, anticipations of malice, or cruel contempt, it dawned on Roric that this monotone blaring,
bit off in chuffs and snorts, was laughter. Then, in a fluent Ardemian with murky and unplaceable inflection, it spoke. “Don’t mind me. Lay out all your escape plans.”
“You speak!” Feeling his own foolishness, Roric added, “...Ardemian.”
The giant’s snicker was like a crumbling cliff, as if it sought to bury Roric with scorn. “You listen!” It paused, in mockery of Roric. “...tolerably well.”
“Why bring us here?” asked Dranwen.
“You assume this your destination,” boomed the giant, then allowed another pause to swell in the echoing pillars of the temple.
“Where do you take us?” sneered Roric. “The stars?”
“How would I know, and why would I care? I’m only seeing you so far,” said the giant. “While this is my destination, it might not be yours.”
“What do you mean?” asked Dranwen. “Do you mean to throw us from your roof?”
“While that would be grossly impolite, you’d save me some trouble if you’d do me the favor of jumping. The view from our roof is very scenic, you know. Care for a look?”
“No thanks,” said Roric.
“Why not?” Dranwen’s meaningful glare belied her resigning tone.
“Why not?” Roric pitched the question nearly at a soprano screech. “I can think of a few reasons why not. One, I’m still curious about this marvelous temple.”
“Please indulge me,” said Dranwen. “I need some grandeur after such a wearisome morning.”
“You think I’m a fool because I’m bigger than you,” said the giant in a grumpy tone, “though common sense dictates that when there’s more of me, physically, there must be more to me, mentally, as well. And if I wasn’t so big at heart—morally speaking—I might have chucked you over the side any of a half a dozen times.” The giant sighed. “Well, you know what they say. Common sense is not so common, after all.”
“That’s true,” said Roric in a bright and optimistic tone which he did not feel, and had a hard time projecting, cramped as he was from his diaphragm to his throat, all of which lay pinched between the giant’s forefinger and the pad of its thumb. “I’ve often been called peculiar, but never by so broad a mind or so deep a person.”
“You flatter me, when I am already burdened with the consequences of my whim.” The giant’s sonorous inflection was so ambigious, it could have meant a snort of contempt or a sigh of monotony.
“Why not lighten your loh-oh-oad?” In an effort to sound as light as his suggestion, Roric had squirmed for breath, and groaned as his chest found the giant’s blunt and chipped thumbnail. “We can find our way from here.”
“Would I take you for no reason at all? Am I a magpie, thinking to line my nest with your skins and chew on your gristly bones?”
“Certainly not!” Roric’s grin swelled into a ghastly and sickly grimace before he could quash it into a polite, plastic smile. In Ardem’s first generation of schoolchildren, he had learned by rote the fables of Vanoor and Klyrn, and heard prodigious tales told by princelings of realms so distant they might have fringed myth and fantasy, so his well-traveled mind was no stranger to tales painting giants as jocular cannibals, who jested with a victim as they unwound his intestines on a spool or dabbed in a corpse’s mouldering skull to draw a verse in bloody brains for a gory limerick.
“But there is no practical use for two goldbricks like us.”
“While I agree,” said the giant, “there is a standing order I must obey. You insects might have kept to your anthills on the world below.”
“You’ve been seeing a lot of us, then?” queried Dranwen.
“That’s a precious answer,” said the giant, “considering you were spotted just yesterday, darting across Wysaerie with your dragon shoes.”
“I didn’t see any giants!”
“How could you? We were up here, looking over the side.”
“How could you possibly know it was me?”
“Your brains are so small,” griped the giant. “Can’t you see my eyes are bigger than yours? What do they teach you in Ardem? Certainly not optics.”
“That’s ridiculous,” scoffed the inventor.
“It’s a useful science. One day you might use optics to plan a trip to the stars. Before that, you might find it useful in navigating those dragon-infested seas and isles.” The Terrortories were vast and exceedingly dangerous islands surrounding Ardem, Vanoor, and Klyrn, and home not only to dragons, wyverns, and the lesser dracoils, but all manner of savage, flesh-eating beasts.
Over gruelling millenia, humanity had crawled from caves to carve out a cradle of civilization skin by skin, the hides of each beast literally used to propagate, on scrolls and maps, the foundations of myth, geography, history, philosophy, and literature. To this day, the Three Kingdoms remained confined within this cradle of civilization, and hungry monsters roamed outside, respecting the boundaries to the fine and ambiguous line where human life left off and monsterdom began, slavering, breeding, spawning, and proliferating.
“That’s not what I meant,” said Drawnen. “Why should your eyes be any better than mine?”
“How far does a gnat see, do you think? Or the tiny germs you microbes haven’t begun to speculate upon?”
“But you’re making all sorts of assumptions about...”
The giant cut her off with a snort. “You forget your audience. I’m living it, am I not?”
“That’s hardly proof! It’s only hearsay.”
“Your friend doesn’t like to lose,” the giant said to Roric.
“That’s impossible!” Roric raved, his screech making all the short vowels long.
“Ow.” The giant recoiled from Roric’s squeaky terror. “I like two friends with faith in each other, but...”
“No, that! That! That! That!” Roric’s syllables were stilted in disbelief and ranting terror.
“Oh, that. I forgot the effect it can have on visistors.”
Dranwen’s jaw fell slack. Even without her spectacles, the vast blurry panorama gaping before her was immense and awe-inspiring. “Is that what I think?”
“You can’t think about it!” screeched Roric. “It’s inconceivable!” As Roric’s terror plunged into doom and gloom, the word inconceivable bottomed out too, and Roric somehow squashed long vowels into short vowels, his murmur barely rising above a sputter and a long-drawn out gasp.
For, on passing through five foot thick vault doors guarding the shrine’s other end—surely installed only for ornamental purposes, as the chance of anyone other than a giant knocking was infintesimally small—they were treated to an awesome, maddening display: a stone tower tapered on both ends, on top to a tip so fine it hurt to look at it, and at the base to a finer point, balanced precariously upon a pyramidal pedestal. The equipoise of this colossal needle was undisturbed as its stone sides shot straight into starry blackness, being now so high that though the sun blazed fiercer and hotter, the blue sky of day was far below, as if they had walked up, up, and up into night.