The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter Fourteen

“Leonidas?”

Hearing his cousin’s name dispelled Ilmar’s illusion, for his former assistant should both know his face and shudder to speak his name.

While dressed as girls, the four women wore vintage fashions, designs popular when Ilmar studied in Ardem.

“You can’t be here.”

In the moment, frozen over a sweet mouthful of lemon ice, she had looked like Elessa Andercruik, but Ilmar now saw the changes of well-preserved middle age: her firey red hair was browning, and glinting with silver stragglers; her mouth and cheeks were painted to the blush Elessa had by her natural youth; and, her much trimmer waist showed a maturer inclination to deny sweets,

having only relented in this instance, perhaps, to enjoy the festival atmosphere.

“You are not Elessa Cavarah,” said Ilmar Andercruik.

“And you are neither Leonidas Andercruik, nor worthy of my daughter.”

Despite himself, Ilmar beamed a broad smile. His desires having been tainted by a tantalizing memory of the father’s roasting aroma, the spicy mother might make a route to the succulent daughter. “My lady, trust to my taste, and you will find it the final authority in discriminating refinement.”

“Kala, why dally with this minstrel?” If this powder-faced crone was the same age as Elessa’s mother, Ilmar conceived an immediate respect for Kala, for they seemed like mother and daughter, not two old college friends.

“I had thought such tawdry lines too quaint to truck out in public,” said Ilmar, “but you breathe life into antiquity faster than dragons breathe fire into virgin maidens. That said, think twice next time before lending your full figure to the fashions of yesteryear.”

While the women did not laugh, Ilmar saw an amused flicker in Kala’s eyes.

“Please.” The unfamiliar word stuck in Ilmar’s throat. He was unaccustomed to saying it, even in polite society. “How could you mistake me for my cousin? While we each took after our fathers, they were not brothers, and our resemblance is slight.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Kala. “Perhaps you absorbed the man’s image? Less a human mirror than a cannibal of reflections, so impressed by the man in the flesh that you’ve consumed it and made it your own.”

Having literally eaten Kala’s husband, this remark hit so close to home that Ilmar tittered. While it scored deep and wounded his pride, as she intended, she must be ignorant of just how deep she ran him through—or was she? Perhaps their meeting was no accident, but by her design. “Very droll. Where is Shaul?”

“Is he here?” Kala’s shame-faced fear seemed genuine. She looked over her shoulder, then down an adjoining alley, as if she expected him to come up upon her unawares.

“I might have passed him recently.” Ilmar smirked. “What would he look like, were he here in the flesh?”

“He would have nothing to do with you,” scowled Kala.

Ilmar shrugged. “Then he is with us in spirit, for you are unaccountably rude, Mrs. Cavarah.”

“It’s Venihault.” Rolling her eyes, Kala turned her shoulder, locked arms with her friends, and strutted down Everlam.

Ilmar’s eyes and nostrils narrowed as he pinched off a slow, frustrated exhalation. It was inconceivable. First, that fat, lurching toady had talked back before all his followers. Then that inventor had rejected his advances, in more ways than one. Now, his apprentice’s mother snubbed him. How far he had fallen since last year, when he always had the upper hand. When famishment pounced hard, he swayed, and mourned his old appetite, before he was tainted by a griffon’s tastes. Was he so defeated that he couldn’t eat what he wanted, when he wanted?

When he took to pussyfooting—first taking a few tentative steps after Kala, then moseying back, then drifting to a vendor of fried poultry, then hovering at a seller of sweet bread, but not able to get anything he wanted in his claws or beak, figuratively speaking—a wave of self-loathing washed over him, and he stormed into a cafe.

While they set a delicious spread, bringing any delicacy he wished, no matter how impossible—as if they stocked their larder with the flesh of mythical beasts preparatory to every Exhiibition—as well as goodies he hadn’t anticipated, and a few culinary delights he had never tasted, let alone dreamed, he could only pick at them, touch them gingerly to his tongue, and make moues of sputtering distaste, like a finicky cat. He gagged on pate of gildlark, choked on a fireturtle soup, and ended by bolting back a few exquisitely seasoned, but nonetheless gorge-inducing to Ilmar for all that, filets of summerland dracoil. Every wine tasted sour, every liquored drink bitter, and even water tasted like iron.

Ilmar couldn’t help snickering at the irony—although they had spared no expense, and the lives of twenty animals were sacrificed to plate this feast, the only flesh he craved was tabled beside him, fat-cheeked nobles’ sons and daughters fattening their pedigree with a degree from Ardem. <

Having sampled their wine list and quenched his thirst with aged red wine, Ilmar passed the time by imagining how each diner might taste. For if he backed away as fast as he walked into the cafe, he would be carved up by another kind of flesh-eaters: the butchers of juicy gossip and the devourers of rumor. He had fond memories of the Corner Cafe from his glory days in Ardem. While he might cook the proprietor in a pan with butter and herbs, he would not want it said that he had snubbed the cafe’s gourmet fare. If their reputation suffered, it would be harder to remember the way that it was, and his long past days of innocence would die a little.

(this section to be concluded)

***

“You go ahead. My head hurts.”

While Euscura feigned a smile, discernible in dimples much too impudent and protruding, and poured out honey to sweeten her already dulcet tone, her eyes were lazily dim, and her gestures stiff and inarticulate as a wind-blown branch. “You mustn’t, my dearest, you simply mustn’t. You must come for the whole show, especially after running into that fright.”

“Ilmar Andercruik is more likely to bite his own tongue than bite your head off,” Kala’s tone sounded tepid even to her own ears. “Less griffin than windbag.”

“Then come along! We haven’t even had a bite to eat.”

“While we may not have had a proper meal, there were plenty of bites.”

Although a light eater, Euscura had lost her girlish figure decades ago, mainly due to her inability to restrain herself from having a bite here, a bite there, and so forth, all day and night long, even rising from bed for midnight pecks, and this voracious bird hadn’t restrained herself at the Grand Exhibition either, daintily picking at samples, noshing on gratis small plates, and tippling complimentary beverages. And while she prided herself on not being a drunkard, this stiff but whippy bon vivant was an inveterate imbiber, and more or less constantly tipsy from always heading not only for the slop, but the swill, descending with an appetite at once bird-eyed and pig-eyed, so that the tabled fare lightened moment by moment, Euscura’s bites and sips so tiny that one couldn’t blame her for the tattered bones, the bare bowls, and the evaporated wine.

“Tee hee,” tittered Euscura, then drew up her shoulders into a cold stare. “Rude.”

“Yoosie, it’s only me.” She sighed, and smiled her most winning smile, and even meant it when it worked, as Euscura beamed back an absurd, overly-broad smile, as if she had a crush on Kala.

Not that Kala hadn’t meant what she said, but she had to molly-coddle this glutton, if only for the moment. Having married the Dean of Ardem, Euscura was a connection Kala couldn’t afford to squander until she got what she came for, at which point she could dip all thoughts of Euscura into oblivion, just as she had dropped every other fake friend into that dissolving solution.

“Then what am I to do?” pouted Euscura.

“What about Flominia and Ariza?”

“They’re on a different tour than we are, I’m afraid.”

Kala smiled knowingly and winked. “You mean the boy tour.”

“In Ariza’s case, literally, considering how she dotes on the freshmen.”

“Even if you don’t share her interest in scenery, you might enjoy the spectacle she makes.”

“I’d rather share your headache,” Euscura grumped. “Is there enough for two?”

“I’d laugh if it wasn’t so agonizing.”

“Go if you must.”

“I could stay...and be miserable.”

“And of course I can’t want that!” Euscura practically shouted, as she rolled her eyes. “Will I see you before next Exhibition?”

“Of course. Unless I’m feeling much, much worse this evening, our plans haven’t changed. As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping to rest now, to freshen up for later.”

“Where are we going, anyway?” As they talked, Kala had led them down the meandering cobblestone bricks of Old Ardem.

“I haven’t the foggiest,” said Kala.

“Are you rendezvousing with that old wizard?” Euscura poked Kala with an insinuating glance.

Kala seethed. “While I would hate to lose the privilege of your company, if you suggest that again, I will find a new companion for the Grand Exhibition.”

“It was only a joke!”

“Yes, only. Funny,” Kala’s clipped tones underscored her feeling that she thought it as unfunny as it was possible for a thing to be. “Until tonight, Euscura.”

“I might have a peck at that wizard myself,” tittered Euscura.

“It’s not funny anymore, Euscura. Goodbye.”

“What if he’s delicious?”

“No doubt you were made for each other.”

“Like peaches and cream.”

More like predator and prey, thought Kala, but let this comment go unvoiced, however her distaste for the pompous wizard still lingered, creeping in her spine. Just how had he become acquainted with her daughter, anyway? The last she knew, Shaul and Elessa were still raising horses in Glasford.

“I see that look, you conniver! You want him for yourself.”

“You used to be much better at reading me. Or perhaps I’m more difficult to read. Once a pamphlet, now a codex. I suppose we’ve both changed.”

“While you change nightly for your shows, I’m still the same Euscura. There is no other name that fits me.”

And nothing else fits you either, Kala thought vindictively, then felt the worse for it, remembering not only the many times she had defended her large friend against vicious remarks directed at her ample proportions, but her big boned husband and daughter, for whom she nurtured a love larger than life, even after all these years. While the crown had her mind, her oath and her fealty, it would never have her heart—what remained of it. There was so little left that Ilmar had been barely tempted, and she only appealed to Euscura because the large woman was such a vocal fan of small bites.

“Right now I could call you headache, because you follow me closer than mine.”

“Oh, very well. I can take a hint.”

No, no, no, you can’t. Just a joke. That’s what we do, Euscura. Goodbye.” She weighted both syllables of her farewell with such emphasis that her large friend seemed to spin in reaction, like a counterweight.

“Then I’ll be seeing you?” Euscura called hopefully over her shoulder.

“Good night!” Kala spat with the same loaded emphasis, then corrected herself: “tonight, I mean. This headache has pinched me so tight that I can’t think straight.”

By the time she put Euscura behind her, Kala really had a headache, for the larger woman first stopped at a seller of ices, then pattered to another stand, then another, and, by so doing, tailed Kala all the way down Everlam. No doubt her nosy, conspicuously large friend was only wanting gossip, or so envious of Kala as to continue their acquaintance vicariously and involuntarily by pursuing her all the day long. Possibly, Euscura believed Kala was slipping away to tryst with Ilmar.

Having had to dip into a bookseller’s stall to give Euscura the slip, Kala then emerged, reclined on a bench, and lifted a book to her face, which, entirely by accident, proved a fascinating and engrossing retelling of the Evanescence of the Gods, that quiet day when the quiet gods, not having the dignity to vanish or ascend, walked away from humanity, still burning beyond the pale with a light that only the desperately faithful could still claim to see, such a meager glint that the rest of their flocks turned back to their fellows, searching there for the joy they had desired.

In this tale, the goddess Gemana took pity on the giants, those closest in heritage to the gods, not only long lived, but with long enough memories not to forget their divine parentage, Having invoked her reflection in the sky, her self-sister Magena, together they wrought a fallen moon, knocked from its orbit in the bitter wars of the gods, into a sliver sleek enough to glide on the winds. When Gemana beckoned to the cloud island’s surface, grass, trees, rivers, and ponds flowered.

“You!” The young voice smoked with anger. While not a male voice, neither was it feminine, bearing as it did a hot strength so jolting Elessa on her bench that she dropped the book into her lap.

“Elessa!” While this speaker was somewhat older, and full of himself, he quavered with an uncertainty she had only heard from grocers, courtiers, and pen-pushers. “Owwww!” His exclamation creaked, then was pinched tight, ending with a groan. “Enouwwwwgh!”

Kala could not help herself. Elessa was not a common name. Peering surreptitiously over The Evanescence of The Gods, Kala watched a disheveled student embrace a man gray enough to be her father, if much too finely dressed to play that humble role on stage. While the big-boned girl was comfortably dressed in pantaloons and a blouse more apt for a sailor, his suit was tailored to the eighth inch, so that he would have looked pinched in his fine attire, if he was not so spare to begin with, and if he was not being crushed in a passion fiercer than ardor, as if the large young woman hoped to squeeze him out in a single greasy dollop onto the street.

When the girl flung him back, her cheeks flushed, and her hands balled. Surely this was not her Elessa. The girl was so unlike Shaul, Kala thought, but when that thought made her take stock in the stranger, she was unnerved by the shocking shade of red so like her own hair, as well as her larger than life frame, and the cast of her shoulders and the spacing of her feet, all so like Shaul.

“Where’s Biter?” the young woman asked.

“Um,” said the older man. “Biter? How about a ‘how are you?’”

“There’s no point, Gaspar,” she said. “When I tried caring for you, you let me down at every opportunity. Where’s Biter?”

“Where’s Beast, for that matter?”

“She’s being looked after.”

“Very reasonable. I stabled Biter as well.”

“You what?”

“Just what you said-- he’s being looked after.”

“Beast was shot by an arrow!”

“I see.”

“You really put Biter in a stable? Here in Ardem?”

The graying man averted his eyes and cleared his throat. “Klyrn.”

“In Klyrn? I knew you were cold, Gaspar, but that’s monstrous even for you!”

“If he cared, he didn’t say so.” When his fake laugh set Kala’s hair on edge, she walked briskly into the street, so briskly that she didn’t realize until she stood right behind her daughter’s tall, thickset redheaded namesake, that she still clasped The Evanescence of the Gods.

“Excuse me.” she heard herself say. It was like someone else was speaking from far away, so much of her attention was on so strange, yet so familiar, young woman. “You do know that you are shouting?”

The fuming girl only half-turned, keeping half an eye on Gaspar, as if he was a skittish sheep that might bolt any moment. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t meant to shout.” The girl’s brow furrowed as she glanced at the spine of the book. “The Evanescence of the Gods? I don’t know that one.”

“You read a lot?”

“Not as much as I’d like.”

“Then you’re in the right place,” smiled Kala. “Nowhere has more books than Ardem, not even the Emperor’s library.”

“I don’t know about that,” snorted the graying man, shaking his head. “He has a vast library, you know. Perhaps if everyone in Ardem swept all their books together they might match the Emperor’s collection.”

“Are books something to be swept up? Are you a book burner?”

“Well, no...you know, we were having a conversation before you happened along.”

“She almost cracked your ribs.You should thank me.”

“Thank you?” said the graying man quizzically. “Believe it or not, this was a happy reunion.”

“Happy?” Elessa brayed. “You left the only thing that loves you across the sea, Gaspar! Heartbroken, maybe climbing the walls!”

“The only thing that loves me?” Gaspar’s face grayed nearly the color of his hair. “I thought we were friends, Elessa. And I’ve been married.”

“You raced from one loveless marriage into another, when you had the skies and true devotion?”

When the redheaded girl drew back her balled fist, Kala gently took her wrist. “Ardem does have peace officers, you know.”

“Oh, believe me,” sighed Elessa, “we’re acquainted.” As her glare crumpled into a sad scowl, she turned from Gaspar to Kala. “Have we met?”

Kala tittered. “Not likely. I’m a bit older than I look, and I doubt we run in the same circles. Unless you’ve ever worked on stage?”

“That voice!” As Elessa pointed toward Kala, her face crinkled into a smile, then widened into a beaming grin. “If you think to catch the mouser...” she sang.

Kala answered back in song, “I bet you don’t know how, sir.”

“You’re Kala Venihault!”

“You have me at a disadvantage, young lady.”

“Oh. I’m Elessa.”

“You’re also older than you look if you know me from that.” Kala giggled.

“No, I was only six. But I still know some of the songs!”

“Only six?”

“My father took me.” A deep crimson now ran from the tips of her ears to her eyelids, which had swooned shut over the memory. “The happiest day of my life.”

Kala’s heart skipped a beat. ““Not your mother? Where was she?”

“She left.”

“I’m so sorry.” Kala feigned disgust as her temple throbbed, aching with the pain of what she had done to her own Elessa. “But I’ve heard this story before.”

“It’s a common story.” Bowing her head in embarrassment, Elessa stepped towards Gaspar.

“I didn’t mean to make light. I meant what I said. I think I’ve heard your story before. Did your father work on stage?” Tread lightly, Kala told herself, if it is her, she despises me, and with good reason. When Elessa’s soft friend, Gaspar, took a gingerly step back, and his eyes widened, playing the part of the sly, softspoken sheep that he seemed to be, she knew that he had gotten there before the girl, who, with every word, seemed more and more likely to be the Elessa she both dreaded and dreamed to see.

“Not willingly,” chuckled Elessa. “But to please my mother, he built some scaffolding, and a set or two.”

“And what was his name?”

“Shaul.”

Her dress seemed to shrivel to a funeral shroud, as if she was not standing before her long neglected daughter, but lying on cold birch, the brisk air rushing through her suddenly sheer fabric like coffin splinters, pricking her spine, the small of her back, and the nape of her neck.

“So you do know him?” Elessa stepped forward, as if her flesh, by instinct, echoed toward the grief-stricken, lovesick aches of her mother’s heart.

“You don’t say. Kala’s stage instinct took over just in time, so that her stammer was hammered flat into a cool breath tinged by irony. “Of course I know your father, child. And while I can scarcely remember your mother as she used to be, that was so long ago, and she has certainly changed by now. Speaking of which, I’m surprised you recognize me, Elessa.”

“I wouldn’t have, except that your hair is cut the same way, and your make-up is the same as well.”

Shaul had liked her in that role so much that, as the poison of family nostalgia and a melancholic, unfulfilled desire for her husband gradually consumed and embittered Kala, it had been easier to wear a new mask, the persona of Elcura the Mouser, still her favorite role, whether in stagecraft or spycraft; while she had always fussed about her peculiar personal tastes, now she grew into Elcura’s face and hair, braiding her tresses until they were the simulacra of glossy and resinous beads, and if she layered on pinkish rouge a shade lighter than the cute stage rodent, it reimagined her features twenty years younger.

She had been accused by colleagues in both the espionage and theatrical communities of sniping at the looks of someone even younger than that, trying to pass for a child who, having just come of age, was shopping for husbands, and, indeed, she had been propositioned by landed lords and propertied merchants, only some of whom had withdrawn their proposals when they learned just how old she was.

“Don’t let this fool you. It’s just a part I play.”

“Even now? Where’s the show?”

Kala laughed. “Only in memory. I only mean that I also have a sentimental attachment to that comedy. Just as it reminds you of your beloved father, it reminds me of brighter days, when less of me was in the shadow of age, and I felt truly and passionately more myself. Having theater in his blood, however much he denied the spark, I’m sure your father can relate. Speaking of Shaul, how is he? He can’t still be tilling the soil if he sent you all the way here?”

When Elessa’s face crumpled, and her shoulders shrugged in a sob, this shrunken and pitiful dry gasp, while not only tearless but nearly airless, crushed Kala with a swaying, dizzying grief that seemed to hollow the tents and darken the streets.

“He died.”

While drowned in a darkening sorrow, Kala’s hands flew like ravens for Elessa, who grasped the offered fingers and wrung them so gratefully that Kala felt the pain of the mighty clench as a murmuring undertow to the painfully sharp tears, the hot waves of grief, and the cold drops of longing, which she had thought dried out long ago, having become a dutiful desert for her Emperor. While she would have liked a fruitful destiny, she had satisfied her thirst for life by producing thorns.

“Thank you,” Elessa quavered.

“But how...”

“Please don’t ask.”

“Forgive me. I know this must be fresh, but was it a natural death? Tell me only that.”

When Elessa laughed, her face wrinkled in self-loathing, and perhaps a reluctant resentment of this idol from her childhood. “I shouldn’t laugh, but I’m still so dazzled by you that I hear the equivocations of the stage.” She drew herself up, as if in a spotlighted soliloquy. “A natural death, she says, when Nature has so many ways? If uncommon, to die by fire, it must be admitted, is very natural. If rarer still, to die chewed is a rude death, but very natural.” Elessa divested herself of an irruption of hysterical laughter. “Forgive me, I’m not myself.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Kala folded Elessa into an embrace. “Some die, while others live.”

Elessa’s giggles were now wet with tears. “Thank you for humoring me. That was a good line. I’m so cold. I feel that the shade of my father has passed over me.” When her shoulders shivered, she clenched Kala harder, and the older woman felt the shudder sink into her deceitful bones.

“Or something closer still.” Kala pressed Elessa closer.

The graying man cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

“Shh,” said Kala. Though Elessa had scratched deeper, under the dry sobs, to the wet, muddier sobs, and the shush could have applied to her, Kala steered her dark scowl toward Gaspar.

While she had believed him an older man, she realized she had overestimated how much older, and perhaps underestimated the man. While his hair was graying, his face was youthful, and while his voice was weak, his face was tanned and weathered, his legs and arms were strong, and his finery showed not only the fastidious pleats and crisp corners of one who knew how to care for finery, but the wear of an active life. If his shoulders were sharp, and the lines of his sleeves and pants were distinct, the elbows were rubbed, and his cuffs had the bright edge of a fabric beginning to fray. While this man might be at leisure, he was not on a mere holiday; he had been on the road for months.

“Before I take my leave,” Gaspar said, “you should know that I also saw The Mouser, The Mice, and Nine Madrigals.”

“Along with half of Vanoor,” growled Kala. “Away with you.”

“Tell her I’m sorry.”

“She has ears, fool. Now. Far, far away.”

“Why should stabling Biter affect her so...”

“While it’s obviously more than that, right now I don’t care. With an entire exhibition of amusements, you needn’t torment this poor girl.”

The man scowled. “Believe me, she’s grown. You should have seen some of the things she did. I wouldn’t be here right now, if not for her.”

“Then show some gratitude and go.”

“You’re being unfair,” said Gaspar.

“Her father died!”

“I’m very sorry about that, but...”

“You meant something to me!” Elessa sobbed. “In everything that’s happened, at least I could think Gaspar was doing something with his freedom. Not something good, of course, something properly selfish, but at least you were free. And the one good deed you did is behind you now—literally! You left Biter in Klyrn”

“Just one good deed? Is that all?” Gaspar blanched. “I think I did more than that.”

“Nothing I want to think about!” Elessa rubbed her eyes so red with her sleeves that they looked like two dour, glowering flames in the middle of her sunburned face. “You can’t know, can you?”

“Can’t know what?”

“If you knew Ilmar was here, you’d be halfway back to Vanoor.”

“Why should I care?” But when Gaspar’s indignation could not muster enough anger to become bravado, he measurably deflated, and his age lines seemed to sag on their strings, until he hung there like a marionette whose handle rested above, as if the puppeteer had lost interest in the show, and went to make himself a sandwich. As animation returned slowly, Gaspar’s lily white cheeks pinked with embarrassment, his feet backpedalled woodenly, and he stammered, persistently, “I wouldn’t say I’m on bad terms with the wizard.”

“He killed your wife!”

When he giggled, he drew his hand across his mouth, and when that only smothered it to a titter, he bit his hand. It was such a spontaneous, improper laugh that Kala couldn’t help snickering along with his performance, and when Elessa shuddered in Kala’s embrace, the older woman gazed with a motherly, hypocritical concern into the younger’s face, and saw only that the despicable man’s reprehensible laughter had also echoed in her daughter.

Having suppressed his contagious mirth, Gaspar said, “While I’m a little flattered, and not a little bit astounded, to hear I mean something to you, I’m surprised to hear you cared for Adelae.” While he drew himself up as proudly as he could, his chin still dipped ingratiatingly. “Did you laugh when you heard the news?”

Elessa hid her face.

“Go away, Gaspar!” Kala slid a needle-thin blade from the tail of a dragon wrought into the copper clasp holding her coiffure together, and when this darted forth in a three-pronged attack with her glowering eyes, Gaspar shuffled back, an incredulous look on his face.

When Gaspar raised his voice to a bellow, the better to draw in the eyes of bystanders, Kala was reminded of countless, brassy melodramas in which she had faced off against tawdry villains as the hero. “Now see here!” he yowled, “what do you mean by this? You don’t need that...”

“What would you know about a woman’s needs, Gaspar? Look what you’ve done to her, and as for this, I bought it for the art value! Not only have I never had to draw it before, but I’ve only had to stand you for five minutes!”

“I only mean that I was already leaving.”

“Then you’re facing the wrong way, Gaspar.”

When his chin dropped, as if to wag some more, she shuffled a step nearer, shifting from their embrace to clasping Elessa’s hand, and thrusting her daughter behind her, a melodramatic stage move long rehearsed in facing off against mustache-twirling villains. Whatever sympathies Gaspar had elicited from the growing crowd evaporated in the heat of Kala’s performance, and moreover, these students and academics well knew the language of the theater, in which this move signified protecting the weak, and marked what side to root for. Kala felt herself drawn in by the show as well, so much so that it felt like she meant it. She would shield her grieving daughter even if a monster fell from the skies. While she brandished the flimsy blade like a magic wand, Gaspar didn’t turn into any particular vermin, but crawled away like the specific cretin he was.

***

While not a habitual drunk, Gaspar and his limits were well-acquainted, so whenever he brushed against one of those narrow boundary lines, there was a chance, slim or fat, that he might freak out, by indulging a rarely-fed vice, like alcohol, spicy food, or dancing. When he was flung over one of those narrow boundary lines, not only did the likelihood soar, but it ended in something particularly out of character—such as joining a farmgirl on the harrowing, year-long adventure that made his fortune. Or fathering a griffin.

While his ties to the affectionate monster had gradually frayed, until he had forgotten the color of its eyes, and its appalling scent had faded from the deplorable to the anecdotal, Gaspar was not so young that he could afford to lie to himself, not anymore, and he knew he had regrets where the beast was concerned. However, it was such a trial to remember his pet monster that whenever he thought of Biter, a wave of exhaustion swept over him, drowning him moments before he could be dunked deep into depression, and he would allow himself to be carried along on these currents of fatigue, ending in a dreamless sleep.

And so it was that, while in a full knowledge that he had failed his neglected beast, Gaspar had, through the cowardice of sleep, avoided dwelling on it. In the day, there had been the pains of travel, while at night, he need only indulge his entitled conscience until those gluttonous, overfed morals drifted into sleep.

When the Emperor had dismissed all but his personal guard for the duration of the Grand Exhibition, Gaspar had at first enjoyed his sabbatical, finding that a festival is even more enjoyable when one is lean, trim, and healthy. When his feet stopped aching, and his bones, relieved from the constant pains of travel, cooled down, he began to feel more like Gaspar--and, oddly, less like Gaspar—than he had in years.

And so as he walked back to his hotel, shame roared in his hot red ears, but his brow was furrowed with remorse for his fabulous monster. Despite his pathetic nostalgia for the beast, when he tried to recall Beast’s vivid plumage, he could only summon a fuzzy, soggy image, sloppy with false details, exaggerated characteristics, and colors both understated and overblown. In missing his griffin, he conjured a chimera.

While his head was bowed, and his shoulders hunched, he had become such a practiced traveler that he brushed through the students like a ghost, as well as the lords, merchants, sailors, and whores, but not the wizard, whose embroidered golden griffins flew straight up their azure fabric as the bowled-over man turned upside down, and his robe turned inside out.

The collision having occurred just as Gaspar had accumulated considerable momentum, and his victim, caught mid-stride, having traded his footing for a sprightly tumble through a fruit stall, Gaspar plowed ahead another thirty feet before he turned and trotted back, his hands fluttering to his mouth in mortification until they and his face froze stiff, like dead birds exposed by a melting snowdrift.

“Gaspar! As I live and,” but the rest was lost when he gasped and croaked, which is not to say that Ilmar Andercruik died literally, but that he was struck suddenly breathless by Gaspar’s rude fist, which had doubled over the twice-winded wizard.

Having taken to his heels, Gaspar ran, and ran, and ran, scattering the students, lords, merchants, sailors, and whores, as well as a few more wizards, and a couple hapless children excited to be brought by their indulgent parents to the Grand Exhibition, and all of these were much more fortunate than the toy dog Gaspar stomped flat, or the weary and exhausted show-off who had only just drifted down from the clouds on sputtering jet boots and touched his grateful toes to the ground, when, in that moment when his heels were still poised an inch above, and settling toward the street, he was caught by the assiduous plowing of Gaspar, and sent groaning on one accidentally reactivated jet boot pinwheeling over the rooftops.

Whether the quiet gods dream in clouds or crypts, it can not be said that their universe is lazy,

rife as it is with coincidence and other, more meaningful, echoes, such as the shockingly bright plummet of a red, indigo, and violet plumage running to talons that slashed toward Gaspar, hooked vest, sleeve, and earlobe, then dragged him screeching into the sky by these tearing handles.

As the feathered monster wended up and over Old Ardem, in its other claw, it snagged the spurting recoil of the last one Gaspar had sent hurtling, clutched the flailing, noodle-thin man tightly until his jet boots were spent, munched, and shrieked in rage.

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