The Grand Exhibition flowered at dawn, its tent flaps thrown wide like petals in a multitude of colors drowning the thoroughfare in a perpetual twilight, their murky interiors speckling the daylight
with sparking science and glinting magic. Only the carriages followed the sliver of sunlight that ran like a golden stream through the concourse, while the hooded and hatted tourists and students clung to the shadowy sides, haggling over meat-on-a-stick, lemon ices, magic baubles, enchanted trinkets, and mad science doo-dads.
A slim figure in trim brown robes moseyed down the displays, purchasing nothing, but marveling at each commodity. With his hood drawn tight, he was so nondescript that he might have been the baseline model for every tourist--in terms of height, build, and grace, he was average, aside from being a few pounds lighter than he ought to be.
Those who drew closer recoiled from his face. Not that it was ugly or disfigured; far from it--it might have been commonplace, were it not for his fanning beard dyed bright red. And if he was disfigured in the technical sense, his colorful markings were both intended and beautiful, a tattoo designed and needled by a noted Klyrnish master.
The face had become canvas for the skin artist, who depicted a black dragon descending, its scales so iridescent that the man’s face shimmered; its open jaws, flush with the upper lip, merged his mouth with its fangs; and, his fiery beard became the artist’s prop, a fanning flame spouting from the dragon’s mouth.
Even after ordering them to enjoy themselves, his guards persisted in tailing him through the crowd. Though both a head and an apple shorter than the tourists around him, Toromal thought the boy’s shirt and breeches, only a size too large, a perfect disguise. The others, having clustered to a distillery exhibition, were quaffing an abundance of samples, no doubt in the name of science. If they truly enjoyed themselves, good for them; but if this public inebriation was their idea of duty, he would have them re-assigned. He couldn’t bear fools and heroes in his entourage. The Emperor valued prudence over bonhomie or courage, as generous boons made the worthy his friends, empty promises quickened the greedy, and his authority could stiffen anyone’s resolve.
Then there was his other shadow. While he didn’t recognize this follower, whenever he turned his head, so that a silver of their profile came in view, it fluttered aside. The rich, green robe seemed strangely familiar, but he didn’t know anyone who wore that color. Once, his eyes flashed left just quick enough to see them in full, and they darted into the passing crowd with an ungainly grace, reminding him of a too-tall ballerina.
Roric awoke with two equally irritating pains in his back: one, from being wedged in a corner between cold cobblestones and a low brick wall; and two, from the bricks prodding and abrading his back, even through his thick overcoat.
As his bleary eyes cleared, they squinted from the harsh, glinting sunlight, and he raised himself to his hands and knees. Not cobblestones, but shingles, he realized numbly, then stood, staggered to the roof’s edge, gripped the half-wall in white-knuckled hands, swayed as he looked down, then scooted in such a quick backpedal that he nearly tumbled over the other side.
As he reeled from the monstrous sight, the past day came back to him, and even as this flood of memories clarified things, it drowned his confusion in a flood of fear.
He had to get away from it.
He simply had to get as far away from the griffin as possible.
He glumly realized that would be difficult, as he shuffled away on one boot, still clasped by one of Dranwen’s Firewalking Shoes, while his other foot plodded along in a sock goopy from the rain-slick rooftop. Having always been sensitive about his mediocre height, he preferred two inch heels, and was now suffering for it, limping along like a three-legged dog.
“Help.” The weak, gasping whisper floated up from where he had seen the beast, snoozing on the metal stairs bolted to the building. “Please. Don’t run away.”
“Shut it!” Roric hissed. “You’re waking it up.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. Please help. You don’t know how strong it is, or how sharp...”
“You’re wrong, Vannori. After my second griffin in as many days, I know enough to leave you to your monster.”
“I have things to do, Vanoori. Not only must the dean know there are giants in the clouds, but I’m heading a murder probe.”
“You’re a police officer,” gasped the greying Vanoori. “You’ll have another dead body on your hands if you don’t help me!”
Roric considered lying, for even if the Vanoori had seen his uniform, it was no more than a glimpse, given how fast Roric had backed away from the sleeping griffin. But he couldn’t help feeling sorry for the Vanoori. Vanoori were such unlucky fools, so quickly did they fall into mishaps and under griffins. “Even if I am,” he grudgingly admitted, “you fell from the sky, which is hardly my jurisdiction,
and barely my area of interest. Even if I’m exceedingly handsome, I’m an ordinary person, who keeps his head down, and has more of an eye for sidewalk than sky.”
“That’s not how I remember...” grunted the man, then groaned as the stairs buckled and creaked. “...it. Sorry, it just rolled on its belly. Next time it gets comfortable might be the end of me. As I was saying, it snatched you first. You were flying too!”
“No,” said Roric. “That’s not how it happened. Not that it’s your fault. Your head smacked on two different dormitories on the way here.”
“Oh, yes. It already had you when it grabbed me. You were screaming something about Ilmar Andercruik.”
Aside from a groan, which thinned into a somber whimper, the man underneath the griffin fell silent. Was he dead? When neither the Vanoori nor the griffin stirred, Roric was about to wash his hands of the whole event and sneak away as quietly as he was able, regardless that only corpses and slumbering griffins were in earshot, when the stifled man groaned loud and gasped long.
“You know Ilmar?”
“Ilmar Andercruik?” Roric wasn’t sure how to respond. While he liked nothing better than to brag, he preferred to take his time spinning a tale, and the pinned man might get crushed while he was still building to the good stuff. “To tell you the truth, we’ve often run into each other, but I doubt he remembers my face or name.”
“You’re wrong.” The man’s groan had become hoarse. Roric supposed he must do something, if only because a dead tourist was more work than he was worth. “Ilmar never forgets. He only remembers. Everything about him is cold deliberation.”
“We can’t help what we’re made of.” Roric nimbly hopped down with a light and graceful clatter on the landing. “You’re mainly lukewarm tedium, and I’m at least half hot coffee. As long as we don’t spill all over anybody, we can slosh anywhere we like.” Turning toward the griffin, Roric immediately flinched from the beast. “This one’s a real monster. At least half again the size of the other one.”
From the heel protruding from the slumbering griffin’s snoring, slobbering beak, Roric gathered that the reprehensible creature was chewing on his boot. The other Firewalking Shoe lay far below, buried in the muck of the alley.
“He wasn’t always this large,” the Vanoori wheezed, as the squirming griffin squeezed him against the wall. “Once he was more cute than deadly.” As his face contracted to an ashy, tightened mask of discomfort, his whitened lips stammered, “you said ‘other one.’” There was a dreamy, half-dead look on his old eyes. “And earlier you said your second griffin in as many days.”
“With all manner of princelings and the spoiled spawn of the wealthy running amok in the Grand Exhibition, Griffins aren’t the strangest thing I’ve seen by far...”
“Then you know Elessa?” the man blurted, his white face purpling as the somnolent griffin’s massive chest expanded, each voluminous snore blasting him against the brick wall.
“Know her? She’s a suspect.” Roric rolled his eyes and sighed. “Not that she did it. Like you, she has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stupid Vanoori--your whole nation got on the wrong side of a bad war,when you likely would have won if you had challenged Klyrn ten years ago.”
“Before he started hoarding titles, castles, fabulous beasts, and luckless Vanoori, the Emperor was a student here in Ardem. Rumors tell of a pudgy little scholar obsessed with our menagerie.”
“Did you know him?”
“How old do you think I am?”
“Much younger than me.”
“You’ll get no argument on that score, and you’re unlikely to get any older crushed under a griffin.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Me? I was waiting to hear your idea. You asked for help, didn’t you? Well, here I am, ready to help. I’m a great helper, but not much of a planner.”
“You’ve got nothing?” This groan, more from dismay than squishing, echoed so loud in the alley that Roric backed away from the snoring monster and gripped the wall. Then the Vanoori strained against the griffin’s vast bulk, and, to Roric’s excitement and disbelief, budged it a few inches before the griffin sidled up even tighter, as if the man was only a sagging, slipping pillow.
“I know this isn’t much comfort,” said Roric, “but even asleep, that creature genuinely seems to like you. In fact, you seem to be a great comfort to that monster.”
“Oh yes, a great comfort. While I was thinking fondly of this beast not an hour ago, it pays me no more mind than a sleeping dog drooling on a bone.”
“No. Even sleeping, it is half-aware of your presence, so that I wouldn’t call its pinning you to the wall accidental, but an unconscious intent.”
“I’m not willing to test that wonderful theory. This is you helping?”
“There are only two possibilities,” mused Roric. “One: either by happenstance, or more likely, instinct, the griffin landed on Ardem’s animal hospital. No doubt scenting your friend’s wounded griffin stabled below.”
“We’re no longer friends.”
“I doubt that,” said Roric.
“She might like you, but you don’t know her like I do.”
“Nor do I have any desire to know her in that fashion,” Roric hastily drew his hands to his chest as if to ward off the very idea of any romantic undercurrent between him and the troublemaker who first passed herself off as Lycinia Mabruk.
“Hardly. We lived on Ilmar Andercruik’s cloud for a little over six months.”
“As his, um, cupbearers?”
“I hear your aspersions, and don’t like them very much.”
“If only we were better acquainted, I might take better care not to step on your toes. ” Roric extended a hand with a wry little smile, seeing very well that the Vanoori and his hands were helplessly pinned. “I’m pleased to meet you, Vanoori. You can call me Roric.”
“Gaspar.” When this hoarse groan sounded more than a little like a death rattle, Roric’s amused eyes contracted into a concerned look, and he tiptoed nearer, trying to find an angle of approach to the pinned Vanoori.
“What’s wrong? It’s still snoring, isn’t it?” said the man.
“I thought that was your last breath.”
“No, no,” said the man, “my name is Gaspar.” But when the griffin shifted again, crunching Gaspar against the wall, it pinched his name into even more of a gasping groan than before. “You’ll forgive my not taking your hand. Better try number two.”
Giving him a quizzical look, Roric extended his other hand. “I hope you mean this, not something else.”
“No,” Gaspar groaned, shrugging off another gentle squeeze of the griffin’s crushing roll, “You said two options. As we don’t have time for number one, what’s number two?”
Roric couldn’t repress his grin. “Wake it up, and hope it’s as fond of you breathing as it is of using you as a pillow.”
“Even if it still likes me, it will see you as breakfast.”
“As my preferred method of waking up your monster is tossing boots from the roof, hopefully it will only see my boots as breakfast.”
“Two boots won’t be enough. With a mighty, gasping shove, Gaspar thrust one leg between the griffin’s flank and the wall, until his foot dangled there. “Better take mine.”
“You’re serious? I was lightening the mood.” Roric snickered. “Not the roof part. I fully intend to be on the roof when we wake up your griffin. And when it stirs, I’m ducking behind the chimney.”
“You’re very brave.”
“Do you want my help or not?”
“I mean it. You don’t have to help me, Roric.”
Roric rolled his eyes, then, grasping the overhanging eave, clambered halfway onto the roof, and had almost shimmied up when a tile peeled off in his hands, and he plopped on the griffin’s head, then rolled down its back.
When the griffin reared on its haunches and screeched, Gaspar popped away from the wall, staggered forward, sucked in a huge gulp of air, then panted it out in hyperventilating squeals of terror
as its claw snatched him up to its angry, squinting glare.
While he knew how stupid it was even as he did it, Roric could not help shrinking and cringing by degrees, like a wilting, sun-starved vegetable, until he had wedged himself into the exact spot Gaspar had vacated, which still smelled of fur, feathers, sweat, and fear. He could only hope that the griffin rolled back against him, for the beast’s massive beak could easily accommodate not only an Ardemian but the Vanoori, as well as a hapless Klyrnish tourist, no doubt giving rise tomorrow to a new off-color joke.
Just as the griffin lurched towards Roric, and he was about to know what it felt like to be the filling of a monster and wall sandwich, Gaspar crooked his fingers into strange gestures, waved frantically, clucked his tongue, and cooed its name. “Beast. Be a good boy, Beast.”
When Beast drew himself on its haunches to a high and proud bearing, it seemed Gaspar’s frantic signs had reached its monstrous mind, but when it dropped Gaspar, and his outflung hands snatched at the metal scaffolding, a cruel glimmer lit the griffin’s eyes. While Gaspar had spoken his piece with the weird signs, the monster had not been persuaded, but chose to answer in kind.
When Biter’s beak dipped down, scooped the Vanoori up again, dangled him for a good five seconds, then dropped him again, Roric couldn’t suppress a giggle. When Gaspar clattered to the metal steps again, now bruised in a half-dozen places, and lifted himself up with shaking hands, Roric could not hold in his boisterous laugh, for the monster had impeccable comic timing.
“Run, you stupid Vanoori!”
Clasping the rails, Gaspar pulled himself up and clattered backwards down the steps.
Whether Gaspar was brave, or had contracted a lamentable case of Mortal Stupidity, Roric found himself unable to turn away from the Vanoori, who, despite the wings fluttering amok, talons reared high, and yellow eyes awhirl in bloodshot rage, kept his own face impassive and calm. The monster seemed strangely less interested in the cause of its rage than in prolonging it, as if it savored its agitation, or, more likely, had truly missed its master, past the point of resentment and despair to a heart-fulfilling longing for completion.
As it brushed nearer Gaspar, the rails bent, the steps buckled, and the framework burst, tilting the staircase to a hard left slant, dropping Gaspar face first into a forty foot drop, then spilling the squawking griffin. At the platform’s far side, Roric lunged, clutched a twisting, buckling strut, and watched as the griffin snapped Gaspar up in its beak, then, with a massive scoop of its wings, broke their descent, until the jolt of the updraft settled them gently in the mud, where Gaspar tottered, splashed onto his side, then squeaked,
“What are you waiting for? Go get the animal doctors.”
“Why?” While his teeth were on edge, less from the harsh, grating sound of the twisting metal than from clutching the teetering landing, Roric kept his voice light and easygoing. “Is there something wrong with it?”
“Other than half-killing me? Nothing. The brute’s healthy. On the other hand, I’ve seen better days.”
“A little outside their purview, I think.”
“Their purview? Are you serious?”
Biter’s head bobbed left, then right, as if idly watching a sporting match.
“I mean, I could get you a doctor.”
“I’ll need one before too long.”
“Or I could kill it.”
Biter settled on his haunches, snorted, eyed them moodily, and uttered a growling trill, as if that was his last word on the matter.
“You?” Gaspar’s terse, high-pitched snort whistled in the alley.
“Well, not just me. I could call the guard. I am the guard, you know.”
“I can see the uniform now,” Gaspar sighed. “But that’s beside the point. We can’t kill it.”
“You don’t think it’s possible? Believe me, we have the firepower.”
“That’s not it.” Gaspar’s sigh continued to malinger in the alley, slashing back and forth with each disgruntled exhalation. “We just can’t kill it.” Gaspar tottered to his feet, gingerly reached for the griffin, and stroked the feathers just under Biter’s chin.
“That’s incredible,” said Roric.
“What? That he let me near?”
“No. You’re still soft on the monster.”
“You’ve never had a pet, have you?”
“Lots,” said Roric. “I was an only child.”
“So was I,” said Gaspar, “only my parents hated animals as well as children. They grew me like a little adult, like growing a whole tree from a branch. This--Biter is his name--was my first pet.”
“Then you are sentimental.”
“It’s hardly sentiment.” A weary scowl flashed over Gaspar’s face. “I raised her from the egg no more than two years ago. You’d be attached too.”
“You’re being unreasonable. This isn’t an egg.” Roric gestured grandly to the enormous griffin. “But if you’re attached, that’s all there is to it, Vanoori. While I detest excuses, we respect property in Ardem.”
“Property? Is everything so cut and dry here? I thought the Klyrnish were heartless.”
“Do you know what I think?”
“I don’t need to know, do I? Not when you’re about to tell me.”
Roric smiled. “I think you’ll fly away with your pet.”
“Not likely,” said Gaspar. “I’m here on the Emperor’s business.”
“The Emperor may have his hooks in you, but Biter’s claws are larger.” Roric shrugged. “But this could go one of two ways.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Flying away with your beast would be a noble departure, worthy of legend. While the Emperor might complain, what better excuse is there than ‘kidnapped by monster?’”
“You make it sound so simple,” sighed Gaspar. “As Chief Scribe, I’m not only responsible for treasury, payroll, itinerary, and journal. but his majesty trusts me to rule and judge when he wants peace and quiet.”
“Speaking one functionary to another, I doubt you’d be missed, Gaspar. Any literate fool could be trained to your position in a day. It’s just a matter of trust, exactitude, and judgment, which is to say common sense, and everyone knows common sense is so common that even fools have it.”
“You forget the rest of that proverb,” said Gaspar. “‘Common sense is so common that even fools have it, but in knowing Good from Evil, the fool picks the shiny one.’”
“It’s not ‘shining one?’ I had thought it a reference to one of the quiet gods.” Roric sighed and considered the gigantic griffin. “As killing it would be the prudent alternative, you’re picking the shiny one now.”
“Maybe.” Gaspar took another step toward the griffin. “Maybe not. You forget it knows me.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a bit of an acquired taste, and it looks like Beast may have acquired that taste.”
“I’m hard pressed to find a right way to take that,” Gaspar scowled, “and even a cannibal won’t eat their own mother.”
“Mother?” Roric chuckled.
“All right, then. Father?”
Roric snickered. “Whatever you do, wait until I inch past your beast.”
“I can do that. But being a peace officer, there’s something you should see.”
“I’ve seen enough to file my report.”
“No, I mean that.” Gaspar pointed to the overshadowing cloud. While not raining, the dark cloud blotted a sizable chunk of sky, so that Ardem was a cold brew of eclipse and sunshine.
“As trailing a black cloud is no crime, Gaspar, both you and Ilmar are off the hook.”
Having clumped one fist in Biter’s violet, blue and green feathers and the other in golden fur, Gaspar mounted the griffin. While Biter’s growl trilled through this movement, the beast did not attack Gaspar, who settled in its fur like one bred to nothing else. “Even so, you may be curious to see Andercruik’s manor.”
“That would be wonderful. You have an invitation?”
“Last I knew, I had a room there. You’d be my guest.”
“I must decline, having a pressing engagement elsewhere.” Sidling to the black metal steps, Roric clambered down one stair at a time.
“Very well.” When Gaspar stroked Biter’s neck and cooed in the griffin’s ear, the monster’s eyes crinkled with predatory delight, fluffed its wings high, and with a darting peck and a powerful downbeat of its wings, snatched Roric and pounced into the sky.