The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter 15 1/2

As they galloped down the stone corridor, it seemed to contract, then constrict, squeezing out not only the light but the air, until the centaur’s ragging breath scraped just under her own wheeze, and as the ceiling lowered, he trotted softer and slower, bowing his head deep and his back deeper, so that Elessa need not stoop at all in the diminished hallway; she remembered her harrowing flight being dragged up Ilmar’s ascensor, which might have been narrower than this, but it mattered not when they flew straight up the vertical passageway; this was a more torturous squeeze than the ascensor.

"Duck.” Elessa first thought the centaur had spit something out, but seeing the low lintel of the coming entrance, she did as she was bade, and only after she had dealt with the shock of having her brains nearly bludgeoned out by the beam, did she allow herself to feel the electrifying fact that the centaur could speak...

“Vanoori! You speak Vanoori!”

When the centaur scowled, and spit this time in earnest, she gathered that he was not proud of this accomplishment. If he had learned the language from Vanoori jailers, she wondered how she had engendered his empathy.

As their trot slowed to a clicking creep, his hooves struck up sparks on the dusty stone of the corridor. They had fled Roric and the rude woman for no more than a minute but had flurried past dozens of empty cells to a crossways, where the cross corridor ran with bright gaslamps shining on new, black stone recently mopped, but the narrow way before them was not only darkened, but frosted by dust, which leaped in puffs and eddies as a stiff breeze gusted from this ancient path. This was the way the centaur had chosen, and seemed determined to follow to the bitter end, given how poorly he fit in its shrinking dimensions, especially carrying a rider of more than modest proportions. As the breeze fanned to a brisk wind, the centaur’s nostrils flared. What had he smelled in the wind? Was he tracking something? Or was it only the smell of freedom itself? To Elessa’s taste, this wind was too stale to be freedom.

When they emerged into an ancient cave, heaped with dusty crates, the centaur straightened and regained his bearing, nearly tipping Elessa from his back, had she not clutched onto his mane. Now unconstrained by the claustrophobic dimensions of the ancient passage, the centaur returned to his former gait, which in a horse you might call spirited, but in a man, you might call cocky. Having regained her seat--and a very sore seat it was, by now--Elessa sat straight and tall as well, scanning the forgotten goods of this underground warehouse. With so much dust caked on the crates, they were likely here since the days of Ardem’s builders. Why would something worthy of sealing in a crate be left forgotten for so long, she wondered.

But the centaur galloped past all these material goods without a care, down the aisles of stacked crates, until the stale aroma freshened, becoming like a spring mist. As they galloped on, his drumming hooves were matched by a hum trembling in the ceiling and floor of the cave, and as they neared the back wall, which seemed ever more distant the more that they trotted, all sounds were drowned out by a booming, watery roar shaking the ceiling and floor of the cave. At first the ground was spattered with droplets from the misty air, until, as they drew very near, the increasingly wetter earth was churned to mud under his hooves.

From the cave mouth, a hard ridge rode high in a steep ledge surpassing a mighty waterfall that hammered a green valley. Had the centaur leaned or swerved a half-foot in any direction, they might have teetered to the churning waters pricked by many sharp rocks, but he cantered as surefooted as if he knew the trail.

Behind them lay the tree-studded slope of the mountain that guarded Ardem. On its other side, the arrow had pierced Beast, and in their pained wanderings, they had found the travex rails, Roric, and the fast track to the University.

Elessa’s pulse began to hammer, and her breath began to flutter. Not only wasn’t she ready to leave, she didn’t know where this path led. Though she had yet to lay her head to a pillow--and, in truth, hadn’t slept at all since arriving in Ardem--she had become attached to Cozy’s room, to the thought of being a dormitory student at Ardem. That Cozy was a necessary appliance that came with the room, well that couldn’t be avoided, could it?

Not that she didn’t like the Dean’s daughter. Actually, she rather liked her more than she usually liked pert, arrogant, upscale brats, for Cozceccia adapted instantly to Elessa’s preference for the role of straight man, assuming Elessa’s naivite was natural, and not the shell in which she grew. Despite the stresses of the night, from Beast’s restraints to the squalorish cell of the centaur to her spat with Roric, whom, she now remembered, had come to arrest her for something she could not possibly have done, in the back of her mind she had begun to hammer clouds into castles and daydreams into futures. She imagined what it would be like to have a normal college career in Ardem, then come back to the quasi-domestic dormitory bliss with her waspish roommate, gossip and rumor away until dawn, then flurry through her procrastinated assignments.

Thinking upon her daydream brought it from the back of her mind to its forefront, until she saw blearily, as if the fogs of daydream clouded the material world as well, that they had nearly crossed the stone promontory, which very nearly made a natural bridge from the mountain she had left to its neighbor, with only a five foot gap cut between their ridge and the facing cliff, where, she now saw, lay another footpath.

When the centaur’s trot quickened to a gallop, Elessa’s hands leaped from his mane. While her first instincts would have had her pull his hair, or wallop his shoulderblades or hindquarters, she remembered that he was not really a beast of burden, but a person, and knew there were only a few civilized options for her not to cross over with him, and to remain in Ardem: she could either leap from his back, or speak to him, and hope his fluency in Vanoori comprehended her meaning.

Or she could scream. Like a little girl. Which is what she did. Not that she was frightened of the drop down the narrow crevasse between the two mountains. Far from it--it was a narrow pass, and he was no doubt up to the task. No, she was overcome by the thought of leaving Ardem. Where her childhood reading and her daydreams were about to bear fantastic fruit. Where she was about to live strange futures. Where she might have had her first kiss, and if she didn’t, well, she migth have read about a thousand more, not only all the good kisses of myth and legend, but the staged kisses, and the ones in poetry, and the new stories that had proliferated since the rise of the printing press in Ardem. It was very strange, thought Elessa, that she should see the first major rise in literacy as an advance for kisses.

The centaur’s canter dropped to a trot, then to a milder, moseying pace, as he turned back the way they came, and headed for the cave.

“Thank you.”

The centaur was silent, save for the swish of his tail and the clip clomp of his hooves.

“Are you Vanoori?”

“Of course not. Why would I recognize any of your human kingdoms? But as our herds cover the northernmost reaches of what you consider Ardem and Vanoor, I have met Ardemians and Vanoori. To my dishonor, most recently.”

“I’m surprised Ardem would allow it.”

“For that matter, my captors were Vanoori, but humans are vile no matter where they take root. And your dean of Ardem is as bribable as the rest.”

“Not all of us are bad, you know.”

“You will tell me you have dreams and ideals. Dreams can be revised, and ideals are an even more sentimental clay. What humans need are ethics.”

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” said Elessa, a little more curtly than she would have liked, then said, “and I suppose I have no defense against your argument, especially given how excited I am to attend school at Ardem.”

“I thought you were falling from my back,” snorted the centaur. “Not fearing to put this vile place behind you.”

Elessa wanted to speak up; to tell the centaur that Ardem actually wasn’t all that vile; that slaves were not kept in its domain, and that Ardem didn’t even wage any wars. If the Dean of Ardem honored the centaur’s captivity at the behest of some visiting dignitary, well, that was inexcusable, but Ardem couldn’t very well risk its precarious position of political neturality, then, could it? The more that she voiced these concerns inside herself, the more the contrariwise head roared, saying that what good was a famed university, a repository of wisdom, if it did not back up its claims to sagacity by exercising not only good judgment, but moral consideration? Why store up the good sense of the ages if one proved unwilling to heed it? And why fabricate, invent, and enchant for a world unworthy of these gifts? Surely they did not think that giving the world gaslamp technology or the electrical illumination that lit the streets of under-Ardem, would also light up their moral sense? Every new spark from Ardem only made life more complex, it did not simplify anything.

Well, if convenience was a disease, then it had infected Elessa, for she could think of nothing else but returning to Ardem. she had already watched herself pass all her classes with honors, graduate with distinction, and receive a professorship from the Dean, who, being her best friend Cozy’s mother, was on nickname basis, calling Elessa “’Lessa” and having her over for the best teas and Klyrnish ices. When she grew old, she would still be a favorite of the students, and return to teach one class a year as a distinguished emeritus, in an overflowing lecture hall. But now it was all tainted by the shadow of the centaur, which would surely tower over her entire college career. It mattered little if the centaur was now free, not when the powers that be in Ardem had acquiesced to his captivity; how could she not grow to despise their authority and rue all her Ardemian accomplishments?

“Even if I was second guessing my college career,” sulked Elessa, “which is not to say that I am, my noble beast is confined in even crueller bonds than yours. I must go back.”

“Your noble beast,” sneered the centaur. For all that the centaur presented as a wild creature, it was quite an urbane sneer, full of scorn for Elessa’s sentiment. “Is that designation also what you recognized in me?”

“No!” Elessa denied it with more heat than she would have liked. “Not that you are not noble, sir centaur, but you resemble not the centaurs of myth, but the heroes. You are no beast, and as such, dependent on no other being for your freedom.”

“So your horse is in their animal hospital,” growled the centaur. “Poor, noble beast, indeed. I heard their cries of anguish in my sleepless nights in that cell, Vanoori.”

“Not a horse,” said Elessa with a scowl, raising her hand to her eyes to ward off the bright rays of morning. The blue cast to the mountainside was mottling to brown, the daylight cut its harsh lines on the ridges, and the cave’s mellow shadows swole to a deep, dark blackness.

“I should have guessed you for a dog person.”


“A mule?” The centaur brayed in his best imitation of that stubborn animal.

“A griffin.”

“Really?” The centaur looked skeptical. “Griffins cannot be tamed.”

“I wouldn’t call Beast tame,” said Elessa. “And to be fair, we cheated nature, and had the help of a wizard who, I believe, conspired to bring our peculiar relationship about. She truly loves me. More than anything living, I think. I hope she still likes me, after her treatment in Ardem.”

“She’s had bad treatment?” sniffed the centaur. “All for the sake of your college experiment?”

“That’s not fair,” hissed Elessa. “She was being given good shelter, and plenty of food, and would still be in good graces here, had she not escaped from her stall.”

“How many did she kill?”

“No one!”

“But not nothing?”

“No people,” she said, then grudgingly added, “but a horse.”

“I don’t like that slippery slope,” sighed the centaur. “If you don’t think horses are people, I can see why you’re not burdened with guilt when faced with my experiences in your precious Ardem.”

“We raised horses on our farm, you know. Me and my father. We treated them well. And yes, they have their own idiosyncrasies. Their own tricks of character. If you’re asking if I felt bad for the horse, of course I did. I was to blame, and it was a good, healthy animal.”

“If I was lame, I would still be in my cell, Vanoori. This is far enough, I think.” The centaur stopped a few hundred feet from the cave mouth, just past the midpoint of the stone span. “Don’t fall, mind you. If you fell into the gorge below, I probably wouldn’t be able to live with myself, but right now, I can’t stand you alive or dead.”

The centaur wasn’t making this easier for her; while in the underground corridor he had stooped to allow her to mount, he now stood rigid, expecting her not only to dismount, but to do so precariously above the deep gorge, and in her mind’s eye, as she leaned over his side, which was already terrifying steep, and then looked down the rise of the mountainside, she already saw herself plummeting to the pass below. She imagined she could see herself crouching with Beast there, as they had done after he had been shot by the arrow. If she could go back into her past now, she would tell herself to move faster, to do more, to tell her whole story.

“You’re not going to make this any easier, are you?” Elessa groaned, then kicked her way down his flanks with her cumbersome, muddy farm boots, having the satisfaction to leave an actual crusty footprint on his withers and draw a shout from his now very-much angry other end, which rounded on her with his green face now ruddier and his eyes aglare. “How did you expect me to get down? I wasn’t about to let myself fall in the gorge trying to get off daintily.”

“Good bye, Vanoori,” the centaur said with a smoldering look. “While you had little to do with my freedom, you had something to do with my discovery, and without you, I might have been overlooked. As I won’t be thought ungrateful, thank you.”

“That may possibly be the coldest good bye I have ever heard. You don’t have to thank me. I couldn’t have done otherwise, not and remain true to myself and my father.”

The centaur simply cantered away; while his horse legs trotted breezily, his human spine and shoulders were ramrod straight, and his braided mane swayed but a little, at least until he burst into a gallop and bent into his ascent, then his leap, of the stone rise.

While Elessa still smoldered at his recriminations, it burned bright and clear around her wistful hope, now charring with the rest, that she might have befriended the centaur. No doubt having a griffin had spoiled her, but nonetheless, the centaur had fascinated her more than any man and as much as any beast. While she had burned many a twilight hour watching their horses in the corral, and Beast’s appetites and affections still preoccupied her throughout the day, the centaur, as a new burning interest, would burn without fuel if she let it, as all of her invisible obsessions burned hot.

She stood for a moment and looked down, this time through the waterfall. The falling water never resolved into a still sheet that would return her reflection, but instead composed a harsh, churning wall of rapid water.

Wandering back through the cave mouth, Elessa retraced her steps past the dusty heaps of goods, found her way back to the main tunnel, and took the service tunnel by which Roric had led them to the centaur.

She feared to see Roric, and shuddered at the thought of renewing her acquaintance with his old friend. While she liked Roric, such weak affection we make from mingling at first sight is tainted by the touch or tone of toxic elements from their past. Unfortunately, this touch of poison only made fascination more toothsome.

Elessa strode angrily down the corridor, her hands tangling, then twisting in her red curls. Though it pulled at her temples she felt instead the tightening of her heart, then released a wracking sob, her closed eyes holding onto the image of her father’s bones, those charred bones she had held, and cried over, and buried in the rain of her still smoldering home village. And when the echoes amplified her cries and brought them back upon her, she felt it as human contact that dissolved her loneliness; though it was only the sound of her own distraught cries, it felt good to feel herself doubled, even in her sadness, even in these shadowed halls. Only when she was brushed to brightness by the nearing gaslamps, then heard the machine thrum, the canned rush of waters in the pipes, and then the clinking of gas in the gaslamps, did she dwindle in her own silence, her shadow lengthening in the increasing candlepower of the gaslamps, until she found the grate they had passed on the way from the animal hospital to Ardem’s cells, wiggled and worried at it, and found it already cut through, its metal joining to the entranceway slagged, no doubt by Roric’s combinator.

Elessa walked down the alleyway, her head turning to the scrawl of blue chalk depicting the black stormcloud above as a dark griffin. Elessa smiled ruefully and shook her head. She was not surprised to find Wysaerie appearing in the street art of the festival, though the graffiti would not last long, not with the bricks already spattered with the rain which had begun to spritz down from the underbelly of Wysaerie. For the cloud island was now not so aloof, but brooded there as if ready to pounce, roiling with black curls of cloudburst, which had begun to pepper Ardem with a steady spray of dark rain.

Was the wizard in, Elessa wondered. Was Ilmar home in his castle? She had a sudden nagging urge to check, and wished her loyal Beast was ready to fly her there. Would Beast rend Ilmar in two if Elessa’s heart demanded it? Until now she only had hopes, but now, with Beast’s ribs cloven by an arrow, and further widened by Elessa’s cool betrayal of her loyal monster, she was unsure whether she still had the griffin’s whole heart. In so little time, she had alienated the fascinating centaur, a ride which had raced her heart like no other. Not that she thought him handsome, or could ever desire the half-horse, but his pacing was perfection. It was quite unlike riding on the griffin, whose abrupt, bird-like twists and hops often shook or startled her, and whose leaps along ground usually made her heart leap more than its flights.

The Grand Exhibition was now a blur to Elessa, all its stalls, booths and displays just so much chaos of wood, steel, science, and magic, the inventions no longer heralding a new future world, but instead seeming to be maibly the metal flowers of welded-together minds; cunning, clever minds like Elessa might have hoped to piece together for herself oneday, but currently saw as so many cerebral snowflakes, all too much alike despite the vast differences they desired to stamp on the Grand Exhibition as points of distinction.

As she brushed through the festival atmosphere, she batted at the tugs on her dress both absently and forcefully, producing not a few yelps and cries, until she was not only bullrushing her way through the crowd, but bullying the crowd, as each new face began to realize, by some preternatural sense, that this storming woman would storm right through them, leaving wreckage where they were, and crumpled to one side or the other like so much tissue paper, making way for the barging, angry woman.

Even when she passed the bookseller’s, she spared only a single forlorn look at a tattered chapbook, until brought up short by the bookseller, who darted over from the cart of books he had been straightening and tipped his bald head.

“I didn’t sell them, you know.”


“Forgive my rudeness, but you were carrying on so through the crowd, and I wasn’t sure when you would return. Most of my customers have a lazy eye for books, sent here by necessity, which means their professors and classes, but in you I sensed a kindred spirit. You touched my books with an interest that borders on care, and you arranged them into such a curious order, the connections of which only a bibliophile would know.”

“You could hardly call me a bibliophile. I’ve borrowed more books than I’ve owned.”

“I didn’t call you rich. A bibliophile pursues books because they love books. You don’t have to be a collector.”

“I know what bibliophile means. And I would collect books if I could.”

“I know that. It’s why I didn’t sell your books.” With that, he indicated the pile of books that Elessa had selected, then picked them up and thrust them into Elessa, so that, if she did not want to fall over, she had to immediately scoop them into her arms.

Through the smile that stole across her face, she said, “I can’t afford these.”

“They’ve already been paid for.” When her smile turned down and her smiling eyes were burdened by a frown, he added, “not by your friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” Elessa said moodily. “And even if he is, he’s barely that.”

The bookseller’s gray eyes peered back. “You’re not the least bit curious?”

“You mean he didn’t buy these?”

“That is what I said.”

“I thought you were...”

“Lying?” He blinked innocently. “Why should I do that? You’re not that good of a customer.”

“So you tell the truth to ragamuffins like me, but lie to the ones that keep the roof over your head?”

“What roof?” he snorted. “I’m not that well-heeled to afford brick and mortar. Can’t you see that this is an open air market?”

“For a bookseller, you’re pretty immune to metaphor.” 95

“For a reader, you’re nearly impervious to humor.”

They both laughed in each other’s faces simultaneously, which had the much older man staggering, and so near a mirthful collapse, that he batted at her arm, forgetting the pile of books that towered there. For Elessa’s part, by reflex she took his feeble hand in her own, which pitched her armload into the street.

“Oh no,” said Elessa. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why,” gasped the old man, still mid-laugh. “Those are your books!”

“You’re right!” Elessa’s eyes widened. “I guess I am sorry then.”

“You have no reason to be,” groused the old man, as he returned to his professional irascibility, and stooped carefully, rocking back and forth on his old knees, as he examined each of the books. “These two aren’t touched at all. The binding split on this one, but it’s common enough for a replacement.”

“Why would you do that? It was my own doing.”

“I think we can agree that we were both at hand.” He harumphed, then returned to his inspection of the pile, which had shaped up nicely on his stooped knees, and continued: “unfortunately, this one--and I’m betting it’s the one you really wanted--did not fare so well. It is still readable. Do you want it, or did you want a refund, miss--”

“You’ve earned the right to call me Elessa, I think. Not that I’d ever want a refund for that book, having wanted to read it since I was five, but why would you give me a refund when I didn’t pay?”

“Gifts are not the property of the giver, Elessa. Whatever do they teach you in Vanoor.” He shook his head. “I hope you’ll be with us for some time. Forgive me for eavesdropping earlier, but you did say you were going to study here?”

“I’m not so sure,” sighed Elessa. “Since I’ve arrived there has been much that has been wonderful and amazing, but there were two things that shook me to my core. And the first one should have been enough.” As she said it, she realized that her sense of uneasiness was the guilt that gnawed away at her, her welling pity for Beast.

“You would judge us all based on one or two? If you are so judgmental, you will go through life disappointed and let down,” he harumphed. “Is that why you’re a reader? I hate to say this, but there will be a day that books and their authors will disappoint you as well. The only perfection you find is the perfection you see.”

Elessa sighed. How could she extricate herself from this sanctimonious if well-read salesman? “So far, I’ve been enthusiastic about everything I’ve read.”

“Maybe you’re lucky,” snorted the old bookseller. “Maybe you’re more generous than me.”

“Well,” said Elessa, not bothering to contradict him, “this is your livelihood. Maybe you can’t afford to be generous.”

“Is that so?” He fixed her with a peculiar glare. If it was a stink eye, there was a core of sweet humor in the bitter glare. “I can be generous with advice, can’t I? Don’t leave Ardem. You belong here.”

She sighed again. “You’re just buttering up a new customer.”

“I certainly am. But I’m not lying, am I? It’s why you’re not making a beeline for the stairs to Old Ardem.”

“Well, I am. But not to leave,” she admitted. “I’m trying to find my way to the dormitories by the easiest route.”

“While the dormitories were built up there, their foundation was long ago moved, so that now it rests down here. They go straight up from here to old Ardem. As juniors and seniors get first pick of rooms, they usually room down here, closer to the hurly burly of under-Ardem, and freshmen and sophomores get the older rooms up above, in old Ardem.”

“But you’re saying I could take the stairs up to my room?”

“Not only could you, but there isn’t a quicker route. Not that it will be fast,” he chortled. “But as it’s a Grand Exhibition, student traffic will be out here, not in the stairwells.”

“Thank you,” Elessa said. “And while you can keep your refund, there is something else I want.”

“What’s that? I likely have it. I try to keep a complete collection of histories, legends, philosophy, mathematics, as well as translations of each in Ardemian, Vanoori, and Klyrnish, not to mention...”

“Oh, this is plenty of reading material. I just want your name. We haven’t properly been introduced, but you know me by name already.”

“My apologies,” the old man said, “you can call me Enzidere.”

“Isn’t that Vanoori?”

“I couldn’t say. Having read so much, I’ve forgotten very nearly as much...”

“Isn’t that a little pretentious, even for a bookseller?”

“It is Vanoori. I used to have a little shop in Algus’s court district, about forty-three years ago,” he muttered. “But don’t tell anyone that. My story is that I’m first generation Ardemian. One of the builders.”

“A good character,” said Elessa. “Have you written any books?”

“I don’t know you that well, Elessa.” When Enzidere smiled, it stretched the brown age spots on his crinkling, dimpled cheek. “I might have. As I’ve just said, I’ve eagerly forgotten nearly as much as I’ve avidly read. If I have an unpublished manuscript or two, or, better yet, a well-lettered pseudonym, it would surprise me as much as you.”

While Enzidere’s dishonesty was blatant, it was also well-mannered, and Elessa smiled at the old man. “Just point me in the right direction, and I’ll leave you to your books.”

“Not for too long, I imagine. Those books are a curious selection, but I can see how they’d lead to other titles. Shall we make a wager?”

Elessa laughed. “You mean to anticipate my next purchases? I don’t know. These may satisfy me for a while.”

“Take as long as you’d like. I only mean a friendly bet. I know you likely have no money, being a freshman in Ardem without mentors or investors.”

“What do I have that you want?”

“Bring me customers. Many freshmen never leave the hall, fearing Ardem’s city and undercity.”

“I’ll do that anyway. But I’ll be very impressed if you predict my next picks from your carts.”

After the old man tied her stack of books together with two pieces of thick twine, he pointed towards a large edifice of dirty red brick, which she now saw stretched to the grotto roof of Ardem’s undercity, just like the black metal stairs. “Goodbye, Elessa.”

“Goodbye, Enzidere.”

As she passed the stalls and booths of the Grand Exhibition’s undercity attractions, she noticed that either the toymaker had moved her tent below, or she had the wherewithal to have two tents, for there was another tent, nearly the duplicate in terms of its size and contents, and only different in the conspicuous absence of the toymaker herself, if not the milling students who were sampling all of the wares.

As Elessa walked through the grand exhibition, she noted the broken, upturned cobblestones, many crumbled into pebbles from the feet crunching the thoroughfares, as well as the tattered litter of paper cones from fruited ices, kebab sticks from roasted and fried meats, and the cast off shreds and shards of rockets and the wreckage of other explosive one-shot toys, many still with scorched tags imprinted ‘Vendamar.’ Newssheets were muddied and trodden in puddles collected solely from the rain tracked down to under Ardem from Old Ardem above.

When she reached the dust-blackened base of the dormitory, she scooted past the students milling in and out of the stairwell, still too self-conscious to meet their eyes, though she knew full well she had more life experience than all these overindulged heiresses and heirs. She even had already learned a half dozen spells, though a half-year of disuse and the veil of fresh grief had rusted them somewhat, so that she must concentrate to remember the verse, the cadence, and the mental imagery. She had knocked every horny suitor flat, foaled horses, lived on a cloud island, and ridden griffins and now a centaur. If her pedigree was less dignified--being more or less an orphan despite the painful fact that her selfish mother yet lived for her own pleasure, unaware of her husband’s death--Elessa’s story was better.

Even Elessa’s legs ached after the ascent to Old Ardem. With all these lights and contraptions, not to mention the travex, why wasn’t there a better conveyance to the freshman floors? Her stomach grumbled, signaling a displeasure that she had not also enjoyed a fruited ice and a fried snack.

She was torn. She looked up the stairwell, towards Cozceccia’s floor, and her stomach grumbled hard, as if it was a giant fist, grasping her around the middle and squeezing out its animal-like roar.

Outside, the raindrops rippled mud-clouded puddles, and blithe passersby turned their heads no longer to the booths, but to each other, showing that the Grand Exhibition, at a little more than a day old, was already old hat, and the new novelties were disclosed in the many engrossing conversations not only spoken to each other, but sold to each other, as the first inklings the plans for next year’s exhibits were laid in the fervid imaginations of nascent innovators. As for those from other lands, they began to look on Ardem not only with amazement, but a growing pride in the school that would one day receive their daughters and sons, and train them in these magical and inventive arts.

But to Elessa, despite her exhaustion--having pulled an all-nighter before ever taking a class, and having just had a harrowing near drop down the side of the mountain sheltering Ardem--all this was still fresh and new, and even if it had been trash-talked a bit by Roric, she still found it to be not only novel, but fantastic, wondrous, an outstanding example of the best Ardem had to offer. If Ardem could not really promise that she would be capable of such things, let alone trusted with the resources and the capital to construct them, well, she could promise and trust herself with such a future.

She wondered how many of these student innovators were graduating, how many were continuing to graduate studies, and how many only seemed young, but were alumni coming to compete for the investors who toured the annual Exhibitions of Ardemian talent.

Finding that there was indeed a second Vendamar tent above, or rather, the first one, which Roric and her had entered her first night in Ardem, she approached the flap and poked her head in, for not only was there no line, but the interior was sparsely attended, and most of the toys sold, so that much of the excitement Elessa felt she brought with her, still haunted by her memories of its jam-packed opening day.

One novelty that yet remained in the bought-out tent, among the gimcracks, firecrackers, whizbangs, automated marionettes, and building toys, was Romara Vendamar herself, who was moving from bin to bin, scribbling on a sheet of paper as she did so, which was facilitated by a clever forearm-mounted writing desk upon which the sheet was fastened by two metal clips. When Romara’s eyes went to Elessa, they batted back to the sheet as she entered another line of numbers, then did a double take,a nd returned to Elessa. “While I am not so absent-minded as other inventors and toymakers, I can’t say that I never forget a face either, but in your case, I could never forget such a distinctive profile, nor such a curious face.”

“You flatter me.”

“And I will continue to do so.” Romara smiled. “I bet I’m not the only one.”

“There is where you would be wrong,” said Elessa, her brow creasing in a frown as she pretended to sift through the greatly diminished contents of the bins. While she saw now, leaning over each of the toy bins, that the Vendamar tent was far from depleted, every purchaser now had to bend at the waist to retrieve whichever curiosity caught their eye. “While there are those who strive to hold my attention here, whatever nice things they have to say are smacked between sarcasm and wit, so that they seem more interested in flattering themselves than me.”

“So you attract show offs.” Romara shrugged. “If they were shy, you would have never met them, Vanoori.”

“Why does everyone call me that? You even know my name.”

“And it’s on the tip of my tongue,” acknowledged Romara with a sheepish grin, “but I didn’t want you think that I had it Elspeth?”

“Elessa. Which I think you knew.”

“Now why would I pretend otherwise?” Romara’s dimpled smile fattened until it had swallowed her impish grin, and while this made her seem, on the whole, more honest, it also made her seem less wholesome, for no one is eager to befriend an honest, gloating villain.

“Have we met before?” asked Elessa. She was startled. Why had Romara’s face not only taken a malevolent cast, but darkened? “I mean before the other day. You seem to harbor an ill will towards me that I cannot explain, Romara.”

“No, Elessa. We have not met, but I think I know you. In many ways, you remind me of myself.”

“Me?” Elessa could hardly believe her ears. They were in so many ways unalike--the fiery haired, copper-skinned Vanoori, and the pallid, dark-haired Ardemian. When she did a double take, her eyes couldn’t help falling into Romara’s, which she then realized--although she had known before in a factual way that the Ardemian inventor was one of those rarities, a woman very near rivalling her in height--were on a level with her own.

“Yes, we’re different, Elessa, but perhaps not so different after all, given that it is our difference which has driven us.”

“What do you mean?”

“Am I wrong?” Romara’s cold eyes seemed to penetrate into her mind, however much her heart and soul fought to repel the icy stare. “If you were a few inches shorter, had cared for a fat lord or lady instead of horses, and had learned how to defer to those above your station, and”--she shuddered--“that half of humankind that see women as distaff by virtue of their birth, perhaps you might have stayed in Vanoor, married, moved into your fat lord’s servant quarters, and never known ought of Ardem.”

“Until Klyrn came through our walls, in any event.” Elessa felt herself fume. At first she wasn’t sure why, until she warmed to her subject. “Vanoor is changing, you know. While the hearts of men are the same, King Algus did much to enact fairer laws.”

“And what of your Emperor?”

“That remains to be seen. I’m a little surprised to hear these are your opinions in Ardem, wheree I’ve seen nothing but equality.”

“Equality? Pfaugh,” Romara spat. It was such a boyish thing, in keeping with her tomboyish cut of hair and style of dress, that Elessa was not taken aback, although she was a little disgusted by the flying spittle and a little impressed with how far it flew. It might have made the tent flap billow if a patron had not gotten in the way, now rubbing the back of his scalp in confusion, his nose wrinkling, and his feet heading as if of their own accord for the entrance. “We have subtler sexism here, Elessa. So subtle that it seems balanced, and, in fact, seems to favor the women, due to the men’s willingness to accord honors to the women. But, aside from our dean, there are few women in positions of power in Ardem.”

“The dean’s a woman?” Elessa’s brow furrowed. “I had thought the dean a man.”

“Really?” Romara allowed herself a mysterious smile.

“My friend said her father was the dean.”

“That’s not entirely false, if not quite true anymore,” tittered Romara. “It’s truer to say that the dean was her father.”

“What do you mean the dean was her father? Surely he still is?”

“In Ardem, fundamental facts have been known to change. We have rather a cavalier attitude to things you hold inviolate, not only life and death, but male and female.” Romara smiled a smug smile. “Now our dean is learning a little of how our subtle sexism works. Perhaps we’ll see some true change.”

“Wait.” Elessa held up her hands, as if she could roll back the astonishing revelation to which Romara so casually alluded. “Are you saying that the dean was a man...”

“Faster, Elessa.” Romara did a little half-wave under her yawning smile, as if she was egging Elessa on to her conclusion.

“...and is now a woman?”

“I said that almost three minutes ago, Elessa. You’ve only just caught up.”

“How is that possible?”

“I would like to say our dean was brave enough to attempt this bold deed himself, but it was a side effect of bringing Ardem’s lighting online.”

Elessa’s eyes widened, but her mouth bellowed wider, caught up in a laugh that shook her head to toe. “Don’t be ridiculous!” she said, after she gasped back the breath to speak. “While I’ve seen how your lights flip from off to on, how could they flip one male to female? Do all people have these electric poles inside them, so that you, or I, could live as a man?”

“Old hat for me, my dear,” said Romara with a mysterious smile.

Elessa took a step back, and took the toymaker in again, starting with her feet, the exaggerated line of her hip boots, with such a hyperbolic feminine line about them that they nearly slashed into the masculine sense. With her boyish haircut, her slim build reminiscent of a marionette, and her loud, outlandish fashion sense, she was at once both maidenly and mannish, even if her masculinity was that of a mannikin, a kind of a half-grown homonculus that had never been able to realize itself as a man, and so had turned inward, finding depths she could never express so long as she had been only a shadow of her true self. For Elessa now saw that the boy Romara was had been nothing but the shadow announcing the coming of the woman, the history of herself in silhouette.

“You’re...I mean, you were...”

“Let me save you from embarrassing yourself, Elessa,” said the toymaker, with a codescending nod of her head; “you need only call be my name, Romara.” She sighed. “While with the Dean, it was an accident--and a happy accident, judging from the way she parades in all manner of sophisticated, feminine dress--with me, it was deliberate. And while all kowtow to the dean, I did not find so much acceptance.”

“Not even in Ardem?”

“Especially not in Ardem,” snickered Romara. “While they are magically and mechanically adventurous, these well-moneyed scions of lords, bankers, and wealthy tradesmen are more often than not socially and culturally conservative. They want all innovation concealed behind the curtain of their stage show, so to speak, so that they can amaze the never-changing bumpkins that give them money and power.”

Elessa was about to say that this all sounded much too melodramatic for her, then thought better for it, realizing that Romara had likely been told she was over the top, or had gone too far, her entire life, and it had never stopped her from fulfilling herself; Elessa suddenly had a very strong desire not to be among the people that had held Romara back, or even told her no. Moreover, Elessa had only just arrived in Ardem, and as she had a few adventures already that left a sour taste in her mouth, and moreover, had met a club of rich posers who fit the bill of Romara’s description, and started to befriend one of these fashionable hypocrites--this dean’s daughter, who, in fact, had proved so unconsciously or carelessly liberal as to not mention her father-become-mother’s happy mishap--she realized that, on the surface level at least, it was likely to be just as Romara had described it, and if there was a deeper level where things were much more ambiguous, she had only briefly met it on coming face to face with the snobby but amiable Cozceccia, then the proud but unlikeable centaur. So she leveled off the ramped up skepticism she was feeling, and said, ”all innovation? I’ve seen a lot of new things that will change the face of the world, when they catch on.”

“What things?” Romara harumphed, “longlasting ices? One of the many ways to fly crafted to turn the heads of investors, all of which, ultimately, prove too costly to be so practical as to revolutionize day to day life. One day, perhaps, we shall all fly as the birds do, whether we choose to fly solo or as part of a group.”

“Warhorses need more upkeep than cart horses. If getting just one person into the air is too expensive, why not focus on transportation in mass.”

“What may be obvious to you and me isn’t so blatant to incoming freshmen, and nor does it keep the lights on here in Ardem, where a certain amount of redundancy is good for business. A university can’t turn a profit if it must only churn out geniuses.”

As they perambulated around the tent, Romara had trained all her attention on Elessa, so much so that Elessa had to steer the toymaker around the tent poles and the bins more than once, grasping her elbow or shoulder in a gentle but firm grip which didn’t seem to register on the burning eyes, which had become not just interested in the discussion, but devoted to it. Elessa realized that Romara wasn’t only an alumni of Ardem, she was a fanatic of it, despite her misgivings and criticisms of their conservativeness and insinuations of pettiness, cruelty, and snobbery. Her absorption in Ardem, and, to some small degree perhaps, Elessa, had become so near total that Elessa continued to maneuver her when required, and as Romara was on the inside of the tight circle they were wending, Romara required intervention fairly often, and Elessa spared her many bumps and scrapes--until Romara’s head darted right, as if tugged sharply in that direction, and whacked herself lightly on a tent pole.

“Ouch.” It was the succinctest and most articulate ouch that Elessa had ever heard, so much so that Elessa waited out Romara’s pause, expecting the exclamation of pain to continue to advocate for herself ever so politely. Now Romara grasped Elessa’s hand, and pulled her towards the tall, wiry inventor. Now that Romara was so close, Elessa could see that, indeed, Romara might be an inch taller, if all the more slenderer. While there was little warmth in the toymaker’s embrace, there was a heightened level of interest, and--was it fear? Having navigated to the other side of the tent by these tight, sashaying maneuvers, rather like a court dance, Romara reached behind Elessa and tugged, and Elessa felt a fluttering breeze, as if a curtain had fallen, and turning for a glimpse of what Romara had stirred, saw that Romara had dragged one of the bin covers over a figure seated on a chair. Now it resembled some concealed statue, ready to reveal to the world.

Elessa gasped. In the pause, her eyes had drawn a leisurely line down the sheet, trying to trace the outline of the hidden figure, and stopped, holding her astonished breath, at the hand. Not a human hand, it was made of gleaming brass and polished wood.

If Romara did not catch her gasp, the jump of her eyes, or her flinching double take, then the inventor must either be very subtle--less face than mask; as bored by Elessa as she affected herself to be; or, completely indifferent to expressions, at least the human ones, not the masterful ones she painted on her stringless marionettes and clockwork puppets.

Elessa’s gaze having fallen first to the deadpan toymaker, then raking through the bins as she pretended the carved figurines caught her interest, she glimpsed a spindly arm, articulated entirely from wood, aside from the miniature hand, its filament-thin finger joints linked by tiny brass spheres, each one glinting like the head of a pin. Though tiny, it was a match to the hand Romara had hidden.

When Elessa lunged in the bin, jostling Romara aside, the inventor’s expressionless mask cracked, but it slowly settled into its dust-dry smile as Elessa groped through the figurines for that which inspired her recognition. For this is the nature of clawing through a bin of near-likenesses, as all who habituate flea markets and marketplaces know--the precariously balanced utensil or toy can slip by degrees under its mates, and the unique coloration, variation, or distinctive feature which piqued your interest proves not to be so distinguishing when you scrape wood with your nails, and backtrack through the merchandise.

“They’re all the same, Vanoori.”

Elessa ignored her, and having been twice defeated by the pile of marionettes, sighed, and took them up into her arms one at a time.

When she had quite an armload of slender, polished lumber, flopping around their tiny limbs, Romara said, “maybe my work just isn’t to your liking?” As Elessa only brushed her hair out of her eyes, it having fallen down from its clip, she narrowed her eyes until she reached the furthest fringes of sarcasm, having stopped just short of glaring, took another figurine into her arms, and flailed at the rest vainly as they tumbled to the tent floor, which is to say a quarter inch of burlap stretched over the cobblestones of Ardem. When the clacking, brattling marionettes struck the thinly veiled street with a loud clatter, Elessa froze in place.

While Romara only sighed, and reined in whatever indignation she surely felt (she must, Elessa said to herself, or she was scarcely human), she only turned to Elessa the same placid mask by which she had as of yet favored Elessa.

Elessa took in a deep breath and scanned the pile, and was relieved to see that they seemed intact. As she stooped to wrap her arms around the pile, she saw that the figurines, being somewhat topheavy and having landed on their heads, had chipped the color there, marring their painted hair. She stood there a moment, her eyes downcast, resigning herself to pay the inventor for the damages she had caused, but when she looked at Romara, she was so startled by what she saw that her left foot jumped back of its own accord, and the shifting armload would have spilled had she not tightened it to her chest.

The smile spread ear to ear, not only melting Romara’s mask of impassivity, but lighting a burning, knowing look. Clutched in both hands was the marionette with the brass-jointed fingers. “Is this the one you were looking for?” Taking Elessa’s continued silence for acquiescence, Romara peered closely at it as if reappraising her merchandise, wrinkled her nose, and handed it to Elessa.

Elessa froze, her arms still wrapped around the jumbled marionettes.

“I thought you wanted it?”

“You’re giving it to me?”

“I begin to think you’re meaning to offend me, not just an unschooled Vanoori.”

“But I think I broke these...”

“Pfaugh!” Romara snorted, grabbed the top figurine from the armload, and cast it into the bin. “No one cares about scraped or flecked paint. We’ll just call them imperfections from the manufacturing process.”

Elessa couldn’t stop her quirky smile. “So I’m part of your manufacturing process now?” She laughed. “I could drop everything on the floor if you want.”

“You’d be good at that.” Romara laughed right back at Elessa, a little too harsh for Elessa to think she had been completely forgiven. “But no, there are no strings attached.” Her eyes narrowed in her own witticism. “After all, even if you were one of my marionettes, there are, literally, no strings attached.” Setting the two foot tall marionette down on the tent floor, she tapped it somewhere on the back, and it took one lurching step forward, before launching itself onto the toes of one foot, both its arms outflung side to side at three and seven o’clock, and its other leg kicked straight back, as Romara herself sidestepped her tiny automaton, clasped Elessa’s hand, and joined the customers, who straggled together to form a surprisingly large audience. Where had they all come from, Elessa wondered? Having believed herself nearly alone in here, she guessed now that some must have stepped in from outside, while others had been hunkered down in other aisles, bargain shopping in the diminished bins for reduced prices, or various imperfections they might haggle down to more comfortable prices. As they gawked on, the marionette twirled, graceful as a living animal, its motions so powerful and assertive that you would be hard pressed not to acknowledge it as breathing flesh and blood, despite its wood and brass assembly, and its autonomous androgyny had flourishes at once feminine and masculine, as if it had the capacity to choose either as it willed. Having stilled the breath and hushed the murmurs of the onlookers, the marionette took a bow, and while you might have expected it to be a stiff bow, it was so fluid and easily done that in that one step, and its semblance of pride, it seemed to shake off all of surpassed humanity.

When Romara stooped to pick up the marionette, it dispelled all the thing’s illusions; not only was it no longer larger than life, it was no longer alive, but as inert as its wood and brass bits, with an awful, final deadness not like that of the toy chest, but of the coffin, and Elessa’s heart went out to the sprightly toy--her toy--with a desire she hadn’t felt since she slept in the loft, above her father.

Romara once again handed over the pitiful jumble of wood, its arms flopping akimbo. “It’s yours. And the price is small.”

While Elessa’s right hand fell to her side, her left stayed outstretched. “I thought you said it was a gift.”

“It’s a trade gift, Vanoori. I barely know you.”

“What do you want from me? I don’t have anything.”

“I like your style,” snickered Romara. “You likely sang a pretty song to trick Enzidere out of those books, too. You think everyone’s buying what you’re selling.”

“What did I ever do to you?” So stricken was she by the scornful toymaker’s implication that Elessa’s fascination caved in instantly, leaving only the resounding loneliness and alienation which had echoed since she had left Glasford. Since she had left her father, her burned father, buried in Glasford.

“Nothing to me, and nothing for me, either.”

“You don’t need to be so rude, Romara. I don’t think I want it anymore.”

Romara rolled her eyes, and kept her hand, clenched around the akimbo puppet, outstretched. “Of course you do. All you have to do is forget you saw it.”

Elessa’s eyebrows arched. “So all I have to do to take home your dancing marionette is what? Treat it like it’s invisible.”

“Not this.” When Romara shook the marionette, and its limbs rattled, Elessa winced and seized it from her hand. Romara chuckled. “I knew you wanted it.”

Elessa scowled. “You mean the one under the cloth. You pretended so well not to care I wasn’t certain that you noticed when I saw it.”

“Is that what you thought? I thought my anger was scaring you off, Elessa.”

At the sound of her name, Elessa relaxed and allowed herself a shallow grin that she did not feel. “We’ve only just met. Why should you care what I think or feel?” As an awkward silence descended, Elessa’s eyes widened, and her cheeks burned with a blush. “Unless there’s still a man inside...”

“Under the surface? Submerged?” Romara’s scornful laugh burned Elessa’s cheeks to a redder blush. “Not only isn’t there a man in here, there’s not a woman’s heart either. Why would I care for either men or women? With so many lamentable examples of both here in Ardem? Having expected to be among my peers, I was profoundly disappointed by my pedestrian classmates, and their earthbound designs.” Her eyes flashed to Elessa. “Keep your pity, Vanoori. Of course I’ve had friends. Worthless as they are. When I revealed my plan to make the dean’s accident viable for all, none of them would put their own belly-crawling bodies on the line with me.” As she shrugged her shoulders, she stood even taller, so that as her eyes raised, as if looking down in contempt on this moment of hindsight, she now seemed a finger taller than Elessa. “I had to fly by myself. As all true innovators do.” As her eyes lowered, her shoulders slumped, until she again stood just slightly under Elessa’s stature. “Are we in agreement?”

Elessa very nearly blurted out an inane answer--for what? that you flew? that you’re an innovator?--until she realized the toymaker had returned to her previous question. “I don’t know. I’m very curious. Could I see it?”

Anger sparked in the inventor’s eyes, which then calmed immediately. “It’s a little offensive. Not the automaton, the pronoun. If you were a thinking creature without gender, would you like to be called by it? But you don’t know any better. After all, I barely know what pronoun is appropriate as well, and must skirt using it with circumlocutory sentences like this one.”

Elessa’s heart thumped. “It thinks?”

“Well, thought.”

As her heart sank, Elessa scowled. Romara hadn’t hid the gigantic automaton, but only pulled a sheet over the dead. Should the inventor be so concerned about pronouns, while acting easy-breezy about the life and death of a sentient being?

At Elessa’s sorrowful expression, Romara wrinkled her nose. “It couldn’t be helped. There’s no need to be such a sad sack, Vanoori. The thing’s not dead.”

What could live, but no longer think? Elessa struggled for an answer.

“Well, not forever,” Romara added. “I would show you if we had a deal, but...”

When Elessa extended her left hand, Romara took her right from the toy and held it out for a handshake, but Elessa’s darting fingers brushed hers aside and seized the marionette. Only then she grudgingly clasped Romara’s hand. “Deal.”

When Romara approached the chair, she waited there, both hands clutching an edge of the cloth for a long moment, as if she was not the owner, but an admirer and would-be buyer.

“Isn’t it a beauty.”

Elessa rolled her eyes at Romara. “The figure’s still covered.”

“No, not the clothes-horse! The chair!”

Elerssa now saw it was, indeed, a very nice chair, a piece of vintage woodworking etched along its legs and arms with the quiet gods of Vanoori mythology.

“That’s from The High Earth and the Quaking Sky.”

The wooden plaque topping the highbacked chair, however, portrayed the opening scene, in which the storm goddess hurtles blustery storm winds and lightning bolts, one of which remains quivering in the night sky and the pierced land, and the hero of the piece, Cloudmore, climbs the lightning bolt like a staircase, stepping up each of its serrated, sparking ridges until he reached the High Earth of the story.

“Do you think?” Romara said sarcastically. “Fat chance of me being accepted at Ardem without knowing The High Earth and the Quaking Sky.” Then, without any more ceremony than that of yanking the sheet away as if it was a soiled tablecloth, Romara stripped the figure of its covering.

But of course Elessa had seen it before. As she saw it, all thoughts of her childhood literature were banished, for this invention could only be here by shady dealing. “How did this get here?”

“You two have met?” Romara’s head tilted around a ludicrous smile, for if the mannequin was an automaton, its clockwork heart had stopped, and it was dead as a stone.

“Not as such,” said Elessa. She took a step back, stepped side to side, then stepped forward to grasp its cold brass and wood hand. “It’s marvelous.”

“You’re dodging my question.”

“Not so much,” said Elessa. “If I seem to be sidestepping, it’s only to better appreciate this gigantic figurine, by looking at it from every angle. I did see it before--and, forgive me”--here she stroked the mannequin’s hand, as if it was not only alive, but an arm of human flesh, and not brass ball bearings and sanded wooden struts--“my choice of pronoun is abominable, when it’s so obvious that she is a woman.”

“Now that I know you’re not going to be scandalized by the concept, I would have to agree. Regardless of her construction, or the intention of her designer, our mannequin is definitely female.”

“Why would I have been shocked? Sailors call their boats her, and she is most definitely neither asexual nor male. Although now her tragedy has shifted, Romara.”

“What do you mean?”

“Knowing her to be a her, it now seems a tragedy that she has no name.”

Now beaming a broad smile and warming up to this subject, Romara’s agreement was more fanatical than Elessa might have expected. “And knowing that she walks, and perhaps even thinks, it would be presumptuous to name her whatever suits us. It’s one thing to name a kitten, a puppy, or a foal, or for a parent to name an infant when it is too small to talk for itself, but it seems the height of arrogance to name a fully-developed being.”

“You’ve carried the matter quite far,” said Elessa. “So far that it now seems you’re the one running from my question.”

“And what question is that?”

“How did she get here?”

“You saw Lucinia’s exhibit.”

While it was a matter of fact statement, Elessa could not help hearing overtones of accusation, and undertones of embarrassment, but when she glanced directly at the toymaker, her face was again as placid as warm milk, but also nearly as white, mixed signals that Elessa struggled to interpret. It was almost as if Romara wanted to be misread and deconstructed, if that meant she was the center of attention.

When Romara’s eyes flicked here and there, it brought Elessa’s attention to bear on customers skulking around the center bin marking the hub of the circular arrangement of bins, one appearing to be so absorbed in fishing through the bin of rockets that Elessa might not have noticed his glances in their direction.

“We’re starting to get the wrong kind of attention, Elessa.” Having dragged the cloth back over the mannequin, Romara sighed, placed her hands on her hips, and squared her shoulders. “You’ve had your look. Remember the terms of our agreement and the price of that look.”

“It will be hard to forget it, especially now that I know from whence she came.”

“Think of it this way, Vanoori. Here she has her freedom; there, she’s mounted on a pole.”

“Will you promise to get her moving, and back on her feet?”

“I certainly don’t have to do that, given the terms of our agreement, but if I tell you that I would like nothing better than to act according to your promise, will that satisfy you?”

Elessa shook her head. “It might have yesterday. But half-measures are for a shallow conscience.”

“How dare you?” Romara seized Elessa’s garment and pulled her so close that Elessa could smell mint tea. In that moment, Elessa saw through the woman to her inborn man’s strength. While once Romara must have been built on a similar scale to the unmanly Roric, the woman she had become was wiry, and had power that rivaled Elessa.

Still, Romara had a high-strung, untried strength, manifest in her soft, uncalloused hands, and Elessa had the confident strength that comes from daily farm work and tending to animals ten times her weight. She batted the toymaker’s hands aside, and said, “I had meant my own conscience. Having seen an injustice late last night, I was tempted to silence, as I had just arrived in Ardem and was immediately enchanted by all it had to offer me. With great reluctance, I decided that the price of enchantment must not be my innocence. But even after I made my choice, it tested me through the night, into this morning. The consequences of my choice haunted me not only in mind, but in reality, as the one I had helped became my critic.”

Romara laughed. “Yes, good deeds are often criticized in my experience. Striving to do good in other’s eyes made me who I am today, in more ways than one.” Her brows lowered in a moody scowl. “Nothing was ever good enough for Lucinia, not even this.” She indicated the covered mannequin with a wave. “I never even got to build her.”

“But I thought...then she’s not yours?”

“She’s mine in the only way that counts in Ardem. You’ll learn our ways, Elessa. Here the idea comes first. I’ll admit to being impressed by seeing my invention in the flesh. It required not only panache, but a devious mind to create workarounds to all the holes I deliberately left in the blueprints to protect my work, but execution is drudge work, no matter how clever or refined. In Ardem, the idea means everything. If I think of something, I own it.”

“So Lucinia was your master?”

Romara only shrugged, and walked away from Elessa.

“Do you know Venos?”

Romara turned, but continued treading backwards in a slow circle around the hub, so familiar with the tent layout that she somehow stepped aside to make way for her browsing customers. “Only by name,” she snorted, “as he had the audacity to initial each piece of my handiwork.”

Elessa could not help thinking that the mannequin was as much Venos’s handiwork, if Romara had left her design with Lucinia. “Venos might have found it with the scrap paper, you know.”

Romara snickered. “And in recycling the paper, decided the idea was also too good not to recycle? I’m sure that’s exactly what happened. But it was my idea to dream and to create, and my choice to throw away or create.”

“So you’re not grateful that he tried? Whatever else you can say about him, he trusted your invention.”

“I don’t know the man. But I do know my mother, and I should hope she knows my handwriting!” At Elessa’s shocked look, Romara shrugged, turned about again, and called, ”It’s my lunch break, Vanoori. Come again.” Romara left the tent with its handful of customers still browsing, as well as Elessa, who gripped her marionette all the tighter, and turned to the shrouded mannequin.

It was very hard to resist taking another look at it, so hard, that her fingertips had grazed the top hem of the shroud when there was a tap on her shoulder.

“How much for that one.” As this brutish looking freshman shook only jingling cash in his hand, Elessa was at a loss to figure out what he was talking about, until his eyes veered in the direction of the marionette clutched to her chest. His eyes batted in such a leery way that if her hands were unoccupied, she might have thought his designs upon her were salacious, and for a fraction of a second, she thought he might have actually meant one of her breasts, and not the exqusitely crafted figurine she now brought up to her face, and peered at, as if the figurine was holding something that had caught the student’s attention.

“This? It’s mine.”

“I’m not disputing that,” he persisted, “how much do you want for it?

“It’s not for sale.”

“But that’s the only one like that. I’m a collector, you see. I know everything about Romara’s toys. I don’t want just one of the commons, I want that special one.”

“You have me confused for someone who cares.”

“Pardon me? You obviously don’t know who I am. Here’s a clue to how status works in Ardem--we may be in the same class, but if you’re the clerk, and I’m the customer, I’ve got more pull."

"Pull away. In fact, why don’t you give yourself a good tug. I hope you get off on it, and get out of my sight.”

“Where is she?” he hissed. “Where’s Romara? I’m going to have you fired.”

Elessa laughed. “Me? I don’t work for Romara. Although I think she likes me, because she gave me this figurine, and she clearly didn’t have to give me anything. Yes, this figurine. The one you’re never goint to get. And as to you being higher on the pecking order, it works that way in nature too. Your dad made you rich, but mine made me strong, and a better person as well.” She scowled. “So much better that I’m not going to punch your puggy face.”

At that assertion, the student took a step back, reappraised Elessa, and took yet another step back, no doubt realizing that Elessa could, indeed, make short work of such a small fry in short order, and, in fact, it would be small potatoes for her to do so, not even working up a big sweat. “You’re not?”

“No.” Then she planted her hands on his chest, shoved him into the bin of rockets, and strode angrily out of the tent.

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