The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter Four

Elessa stared up at the vaulted ceiling of the travex station. While it was literally like a coach depot magnified to a barely imaginable immensity, that was not the first thing that came to her mind. Shot through with black metal girders, stairs, and landings, as well as colossal struts protruding from mounds of black glass embedded in the grotto floor, which ran in shimmering shafts of petrified lightning to the distant ceiling, beams of inconceivable strength that nonetheless buckled and shuddered with the arrival and departure of each travex, of which there were dozens of various lengths, linked in lighted segments studded with passengers, for one dazzling instant, the whole of underground Ardem seemed a gigantic, jumbled jewelry box. This would not be such an unusual association except that Elessa had only seen one jewelry box in her life, that of her vanished mother, whom she had not thought of in weeks, so consumed had she been with saving, then mourning, her father. In that moment, she remembered the jewelry box with crystal clarity--lined on the inside with soft, brown fur, and with a mirror inlaid in its lid that reflected Elessa’s first memory of her own face. While her recollection of the jewelry box was crisp, the face embedded in the mirror was foggy, all bulging cheeks as if she had a mouthful of apples, and the other face, turned away and brushing lustrous, brunette hair, was lost in shadow, time, and memory.

As each travex disgorged its resplendent passengers onto the luminous platform, countless porters loaded and unloaded cargo and escorted the elderly and dainty both male and female, and as Roric led them through this bustling crowd across a floor threaded with tracks, they dodged the rattling advance of clicking, chugging engines, which rang their bells to part the glut of dillydallies chitchatting about too many things to find a common thread of interest, though much concerned engines, machines, and “new math.”

“This is an insane disregard for safety!” Elessa shouted over the clamor. “The travexes should have their own roads!”

“In our defense...no, no, you’re completely right. We have our share of accidents. We’re all a little mad here,” said Roric. “At least those who learned the travex timetables and know to jump at the bell. The sane ones must be dead by now.”

“There are so many people--is this a city or a school?”

“Yes and yes. Even in our beginnings the distinction between education and politics was as vague and amorphous as that between science and magic. That said, the Head has become exceedingly ambitious in allowing the mission of Ardem University to encroach on too many matters...”

“The Head?”

“Our leader...the dean of Ardem.”

“You mean the dean of the university.”

Roric laughed. “He’s the head of the whole ball of wax.”

“Your country has a dean?”

“Your country has a king?” Roric’s mimickry rose to an unpleasant falsetto that reminded Elessa uncomfortably of her own voice.

“Not anymore,” snapped Elessa.

“That’s right,” admitted Roric. “We have heard of your troubles down south. Forgive me if I offended you.”

“You don’t mean that,” said Elessa. “Your whole manner is offensive.”

“You flatter me,” glowed Roric.

“Flattery? I should think not.”

“What you see as a personality is only another mechanism, a system of calculated contrivances, my dear. I’ve installed something new.”

“My dear?” Elessa wrinkled her nose in disgust as she repeated the patronizing diminutive. “Is your attitude just another well-ordered machine?” <

“In a manner of speaking, though there’s a bit more art than that. My dear,” he added condescendingly.

“I might strike you if you call me my dear one more time.”

“Then I might have to call Cilicia to my rescue.” Cilicia rode the front of the wheeled freight palette bearing Beast, along with four other ceramic-clad Ardemians, their coifs draped around their shoulders. The motorized palette glided noiselessly until it clattered over the tracks so ferociously that Elessa turned an anxious glance to the griffin, who clung stubbornly to unconsciousness.

“That’s not a threat.” Though Elessa scrutinized the thickset young woman for any hidden powers or potentialities, she found none, other than one eye a full quarter inch higher than the other.

“What are you gawking at, Vanoori? Haven’t you seen a real city?” As the road tapered toward the travex boarding stage, the clamor of human bodies feeding their own motors echoed from a long concourse of food smells and vendors loudly advertising their wares. Elessa found Cilicia’s open abrasiveness more refreshing than Roric’s pretentions, and thought it would be equally relieving to return like for like.

“No, nor a real monster until this moment.” Having held their breath while they shared the palette with a griffin, the Ardemians laughed nervously, no doubt seeing the likeness between their intimidating subcommander and the wild creature.

Having reached the end of the loading and boarding area, the extent of the crisscrossed tracks, and complete safety from clicking travexes and their impatient bells, they joined the crowd milling in a thoroughfare flanked with all manner of vendors: strange creatures called news agents, proferring thick folios of flimsy paper in inkstained hands; food stalls where waffles and other pastries were scarfed down no sooner than they were popped from greasy iron mechanisms; a vast open air bookstore with book carts serving as walls, all stuffed with secondhand tomes, many with pages uncut and new as the day they were first sold, making Elessa pity the criminally unread books; and, a cafe huddled with coffee and tea drinkers leaning on stools at hightopped tables as they shouted over the din, which, from the sound of it, was louder on the inside even than the thronging concourse.

“Chomkin.” Roric produced a silver coin from his pouch. “I’m buying the book for my guest.”

Like a sleepwalker awaking from a dream, Elessa looked down on the small stack of books under her chin. Her first thought was that she couldn’t pick only one and leave the others behind, her next thought was that she shouldn’t be beholden to a slick goon like Roric, and both thoughts were crushed the instant they creeped from her brain by the mighty weight of BOOKS.

“You’d make the young lady pick one?” Chomkin was a pleasant, clean-shaven old man with such dark brown hair that he looked half his age until he tottered over for the sale.

“It would be a waste,” sniffed Roric “She doesn’t even know her major.”

“I’m not that impressed with the lieutenant, and I didn’t come to join your army, anyway.” Elessa was surprised at the titters this produced in the Ardemians.

Roric rolled his eyes. “Are you always this mean to someone buying you a book?”

“It lets you trot out your clockwork attitude.”

“I see. How thoughtful.” His fingers moved over the spines of the books. “This one, Chomkin.”

“No,” said Elessa. “This one.” She knocked aside the volume Roric had chosen, though it pained her to do so, for it was not only the one she wanted, but she had never wanted a book more: Eriva Kamadne’s A Little Book of Monsters, which restated the zoology of Vanoori Menagerie for children. It irked Elessa that Roric reduced her so well to one book that she could not let him know he succeeded. Instead, she allowed him to buy Ardem: Year One, a lackluster and obscure history which nonetheless promised relevant information.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No one should be without a book in Ardem.” said Roric magnanimously. “You picked a good one, by the way.”

“Really?” Elessa eyed the book doubtfully, then forced a smile. “I thought so.”

“Oh yes. The Preface and Chapter One are a big snooze, but the rest is humorous gossip from early Ardem.”

After this, Roric led her in the cafe. “You may pick two here, to overcome any resentment lingering after your new acquisition.”

Though she knitted her brows at this massive descension, Elessa grinned broadly. “Far be it from me not to take a gentleman at his word.” Then she leaned over the glass case, and promptly picked the two largest: a salad stacked with not only greens but ham strips, fried onions, and sunflower seeds, and a bowl of heaping noodles inundated in reddish-brown gravy. After both were served at the counter, she carried the tray to her table.

“I’m shocked!”

Elessa did not divert her eyes from the delicious food. “You’ve never seen a healthy appetite?”

“No, I expected you would pick the most expensive items,” said Roric, “since I’ll expense this to the guards.”

“That was accidental, as I picked the biggest entrees. I like to eat, and haven’t had a good meal since the last village in Vanoor.”

When her first Ardemian meal was tucked away, they continued down the concourse, which not only showed no signs of ending, but split at an intersection not only crosswise but along the diagonals. Elessa had a horrible thought.“Is this whole street underground?”

Roric laughed so freely and easily that it could be accounted a failure of his well-oiled sarcasm, and Cilicia and the other Ardemians joined in with a disarming nonchalance.“Oh,” Roric laughed, “listen to the freshman.”

Cilicia repeated artlessly, “--‘is this whole street underground,’ she says,” then barked a ruder laughter as she directed a look of withering scorn towards Elessa.

“You don’t mean...” started Elessa. “But I never heard...” Her second start trailed off like the first.

“That’s right, freshman,” said Cilicia. “The whole city is underground.”

As an anticlimactic epilogue to this sublime revelation, Roric said, “well, not the whole city. Old Ardem is above ground, but funnels downside by way of the library. There’s also a quaint little market district upside, mostly produce and livestock, and some residential communities which appeal mainly to our elders and the claustrophobic, as most amenities of the good life are at your fingertips here.”

“How can you practice magic below ground?”

“Very easily, it turns out. But we’re not just magicians, freshman.”

“I see that now,” said Elessa. “Why don’t we know about this in Vanoor? We would have paid for these innovations in the war.”

“We do trade a few of these things. As for our secrets, we would have had to trade with Klyrn as well, or suffer the whole brunt of their displeasure, freshman.”

“Could you please stop calling me that? Freshman is worse than Vanoori.”

“What else would I call you?”

“Elessa!”

“Too earnest. And I don’t care for the exclamation point.”

“If Ardemians aren’t sincere, how do you stop the rumors?”

“Oh we’re sincere—we’re just very jocular.”

“Even the most sober comedians on Lamuna couldn’t suppress all the rumors.”

“That’s such a good point that we were sure to think of it, and our solution was not only novel but timeless, dare I say legendary.”

“I’m curious to know it.”

“Simply this—so long as the extent of Ardem’s artifices remain obscure, tuition is free for all scholars.”

“But...how do you support yourself?”

“That’s a very disingenuous question when you see the signs of industry all about you.”

“What of the tuition sent by parents and patrons?”

“Instantly reimbursed...to the students.”

“You’re bribing them for silence!”

“The custom wasn’t my idea. If I seem to approve it, it’s only for its effectiveness. I wouldn’t mind seeing funds diverted to improvements. Ardem University’s founders, and, for the most part, its current ruling body, think that allowing the students their tuition funds puts them on a closer economic level, if only during the school year, a fiction which diverts conflicts and competition from the stage of social status to academic and intellectual interests. It also ensures that need won’t interfere with a student’s intellectual development.”

“But...how can you remain independent? You have no product!”

“We do have products. In addition to our clandestine research, our scientists and engineers develop systems and items for general use. What you think of as Klyrn’s gas lamps were actually invented in Ardem.”

“Why don’t we have them in Vanoor?”

“Our proposal would have started with your king’s palace, but Algus disliked the thought of digging up the streets of his court district, and, more to the point, we couldn’t arrive at a low enough price. However, telescopes and Vanoor’s other optical advances started in Ardem.”

“The architect of the Royal Theater was educated in Ardem.”

“We don’t take credit for that dropout, not that Ardem University ever saw a dime from that construction.”

During their conversation, they wandered to the underground city’s outside wall, upon which a staircase zig-zagged up steel scaffolding past the ambient light into the dark canopy vaulting above.

“Is this a cavern?”

“If I say yes, that would be misleading, as this started as a mining excavation. While it technically is a cavern, it’s not a natural cave formation. Industry created our living space.” When Roric started up the steps, Elessa stopped at the base of the metal stairs to trail the freight palette, which inched along the wall.

“Aren’t you coming?” Roric called from the midpoint of the first flight.

“I should stay with Beast.”

“He’s coming up the freight elevator, freshman.”

Elessa now saw, less than a hundred feet away, the vertical channel cut in the rocky wall. For a moment, she was uncomfortably reminded of Ilmar’s ascensor.

“Why should I come?” she hollered.

“I was taking you to admissions.”

When Elessa trotted up the stairwell, Roric added, “and from there to living quarters. We have such little living space above ground that there’s a waiting list, but we might squeeze you into a single with an understanding roommate, given that your griffin won’t like underground accomodations. It’s a good thing he was unconscious, as winging around the undercity might have panicked your beast and terrorized the people.”

“She,” Elessa corrected.

“That beast is a she?”

“Why is that surprising? Do you think all beasts are male? Doesn’t Ardem teach you where baby monsters come from?”

“It’s a baby?”

“No, you twit. She’s a fledgling.”

“Amazing development. If humans grew this fast, we would wage war before we could talk. Speaking of waging war...”

Elessa cut in. “I fled the battle, so I have little news about that.”

“I was about to ask for your admissions letter.” Roric must have interpreted her wide-eyed look as incredulity, for he said, “I admit it’s a long stretch for a metaphor, but I have tried to work it in to our conversation more organically.”

“Why should I show it to you?” Afterwards, Elessa would realize her question was too defensive, but at the moment, she was grasping at fading dreams of learning enough magic to challenge Ilmar.

“You’d be surprised how many get this far without one. It saves time and emarrassment later on.”

“Just how many students do you escort?”

“Well,” said Roric. “There is some incentive. It’s customary to tip your guide.”

“Is it?” laughed Elessa. “Even if I don’t like you?”

“In that case, reward my consummate professionalism, for despite not liking you either, have I not ushered you all the way to your destination?”

Elessa had to admit Roric brought her to the steps which led to her academic career—so long as as they did ascend to the old university grounds. For a moment she dreaded a prank, then doubted this maintenance crew would get many opportunities to rehearse such a caper.

“I guess it’s only fair—not that I’ve been fair to you during this trip, Roric. When we got off on the wrong foot, I allowed it to color my opinion of you, though you were only doing your duty. I look forward to meeting you again.”

“Thank you. Then you don’t have your admissions letter?”

Elessa glowered at Roric. “I may have misplaced it.”

When the Ardemian’s eyes opened wide, as if in skeptical disbelief, Elessa matched them with a sparring glance until a nervous smile bubbled up, at which point she averted her eyes. In the brief lull of their conversation, grinding gears creaked in the elevator’s ascent.

Roric smirked. “Naturally.”

As Elessa continued to avoid his sarcastic expression, her eyes lifted from the underground city receding in the darkness to the cavern roof tapering toward the top of the wall. In their ascent, each black metal landing narrowed, so that now she could see one end from the other. “How high are we?”

“Good question! I might even forget your admissions letter, but the admissions office won’t.”

While the top landing was only slightly wider than the elevator door, Elessa leaned on the wall opposite from Roric, well out of reach, as they waited on the grinding machine. When the doors opened, the freight palette whirred forward on its rollers, then preceeded Roric and Elessa down the adjoining hall, leaving them to continue their banter, which, like a meandering brook, flowed around every conceivable conversational topic, not only the climate of the university city in the hollow, but Roric’s curiosity as to above ground weather—his not being topside in many weeks evident in his growing trepidation at the prospect of burning his sallow complexion in searing daylight—as well as the state of Vanoori cuisine, literature, equipage, and fashion. When he steered his probing discourse to the impact of the Klyrnish occupation on these customs, Elessa demured, having preceded all but the most advance messengers bearing word of the defeat and change of regime.

“While I could tell you of the gourmandry and fashions of farmers and bandits, I know as much about the capitol as you.”

“Perhaps you know more, as I haven’t had my ear to the gossip of these border cities.”

Elessa squirmed under Roric’s persistence. “Most of it is guessing and wishing.”

“Brace yourself,” said Roric.

The wheeled palette having whirred to monolithic double doors, Celicia hopped down before a rectangular ledge projecting from the adjacent wall, in which she slid tiles horizontally and vertically until she arrived at a peculiarly abstract pattern in which Elessa recongized nothing, neither a worldly shape nor a letter, although this puzzle evidently corresponsed to the groaning, creaking, and parting of the doors, until all thoughts of the shifting puzzle were blasted by a blazing inundation of light. While Elessa started her day in daylight, her prolonged subterranean excursion left her as blind as a boulder in that furiously bright instant.

When her eyes accustomed to the light, they were in a dead end alley, to which a visitor not inducted into Ardem’s secret would not give a second thought, despite it being, for an alley, conspicuously free of litter and otherwise swept clean. While the alley was shaded, compared to the underground city’s soft light, it was an inferno of illumination.

“Roric, if I quartered here, what course work would limit my time underground?”

“I thought you liked it?”

“I liked the travex--and the bookstore. The cafe was interesting, but I was too hungry to savor it. I grew up on a farm, Roric. I like the light.”

“As the old university grounds are above ground, including our largest classrooms, you could matriculate without ever returning to the city. But you won’t have many friends.”

“I didn’t come here to make friends.” Elessa felt the untruth as she said it, for at least part of her motivation was flying away from loneliness toward a new society. As they neared the end of the long alley, a commotion drowned out the persistent roar of the motorized freight palette, and Elessa’s first sight of the cross street was of a thick foot and coach traffic partially obscured by vendors blocking the alley way, not only two news agents but an apple cart and an enterprising ostler with a long line of horsemen and coaches queuing to his rickety tent.

As they stepped into the wide thoroughfare, the click-clack of coaches and hooves was so deafening that their succeeding conversation was shouted.

“Roric,” said Celicia eagerly, “I thought it was next week!”

“I did too.” Roric rubbed his hands together. “We forgot it was an Exhibition in the Grand manner.”

“Is this market day?” asked Elessa.

“No,” hooted Roric. “Here begins our yearly exhibition.

Not only that, but this year is a Grand Exhibition, with extra funding and the revelation of special projects and anticipated developments. They only come every ten years...unless the Dean decrees.”

“The Dean can order any Exhibition to be Grand,” said Celicia.

“And if he does, it means Big News,” said Roric, rolling out his B and N with such pomp that Elessa could hear the capitals. “While next year was supposed to be our Grand Exhibition, something couldn’t wait, not even a year.”

“Can we see it now?”

“Not likely,” said Celicia. “This is only the first wave of sellers, here to capitalize on the rampant anticipation.”

“How big does this get? Where do all the people come from?”

“Vanoor, Klyrn, the outskirts of Ardem, and some from distant kingdoms.”

“What other kingdoms? Outside of Vanoor, Klyrn, and Ardem, there are only the Terrortories.”

“Gahh,” said Roric.

“Vanoori are so provincial,” agreed Celicia.

“Even if there were other human lands in Lamuna, how would they travel through the monsters?”

“The Menasans come by travex from the other side of the western mountains. After we discovered them mining for minerals, our joint tunneling project connected our two peoples. While we hope to expand the Travex, until then such is the interest in our exhibition that the peoples of other lands travel here by wyverns, other tamed dracoils, hippogriffs, and balloons.”

“I don’t know that last beast.”

When the Ardemians convulsed in laughter, Roric stifled his spasm, but remained red-faced, wheezy, and twinkle-eyed for some time, which was not helped by Celicia laughing for longer than humanly possible, as if she was an Ardemian steam-pump venting gales of mirth.

Roric wiped his eyes. “Elessa, when we walk out into the street, the traffic is going to get pretty thick.”

Elessa looked both ways. “It looks dense now.”

Celicia snickered.

“What I mean to say is,” said Roric, “although griffins aren’t rare these days, they are rarely domesticated, so people will want to see it, if at a respectful distance.”

“That may not be a problem.” Celicia pointed to a flickering vanguard of wispy clouds advancing before a flashing thundercloud of such gigantic proportions that even one as familiar with the meteorological monster as Elessa was given pause by seeing it anew.

Like a cunning predator, Wysaerie had followed her to Ardem.

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