The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter 7

(When I was halfway through what has become the following chapter, I realized that Ilmar’s arrival marked a chapter break, which at that point derailed my plans for writing this novel completely linearly, as I do not intend two side by side Elessa chapters. Hence this chapter is called “Chapter X” because it will probably not be chapter 5, but chapter 8, as I have other narratives that I want to continue between these chapters. This marks the first time that I have tried to write a novel out of order since college. It never worked in the past, but hopefully with eight novels behind me I can accommodate myself to nonlinearity. Another anxiety (which I shall shoot out of a cannon into the far reaches of oblivion until I’m done with the first draft) is that Elessa’s story is, chronologically speaking, not in sync with the rest of the characters at this point, as she’s still on the same day which ended chapter one. This is happening, of course, because this is no longer only narration but character creation, stage setting, and worldbuilding (Ardem).)

Though its top was concealed by spreading cloud cover, Elessa was so familiar with her former home that she knew Wysaerie from one glance at its underbelly.

“Scratch that, Vanoori. Your beaked baby takes priority. Celicia—head for the animal hospital. The beast won’t get penumonia or a nasty infection from filthy rainwater—no, not on my shift!” Although Roric’s over the top show of duty might have been amusing if murder wasn’t rolling in over the horizon, the droll order was heeded as if it was urgent, and the palette scooted down the thoroughfare. Contrary to their earlier predictions, they had the run of the street when the more sensible people dashed for the cover of vendors and restaurants.

“Do exhibition guests often travel by cloud, Roric?” When Elessa couldn’t prevent the creeping note of desperation, she looked away, pretending to be absorbed in a vendor’s frantic efforts to shelter his exhibit of vampiric grasses and carnivorous weeds. The whimpering plants having turned an unhealthy shade of blue from the pelting rain, the thaumabotanist unstoppered and decanted several vials of blood into his prize patches.

“Only one. A very special guest. You may be interested.”

“Because he’s an expert on griffins?”

“You know Ilmar Andercruik?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Could you get me his autograph?”

“Don’t meet your heroes, Roric. In this case, Ilmar is so vain that it would be easier—and more satisfying—to get the whole head rather than a lock of hair.”

Roric and Celicia were no longer laughing or smiling. “That’s a strange idiom, Vanoori.”

“Where will he stay?”

“I don’t know. Although special guests are often put up in dormitories, the rich ones stay in hotels.”

“That reminds me. When’s my tour of the city?”

“Begging your pardon? I’m still on duty.”

“I’m still in distress.”

“I think you’re stretching the definition a bit.”

“I can wait, Roric. After the animal hospital...”

“Speaking of which, here we are.” Like the quadrupeds it serviced, the animal hospital was longer than it was tall, for its single story stretched from the thoroughfare to the back street. As the palette chugged up a ramp to double doors on the side, the front door admitted Elessa and Roric into a small room that was brightly lit by incandescent, hook-shaped bulbs, and smelled of feathers and fur despite its immaculate appearance.

“You’re running up quite a tab,” Roric said, after paying for the griffin’s treatment.

“I’ll pay you back, Roric.”

“Oh? Don’t think I used my own money, Elessa. Well, not more than once. So far, your arrival was expensed to Ardem.”

“Thank you, Roric. Could you take me to see the hotels? Since admissions is sure to be closed at this hour, and I can’t go to the dormitory before I go to admissions.”

“Of course you could. It happpens all of the time. While you’re right that admissions is only open from eight until four, new students roll in at every hour.”

“Very well.”

“Celicia, look after the beast. When you’ve insured it’s in good hands, you may return to your duties.”

“How very magnanimous!” said Celicia, but did as she was bade.

Roric led Elessa down the ramp. “I was expecting rain, but the clouds blew over, except for that thundercloud, which isn’t dropping the other shoe.”

As Elessa’s stomach sank, she sighed. Since Wysaerie suited Ilmar’s capricious moods, reining in the rain was a deliberate abeyance of his stormy authority; Ilmar planned to attend this magic festival.

“If the rain isn’t coming, we could take a jaunt through the promenade, see what’s set up, and take our initial impressions of the Grand Exhibition. Assuming they haven’t tarped everything.”

“I’m still curious about the hotels.”

“Really? A student more interested in hotels than our vanguard of magic and science?”

“When you put it like that...”

“I’m joking. Most spend their fair share of freshman year in the hotels. If you wish to fall behind, that’s on you, freshman.

“Fine, Roric. Take me to the exhibition.”

“Splendid. I must admit that I’m excited myself--more than that, I’m struggling to contain myself at the thought of the toys, the inventions, and the melodramatic hauteur of the exhibitors.” Although Roric was waxing eloquent, he went on languidly in a way that suggested he was apathetic about the whole affair. “I remember my first exhibition. While it wasn’t Grand, that enthralling collection of marvels introduced shadowglasses, tantamounts, and self-threshing wheat...

“That’s impossible!”

“Its a bit of a misnomer. When the sheaves are cut, the stalk dissolves in water, so all you must do, if I remember correctly, is throw the wheat in a tub, stir the soon to be sodden kernels with a pole, then drain the tub a day later.” At Elessa’s flabbergasted look, he continued, “while there were too many agricultural inventions that year, the wheat scientist presented his species and its cultivating apparatus with an unforgettably dramatic flair. Quiet gods!” Roric whispered with a hushed fervor that either stemmed from authentic fandom for magical science or mocked it so well that it surely sprouted from some past, heart-felt naivite. “We have almost the whole promenade to ourselves. Silly people, to be scared off by a little rain.”

“The vendors are scrambling too,” said Elessa.

“They’e tarping everything,” groaned Roric. “Except those new arrivals hurrying to plant their tents. We might see something there.”

“What’s that light?” Elessa pointed to a capacious circular tent which had its flap open on a golden gleam.

“Nothing good,” snorted Roric. “If you want to see something, there’s Romara Vendamar’s display.” He pointed to a striped white and purple tent further down from the radiant tent. “She makes the most marvelous instruments.”

“This one’s on the way.”

When Elessa darted towards the tent, Roric grumbled. “Not another lighting or agricultural exhibition. It’s not as if I envy the rest of the world their ability to see their bread, but when they underwhelm me, and forget to send in mechanical dogs to caper at the well-illuminated, well-stocked feasts of the future, I lose my sense of wonder.”

Outside the tent, a tripod-mounted sign advertised, in bold, blocky script, THE DRAGONBONE PETTICOAT. The blazing white cardboard was streaked by drying raindrops and flickering in Wysaerie’s ramping winds.

“What an ugly font,” grieved Roric. “Not only is it a lamentable return to the calligraphy of Klyrnish balladeers--so ornate it looks syrupy--but the shouting capitals blast that saccharine shower everywhere.”

“Syrupy? I like it. I like nothing better than finding strange old fonts in books.”

“There’s no accounting for taste.”

“You have no sense of theater,” scowled Elessa.

“You have no idea, Vanoori,” sniffed Roric. “You are looking at a boardtreader famed far and wide for several well-reviewed productions.”

Elessa could not help a fond smile, for she thought on seeing The Mouser, The Mice, and the Nine Madrigals with her father, as well as the tattered Prince Cloudmore poster which was worn in two from the gentle sawing of her saddlebags. “I’d like to see that.”

“We’re in rehearsal now for a show to run concurrent with the exhibition.”

“What’s it called?”

Roric looked uncomfortable. “Are you going in the tent?”

“Is it a secret?”

“Maybe. If you’re not going in, we should hurry. Soon there won’t be anything left to look at.”

When Elessa stepped through the flap, her wonder was drawn from its exhibit to the embroidered tent interior, a pageant from Vanoori mythology and The High Earth and the Quaking Sky, as if designed with her in mind.

There were Prince Cloudmore; Tekki, his automaton; the sorcerer and mirror-man Avorova, who baked giants from bricks--their kiln hearts blazing so high that flames peeked from their roaring mouths; and, the dragon Elustra, whose tail slithered through the tapestry in a complete ciruit of the tent.

“It’s wondrous,” said Roric.

“You like The High Earth and the Quaking Sky?”

“Oh, the tent? Yes, very fanciful. They’ll no doubt take the presentation award this year. No, my eye was on the dress.”

As she turned to the Petticoat, she saw that it had two admirers. Both wore golden gowns with a slender cut that tapered to such a tight pinch that it was good that they were both svelte on the bottom and impressively topheavy; the dark-skinned man had broad-shoulders and a deep chest, and the rose-skinned woman was so chesty that Elessa first believed her endowments some kind of plush stole of the same downy fabric as the gown.

Despite these theatrically-dressed festivalgoers, Elessa forgot them as she took in the exhibit. Was she looking at wearable items, monstrous skeletons, or suits of armor for giant spiders? The confusing, tripartitie display showed the eponymous Dragonbone Petticoat exploded, as if were, in three separate figures: the petticoat as undergarment only, its joined ribs hanging on a faceless dummy; the second was the petticoat fleshed out with what looked less like fabric than an integument of soft scales; and, the third settled the macabre finery on a mannikin with eerily realistic and riveting eyes that seemed to pierce Elessa. All three looked like puzzles solved from piles of bones.

Roric approached a pedestal topped by a placard which listed elements of construction. “Our second misnomer of the day, freshman.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not dragon bone. These are made from the smaller bones of the lesser dracoils.”

“Look, my dear. Fans.”

Roric smiled and dipped into a shallow bow. “Are these your manufacture? While they are quite lovely, we were just passing through. Being unfamiliar with your work, I was simply reading what you’ve posted.”

“I’m more interested in the mannequin,” said Elessa. “She seems real.”

“She?” snorted the woman, who seemed to wrinkle all at once, as if Elessa’s ignorance was a pebble sending a ripple through her face. After this spell of sarcasm passed, her youth was restored, along with a placid mask of composure. “What a quaint drawl. Teach me this trick of peeking at the gender of the inanimate, which you no doubt learned by sexing stones on your farm?”

“Excuse her,” said the man. “She means ‘thank you for the compliment.’”

Elessa, however, was heated, as only Ilmar Andercruik had ever talked to her like that--even Leonidas was only brusque, and did little to confirm her hatred--and she said, “what compliment? Your giant doll is so uncannily real that I thought the lady picked up a trick in a mausoleum--that of tucking her soul in this frozen likeness.”

“What an egregious insult!” said the man, although his face twisted not in contempt but thunderous laughter. “I think she’s better at this than you--perhaps a natural.”

“But my discourtesy was so much more eloquently phrased.”

“You have elocution, my dear, but she scored two points at one touch. And both so close to the mark!”

“Whereas it is most ungentlemanly for you to wound me in the same places. Do I really look like an overgrown doll--or a sarcophagus?” Perhaps feeling constrained by the two-pronged attack, the woman’s forearms clasped her chest, and her face iced into a brittle mask that thrust towards her tall companion, making her likeness to both a mannequin and a graven tomb cover more easily drawn.

“Points?” Elessa’s frustration gave way to bemusement in spite of herself; “is this only a game?”

“Only a game?” said the woman. “If we take our amusements where we find them, it does not mean we are not in deadly earnest. I am pleased to make the acquaintance of such a deadly adversary.”

“Deadly?” said Elessa. “Not me. I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“I should guess not from your archery gear,” said the man. “She’s after bigger game, Lucina. You might do best to run.”

Roric said, “this freshman isn’t worthy of your game. Much as a cornered beast might land a mortal wound, your provocation inspired her lucky points.”

“Very droll,” tittered the woman, who turned from Elessa with such utter disregard that it was as if Elessa had evaporated. “What is your name, young man?”

“Venharc,” lied Roric. “We were just passing through.” He dragged Elessa back through the flap so fast that the canvas snapped her face. When she turned for a last angry look, and both exhibitors had already turned their heads, her face was drawn toward the mannequin’s cold stare, when it seemed to thaw, glacially swivel its ceramic head, and wink at Elessa.

As the melting moment transpired in the flick of the tent flap, Elessa was unsure if she had actually seen it, and allowed herself to be led away by the chatty Ardemian. While even Gaspar had a firmer grip than this noodly young man, and she could have broken free any time, she decided to suffer the vain masculinity of her guide, whose strength seemed to increase the nearer they approached the toymaker’s striped tent.

“What did she bring this year?” Roric’s supercilious airs were forgotten in his eager beaming. While Elessa had little interest, she was about to encourage his mindless streak, the better to enlist his sincere assistance rather than the half-hindering, sardonic manner in which he led her from mortification to embarassment, and now to some new uncertain possibility. Her mouth was half-open when she spied a black-feathered griffin with eyes the size of cantaloupes tied outside the tent. Only one griffin was so monstrous--Ilmar’s ostentatiously named steed, Deathspell.

With more steam than the travex, Elessa dragged Roric behind her into the neighboring exhibit, where metallurgists wrought shining metal sheets on a massive workbench into jointed animals.

“Now, this is simply rude!” Roric dangled limply from her white-knuckled grip, “I’ve been trying to show you the best exhibitor for nearly twenty minutes, and you persist in this obstinate and willful behavior!”

“Ilmar mustn’t see me!”

“You have that backwards, freshman. Everyone wants to be seen by Ilmar. He’s a celebrity in Ardem.”

“Excuse me” The large head and thick lenses looked more like a tiny observatory than a bespectacled scholar. “We haven’t opened the exhibit.” While several apples short of five feet tall, she wore a white smock an inch too long, with a hem traipsed and tracked by work boots and an apron pocket besmirched by streaks of black oil. She gripped a multi-tool like Roric’s, except hers produced a searing light as hot as a torch.

“Exhibit? I took this for a blacksmith’s booth,” said Roric.

“Yes, we’re not here to be shoed,” said Elessa.

“That’s too bad,” said the petite woman glumly, as if they had canceled an appointment for the express purpose of having horseshoes nailed to their feet. “You would have made good volunteers tomorrow. Come back if you change your mind.”

“Wait—you are a cobbler? What about the metal?”

“Oh, we tried leather, canvas, even paper...”

“Paper? Paper shoes?” said Elessa.

“Of course--that was the most malleable material, despite its unfortunate tendency to combust.”

“Combust? Are these firewalking shoes?” Elessa looked about, as if she expected to see a bed of hot coals.

“Firewalking shoes? That might sell. Can I use that?”

“The idea? If you want to make firewalking shoes...”

“No, the name. It’s an ingenuous name for what these do. I had thought to call them “jet boots,” but I’d prefer something with a bit more zing.”

“Yes,” hmmed Roric. “‘Jet Boots’ is so, so pedestrian. The name, that is. However, because jet boots themselves are anything but an earthbound idea, Elessa volunteers ‘firewalking shoes,’ and I volunteer myself for your first fire-walker. Ow!”

Elessa had poked him. “Have you ever flown, Roric? Take it from one who knows--you’ll like the idea better than the reality. That rigging on Beast’s saddle straps me in so I don’t tumble to my death. Speaking of which,” here she turned to the scholar, “how did you solve that problem?”

“The prototype only goes five feet high,” said the scholar, “no one ever died from falling five feet.”

Elessa considered contradicting this naive factification of something patently untrue, realized it might become an argument, and, with only a sheer temporary wall and tent fabric concealing her from Ilmar Andercruik’s ears, shut her mouth.

“Well, you’ve convinced me,” said Roric. “If duty permits, I’m happy to assist your demonsrations.”

“Would I be compensated?” asked Elessa. While still flush with her pay from Leonidas, it couldn’t last long in this unimaginably rich land, where the cost of living was no doubt as unimaginably expensive.

“Given a shortage of willing testers, I could arrange to pay you something. Could you show up tomorrow at eight?”

“So late?” winced Roric. “By then I’m making my rounds in the Travex tunnels. Why not earlier? If you start at six, when sightseers start trickling into exhibitors row, you’ll grab attention early and hold it all day.”

“Why, Roric,” hissed Elessa. “I don’t get up that early.”

Roric stepped in front of Elessa and offered the blocky scientist his hand. “I’m Roric. We met last year, but I’ve forgotten your name. Your exhibit of steam beds were very imaginative and quite comfortable. Why haven’t they caught on?”

When her face cracked in rueful indignation, she recovered almost instantly and brushed aside Roric’s disingenuous question. “Thank you. I’m happier for you to remember my work than my name.” As if an afterthought, she added, “and it’s Dranwen...Jugus.”

“Right! You’re the daughter of the cargo tycoon. Hey, Vanoori--this is Caden Jugus’s heir.”

“Why would I know that name?” sighed Elessa. “I don’t know any important people--only smug and conceited ones. Present company included, no offense to you, ma’am.”

“He’s only the owner of the largest fleet of merchant ships.”

“I grew up in a farming town called Glasford, and only spent a few weeks in the capitol. For one of those weeks I was a little girl, sightseeing and attending a play. ”

“Then this is educational. Show some respect, freshman. Dranwen could have been anything.”

“But not everything,” muttered Dranwen. “Until he remarried, my father wouldn’t let me be an inventor, and even then it was only to please his new wife. My being here is less an accident of birth or fortune, as you insinuate, than a less wholesome kind of accident. Now, I’m sure you’re both lovely people, but I can’t spare another second to look at you. Out!”

“Since you’ve already seen us...” Roric started, but the gentle and persistent pushing of the tiny inventor had already ousted them onto the exhibition concourse. After a wave and a fragile smile, Dranwen buttoned the flap, which muffled her reminder and mild shout: “I hope to see you at ten. NOT SIX!"

“That was rude,” said Roric.

“She did ask us to leave, Roric. Moreover, you pretended to forget her name.” Elessa sidestepped and pressed as close to the tent fabric as she could.

“Pretended? Why would I do that?” Roric narrowed his eyes and rubbed his stubbly chin.

“To bring up her rich father.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” said Roric off-handedly. “She should be happy to talk about it.”

“What about your parents?”

“There’s not much to say.”

“Your background isn’t much different from mine, is it?”

“If you mean that I hail from a Vanoori backwoods, no; if you mean I’m no prince, duke’s son, or shipping magnate’s heir, you’re absolutely right.”

“Is that why you gave her a hard time?”

“I have a better topic--why are you afraid of Ilmar Andercruik?” While Roric had sneered so often in their brief acquaintance that Elessa couldn’t picture him without one, when she couldn’t face his most unsightly sneer yet, she turned to see that Deathspell was no longer tethered outside the striped tent, and a growing queue of attendees added a new head every few seconds.

“How about, ‘why aren’t we in line?’” When Elessa darted toward to join the line, Roric joined her, but kept his back turned for over a minute, as if he intended this posterior view as a caesura in their conversation.

When he turned, his sneer had retracted or sloughed, leaving such a clean mask of composure that she suspected reptilian cunning. “My shift is at an end, Vanoori. While you are a fascinating creature, creature comforts are the beasts I now hope to observe in their natural habitat--a cafe table, my bed, and a pitcher of ale in between--at least, until tomorrow morning.”

“Aren’t you a student? When do you have time?”

Roric laughed almost good-naturedly, then said, “did you just ask me when I have time for school? You’re no less malicious a teaser than I am, Vanoori.”

“Honestly, Roric, I meant no embarrassment by asking.” While this was no lie, her service to those foul entities, the cousins Andercruik, might have striped a mean streak in her, for she was currently more satisfied by Roric’s chagrin than her unabated rapture in the secrets of Ardem.

“Didn’t you want to see the toymaker’s tent?” As the fast-moving line had reached the tent flap, Elessa peered in at a half-dozen aisles of temporary shelves and bins, all stocked or strewn with toys of colored wood or tin. After Roric poked his head over her shoulder, and inclined his gaze left and right, he fell a few steps to the right of the line. The faintest dour frown of disillusionment flickered before subsiding into his ever-coiled smile.

“While I’ll never get another first look at Romara Vendamar’s wares, I’m as eager as ever for my next look. That said, I’m famished, weary, and need to lubricate my chompers, or I won’t bite off anything witty for the lady I hope to make my patron. We’ll gawk at hotels another day. See that building?” Roric pointed to a four story brick edifice where here and there a drying towel or shirt interrupted the flow of white balconies.

“Is that the dormitory?”

“Good eye, Vanoori. Just go to the front, and tell them you arrived after admissions hours. They’ll know what to do.”

“Is there a way to avoid the exhibition?”

“You can’t dodge it entirely, but if you take Evenlam Avenue in about twenty minutes, the dinner rush should provide adequate concealment.”

“Twenty minutes? What do I do until then?”

“You can kill that easily in Ms. Vendamar’s bazaar.” When Roric’s eyelids lowered, it did not seem a sign of sarcasm, but of weariness—although Elessa could not be certain that it was the exertion of a long day’s work, and not the exhaustion inflicted by her ignorance of Ardemian ways. “Now I must go, Elessa. Should you choose to take me up on my offer, you can find me at the third precinct, across from Chomkin’s.”

“While I’ll no doubt visit the bookseller during my stay, if I want to save myself the walk, how do I contact you by thaumatuner?”

“Sorry, Vanoori.” Roric’s professional demeanor returned at once. “Ardem University won’t sell thaumatuners--though you might try the black market, where rumor has it two sold for eleven thousand to a Klyrnish nobleman.”

“I’m not that flush,” said Elessa. “Speaking of which—is the guard hiring?”

“Yes, but I doubt you’d qualify.”

“Really, Roric? I could take you.”

“No offense,” said the Ardemian hastily, “but a normal day’s duties are too strict for one with your ahem, condition...”

“What condition? Are you suggesting that I’m with child?” As Elessa’s face reddened, her first instinct was to swell with rage, which she quelled, fearing that it would make her look larger.

“No, Vanoori. Your griffin.”

“So I’m ‘with monster!’”

“While your bond will interfere with a guard’s daily duties, there are part-time openings in the shops. You might try the cafe, although the turnover is quite high; or, given your interest in rare books, you might present yourself to Chomkin.”

“That can’t pay very well.”

“It pays better than ‘student.’ Oh, look—she brought the gargoyles from last year’s exhibition.”

When Elessa glanced through the tent flap, Roric stepped away; since the doorkeeper drew the sash to allow two customers to stagger out under armloads of toys, then wagged two fingers to wave Elessa and the person at her back into the tent of marvels; since, moreover, Elessa was enrapt with her first glimpse of toys in flight—she put Roric’s rude departure behind her and entered Romara Vendamar’s emporium of wonders.

While the gargoyles were a foot high, their verisimilitude to flesh and blood was uncanny, with smooth stone articulated by a nearly seamless trace of joints and sweeping wings which flapped and furled with flinty cracks and sparks as they dove, swished, swooped, and twirled in aerial acrobatics over the shelves, occasionally dropping into toy bins with clatters of displaced bric-a-brac, then surfacing with leers of smug pleasure. The manufactured monsters followed the sway of a wand gripped by a woman in a short black jacket covering a striped shirt and pants continuing the white and purple scheme of the tent. Her short black hair, cut like a box around her head and ears, revealed silver earrings studded with translucent white gemstones too clouded to be diamonds.

Elessa liked Romara’s look on sight, for though she expected intellectual Ardem would skew the arbitrary conventions of masculinity and femininity, on the contrary, these students exaggerated their sexuality more, looking like peacocks compared to the varicolored multitude rambling in from distant lands. For every bangle on a Terrortory trader, these decadent academics had three, as well as hems with more zig-zig than lightning bolts, necklines that might as well be called navel lines, and boots so high as to give you a rash in a very private place--and that was just the men.

While she had only been in Ardem a few hours, she was disappointed in not seeing anyone remotely like herself, and thus it was a relief to see that the great toy inventor made only one concession to her womanhood.

Even after a long-awaited bath and a chance to buy a new wardrobe, Elessa doubted she would fit in at a school where a prize exhibit was a Dragonbone Petticoat—no, not even that, but a dracoil petticoat, which in its pretension aspired to be fashionable, not scientifically accurate. After leaving the Grand Exhibition, Elessa would find something simple and humble, like she wore in Glasford, then get her red hair, grown to a fanciful length in Ilmar’s service and run ragged in her travels, truncated to a manageable length. She had only kept it long because her father had liked it.

It was her first thought of him since the travex tunnels.

Her jumbled-up awe at Ardem, not only its undercity but the Grand Exhbition in full flower, had blotted her grief.

Deafened by this roaring realization that she had forgotten him, even so briefly, she reached by instinct for Beast’s flank and instead rattled a wobbly tin shelf. Thinking to retreat to the animal hospital and seek her griffin’s lonely stall, she was distracted from her flight by the capricious flights of gargoyles, which had become interested in her hair around the time she thought about lopping it off, as if either they, the toywoman, or the wand, had read her mind, and seizing strands like maypole streamers, Romara’s creations whirled and twisted until Elessa’s heavy head was wound up tighter than an egg.

When they flew away, her hair unraveled, and as her mind began to cave in under its sorrowful burden, she stood up straight, staved herself up by an act of will, and decided she was in the right place. While she had not the ability to forget his death, she had an above-average capacity for distraction, and that would have to do.

“Would you like a try?” Romara beckoned, through the crowd, to Elessa. Although the inventor had the supercilious look you would expect on a promoter of the outlandish and wondrous, with her chin raised well above the angle of pride, her cheeks an immobile mask, and her eyes a shadowy blur behind deeply descended eyelids, the hint of a smile curled her nearly colorless lips. The pose was such a contrived, dramatic stance that it seemed cut from high tragedy, but as imagined by a comedian.

As Elessa had been struck by thoughts of her darkest moment, the stark contrast of this human parody set her laughing, and though only a few peals of laughter escaped before she stifled her mirth, Romara Vendamar the great toymaker froze, then relinquished her gargoyle whip to another customer.

Elessa mastered herself, then brushed through the crowd towards Romara, who now looked on from the audience,which had centered around the lucky customer, along with the unruly bobbing, swerving, and harrying gargoyles. No sooner had he clutched the wand than he regretted his luck, and slashed the air, as if the wand was a riding crop, producing no comparable motion in the veering toys, which tightened their zinging laps around him, so that he began flailing his other hand as well. The result was a kind of upright dog paddle, although with this kind of jerking rhythm even a dog couldn’t swim.

“Too staccato, maestro.” While Romara’s quip produced a fluttering laugh in the audience, it settled into a snickering chatter as the sniveling man’s frenzied swatting whipped him into abject terror--until the swift capture of the wand in fingers so slender, and stretched to such tiny tips—the minuscule nails no bigger than matchsticks—that further attenuation would place the inventor in her own species.

“Adagio, like so,” she added, bringing the gargoyle swarm to gust around her, then stream to the tent top and back, where they flitted among the crowd, to the consternation of florid dressers, busty women, and all those travelers who still carried their luggage, for the leering, verminous toys roosted in any hollow large enough for their squirming bodies. Gargoyles perched in and on flowery hats, overcoats, cane handles, plunging cleavage, backpacks, and suitcases.

When Romara broke a smile, Elessa believed it might be the realization she made an unintended mistake, for she quickly resumed her steely composure, flicked the wand, and brought the gargoyles to perch on her sleeves.

“As you’re my first crowd, here’s an insider’s tip: tomorrow I unveil my new travex line.” Indulging another smile, this one intentional and theatrical, Romara bowed in a shallow dip to her audience. As Elessa tried to head her off, the Ardemian darted past her clerk behind the roped-off counter.

“Excuse me,” said Elessa.

“The demonstration is over,” said Romara coolly, “but you’re welcome to come tomorrow.”

“I didn’t mean to laugh. I was absorbed in my own thoughts, and your presentation was so wonderful and new, it brought me out of my world.”

“With a laugh. Hecklers are not so wonderful and new to me.”

“I’m very sorry. I wanted to try the gargoyles.”

“Tomorrow,” yawned Romara. “While we haven’t drawn a schedule of demonstrations, I planned to trot out the gargoyles every day, if only to give volunteers something to do.”

“Volunteer? Could I volunteer?”

“I have too many applicants as it is, all hungry for class credit.”

“I just got here, and would have liked to have the chance. I just wanted you to know that your gargoyles are wonderful.”

“Day one,” she snorted. “While they were last year’s darlings, they’re the worst of the specialties I’ve brought for the Grand Exhibition.”

“So every day your items will get better?”

“That’s a matter of opinion. We’ll see what the crowds say. I’m Romara, by the way.”

“I know who you are, Romara Vendamar. My first acquaintance here is your ardent fan.”

“I should disillusion him of that. Admirers never buy anything. Turning him into a customer with a few choice words--now that’s magic. Speaking of which, pick your school of study before the colleges are filled.

They’ll fill extra quickly, with students arriving early and rapidly for the Grand Exhibition. Now if you’ll forgive my cutting this short, I’ll happily accept your apology for ’involuntary heckling,’“--Elessa could not help noticing Romara’s sarcastic emphasis--“and even go so far as to leave your name with my demonstrators.”

“You will? Thank you!”

When Elessa made as if to depart, Romara sighed. “Your name?”

“Oh. Lycinia Mabruk.” The nom de plume blurted out before Elessa could think better of it, as the Ardemian inventor made her edgy.

“Lycinia...Mabruk? That’s a very literary name...do I know your parents?”

“Sorry! My mind goes where it wants. I’m Elessa Cavarah.”

“You’re very young for an alias, Elessa Cavarah.” Romara tossed her head back and closed her eyes in dramatic consideration. “Come by tomorrow, Ms Cavarah. The same time.”

“Oh. I will!”

“Will you tell me your story?”

“I could, if you want.”

“I meant tomorrow, Ms. Cavarah. By tomorrow, I may even be looking forward to it. Good evening.”

As Elessa smiled and turned, the doorkeeper hustled her through the tent flap in a blurred exchange which admitted another pensive customer.

Though still stunned by their electrically-charged word volleys, she had the presence of mind to realize she ought not stand still in foot traffic, for fear of standing out and being seen by Ilmar, and by following Roric’s directions, soon reached the dormitory, first passing the largest tent yet, alliteratively entitled Madame Mariscol’s Menagerie, in which a panoply of hoots, shrieks, yaps, and hisses shook the canvas. Another interesting vendor was a long booth from which the scents of cranberries, oranges, grapes, and vanilla trailed, and in which a man with straw hair and stern spectacles dashed from one cask to another, sometimes decanting fruity beverages through tubes and spigots into glass bottles.

She knew she had reached the end of the Grand Exhibition when she walked through a crop of fly-by-night merchants pretending, with shady aplomb, to have as much right to be there as those invited to the event. One advertised Cockatrice Pills and hawked them as “petrification in a pellet. Stone your hardened enemies for real!” Another, with even more panache, but an unfortunate deficiency in spelling, publicized “Chaos For Sail,” at the same time marketing the primal forces of pandemonium and shipping them over the waves. While chaos was packaged smartly in tiny squares of burlap wrapped in old bootlaces, the chaos sailsman had neither picked the right audience—being a woefully undereducated vermin in an overliterate swarm—nor unfurled a single sale.

Taking pity on the optimistic but uneducated liar, Elessa bought one parcel of chaos, although she could not resist telling him that in lieu of having it shipped, she would opt for cash and carry.

“Do I eat it?” While this question was more or less sincere, as she wanted the hopeful sham artist to believe she played by the rules of his game, in following it up with “is chaos perishable?” she was more or less facetious.

With a solemn look, the flimflam vendor replied, “no, miss. Chaos is immortal. Keep the strings laced.”

“I understand.”

The old brick dormitory had faded past pink to a kind of peppery white. She trudged up the steps to the doors, which hung open to admit the cool, blustery air and crackling light which Ilmar’s cloud had tracked through the smoke and clean illumination of Ardem.

Crisp white light flooded every corner of the residence hall, which had many nooks and niches crammed with reading, snacking, and cannodling students. While most were in groups of two or three, around one table were eight students, some younger than Elessa but most older, and arguing in such rambunctious tones that in the seconds it took Elessa to cross the room, they were swept up and down and all around in waves of declamation, defamation, proclamation, and exclamation.

She was about to storm to the counter, where an officious looking middle-aged man had stood, perhaps the better to brace himself for this angrily approaching customer, when one of the roaring gossips declared, “Andercruik should be banned from the Exhibition!”

“Pardon me?” said Elessa.

“No worries,” said the red-faced student demagogue, “you weren’t the subject of our table talk.” While his chest, arms, and neck were beefy, his dainty fingers were as flimsy as peanut shells, a fact made known when he cracked them with one grotesque rip.

“I’ve only just arrived,” said Elessa. “Give me time to pick up speed, and you’ll be talking about me in no time.”

“That’s funny.” With hair dyed the color of strawberries, a kind face, and cruel eyes, this young woman resembled the haughty heroines painted into storybooks. “You seem like a good person to know. More than that, a quick wit like that is welcome here.”

“We don’t have room. And we were in the middle of something.” The huffy student’s still-red face seemed to hold back the stream of his tirade only with great reluctance.

“Tyronius has put us off three weeks in a row,” said the young woman’s neighbor, a taller lass, who even at table seemed prominently larger than the other debaters due to the gangly arms and horrific overbite that would have suited a praying mantis. When she shifted right in a stretch, the beefy one leaned back from her predatory elbow, which seemed to seek out his adam’s apple all on its own. “Cozceccia is right.”

Cozceccia smiled, until the gawky woman continued: “Or at least she isn’t wrong that we need a replacement. But why this freshman? One of us is already skating by on good looks.”

Cozceccia bristled. “Considering you never let an opportunity pass to remind us of my good looks, I’m uncertain whether you’re jealous or attracted, Xerla.”

Before Xerla could respond, Elessa sat in the half-space allotted to the absent Tyronius, the other half of which was quickly absorbed by the commodious stretch of Xerla’s legs, and the enormous sandaled feet that poked their toes up well above the table’s edge. While she should have liked to present her most disarming smile, Elessa was exhausted to the point of unthinking response, as if she was only a half alive phenomenon of the physical universe, and her equal and opposite reaction of choice was to flash her most bristling smile, armed, as it were, to the teeth. Then Elessa barged over the beefy youth, slid into the half-space he had nervously ceded to the flapping elbow, and jostled Xerla.

“Oh!” said Xerla, as if Elessa had pinched her and not deprived her of a few inches of posterior space, “I like your replacement, Cozceccia.” Her scathing tone implied that Xerla was, on the contrary, not only prejudiced against Elessa, but plotting against this interloping posterior, that had so cinched Xerla in the corner of the bench that she could only lean forward if she wished to indulge the sweep of her elbows.

When Elessa leaned against her, Xerla’s face flushed—not from suffocation or embarrassment, but rage, as this soft vise crushed her remaining personal space.

“After I hear your thoughts on Ilmar Andercruik, I’ll take my leave.”

“As if. A peasant making good on their word,” sneered Xerla. “There’s our next theme. What would you like to hear?”

“What do you mean? I want to hear your argument.”

“That’s the point of our club, rude girl. We don’t care about topics. One meeting I’ll take the liberal stance, and another the conservative one, and so it goes with all of us. Except for Cozceccia, who always takes the reasonable, high-minded point of view.”

Elessa’s heart sank. She had hoped for staunch allies, or failing that, like-minded friends.

“You’re the rude girl, Xerla,” said Cozceccia. “This poor rustic just got here from backwoods Vanoor with twigs in her hair and dirt on her nose, and this is your warm welcome?”

Elessa ran her fingers through her hair, feeling for twigs, but thought she better not touch her nose in this company. She wished Cozceccia hadn’t tried to help. Or had she? Was this spunky defense a more sophisticated sarcasm, that seasoned its spice with bland pretenses to sincerity?

“But what about Ilmar Andercruik?” Elessa persisted.

“A lively subject,” said the chesty man, “providing the best fodder for our debates in quite some time.”

“So he’s a divisive subject? Some of you don’t like Ilmar?”

“We only sat down ten minutes ago, and I’ve barely had time to warm up to my position.”

“He put on an interesting show last year,” admitted Xerla.

“Is he exhibiting this year?” asked the chesty man.

That these students sharing a thimbleful of real-world brains could idly discuss the cold-blooded murderer and enslaver as if he was a visiting hobbyist galled Elessa. “He slew my father.”

The murmurs ceased and all eyes darted toward Elessa.

The chesty man scratched his boyish, wispy beard. “Is that a Vanoori expression?”

“We take that literally here,” said Cozceccia.

“First he enthralled him for six months. Only then was he murdered.”

The absolute silence not only quieted speech, it froze the debate club into utter stillness. After a few moments, a short, dark-haired Klyrnish boy said, “I’m not seeing any talking points.”

Xerla blurted out, “there aren’t any talking points, Revi. She’s talking about a real murder.”

“However,” said the chesty man, sweeping his eyes to address the group, “there will be times when we’re presented with such thorny issues. Shall we let them silence us? Revi, what would you...”

“Yes!” Xerla and Cozceccia shouted at once.

Xerla turned to Elessa. “Why not report this to the Dean?”

“You did hear that I just got here?” said Elessa peevishly. “Also, I came to Ardem to forget my father’s death and hide from his murderer. I had no idea Ilmar was your celebrity.”

“A celebrity?” said the beefy one. “I don’t know about that...some years, he’s an honored guest.”

“Wurla, this stopped being debate club when she mentioned the murder.”

“I’m sorry,” sighed Elessa. “I hoped to make friends, not ruin their fun. Let me get my room and some rest, in that order, and get out of your hair.”

“Room with me tonight.” Cozceccia’s smile brightened.

“I don’t want to inconvenience you,” said Elessa.

“And I wouldn’t want you to be inconvenienced by settling in, only to be reassigned.”

“Unless you want a roommate, I’m still changing rooms.”

“Their way, you feel like freight. My way, you’re a guest.”

“Good rhetoric, Cozy,” said Wurla.

“Is there an extra bed?” asked Elessa.

“You’ll sleep in my bed, and I’ll take the chair and tuffet.”

“Why would you do that for me?” said Elessa doubtfully.

“Because you’re going to tell me everything,” beamed Cozceccia.

“I’m persuaded,” yawned Elessa.

“With nothing much happening here, I’ll show you to your bed now.” After helping Elessa to her feet with a friendly smile that made her feel very much at home, they crossed to the stairs. As they ascended slowly, Elessa clung to the railing in her exhaustion, and Cozceccia wearied her further by peppering her with questions.

“Do you have luggage? No? Is everything you own in that backpack? A griffin? No! Really? Will you take me flying? I’m very much afraid, but I don’t care. Aren’t you ever afraid? How afraid? Of being eaten or flying? How bad do they smell?”

As Elessa was in no mood for Cozceccia’s bubbly perkiness, she popped each bubble as sullenly and tersely as possible. ‘Cozy’ not only didn’t seem to mind, but thrived under Elessa’s weary negativity, becoming even more ebullient, if that was humanly possible.

Elessa should have expected a nickname like ‘Cozy’ would be ironic, and Cozceccia’s room was anything but, with moldering food, stacks of tattered newssheets, half-finished crafts, the hideous stench of cat piss, and the sprinkling, chilly breeze blowing the curtains in the swinging casement window. Four sheets with frayed corners and running ink were dissolving into the carpet, having been soaked not only by the rain, but an obese ginger cat. These curling posters were presumably pulled from street posts, for they now advertised various luminaries of the Grand Exhibition vainly to Cozy’s room.

Not only was this dorm room half the size of her father’s house, but it was stuffed with more trashy bric-a-brac than they ever had, even if you added up the oddments and trinkets from every year of her childhood. None of this struck a chord of envy like Cozceccia’s bookshelf, which had dozens of books with uncut pages in such close proximity to the window that they received a spate of drops with each clatter.

“Your books are getting ruined!” Elessa picked a crumpled blouse from the floor to wipe the spines, and was about to move the books to the tussock, when she noticed a telltale stain of cat urine along one side. “Is there anyplace I can put them down?”

Cozceccia sat in her chair, kicked off her shoes, crossed her stockinged feet above the piss stain, then pointed to the window. “Grandfather will send me more.”

“You don’t want them any more?”

“It’s not like I could sell waterlogged books.” When Elessa saw the spark in Cozy’s eye, she was reminded of the cruelties of other easily-amused egotists—mainly the Andercruiks. “I doubt I could even give such substandard stuff to you.“

Elessa looked down at her armload of books. While the binding was beaded with water, what she wiped away had not stained the leather, and the rain had not yet warped the paper. And since they exhibited little to no use, the corners were sharp. “What if I was interested?”

“You’re so earnest,” laughed Cozceccia. “While I like you now, when your act bores me, I won’t even be able to look at you.”

“What act?”

“You’re so nice. Did grandfather send you?”

“Your grandfather sends you women as well as books? Is that legal?”

“And funny! He so disapproves of my present company that he’s rented two other prospective companions this year alone. When the first admitted to it, and I sent her packing, by shameless deception her replacement lasted a bit longer, until her relentless, wholesome suggestions that I study, go to class, and stop smoking.”

Elessa looked at Cozceccia skeptically. “Your grandfather sends spies through admissions? Is he a duke or a baron?”

“As if! Your petty nobles would never land a spy within a hundred miles of Ardem. My grandfather is the dean.”

Whatever questions popped into Elessa’s head were scattered by a bloodcurdling trill she knew all too well, a plaintive peal shivering the window panes and rattling the mirror atop Cozceccia’s dresser. Having reluctantly set the books on the disordered dresser, Elessa looked out the window, then joined her scream to Beast’s next shriek.

Having made it to the dormitory yard--peaceful grounds where indigent traveling vendors had parked their wares--the wounded griffin fell on a merchant’s horse with the unhesitating entitlement only beasts display in the arrogation of their natural rights. In seconds, the draft horse was sectioned into bloody parcels the dazed griffin was too groggy to eat. When three coveralled nurses from the animal hospital arrived, two clutching poles mounted with blunted hooks and the other aiming a strange device distressingly like Roric’s multi-tool, Elessa barged from Cozceccia’s room.

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