The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter 8

No soooner was Wysaerie moored over Ardem than those with the wherewithal, whether magical, mechanical, or a hybrid, paid their respects to that mighty alumni, Ilmar Andercruik. Fanning his coterie of acquaintances to a full circle of admirers were the tag-alongs and rumor-followers who came to see his free-flowing miracles, as well as the pleaders, favor-seekers, and solicitors canvassing for investments of knowhow and capital in get-rich schemes and pipe dreams.

These business plans often made him laugh, for in their naivite they knew not how much their models mimicked the madness of the mad wizard they unwittingly courted. Usually, they would profit by enslaving the common man to magical engineering, so that the world of tomorrow would be beholden to his influence. Ilmar smiled wryly. He had to admit it was another kind of magic, the way they proposed transmuting material to merchandise by creating demand for their gimmicks and gimcracks. While they were a high class of canvasser--being, literally, not canvassers at all, for they burned no shoe leather ascending to his doorsep--these pitchmen nonetheless sorely tried his patience, although he had to admit it took stones to brave the griffins thronging his skull-shaped castle.

While even the most presumptuous guests were provided a bed and a table setting, the salesmen he saw one at a time, and only those with the expertise or ingenuity to take the ascensor to the observatory, spill their pitch in under two minutes, then take their leave through the skylight. While Ilmar hoped this aerial ejection might dismay and discourage his applicants, he was suprised how many of these science merchants had not only the sagacity but the tenacity to follow the expected route. Eleven in all--many using flight spells, but one mannish young woman using what she dubbed Firewalkers. These roaring and sparking iron boots conveyed her by a series of controlled explosions through the ascensor, so that Ilmar became worried of his artworks, books, and even the sentimental bric-a-brac shelved in that vertical hallway.

His shaping enchantments were often tested, such as when, to accomodate his swelling company, he lengthened the dinner table by thinning its stone to a precarious wafer, or when he cobbled the mountain to abut new rooms to his castle without ruining his composition. Once a delicate thought conceived in a moment, his home began to be bogged down by extensions and additions, lost its aesthetic edge, and no longer gave him pleasure.

On the third day, Ilmar wearied of his hangers-on and deigned to make an appearance at the Grand Exhibition. It would be nice to see the sights prior to his lecture on the following day, and he should condescend to the bother of rubbing shoulders and palm pressing inflicted not only by old acquaintances but by celebrity seekers. Let them have their touch of greatness, he resigned himself, though he paid dearly not only from his fund of beloved solitude but from his self-esteem. Ilmar had never liked looking in others’ eyes, for though he was rather tall and it was amusing to look down on people, their eyes reminded him that, his magic tricks, intelligence, and science notwithstanding, the common man was an animal with which he had a lot in common, and he grudged not only every second of shared existence, but the air they breathed, seeing it as his personal fund for inspiration, and the light of their eyes, counting it as his private stock of enlightenment. That said, if he did not like his hand held by sentimental beggars, he liked to have his ego stroked, to be looked upon, admired, resented, envied, and worshipped. It couldn’t be helped, he told himself—he was hungry for adulation, and brimful of pride to spill, that they might lap up and ooze upward into a nobler shape.

Despite this appetite for adoration, he sighed oftener than a songbird as he preened before his mirror. Ilmar considered himself master of the preen—a good preen was an accomplishment in a noble soul, for it gave one the measure of one’s quality. Hair and beard curled into rings—right—said rings oiled and myrrhed—right—robes pleated so the lines accentuated his broad shoulders, massive chest, and the width of his stride—right--gloves impeccably white and shoes spit-polished to a gleam by his drooling thrall—right—and, in the middle of this litany of self-love, a craving roared, causing him to wince, then recoil from his flinching mirror image.

Although he swaggered before the mirror, and tried to get back in the preening mood, his strutting preen soon became anxious pacing, that accelerated as his stomach gurgled, as if it howled his inglorious craving. In his last glimpse before he turned from the mirror, the despicable shudders seemed to have shrunk him, so that the earthly commoner inhabiting his mirror bore no trace of the celestial cloud-dweller and griffin lord.

It must be fed, he told himself, then hastened from his dressing room to plunge down the ascensor so pell-mell that the pleats were undone, his curls and rings loosened, and all his preening made vanity by blasting air.

On the ground floor, he continued his headlong levitation by barging forward with such free-floating aggression that his thralls staggered with an even drunker authority than normal, and his Ardemian followers scattered in a kind of reverse swarm, flooding every room that joined to Ilmar’s path.The wizard didn’t touch feet to floor until he banged into the kitchen.

“Leave me!” Ilmar roared at his enthralled staff. “Not you! You stay here, and attend upon me.”

The fellow so favored by Ilmar’s special attention was not only distinguished by a bright white smock with brass buttons shaped like griffins’ heads, but a fearful smile, which said that he was new, not enthralled, and uncertain of his high privilege. “Wh-what do you require, my lord?”

“Your specialty, of course.”

“Surely not so soon, my lord. Your fine figure will be ruined.”

“While I’m flattered, I enticed you from your past employer not for your good taste, but the savor of your infamous entree.”

“My lord, I am undeserving of my reputation and your esteem, for your last repast was no daintier than my first cut of that bold flavor.”

“Who says so, Lancurc?” boomed Ilmar. “Show me the savage that’s eating my leftovers, then has the audacity to knock your craft and my taste.”

“Forgive me, my lord. It was only I that complained of my own cooking. Not that I have the temerity to share your delicacies,” Lancurc hastily added, “but I am pained by the odor and offended by the horror. No matter how I dress the naked meat, I see clothes and manners. In saucing your plates, I think of unctions and perfumes, as if I was not a chef arranging a plate but an embalmer laying out the dead.”

“If you do both,” chuckled Ilmar, “you are doubly honored. Come, Lancurc. Make me what I ask.”

While Lancurc’s shoulders slumped over a deflating sigh, he opened the larder, extracted an odious bone plump with skinned flesh, then shaved it into an oiled, seasoned pan.

Ilmar strode to the counter, the better to see not only the chef’s hands at work, but his eyes crinkling with disquiet, for if Lancurc was twice honored, Ilmar feasted in many ways, not only in the tantalizing aroma of the sizzling flesh, and the unease of his hireling, but in the knowledge that he had so easily decieved and disappointed his cousin Leonidas.

If Lancurc still talked of his old master, it only flavored his delicious cooking, for Ilmar relished every petty conquest. That Lancurc pined for Leonidas so accented the joys of ownership that he allowed the anecdotes of past service, and listened patiently to Lancurc’s gossip as he fried the shaved flesh.

Ilmar knew how difficult it was to change one’s tastes, once one had a taste of their own. From his first taste of this commonly grown but rarely harvested delicacy, he knew he would savor it for the rest of his life. More than anyone else, Lancurc should sympathize, having initially turned down all offers of money, property, or any other incentive, even as the emperor sent his inspectors to take the measure of Leonidas’s estate. While the chef had not been paid in weeks, he pled that he could not bear change masters. It was the same with Ilmar; he could no longer stand the inspid taste of common fare, and though he now no longer slept through the night, waking with feverish pangs as much like exhiliration as famishment, only one taste would satisfy.

Once he satisfied the chef’s only weak point, it was an easy matter to serve up a lifeless imitation as this lively original. Having copied Lancurc down to the tiny black mole on his ear, he stuffed the duplicated flesh with the flimsy playbook it would need to interact with a mind befogged by arrogance. “Yes, my lord,” and “as you wish, my lord,” would satisfy Leonidas, and if they were plied with enough abundance, he would never miss the chef’s verbose anecdotes. While Ilmar was right on this, as he spied the apparent poisoning of the imitation chef through the magic jewel he used as a prying eye, he cringed at the double’s unrehearsed, unpersuasive death, and if Leonidas seemed taken aback, neither cousin trembled.

As the shaved meat glistened in bubbling oil, his salivating tongue palpitated, as if about to burst from its larval form, become a throbbing heart, and alight on the sizzling offal. Inclining his head, Ilmar looked down on the rings of popping grease circling the fallen flesh.

Having savored Shaul Cavarah’s death, Ilmar was never the same, as if a griffin’s stomach clicked and scratched inside, grinding the subpar meals he ate for the sake of appearances--the everyday mash of flesh, grains, fruit, seed, and stalks oozing into the bland pulp of human cuisine.

At first, Ilmar bade his thralls to overwhelm his strange taste with explosive spice mixes, so as to ignite their middling meals into a seasoned conflagration. Having given in, he less relished the tang of human flesh than it consumed him, as it was the only thing that sat well, sated, and settled him, and when he went without, he ranged his mountain estate and eyed his thralls in a predatory way they would never fear. Finding enthralled flesh insipid--a blandness he knew was wholly mental, but loathed nonetheless--Ilmar began to appraise his Ardemian guests less for the flavor of their company and conversation than for the imagined flavor of their flesh, which he mentally cut and dressed, as if he had not a griffin’s stomach, but its imagination.

If Ilmar’s new coterie were as ignorant as veal calves, they were also more succulent and plump, being selected entirely for their presumed nutritive qualities.

When the door creaked behind him, Ilmar whirled, his face stretched to a towering mask of indignation at the interruption of his delicious taboo by one one of those presumptuous toadies, his face flapping and quivering not like flesh but a wind-blown curtain. Such ample flesh must soon oblige him by gracing his table in a coat of sparkling grease.

“Divinity,” stammered the bovine academic, for Ilmar had not discouraged that humorous honorific when they presumed to address him as the god of Wysaerie. “Forgive the intrusion, but it is time.”

As Lancurc deployed his shakers and grinders, the cuts effused such a toothsome aroma, pendant with succulent fats laced with oregano, black pepper, and the curious powder which coy Lancurc would not anatomize for Ilmar’s benefit. Then he sauced it, tossing in streams of black vinegar, dark oil, and...

“That smells delicious, divinity,” said the bovine academic. Maruk had approached so near, and spoke so insinuatingly into Ilmar’s ear, that the wizard could not help turning his head, and missed out on many stages of Lancurc’s cooking.

While Ilmar sizzled with rage, he smiled benignly. “Is it not delightful? It is the proper food of your god.” Ilmar chuckled. “Would you like some? I should warn you that eating the food of the gods shows contempt for your humanity.”

“Condemn it, then.” Maruk smacked his lips so loud and sloppily that they wet the fringes of his beard. “I’d cut off my left arm for a taste of that.”

Ilmar chortled. “I accept, Muruk. Don’t welch when I come to collect.” While Ilmar leered in good humor, a merriness he meant in his human heart, his griffin stomach roared that it would remember, a savage rumble that echoed in the kitchen.

“What was that?” Maruk’s eyes blinked to an exaggerated wideness as he feigned astonishment. “I might lose my head if I get between this god and his food.”

“You might,” laughed Ilmar.

“Are you certain, Lord Wizard,” said Lancurc. “There isn’t enough to share.” Lancurc’s gloomy scowl was so overwrought that Ilmar, fretting he might spoil the joke, gave the chef a sidelong look of vehement caution.

“As I’m investing in this young man, I can spare a smidgen” Ilmar snickered. “Another whole man to round out the table, Lancurc--wouldn’t that be choice?”

Lanurc nodded and took another plate from the cabinet. “Apples, I think,” he added, not adding to the conversation, but hanging his words midair. Slicing an apple into six wedges, he plated two with a fried sliver drizzled with bubbling gravy. Ilmar’s portion was handsomer, with a drenched, fulsome slice, the rest of the apple, and a large roll.

While Ilmar once appreciated these rolls--for their deceptively stony crust concealed an airy, feathery bread that sponged up butter, oils, and sauces--their novelty paled a week after the chef’s arrival. But as Ilmar mopped the manly gravy, having savaged his way through his ounce of flesh, the roll became forbidden fruit, redolent with the smack of the human.

“Heavens, divinity, this tastes so good!” This compliment seemed a miracle of ventriloquism, for Maruk was reluctant to pry his lips from his toothsome morsel. “When are you having me to dinner?”

“Let’s table that for after the lecture. Thank the quiet gods that I can find time to store up food for the soul with such a gifted chef in the castle.”

Nodding to Lancurc, Ilmar led Maruk from the kitchen and down the hall. Upon entering the lecture hall, the rowdy discussion up front died to a low simmer, save for Verdara, a gigantic, bullish blonde woman who leaned forward with a lurching lunge of her massive belly wherever she punctuated her curiously constructed sentences. “But BEING” >lurch< “and COMMUNITY” >lurch< “are NOTHINGS” >lurch, and a near spill from her seat< “except shackles for the SOUL!” Here she slid a rotund half-circle on her seat, so that her head bobbed at the top of her lurch, nodded, and clamped shut its purse-sized mouth.

“Soul? The soul is a beast, you fool.” Ilmar snorted. “Good and evil are but learned responses to food and famishment.” Ilmar’s response boiled up and spat out before he remembered how long he had cultivated the friendship of the unappealing (yet appetizing) woman. Bringing his tone back to a dulcet oratory so as to ameliorate the sting of his unwilled venom, he added, “the hungry poor do not respect property, and the rapacious and greedy spill blood when something frustrates their desirable transgression. When others step on our serpentine desire for this bit of flesh or that bauble, it is only natural to bite the heel.” <

Ilmar’s students were not only rapt, but a burlesque of sycophantism that would have shamed professional toadies: one removed Ilmar’s sandals, manicured his toes and painted them gold, having first gilded his own toenails; one cooled him with a fan of griffin feathers; one jotted Ilmar’s every word and doodled him at repose; and another, having sneered at the doodlist, painted Ilmar in outrageously bright colors that are rare birds even in portraits, their usual habitat being wet palettes.

Having achieved by infamy the popularity that study never provided, Ilmar attracted a coterie of hipsters and bootlicks, all of whom claimed formidable magical gifts, but none of whom were a threat. When they fawned over the manifesto he privately feared trite, he was happy to be vindicated by those this self-same philosophy disdained for being of infinitesimal importance, aside from their capacity for feeding his enlightened taste.

After the lecture, Ilmar asked, “are you enjoying my celestial domain?”

“The horses are gone, Ilmar, and your griffins roosting on the battlements eye us longingly.”

“It’s only your imagination.”

“What isn’t my imagination, but a matter of taste, is that our meals have a very odd taste. Are you feeding US the horses?”

“No, no, these are delicacies of my chef’s devising. Are they not delicious?”

“I did not say they were not delicious, simply that they smack of some new flavor.”

“As I would never deprive a griffin of its rightful diet, and a griffin would never prize your dainties over horseflesh, why would I meddle in the prferences of natural taste? That said, it would be a labor of more than love to levitate livestock to Wysaerie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my spoiled gluttons hunted our native horses to extinction. The seasons are changing, and appetites are on the rise.”

“Maybe you ought not to have swelled your family of griffins? It’s not like you can dissuade their hangers-on. Are you as certain of our safety as regards these others?”

Ilmar scowled at her presumption. “What hangers-on? What others?”

“The griffins nesting on the mountain.”

“This is ridiculous. Not only are they wild, and unlikely to brave the walls, but you’re all enjoying my company--and my protection--this very minute.”

“Is that so?” asked one tall, pot-bellied scholar, “no one’s seen Aldana since breakfast.”

“Since breakfast?” snorted Ilmar. “I’ve seen her since then, and we’ll see her at dinner, I think. She’s not one for missing a meal.” When the sniggers died to an uneasy murmur, then a queasy silence, Ilmar added, “does she owe you money, Vertona?”

“Of course. Aldana’s a welch. But that’s besides the point.”

“Your point being you haven’t seen her for eight hours. In a roomy castle. On a modest island.”

“On a mountain! Where’s she likely to go?”

“She might have taken the stairs to the meadow.”

A simmering mutter boiled to a roar as the Ardemians went from indignant to excited about the secret stairway.

“Why not show all of us these mountain stairs, Ilmar, so that Aldana didn’t have to go unaccompained?”

“Would you like to see the meadow?” asked Ilmar. “It’s a pleasant place to rest your bones. No doubt Aldana’s bones are enjoying it now.”

When the subject changed from complaining to exercise, the effete Ardemians glanced at each other, then settled into their cushions, doubtlessly loath to trade their soft seats for rocky stairs and fresh air.

“Why wait?” asked Ilmar.

“It’s one thing to take in the view from a tower window or a coach, divinity. It’s another thing entirely to walk there.”

“I insist,” said Ilmar. “You can’t leave without taking the tour.”

Verdara said, “if we’re taking an excursion, let’s go by air. And as long as we’re flying, why not go to Ardem? The Grand Exhibition is already three days in.”

“And nothing worth doing yet,” set another student with an apathetic sigh.

“Maybe not” >lurch< “but there are things” >lurch, head bob< “worth eating. You’ve forgotten the food vendors. We all have.”

“I could never forget the sweetcakes,” said one.

“Or the fried breads and meats.” This one’s mouth pursed in such a vivid imagination of the greasy fair food that he could not suppress phantom chewing and a phony but spirited swallowing.

“Or the dark brewed coffees and the darker brewed beers.”

“I like the Klyrnish” >lurch< “lemon ices,” said Verdara.

As the students regaled each other with their reasons for preferring their favorite wares, Ilmar realized he had lost control. Short of barbecuing his tasty coterie in the lecture hall or issuing coarse demands that would both undermine his reputation for magnanimity and underscore his powerlessness, he could only smile and listen for the way the wind blew.

In truth, he had missed Ardem. He missed not only his office, his favorite library table, and even his old dormitory room, but the conflict: being insubordinate to the Dean, that lovely appliance, who performed his function so zealously that purpose had consumed his personality; his slashing repartee with the faculty, who thought him less intellectual rebel than highbrow pirate; but mostly, he cherished the agonized cries of his entitled students, who never got the lavish grades they expected, but only those lesser marks that they merited.

While he also missed the Exhibition, nostalgia had not improved his opinion on fair food, which, nauseously sheathed in slimy grease, was even more loathsome than the other toy foods of lesser mortals. If he was wicked for savoring the delicately dressed and masterfully seasoned flesh of tedious people, they were much, much worse for ingesting days-old dead animals coarsely larded, breaded, and choked with salt. At least he treated his body like a temple.

“Although my chef will be dismayed after his labor on tonight’s feast, who am I to bar my guests from the Grand Exhibition, when I traveled three hundred leagues to see the sights?”

After the applause died down, Maruk said, “let’s go griffin back.”

Ilmar chuckled. “While we might if we were all practiced, it is a steep descent that untrained riders may not survive.”

“And more importantly,” >lurch< “divinity,” said Verdara, “that would give you” >lurch< all the glory” >lurch< “of our arrival. Not that you don’t deserve it” >backwards lurch and head bob< “but most of us perfected magical flight less to master the skies than to impress the multitude, and the rest ascended by inventions they are eager to flaunt,:

“But shy of having subjected to the critical inquiry of an Exhibition.” Although Ilmar’s laugh was friendly, the thought which produced it was a cruel vision of this obese herd bobbing down to Ardem. It offended his sensibilities so much that he scoffed out loud, an exclamatory chortle which expanded into a friendlier but phonier expression of mirth.

“Very well,” said Ilmar by way of a pompous declamation, “we shall decamp as we arrived, but with Maruk taking the lead, for he is a young man of great taste. Although he develops on such different lines that I can’t call him a man after my own heart, I’m very much after his.”

As they flocked from Wysaerie, the griffins crouched so low upon the battlements that their heads dangled below their talons in their lust to devour ample flesh. Not for the first time, Ilmar sympathized with the beasts’ hunger, however much they parodied human appetites, for this was a natural criticism of the excesses of his guests: the too-muchness clumped to their obese limbs; the many chins scaling their necks; the fat flowing down bellies, backs and waddling legs in a way that recalled the popping and bubbling of Lancurc’s pan, as if it was the natural fate of these toadies to be chopped and plated. Being bankrupt of any semblance of esteem, any trace of self in their overweening displays, they no longer lived for themselves, but for show, and having served their purpose as Ilmar’s parade animals, would receive their just deserts during a final feast, in which they would be not sat, but served.

Many chanted and ascended over the rim, then overflew the dark bluster under the cloud island; one pulled a cord to extend shimmering wings concealed under his cloak, grabbed the handles dangling from the steely frame, then surged into the air so fast that he left a shoe behind; another extracted from her pouch a red marble, which shivered under her whispers until its instant and enormous expansion, and the others boarded the platform swaying from the bobbing, house-sized balloon.

Since both his feast and his prank were scrapped by these entitled brats, Ilmar appeased his frustration by indulging his indolence and boarding the balloon.

“You’re not flying?” asked Maruk.

“Enlilea will refute that presumption in a moment,” said Ilmar.

The bottom of the balloon not only rested within arm’s reach, but sported a patch of curious threads, which Enlilea tugged and untied in no discernible order, until the balloon expanded even more, then lurched a dozen yards, dragging so near the tall grasses that they were heard whisking the platform, before a resounding plop, rebounding into a streaking jaunt over meadow, treetops, the winding river, and then the cloud island rim, from which they cascaded into tumultuous wind.

During this riotous agitation, a translucent globe shimmered as it encapsulated the daintily tethered platform and crackled as it turned the breeze, so that the passengers not only kept their footing as if on bedrock, but not a single hair was swept out of place. That said, only Enlilea and Ilmar retained their poise and equanimity as the others clamored their displeasure in the turbulence. Their strident, obnoxious tones settled into petty criticism which the inventor ignored, but not without a tiny smile concealing a monstrous pleasure disproportionate to the flyspeck grin.

Before Ilmar’s newest and most relentless acquired taste, he would have had another reason for collecting such a large coterie, for he had liked large women. Perhaps it was to entertain this subsided predilection that he sidled over to Enlilea, or perhaps it was only to pass the time--but in either event, he felt that the plump wizard’s diminutive smile concealed not only a like mind, but a tiger’s heart that sought pleasure in getting under aristocratic skins.

“It’s quite impressive,” he said.

“The great wizard is known to be stinting in praise,” said Enlilea, “except the backhanded praise he lobs without rhyme or reason. While I should be flattered, Ilmar Andercruik, I came for a rarer reward than flattery.”

“I’m not looking for an apprentice,” said Ilmar wearily.

“Why would I apprentice with you, wizard? You don’t have any references.”

“On the contrary.” While Ilmar’s tone and smile were indignant, his smile was bright. “I have too many bootlickers and not enough boots.”

“And they all want something, but not that which you’re eager to impart—your great wisdom.” Her wry smile implied that the wizard was anything but wise.

“For your information, I have had two apprentices, and as both left my nest after feathering it with the gifts that I cultivated, I expect they are doing well.”

This was more or less true, as Ilmar knew of--and regretted--Gaspar’s ascension in the Emperor’s favor, and while he hadn’t cared to check in on Elessa, for fear of souring his stomach with thoughts of noshing on her charred father, he had a grudging admiration for her natural gifts, and genuinely believed the tidbit better off with her ties to both farmer and farmstead cut and a generous smattering of arcane and monstrous knowledge. Not to mention the disloyal griffin which had glommed onto the morsel. Woman, he told himself, and shuddered as he recalled the scent of the lightning bolt and the taste of the sizzling hot flesh. As some regions of his stomach savored, his mouth watered, but as other intestinal territories warred with surges of nausea, his mouth sweated with the telltale taint of vomit, an urge he only fought by resting his eyes on the paneled floor of the platform.

As his thoughts of the frowsy woman mingled with the tantalizing reminiscence of his lightning-cooked meal, his guts roiled with a raging appetite. While good taste was an acquired trait, and didn’t necessarily run in families, he conjectured that the taste of flesh must be partially bequeathed and inherited, and Elessa might do well in Lancurc’s oven, baked with apples and cinnamon. The rustic daughter would not fall far from the old farmer.

“I’m only looking for your patronage, by which we may enjoy the honor of each other’s reputations without the commensurate responsibility.”

As they continued their descent immune to the billowing rainfall, they were like first row spectators to a moody and romantic concert, gusting, spouting, spraying, and pelting with a rapid and persistent percussion. While it stormed so fiercely that the drops not only fell, but flew horizontally and diagonally, and like javelins of rain, clashed with the enchanted bubble, only the roar of the storm washed over the wizards riding Enilea’s balloon.

When their conversation was drowned out, Ilmar nodded graciously at Enlilea’s blah blah blah blah, and guessed Enlilea characterized his own overwhelmed words as a parody of his egotism, perhaps anatomizing his constellation of good points or thanking her for the well-deserved compliments she never made. Or more likely, everything he said to her thus far was self-aggrandizing noise. Ilmar was accustomed to being clouded by his own greatness.

When the rain let up, this pantomime faded with the dark clouds. While the wind was still kicking up, they had a crisp view of a bizarre steel pretzel that loomed over the Grand Exhibition tents, shuttling spheres along girders twisted into a figure eight. Beyond this titanic metal and glass amusement were the black cobblestones, dormitory towers, and bustling merchant village of Ardem University.

“What is that?”

“That’s the Infinity Slide. They brought that last year.”

“I couldn’t attend last year due to other projects.”

“What draws you now?”

“I’m curious of the Dragonbone Petticoat.”

“I haven’t heard of it,” Enlilea said. “Do you wear women’s underwear?”

“I display a dress in my reading room. When I couldn’t bear to cast away my shabby reading chair, I upholstered it with this copious garment, which had come to stand for similar regrets about the death of its owner, my greatest love...”

“I doubt that,” she interjected.

Ilmar went on, though his expression contracted quizzically--brows furrowing and lips puckering in irritable curiosity, as if he could suck out her reasoning in lieu of questioning. “...and so I redesigned my chair with her second favorite covering as its skin. You might ask why it was her second favorite...why do you doubt? What do you doubt?”

As they drifted to Ardem’s central thoroughfare, the platform imparted no force to its passengers, who stood oblivious to the balloon’s buffeting, though they observed the blustery airflow waving and ruffling the festival-goers’ hair. Exclamations of excitement and surprise seemed to echo off the street and fill the platform with the distant murmur of the crowd.

“What is there to doubt? A great man like you has many loves, not great loves. That said, I do doubt that your greatest love is mortal, for it is fated to expire when you are laid to rest.”

While Ilmar’s first reaction was a wry smile, it drooped in his languid, sarcastic drawl. “Indeed. While I do not deny it, the thought gives me pause: should I sponsor someone so insolent, and so impertinent as to allude so readily not only to my egotism, but to my final moments?”

“You do not prize honesty.” As Enlilea did not inflect this as a question, the statement hit like a hammer blow, driving home the impudent nail of her argument. Oddly, the lack of stress created emphasis, which was underscored by the balloon’s thump in the thoroughfare.

“I do not,” agreed Ilmar, “In fact, it troubles me, for if I cannot reward one so insolent, neither can I punish someone so like me.”

“While I will not presume to advise you, please take my card.” When Enilea collapsed the controls, both balloon and platform contracted with such vehemence as to cause those on the rim to stumble, and those in the center to be ejected in a stumbling rush, which she avoided by a well-timed hop over the shrinking material. Gripping the red marble in one hand, the other fished in her jacket pocket, extracted a white card, and offered it to Ilmar.

Ilmar glanced at the card, then into her face. Although the moment stretched past its breaking point, Enilea lost none of her aplomb, presenting a face immaculate in its vacancy; even her eyes were a perfect void, brimming with such glassy whites and watercolor blue that her excess gaze might spill, paralyze Ilmar with its nullity, and draw the others in its welcoming vacuum.

Ilmar took the card. “Thank you. Are you not joining us in the Exhibition?”

“I’ll be there. Eventually. After a much-needed change of scene.”

Ilmar scowled, then laughed. “That’s why I allowed this excursion. Let’s abscond together.”

“No!” Enlilea’s hasty refusal roared over the gusting rain. “I’m not even flattered, but please imagine that I might have been. Goodbye, Ilmar.”

“You mean good day, don’t you? Future mentee?”

“Even if I am, you own my good days and goodbyes as much as you can lay claim to me, which is to say not at all.”

As she called this over her shoulder in her departure, it was not lost on Ilmar’s retinue, who hushed and averted their eyes not only from each other, but the wizard, whose gaze flashed from one to the other, scouring for smiles, or even flickers of amusement. He would have liked to turn, fuming, toward the amusements, and expect them to follow, if ill manners at this critical moment would not wreck his reputation. On his cloud island, he might treat them as appliances in the open, and livestock in secret, but in Ardem, he had only to be aloof, and they would curry favor with other wizards and scientists. While he could suffer a little unpopularity, in Ardem a thin skin was unfashionable. Whatever they did not hear her say, they would assume from his manner, so he must put on as jocular a face as possible.

It was in that state of mind, with his sullen face sunken by Enlilea’s rejection, then stretched into a grotesque mask of amusement, its glowering grin half-open on the unvoiced proposal that they should take refreshments, that his stomach delivered a monstrous, saucy burp, having been just then reminded of his cannibal repast on the smoking remains of Shaul Cavarah.

For not twenty yards away, Elessa Cavarah strolled in a group of students, though she looked like she took more companionship from the enormous lemon ice that dripped over her sticky knuckles, before she glimpsed Ilmar and dropped it to the sidewalk.

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