Chapter Thirteen: Rude Beds and Cold Mourning
"Why seek an ill-reputed mongrel," said the Countess's daughter, "who lucked into manor, wealth, and title when his sire had no legitimate heirs? There are better patrons for a wrangler of beasts."
"Give me his location, and I will listen as you abuse his reputation for as long as it suits you." After being marooned with a fool, a wizard, and beasts that ate the murderers of her townsfolk, Elessa was ready for the company of people with both feet on the ground. When Beast landed, however, she was so shaken by the Vanoori's belligerent stares that she would have been tempted to cast the spell of indistinguishability if she did not need to find the Andercruik estate. As stubborn as the day she was born, and with a whole city before her, Elessa finally found a reluctant informer, which is not to say that this snooty girl wasn't overeager to crow about the details of her entitled life and drop the name of her Countess mother fifteen seconds into the conversation.
"Rude peasant, it suits me not," said the girl, but when she turned her back, Elessa spun the girl around.
"I'll suit you in a fancy clasp I learned wrestling hogs," said Elessa.
The girl's face flushed, but she spoke no less frostily, "Unhand me!"
"Forgive my niece," said another voice, which belonged to a man who gave such an impression of roundness, that not only was his face round, but his belly had the volume and circumference of a church-bell. "I'll see you on your way. On the Avenue of the Great Lights, turn right at Almondgrove Road, which dead ends in a Andercruik Alcove. You're not far. It's a ten minute walk. And please tell the good Lord that Mannel Bynde has a new shipment of oranges."
"I'll be happy to pass that along. I'm Lycinia Mabruk," said Elessa. As Lord Andercruik likely took note of every inhabitant of Glasford, she did not want to flag herself as unfinished business, and coined the nom de plume during her descent.
"How much for the griffin?" asked the fruit-seller.
"By nature, Griffins know only one master," she said. "In gentling this one, I've ruined it for anyone else. Unless you're a magician?"
"No," he laughed. "Will it lay a clutch or a litter?"
"I've kept her unspoiled."
"Well, keep me in mind. My shop's on the Coach Street waterfront. Since you know what you're about, I'll not slander Lord Andercruik, but as he once offered a fortune to any who produced a griffin, you should watch your feet. All six of them."
"I'll see that he keeps his word."
On the Avenue of the Great Lights, Elessa passed a candy maker, a pottery shop, and an oil and lamp merchant who was having a sale on old candle stock (Vanoor turned more and more to oil lights), then many trade carts and stands, such as a chicken seller, a pie and tart vendor, a soup man, and a baker with the panache of a street performer who fried up sweet breads and gave them steaming hot to his customers.
Almondgrove Road's brick houses had homey wood veneers on their fronts, which created the rustic ambiance of a good neighborhood until a woman barged out of her door to hang a yellow hauberk on a clothesline. Though it was a breezy day, it was the rampant orange lion on sun design that chilled her spine, and the sight of Mrs. Drumm's murderer on a stroll that set her teeth on edge. Though he had never seen more than her tail end in Glasford, she slowly crossed to the other side of the street, not wanting to be privy to any scene of domestic life she might glimpse through a killer's windows. As she continued her way down Almondgrove, she passed many other armed, armored men liveried in Lord Andercruik's yellow and orange, and decided that these must be the residences of the villain's many henchmen.
Almondgrove Road widened into a cobblestone circle strewn with apple cores and maple seeds, on the other end of which a white stone wall circling fruit trees and the far-off palatial roof of the Andercruik manor. The cul-de-sac was thick with the sour-sweet fragrance of fallen apples. In front of the closed gate stood a single guard, who watched her as she tugged Beast past the rotted apple cores, which held a peculiar fascination for the half-grown griffin.
"I'm a few years too old for lass. There's a saucy lass down Almondgrove if you want a reminder. Show me to Lord Andercruik."
"He'll be happy to meet you and your pet after you answer my questions. What's your name, home, and business with Lord Andercruik?"
"Tell him Lycinia Mabruk of Dandisville has come for his coin. And if he'll pay to see a griffin, I wondered at the wages for one on staff."
"Though all of Vanoor has seen griffins, he will want to have words with you. While I'm pleased to see no weapons, a friend of mine was done in by a griffin, and I'll remind you to keep your beast under check." At the unintentional mention of Beast's name, she snagged the sleeve of the guard's mail-coat, and though Elessa whopped her between the shoulder-blades, Beast swallowed a strip of the metal rings.
"Sorry about that. Beast is her name," said Elessa. "And it's time for her feed."
"What a fitting but dangerously common name for a ravenous—I almost said, well you know what I almost said. Monster," he finished. When the guard rang a bell, Elessa heard boots on gravel. "We'll just run a message up to Lord Andercruik to see if you're getting in."
"What is it, Jeor?" said a younger guard. Whereas Jeor was older and grizzled, with salt and pepper beard and shorn gray hair, this one looked thirty years younger, with pimples on his face, and curly blonde hair.
"Just someone about a job, Ferdy."
"Tell him about the griffin," said Elessa. "Are you trying to keep me out?"
"What's that?" said Ferdy, then saw the griffin and took a step back from the gate.
"You heard right. Tell the master, and quickly. I'd not like to become meat while you pass through the ale hall."
"Right." The younger guard sprinted down the gravel path.
While they waited, Jeor talked about the weather, the price of apples, his wife's meat pies, and the local boating competitions. Elessa was closemouthed until the conversation turned to boating, when she shared an anecdote of watching the regatta as a girl, though as this happened the day after seeing the Royal Theater, her reminiscence was cut short by thoughts of her father. After ten minutes, the gate was cranked open.
"Good day, Miss Mabruk."
"I'm no miss."
"If you were a few years north, you'd wish yourself south, east, west, or anywhere else. Take your summer years slow, for it's no lark crossing into autumn or winter, though those gates are less unyielding than some."
How unlike her jovial father was this saturnine man. While growing old in one was a vista on blessed years, and to the other a gloom to foreshadow, neither her happy father nor the glum guard had the aspect of a liar. Perhaps they were two faces of the same truth. Did her father share worries like this with others, and did Jeor have a more joyous message for his own flesh and blood?
Too much of a miss to hear the other warning in Jeor's cryptic parting words, Elessa followed her escort to the Andercruik manor.
If she knew not the Andercruik penchant for bloodletting, his care for the greenery might have predisposed her to like this Lord. In addition to the apple trees, the Andercruik orchards included almond, pear, pecan, cherry, fig, and banana trees. While Elessa had seen bananas and figs at market and both envied and judged those who shelled out the exorbitant prices only to more often than not devour the costly fruit twenty paces from the stall, this was her first sight of either still on the branch, and she was enamored of the warm, sticky aromas of both trees. The more that she advanced toward the manor doors, however, the more the sweet air became spoiled, with rotted bananas and worm-eaten pears mingling with the fresher arboreal scents.
When the manor's doors opened, servants swarmed in the inner foyer to take her jacket, boots, and gloves, and then made haste to roll a coarse green rug over the delicate embroidered carpeting. When the springy fibers of the rug occasionally snagged at Beast's claws, she rose onto the balls of her paws, so that Elessa had to shuffle to match the griffin's pace. Though it was awkward to walk so slow, she hoped her mincing steps looked graceful. When one rug ended, the servants dropped another flush with the prior, until two doormen fastidiously attired in the Andercruik colors ushered Elessa and Beast into a long dining room with two ponderous brass chandeliers, an elegant rectangular dining table dressed in a black satin tablecloth and burgundy mats, and ornate, high-backed chairs. When the griffin's tiptoe became a short skid, Beast's claws scored the shining hardwood floor, producing a gasp from Lord Andercruik's retainers, who had ran out of rug.
The walls seemed freshly papered with a cream color, upon which murals were brightly painted, depicting the Andercruik lion on the left wall, a storm of griffins opposite, and directly ahead of them a battlefield with the red and purple of the king's banners on one side, and the more byzantine decorations of the Klyrnish army on the other. When Elessa was about to turn to the back wall, more servants entered through a door across the room, bearing trays loaded with food.
When one servant threw bits of crab and lobster at Beast from a respectful distance, the griffin snapped them midair to devour them whole, the loud cracking of the shell drowning out the clatter of plates and trays.
"I had no idea," said Elessa.
"'Griffins roost anywhere and become fond of any flesh,'" he recited.
"Are there griffins here?" asked Elessa. "What else have you learned?"
"Very little, miss," said the servant. "The chef has taken ill, and Lord Andercruik is overseeing us in the kitchen. Though he has never spoken to me before today, he shared those words with me moments ago."
"He anticipated my question," said Elessa.
"I do not know, my lady," said the servant.
"I'm no lady," said Elessa.
"As my lord does not entertain the unimportant, perhaps you will be," said the servant. "If Lord Andercruik is so wise to know what you will ask me before I hear the words, he must have some wisdom in inviting you."
Though sickened to hear Andercruik's toady fawning, it was Beast's cracking and gulping of shellfish that got to Elessa, for she was so ravenous as to be ill with hunger. When she fell on the feast, her hands were soon sticky with buttered lobster, steamed shrimp, oiled and herbed bread, fat peaches that dripped juice, and moist figs. She quenched the deep trench of her thirst first with water, then amaretto, coffee and cream, wine, and more water. After this enormous repast, Beast was still devouring shellfish, and the griffin's monstrous, shell-snapping appetite didn't seem nearly so disgusting, but the idea that the murderer was some kind of sage was still loathsome to Elessa. A gory sage, perhaps, whose forbidden learning should be
When Lord Andercruik entered with three brightly uniformed guards in his train, she noted the red, blue, and green feathered skin draping his hulking shoulders. Part opulent luxury, part atavism, that the dead griffin rode him seemed apt, for he walked like a beast. Leonidas not only looked nothing like Ilmar, he was also younger and larger than she expected, with muscles befitting a beast of prey, and a clean-shaven face with hard little squares for eyes, a mouth full and sensual, but with a reptilian curl, and his nose long and angular. While the lack of warmth in his countenance was repellent and unattractive, his features were not unhandsome, like snakeskin pillows on a chiseled bench.
"Thank you for not waiting. As I had just had my fill, you saved me from forcing food to feign politeness, a habit I detest. Rildon, see to her face and hands."
When the youngest in the retinue wiped her face and hands with a warm, damp towel, she was mortified when it came away dark with grease and dirt, but she was more wistful for dessert.
"I see you eyeing the candied ices," Leonidas said, smiling, though it was not a natural smile, but a mask of a smile. "Indulge yourself."
"No. I'm ready to talk, though it's an unfortunate waste of good dessert."
"I hope your business is worth the pomp and ceremony of your visit, for sanding my floors might postpone a few soirees." She did not apologize in the pause that the Lord had provided, for though the griffin had scraped a trail across the hardwood, they were invited, and the murderer deserved indelible wounds of his own. "Since you sought me by reputation," he continued, "and Jeor sent your name, I'll shortcut the introductions. Lycinia Mabruk, I am Lord Leonidas Andercruik."
"I'll also get to the point. I was hoping you would make me rich."
"Though I take no pleasure in disappointing you, my cousin claimed the reward," said Leonidas. "But not before a dozen others fabricated dead fledglings from hens and house cats, or thought I might compensate tales tall or true. Though the prize was paid, noblesse oblige requires that I ease the burden of your travel if you wish."
"Was I wrong to think that after paying to see a griffin, you'd want one on staff?"
"Not at all. I'm interested—and more able than you to afford the upkeep on a griffin. That stipend, and six hundred a week, will be your wages. Agreed?"
Though this monumental sum was more than twenty servants' wages, given her leverage it would look suspicious if she didn't haggle. "Eight hundred."
"Done. But you will swear, like all my servants, to obey me in all things."
"I so swear," she lied.
"Then after we find suitable quarters and stabling, my steward and paymaster will pay you an advance. Before that, I'd like a taste of the purchase price. Take me to the skies."
"My Lord, though my fealty is no lie, Beast is but half grown, can only carry one, and will not tolerate another rider. When Beast is more accommodating, your request might be accommodated."
"I see," he said, his cheeks sinking into a deep-cut scowl, and his brow so furrowed as to seem cloven. "Then I'm settling in for the night. My steward is at your disposal until morning, when I'll provide your first orders."
When Leonidas retired, and the servants cleared away the feast, it was not too late to attack the dessert ices, though they were half-melted slush.
When she had eaten her fill of the sorbets, her head throbbed, her mouth was full of the aftertaste of syrupy fruit, and the servants still labored to remove the banquet. Her queasiness was equal parts overindulgence of candied ice and the realization that the uneaten food outweighed her. Andercruik's hospitality was insincere, for it was not an effort to quench her appetites, but to create new ones, to appeal to her vanity and impress her greed in a bid for her favor. As she was still a farmgirl at heart, that saw work not as an end in itself but for the purpose of producing new life, when the servants labored for nothing, and the food was squandered, it could not have more offended Elessa.
When her reverie was interrupted by the steward's "ah-hum," she had the faint sense that he had repeated this clearing of his throat several times while she ate as many ices and as much guilt as she could stomach. When her spoon scraped the silver dessert bowl, she saw in its mirrorlike bottom that her lips were a trollopy medley of blue and red. "I'm almost ready."Why did servants disapprove of her? Was it her hedonism? Was she too provincial? Or was it that she, like them, was born a peasant? Wealth wasn't contagious; why was snobbery?
Though she laid down the empty bowl with a sigh of reluctance, she was exhausted, stuffed, and only too happy to be shown to her bed. They followed the steward through the manor's double front doors, over the yard, past a well-lit carriage house full of drunken off duty guards and servants, to the stable. Though Beast entered the stall docilely with a moony backward glance, the restless shrug of her flanks in circling to face the door, and the way she then seemed to lose herself in her preening, spoke volumes to Elessa, who felt that she had never been so thoroughly ignored by person or beast.
After the steward unlocked Elessa's begrimed door and gave her a key, he pushed it open. Though the door was dusty with disuse, and the creaking hinges opened on a stale space strung with cobwebs and sugared with a thick, white grime, the red wick of an oil lamp dimly flickered on a man sleeping in the rumpled bed. Cold fear shivered in Elessa, for it was like a long derelict tomb had produced its own inhabitant. "Get out!" yelled the steward, "Miss, go for the guard." When the steward shook the sleeping man, the intruder opened the steward's throat with the deep and dour gash of a long stiletto.
Elessa turned and ran. The next thing she knew, she was in Beast's stall, her wet face pressed in its feathered neck, and the guards from the carriage house—their hastily donned hauberks rumpled—bade her to join Lord Andercruik in the house.
"The last steward died last year before teaching this drunken lout," said Lord Andercruik, standing over the steward's upward-staring corpse. "Jeor, you're my new steward."
"You're very gracious, Lord." Jeor was one of two man at arms in her room, as well as Leonidas and his scribe.
"What did you see, Lycinia?" As the pause drew on, the blood in her ears pounded an alarm. Lycinia? That was her! "Lycinia?"
"Sorry, my lord," said Elessa. "When we saw the room already had a tenant, the steward roused him and was slashed in the neck. I turned and ran."
"You mean when you screamed bloody murder and woke the dead."
"With all due respect, my lord," said Elessa, "when can you scream bloody murder if not during a bloody murder? And the dead man wasn't woken, though he bled all over my sheets, and this still-living woman, who hasn't slept since the dark hours of yesterday morning, envies the sleep of the dead."
"The only other bedrooms not in use adjoin the master suite, and I think you will agree it would be unseemly if we cohabit upon first meeting."
Elessa did not comment on that loathsome picture, but only said, "so where do I sleep?"
"You can wait on the maids, go to an inn, or take the couch in the hall."
Elessa retorted, "What couch? This cushioned bench?"A wave of exhaustion hit her. "I'll take it."
"The servants will wake you when it's ready. But don't fret—he couldn't have known you were coming. My guess is that he finagled an invitation to last week's soiree, and extended his welcome. Or he sneaked in the window when we were besotted, and let himself in the room."
"Did you serve me a leftover feast?"
"What do you think? Minutes after you arrived, my table was laid. My kitchen staff are competent, but not miracle workers."
Though Elessa felt better about the waste, the fishy aftertaste of her meal now seemed less freshly caught and gamy than soured from sitting in the larder.
"I think he was here for your loot or your life," she said. "The room was locked from the outside, so either he sneaked in through a window or picked the lock."
"Did he then pick the lock shut to seal himself in the room?"
"He could have."
"You're describing a professional. If he was a thief or an assassin, then you averted a burglary or an assassination," said Lord Andercruik.
"But not the murder."
"No, not that. Thank you all the same." Turning, he said, "Arrys, prepare an appropriate compensation package for his family. Seven years salary, you do the math."
"Yes, my Lord."
"Add a bonus of five thousand. Unwitting or not, this man was my shield."
"What of my pay?" asked Elessa.
"Jeor," said Lord Andercruik, "your first order of business on the morrow is to get Miss Mabruk her money."
"Yes, my lord."
"I'm retiring," Elessa said,"I guess to the hallway."
As whining bones and joints, and a din of subtler aches and pains, drowned out good humor, ill temper, and the voice of reason, Elessa was too exhausted to complain, and though the padded bench was four inches too short, so that she had to prop her feet and ankles on its unpadded arms, she fell asleep unprotesting and numb to the world. And while Elessa Cavarah did not die under a pseudonym at the hands of an assassin, that frightful night, combined with the horror of her first flight and the stark bench, did her in for one night.
The next morning, though she found herself in the bed the steward was murdered in without knowing whose hands carried her, she was so stiff that she rolled over until the vying smells of buttered toast, fried eggs and meats, pancakes, and coffee dragged her out of bed to the dining hall to find breakfast half-gone, and many of Andercruik's staff taking second helpings on plates already stained by yolk and syrup. As her belly was light and her head dark with hunger, when she found the ham already gone, she snapped at the cook, then demanded double helpings of everything else. When Jeor made room and waved her over, though she was reluctant to trust the dour guard, she acquiesced for the simple reason that it would look less conspicuous to make friends.
"It's the griffin girl." Jeor clutched a sticky fork. "No worries, I know you're not a girl."
After she'd had a long draught of black coffee, Elessa mumbled, "congratulations."
"For what? Not remembering your name?"
"For your promotion."
"Why's that, Lycinia?" When Jeor stabbed a slice of ham and placed it on her plate, she made a mental note that voices carry in the dining hall.
"You do know my name."
"I'm honored to know you. What isn't so much an honor is my increased duty. I was roused hours ago by the kitchen staff's breakfast concerns and market requests, and after dispatching two guards with the grocery list, I fed grain to the horses and horse to your monster, so that the wheel of life chewed me up in an already long grind before I had my own breakfast."
"That sounds awful," said Elessa, thinking of the monotony from which she just escaped, "A shopkeeper once told me that in doing one thing at a time he accomplished a great deal."
"Don't you hate it when clerks get chatty?"
"I don't mind," said Elessa, "but in this instance, we were friends."
"I'm sorry about that. I hate to hear of lost friendship."
"He lost everything—home, shop, and wife—in pursuit of dishonest dreams, and though he became a better man following those wishes, I was friends with the shadow, and no longer know him."
Lord Andercruik charged through the dining room doors. "You there!"
"Me?" asked Elessa. "I have a name."
Call me Lycinia. Was I that forgettable?"
"We were both dog tired, you from travel, me from a problem I won't vex you with, and the whole household from the murder. Just tell me what to call you."
"Lycinia Mabruk, my lord."
"Miss Mabruk, it's time you earn your keep."
"Just Lycinia, my lord. What would you have me do?" Elessa asked.
"Take a message to my cousin, whose castle dwells on that persistent, dark cloud."
"You're not serious," she pretended.
"Deadly. Two cautions. Though I would speak no ill of Ilmar, wizards have no purpose but to make real the delusional, and this wizard is founded on nothing human or fathomable. Tread carefully. My cousin would kill you with less cause than he kills his mistresses, so limit your conversation, and let politeness be your shield. Two, though I am generous, I would not forgive you for absconding with your first week's pay. While I would have little legal recourse, when you found yourself blackballed throughout Vanoor, you'd need to learn a language to earn an honest day's work."
While she barely stomached this threat, that Adelae might soon be dead was a harder thing to savor than she would have thought. Though she wanted to give him an earful, she only said, "Had I second thoughts on working for you, I forgot them after sleeping where a man died."
"Good," he said, "your flight should be just as direct. Just head for the cloud that plagues Vanoor, upon which you'll see a wooded land and mountains. I'm told Ilmar resides in a castle on one of those mountains. Do not read this message." He handed her a brass cylinder which was surprisingly heavy, as if it contained not one scroll of paper, but the manuscript for a novel.
"How can anything live or grow there?" she asked, feigning her part.
"Ilmar is a wizard, as I've already said. I recommend that you not question Ilmar, as you may not like the way he indulges your curiosity."
She nodded, "I will bring his reply tomorrow."
"I doubt it. He will tarry with his reply. Best to get going." As he left the dining hall, he pulled his scribe close, and they murmured and laughed.
When she left the room, Jeor followed. Perhaps by dint of both having good fortune mixed with bad that day, she seemed to have made a new friend. "As the new steward," he said, "it's my responsibility to prepare you for your trip."
"Lucky me," she said.
After packing saddlebags with food and waterskins, Jeor then requisitioned a small, round shield and four foot spear—little more than a javelin. Seeing the armory replete with breastplates, helms, vambraces, greaves, skirts, gorgets, lances, swords, bardiches, maces, halberds, crossbows, kite shields, and bucklers, and feeling that her armaments were woefully underpowered, she said, "that's it?"
"When your griffin rears up, brace your spear against the enemy, and her plunge will do the work for you. Unless you have weapon training, or expect a toe to toe fight while flying to a cloud and back, stick to basic tools."
"Though I haven't thought of it as weapon training, my dad taught me how to shoot wolves and vermin."
"Hmm. We have longbows, recurve bows, and crossbows." While Jeor indicated the weapons on the armory shelves, Elessa was already eyeing them. All the bows were well-made examples of their kind: longbows of sanded yew, crossbows with oak stock, steel prods, and windlasses, and recurved bows layered from several materials by a craft that she was surprised to realize she recognized, for her father had crafted a bow in this fashion when foxes started coming for their piglets. Aside from this sense of familiarity, Elessa preferred the recurve bow as it was the right size for launching an arrow while riding Beast, and she disliked the thought of carrying the lengthy longbow or the weighty crossbow. "We made ours from wood and goat horn, and it shot far and straight. It's like the one you called a recurve bow."
"A recurve's got the strongest draw," said Jeor. "Let's see you pull it." When he pulled down the lightest recurve bow, strung it, and handed it to her, she drew it back to her ear.
"Not this one," she said. "It feels like weak distance and stray shots." After trying all the recurve bows, she settled on the one with the strongest pull. When Jeor was astonished to see her draw it, though he initially insisted a weaker bow was more feminine, he couldn't pry it from her fingers despite this feeble, dogmatic manliness.
"My arms are sore from stringing all those bows," Jeor grumbled. "If you can hit something, it's yours." Jeor then led Elessa to a clearing in the rear grounds, where a few broken shafts were buried in an archery target.
He gave her five arrows. Though it was half a year since she held a bow, the recurve bow shot straighter and truer than the arrows of memory, and she had more hits than misses: three in five.
"Passable. When you return, we'll make a marksman out of you. There's just one more test. To pack this bow, you have to know how to string and unstring it. Though it's tricky, when you know how it's easily done. Not knowing, however, leads to broken bows—once, a broken bone."
"There's an easy way and a hard way to do this, and I'm only showing you the easy way, which won't be a problem if you use your weight. Meaning no offense toward your womanly figure."
"Just show me," When her darker tone earned a sharp glance, she added, in a softer voice, "none taken." Though Jeor had become a know-it-all in the armory, and no longer seemed a person she wanted to know, she still needed to craft a false face that fit her pseudonym, and that meant a false friendships where she could find them.
Though she had thought her false heart would become a burden, when she felt Lycinia Mabruk take a few steps of her own, those steps felt lighter than Elessa's.
When Jeor stepped over the bow, then drew the top bend close to his chest to loop the string taut, he made it look like one simple movement, but she noted how unyielding the recurve bow was, and having received a welt from the accidental snap of Shaul's bowstring, she could only imagine how this weapon might cause harm to its wielder by breaking, the unintentional lash of its string, or worse, its layered wood. Though she was still irked by Jeor, his caution was contagious, and she received the weapon from him with as much trepidation as gratitude,
At the stable, Lord Andercruik had opened Beast's stall. "You haven't left? Steward, I lay the blame on you." At the sight of the griffin feeding on a bucket of the foulest smelling tripe, Elessa nearly forgot she was Lycinia in her urge to strike this presumptuous lord. Leonidas's griffin-feather cloak hung over riding leathers so freshly cured that the smell of the tripe was rivaled by the overpowering smell of oil and leather.
"The fault is mine," she said, "I wanted arms."
"Now you have them," he said brusquely. "Be off with you," When a stabler led his horse, he vaulted into the saddle, kicked his heels into its flanks, and rode away.
"I'd say he grows on you," said the steward, "but my pa said not to tell tales."
"No matter what he says or does, I know my place and my marks. Though this position is nearly as many hits as misses, I can't hope for a better shot."
When she mounted Beast, she flew away without a glance or a wave, as she no longer wished to encourage him, despite the urgencies of sticking to her role and learning Lycinia's lines. Jeor's friendliness now seemed fatherliness, and this paternal interest seemed not warm but sickly, and she did not want to know the source of that pain, as Jeor was the professed friend of Andercruik's wide-ranging killers. Whether his own children were lost, estranged, or still born, she had room in her heart for only one father.
Though she thought she should feel the ominousness of returning so soon to Wysaerie, and the terror of baiting Ilmar, whether hidden by the face-changing spell or not, she felt only refreshed by the crisp, chilled air of their slow climb. Since guarding your tongue is like guarding your thoughts, from this heavenly perspective, the tightness in her chest disappeared at once, and she felt that she could finally breathe. Moreover, the Andercruik manor, the most recent source of her anxieties, was already a walled-in green blot stuck to a web of streets, and it delighted her to watch that villain's lair fade into the blurred world.
Still, she was no fool; she was in for it now. Though she wore Leonidas's colors, and could magic a new face, she couldn't conceal her griffin, and the wizard would surely recognize Beast unless she could contrive a way for them never to meet. She had halfway fabricated a tale of how the griffin's affections transferred from poor dead Elessa to Lycinia Mabruk, when she gave it up for being too incredulous. Perhaps her father would have an idea.
Once certain she was obscured by the clouds to any that observed her departure, she made her way not to Wysaerie, but first to a southern market square, home to the inn where they roomed in her childhood trip to Vanoor. Though she wanted a look at the inn, the longer she lingered at market, the higher the likelihood she might have to account for her presence there to Lord Andercruik. Twenty minutes later, she laid more food and supplies on top of her own provisions in the saddlebags.
As she braced for her second ascent, she realized that she felt no fear, only anticipation of Beast's muscular climb, and the thrill of knowing that though the breeze was gentle on the ground, the wind waited for her above. When she shopped in the market in cloud-dampened clothes, it pleased her to know that she was in the small group of mythic heroes that knew what that experience was like, and as those cloud-streaked clothes tightened and chilled in the sudden snap of the griffin's wings, she recognized that her attitude toward flight had shifted wholly towards pride and confidence. Was her attitude toward Beast changing as well? Though she felt little love for the griffin, at times her placid gaze recalled the hatchling that once wormed its way into her heart. Though the griffin was of the sky, and she of the earth, and when her feet were on the ground the two elements seemed irreconcilable, she felt moments of union in the saddle.
She hadn't expected to return to Ilmar's island so soon. Not that she went straight to Vanoor. After leaving Shaul on Wysaerie's shore, Elessa and Beast landed in Glasford, not that there was a town anymore, but only a few skeletal frames, ashes and dead grass. From midnight until dawn, she dug the hole that would swallow the charred, gnawed bones of her unfortunate neighbors. When she picked through the Cavarah farmstead's scorched and ashy debris, not one moment of her old life was distinguishable from the ashes. Though her heart went out to a hissing cat when Beast snipped its arms and legs, then dragged her claw through the weakly yowling cat's belly, she was glad the griffin found a living snack, rather than stripping corpse jerky from the unfortunate dead.
After Beast's snack, they rested in the weathered bridge that spanned the stream. The cavernous interior was stuffed with sour-smelling moldering paper bonded to the damp walls. Faded posters, alternately blotched and whitened by trickles that leaked through the roof and seeped through the walls, advertised theatrical troupes long past, companies that stopped journeying to Glasford when the Royal Theater centralized and enriched the Vanoori dramatic arts. Though no longer a cheery passage to inspire confidence in travelers, the sturdy bridge was silent under Elessa and Beast, for it still conveyed tutors from Ardem to Vanoor, as well as prospective scholars who rode towards the university city.
As the bridge was on a pleasant, roundabout path to the village, she had often strolled through after a disagreement with her father, but as she never lingered where neighbor lads might apply themselves to her charms, she never stopped to admire the rain-gouged theatrical broadsheets before that moment. Now she fervently wished that she had, for she might have rescued this Prince Cloudmore poster from the elements to hang over her bed. How had she never known her favorite book had caused an adaptation? Though her childhood home and her childhood memories were savaged by the cousins Andercruik, it was in this moment that Elessa felt more unfinished than ever; while this rawness, which we shall call the lack of a library, was not as eloquent as her sorrow at the disposal of her neighbors, it was a louder echo, resounding in the vacuum of all the books that she wanted to read, and the insistent din of the larger mass of books whose titles she did not even know.
Elessa slipped into her nap with a sulky resignation, and did not awake until the morning of the next day, when she awoke ravenously hollow, and supposed that she should have eaten some of the cat. After a meager breakfast of cured ham, hardening bread, dried fruit, and almonds, she touched the poster, and found the border dry, but the center, where wood grain imprinted Prince Cloudmore's cloak, was still damp. As she gingerly tugged at the bottom, and only a fleck stuck to the bridge wall, with an incensed boldness she peeled it off the wall until the sodden sheet flopped, smearing mold and sludged dust on her face and hair. She walked off the bridge to hold it to the light. While you could not call it whole by any stretch of the imagination, it was in one piece, had four corners—albeit nail-torn—and only a few colorful specks remained on the wood.
Though she had only owned a scarce supply of paper, she suspected that rolling the poster would ruin what little remained of its original vibrant colors. Upon pinning it under four branches, she admired it as it dried. Though she had never seen the play, and could only presume it followed The High Earth and the Quaking Sky, gazing on the poster overwhelmed her with nostalgia. When Beast thought to test it with a claw, she swatted at the griffin, and it retreated to the center of the bridge.
As it was a breezy day, the sheet dried within the hour, and she rolled it with care. Tucking Prince Cloudmore in her saddlebags, she continued on her journey.
After her homecoming, Elessa give Beast her will, letting the griffin fly as far and fast as it desired. When she ranged east for hundreds of miles, they saw little except woods, goat herders, and seven winged dracoils with scabby skin and squarish heads that chased them for miles longer than a smart animal, despite the glaring speed disparity that Beast lorded over the monsters, so that the griffin soon looked at an entirely different horizon than the monsters in her wake.
The following day, they lazed on a surf-sloshed atoll. When the griffin cawed while strutting, its wings winding and sweeping as it pranced, she laughed in spite of herself. It was the first thing that made her happy since it hatched. Though she felt almost affectionate as she watched the griffin play at flipping the crabs before piercing them with her beak, it was when the cold night forced them to huddle that her heart changed, for the griffin folded her under its wings and pressed her to its warm, trilling breast. Though she would never feel as safe as she had under her father's roof, that night she slept secure, girded by island and buried in griffin.
The next day, they returned to Vanoor, where they landed on the Royal Theater roof to listen to a rehearsal through an open window. While Beast slept on the cold stone, she rested her head on its fur, which still had the stinging scent of ocean salt. and though the up and down of its breath made her drowsy as well, hearing snippets of The Stranger Death of Madame Curvalot, a play she had greatly desired to see, kept her weary eyes cracked. Since her bleary vision soon faded into semi-sleep, the lines of the play evoked a phantasmic performance, so that she believed she saw the players as well. From her comfortable perch, she listened for twenty minutes to Madame Curvalot gradually fall in love, which is so discomfiting that the bordello matron sleepwalks.
Bordello client: If we are slaves to dreams, the sleepwalker
is most honest. Her eyes adjust to night's
half-truths and unseen terrors. In rude flesh
the dreamer boldly descends, inhabits
the stiff human house and staggers...
Woman (Klyrnish accent): No. Again.
Man: If we are slaves to dreams...
Woman: Sing-song. Again.
Man: If we are slaves...
Woman: Stop rocking the line, Ephonto! It's not a rocking chair.
(Some groans and laughter.)
Ephonto: Forget it. I've been holding it in for hours.
Woman (loudly): Where are you going?
Ephonto: Toilet break. Don't worry, I won't rock it.
Though she would have liked to hear more, it was at that moment that she reached into her saddle bags for a pouch of almonds to find that they were all crumbs, and the rest of her food gone, and since the aftertaste of the almond dust was stronger than her interest in hearing the same line intoned thirty different ways, it was then that she stopped procrastinating and headed for the Andercruik manor. That was yesterday, and now it was a full week since she left her father on Wysaerie.
Since they were scheduled for their first rendezvous, Shaul arrived at their meeting place shortly after she did. The week had not been as kind to him, as his skin was tanned, but with a sunburned sheen; his gray beard was a little fuller, but with burrs buried in it; and, his hair was tousled, and seemed a little thinner. When he hugged her, he smelled of tree nuts, apples, and stale sweat, but also smelled of her father, and she hugged him back tightly.
"Look at those fancy clothes," he said. "You did it, didn't you?"
"Yes and no. I'm carrying his message for Ilmar."
"That's a problem we should have seen coming."
"How? They hate each other."
"We could change the plan. There's room in my hidey-hole, and one more griffin on Wysaerie won't be acknowledged."
"Or if we stick to our design, my new clothes and face make me Lycinia, and only Beast might stand out."
"I can hold the griffin."
"She's very particular, but if I rope her to this dead tree, you could divert and distract her. Though I lack the gift, you're a born parent."
"Like old age, it comes with time," he said. "Don't hurry it.
"So that leaves one problem—your story. What happened to your steed, or do you pretend to be a wizard?"
"That I've always been a lame liar has served me in good stead until now. Though Ilmar might patronize my playacting, he'll char me for his review."
"What's your best story?"
"My griffin pulled a wing and rests in the woods?"
Shaul picked at the burr lodged in his beard. "Yes, that is bad, but I can't think of one better. Don't overthink it—people believe bigger lies than that every day. Sieges were won by soldiers hiding in gifts of food, drink or art. While the wizard has not the need to believe like one besieged, if you take the bearing of one who is unimportant, he will not care what you say or do, which is a better ground to be on than that of disbelieving or believing."
"I doubt I could shrink that small. Moreover, Ilmar is pettier than you think—he'd pick on a tulip with an extra petal, or a butterfly with an extra antennae."
"You're neither insect nor Lord. In that Andercruik heraldry, you're less commoner than a flat part of the backdrop. He already has a cartload of insults for his cousin's servants, and need only cart one out at a time. By now, these insults may be so worn out that they may be more trouble than they're worth."
"Even if he pays me no notice, I'll be glad when this day is over, though that will cut short this visit, as Andercruik expects me tomorrow."
"I anticipated a short visit. If your tale is sketched, come see my house."
They hiked a half mile through woods and greenery, waded a trickling brook, then climbed a rocky outcrop to a crevice, where a small wood fire dwindled to embers. The wispy ash light flickered on a palette of twigs and leaves; a stack of fragrant oak and maple, the ends hacked crudely; a heap of stones, some split, and others sharpened to a wedge; and, a mass of apples, yams, and carrots. "A meager beginning," he said.
"This will make it better," she said, unloading the bedroll, blankets and food from the saddlebags. "This is so like my contrary father, to live in a cave on a cloud island."
"I'm a farmer," said he. "I seeded myself. As did your griffin." For Beast, having her load lightened, had curled on the rock and nodded off, her trilling whirring in the cave.
"That makes things easy," Elessa said, raising her voice to carry over the roaring murmur, then tied one end of rope to the griffin, and the other around a jutting rock outside the cave mouth. When she had finished securing Beast, she said "I'll be off. I have hours to go before I get a nap."
"Be careful. Not that I've seen anything worse than those monsters, but I've heard rustling."
"Is this even a natural island, or a stocked menagerie?"
"I've wondered that. Like a dollhouse, it's too neat to be natural."
"While Ilmar's living in one, having mushroomed his castle out of mountain rock to suit his whims, he claims ignorance of whether the island is an accident or miracle of magic."
"It fits together too glibly to be a chance event, and no god is so freehearted as to build such a colossal reserve without reaping the benefits. Moreover, other than a few tourists, there are no thinking souls for petty divinities to meddle with. No, this island was built, and having lived her for only a week, I'm curious about my hosts."
"If Ilmar does know, he never told Elessa, and he certainly won't tell Lycinia Mabruk."She waked briskly toward Ilmar's hideaway.
"We'll eat when you get back," he called.
"Save your food. Ilmar loves lording his hospitality over guests," Elessa called back.
When Shaul and Elessa traversed Wysaerie in four hours, they were wary of discovery, whereas now her desire to be done with this fearful task cut the trip in half. Finding the journey still interminable, and not liking the way her urgency accelerated her restlessness, to take her mind off her task and pass the time, she counted the animals and plants she knew. Of plants, she saw, oak, acorn, ash, maple, chestnut, apple, pear, willow; grasses, poppies, cat-o-nine tails, reeds, bushes, berries; of beasts, she admired wild ponies, antelope, deer, hawks, falcons, eagles, and glimpsed more furtive creatures, such as raccoon, thrushes, rodents, gophers, squirrels, snakes, and some of the smaller dracoils, the size of your arm or smaller, that nestled in the branches of the sweet-smelling pear trees, and slithered out of sight whether her eyes fell on its head, scales, tail, or wings.
As Elessa walked a path beaten next to a flowing stream, she stooped under a jutting outcrop to cup a drink in her hands, when the stone spur stood upright, its shadow dragging over her when it loped for the treeline. Though the whole motion took more than ten seconds, she was unprepared for its sudden appearance, so to her it was as if a boulder hatched a human-shaped stone sapling.
Elessa splashed into the stream without thinking, then waded to the other bank, where she hightailed towards the castle, her boots and leggings sloshing and her sleeves drizzling. When she wiped her eyebrows and nose, and brushed back her sopping hair, even more water dripped down her face.
Ruminating on what she saw proved more exciting and diverting than counting animals and plants. Were the giants always there, or had they just arrived? How many? Were they the builders? Had they seen her father?
It was mid-day when she arrived at the foothills, where her speculations were cut short when she trudged past the washer women, and became conscious of her squelching shoes despite their clouded minds. Climbing the secret stair, she brushed past gardeners carrying bushels of yams and pears. When she entered the open gate, she grit her teeth, thinking that she had walked in so easily to the comfortable prison she was so eager to escape.
Though she knew the way, she allowed herself to be conducted by one of Ilmar's enslaved servants. Though previously the slave scrubbed floors and walls, Ilmar had made him his new Shaul, and relaxed the enchantment enough that his gape-eyed, slack-jawed look seemed somber, an illusion that his all-black livery enhanced. With a start, Elessa noted that the castle staff's blue, gold and silver livery was replaced by a dreary black uniform with plain wooden buttons.
That did not bode well.
Ilmar was in the library, sitting in a new beige chair wedged between two bookshelves. While the wizard still wore his azure robes embroidered with gold griffins and silver dragons, a black sash draped diagonally over his right shoulder. Though the scroll of her favorite fable, The High Earth and the Quaking Sky, was unfurled on his lap, this cozy scene was colored with an unplaceable dread that centered not on the mad wizard, but on the cottony contours and lacy frills of the upholstered chair. That the new furniture seemed so familiar and should elicit such foreboding, but not be tethered to a memory, raised the hackles on the back of her neck, and she moused the rest of the way.
Then she froze.
Elessa's dead stop was not due to the aroma that jogged her memory—an unusually articulate scent of lemon accented by coriander's even lemonier piquancy, as well as cinnamon, ginger, and cassia, the unmistakably raunchy smell of rockrose, rosewater, storax, and oil of lavender. Elessa's instant anatomization of such a faint aroma stemmed from her having steeped these ingredients in a two gallon copper pot for two days after Adelae dictated the recipe. Having recognized that the fleecy upholstery was once Adelae's dress, still reeking with the perfume, it was not hard to imagine who the castle mourned.
"Forgive me for not rising," Ilmar said, not bothering to lift his head.
No, what petrified Elessa at that moment was the realization that, in her preoccupation with the giant, she had forgotten to mask her features. If Ilmar so much as gave her a single glance, he would see Elessa as she was, her fright etched into her face, and if he turned her into actual stone at that moment, her eyes and mouth might be agog and agape for as long as the wizard pleased.
"Give me the message," he said, "tarry not for a reply, and leave by the method you arrived.. Be certain to tell Leonidas I cared not to ask you how you came here."
She bowed deeply, hoping he might see her obeisance in the corner of his eye, or mark her shadow on the floor, and when he did not outstretch his hand, she left the iron tube on a table, then backed out, not looking away until he was blocked from view.
As she half-ran down the corridor, she thanked her luck, then said her first prayer to the quiet gods since childhood. Not only was Ilmar's monstrous ego all the mask she needed, but the know-it-all brooked no explanation. When she noticed that even the servants made no eye contact, she began to doubt her luck, and wondered if the wizard was playing another long game. As Ilmar was proud, but no fool, and ensorceled, transformed, or electrified those who disappointed him, her half-run became a trot. When she ran down the secret stair, her pumping elbows sent a hapless gardener sprawling several yards down the slope, his empty bushel landing on his head and pears rolling all the way down to the foothills.
Elessa returned to Shaul by a more roundabout route, in the event the wizard learned of her deception, and also to avoid the giant, as she wished neither to learn her father's abode.
When she told her father of her mistake, and the wizard's proud refusal to acknowledge her, he laughed. Then she told him of the giant.
"I'll take care near streams."
"Please take care in every instance."
"If the Andercruiks were on speaking terms, our goose might be cooked."
"If they're exchanging letters, they may be stooping to an alliance."
"If Ilmar pays Leonidas a visit, how will you contrive to be somewhere else?"
"If, if, if. I'll come up with something. We must only persevere until Beast can carry us both."
They ate, disquieted but noiselessly.
When she was roused by Beast cawing to the darkness, she rolled from the grass bed to totter to the cave mouth, where the griffin tugged on her rope. "Get in," she bade, yanking, but Beast ignored her and pulled the line taut as it continued to caw. Elessa's eyes adjusted slowly to the bright half-moon. When she strained to see the source of the agitation, she saw only the blurry swaying of far-off trees.
Shaul helped pull Beast into the cave, where Elessa ran her hands through the griffin's coat, attempting to coax her back to sleep. Though Beast's desperation was unreadable, seeming neither angry nor hungry nor fearful, when she fed it the meat scraps she brought, the griffin fell into a fitful slumber. Though the monster was perfectly dry, she smelled the faint aroma of damp feathers, as if far-away. She decided she had postponed Beast's bath long enough.
"Night terrors," said her father. "If giants live on Wysaerie they know better than to stray close to the edge."
Elessa only half-heard him, for she was falling off the edge into a deep, exhausted sleep.