Chapter Three: The Care and Feeding of Griffins
What is a griffin, you ask? While Vanoori scholars agree this oviparous carnivore shares bird and mammal characteristics, its non-chordate, leonine tail bars it from the birds, and its hindquarters lay eggs outside the domain of mammals. There is some talk of classifying it a monotreme like the egg-laying platypus, which is reinforced by the notion that both fusion creatures split their life between two elements--the platypus, on land and water, and the griffin, on land and air. However, the griffin is less hybrid than casserole. Although the feathers and fur seem to demarcate where eagle begins and lion leaves off, under the hide this monster of appetite has two stomachs, one of which digests flesh, while the other compacts bones, clothes, armor, swords, coins, and arrowheads into monstrous pellets, the better to eat its prey live, kicking, and whole, and cough up the salvage. Moreover, the pellet-producing stomach extracts iron and magnesium from consumed metals to fortify the griffin's hollow skeleton. If they only laid eggs and lived in two mediums, they might be defined as a monotreme mammal, but this unusual digestive appartus excludes them from animalia entirely, and places them in monstrum, the kingdom of monsters.
Though griffins hoard no gold, griffin eggs are priceless, for hatchlings imprint forever on whatever monster mothers them, whether their natural mother, an ambitious lord, or a madman. Since griffins are born wild and are untameable by anyone except their master, this limits the value of fledglings, although the Vanoori menagerie has a long standing offer of one hundred thousand coin for a live specimen, fashionistas and trophy hunters prize a dead griffin's plumage, and furriers, taxidermists, potion brewers, scientists, and certain superstitious, middle-aged men desperate for the glory days of their virility would gladly harvest the carcass.
Though griffins are less renowned and feared than dragons, this only adds to the peril of those unfortunates who encounter them, as griffins hunt in prides, play cruelly with prey, care not for bribes of gold, and take only flesh as tribute or trophy. While smaller than dragons, griffins are as large as a shed, with a wingspan three times their ten to twelve foot length; though a pride packs less monster muscle than a flight of dragons, their advance still causes spines to shiver and bowels to melt. Unlike dragons, who fear death and can be driven off by heroes, griffins fight to the end, not only to defend their lair, but for a single bite of horseflesh. Though griffins are driven wild by the smell of horses, they care not if the flesh of a rider mingles with the horseflesh, for they savor all flesh.
Eriva Kamadne's Vanoori Menagerie, "The Care and Feeding of Griffins."
When the snagged overcoat ripped and Gaspar dangled precariously from the shredding fabric, he grabbed the griffin's talons in a grip whitened and numbed by the cold, dark storm. Though falling from this height was a nightmarish death Gaspar would never have predicted, he was also loath to be soaked, frozen, or lightning-struck, and cringed as the griffin flew towards the black cloud. When the beast caught an updraft, and coasted over the cloud's lip, Gaspar couldn't believe his eyes.
First he saw the unusually clean roots, dampened by the dark cloud through which they grew, a cloud darkened not by rain, snow, or hail, but the weighty shadow resting upon it. When the griffin crested the edge, his eyes followed the roots through to the other side, where mammoth trees loomed, stretching their majestic branches over a vast island. The sudden shift from dark cloud to dazzling green island, thick with leafy trees and overgrown by verdant grasses, pained his eyes and tore a hole in his common sense. When his bedazzlement subsided, he saw the mountains—titanic immensities never softened by rain or snow, and with crags so stark and sharp they seemed like the snapped-off bases of celestial stalactites. These wicked peaks towered so unbelievably high, that while they were flanked with blue sky, their tops were moored in the blackness above.
More widely read, and partial to daydreams, Elessa had not only seen this phenomenon illustrated in storybooks and illumined in an aged brown scroll her father inherited titled The High Earth and the Quaking Sky, she had imagined a long engagement to Prince Cloudmore of The High Earth, though when her imaginary fiancee's lack of empathy or a flesh and blood hand to hold wearied her, she spurned his castle in the sky. The only scrap she remembered of the ensuing retaliatory nightmare--other than the stomp of her heart and screaming herself hoarse-- was her midnight blue dress, just a shade darker than the night, falling from The High Earth, her head, arms and legs dissolving into foamy, streaming stardust. For days, she dreaded sleep, believing the phantasmic Prince pushed her from her dream. When she laid eyes on the titanic mountains, trees, and fields of the cloud island—not a dream, but a real cloud island—her first thought was that its existence slandered the philosophers that denied them, but it was her slightly mad second thought that shook her: if this real cloud island was wilder than her daydream, how would its real inhabitants compare to imaginary Prince Cloudmore? Were they as feral as the griffins?
In the griffin's rapid clip over a flurry of grass and trees, Elessa might have imagined the carved, castle-like promontories on the craggy peak that towered over any terrestrial mountain. She was not only groggy from the steep and rapid ascent, but exhausted from another uphill battle. When thinning air had caused her heart to race, her breath to run shallow, and her eyes to become awash with black spots and vertigo, she fought first to stay conscious, then to grip the rope, climbing hand over hand to the griffin's back, where, not trusting her waning strength, she wound her fingers several times in the tufts of scarlet, emerald, and indigo feathers.
As the dense trees, tall grasses, and creeping vines thickened the air above the cloud island, she breathed longer and easier, and even the griffin seemed more buoyant. Though it felt strange that she should wage a war against drowsiness now, clinging to a monster skimming a magical land, her blood was chilled from overexertion, and her skin warmed by the rich humidity. When she nodded off, she awoke in an instant, her ears pounding with fresh fear that she sublimated into exhilaration on seeing they were about to land.
On a scrubby plateau strewn with bones, rocks, branches and dry leaves, Gaspar was ignobly dropped in one of many enormous nests, and skinned his knees rolling over the nest's grassy floor. As a griffin's iron bones and mighty muscles are built to absorb an abrupt landing, and Elessa was not, she was shaken free from her feathery handhold to tumble a few feet away from Gaspar. Her body ached, her hands were so stiff that she couldn't open them, and she tasted blood. Running her tongue over her teeth and finding no chips but a bruised lip, she counted herself lucky, though she felt half-dead, and envied both the living and the dead for the wholeness of their condition. The halfway point between life and death must be pain, she reasoned, because the dead felt no pain, the living fled pain, and pain was all she had left. Though it was agony even to open her eyes, and she desperately wanted to save her stength, she needed to save her skin if she had any hope of finding her father. If the griffins felt peckish after the long climb, they were both lost. She remonstrated herself for her self-pity, and stood. When her dizziness faded, the griffins were squatting, heads tucked under their wings.
Though her father was no less lost, it was exhilarating to risk everything, not once, but twice, and have her gamble pay off both times. That the wounded griffin's cries called more griffins was an outstanding fluke, but going on to rope a griffin and not only survive but discover that cloud islands, and possibly every fairy story, were rooted in reality, was godlike fortune.
On the other hand, landing in a nest of monstrous flesh-eaters marked a troubling lapse in this good luck. And if these were the griffins that destroyed her father's farm, was he here? Until she knew if he was breathing or bones, there could be no more risks.
To test her captors' slumber, Elessa crawled uncertainly, but at their roaring snores, she crawled more vigorously. When a squatting griffin at the nest's far end glowered at their approach, Elessa froze on all fours, and Gaspar, creeping close behind, learned that hindsight was crystal clear, and sometimes literal. At Gaspar's headbutt—the headbutt also literal, composed of the sudden juxtaposition of his head and her posterior—they both fell face forward into the nest.
Though the griffin watched their pratfall unblinking, it only huddled nearer its two enormous eggs and the third gory payload, dragged between them: the Andercruik man-at-arm, his yellow Andercruik tabard savaged, a length of intestine pulled through the embroidered lion's torn mouth, and bloody bone jutting from the stumps of his legs.
"Let's go back," hissed Gaspar.
"No," she hissed back, "it's incubating."
Gaspar looked again, and in spite of his prevailing mood—which swung back and forth between his native optimism and the kind of existential dread a philosopher might know if they crawled on hands and knees in a griffin's nest—became interested. "A pair of eggs, just like eagles."
"How would you know?"
"The court falconer had eagles. I was curious."
"There's no sign of my father. Not a shred, rag, or shoe."
"That's good news."
"Maybe. I'm concerned about the mother."
"It might sit on the eggs all day."
Though she wanted to laugh, thinking it might provoke the mother and wake the pride, she cooped it in her aching ribs until she couldn't even smile. "That's rare in birds. With griffins, who knows. A tough beast like that relishes raw meat. My guess is she incubates half the day and hunts for the rest."
"Then any moment now we might be lunch."
"That would ruin her plans. See the cracks? Hear those tiny shrieks? Do you think she's a ventriloquist? The chicks are stretching their shells, because they smell the flesh that mama salted away. We're their birthday surprise, Gaspar. The mother wants both hatchlings to live."
"That reminds me again of the falconer," said Gaspar. "Everyone hated that proud fellow. When one eaglet was born so ravenous that it killed the other, he fell into a deep sorrow, and they gossiped about him savagely."
"A good falconer should have known. This griffin is wiser. If they eat us, Mother will have two strong chicks."
"That's ghastly. What do we do? Fight for our lives, escape, or lay down and die?"
"Only you would list the third option, Mr. Third. You're hopeless." The griffin's eyes trembled, and its wings shivered, as they inched closer. Elessa stopped, then put her hand on Gaspar's chest. "We'll wait. If we stay clear now, she might flit off for food."
"What if you're wrong, and we're her food?"
"We jump. We're likelier to survive the fall than a hungry griffin."
"Fall? All the way to Glasford?"
"No, Gaspar. We'd hit the island."
"You saw it too? I thought when terror closed my eyes I dreamed it. It can't be real, can it?" Gaspar stammered, as if he couldn't pin down his next word. "I mean, can't two people share a nightmare?"
"If a cloud island is possible, then I suppose it's likely." When Elessa punched Gaspar's ribs in the same tender spot she punched yesterday, he staggered back, then backpedaled when she feinted to punch him again. "Get back here, Gaspar. We have to disprove your hypothesis."
"You're right," Gaspar hissed. "You're right." When she stopped advancing, he added, "but we wouldn't survive a drop from this ledge, either."
"Maybe. Maybe not. There might be a pile of leaves. There won't be a pile of leaves on her claws."
"You're no good at commiserating," said Gaspar.
"This isn't a pity party, Gaspar, it's planning. Though jumping is my last option, don't think I won't if slaughter is the alternative. You're welcome to stay. You might try dancing, stories, or jokes." Elessa referred to the fable cycle The Jester and the Dragon, in which the jester Elnerto, to postpone his demise, relates ninety fireside tales full of madcap and pratfalls to the hungry but lonesome dragon Sevorr. Though the chatty jester eases Sevorr's loneliness, the fat, juicy stories do not slake the dragon's hunger pangs, and since monsters are as restless by instinct as they are rapacious, the jester was half-devoured before the dragon missed his storyteller and lamented the unsaid stories.
Though Gaspar was loath to say so, Elessa's comparison was not particularly apt. Sevorr was more noted for being a literary cannibal than a literal one, whereas this birdbrained beast had a taste for man flesh, but not wit and satire. Given its plan to nourish both eggs, the griffin was cunning, but no comedian; eating them was its dim, gruesome punchline. Just as laughter was alien to most animals and beasts, a joke wasn't likely to forestall the griffin's appetite.
"What if more griffins return before this one hunts? Or even if our escape is witnessed only by the corpse and the eggs, how will we take flight, having no wings? Do you still have your rope? Is it, by chance, three miles long, or failing that, long enough to hang us? Admit it, Elessa. You have no plan."
"If you want eaten, be louder and more irritating," said Elessa.
And so they waited.
Though the shopkeeper still had his ledger, when he did not feel like predicting his wealth, he realized the depth of his depression, for that was his favorite pastime. Though his other favorite thing was in the nest, she punched him twice, snapped at him at every turn, and completed his disillusionment by conspiring to feed him to griffins.
"I used to like you."
"Be quiet," she hissed, "or it may never leave. And the feeling is mutual. Not that a stuffed mannequin like you knows anything about feelings, even its own."
"What did you call me?"
"Stuffed. Mannequin." Elessa enunciated each word with emphasis.
"That's a fine sentiment, considering no one's heart is more wooden than a wood nymph's."
"Wood nymph? What do you mean?"
"What do you think? Though your attentions were flattering, and flirting with you turned the tables on Adelae, I'd heard the stories."
"I felt sorry for you. You're old enough to be my father, and probably senile if you believed those rumors."
"Ridiculous. I'm not old enough to be your father."
"I'm twenty. You're forty-two!"
"Since I was a virgin twenty years ago, I can't be old enough to be your father. You do mean the real us, not some hypothetical versions? Adelae took my virginity when I was twenty-eight, so your generality could only be true if I was six years older."
When Elessa's titters erupted into a belly-rocking roar, the griffin mother's head pivoted to pierce them both with its unblinking stare. Elessa's retort was divided by squeals and gasps. "Unless <snicker> you'd like <huh> to be the subject of tee dee tee even more fanciful HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA gossip, don't brag about that in town."
"We're going to die. Why hold anything back?" Their tense repartee was interrupted by a blast of air-propelled feathers, down, dust, twigs, bones, and the nest's other loose, gory debris, as the mother sprang forward, its beak near enough to graze Gaspar's nose, then another dizzying vault carried it to the cloud island's wooded floor.
"Here's our chance. Now what?"
"The eggs!" Elessa pointed at the azure-speckled, golden-brown eggs, whose fragmenting shells seemed strung together by their white interior. Moist tufts poked through the larger craters.
"That's your plan? To satisfy your farmer's curiosity?"
"Since there's no escape, I'd like a good look at the baby griffin that eats me. Kings, queens, ministers, merchants, and peasants—even the most learned sages—none will ever examine a griffin's egg as I did."
"None will be coughed up in a pellet, either."
"Now that's a fascinating idea. Do griffins cough up pellets?"
"Owls and eagles do. The court falconer..."
"There is no bird of prey as wide ranging as this court falconer, whom you make swoop in after fourteen years, though you have forgotten his name."
"Don't mock me."
"Our choice of games is limited, so no." Though their bickering incensed Gaspar, Elessa was cool in her replies, for the enormous eggs had her attention. One was spider-webbed with minute cracks, and the other was crisscrossed with splitting shell and warm to her touch. Then it touched back—the beak's impact on the shell interior stung her hand.
"It's hatching! Lets not be its first grubs," When Gaspar stepped back, then pulled Elessa behind him, she kicked the back of his leg and he staggered forward. The top of the egg burst like a champagne cork, smacked her in the chest, and a wet head, eyes squeezed shut, pecked out of the shell. When Gaspar reached for a long stick, and grabbed a femur instead, his fear-tainted mouth soured with nausea as well, as it was no doubt human bone. He clung to it nonetheless, and steeled himself to bend the remains to a posthumous purpose. One smack on the hatchling's soft head and he'd live until mama finished her meal.
When the shell came unzipped, the hatchling shambled from the wet tatters of the egg. Its unseeing eyes bobbed left and right as it padded forward on damp paws and needle-thin claws. This fusion of bird and lion was the oddest baby animal Elessa had ever seen. While its hindquarters were nearly fully formed, if as feeble and clumsy as a kitten, its forequarters were blind and blobby like a baby chick. Its wings were shapeless strands like a bloody bow-tie.
When it pulled on Gaspar's sleeve, then laid on his muddy boots, you might have thought it purred, except a griffin's purring trills, punctuated with windmill squeaks and guttural kaws. Pity welled up in the shopkeeper, and he stooped, laid down the bone, wiped the griffin's forequarters with his cloak, then rubbed the chick warm. Or is it a cub, or a kit, he wondered. "What do I do?"
"Since you can't kill it, stand back. I'll do it."
"That's inhuman. It's no monster."
"You're deluded. That cute monster wants you because you're the entree. Since the monster's mother won't like us, the food, asserting ourselves, let's escape the dinner plate."
"Mercy is my right and kindness its birthright."
"You only have ten fingers to feed it—then what?"
When the grifflet snapped at Gaspar, pinching the skin of his wrist, it did not chew, though its beak held tight. As Gaspar couldn't pry the beak open, he was forced to carry it, which was not unlike holding a damp twenty pound sack of beans. "The beast looks peckish, but not for me."
"It's no beast," crooned Elessa. "It's a baby." Though half their goods fell out in flight, and their landing smashed a fourth, rummaging in her pack did produce one thing barely suitable for a baby griffin. When Elessa fed it a finger of jam, it let go of Gaspar. After a few dozen finger scoops, the grifflet's blind eyes shut.
With gold digging Adelae as Gaspar's main example of womanhood, Elessa's maternal transformation was so unfathomable that it seemed Elessa was warming up to him.
"I'd be exhausted too after breaking out of that shell," said Gaspar.
"Don't make me laugh," said Elessa. "You'd never escape that egg."
"Curse the whores that bore you. Would that their bellies had withered and not grown." Though the voice was familiar to Gaspar, the sight was strange: twenty feet overhead the man hovered, wearing an electric blue robe dotted with gold griffins and silver dragons. Was this a man, Gaspar wondered, or a lightning bolt that politely knocked before the last yards of its devastating hurtle? When Gaspar held his tongue, and Elessa chose that moment not to speak her mind, the wizard's laugh connected in Gaspar's brain with the curly, bright blonde beard to ignite fearful recognition. Gaspar half-turned, tucked his head, and raised the griffin sleeping on his crossed arms to the level of his face.
"Though I love a melodrama," said the wizard, "I shouldn't rant that you've spoiled my plans, as what's one griffin in the scheme of things? And though it would be very satisfying, I shouldn't slay you out of spite..."
"Not that I'm ungrateful," began Gaspar.
"...at least not until your uselessness is assured. Where are my manners? I'm Ilmar Andercruik. And you must be Dirty Peasant and...you're a familiar looking fool—I know you!" The wizard cocked his eyebrow. "You're the courtier who moved in on my Adelae."
No sooner was Ilmar Andercruik appointed Court Wizard than he courted Lady Adelae, whom, despite her predilection for the riches magic might provide, preferred her pet courtier to playing second fiddle to a sorcerer. Though Gaspar was daunted by Ilmar's sorcerous threats, his lust for the only woman in King Algus's court that wanted him restrained him from full flight. Not that Ilmar's threats weren't menacing: transmogrification into a pig followed by a slow roast; petrification ensued by shattering; disintegration into dust ("Is there any other kind?" young Gaspar snarked, then fled); levitation to Almana, the planet nearest the sun; and, the most memorable: 'After making you a statue and myself a bird, I'll pelt you daily until the droppings disfigure the stone, then restore your flesh.' Though none came to pass when Ilmar was enamored of his cushy court job, Gaspar was terrified at the thought of the unsatisfied curses, as if they still buzzed in the wizard's ear fourteen years later and miles above Vanoor.
"It's a small world, courtier, or should I say shopkeeper? I admire your shop, and the lifestyle which you provide for my Adelae through the common magics of counting and persuasion. Though Adelae doesn't know it, I call on her now and then, making use of my enchanted scrapbook of names and faces. Since she bestows her favors on every one of my pinned personalities, some of the poor things are jealous of the others, but you--I not only cuckolded you as promiscuously as possible, Gaspar, I also revenged myself twofold in making a faithless fool of Adelae."
Though he knew it might backfire, Gaspar felt it ill-mannered to leave the insult unchallenged, a sense that increased in the dragged out moment and the broadening of Ilmar's smug smile. "Since Adelae has become a wrestling ring," he said, embarrassed that his tone was more strident than intended, "with one bout after another, I've ruled myself out as a contestant."The shopkeeper's tenor became even more incensed. "So you're in the pool with my clerk, the baker, the wine seller, the book merchant, three knights from Vanoor, and—I think—our local midwife. When you're making the rounds with this revelation, be gentle when you're telling my clerk, won't you? He's barely a man, and might have the poor sense to pick a fight with you. We may know Adelae's not worth it, but he's infatuated. Unless—you're not my clerk? That would be awkward. You might be due for a raise. I'm sorry, I've forgotten your name," said Gaspar, already regretting his passive aggressive baiting of the wizard. "Not that I've forgotten you; I just haven't had cause to think about you in over a decade."
Ilmar groaned and blasted the ground at Gaspar's feet. "Did I not say I was all her suitors?" When the fire flowered again, the shopkeeper backpedaled, tripping over a long branch jutting from the nest floor. "I should know not to serve payback to a fool. 'The fool knows not the evil men do.' While it would be comical for the beast to find the meat mothering her egg, I have need of a bottom feeder like you. Think carefully on my offer, Gaspar, as I'm a cutthroat recruiter, unlikely to leave promising candidates on the market."
"What offer?", exclaimed Gaspar, who was shocked that his speech--its impudence artfully balanced by self-deprecation--merited a retort of wizard fire. Though Gaspar wasn't certain which line drew blood, Ilmar's overreaction seemed so overacted that it was obvious he was actually sensitive where Adelae was concerned.
"Only unworthy fools need apply. Care for one griflet that imprinted on a fool. Crap shoveling. Menial work. Eventual courier duty. Falling on your sword, if that amuses me."
"I don't have a sword," said Gaspar. "Why me?"
"Will you save us?" asked Elessa.
"It speaks. Should I respond? Your rank is objectionable, double meaning intended. As in, you stink, peasant."
Though Elessa already had a low opinion of this hovering clown, who used grandiose powers to satisfy a spiteful grudge, she forced a smile. "That's witty. You're very well read. Isn't the line on fools from The Lies of Anduil Mabrook?"
"You've read Mabrook? How fascinating. If you don't mind my saying so—actually, I don't care if you mind or not—how could you afford a copy?"
"It's my father's book. Was my father's book; it's likely destroyed by the storm or the griffins now. That's why I'm here."
"You flew here to seek remuneration for a book?" The wizard tittered.
"He was taken by griffins. I think you know where."
"Maybe. Grab that other egg, useless." Once Elessa complied, the wizard gestured and hacked guttural syllables, and they jerked into the air, bobbing over the plateau and tree tops. As her feet dangled over the drop, by instinct Elessa staggered forward, clutching the egg with one hand, while the other flailed for their unseen vessel. But there was neither surface nor handhold, nor could her feet gain traction on the surging breeze.
Once on a trajectory for the castle-like growth, the spell accelerated to an insane speed that deprived Gaspar of the power of speech, for having already lost his lunch on arrival, he now fought the humiliation of a dry heave by rebuffing wave after wave of rising bile.
By comparison—aside from the way it rippled her frock—Elessa was unruffled by the hurtling world. "What do you mean by imprinting, Lord Andercruik? That's nonsense. Livestock don't imprint."
"Lord Andercruik is my cousin Leonidas. I'm Ilmar Andercruik, former court wizard to King Algus."
"How is that better than a former courtier? You were fired too."
"No, you greasy rabble, having taken an extended sabbatical, I never returned. Your petty king, interested only in his amusements, respected neither science nor wizardry, and stopped giving me audience. Should a lout benefit from my sage advice? Not that an impertinent peasant should question me either, but here I am. To answer your first question: while a foal, with a few spirited exceptions, might become anyone's steed, hatchlings venerate the first face they see, whether their natural mother, a monotonous clod...or a wise magician."
"Have I offended you? Are you sensitive about your time at court?"
"Not at all. Insulting commoners is a nasty but amusing habit I learned from Leonidas. If it bothers you, I'll stop. Do you know something about animal husbandry?"
"I live...lived on a farm before your griffins destroyed our farmstead."
"Though you're right to blame me, my venom isn't directed at you. It's your bad luck to be subject to that odious king. When my vision stands revealed and all honor me with fealty, even you may find me praiseworthy. Until that day, you will kneel if I will it."
Though Elessa detested the thought of swearing allegiance to this braggart, and would rather be dropped from this dizzying height than owe her life to one so puffed up by his own power, there was her father to consider, and on the cloud island there was no better place to start her search than the wizard's castle. As Gaspar strove to rein in his nausea, Elessa fought down a torrent of sass that she dearly wished to vent, startinng with a good dig about hot air rising in his balloon-brained ego, but she bit her tongue and waited for the wizard to overflow.
Ilmar did not disappoint: "since you are in my debt, humor me. I may rarely discuss my highest passion—not magic, as you might naively expect from my eldritch mastery—but the care and livelihood of griffins. Though appearing half and half, griffins are more of a three-quarters monster, being more avian than mammal; not only does the lion half lay eggs, but just as chicks imprint on hens and farmers, and eyases imprint on falcons or falconers, griflets imprint on their mothers...or masters."
"Wait! This fiend attached itself to me?" Though Gaspar never had a pet, he had never wanted one, being a fastidious homebody—a compulsive sweeper and duster that wanted neither to chase after dander nor to mop up after a natural killer. As a boy, Gaspar idled away afternoons thinking of his wooden soldiers at drill, in parade, and on the march, but by the time he outgrew them, his toy fighting men remained untried, having never been subjected to even one imagined battle, and certainly never terrorized by a dog. Gaspar's quietly organized shelves suited him, as when he made a mess or noise, his parents sent the nanny to restore order. Now that the shopkeeper was the custodian of a small fortune, he put money through its paces and made numbers march, and resented the way chaotic influences--like his adulterous duchess--upset his calculations. Similarly, though it was sweet to cuddle the hatchling when death was hours away, Gaspar's affection for the newborn monster dried up in one sobering instant.
"The imprint's as good as done, and if I were to disintegrate you into dust"—Gaspar shuddered, less at the murderousness of the suggestion than at its redundancy, much as he had done fourteen years ago—"that grifflet would become an intractable, moody griffin. While I've experimented with transferring a mother's imprint to myself, it never works. The only way to cut the tie is to smother it, which you would not enjoy, as I likewise cut the strings of useless acquaintances. For as long as it suits me, that grifflet is your job security."
On hearing 'cut the strings,' Gaspar gazed down at the mountain ridges, the woodlands, and the muddled earth and sky beyond the cloud island's shore. While the spell hurtled them above it all, it was hard to imagine there was more to the world than this vast vista.
Their abrupt drop was so accelerated they seemed not to fall, but to be aimed like a smashed tennis ball. When the spell also baffled the impact, neither Gaspar nor Elessa were prepared for the sudden slack, expecting a fatal smack and rushing into a jarring, sluggish inertia in which they stumbled, foggy-eyed. To spare the hatchling his full collapse, Gaspar buckled to his knees, but Elessa reeled, then sprawled onto her posterior under her armful of egg.
"A little warning!" said Elessa. The castle seemed one piece of stone, as if liquid stone poured upward from the mountain face into spires and towers. A massive gate of stalactites and stalagmites, laced togther like fangs brooding on their mouthful of flesh, yawned open at Ilmar's gesture.
"Welcome to Wysaerie—it rhymes with misery. You'll be acquainted with both before long. You, boy," Ilmar called to an old man, "take their things."
"Father!" Shaul swayed as if hooked to fraying, invisible strings. His eyes were vacant and his face like stone.
"Yes," said Ilmar, "I see the slack-jawed resemblance."
"What did you do?" she yelled.
"A safe and reversible process, I assure you. Did you expect me to be benevolent? Diabolic wizards with monstrous schemes don't have the luxury of trust."
The old farmer staggered off with their packs and mud-stained boots. When Elessa started to follow, Ilmar tapped Elessa and Gaspar's shoulders and they levitated through a hole in the ceiling.
No, she realized, not a hole—a wallpapered, vertical hallway, furnished with mirrors, paintings, vases on ledges, and even bookshelves. Though Elessa had never passed a row of books without studying the spines, at this speed they were a blur.
"Mind your cargo," the wizard shouted, when Elessa's pack fell off one shoulder to swing towards the fleeting wall. "If you even skew a picture, I'll send you up in rope and harness to straighten and dust. Here's your room." After stopping in midair, Ilmar nudged them into either side of a round room partitioned by short stone walls flanking the hallway that channeled through floor and ceiling.
On the floor plans, their accommodations would look more like a doughnut. "What room?" Gaspar said. "This is a pastry-shaped oubliette."
"It's not only prettier than a pastry, bur more clever," Ilmar preened. "As this floor is accessible only by harness or spell, you will have the utmost privacy from my staff, but not so much from each other."
While each side was furnished with a bed, dresser, chest, end table, and curtainless windows overlooking the cloud island, it did not look restful, for the upended hallway yawned like a pit not two yards from the bed, so that even one bone-weary from rafting, hiking, running from murderers, and being dragged miles by winged monsters might sleep lightly for fear of sleepwalking. Though not an anxiety to inspire the same mortal dread, Elessa was mortfied by another concern: between the partitions flanking the hole, there were no drapes, blinds, or other accommodations for modesty. "Couldn't I have a folding screen?"
"I'm sorry your peepshow won't be as good as his," Ilmar said facetiously. "Since I designed my castle for a wizard's convenience, and a flying wizard scoffs at stairs, I built these vertical hallways instead, which I call ascensors. Though you look for handholds, hidden ladders, or rungs, you will not find them. Don't think yourselves my prisoners, as that would make your captivity more meaningful than you deserve; you're here only to satisfy my whimsy, and this birdcage is only a temporary accommodation until I've broken your bad habits and enchanted my new extension."
When Gaspar began to reply, Ilmar waved a hand, and golden bubbles poured out of the shopkeeper's mouth. "How dare you interrupt my gloating exposition? Shopkeeper, care for those feathers like your own skin." Then the wizard whirled on Elessa. "As for you, I'll trouble you to mother the egg tonight, as I want a full nights' sleep and wouldn't trust my cattle-brained servants. There's no need to worry—griffins hatch two days apart. Just keep it warm. Meals will be levitated up, and as they'll be cooked by my own hand, you can be certain they'll be to die for." When Elessa's face froze, the wizard exclaimed, "No, not poisoned or enchanted; can't a witch use a popular idiom without being taken literally? Good night!" With that, the wizard descended through the ascensor.
Gaspar and Elessa scowled at each other, then settled in their beds. Though each was wounded by aggravation, unity would not have made them feel better. Though one might leap across using the other as anchor, it could lead not to escape, but self-pitying comiseration, as the only materials for a rope were their clothes, and the ascensor stretched so far that the ground floor looked like a pinhole.
Elessa laid her head on her pillow, turned to the outer wall, folded her arms around the egg, and closed her eyes. "I hope food comes quickly. Biter hasn't eaten since the jam and might want a bite of you."
"Ilmar doesn't pronounce Wysaerie like misery, he pronounces it like 'bliss airy'," asked Gaspar. "And Biter is a terrible name."
"Is it? I'm open to suggestions. Not that I've agreed to the wizard's terms. Did you know his cousin Leonidas?
"Lord Andercruik? Yes, I met him. He's horrible, belittling and rude, though murdering your neighbors trumps all that."
"You don't know they're dead."
"How could I know? But having killed Mrs. Drumm, they'd likely make a clean sweep."
Elessa sobbed—deep, wracking, apoplectic grief that to Gaspar looked like fury. "You're horrible," she screamed, "to think I thought you interesting." When Gaspar turned to the wall, Elessa cried until food came up on silver trays.
While the trays were not a match—no doubt stolen, Gaspar thought—they were heaping with food, raw and cooked. When Gaspar seized one of the trays and sat down on the bed, the hatchling's head bobbed up and trilled. There was a plate of bloody cutlets, greens studded with peppers, radishes, and croutons, a baguette, and a bowl of soup. "Raw meat," said Gaspar. "and no way to cook it."
"The meat is for Biter, you idiot. The rest is yours."
"I wonder," he muttered. "if the soup is hot enough to cook the meat?"
"I hope my father's not passing through when you puke down the hole."
Gaspar hated to admit that his meal was a well-made demonstration of high class cookery such that he had not enjoyed since King Algus's table, with not only a strong odor of rosemary and toasted sesame seed wafting from the bread, and a savory hint of truffle oil in the white bean soup, but the greens were seasoned and roasted until crisp, tasting less like salad than a bowl of croutons and if it was intended as a side dish, it outclassed in texture and flavor many entrees he had enjoyed.
Elessa, who had no experience of haute cuisine and was unused to missing this many meals, inhaled the gourmet fare at a pace too rapid to tally its virtues, and when she was full, found the not unpleasant aftertastes more puzzling than savory.
"The wizard cooked this?" Gaspar mused.
"Don't talk to yourself."
"Surely the wizard didn't cook this, with such a low opinion of menial work?"
"Though I can't turn off hunger, I can stop caring and listening. Let me sleep, Gaspar."
"Or he didn't. In which case, who else did he kidnap?"
"I think you mean to ask, 'what's he after?'"
Gaspar asked, "You mean, what use is a cloud island, a mountain castle, and a griffin army?"
"No, that's obvious. I mean, what does he want?"
"Oh, it's obvious. You mean those nests are a griffin city, with a griffin shop, a griffin inn, and a griffin church. That's what obvious means to me—everyday things. Stocked shelves. A balanced book. Money in the till. A cheating wife. A pretty flirt staring you in the face every Thursday."
"You're so tedious," retorted Elessa.
"You'll farm humans, and I'll sell human chops in the griffin city."
Though the former courtier was schooled in logic, rhetoric, etiquette, and court law, he was more inclined to the tit for tat of the coffee house or the tea room, and as Elessa literally learned how to argue in a barn—while going around and around with her father on why she couldn't dance with Varden at the Spring Celebration—their anxious speculation soon degenerated into name calling, which was sparked anew when a magical light filled their oubliette at sunset, only to die when that enchantment sizzled out hours later and left them in the twilight darkness of stars glimmering through a skylight in the ascensor roof and candlelight bobbing below on the ground floor. When the dust of their argument settled, Gaspar still had many things on his mind.
"That's a very pretty ceiling," said Gaspar, "but ten assassins with a hot spike could cut the glass and kill everyone in this castle."
"Once they flew for miles, searched this massive island for the wizard's lair, then climbed a mountain, a castle wall, and this tower. If that's the wizard burning the midnight oil below, we are higher up than any other human beings in the world."
"But not eagles or griffons. Will you carry me home, Biter?" Gaspar cooed, in spite of himself. "'Massive island,' you said. How is it so massive?"
"What do you mean?"
"Clouds aren't miles wide. If an island this big sailed overhead, everything on the ground would be eclipsed."
"It was, when the barge master fell. The storm was so dark I could barely see your hands and faces."
"Still, Wysaerie is a huge island. Enormously huge."
"Who cares? It's obviously magic. This island shouldn't exist, but here it is. "
"I mean, it made sense until I saw the size of it."
"It made sense? You accept a cloud island, but not one out of scale to the cloud? You're too natural-minded, Gaspar. I thought you were acquainted with this wizard." When Gaspar had no answer to this, Elessa said, "Good night, Mr. Third. I'm sorry for the hitting and mocking."
"Good night, Elessa. I'm sorry I lost your respect."
"Don't say foolish things. You were brave."
"No, I was greedy, then desperate. You were brave."
"You stood between me and a griffin."
"Don't remind me. It still frightens me, and I'm trying to sleep. Moreover, it's unlike me to be so pleased with myself."
"You'll sleep better. And now I will. Good night."