Chapter Thirty Five - The Gates of The Edify
As we took off from the quad, I guided Liberty up towards the Edifice for a bit because I didn’t want people getting all suspicious. But as soon as we were out of sight, we circled round and headed back down towards the coast. As I guessed, Psion was snoozing in his cave.
“Wake up,” I called down to him. “You’ve got a job to do. Come and fly.”
“It’s wet out there,” he grumbled.
“I had noticed,” I told him a bit sharply. “I’ve been out in it all night. Moving now, please. Something important’s come up and I really need you.”
Without another word, he uncurled and, moments later, he was flying at my side as we headed down the coast.
“Are you off somewhere, Young Mistress?” he inquired, when he saw my travel bundles.
“I’m going up to stay with Rhiannas until the quarter day.”
“That’s nice…do invite me over for tea when you’re up there.”
“Stop it, please,” I said. I just wasn’t in the mood for his whole humour thing. “Caronas managed to provoke Rhiannas into entering me in the Neophytes Gates Race… and making a terminal bet on the outcome.”
Flippant Psion instantly evaporated to be replaced with my serious teacher, friend and servant. “To place above?” he asked
“Oh dear! What did he think he was playing at?”
“I mean… it’s the closest I’ve ever seen him to being apologetic about anything.”
“I’m sure you’ll find that a source of great consolation as he’s reducing you to charcoal,” he said, his voice becoming faster as the horror of the situation became clear.
“I was rather hoping to avoid the whole charcoal bit.”
“I can imagine.”
“And, of course, there’s another problem.”
“Well, naturally there is.” Psion responded, almost hysterically. “Obviously, arranging for a transitor, who’s only been flying for three months, to win the Neophytes Gates Race is not a sufficient challenge for a creature of my supreme abilities. Inform me, pray… what is this additional complication?”
“Carodoc knows about you, or at least he knows there is somebody.”
“Of course he does. And you have understandable concerns that, should you prove victorious, he may choose to let the cat out of the bag in an attempt to save his own skin.”
I gave a mental nod thing.
“It wouldn’t work, of course,” he added thoughtfully, “but he could well succeed in having you combusted too.”
He went quiet for a bit and I could tell his mind was racing. “Whilst I have every confidence in your ability to emerge victorious from the race,” he said at last, “there remains an alternative you may wish to consider. My capacities in the domain of concealment and illusion would permit us to remove ourselves unofficially from the island with minimal risk of detection.”
I had to think about that one. Did I want to run away? Live with Psion and maybe, even Liberty, in secret.
“No!” I replied at last. It was almost an instinctive reaction rather than something I’d thought out. “I’ve still got jobs to do here. First I’ve got to win this race and then we’ve got to pay back the people responsible for my mother’s murder.”
We flew on for a while longer as Psion studied me in both domains. “You are truly your mother’s daughter,” he told me at last.
Then we carried on flying together for a while longer, both of us deep in our own thoughts and memories.
“Have you discussed the issue with Rhiannas?” he asked at last, breaking the spell.
“Not yet. He said he’d be able to give me advice and guidance. That’s all.”
“Pay most assiduous heed to all he has to say for there are few to rival him in matters of pure flight finesse. I intend to concentrate on your physical conditioning… and on tactics. You have one race in which you not only have to beat probably ten much more experienced opponents, you also have to eliminate Zalibar’s senior tyro. This is going to take every innovative stratagem we can come up with. When do you wish to begin?”
“How about right now?” I suggested, determined to make full use of the twelve days I had left.
“As long as you are not too weary following your night’s sentry duty.”
“I am pretty tired,” I said, “but I guess I’ll be pretty tired by the end of the race too. So It makes sense to practice now.”
“Good,” the little dragon said. “Then… to work!” We rounded the southern tip of the island and headed out towards the open sea. He could easily hide himself but we needed to get away from the island so nobody could spy on me as I practiced.
He concentrated for a moment and two illusionary Henge gates clicked into existence, hovering just above the waves.
“I propose that you drop to the first gate, fly across to the other, then Sheer Climb up to the base of the clouds up there. Remember to keep your turns tight and to maintain as much speed as you can between the gates. Speed lost there will cost you dearly on the next climb.”
So I told Liberty what we were about to do, then we dropped into a wing-tucked dive. Psion, watching from far above, wouldn’t let me open our wings until the sea was flashing frighteningly up towards us and, when the command came, Liberty threw himself into such a vicious turn that I was pretty much thrown over his shoulder. By the time I’d steadied myself we were halfway between the gates, flying just above wave height.
“That pair of spurs is inadequate,” Psion observed coolly. “Ready again,” he called to me as we approached the second gate. “Now corner and climb!”
Liberty was raring to go and threw himself into the vertical climb with such wild enthusiasm that, for the first dozen strokes, I was tempted to leave him on his own. But Psion told me to lock onto his mind to manage his work. “I see he is a brute of a beast,” he said, “but you will more effectively conserve his strength if you intercede early and force him to pace his effort. Should you allow him his head then, by the end of the second climb, he will have burnt himself out and you’ll be obliged to carry him the rest of the way.”
When we hit the base of the clouds, Psion told us to relax as he wheeled up to join us but Liberty was still full of energy and I had to give him a light mental slap as he struggled to carry on with the wild climbing.
“That’s the idea!” Psion called, “Remind him of who is in charge. Now, if you could just hang on a moment to allow the less athletic amongst us to catch up…”
Once he’d worked his way up to us, we set out in a long, gentle arc and, as we flew, Psion told me about the format of the race: “Six climbs and six dives… well six and a half if you include the mad dash to the first gate. You drop down to the gates, in through one, out through another… then you climb up to the flutes… out through one, in through the other. Twelve gates, twelve flutes, one for each of the Edify.”
“What are the Edify?” I asked. I mean… I’d heard the word but I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.
“They are the twelve Great Houses that founded the Edifice. They have one gate and one flute each: Kuthbar…” he said, putting the image of their gate and flute straight into my mind… “Quaro… Dom… Rhian… Hendon… Sharfroi… Cinder… Jera… Dan… Han… Siân… Erin… and last… and certainly least… Dai.”
“Why do you say ‘certainly least’ Dai?” I asked when, after a couple of attempts, I’d managed to repeat the list.
“Ah yes, the cursèd line of Dai. There’s a minor issue with the Dai flute. The Dai House was eliminated before the completion of the Edifice and it was deemed… inappropriate… to complete their flute.”
“Deemed inappropriate to complete their flute?” I exploded.
“There is a flute there of sorts, however it is a trifle… challenging… to negotiate… particularly at speed.”
“I don’t want to get all fussy or anything but I’m going to be racing through there! Speed is… how should I put this… what it’s all about.”
“That fact had not entirely escaped my attention. I would hope, however, that by the time you reach that particular obstacle, you will have established a lead sufficient to allow you to show some discretion in its negotiation. Alternatively, if you have not managed to establish such a lead, it does provide ample opportunity to take advantage by less conventional means.”
I paused for a moment, trying to work out what he was talking about. “You mean dirty tricks, don’t you?” I asked at last.
“I suppose you could call them that if you really wanted to,” he replied with an over-the-top and not particularly convincing sigh.
“What sort of things go on in the races?”
“All sorts: barging; buffeting; mind on mind attacks. On one celebrated occasion, one of the competing dragons was misdirected into one of the spectator rings. Of course neither dragon nor rider emerged alive… indeed emerged at all!
I noticed the golden sparkles shimmering just below the surface of his cloud and worked out that he must have had something to do with that one.
We carried on in our wide arc until we returned to our illusionary gates. “This time, you are to practice entering the dive from the starting wheel,” Psion said, guiding me and Liberty into a level circle, big enough for a dozen dragons. He even threw in ten illusionary dragons for me though they were whispy, insubstantial things. After a few moments circling, there was the sound of an illusionary starting gong and I let Liberty drop into the dive.
This time I felt much more comfortable during the gate-to-gate transition. We were flying much lower and it felt much more controlled. The climb, too, was more evenly paced but we still struggled on the dive. “The two of you are simply not heavy enough,” Psion told me. “I also suspect that your line into the gate is too steep. Here, however, you must consult Rhiannas for he is much my superior in this domain.”
As we set out on another slow recovery arc, fatigue rolled over me but the thought of Carodoc’s arrogance and Quaro-Deryn’s malice were enough to push it to the back of my mind. I knew I needed every minute of practice if I was going to survive.
As we came back round to the illusionary gates once more, Psion asked whether we could manage another Sheer Climb.
“I’m not sure about me,” I answered, “but Liberty’s raring to go.”
“Then you must ensure that he does the majority of the work, particularly towards the top of the climb. Do not allow him to attack too early. A steady rate of work throughout is what is required.”
The dive felt neat enough, though Psion still wasn’t happy with our speed, and our transition between the gates was easily our cleanest so far. Then Liberty threw himself into the climb with his normal abandon. Psion made me jump on him early to make sure he managed his power but, even so, by the time we arrived back at the cloud base, he was suffering badly and I felt as if I was carrying him.
“I don’t think we can manage another one of those,” I said as I slumped forward onto Liberty’s crenels.
“That is hardly an astonishing revelation,” Psion commented coolly. “No dragon has ever accomplished three Sheer Climbs during a single race and it would appear that you need a little more practice before you can manage three under race conditions.”
I couldn’t answer but nodded weakly.
After another long recovery pause, we tried the same exercise with a circling climb. These weren’t normally as bad as the Sheer Climbs but, I was so knackered… and Psion was demanding such a steep angle… that it took everything I had to keep driving Liberty on, up to the clouds.
At the end of our fifth dive, we missed the opening in the first gate, with one wing passing through the illusionary wall, and Psion decided that we’d had enough. I tried to protest but he wouldn’t listen. “Were that to have happened in the Henge, the wing would be broken and you would both be dead,” he insisted. “You are both too tired and becoming clumsy. Take him up to the Rhian Lair, give him something to eat and ensure you eat something yourself before you sleep. Come and find me in the morning when you can.”
“Yes, Sir!” I said, flashing him a sarky cloud world salute, then, wearily, I guided Liberty back towards the island.
I’d only ever flown into the Edifice on Rhiannas before and, flying in on Liberty, I was a bit worried about breaking some sort of rule or something. But word must have got around about my entry in the race because everybody was giving me plenty of room.
I easily found the Rhian lair but I was a bit surprised, as I cruised down towards the veranda, to see an elderly lady sitting there. She was busy with some sort of needle work. She stood up as I landed Liberty on the lip of the veranda. “Hello, dear,” she said. “You must be Rhianadoc. I’m Markesh-Dwynwen, but everybody calls me Dee.”
“I am,” I replied. “But please just call me Katie. I’ve not got used to that other name yet.”
“Right you are, love. Pass me down your things and put your dragon away. Then you can go and have a wash and I’ll get you something hot to eat. After that you can sleep. You look fit to drop.”
I gave her a smile and passed down my bundles then climbed wearily down. “Where do I put him?” I asked.
“First opening on the right, down there. That’s the mews.”
“I need to feed him.”
“Don’t worry about that, dear. I’ll sort him out. I’ve been dealing with dragons for a lot longer than you have! I’ve just never got the knack of gripping ’em. Tell him there’s food on the way though. They get crotchety if they think you’ve forgotten them.”
“Go on, scat!” she told me as I stood there, pretty much in a daze. “Ten more minutes, then you can sleep.”
So I dragged myself into action. I took Liberty across to the mews then made my way back to my own little alcove.
Even though I was totally exhausted, I noticed the change in the room. It was clean and tidy; there was a rug on the floor… and a pleasant absence of charred bones! The door hadn’t been repaired but there was a heavy curtain to give me a bit of privacy.
The bed now had a mattress and the fresh bedding looked really inviting. I moved towards it but was startled by a voice behind me. “Don’t even think about it, Young Lady!” Dee said in a voice that told me she wasn’t going to put up with any sort of rubbish with a dirty me in her nice clean bed. She was standing in the doorway, holding a tray and looking adamant. “The bath water’s hot and there’s a fresh nightie there for you. Just dump your mucky things on the floor. I’ll be back in two minutes to sort you out.”
From then on, I only had vague memories: relaxing into a warm bath; being woken up by Dee; collapsing into that wonderfully soft bed; eating soup and warm bread. But, above everything else, there was the wonderful fug of being warm and comfortable and fussed over.
And, before very long, I’d fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep.