Chapter Thirty Seven - The Dirty Tricks Department
For the next few days, my life was pretty simple.
Dee would wake me up early with a cup of tea and I’d take a gentle jog around the lair in the watery half-light, guiding myself as much by my will as with my eyes. Then I’d do my mind and body stretching exercises out on the veranda while I looked out over the unreal dawn of the Edifice.
After a quick breakfast, I’d fly out on Liberty to meet Psion. He mostly concentrated on fitness, with particular emphasis on the Sheer Climbs which, he promised me, were going to give me a decisive advantage in the race.
Our descents still weren’t as quick as we’d like, simply because Liberty just wasn’t all that heavy. Psion taught me a couple of tricks for increasing our speed though. I learnt how to guide Liberty into the slipstream of an illusionary dragon and how to form a bubble of pure will round us, to smooth out the airflow.
We spent our recovery time talking about tactics with loads of emphasis on what I called ‘The Dirty Tricks Department’.
Of course Psion pretended to get all huffy about that description!
Then, at noon, Liberty and I would fly with Rhiannas. He’d show me the best way of attacking the flutes and gates… and the best way of getting between them. Funnily enough, the straight line wasn’t always the quickest… particularly for the Sharfroi and Cinder gates which were next to each other. For these two, he taught me this amazingly high, tumbling turn. I mean… it felt all wrong but it seemed to work!
And, whilst Liberty was recovering, we’d talk about the books I was studying.
I’d have a snooze after lunch and then I’d go out for a run. The first time I’d tried running along the staircases and ring pathways, I’d been terrified but, after a couple of times, I’d managed to overcome my fear of the stupid drop. I mean… I really knew I could rely on my will to stop myself from falling. Once out of the Edifice, I found a narrow path up towards the top of the mountain and, once, I’d even spotted the crocodile of Zalibar’s pupils as they slogged their way uphill. I noticed that Carodoc and Quaro-Deryn weren’t with them.
And, as night was drawing in, I’d take Liberty out again, diving through the flutes and gates, trying to put Rhiannas’s ideas into practice.
And every spare moment was filled with the books. Often, I’d take them down to the kitchen and read by the range whilst Dee was busy with her embroidery.
With three days to go, I was out training with Psion when I was pretty much thrown over Liberty’s shoulder again, after a particularly sharp turn. The little dragon let out a tiny flash of flame in an untypical show of temper. “This is utterly unsupportable!” he barked. “If you are to survive the coming encounter, we shall have to retrieve your mother’s spurs.”
“You’ve still got my mother’s things?” I asked, totally astonished. “Where have you been keeping them all this time?”
“They are up in a lair in the Edifice that I established following her brutal murder.”
“But won’t it have been looted by now?” I asked. “I mean… you’ve been skulking around out here ever since then, haven’t you?”
Psion gave me a bit of a pained look. “As I am sure I have mentioned on more than one occasion, I am uncommonly adept in the fine arts of concealment. As long as I continue to ‘skulk’ out here, whilst it will not technically be invisible, I am confident that the lair will remain unobserved.”
“Isn’t a lair quite a big thing to hide?” I asked. I mean… it was a tricky sort of idea to get my head around.
“It is nothing like as ostentatious as that of the House of Rhian,” he replied. “‘A simple lair,’ as it were, ‘but mine own.’”
“Okay, so how are we going to get our hands on the things then?”
Psion told me I was going to have to sneak out through the Dom portway that night. He’d be waiting for me and would carry me round to the Quaro one. From there, it wasn’t too far down to his lair.
We agreed to meet at midnight.
And, that afternoon, for about the millionth time, I tried to get Rhiannas to tell me the rules for the race. I mean… I could guess what would happen if I embarrassed him by breaking one of the vague ‘conventions’ but I could never get a straight answer out of him. I was starting to suspect that he didn’t really understand the question.
“So how far can I go when it comes to interfering with other riders or their dragons?” I asked him.
“That is another domain where acceptable actions are rather prescribed by custom than by precise regulations,” he answered carefully.
“So there’s nothing to stop one rider hacking at another with a sword?”
“The combatants in any significant skirmish would doubtless suffer the penalty of unacceptable delays. Furthermore, swords are not traditionally carried. The additional encumbrance would… outweigh… any possible advantage.”
“And what about interfering with someone else’s dragon? Could I, say, just force Quaro-Deryn’s dragon to stop.”
“As a tyro, that would not be well looked upon,” Rhiannas replied thoughtfully, “though a successful suggestion to another dragon to slow would be applauded, particularly if it were to be done with sufficient subtlety to avoid drawing the attention of the other rider.
“What you seem to be saying is that pretty much anything goes, as long as you win the race, but as a tyro, I shouldn’t get caught interfering with the others unless somebody else starts it.”
He had to have a think about that one. “Whilst the weight of precedent is significantly more complex,” he said at last, “from your perspective, that is an appropriate basis on which to proceed.”
‘Then why didn’t you say so in the first place?’ I screamed at him… but only in the privacy of my own head, of course.
I’d gone off to my room at the normal time that night because I didn’t want Dee getting all suspicious, but I didn’t dare go to bed. I was totally knackered after another day’s tough training and I knew I’d never wake up. Instead, I just had to sit there in the dark with nothing for company but my thoughts.
And they weren’t particularly comforting thoughts.
I had three days to go until the race… and in that race, if I wanted to survive, I had to beat ten much more experienced riders and kill one of the few friends I had in this crazy place.
And, when I sat and thought about it like that, I was almost grateful that I had the horrible implanted node thing dampening down my emotions. If I’d been trying to deal with this without the thing, I’d be in a state of hopeless panic.
As midnight approached, I threw on my cloak, checked the dagger at my belt and put a candle and matches in my pocket. I didn’t dare light a lamp so I had to make my way across the lair using a combination of memory and feeling my way with my will.
As I stepped out onto the veranda, I was struck by the eerie beauty of the Edifice at night. A little bit of moonlight was filtering through its mouth, shining on the far wall and, here and there, there was a lamp burning, but otherwise all was in darkness. My eye was caught by a dragon flying in the cold moonlight on the far side but, apart from that, everything was still and silent.
There was just about enough light to work out where the path ended and the plunge into nothingness began so I could walk more or less comfortably along the ring pathways and stairways. Once, a dragon flew close by and I had to huddle against the wall, hiding myself behind my mother’s bracelet, until it vanished into the blackness.
When I reached the Dom terrace, the portway stretched ahead of me in utter blackness. I had to trust to my will as I cautiously made my way through the tunnel, running a hand along the wall.
At last I emerged into the moonlight at the far end and I was a bit startled, but relieved, to hear Psion’s familiar, cheerful greeting. It was cold outside and I was glad I’d put my cloak on as I hopped onto his back and we set off into the still, clear night.
“You’re getting stronger,” I said as he pulled easily away. “I guess that means Jenko’s still feeding you.”
“It is, indeed, fortuitous that somebody is!” Psion muttered.
“The amount of time you spend dozing in that cave tells me you’re not suffering too badly,” I said with a smile. “Anyway, to business. Where am I going and what am I going to do when I get there?”
In a flash, the fun, silly Psion was gone and he turned all serious. “You are to re-enter the Edifice through the Quaro portway,” he told me, “and descend the stairway to your left. Take care, for it is steep and indifferently maintained. When you reach the ring pathway, follow it, ignoring a number of stairways leading both up and down, until you reach an open area with two lairs leading from it, where the Dhali twins used to live.”
“Who are they?”
“They are no more. They were disposed of many years ago. Their lifestyle… “he paused significantly… “did not meet with universal approval. Anyway, a short distance beyond the Dhali terrace, you will find a stairway leading upwards. At first it will appear to be utterly dilapidated but, should you inspect it closely, you may be able to penetrate that illusion and see that it is, in fact, in a reasonable condition. After you have climbed eighty-three steps there is a path on the right. Here you will be obliged to proceed with some circumspection for that path is significantly invisible.”
“What, precisely, does ‘significantly invisible’ mean?”
“You may experience some difficulty in penetrating that illusion even when you are standing on it.”
“So you want me to step onto an invisible, overhanging path in the dark?”
“I have every confidence in your ability to overcome the challenge. You know you can trust me!”
“After about fifty yards, where the path ends, you will find the reconstituted Psion Family lair. You should have no great difficulty in penetrating that illusion,” he told me encouragingly. “Your mother’s blood flows in your veins.”
“I was rather hoping it might stay there!”
He did his bubbling laughing thing but didn’t bother saying anything. “Your mother’s most important possessions are in the rather fine, glass fronted cabinet to the rear of the lair on the right. Regrettably, you may be obliged to break into it.”
We flew on in silence for a while.
“Have you any further questions?” he asked as he landed lightly, close to the entrance to the unfamiliar portway.
“Not right now… but I’m sure I’ll think up plenty along the way.”
With that, I set off down the tunnel.
There was moonlight on this side of the Edifice so, as I stepped out onto the terrace and looked down, I could see the long stairway stretching out before me. He was right that the thing looked pretty dodgy with crumbling edges and all sorts of rubbish on the steps. I had to watch my footing as I climbed carefully down but at last I reached the ring pathway where I could move much more comfortably.
I’d never been this low in the Edifice before and the lairs down here were smaller and packed closer together… obviously a much lower class of dragon. Some even opened straight onto the ring pathway and it was pretty uncomfy as I hurried past the looming, dark entrances… it felt as if there was somebody watching me from inside.
You couldn’t miss the Dhali twins’ lairs. There was a small veranda bit to the left with the two lair entrances leading off from it.
And a bit later, I reached the stairway I was looking for.
I was shocked when I saw the state of the thing. It basically looked as if it was about to fall down. I mean… I could sort of sense that there was some sort of illusion thing going on but I still had to steady myself with a few deep breaths before moving onto the treacherous-looking stairs.
Without looking at my feet, I carefully counted my way up the eighty-three steps then I closed my eyes and felt out with my foot into the empty space on my right, desperately searching for the path.
Something took my weight… and so I stepped out onto the nothingness.
Looking ahead… or up… or back… in fact, looking anywhere but down, I edged my way cautiously along that path. With each step, I had to feel ahead with my foot, my hands held against the smooth rock face to my left, as if that could give me some sort of support. I mean… I guess I’d probably be able to use my will to catch myself if I fell, but I certainly didn’t want to find out!
Suddenly, my reaching foot found nothing. I cautiously brought it back to the path. I had to fight this stupid panic that it wouldn’t find anything and I would be left, balancing on one leg above the abyss…. but there was the path again. My foot took the weight and I could relax.
But where was the lair? I knew it had to be there but I just couldn’t break through the illusion. I felt the panic rising inside me again. I just had to find it. Those spurs could make the difference between winning the race and losing… between life and death. Out of habit, my right hand felt towards my mother’s white, leather bracelet.