Ascendant: The Kacy Chronicles, Book 2
By A.L. Knorr & Martha Carr
Jordan followed Sol through the air as they descended to a large flagstone terrace. Throughout the patchwork of stones were pockets of plants, trees, and flowers, some of which looked a lot like plants from Earth. There was always something just a little bit different about them. There were flowers that had the droopy conical blossoms of foxglove, only with several long red pistons flowing out from each blossom and drifting in the breeze like hair. There were the long-stemmed tiny purple flowers like lavender, except their stems were covered with white fuzz.
“Where are we?” Jordan asked, closing up her wings and wandering closer to the nearest garden patch, drawn by a sweet fragrance. “I mean, I know we’re in Maticaw. But whose place is this?” She bent down to inhale but had to go slowly. She still wasn’t used to the weight of her wings, and the muscular soreness that had come with the last few days of travel was only now just starting to heal. Sol had coached her to keep her wings slightly flexed while walking (or just behaving like a bi-ped in general) rather than letting them relax and go limp, but not before she’d toppled over more than once when bending over, as the weight of her wings pulled her forward unexpectedly. Jordan had a sneaking suspicion Sol had enjoyed her ungraceful tumbles and had delayed giving her this handy little tip.
“This is where Cles lives and works from, and where I’ve come to deliver this,” Sol held up a small folded yellow letter. “I’m not sure how long this will take, it depends on what it says and if he needs to write a reply. Do you mind waiting here?”
“I don’t mind.” Jordan breathed in the fragrant perfume of a pastel green rose-like blossom the size of her head. This garden was a beautiful and delightful-smelling place to hang out.
“Thanks.” Sol disappeared through an archway and a few seconds later Jordan heard the sound of squeaky hinges as some door opened to receive him. The door closed and she was left alone with the blossoms and the insects that danced among them.
She strolled the terrace at her leisure, sniffing plants and herbs and trying to place the language root of the identifying glyphs that had been painted onto the tiny signposts thrust into the dirt, and failing. They had accents, not unlike that of Hebrew, the sharp angles of Runes, and the occasional swirling spirals of Sanskrit. But altogether the language was indiscernible to her.
The terrace was enclosed on all sides by a stone wall nearly twice Jordan’s height. The exception was a handful of lower narrow ledges scattered about where a view of Maticaw could be gained. The sounds of distant laughter floating on the humid sea-air drew Jordan to one of these ledges where she was rewarded with a sprawling view of Maticaw. She hopped up on the thick mantle, flexing her wings for balance, and sat cross-legged.
Bright blue water threw off sparkles of the setting sun as the sky turned a delicate shade of peach. Jordan perched her elbows on her knees and rested her chin in her palm as the wind tugged at her hair. Sailing vessels of all sizes and shapes drifted in and out of the large port. This one tall and slender like a schooner, that one winged and spiked like an Asian spice trader. Faint engine noises reached her ears as flying vessels droned over land and sea and descended into port.
Distant conversations drifted up from the city like puffs of smoke, loud brays of laughter and some harsher sounding exchanges filled the air and made Maticaw feel alive. Peering a little further over the edge revealed a long drop plummeting for several stories before hitting the winding cobbled streets below. A narrow set of stairs zigzagged up the rocky hillside and wrapped itself around the curved walls of the tower on which Jordan now stood.
Hopping off the ledge Jordan crossed the terrace and wandered through the archway that Sol had passed through. A smaller courtyard opened up with a stone building on one side with two huge wooden doors, both closed. An iron gate at the far end beckoned and she found the top of the staircase on the other side of it. Jordan looked back at the wooden doors. There was no sign of Sol yet, surely she’d have time for a short exploratory walk. She’d be back before he even noticed she was missing. Besides, she had wings now and could back on the terrace in a flash. The gate squealed as Jordan pushed through it and descended the curving stone steps. There was no railing along the stairs and having the world drop away on one side made her heart skip a beat. The wind picked her hair up and whipped it around, ruffling her feathers.
Jordan followed the stairway down to street level and found herself in the midst of a busy city market. Fascinated, she followed the street downward, taking in the small quaint shops and the wares on display. It was like Nishpat, only much bigger and more cosmopolitan, but as fascinating as the shops were, they couldn’t compare to Maticaw’s citizens.
In amongst the humans were countless non-humans, all looking a great deal like someone had taken a drawing from a fantasy artists doodle book and breathed them into life. There had been more than a few moments which had hammered home that Jordan was surely not on Earth anymore, walking Maticaw’s cobbled streets was one of them. A large silver rat wearing a vest scampered by on its hind legs. He or she had a burlap sack held in its paws just like a prim housewife would hold a clutch. A larger creature, yet still only reaching mid-thigh went by going the other way rolling a small barrel. His skin was a rich forest-green and the hands he pushed the barrel with were three-fingered, each digit equipped with a long terrifying claw. A single rheumy eye moving independently of the other darted up at her and she looked away, sure the creature wouldn’t appreciate her staring.
Jordan’s eyes fell on a small sapphire blue dragon sitting in a basket balanced on a woman’s hip when a silver blob appeared in her vision somewhere in the vicinity of her chin. Jordan stopped walking and stared in surprise at the locket, watching it dance and float in front of her face. It drifted the way a piece of fluff might catch a current of air, lazily bobbing. She tapped the top of it and it descended only to float upward again. Baffled, Jordan snatched the locket and stuffed it down her vest, lodging it between her breasts. She levied her attention back on the dragon.
“Excuse me,” Jordan said to the woman with the basket on her hip. A big round disc-shaped earring of yellow metal swung beside her jaw. A purple kerchief covered part of her puffy brown hair. “May I see your dragon?”
“He is for sale,” the woman replied, turning so Jordan could see the scaly baby. “For sale, for sale.” She smiled into Jordan’s face. “He is very young. Very sweet.”
Jordan peered in at the dragon. He looked up at her and squawked like a rusty hinge. A little red tongue darted out at her hand as she held her fingers out for him to lick. Jordan felt her heart begin to melt.
Sol had been to Cles’s laboratory several times already this year and felt that the medicine man might be okay with Sol letting himself into Cles’s lab. Sol was on King Konig’s business after all.
“Hello? Cles?” Sol called into the gloom. “Are you here?” The door closed behind him.The sounds of bubbling and hissing was Sol’s only answer. The dim space smelled of dried herbs and bitters, vinegar, oil, and smoke. Numerous sprawling tabletops were covered in strange looking equipment: distilling devices, small hot-plates with multiple wicks underneath, bottles and jars of all materials from glass to ceramic to basalt. Copper pipes curled and spiralled gracefully between copper pots and vats. Everything looked very expensive and presently in use. In contrast to the mess of the lab and further toward the back wall was a neatly kept library.
“Cles?” Sol crossed in front of two yawning furnaces. Both were cold and dead, tongues of soot licked over the top edge and toward the ceiling. He peered up the spiral staircase lined with ornate spindles. Sol had never been upstairs, but he figured it was safe to guess that upstairs was Cles’s private quarters.
“Lo?” Came a raspy cry, followed by a dusky deep cough. “Whozat?”
“It’s Solomon Donda. Is that you, Cles?”
A phlegm-filled laugh answered him. “Course it be me, no one else be living here.” His voice tightened as though he was working at getting up from laying flat on his back. Perhaps the old Nycht had been napping, he was getting on in years. “You have a deliver?”
“Yes, I have a deliver.” Sol smiled. He’d always liked the way Cles phrased things. “You sound unwell.” Sol craned his neck, peering up the steps for some sight of the apothecary. “Anything the matter?”
“Nothing, nothing,” came the grumbling voice along with the thudding of heavy footsteps. Cles appeared at the top of the steps, propping wire-rimmed spectacles on his face which enlarged his eyes to an amusing size. He descended the stairs in a laborious, waddling way, his bulk swaying back and forth with every step. “‘Lergic to miniphos plant. Very ‘lergic.” As if to highlight the proclamation, he followed these words with a violent sneeze.
Sol stepped back from the steps and watched the old Nycht descend. “Sounds like a cold to me,” he said, crossing his arms. “And you must be the only Nycht in all of Strixdom who has stairs in his house and takes them daily.”
Dusky light from the frosted glass windows illuminated Cles as he descended. The light traveled over the bottoms of his bare feet, over his simple homespun leggings, past his fat leather belt and paunchy belly to his barrel chest and pale lined face. He was chuckling in his usual throaty way, made even more hoarse by the phlegm in his chest. “Don’t fly much no more.” The Nycht ran a hand over his bald head. His grey leathery wings poked up over his head, skinny and flabby, atrophied from lack of use. The hooked claws at the tops of his wings drooped uselessly, the nails cracked and brittle, their climbing days long over.
Sol knew that Cles hadn’t flown in several years in fact. A body that big would be hell to carry, even for a strong Nycht. Regular use was critical for any Strix who wanted to keep the ability to fly. That part of the population who didn’t care enough for flying to do it every day had baffled Sol since he’d been a young Arpak. Flying was Sol’s life and independence, his freedom and happiness.
“Between we,” Cles said, winking conspiratorially, “I’m considering to cut.”
Sol blinked at the casual way Cles delivered that he was considering this irreversible operation. Losing one’s wings by passing out of Oriceran meant they could grow back when fed enough magic. Losing one’s wings by amputation meant the wings would be gone forever. Sol was sure the Elves could probably reverse amputation if they were paid enough, but anyone who amputated did it because they were certain they no longer wanted wings. In some cases, the Rodanian Council might hand down a sentence of amputation to a criminal, but it was extremely rare, reserved as punishment for murder or acts of treason. Sol swallowed hard at the idea of any Strix having their wings amputated, on purpose or by the Rodanian justice system.
“At this point for my little life,” Cles rasped. “They are more nuisance than blessing. But enough of this old Nycht. You have a deliver?”
Sol handed the yellow envelope to Cles with the words: “It’s from Juer.”
“Course it be from him.” Cles took the envelope in one meaty fist and bumped his other one against his chest as he gave another rasping cough. “It always from doctor.” Cles turned away and lumbered over under a window where the light was better. “Always a doctor. Always a Juer,” he muttered. The lab fell silent while he read. In short time he gave a harrumph. “He want what I only have so small of.”
Cles swayed heavily over to the cabinetry along the side wall, opened the doors to reveal shelves full of various containers, each marked by a neat hand-printed label. He rooted through the supply, gently tapping the tops of various jars with the pads of his blunt fingers. He selected a small jar of black liquid and leaned over a small desk under the window.
“Wait,” Cles said to Sol, hand patting at the air, gesturing that Sol should sit. “I write slow. Rest please, or you make me anxiety. Needs quiet for thoughts. When you be tranquil, Cles be tranquil.”
His better nature thus appealed to, Sol perched on a nearby stool. The tips of Sol’s wings shifted to cross at his ankles, hovering just out of the dust.
Cles sat as well, but the old Nycht’s approach was to kick his wingtips with a heel to move them out from under the stool’s three legs. He reached for a piece of paper and a pencil and scratched out a short note. “I not have what he ask.” Cles grumbled. “Lapita must be sick or crops gone bad. I know not.”
Sol felt a niggling rodent of anxiety burrow into his gut. This probably wasn’t good. Until now, Cles always had whatever Juer asked for and plenty of it besides. Cles had always made a point of saying so and encouraged Sol to purchase extra of whatever concoction the doctor had ordered. Sol was a courier, his job was to deliver important messages on behalf of the king and the king’s staff. But it was sometimes impossible not to get sucked into palace drama as he came into direct contact with the parties on either end of a delivery. He wondered which important Arpak the medicine was for.
“How much is he asking for?” Sol asked.
“Too much. Don’t have raw material.” Cles folded up the note and stood.
Sol frowned and got to his feet as well. Obviously.
“He ask for lapita many times and many times I give.” The big shoulders rose and fell. “Lapita in short supply now.” He held out the letter and the small jar to Sol. “This all I have. Last of stock. Take it. If it for Juer it much important.”
“What if it’s not enough?” Sol took the small jar sloshing with black liquid and the letter and tucked both into his satchel.
Cles waved a plate-sized hand. “Find new source, or wait til source replenish. I see many things go in, go out.” He rubbed his stubbly chin with his fingers. “Lapita no different. Is eighteen coin.” He held open his palm.
“Eighteen!” Sol didn’t know how much lapita normally was, but this price was outrageous for any concoction.
“Is commodity, so-“ Cles shrugged. “Supply go down, price go up. Is simple economy.”
Sol frowned and dug into his satchel. He’d picked up lapita many times before and it had never been so pricey. It wasn’t his money, it was the king’s money. Still, he had to report the outrageous price to the royal accountants, and they wouldn’t be happy that it had tripled. Sol counted out the price and spilled the gold into Cles’s hands.
“Pleasure being business,” Cles said as he pocketed the coin.
“Doing business,” corrected Sol, still perturbed at being charged so much. “The auxiliary verbs in English-“
Cles’s eyes glazed over and his jaw sagged.
“Never mind. I’ll show myself out.” Sol left the dim odd-smelling lab and stepped out into the gardens and sunlight. “Ready to…”
But Jordan was not on the terrace.
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