Here is Chapter 7, hope you all enjoy! In some more personal news, I have a job again (part time), as well as a lot of upcoming travel. I will have to see how my writing schedule fits into that, but it is possible that updates may move to a bi-weekly schedule as opposed to its current once a week schedule.
The First Goodbye
The next seven days passed slowly, and uneventfully. Per Syd’s orders, Roshan, Isa, and Rika were confined to the group’s cramped quarters in the warehouse district, while Simon, Trentor, and Syd flitted in and out of the building, scouting the city and gauging responses to Roshan’s disappearance. Trentor even brought back new clothes in roughly Roshan’s size. Although Roshan had managed to liberate several things from his quarters at Eolas when he made his escape, spare clothing was not among them. The clothes he was wearing had been decidedly dirtied by his dash through the city, even before Isa had set the better part of his cloak on fire. Therefore, he was happy to have something to change into. Although he would have to get used to the plain laborers outfits that were so unlike from the bright hues of his university clothes.
Overall, Roshan appreciated the slow pace of these days, glad to have the opportunity to catch his breath. Rika seemed thankful for the break, as well. She spent most of her time reading, either curled up in the bedroom that she shared with Isa or at the central table. Roshan spent much of his time at that table as well, reviewing the research notes he had taken with him. Isa and Rika took part too, asking intelligent questions and engaging in a dialogue about Fòrsic research that made him both feel at home and miss Aki with a persistent pang. Still, Roshan found that he was happier than he had been since before his fateful conversation with Filias, an event that seemed like it took place a lifetime ago, rather than less than two five-days. Although the suite was small, consisting of three sleeping chambers, a central kitchen, and a dining room, and his back was quite stiff from sleeping on the floor of Trentor and Simon’s room, he still felt that the cramped quarters gave an atmosphere of camaraderie that was quite comforting. Unfortunately, not everyone felt the same way.
Whumph. The explosion shook the living room, casting a heap of dust onto the central table.
Syd poked her head out of her room. “What in the name of Alos was that?” She asked. Mutely, Roshan and Rika pointed towards the room Rika and Isa shared, as it toppled off its hinges with a crash to reveal a sooty Isa with her head scarf blown backwards and all of her tiny braids standing on end. “What in the Two Moons were you doing?” Syd yelled.
Isa had the grace to look slightly abashed. The expression did not mix well with the rest of her face, which had a distinctly sullen and defiant cast. “Just, uh, testing a few things out.”
“Testing out what, exactly?” Syd sounded exasperated, though unsurprised.
“Oh, you know…” Isa said vaguely.
“I do not,” Syd responded astringently. “You do know that we are in hiding, yes?”
“I do,” Isa acknowledged. “I was just seeing if Roshan’s theorized rate of decay was accurate for our own crystals.”
At that, Roshan started. “I thought you said you trusted my research?” He asked, slightly offended.
“We do,” Rika assured him. “Isa’s just bored and wanted to try for herself.”
Isa smiled at her. “Exactly!” she exclaimed. “And it went more or less as I thought.”
“More or less?” Syd sounded slightly strangled.
“Well… the crystal I was using failed rather more spectacularly than I was expecting,” said Isa, shrugging.
“What sequence did you try?” Roshan asked, his interest piqued, accidentally speaking over Rika who simultaneously demanded, “What glyphs did you use?”
Syd threw up her hands. “Theorists,” she said disgustedly. “And you!” she turned and pointed at Isa, who by now was grinning broadly, “You are a Fòrsic engineer! Are you not supposed to be the responsible one?”
“You know me, Syd! When has that ever been true?” Isa retorted. “It’s your own fault, you know. What else do you expect me to be doing, after confining us to this tiny place for more than a five-day?”
Syd shook her head. “I expected you to behave with a bit more professionalism; perhaps even refraining from blowing up our own quarters. Regardless, your long suffering is coming to an end, at last. We leave tomorrow.”
Roshan had been counting down the days till set-down himself, so he was not surprised, but the words filled him with a nervous energy regardless. He decided to finally ask the question that had been at the forefront of his mind for days. “How will you get me past the guards on the gate? I don’t have any of my papers, on top of which – won’t the watch be checking for me?”
“We have not yet heard anything about increased security measures,” Syd said. “It is possible that they think you are dead.”
“You’re welcome!” Isa chimed in.
Ignoring the interruption, Syd continued. “As merchants, our cover is that we are hauling a load of slate. Hascillis slate is highly valued as roofing material in Dak, so transporting via Ater-Volantis makes perfect sense. If we leave a bit of the slate behind, we can secure you in the middle of it and haul you off the city with the watch none the wiser.”
Roshan nodded. The plan made sense. As a city, Ater-Volantis jealously guarded the privileges of its citizenship. Not everyone would be allowed to stay, and most merchants and traders, aside from the heads of the respective guilds, were taken careful account of and hustled off of the city at each set down with great Alacrity. Although the city was often on high alert for stowaways, the focus was on those trying to sneak into the city, rather than off of it. “What do you do as merchants?” He asked, curious.
“I’m the head merchant,” Syd said.
“Obviously...” muttered Isa.
“Isa and I are her apprentices,” said Rika, taking up the thread. “Simon and Trentor are the hired help. We’d cast you in a similar role, but Volantian papers are hard to come by. It wouldn’t do to have more people in our party leaving than we had when we arrived. On the rest of our trip, that’s likely what we will do.”
“Makes sense,” Roshan said. “So what do we do now?”
“Pack,” Syd responded curtly. “That goes for all of you. Simon and Trentor are securing our transportation, but we should be queued up for departure early tomorrow morning before set down, with the other merchants.”
“C’mon,” Rika said, rolling up the scroll she had been reading. “I have a spare bag you can use, if Isa hasn’t blown it up yet.”
The next morning dawned bright and clear, but Rika and her companions had been awake for hours. Ater-Volantis policy required all departing merchants to be lined up at the city’s exits before set-down had even begun, creating a scramble as everyone packed and hauled their goods to the city limits in order to depart the city in a timely fashion. Still, the sight of the sunrise from this high up was spectacular, and Rika felt awe as she watched the reds, golds, and purples lit the ornate wrought iron gate of the city in a riot of colors. The gate was set in what could scarcely be deemed a wall, a yard-high stone fence set around the perimeter of the city. However, the wall’s lack of height only served to make the imposing splendor of the gate that much more impressive.
“I’ll never get tired of seeing this,” Isa said, looking up from her work on the Fòdamh hitched to the front of the wagon. Rika nodded in agreement. This had been Rika’s first visit to Ater-Volantis, and the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets from this high up took her breath away
“I can’t imagine how Roshan is feeling,” she whispered back, “it’s sad that he has to miss this final sight of the city.” They both glanced back at the wagon they flanked. It was a large wooden contraption, with four large wooden wheels, and its sides were piled high with crates of grey slate from the quarries near Hascillis. Roshan was hiding in the middle of the wagon, completely surrounded by crates of slate and invisible from the outside. As a consequence, of course, he was missing the spectacular sunrise backlighting the city, casting golden shadows over the rough, scrubby landscape below. She turned back to Isa. “How’s it coming?” She inquired.
Isa grunted, up to her elbows in the fòdamh, a small pile of metal bits, leather, and crystal shards strewn on a blanket on the cobblestones beneath her. The fòdamh was a medium-sized, boxy construct, about the size and shape of pommel horse. It was set on four spindly legs that were surprisingly strong. Normally, a fòdamh could haul a wagon like theirs with ease, but this one had proved to be finicky.
“Another quarter of a bell, maybe?” Rika asked. Isa grunted again, this time in assent. Set-down was in less than a bell, and they were running out of time to get the wagon mobile. She looked at Simon and Trentor, who were sitting on the rear lip of the wagon, red-faced and panting. “All right back there?” She asked.
Simon gave a small wave of acknowledgement, and Trentor winked. He slipped from the back of the wagon and approached wearily. He surveyed Isa’s work with a grin, and then turned to Rika, his voice low, “You all could have helped push, you know.” Livestock and beasts of burden were not permitted on Ater-Volantis while the city was in motion, and merchants were forced to rely on Fòrsic-powered methods of conveyance for their goods. Not everyone could afford top of the line equipment, however, and the type of merchants they were portraying certainly wouldn’t be able to. As a result, when the fòdamh that had come with the wagon Trentor and Simon had secured had failed unexpectedly, the two men had been forced to push it the rest of the way.
“You’re the hired help,” Rika said sweetly. “It wouldn’t have been proper for us to help.”
“Besides,” Isa added, without looking up, “it’s your own fault for buying such a terrible old wagon.”
“And whose fault was it that you were confined to quarters and couldn’t consult?” Trentor asked in a sharp undertone.
“Syd’s!” Both women chorused, and Trentor laughed.
“Actually,” he said, looking around, “where is our fearless leader?” The group and their wagon were in the middle of the line of freight vehicles stacked up outside the gate. Their position was, relatively-speaking, early in the line, before the great boulevard curved to follow the circular edge of the city. Around them surged a vast tide of humanity, merchants and laborers talking, laughing, and arguing. Fòdamhs sparked, wagons creaked, and the whole street buzzed with an unfocused intensity. In all this, however, Syd was nowhere to be seen.
“She’s just taking care of a few things.” Rika caught Trentor’s eyes, and made a subtle gesture, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together. Trentor nodded, accepting the explanation without comment. Bribery for ease of movement was an increasingly common custom in Alis-Dak, especially when departing from a city. No one was concerned about people smuggling things out of Ater-Volantis, so it was much easier to persuade the Stripies watching the gates to not examine certain cargos too closely. Still, it was a bad idea to flaunt the act, and they were trying to not attract attention.
Rika continued to chat with Trentor for a while longer, until Isa made a satisfied noise and sat back from the innards of the fòdamh, closing the hatch with clang. She stood up, tightening the bolts with her wrench, before giving the whole thing a swift kick. There was a clang accompanied by a few sparks, and then the whole contraption began to give off a greenish-bronze glow. “What a piece of junk,” Isa said grumpily.
“But it works now?” Rika asked.
“It should. The movement crystal was cracked, and the whole drive belt was worn through.” Isa said. “I swapped out the one, and patched up the other as best I could. Frankly, I am amazed that Simon and Trentor got it to us in the first place -- but it should now at least get us off the city and into Dak.”
“The crystal was cracked?” Rika flicked her eyes to the wagon where Roshan was hiding, but Isa only shrugged.
“It was an older crystal, and not one that was particularly well refined. I’m not surprised it stopped working. The replacement should hold.”
“Let’s hope so,” Rika said grimly. Although always worrisome, since Roshan’s revelations, any unforeseen failure in a crystal carried with it a premonition of coming disaster. She did not have time to dwell on it however, as all of Ater-Volantis’s bells sent up a ringing clamor. As the first toll faded into the next, Syd reappeared at her side. “Did everything go well?” Rika asked under the cover of the noise.
Syd shrugged noncommittally. “We’ll see – the watch never promises anything outright. They take your money and make noises about ‘ensuring the ease and safety of your journey’.”
Before Rika could respond, a blast like a foghorn cut through the tolling bells, and the city and its people swayed gently as the slow rotation of the city stopped abruptly. They began to descend with, Rika noted nervously, increasingly rapidity. “Is it always like this?” she asked.
“Yes,” Syd said shortly.
“Apparently, the city’s engineers flicker the lifting crystals rapidly. The city requires the constant application of Fòrsa to stay aloft, so if they flicker them, it falls in a slow, controlled fashion,” Isa put in, and Rika raised an eyebrow at her. “What?” she asked. “Our newest friend told me. The theory behind the whole lifting apparatus is actually quite fascinating.”
“Hmm,” said Rika. “That does not make me feel better.” Isa grinned. The whole ordeal lasted only a sliver of a bell. The rushing wind slowly settled, and the air became warmer. Below them, the features of the ground came into sharper and sharper focus: the stone city of Dak, set against rolling desert hills. At last, with an enormous, reverberating click, the city locked into place on the ground. Ater-Volantis was not just a disc-shaped floating city. Rather, the whole structure was in fact shaped like a top. The avenues of the city curled up towards the beautiful domes and minarets at the apex of the hill, while underneath the city dangled the lifting apparatus in graceful and deadly looking crystal spines.
A great, circular crevice had been created in the scrubby, packed earth outside of the ancient City of Dak, into which the city settled gently. The pit was clad in flashing bronze, and identical structures sat outside each of the six cities for when the capitol game to visit. Tunnels underneath would allow Fòrsic Engineers access to the lifting apparatus, in order to assess and repair any damage incurred by the all-important crystals, while above, people exited and entered Volantis along a narrow causeway and through the aforementioned gate, carrying the commerce that was every city’s lifeblood.
In the line of wagons, the newly-repaired fòdamh inched forward slowly, as the merchants moving through the gate ahead of them were checked over by the watch before they were permitted to leave. For everyone who had paid the appropriate bribes, the checks were perfunctory, but every so often more careful attention was paid, and the wagon in question was hauled off to the side and underwent a more thorough inspection. Rika had been through several customs checks like these, including the one to enter the city, but her heart still beat a little faster and her hands began to sweat as they approached the open gate.
However, Syd had ice-water in her veins, and gave no indication of nerves as the watch captain, a corpulent, mustachioed man looking like a striped apple in the watch’s uniform, interrogated her.
“What’s yer cargo?” He asked, sweating in the newly risen hot desert sun.
“Roof slate, for Dak.” When painted white, the slate provided a cool, dark interior for Dakian houses.
The captain nodded, comparing the response to his notes. He then counted the members of the party, and consulted his list again. He made a visual inspection of the crates in the wagon, and pointed at one near the front. Simon and Trentor quickly cracked open the top, and the captain peered inside. Standing, he nodded at Syd, apparently satisfied. She stepped forward. Hearing a faint clink, Rika noticed a small coin purse concealed by the sleeve of her embroidered blouse. “This all seems to be in order, Trader Gravid,” The Captain clasped wrists with Syd, and when he withdrew his hand the small purse was gone. Stepping back, he waved them through the gate, and Isa urged the fòdamh into motion. Although its motions were clanky and jerky, it steadily hauled the wagon full of slate, and one wanted fugitive, through the gate and out onto the causeway.
Looking over her shoulder, Rika spared one final glance for city of Ater-Volantis. It shone in the desert sun, glittering copper and gold, looking even brighter in the dulled sand surroundings. She looked from the simple wood and stone buildings at the edge of the city, up through the winding boulevards to the intricate domes and turrets, all the way to the splendor of the Prime’s palace at the top of the city. Her thoughts turned from the city’s beauty to Roshan, hiding among the dark crates full of slate, and of her and Isa’s own flights from persecution. Her gaze hardened as she turned her back on palace on the top of the hill, looking ahead toward what was to come.
Chapter 8 can be found here.