As I said two weeks ago, the previous chapter was the end of Part I. Welcome to Part II! I'm hoping to start things out with a bang, and mix things up a little, so that the narrative POV format isn't quite the same as it was going forward. As always, your comments, questions, and critiques are welcomed. Additionally, updates will likely continue their fortnightly schedule, but I will be posting some more reviews and maybe some other short stories on the off weeks.
The High Magistrate
As a consequence of its great height, winters in Ater-Volantis were as miserable as the summers were pleasant. The stone towers of Eolas University, like those of the city’s wealthier inhabitants, were well insulated, but the constant wind found all of the cracks in the wooden structures that framed the city’s outskirts. Worse, despite the heavy blankets hung over the entrance-ways, the opening of a door to the outside always led to a keening blast of cold air.
Despite her comfortable seat in one of the back rooms of the Sodden Sprocket, the haunt of many Eolas engineers, Aki shivered as a rising chorus of voices from the taproom shouted “shut the bloody door!” She did not hear the door clang shut, but the resumption of the general pervading din proved that the crowd’s orders had been followed. Without moving from her sideways position in her chair, she reached out and grabbed the bottle of cider whiskey on the table in front of her. Pouring herself another dram, she took a large sip, reveling in the warmth that filled her as the smooth liquid slipped down her throat. Despite the city’s faults, which she considered to be myriad, the concentration of some of Alis Dak’s wealthiest individuals meant that even lowly establishments like the Sprocket boasted at least a couple of bottles of higher class spirits.
The back room itself was snug and comfortable, with low ceilings and a drafty bay window that let in light across from a decorative fireplace. Wood was expensive, both to store and to burn, for Ater-Volantis, so the room was warmed by a glowing Fòrsic crystal set in the stones of the mantle. It gave off a red-orange glow that was almost cozy. The only obvious entrance was a door in the center of the long, rectangular wall, although Aki knew for a fact that the long row of bookshelves concealed a passageway that opened up into one of Ater-Volantis’s many tunnels much further down the street. It was one of the reasons she preferred to hold court at the Sprocket, along with the fact that owners were friendly to the engineers and rarely asked any questions. Since Roshan’s disappearance over half a year ago, Aki had become more involved in the politics that governed the floating city. She had become much more paranoid as well; the two activities now seemed to be self-reinforcing.
As a guild, Fòrsic Engineers had always been more united and organized than not, tasked as they were with looking out for their less worldly Fòrsic Theorist counterparts. Since her ascension to the head of the student version of the guild, Aki had been pushing back against the Prime’s increasingly draconian policies, and encouraging the other guilds to do likewise. They published pamphlets and broadsheets detailing the Prime’s abuses, and organized public rallies. They had even, daringly, hidden a small number of fugitives from the both the City Watch, and the Choisant, the Prime’s personal police force. Aki wanted to do more, but many of the other engineers were reluctant. Their current activities were still, mostly, within the law, and doing more invited more severe reprisals. It was a dance on the edge of a knife, and Aki did not know how much longer they could keep it up.
She looked up from her musings as a feminine figure, cloaked and hooded against the cold, shrugged aside the curtain in the doorway and stepped into the room. One of the engineers near the entrance rose and moved to bar the newcomer’s path, with a glance toward Aki. She nodded her approval, and the girl stepped aside. Aki leaned forward and poured a little of the whiskey into a second glass as the figure approached and began divesting herself of her outerwear. A scarf, a knit cap, and a cloak later, and a silver-haired, middle-aged woman stood before her. “Professor Filias,” Aki said, with a nod of acknowledgement. “It’s been awhile.”
“It has indeed. May I sit?” Filias’s voice was warm, but professional. This was more than just a social call.
“Certainly,” Aki replied, gesturing toward a nearby chair. Once Filias had dragged the heavy, wooden chair over and sat down, Aki pushed the second glass of amber liquid over to her. Filias picked it up, and they touched glasses. “To the light and the warmth,” Aki intoned.
“To the dark and the cold,” Filias replied.
“To both together, and the pursuit of knowledge.” Aki said, completing the toast. It was one of the more common blessings at Eolas, popular among students and academics alike, as it invoked the mirrored essences of Alos and Dar-Alos. They both tipped the liquid back, and then returned their glasses to the table. Still seating in her sideways position, Aki raised her eyes to Filias’s. “So,” she asked, “what do you need?”
“What makes you think I did not just come to say hello?” Filias replied, sounding offended.
“Professor,” Aki said flatly, “the last time you contacted me was to use me to deliver a message to Roshan, nearly two seasons ago. Whatever this is, it is not a social call.”
“Have you heard from him?”
“I didn’t know you cared,” Aki spoke with an obsequious tone.
“Of course I care,” Filias snarled, mitigating her tone when the other people in the room looked over in interest. “He was my best student. I wanted him to be safe, not to disappear into one of the Prime’s dungeons – or worse.”
Aki softened toward the older woman a little. Whatever Filias’s other faults, she did seem to genuinely care for Roshan. “I don’t know where he is, but I do know that he’s not in one of the Prime’s dungeons,” or re-education camps, Aki thought grimly. It had been tricky, and potentially very dangerous, but she had managed to verify this information. She had calculated the risk of revealing it to Filias, given whom Aki believed that Filias was working for, but she felt it safe given the old professor’s concern for her wayward student.
“So he is safe?” Filias asked, tension visibly leaving her face at Aki’s revelation.
Aki shrugged. “Maybe yes, maybe no. All I know is that he is out of city, and out of reach,” and I would never tell you where, if I did know, she added silently.
“That… is good news,” Filias replied. Taking a moment to recover her composure, she continued, “Magnus Stirech wants to meet with you. He thought you might listen to me, as you don’t trust him.”
Aki accepted the naming of the head of the Choisant with only a lifted eyebrow. The Choisant’s interference at the University had been strongly rumored for years now, including in the case of Roshan’s disappearance, but it was gratifying to hear those rumors confirmed even if the reality made the situation far more dangerous. Magnus was the iron fist within the Prime’s velvet glove. People whispered also that the group was a power not just before the Prime, but behind him as well. Anyone with legitimate, or otherwise, business with the governments of Ater-Volantis and Alis Dak knew of Magnus Stirech and feared the pressure of his gaze. Filias revealing that she was indeed working with him provoked an unpleasant churning in Aki’s stomach. Still, she refused to be provoked into any precipitous action by his dread name. “If you are working for the Magnus,” she asked, “why should I trust you at all?”
“A fair point,” Filias replied calmly. “For which I have one important distinction. I am working with him, not for him.”
“And what difference does that make?”
“All the difference in the world,” Filias smiled knowingly at the question. “Because I am still my own woman, whatever Magnus might believe. He has convinced me that there is a very real danger to this city, and so I am helping him to ferret it out. In return, he has promised to ask the Prime to… reconsider certain avenues of Fòrsic research,” she raised an eyebrow expectantly, and Aki inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“I see. So what does the great Magnus want with me?”
“He knows you have influence among Ater-Volantis’s engineers, particularly the students. He wants to meet with and convince you to support him in the face of this threat, in return for certain concessions.”
“Concessions?” This time it was Aki’s turn to raise an eyebrow. While a certain degree of interference had always been the case, the presence of the Prime, and his minions, had been increasingly felt at the University over the last several years. Investigations into certain subjects were suppressed without explanation, and research assignments were now handed out solely on the basis of political connections rather than merit. Throughout the city, clashes with the City Watch were common, and the populace had become increasingly restless. Aki knew that many of the ground cities shared similar sentiments as well. It was a mystery to her what the Prime was thinking, for things to have changed so drastically. More worrisome than the possibility of an external threat, Aki feared that there was no reason at all, and that the man’s greed and veniality were to blame.
“Concessions,” Filias repeated. “He did not elaborate, but I assume you have something in mind.”
Aki did, but she was unwilling to discuss them with Filias, despite her seeming sincerity. She trusted Filias and Magnus to look after their own interests and no further. Still, she and her fellow Fòrsic engineers were reaching the limits of what they could do to push back without exposing themselves in outright rebellion. “I might,” Aki said, and smiled. “I admit to some… academic curiosity as to what he has to say. I will meet with him, but only under certain conditions.”
Filias nodded. “He anticipated that you might say that. He offers to meet you on neutral territory, alone, or, if you prefer, with two companions each, and at the time of your choosing. If you would like there to be companions, I will be one of those accompanying him.”
“That is fair,” Aki responded. She felt some hesitation, but at least under these conditions it would be safer than waltzing into the headquarters of the Choisant. People with meetings there did not always return, and she would prefer not to find out where it was that they went. “Tell Magnus I shall meet with him and two companions at midday on two-day,” she said, naming the date three days away. “We will meet at the gate to Eolas University, at which point I will walk with him to an dining establishment of my choice.”
“Eolas University is hardly neutral,” Filias observed.
“Fine, then by the obelisk in Monument Square.” The square was centrally located in the middle ring of the city, and was the point of a triangle between Eolas and the Choisant Headquarters.
“That will do,” Filias responded. “Expect a confirmation from a courier within the day,” she said, and then softened her voice, speaking without the formal tones. “Thank you for doing this, Aki. We need to work with the Choisant, to ease pressure on the university and to make sure that what happened to Roshan does not happen again.”
Aki made a noise of assent, but otherwise did not respond. She had her own opinions regarding working with the Choisant, but she would hold her thoughts for now.
Filias nodded once, sharply, and then stood up. “I will see you on two-day,” she said, and then turned and made for the entryway.
Aki watched the old woman leave with a tinge of regret. Filias’s position at the university put her in difficult position with respect to the Prime’s new policies, and Aki did not envy her one bit. Furthermore, despite Filias’s good intentions, Aki suspected that she and the Magnus were working at cross-purposes. She looked around the room, “Maz,” she called, “and Benji, come here.”
Two of the many students scattered throughout the room stood up and approached. Maz was a petite woman, with close-cropped dark hair and a pale, sandy complexion. She was shorter than even Aki, but despite her quiet nature, she quick in mind and body and among the most skilled of the Engineers. Benji was skilled as well, and quiet, but he was as big, brawny, and dark as Maz was tiny and pale. Aki found that people tended to underestimate his intellect because of his bulk, missing the clever mind behind his deep set eyes. The mismatched pair came to a halt in front of her chair. “What do you need, Aki?” Benji asked. Maz said nothing.
“How much of that did you overhear?” Aki inquired by way of answering.
Maz shrugged, but it was Benji again who spoke. “Enough,” he said laconically.
“Then you know what I need you for. Can you keep quiet about it?”
Both of them waited expectantly for her to continue, and Aki nodded in approval. “Magnus may be playing this straight, but I prefer to be paranoid and wrong than overconfident and wrong. We have three days, let’s make sure we have more information about what is going on, and a back-up plan.”
“What did you have in mind?” Benji asked.
“I’ve got a few ideas,” Aki replied, smiling widely. “I like to hope that if Magnus tries something, the Choisant will be in for an exciting surprise.”
Chapter 12 can be found here.