The Midday Meeting
Aki surveyed herself in her mirror while listening to the comforting murmur of the Sprocket’s lunchtime traffic below. She twirled back and forth, admiring herself. As a rule, Engineers were more concerned with their tinkering and their projects than with their appearance, and were generally accustomed to simply wearing university robes. However, there was also no denying that, sometimes, clothing could inspire confidence. In her meeting with the Magnus, she would need every edge she could manufacture. She was dressed in breeches made of sturdy, yet flexible canvas tucked into a pair of solid black boots. Her blouse was made of a similarly thick material, topped with an intricately embroidered emerald scarf and a brown leather jacket that could be laced shut against the omnipresent chill. Most importantly, she could move and fight in these clothes, if need be. Still unsure what the Magnus was after, she knew this meeting would be moving into decidedly uncharted territory.
Three staccato knocks at the door interrupted Aki’s reverie. “Come in!” she called, recognizing the signal. Benji opened the door and entered, with Maz close on his heels.
“Afternoon My Lady,” he said, smiling broadly and giving an overly florid bow.
“No nonsense, Benji, we’re on the clock,” Aki replied briskly. “I was elected, not ennobled.”
He winked, and eyed her ensemble. “Dressed to kill, eh, Aki?”
“I could say the same to you,” Aki returned, looking him up and down. The big man was wearing a long leather duster, buttoned closed and oiled against the rain, and he cut a dashing figure. Maz was dressed similarly to Aki, with comfortable looking brown boots and a heavy coat. Both of them were wet from the rain, their boots forming muddy puddles outside the doorway. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Benji responded, and Maz nodded her agreement. “But we have something to show you first.”
“Something to show me?”
“Yes,” he said, turning to Maz. “It’s your project, you tell her.”
Maz shook her head, her voice soft. “It is a secret, but I will show you. Come with me,” and she turned and headed back down the narrow stairway that led to the rest of the tavern.
Aki shot a questioning glance at Benji, but he only shrugged and gestured for her to lead the way through the door. She rolled her eyes at him and followed the retreating Maz down the staircase. To her surprise, when they reached the landing that led to the main floor, Maz continued down the staircase and into the Sprocket’s cellar. The cellar befitted a disreputable establishment like the Sprocket, full of great, dusty tunnes of ale or of what the Mikail, the proprietor, referred to as wine. Aki had not spent much time in the cellar, and she looked around with interest. Her interest turned quickly to concern, as Maz stopped in front of a shelf filled with disused tankards and goblets and pulled a hidden lever. The wall began to shift slowly to the side, the glassware rattling. “The tunnels come out this far?” Aki asked. Eolas, The Prime’s Palace, along with any upperclass dwelling that dated to the founding of the city, were connected by a series of tunnels to ease movement during the winter. The lower classes were generally expected to make do with warm jackets and sturdy boots, but on occasion, a tunnel was discovered this far out into the city. A tunnel connecting the Sprocket to this network could be useful, but was also a serious security issue that they should have already been aware of.
“Not exactly,” Benji shrugged unconcernedly. “You’re not the only person to rent space from Mikail, you know.”
“Obviously. But down here?”
“Mikail runs a lively…sideline business.”
“Ah,” Aki said, understanding. However much the city officials might pretend otherwise, smuggling was a lively pastime on Ater-Volantis. The quick and easy transport of goods between the far-flung cities of Alis-Dak was too good an opportunity for any businesswoman, legitimate or otherwise, to ignore. “A secret compartment,” she mused. “But what’s in it?”
Benji grinned at her, as the open door settled into place, but it was Maz who spoke up, her soft voice echoing loudly in the quiet cellar. “Research project.”
“A project that you didn’t want to do at Eolas?”
In response, Maz activated a Fòrsic lamp, lighting up the hidden chamber. The room was much larger than she had anticipated, stretching back into shadowed dimness. The walls were bare stone, with a cluttered workbench nestled up against the wall near the door. However, Aki’s eyes were immediately drawn to several human sized…suits, displayed prominently on what appeared to be figures from a dress shop. The suits appeared to be made of copper and bronze armor, with a cloth material attached between the arms and the legs. Aki whistled in appreciation, and walked to inspect the other side of the suits. The back was similar to the front, with straps for the front shin guards, vambraces, and an iron backing set with a slot that would accommodate a fist-sized Fòrsic crystal. “These are impressive,” she said feelingly. “But what do they do?”
“They fly,” Maz said simply.
“They do what?!”
“They fly. Well, sort of. It’s more like falling very slowly. Any normal Fòrsic crystal would reach its fòirceann in record time if you ask it to generate a significant amount of lift. The suits provide a gliding mechanism, so that the crystal can generate the minimum amount of energy necessary to keep you aloft. You wouldn’t be able to get anywhere higher than your starting location.”
Aki stared at Maz incredulously. It was by far the longest speech she had ever heard out of the diminutive woman, and the technical skill and applied theory behind the suits was astounding. Then some of the implications of what Maz had said percolated through her brain. “Wouldn’t be able to fly higher, huh? But if you started on, say, a floating city…”
Maz and Benji both nodded, excited.
Aki was still mulling over the implications behind Maz’s project when the three of them stepped outside nearly a quarter of a bell later. It was, as was usual in the winter, cold, windy, and rainy. Today’s weather was a sideways blowing sleet mixture, and the whole city seemed to be trapped in a grey, soupy cloud. To add to the miserable weather, they were running late, but Aki preferred the Magnus to be the one standing and waiting and freezing his bits off. They hurried slowly down the narrow streets, stepping carefully on the ice-slicked cobblestones. Walking fast required a kind of shuffling slide. Although they were lucky none of them fell, they were all quite soaked by the time they reached Monument Square.
The square was actually trapezoidal, with five wide avenues stretching away from it. The two streets at the top of the square led in perpendicular directions, one towards Eolas and one towards the Prime’s palace and the centers of city government. The other three led to various districts of the lower city, with the center leading towards the Gate of Iron, the main portal to and from the city. The square’s wide expanse was dominated by the colossal Monument of Founding, a triumphal arch celebrating the union of the warring nations, Alis and Dak. Aki had to admit that it was impressive, made of white marble and edged with polished bronze. Despite the weather, there were several clusters of people out and about, moving quickly (but carefully) across the square. However, the Magnus and his companions were instantly recognizable.
These three figures stood to the right of Arch, on the side of the square nearest to the Choisant’s headquarters. The middle one was undoubtedly the Magnus. He stood a head and shoulders above his two companions, dressed in a long black cloak, which flapped in the unceasing wind. He was standing in a rigid power stance, feet spread wide and his hands clasped behind his back, seemingly indifferent to the cold and the sleet. One of the figures behind him was cut from a similar rigid cloth, but Aki could see the third figure shivering slightly, and she smiled. Despite her many years in the city, Filias was from Alis, and she notoriously hated the cold.
Aki, Maz, and Benji had paused upon entering the square, and Aki took a moment to look at each of them in turn. Both returned her look with fierce gazes of their own, and Benji nodded. They were ready. She started towards the three figures, and felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the water dripping down her back. Aki made her way carefully across the square, Maz and Benji flanking her. She stepped cautiously, not only to give the two of them time to watch her back and assess their surroundings, but also to avoid slipping and falling. That would, she imagined, be a very inauspicious start to this meeting.
They made their way across the square without incident. After nodding a greeting to Filias, who returned it with a slight movement of her own head, Aki stepped to the burly man in the flapping cloak. “Magnus Striech, I presume,” she said, and proffered a hand.
The Magnus eyed her coldly, looking her up and down before taking her hand. “Engineer Enjarrous, a pleasure,” he replied, smiling as they clasped wrists. The smile was not a welcoming one, and his hard, black eyes remained fixed on her, taking her measure. His voice was deep, and resonant, and its echo raised the hair on the back of Aki’s neck. Still, she met his gaze unflinchingly. He gestured to his companions. “I believe you have met Professor Filias. This is Fal Katu, my valet.”
Aki gave the valet a hard look, and he returned her gaze with flinty blue eyes. His flapping coat concealed the outline of his figure, but if he was actually a valet, Aki would eat her own Maz’s flying suits. “Allow me to present my colleagues, Benji and Maz,” she said, indicating her own companions.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” the Magnus said. He turned back to Aki. “I believe you know a place for us to get out of this weather?” Striech asked unhurriedly. When she nodded, he gestured toward the foggy edge of the square. “Very well. Lead on, Engineer.”
Resisting the urge to rub her wrist where Striech’s strong grip had done its best to crush it, Aki turned and walked to the street on the opposite side of the square from where they had entered, heading toward the merchant quarter. The Magnus followed closely on her heels, and, after some jostling and positioning, Filias and the “valet” followed him, with Benji and Maz bringing up the rear.
Following much deliberation with Benji, Maz and several of the other engineers, Aki had decided on a tea house and restaurant called the Fish Scale, located on the outskirts of the main merchant district. Considering the city only had access to fish very infrequently after one of their brief set downs in the rare coastal cities, the name was more optimistic than anything else. However inapt the name, Dunkin, the proprietor, was friendly to engineering students, having once been one himself. The block it was in also boasted a connection to one of the outer reaches of Ater-Volantis’s tunnels, one disused enough that Aki fervently hoped that the Choisant didn’t know of its existence.
The walk from the square was quick, taking up only a third of a bell. Still, Aki was finding it difficult to keep her teeth from chattering when they reached the Scale, and she quickly ushered everyone through the doorway. The inside was decorated in a distinctly nautical theme, incongruous with the City’s current location, high in the air and above a desert. Aki approached the bar and identified herself, and the bartender sent a serving girl to escort them to a private room in the back.
The room was rectangular and sparsely furnished, with a long table and six wooden chairs. On the middle of the wall opposite the door was an enormous iron anchor, with “Anchors Aweigh,” emblazoned across it. Aki smiled at the decor. She doubted Dunkin had ever seen an anchor in real life, considering that he was from Crystalis, and had barely crossed a river, let alone sailed a ship.
The six of them filed into the room, and Aki and her companions took the three seats across from the doorway. As soon as they were seated, the Magnus opened up the meeting. “I suppose you are wondering why I called you here today.”
Aki snorted softly at the platitude, and Striech gave her a humorless grin. She decided to step right into it. “I, along with other Engineers and Theorists,” she said, flicking her eyes towards Filias, who didn’t react, “have been discontented with some of the Prime’s current policies.
“So I understand. I hope to allay some of your concerns, and perhaps come to a mutual agreement on how to proceed. Now,” Striech spread his hands magnanimously, “To what policies in particular are you referring?”
Aki glanced left and right at Benji and Maz, who both nodded their support. This was why they had come. “We have a list,” she said, producing a scroll from her jacket pocket. She passed it over the table to Striech, who unfurled it. “The most important grievance is the Prime’s interference with university regulations and suppressing crucial research, the results of which could impact Alis-Dak for generations.
Striech didn’t look up from his perusal of their list of grievances. “We are simply trying to avoid mass hysteria. Publishing inaccurate or incomplete results can only incite panic.”
Shocked, Aki stared at Striech, who didn’t acknowledge her gaze. “With all due respect, Magnus Striech,” she stated, her voice indicating anything but, “we won’t know what the results will be unless we can pursue the research!”
“As you say,” Magnus said. His tone switched swiftly from dismissive to conciliatory. “Still, there have been no concrete findings, thus far.”
Despite Benji stepping on her foot, hard, Aki could not contain herself. “MY research was, and you chased my Theorist out of the city entirely!” She said through gritted teeth. “I demand to know what in Alos’s name you were thinking. How could your actions possibly be to the city’s benefit?”
The Magnus waved a hand airily, dismissing her outburst. “There were reasons, of course” he replied soothingly. He seemed unfazed by Aki’s stormy expression. The condescension in his voice made her clench her jaw, but she continued to grind her teeth in silence as he continued. “As is often the case, these particular reasons were complex and political.”
“Roshan was from a minor family of the aristocracy,” Aki retorted. “He wasn’t even the heir. I fail to see…”
“Political REASONS,” Striech cut her off, “that had nothing to do with your friend’s position, and only partly to do with your research. The Country,” he proclaimed, “is under threat.”
“You mean the Prime is under threat,” Benji put in, and Aki nodded in agreement.
“The Prime is the Country,” Striech returned, his voice smooth and cultured. “And the group known as the Resistance,” he stressed the word, “threatens both him and the stability of this Country.”
“The Resistance?” Aki asked, finding in easy to feign ignorance. She’d heard of them, of course, only someone completely oblivious could have missed the increasing number of clashes attributed to them, but that was all she knew.
“Yes, the Resistance. The group has planned and executed a number of acts of terror and destabilization. They claim to be fighting for the common people, against perceived, and false, excesses of the Alis-Dakian government. However, I assure you that they do not have the Country’s best interests at heart.”
“Uh huh,” Aki said sarcastically, and in a rare show of emotion, he glared at her.
“The philosophical aspects of our quarrel with them is immaterial,” the Magnus continued, staring hard at her. “What is important is that we have obtained information that they are planning a strike upon this city -- a disruption of epic proportions. Regardless of our own… disagreements, all of us in this room cherish this city, and would do anything to protect it.”
“Do you have information on this strike? Any… Proof?” Aki asked, genuinely curious.
“None that we can reveal right now. If you agree to join us in preventing this attack, we can begin to show you what our information has brought to us.”
“It is a real threat,” Filias added from Magnus’s right. “I have seen it. I know you don’t fully trust the Choisant, but trust me.”
“No proof,” mused Aki. “You’re asking me to trust the word of the head of the Choisant, one of the most ignoble and duplicitous organizations in the Country, and to trust the word of a woman who threw my friend and my partner to the wolves?” she paused, “no offense meant.”
“Make no mistake,” Striech told her. Although his tone sounded almost pleading, his expression remained stony, his eyes hard. “This is not an issue of trust, rather, of self-interest. Join with us, and not only will we protect this city, but your path will be smoothed and your goals made achievable. Helping us is the best way forward for you. Go against us…” he trailed off ominously, and shrugged.
Drawing a deep breath, Aki stood. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Maz and Benji doing the same. On the other side of the table, Filias looked apprehensive. The valet looked eager, the expression cruel on his thin face. His hand rested underneath his cloak, doubtless on a hidden weapon. Striech showed no sign of emotion, simply waiting, expressionlessly, for her to decide her fate. “I don’t think so,” she said at last, glancing across the table at Filias. “And I’m not yet ready to sell my soul. Good day.”
As she spoke, the table erupted into action. Fal’s hand darted from his cloak, whipping a knife through the air toward Aki’s throat. Opposite him, Maz triggered the Fòrsic crystals embedded in her gloves, flipping the table with a flash of bronze light. The knife hit the upturned table with a dull thunk. As Filias hit the ground in shock, a pair of Choisant soldiers appeared in the doorway. Benji triggered his own crystals, and a sheet of flame leapt from his hands, roaring over the top of the table and sending the Choisant members scattering to the side. “You are making a huge mistake,” the Magnus said loudly, rising from his seat, seemingly unperturbed by the flipped table or the flames rushing toward him. The fire reached his cloak and then died, suddenly and without preamble. However, behind the table, only the cheery anchor remained, its “Anchors Away” sign askew. The Engineers had vanished.
Chapter 14 can be found here.