“Apprentice!” Ehmammin screeched and Jemith snorted frigid water up his nose. Blowing and coughing desperately, he managed a strangled, “Yeb, Mazter?” and turned to look in the direction of the elder magician’s voice, wincing as the water hit the top of his head and ran down his back. His body stiffened, unprepared for the onslaught, and he convulsed with shivering.
“Where is my fulminating shardstone?”
How should I know? was Jemith’s immediate thought; he was surprised enough that he almost said it, too, and thanked an erratic jet of water that caused him to splutter incoherently.
“Did you leave it by the condenser again?” he hazarded. “Er, Master.”
“No! I put . . . no, wait, here it is. Not by the condenser, thank you so very much. Hmph!”
Jemith rested his forehead on the wall and gritted his teeth as Ehmammin stormed away again. It’s so good to be home, Jemith thought with heavy sarcasm as he grabbed a handful of sandy soap and resumed his shower. The water came straight out of the cliff; channeled into crude plumbing it took care of their sanitary needs fairly well, apart from being so blasted cold. It also turned the stone into a warren of caves and deposited a number of minerals magicians found useful in their work.
Jemith escaped from the shower, tied a towel around his hips with fingers that were thoroughly numb, and trotted his way past the equipment towards the kitchens. Once, he might have slowed to see what dripped through glass tubing or boiled sluggishly over a tiny blue fire. Once, he’d loved these machines. Now they only represented infinite unrewarded work.
Ehmammin wasn’t a picky eater; stew in a bowl satisfied the majority of his grumbling. The magician shooed Jemith away from a precipitating mixture impatiently when the younger man tried to help.
“Don’t touch that. And go put on some clothes. You’re a disgrace.”
“Will you be wanting me for anything else tonight?”
“No.” License enough to find a corner and sleep for a few hours. Jemith returned silently to the living quarters, unable to muster any interest in the work Ehmammin considered so urgent.
* * *
“Wake up!” the elder magician bellowed, his voice weirdly distorted by distance. Jemith sat up and rubbed his eyes, blinking at the dim candlelight.
“What is it? It’s not morning already?”
“Not yet, but some idiot is shouting into the caller. Go see what he wants! I can’t be disturbed right now!”
“Yes, Master,” Jemith muttered and heaved himself to his feet. Dark figures were gathered across the gap left by the upright drawbridge. They carried lanterns, but the light only served to cast them in more dramatic shadows. Jemith waved to them and one lifted the caller and spoke.
“Ehmammin, it’s very important that you come out here immediately!”
“This is Jemith.” There was a brief, uncomfortable pause.
“Oh,” the voice continued, flat with irritation. “We didn’t know you were back.”
“Ehmammin can’t be disturbed. Is there anything I do to assist you?”
“He won’t come out at all?”
Jemith could almost see the speaker’s expression of distaste and resignation. “There’s an emergency council meeting, and since your master is senior magician . . .”
“What do you want me to do, knock him out? He won’t budge.”
“I am aware of that, thank you. If you had let me finish my sentence . . .”
The speaker huffed angrily. “Are you quite finished?”
“As I was saying, we’ll escort you to the emergency council and you can keep Ehmammin informed. Does that suit you, o great mage?”
“There’s no need to be rude,” Jemith snapped. “Let me ask Ehmammin.”
“Obstructionist jackass,” the speaker muttered as Jemith climbed the ladder back into the cave.
“Master?” Jemith asked tentatively.
“Did you get rid of them yet?”
“No, Master, they need someone to go to an emergency council meeting.”
“Tell them to have their emergency later. I’m busy.”
“Ah, yes, Master. They thought it might be easier if I went to the meeting and reported back. So that you don’t have to interrupt anything.”
“And what am I supposed to do if I need my apprentice in the meantime? No, don’t answer that, clearly they won’t be happy until they get something. Go on, and keep your opinions to yourself, do you hear!”
“Yes, Master.” Jemith scurried back down the ladder, threw on a robe over his clothing, and hit the release lever for the drawbridge. The messengers on the other side jumped back as the wooden planks thudded into place inches away. All three of them glared malevolently at Jemith.
“Let’s go,” the speaker announced. “We’ve wasted enough time on this.” The messengers turned in concert, their robes swirling around them dramatically, and marched towards the city. Jemith followed, keeping a few paces behind them at all times.
The platforms and bridges covering the cliff were ominous in the dark, a looming tangle that their eyes could not penetrate. Some signs of life should be visible, but the messengers carried the only lights and the only sound was the progress of their boots. Jemith pulled his loose robe up over his shoulders and shivered, not certain whether his chill was imagined or real.
The tangle parted, revealing the wide arch of the main span. Another robed man with a lantern waited. His posture—arms crossed, leaning against the balustrade—and the noise of his impatient fidgeting broke Jemith’s sense of overwhelming dread.
“Finally! Wait, where’s the magician?” Then he noticed Jemith. “Winds! Why’d you bring him?!”
“Ehmammin’s doing whatever he feels like doing,” Jemith explained.
“I wasn’t talking to you. So he felt like sending you, huh? Vanadragos isn’t going to be happy. Why does he dislike you so much, anyway?”
“Because he can’t keep his mouth shut,” one of the messengers added pointedly. “A flaw that others appear to share, Eber.”
“I didn’t have to wait for you.”
“Yes, I’m sure we would have had so much trouble getting to the other side of the bridge without your help.” The other messengers chuckled appreciatively. “I mean, it’s so big. We might get lost.”
Eber threw up his hands and began climbing the curve of the bridge. The talkative messenger snorted with satisfaction and followed, his men following him and Jemith following them. The five of them were the last to arrive at the Pavilion; the platform was packed with uncertain men recently torn from their beds. Unusually for a crowd this size, no one was speaking, everyone was too busy craning their necks to see the steps of the city building, where a small group was huddled in private discussion.
“What’s going on?” Jemith asked Eber quietly. Several people turned their heads to look at him.
“No one knows for certain. One of the topside observers sent word that there was a sudden outbreak of fighting in Beserrib, lots of fires, looting, people fleeing into the desert with their household goods. Some of the defenders caught one of the looters in the confusion, but he just kept raving about the end of the world. Superstitious fools. Van called this meeting to make some sort of announcement.”
“EVERYONE BE QUIET AND SETTLE DOWN!” a thick, gravelly voice shouted from the city building as the huddle broke up. Jemith stood on his toes and saw Vanadragos throwing back the hood of his robe to address the crowd. There was a sudden burst of indignant chatter at his command. “I SAID QUIET!”
“Everyone was quiet!” Jemith snapped, his statement coming just after the babble died down and clearly audible to everyone in the crowd.
“Who said that? Where is . . .” Eber and several of the other men standing nearby helpfully pointed to Jemith. “Oh. It’s you. I didn’t know you were back.” Jemith’s face heated as the bystanders chuckled. “What’s going on with Aglar?”
“Van!” snapped one of the legislators. “This can wait!”
“Hah. ALL RIGHT!” Van shouted, using his command voice again. “We have news that the so-called Prophet of Beserrib is dead! No one up there knows whose supposed to be in charge. Things are pretty crazy up there, but at the moment there’s no sign of an organized assault, so we’ve decided to sit tight for now and see what happens. Any questions?”
“How exactly does an immortal prophet get himself killed?” someone near the front of the crowd demanded. Van’s face took on an apologetic expression and he turned to look at another man, Uzakha the Spymaster.
“Our prisoner was of the opinion that a demoness came out of the desert and cut his head off.” There was scattered laughter. Jemith felt his chest tighten sharply. “We are not certain how much credence to give this report. It is far-fetched at best, however it is the only explanation we have thus far.”
“This is ridiculous, we’ve been fighting the prophet’s men for who remembers how many years and then chop, he’s dead? What do we do? What’s going to happen?”
Jemith’s hands began to shake and he cupped them over his face, trying to control his reaction. “What’s wrong with you?” Eber asked urgently.
“Nothing. Ex-excuse me,” he managed and fled the meeting altogether. Two people watched him go: Eber with a puzzled expression, and Vanadragos, with his bird’s-eye view of the proceedings. The chief defender scowled and made a faint sign to Uzakha, who nodded and withdrew.
Jemith lost himself in the silent city, climbing whenever he reached a stairway or ladder until he reached the highest platforms. Finally, breathing too hard to continue, he sat down on the edge, dangling his legs over the fall and looking out over the Side. Its hold on the cliff seemed more precarious than ever. For the first time in his life he felt a twinge of vertigo and closed his eyes against the dizziness.
“It’s quite a view,” Daian said quietly. Jemith opened his eyes.
“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” he said. She leaned on the railing and regarded him levelly. Jemith considered a number of questions he could ask, then sighed and chose the simplest. “What do you want?”
She chuckled slightly. “I want to find a magician.”
“You’re not going to find any help around here.”
“There aren’t any magicians here? That’s not what I was told.”
“No, there’s hundreds. They simply won’t help you.”
Jemith pointed towards the mist hanging overhead. “You’re from up there. They don’t allow outsiders here, and they don’t work for them. In fact, you should probably go back whatever way you came before someone sees you.”
She punched the railing and stood silently for a long time. Then, she looked down at him again. “What about you?”
“I’m no use to you. I’m still an apprentice, I don’t have any of my own equipment or . . .”
“But you’d help me, if you did?”
Jemith cursed himself. “I don’t think . . .”
“You would. Why?”
“Because they wouldn’t. It doesn’t change anything. There’s still nothing I can do.”
“What about . . .”
“If I may have your attention for a moment,” Uzakha interrupted, “I would like to request that you step away from the railing and make no sudden movements.” Jemith was surprised when Daian turned slowly and patiently to face the Spymaster, hooking her hands on her belt. “I do not know you, young woman.”
“You are not allowed to be here.”
“Then I’ll leave.”
“I’m afraid that is not an option.” Uzakha nodded at the darkness and the platform was suddenly thick with robed figures. The Spymaster rolled a glass vial between his long fingers. Daian removed her hands from her belt. The robed men shifted anxiously.
“She killed the prophet!” Jemith yelled desperately. Uzakha glanced at him and Daian took advantage of his inattention to draw her sword. The Spymaster held up a hand, forestalling her.
“Is this so?” Daian nodded, frowning slightly. Uzakha matched her frown with one of his own. “It does not change the fact that you should not be here. However, I think that with the prophet removed we can make an . . . allowance. You will leave peacefully?”
“If you insist, however the only reason I’m here is that I really need to speak with a magician.”
“I do not have the authority to make that sort of decision.”
“So take me to someone that does.”
“Put up your weapon.” Daian slid the sword back into its sheath. Uzakha gestured to several of his men. “Escort her to Vanadragos.” Daian stepped around Uzakha to follow them. “Now, Jemith, we deal with you.”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“You brought this outsider here, a crime for which there is only one punishment.” Rough hands grasped Jemith’s shoulders and hauled him to his feet. “We will see whether you have learned to grow wings.”
“No!” Uzakha planted a hand in Daian’s chest, preventing her from coming to Jemith’s aid as the men picked him up bodily and tossed him over the railing. Furious, Daian punched the Spymaster in the face and flung herself over the side, catching a double handful of Jemith’s clothing as they both fell.
“How, exactly, did you get down here?” Jemith shouted over the wind of their passage.
“I jumped. What’s down there, anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
- ► 2014 (26)
- ► 2013 (84)
- ► 2012 (26)
- ► 2011 (26)
- ► 2009 (92)
- ► 2008 (71)
- ► 2007 (107)
- The Big U
- Turn the Other Chick
- Epic: Meeting
- Epic: Prophet
- Vanity Report
- They Made America
- Once A Hero
- Now, Here's Something I Can Use
- Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
- Epic: Sideways
- Rain Check
- Trivial Politics
- The Novels of Tiger and Del
- Epic: Bones
- Resenting the Hero
- The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
- Greg Perkins on Intellectual Property Rights
- Epic: Oasis
- ▼ May 2006 (19)