Sorrow is a tree that grows from the soil of wisdom. If there was such a thing as truth in this world, that was hers, Ellaria thought idly. She was being reflective; long journeys had that effect on her, and she found the curious circumstances that had her coming home were weighing heavily on her mind. She had a keen sense of the snare before it was sprung, but she had yet to devise the real reason why she was being called to the Ascendancy Tower this time. These were suspicious times and Ellaria was suspicious by nature and she hated the idea that she was being lured into a trap. Ellaria was uncommonly resilient, not because she was strong, but because she was flexible. She had learned to bend with the wind to endure the storm. This time, she was having trouble anticipating what was on the horizon. The state of the world had only grown more chaotic in the forty years following the fall of the Empire, and it felt like she was about to find herself once again in the whirlwind.
Ellaria watched the coach wheels roll through the stone tracks and splash the overnight rain out of the grooves. The Imperial Road went through the valley of Tavillore, directly connecting the largest cities on the eastern shore of the Anamic Ocean. It was a smart piece of engineering and one of the first projects after the Great War. Made of limestone, the road had a series of channeled out tracks for the coach wheels to guide along in. Simple. Of course simple engineering is the smartest form of engineering. At over five-hundred leagues long, it took eight years to complete. Unifying the wounded nations reeling from the war by connecting them, providing faster travel, and better supply opportunities beyond the Uhanni river. It provided jobs and good pay for thousands of people. Ellaria looked at it and rolled her eyes in exasperation.
She helped to push the idea and see it to fruition, but the politics fought her at every turn. The stone for the road should have come from the Free Cities in the New World to establish a working relationship across the ocean. Political bargaining and backroom dealing took over, as it always did. A common enough occurrence that the Tavillorean people started calling the Coalition of Nations, ‘the encumbrance’. Their faith in the process obviously shaken as the voice that was once promised them was increasingly ignored and dismissed.
The people had the right of it; it was a game of lies and corruption. In this new scientific era, ‘the encumbrance’ was a machine all on its own, and it exhausted Ellaria. Every city in the world was home to a different syndicate of organized crime, but they were all small-time crooks compared to the Coalition. In the end, the limestone came from across the Warhawk Mountains to the west, where it had cost more to transport over Thorn Pass than it would have from across the ocean. The stone was a white and it was beautiful, but because of its inherent softness, it cracked all the time and needed constant repairs or had to be fully replaced. The big joke, was that all of it would be obsolete in ten years when more train lines became operational.
Ellaria tried to control her pessimism, but old age left her less inclined to contain her frustration. The first train line had opened two years ago from Adalon to Andal up north, but the rail lines being laid to the south and west had progressed far more slowly. Ellaria suspected it was because of land rights. The Coalition of Nations had been squabbling over the land in the valley for years. In the west, Rodaire had completed their train line almost twice as fast, but all the tracks were laid on the ground; whereas the train from Adalon to Andal was suspended off elevated rails to navigate the terrain of rivers, rocky coastline and unreliable soils.
Ellaria wished she could have taken a train this time. Coach rides were unpleasant – even the nicest ones were hot and cramped. She had initially declined Delvette’s invitation to attend the Council’s court meeting in Adalon. But her friend was adamant. Delvette even sent tickets for a cloudparter that Ellaria had to refuse outright, on account of her fear of heights. Her friend’s persistence was the beginning of Ellaria’s trepidation, and that uneasiness had accompanied her on the road as though it were a burdensome piece of luggage.
It was possible the meeting was about drawing the border lines between the nations. Land itself had never been more valuable. As the world became more accurately mapped in the last forty years, the arguments of the exact boundaries of land were more meticulously contested. Under the Empire’s rule, there was only a general understanding of the extent of each nation because the Sagean Empire ruled all of it. Like everything else since the fall of the Empire, it was just another unresolved issue causing turmoil. Somehow, Ellaria knew that probably wasn’t the meeting’s purpose.
Most of the Coalition was still sore over the Free Cities of the New World and the autonomy given them after the war. Some of the ambassadors were eager to claim the territory and the resources. The court meeting was probably more trade bargaining and disputes, but that didn’t explain why Delvette wanted Ellaria there.
As her stagecoach rolled on, she looked at the book in her hands that still lay open to the same page for the past hour. She wrinkled her nose at the words and adjusted her sitting position again. She glanced at the passenger across from her, who sat behind the driver’s position. He had on a black suit with a black long coat neatly folded in his lap. His legs were crossed and he diligently kept his boots from hitting against the cabin’s interior wood paneling when the bumps from the coach jostled them about. They were a polished black with a patterned overlay at the top, and clean, like they had just come from a box. His dark hair was neatly cut and he wore gold spectacles with shaded lenses. He was younger than Ellaria, if only slightly. Everything about him was precise and in order, but she had a feeling this was the nicest suit he owned. He sat too stiffly in it as though afraid to wrinkle or wear it in.
She pushed open the coach window to let a breeze pass through the cabin, the blast of fresh air was a pleasant relief. It became stagnant in the small coach compartment with more than one passenger. She had been lucky to have the stagecoach to herself for most of her trip through the valley. It had taken eleven days to reach Adalon from Eloveen. Before the Imperial Road, the same trip took twenty days and broken axles were common. When the rail was complete, the trip would take only two days. A comforting thought for Ellaria who relished the idea of crossing Tavillore quickly all the while staying on the ground.
They kept to a regimented travel pattern, always stopping just before dark. The Imperial Road had waypoint cities at regular intervals along the road to stop and rest for the night. Some were large cities and some only had a small inn and outpost. All of them had a fort tower with a stone torch basin at the top, burning blue throughout the night, and manned by at least three guardsmen.
It was unsafe to travel at night and unwise to stop between the waypoints. The deadliest beasts were driven out of the cities after the war; but the open country, forests and mountains were a different story. The wild beasts - the bonelarks, wolveracks and ravinors - prowled in the unsettled land preying on wayward travelers, livestock and even unprotected small dwellings. She had paid extra for a coach master with his own blast rifle due to rumors suggesting escalating activity of beast attacks, though the trip had been quiet on that front.
They had picked up the man across from her this morning at the last stop outside of the city. They hadn’t spoken since their simple greetings when the man had introduced himself as Haden Mathis. Ellaria made a point not to talk too much, especially in confined spaces. Some people thought women talked needlessly. She found the real truth was that women were the superiorly intelligent beings, and men felt ashamedly unable to offer anything of meaning. The origin of any such a notion was simply a deflection of their own inadequacies. Though Ellaria did agree that it was in poor taste to prattle. She also lacked the proclivity for shining people on, as others did and could. She had a greater probability of annoying or angering someone. When Ellaria was younger, she would have already made this stranger into a great friend and ally. But she had lost that skill overtime. Age takes a lot from you and your patience is one of the first things to go. Besides, most conversations between strangers were typically so shallow honestly what was the point; however, seeing this man’s lack of luggage and the journal he kept in his hand, she was curious to find out more. She closed the book in her hand with a snap.
“Excuse me, what time do you have?” She asked the man. He did not look surprised she had said something to him. Had he seen her staring? She hated that. She had a tendency to look at things intensely.
“Twenty-two minutes past the hour,” he said, with a gruff edge to his voice.
“Are you going home to Adalon or to work?” she asked.
“Ah, you’re a professor then?” she postulated. Watching his eyes for confirmation she found her deduction had surprised him.
“I am,” he confirmed.
“At the Arcana?” she followed up.
“Of course. Only the desperate seek learning at the Paravin Schools.”
His view of the small trade schools that helped students find apprenticeships, was not unique, but something about his tone agitated her.
“Interesting. I’ve always found the ones most desperate to learn are the ones worth teaching,” she said.
He scowled at her and turned his attention back to looking outside his window. Ellaria took that as a concession and smiled to herself. Then, he turned back to her.
“Miss Moonstone, I presume?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said, slightly shocked by the redirect more than the recognition.
“Well, your reputation precedes you.”
“I know. It’s like a shadow I try to step on when I can. It can be elusive though,” she said with a smile.
“Uh hum,” he muttered and shook his head before turning it away again.
Apparently, he was a man not easily charmed, and the fighter in her wanted to keep sparring, but the carriage was passing over the Ash Gate and into Adalon City. The rattle of the wheels crossing over to the stone bridge clacked in repetition, and the cabin swayed with the transition. Ellaria put aside her rising disdain for this man to watch their approach. In many ways, it was the capital of the world. As one of the largest cities, it was also a scientific epicenter and the former location of the now abandoned Emperor’s palace.
They passed by the brass held cylindrical gas lamps still holding a trickle of orange light in the glass, where a small amount of sodium vapor remained charged. The liveliness of the city was full of uniquely crafted charms, glowing glass spheres, brass clockworks, and rotating stair lifts with giant powered wheels.
Adalon City was built at the heart of the Mainsolis Sea, where the concave eastern seaboard cradled the Anamic Ocean, and two estuaries met the sea from the west. Four hundred years ago men had connected the two rivers with a spillway off the western rise. The artificial spillway was mostly a shallow moat dwarfed below rocky cliffs and towering city walls. The walls rose high with the land, and higher still as a stone fortification, and at various points along the wall, water flowed out of the city and into the moat below.
Her coach crossed up through the bands of various beltways spreading from the city center. The streets that encircled the city, like rings, were crowded with small steam powered dollop cars. They reminded her of a baby carriage with room enough for two passengers in a small shell sitting over the steam engine. The small contraptions were known to explode on long rides, but from the looks of it, they had become very popular within the city.
As they reached the heart of Adalon the shadows of the Prevalence Spires spread far across the streets. Three buildings of great renown; the Ascendancy Tower, which was the governing center, the Arcana University, and the Craftcore, a building devoted to scientific advancements and experimentation. All of them built of tungsten metal, stone and glass. The Craftcore was the employer of the world’s foremost thinkers, tinkers, machinists, physicists, mathematicians, and alchemists. Buildings on the lower belts were just as large as the spires, not as tall typically, more sprawling, stoic and less grand.
The stagecoach pulled to a stop and both Ellaria and Mathis got out. She was glad to exit, and waved off the coach master’s hand stepping down onto the cobblestone sidewalk. The air cooled against her back and legs where sweat lived under her garments.
She fixed her skirt and adjusted her black hat. It had a wide sweeping brim and a diamond crown with a green ribbon trim and colored feathers including a large green peacock’s feather flowing backwards. Big cities of the world in these modern times were just a procession of hats, and she loved hers. Her dress was another matter. She preferred trousers, but they were terribly uncomfortable for traveling in the stuffy coach cabins. So, she wore a full black skirt and a fitted red blouse with black buttons, as was the fashion. The fit of the blouse was less than ideal, but she liked to portray a bit of attitude and flaunt how she was winning her fight against old age. The impending onslaught of her sixties were only a few years away, and she didn’t think her fight would last much longer.
On the sidewalk, she cast her eyes around, assessing the atmosphere. Every place in the world had a different feel to it. The culture of the people dominated some, and some were dominated by the architecture or climate. Adalon city could have a different temperament every day. There was a feel to the hustle and chaos, a sound and a breath to the natural order. You could sense if something chaotic was in the air, or if the people were grumpier than usual. A quick observation told her the typical bustling city was in a casual beat– grumpy and preoccupied. The smell of baked bread lingered in the air from the bakery a few paces off and overtook the typical stale smell of metal and stone that the city always had near the core, where the smell of the sea didn’t wash it out.
“Ms. Moonstone, we will deliver your baggage to the address you gave us. Is there anything you need from out of your luggage?” the coach master inquired.
She double checked her leather handbag, shook her head no, and handed him a small bag of talons for his service. The amber coins glinted in the light as she tipped him extra. They had mostly left her alone, and she appreciated that. A hint of cigar smoke passed in the air and she turned to find the source, but couldn’t locate it and wound-up catching Mathis watching her.
“You don’t stay in the consulates housing in the Ascendancy Tower?” he asked.
“No, I don’t enjoy being so easily called on,” she answered him, more aggressively than she meant to.
“I assume you’re here for the coalition meeting?” he asked.
“Well, enjoy your stay. I trust the meeting will be satisfactory.”
“What do you know about it?” she asked.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. Good day,” Mathis said and he tipped his black top hat and walked away down the block.
She had been containing her anxiety over the meeting and Mathis had just made it bloom. She needed to find her friend, Delvette, tonight before court tomorrow and see if she could tell her anything. Ellaria knew of a certain spot she frequented and headed there.
* * *
Ellaria arrived at the Twines Knot Bar just as a group of Arcana students were pulling out. Ellaria called them youngsters even though they were university age. When she was younger than that she was already entrenched in the Resistance efforts, which would soon be the Great War. She felt a slight tinge of jealousy at their youthful bounce and shine.
One of the young men bumped into her on accident and she lost a handle on her handbag, the contents dropped onto the cobbled stone road.
“Ander, you mule, you ran into her,” a young man said. He had feathered golden blonde hair and was attractive in his youthfulness. It surprised Ellaria that he had stopped to jog back and help her pick up her things. The young were typically so indifferent.
“Sorry, Ander is slow of mind,” he said, kneeling down to help.
“Well, I appreciate the assistance,” she responded, taking the ruby fountain pen of hers from his hand. She noted his mechanical forearm wrap and assumed it was a weapon of some sort. Looking at him, she got lost in his calm and confident blue eyes. There was a pleasantness and an honesty to him.
“Again. I apologize for him. Of course, I think Ander would have been more careful and come back to help if he knew how beautiful you were,” he said.
Ellaria laughed out loud; she had to in order to hide a blush from within. Was he flirting with her? For honest and nice, he was also cavalier. She was thrice his age. It was just flattery she supposed, but he had a bravado about him she appreciated; and she liked him instantly.
“Thank you, young man. You tell your friend to keep his head up, so he doesn’t mistake a punch to the face for a handshake.”
He smiled and said, “I will. My name’s Wade, what’s yours?”
“Ella,” she said and almost gasped. Why had she told him her first name?
“Nice to meet you, Ella. We were just on our way to the Frog Leg Tavern down the block. Would you care to join us?”
“No. I’m meeting a friend here,” she said with a smile.
“Here? Are you a professor?”
“No, now you should hurry. Your friends are leaving you.”
“Oh, they’ll save me a spot, I’m sure. Why don’t you come? It’s a friendly atmosphere, with poets and music too. Bring your friend. Or don’t you believe in the pursuit of happiness?” Wade asked with a light smile that Ellaria was sure worked for him most of the time.
“To pursue something so fleeting, is a young person’s game. Thanks for giving me a laugh, but it’s time for you to run along.”
“Well good evening to you Ella, I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
He smiled again. It was a smile that brightened his appearance more than she thought possible. Then he turned and jogged after his party, running past an older man with sideburns who leaned against the brick corner column with a cane and rounder hat. The man watched Wade through shaded spectacles as he jogged past and out of sight. Ellaria just laughed to herself as she walked into the coffee bar. She spotted her friend near the front, who was already standing up to greet her.
“Ella, how are you? I saw you out on the street and I got up, but you were talking with Wade Duval.”
“That was embarrassing. Do you know that young man?” Ellaria asked.
“I’ve never taught him. I’ve seen him before and heard others talk about his skill with mechanics, and alchemy. I believe that was your area of expertise, remember Ella?”
“How could I forget?”
“Well, tell me you’re ready to take me up on my offer, and I’ll let it go.”
“Sorry, I’ve been so busy trying to get the Southport University in Eloveen opened. I honestly hadn’t thought about it.”
“Would you consider speaking to our graduates or maybe an end of year seminar on alchemy?”
“No to the first, but I’ll think about the seminar.”
Delvette had been after Ellaria for years to teach alchemy at the Arcana. Ellaria would visit from time to time and occasionally do seminars, but she had never felt the calling to teach. They had been friends for almost fifteen years now, and Delvette probably asked every time they talked going back long before her appointment as the Scholar’s Regent.
The Guild was set up after the war as the international institute in charge of education throughout the world, and had anonymity outside of the Coalition of Nations. The Regent was a position that sometimes-caused friction. Ellaria was seen as a radical by some and never was considered for the position. She had worried that her friend would be a pushover as Regent, but her soft touch had been successful.
“What are we walking into tomorrow, Delvette?” she asked her friend.
Delvette leaned closer into the table, “I’ve only heard rumors, mind you, and they’re not good. The Coalition wants to elect a Prime Commander, and I hear that they’re intent on finding Qudin Lightweaver.”
“What!” Ellaria blurted.
“Shhh! I told you it’s just rumors, but where there’s smoke . . .”
“There’s fire, yes. Well, they’ve been searching for Q for years. That’s no secret. Why a Prime, they must be crazy? I can’t imagine the Free Cities of the New World agreeing to this, there’s no way Danehin won’t fight it. If it is true, then I fear the influence of the Scholar’s Guild may have slipped further than I thought.”
“I’m not sure what the Peace King will make of it. I think they have grown resentful of his position, always keeping them in check,” Delvette said, speaking of Danehin the ruler of the New World and the Coalition's most powerful ambassador.
Ellaria rubbed her temple with her fingers and brushed a stray hair away from her face before it dawned on her. “Thorns! If they’re thinking of electing a Prime, does that mean they have found a new Sagean?” Ellaria asked.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s a relief. The only thing worse than a Prime Commander would be a new Sagean Lord, claiming divine right by the Light and mad with luminary powers. Wait, then why would the Coalition freely relinquish their power?” Ellaria followed up.
“Well, the Prime would only be in charge of the collective. Under the rules of the charter, each nation would still keep their power to govern their own lands. It’s possible the ambassadors think we need a head figure to mediate the Coalition,” Delvette suggested.
“Delvette, it’s just a step away from another dictator!” Ellaria said sharply, and Delvette had a look of shame upon hearing her friend’s outburst. “Sorry, old friend, you know how passionate I can get,” Ellaria apologized.
“I understand you’re frustrated Ellaria. I just think you forget how hard it is to navigate the Coalition.”
“You’re right. I could never handle the encumbrance.”
“Are you using the people’s word for us now too? Don’t worry, Ellaria. Whatever happens tomorrow the Guild will maintain the rights you fought for.”
“I hope so.”
“You know, sometimes I think you should have been the Regent instead of me,” Delvette said.
“It was never a possibility and you know it,” Ellaria said dismissively, sipping her tea and wondering how differently everything would have gone.
“Only because you have to be so combative with the ambassadors. Our own guild is afraid of you sometimes,” Delvette said.
“Delvette, you have to be the ever-present bitch they think you are. You can’t cede any ground, or they will walk all over you,” Ellaria replied. She still hoped one day her friend would grow a backbone, but feeling herself getting frustrated, she left the conversation at that and changed the subject. “I wanted to ask you. Do you know a professor named Haden Mathis?” she asked.
“Not personally. We hired him last year to teach mathematics and chemical calculations”
“I see. That’s why he has a general disdain for alchemists then,” Ellaria said.
“Probably. Most of the professors in the Natural World Department have only a modicum of patience for the other schools,” Delvette agreed. “Why, how do you know him?”
“Oh, I had the pleasure of his company on the coach ride into the city,” Ellaria said in her best sarcastic tone.
They sat at the modestly sized round table for a while catching up before Ellaria decided she needed to get some rest for the next day’s trials. She couldn’t stop thinking about why the council would bring her all the way here to tell her that the Coalition was going to elect a Prime. They knew she would be one of the strongest opponents. It was obvious they wanted her out, but by what means and why? She didn’t have any real power beyond her reputation. She feared something else was going on.
* * *
It was getting dark on the streets as they said their goodbyes. The sun was casting a pink-orange glow across the wispy clouds, and a lamplighter was already working. The man carried two large poles. One for lighting the traditional lamps and one that he used to power the electric lamps. Ellaria watched as he used the staff’s copper arch to spark and charge the metal jar capacitors that provided the electric current for the lamps.
Outside the bar’s patio table and chairs, Ellaria and Delvette parted in opposite directions and she watched her friend walk away ready to retire for the evening. Ellaria noticed the man she saw before with sideburns was still lurking down the street. Still suspiciously lingering down the block smoking a small cigar. A short-walk cigar, as it was called, and there were more than a few at his feet. A sickening feeling that she was being followed settled in her stomach.
Ellaria turned up the street, and almost stumbled into the lamplighter working the corner. She passed him and chanced a glance behind her. The man had thrown his cigar and was chasing after her. She rounded the building corner and ran.
Her knowledge of this section of the city was good enough she believed she could make it to her apartment without an altercation. Rushing from block to block, she struggled to understand why she was being watched. Alone on the streets with night creeping in, she felt vulnerable. A feeling she despised.
She could tell Delvette had been holding something back, afraid to say anything more. Ellaria had tried to angle for additional scraps of information throughout their conversation as delicately as she could, but Delvette wouldn’t bite. With what she had said and the realization that someone was having her followed, Ellaria decided she needed to send a message to her two closest friends. Wherever they were, she knew she could always count on Kovan and Qudin.
There were magnotype stations where she could send messages to different posts throughout all the major cities, but they were easily intercepted. She required something more covert. Also, she didn’t exactly know where either of her old friends were.
Kovan was probably on some wild crusade fighting someone, or something, or dueling in Amara. Most likely he was in jail somewhere. They hadn’t spoken in years, which was still painful to think of. It had been even longer since she had heard from Qudin. She knew that neither were dead, because both were too stubborn to die.
The secret messengers of the Whisper Chain were her best and only chance to reach them. Their vast network of spies could find people almost anywhere.
After circling around a few blocks of similar looking buildings, she found the door she remembered. With no sign of her pursuer, she stepped to the landing and knocked. It was a rather indistinguishable wood door with a small bronze placard embedded in the adjacent wall. Their symbol engraved – two flowing lines knotted in the middle. The door was a paneled dark stained mahogany with a gold knocker, but no handle on the outside.
A metal plate behind a screening window slid open and Ellaria saw only a set of eyes inspecting her. She caught her breath and showed them a medallion from her handbag. A woman opened the door wearing a high collar purple shirt, and Ellaria walked inside without a word being spoken. The amber medallions were impossible to replicate, difficult to come by, and hers was one of the oldest around.
Inside was dimly lit by lanterns hung on the walls. The floor was a wide plank hardwood with a fair bit of shine, and they had covered the walls with a patterned paper in dark-gray and gold filigree. She walked past the leather lounge chairs, that sat empty, and up to the exchange counter. The place smelled of oil, machinery, and warm glue.
“I have a package that needs delivered.”
“By hand or by whisper?” the teller asked.
“Both probably, I need to send a message to a Thelmaria postbox and to Rylabyre, but location unknown.”
“Thelmaria could be done by magnotype. Are you sure you want the Chain to do that?”
“Rylabyre, unknown. Trickier. But our hearing is very good out west.”
The postmaster handed Ellaria two forms to fill out and a self-contained ink fountain pen. It was a fluted black metal and the ink streamed forth perfectly. She noticed for the first time how sweaty her hands were and wiped them on her leg before she filled out the forms and wrote her messages on the rolled parchment they provided. She handed the scrolls back to the postmaster behind the counter when she had finished. Reluctantly, the pen too. He took it without losing her eye contact and held out his other hand for payment. She paid and left.
Ellaria stepped back out into the streets. The night had taken hold, and she suddenly felt more exposed. The streets were mostly deserted and as she made her way to her quarter-house, the sound of her boots clacking against the cobblestone street pavers was like a beacon announcing her position. She wove in, and around buildings the best she could and through courtyards in a direct but obscure path to her residence.
She stopped at the corner short of her building and paused in the shadows of a set of brick stairs. Breathing fast, she peered around the brick half wall for anyone suspicious. Her building was an elongated mass wedged into the lot with the front ending in a large, rounded corner. While the apartments were on the upper floors, a small flower shop took up the first floor and always had beautiful storefront displays. When Ellaria decided that nothing looked amiss, she darted for the building quarters entrance. She passed through the lobby and rushed up the three flights of stairs to her room without incident.
She leaned up against the back of her door and slid down to the floor. Her heart racing, she felt oddly exhilarated. It was good to have her old blood pumping again. Being watched, sending secret messages, this was something she was good at. Her spontaneity may have dried up and fallen off like a useless limb, years ago, but somewhere inside she still knew how to be the general and war hero she once was. Tomorrow, she would have to go back to doing something she was bad at: convincing people to do what was right.