|Chainmail bikini fashions from Utopia-Armoury|
Book 5, Chapter 21: Aniconic
“So. I’m standing on a beam, in mid-air, so high up above the clouds that I can’t begin to figure out how high it actually is. It looks like the beam leads down, through this spider web tangle of other beams, to a city that floats in the air above a cliff at the edge of high mountains, right where a huge waterfall tumbles off the edge to fall into the clouds far below.”
“Well, probably a big waterfall, and probably far below. ‘Cuz, you know, this is crazy. Oh, and the name of the place says the air is thin, which is probably why I’m short of breath, and for darn sure it’s cold. Oh! And there’s this building floating above us, too, linked to the city below the spider web. Just so that everyone knows, I’m assuming that the building above us is the temple where the glow cloud lives.”
“Eh, we only know two things about Vale, so it could be the Door, too,” Rose pointed out. “Are you feeling okay, Char Char?”
“Nope,” Charlotte said. “I just wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page before I made a fuss about this.” And she thrust out her right arm, rolled up her sleeve, and showed her Ur-Elven bracelet, the one that Scout had put on her back on Landing that night. It was glowing, a gentle, pulsing, pink. “I have never seen it this colour before.”
The empty sky exploded with bird’s wing flutter, and Ginger settled on Charlotte’s wrist, just below the bracelet.
“That,” Bruce announced, “Is weird.”
Meanwhile, Dora, still flying on the lift of the needfire, squatted down to look directly into Ginger’s eyes. “Oh, now you show up.”
Ginger took off, flew a tight circle around Dora, and settled back on Charlotte’s shoulder and let out a deep quork.
Brian, also levitating, floated over to Charlotte. “Can I have a look?”
“Guys?” Twelve said, “We have company.”
It was true. Coming up from the city were five, no six flying sharks, each mounted by blue warriors wearing harnesses of metal bits and leather straps and not much else, three men and three women. But, unlike the warriors of the White Fleet, their helmets were sleek and fashionable, and the metal plates that should have been armour looked, even at this distance, more ornamental than practical.
Maybe that was prejudice speaking, though. Charlotte wasn’t a big fan of chain mail bikinis, and hadn’t really expected to see three of them in the flesh. And the guys were wearing wrap around middles, almost diapers, like the outfit Sean Connery wore in that old sci fi movie that everyone had the poster for, and no-one had ever seen. Not Charlotte’s favourite look.
“So,” Brian said. “The welcoming committee is a fashion disaster. How else could this go wrong?”
“Do you even watch the news?” Twelve asked, impatiently. “These are the police, and we’re the under-class out-of-towners. Let’s focus on not being shot.”
“The under the what now?” Dora asked.
“Twelve is afraid we’ll get shot resisting arrest,” Rose explained.
“Of course he is. I know my cutie-patootie by now. I’m just wondering why he’s casting us as the hippies in this.”
“Because—“ Twelve began, but was cut off when the shark circled around them. One shark edged out in front of the others. The man riding it reminded Charlotte of her vision in the restaurant on Babylon. Which was to say, he was way to old to be riding around almost nude, and his pot-belly hung out over his harness and metal and diaper and stuff.
“Well met in joy, travellers. I am Beadle-Prodomus Ignoratus of Vale of the Thin Mountains offers you hospitality until the Moon sets on the Temple of the God Who Is In That Place; and a quick and easy return to your homes via the Door of Ressembly, should you have need of it.” He struck his fist to his chest as he spoke.
What Charlotte wanted to say was that they’d stay in Vale until they were dragged through the door at midnight. What she actually said was, “Well met in joy, Beadle-Prodomus Ignoratus. Kind as your offer of hospitality is, we are children too long from home, and would like to pass the Door as soon as possible.” Being the responsible one sucked, if she didn’t say so herself.
“Very well, then,” The Beadle-Prodomus began, but the leading women help up her mailed fist. “Enough! What of the sorcerous power seen in our potentiometers? Such eldritch might cannot be allowed to wander Vale unchecked!”
“Patience, First Sword. Do any of these children look like ancient and puissant sorcerors?”
Hunh. First Sword. Charlotte wondered if the bikini-clad warrior knew that the Fourth Sword of Aphasium was dissing her behind her back.
The First Sword kneed her mount. Obediently, the air shark hovered up and forward, so that she looked straight down at Brian. “Puissant, no. But perhaps there are depths, here.”
But another shark’s head was wiggled between the mounts of the Bead-Proctor and the First Sword, like a carp in the fish tank at a restaurant. The woman on it came into view, holding a wood-and-glass box up in front of her. “Fortunately, even though I am but the Second, I had the sense to bring a field potentiometer with me.” The box had gold flaps, almost like bunny ears. Except that a harsh word of command, they both tilted towards
Who laughed. “Oh, I see what’s going on here. That’s my Cousin Emily’s spell you’re picking up. Her technomagic draws on the needfire. Like me.” She held out her hand, palm up, almost, but not quite, back at the Second Sword of Vale of the Thin Mountains. A play of light-of-molten-gold rose from it in a pillar of fire, and tendrils of the rosy pink light rose from Charlotte’s bracelet to curl around it.
“Hunh,” Dora said.
My thoughts, exactly, Charlotte, well, thought.
Swords appeared in the hands of the First and Second. Without even being aware of it, the Pearl Harmony was in Charlotte’s hand in reply, as she jumped to stand on the invisible balustrade that “protected” anyone foolish enough to walk these paths of the high air.
Beside her, Bruce matched her moves, with baton in one hand, and one of his sister’s trademark pistol crossbows in the other.
“Enough!” Shouted the Beadle-Prodomus. “That is an ancient power, but not older than the God of Vale. We would have signs in the Forgotten Name if it came to us in anger. Put your weapons down.”
The First and Second, and the three unintroduced warriors behind them, sheathed their swords. So Charlotte did the same, jumping down to the floor.
“Girl!” The Second Sword shouted. At her, Charlotte wondered? “I smell the primitive magic on your blade. Are you sure that you can sheathe your precious little fetish without drawing blood?”
Charlotte felt anger in her cheeks. She didn’t even know this woman, and she was trash-talking her sword. She bit her tongue. She’d learned the hard way that if you can’t say anything nice, you probably shouldn’t say anything.
“Just as well,” the Second said. “Imagine if she had the skill to use it, too.”
Charlotte bit her tongue even harder.
Bruce was loud. Everyone looked at him, now himself balancing on the invisible balustrade. “She took fourth blood against the Fourth Sword of Aphasium. “I don’t know if you get extra style points for that. What I do now is that the Fourth Sword said that that made her a match for you, First Sword.”
The First Sword snarled and urged her shark forward. “I’ll wipe that smirk from his lying face the next time I see him!” But she looked like she wanted to start with Bruce, and her hand was on the hilt of her just-sheathed sword.
Bruce, calmly, let his hands drop to the handle of his truncheon.
Which was too much for Charlotte. Without volition, without will, by the dharma path set in motion, she stood , on the shark’s withers, looking down on the First Sword, the Pearl Harmony Sword drawn and in her hand, but tucked in her left armpit, ever so much not threatening. Hunh, again, Charlotte thought. She’d had no idea that she could make that jump. Distantly, she wondered what would happen if she were thrown, and began to fall towards the ocean of clouds so far below.
Best not to think of it. “The Pearl Harmony Sword is the gift of the Dharma. It seeks only the wisdom of the narrow path. Shall we find it together, you and I?”
“You would challenge the First Sword of Vale, girl?”
“Again, I seek only the dharma of peace, and hope that you will, too. The Fourth Sword of Aphasium wants to provoke you. Instead of giving in to your anger, you should ask yourself why.” Behind her, Charlotte thought she heard Bruce stir. Or was that imagining things? Anyway, not having anything she could think of adding, she went with the most impressive move she thought she could pull off, and backflipped off the shark onto the balustrade below, landing on point. Hey, look, everybody, I’m a ballerina, she thought to herself!
Except that instead of cool dancing clothes, she was stuck with her Tatammy Fatigues. Oh, well, at least it was better than a chain mail bikini.
For a wonder, it looked as though her words had had an effect. The First Sword took her hand of her hilt, and her mount slowly sank into the crowd.
Now that everything had gone quiet, the Beadle-Prodomus found his words. “I think we have had quite enough of brawls with intruders from these childrens’ dimensions. Would you like to see that armour-clad thug and his lackies back?”
“Professor Paradigm, here? Char Char: ask them if he was trying to get into the Temple!” Rose hissed from behind.
The Beadle-Prodomus turned to look at Rose. “Ah. The sword-fetish of your goddess. You seek it in the Temple, as did your co-dimensionist. I shall give you the same answer we gave him. It is not in the fane of the god who is in that place.”
The what the who now, Charlotte thought, but rather than sound like an ignoramus, reminded herself to ask Rose about it, later. The important thing is that Beadie-Butler was denying they had Auralia. Sure, whatevs, peep. Be back with a search warrant later.
“Now, if anyone else. . .” The Beadle-Prodomus’s voice trailed off, but more in that sarcastic way than if he was actually asking for input.
“If I may, sir,” said a voice from the back. “I will take charge of our guests and conduct them to the Door.”
“You, Sixteenth Sword?”
“I, Sixteenth Sword, think that a little hospitality might be in order at this point.”
“Very well, then. Please see that they are on their way as quickly as may be.”
And, with that, Charlotte watched five air sharks turn their tail flukes to them as one and swim away into the depths of the air, leaving only one, female, blue-skinned warrior. She, too, was wearing a chain-mail bikini, but, somehow, wore it better. She pulled on the reins with a firm but gentle grip that Charlotte could respect, and her mount turned sideways to them. “If any of you don’t feel up to walking down the beams to the city, you can ride in front of me. If need be, I can return for more.”
“Thanks, but I got this.” Dora gestured, and a golden disc of needfire appeared in the sky. Charlotte hopped down onto it, followed by Bruce and Rose.
“Ah,” the Sixteenth Sword said. “The needfire is not well-loved in Vale. But I suppose it will have to do.”
“What?” Dora asked. “It’s a power for good!”
“Like all cities in their day, Vale has not always stood for good. And Vale’s days are many.” The Sixteenth Sword urged her shark forward and down towards the city, with Dora keeping pace. Idly, Charlotte stuck her hand out far enough so that the shark could see it.
“Is it because Vale is so old that you cannot remember the name of its god?” Rose asked.
The shark seemed fine. Charlotte gently pushed her hand a bit closer.
“Some say so.” The Sixteenth Sword answered. “Ordinary cities have buried secrets, but Vale is built on air, and its past drops out of its basement. But I’m more inclined to think that we never knew the name. It reflects badly on a god to let something so important slide.”
Still, no flinch from the shark.
“Why is your city built on air?” Brian asked.
“The god ordained it in the beginning. As the air thickens and the seas rise, Vale would have to climb back up the slopes, anyway. It is said that the god prophesied that, at the end of days, Vale would beach itself on the summit of the Thin Mountains, first city, and last.”
Charlotte touched the shark. His skin was rough and, well, sharklike, but she gave it a gentle stroke. The skin rippled, and some hidden muscle pushed it firmly back against her hand. She stroked more firmly, and the shark snorted gently.
“Wait. The air is coming back?” Rose asked. “That’s . . . interesting. What? Will the Old World be a gas giant at the end of time?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Sixteenth Sword said. “It hasn’t nearly the mass for that. People say that because they like to say things about the end of days. Mostly so that they can rub people’s face in the fact that the Vale was the first city. We haven’t much else to be proud of, frankly. Think of what Aphasium could do with the River and the Falls. We just send our anicons down to harvest moisture for our sennet fields. And, yes, eventually, if the universe and our sun goes on long enough, the seas will refill and the air will be rich to breathe, right up the tip of the Thin Mountains, and, frankly, far higher than that, up on the continental plateaus, which, as Sixteenth Sword, I’ve had the dubious pleasure of visiting.”
“May I ask a question?” Twelve sounded almost polite. “Does any political authority come with being the Sixteenth Sword?”
“Only one-sixteenth as much prestige as being the First Sword. Now ask about the First Sword.”
“Does the First Sword—“
“Far too much for his own good,” The Sixteenth Sword said. “Why, if I—But I have only the skill to be the Sixteenth Sword.”
And with that, the shark rolled away from Charlotte’s touch as the city of Vale broke around them, streets between buildings, almost like canals seen from above, with people walking, and little fliers floating. The streets seemed empty for a city, though, and when they came over a square, set with an vaguely Greek-y arch in the middle, it, too, seemed a bit half-empty, with some people sitting, playing games at tables in the corner, and a few fencing matches here and there, but nothing like a real city bustle.
Oh, and there was the hunched, bigger-than-a-person, oily brown-green squid thing on a rack outside a store at one corner, the very sight of which made Charlotte’s neck hair rise.
“Quiet,” Bruce said.
“Vale is old, and its blood is tired. Besides, it is still the working day, and most are mounted in their anicons. Only those who’ve brought their mounts up for servicing are truly idle.” The Sixteenth Sword gestured at the squid thing. So that was an anicon. Good to know.
“Now, please come. I do not want it said on any dimension that Vale stands with juvenile delinquency.” The Sixteenth Sword’s shark bottomed out in its dive, and its rider sprang nimbly from the saddle to stand on the gravity-defying paving stones of Vale, at one edge of the square, and very close to the squid-thing. As Dora landed the team, with Twelve and Brian beside her, the warrior of Vale tied her shark off against a hitching post.
And that was the point where an oily, brown-green tentacle came swooping in to kill someone. At least, so Charlotte assumed. She didn’t stop to ask, having been getting ready to bisect it with an awesome draw-and-cut since she first saw it.
“Assassin!” The Sixteenth Sword said. But then more squids came crawling out of the nearest alleyways.
“Assassins?” Bruce asked, firing a crossbow bolt at the nearest.
“Who cares?” Dora asked. “It’s action!”
“Fine,” said Twelve. “As long as we’re not wrecking anyone’s livelihood here.”
“That’s sweet, Honey,” Dora answered, as she blasted a tentacle out of the air with a golden needle of needfire. “But I’m not sure it’s an option.”
Charlotte watched more squids advance, more tentacles stretch out, these ones writhing low. The Pearl Harmony Sword had cut one, but the others seemed to have caught on to the wisdom of keeping clear of Charlotte’s magic blade. “Guys?” Charlotte asked. “Do we have new enemies, or is this Paradigm again?”
More squid writhed in. A billowing smog was now forming at ground level, and Charlotte, looking down, was not surprised for one instant to see that, where it touched the pavement, the stone bubbled and smoked. Were it not for the teams’ Fatigues, they would probably be bubbling and smoking right now.
So of course the smog was rising.
“Paradigm. Definitely,” Rose said. “I am going to have very sharp words with him about the responsibilities of an educator!”
“Yeah,” Brian answered. “Right after we live.”