Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter twenty-four The Royal Griffin

The music inside the locked city is calm and meditative as we bust through the gate and rush towards the palace.
Elizabeth doesn’t even bother ringing the bell for the butler to come down, pulling me straight to the lilac room.
“I know it probably feels silly to waste time packing books but some of these are very dear to me.” She explains as she starts pulling volumes from the shelves. 
“That’s fine.” I never really understood books but then I’m also not a walking encyclopedia, like Elizabeth. “Can I help?”
“If I pull out the volumes I need will you stack them on the table?”
“Sure.” I look at the books as they pass by, books on minerals and metals, art and science and then to my surprise the entirety of the Delarouge series. 
“Can I ask?” 
She looks up and sees me holding the red volume “My mom gave me those.”
“Is your mom…you know?” It’s funny her dad’s notorious throughout the land but the thought she must have a mother too never even crossed my mind.
“She’s alive but she lives in Cygne, she never wanted to come here.”
“Maybe we can visit her since we’ll be travelling anyway.”
She chuckles dryly “I doubt it.” Before getting up on her toes and pulling down a small purple booklet hidden on the top of the bookcase “All right that should be all of them. 
She wrestles the books into a big duffel bag and some smaller purses before admitting.
I’d normally ask Shayu to move these but I don’t want to explain why half my collection needs to move to the ship so I’m afraid we’ll have to carry these ourselves. You take the small bags, I’ll grab the big ones.”
I cross my arms defiantly “I’m not weak just a bit-”
“You’re hurt, the only reason I’m letting you carry anything is that we need to be on the docks in time.” She sounds stern but fair. I can’t really say much in return so I pull two smaller bags crosswise around my shoulders and hiss at the weight. 
Why the hell are books this heavy?
“Now keep moving and ignore anyone we may run into. I want it to look like we got nothing to explain and it’s all sorted out.”
“All right?”
She leads me down staircase after staircase until we end up in a large underground space that seems to stretch onward forever. “How?  Since when is this here?” This place must extend beyond the locked city right?
“As far as I’m aware it was here before we moved here, the hangar obviously…the ships are…” her eyes drift away from the war machines.
“Your father’s?”
“I suppose?” She takes a deep breath “But mine is this way, come on.” She rushes off to the side and then follows the rows of enormous ships until we make it to one next to the concrete wall of the space that’s a fraction of the size.
The balloon is red canvas with a golden bird printed on the side.
It looks small in comparison with the rest but there’s still an entire  house mounted underneath it.
“You’re telling me that balloon can carry all this?”
“Yup, I call her the Royal Griffin.”
“She’s beautiful.” 
“Thanks.” She walks to the door, pulls out a small stepladder and then stops dead in her tracks “The key, I need the key.” She grunts “All right, wait here. I’ll be right back.”
“You want me to wait here in plain sight?” I ask nervously.
“Don’t worry, no one ever comes here. I’ll be back quickly I promise.”
“All right…” I set the bags down, then sit on the steps. “Just be quick.”
She tosses a quick salute in my direction and dashes to the door.
I feel like this is somehow a repeat of when she left me in the lilac room that first time. 
The fear of being caught nagging at my throat as I try to stay calm and pass the time.
I need a distraction.
I rummage through the bags of books to find anything interesting to stare at.
Then come across a book called ‘guns through the ages’.
All right, I’ll bite to that.
I open the book on a random page and see a beautifully constructed weapon spread out over two pages, a sleek, smooth design with a matt black finish.
Attention grasped, I start flicking through.
By the time I look up again, I wonder how much time has passed. 
In times like these, I wish I had a watch.
It feels like at least ten minutes have gone by.
Maybe she’s in trouble?
Should I go look for her?
I stand, then feel a chill go up my back as I hear a pair of voices that don’t sound like Elizabeth at all.
I have to get out of sight!
Heart thumping and cursing myself for not securing a safe place straight away, staring at paper guns instead.
I have to hide.
But the books!
If they find those that would be a dead giveaway.
I pull the bags around myself and then rush to hide myself behind the ship.
The pressure of the bags on my shoulders is uncomfortable to say the least and the straps rub against the bruises. 
But I push through the pain and drop it all as quietly as possible when I’m behind the ship.
With bated breath, I listen. 
The voices sound like they’re just around the corner and they sound like…
Speaking in that same awkward tongue Elizabeth uses sometimes.
I look gingerly around the corner and find four children with jet black hair and brown skin running up and down the hangar yelling and laughing in Cygnian.
Who are these kids?
What are they doing here?
Elizabeth said no one ever comes here.
More important than any of that, I have no idea what they’d do if they found me.
I go back to the back and sit down on the cold concrete floor.
As I feel the rock-hard material all I can think is ‘please don’t find me’.
It feels oddly nostalgic.
I close my eyes. 
Try to breathe calmly.
And wait.
Suddenly Elizabeth’s voice shrieks out in Cygnian and my shoulders jump. I have no idea what she’s saying but the children respond with sighs and whines.
Then the sound of laughing dies away. 
“Over here.”
“Oh thank heavens. I wasn’t sure, did you drag all the books behind the ship by yourself?”
I shrug.
“We should have put them behind the ship to start with,” Elizabeth grumbles to herself.
“Don’t worry about it, do you have the key?”
Her expression falls “Uh, yeah, right here.” She opens the metal door and makes an inviting hand gesture while saying some elegant-sounding words that mean exactly nothing to me. 
“Excuse me?”
She chuckles “I said ‘be welcome and come in.”
“All right.”

Just beyond the door, I find a staircase leading up that ends in a long hallway moving side to side.
“Which way?” I ask Elizabeth as she’s standing behind me on the steps.
“The cockpit is to the right at the end of the hallway.” She assures me.
“And the books?” 
“You can drop them in the hallway for now. I’ll bring them to the library later.”
“You have a library in here?”
“Only a small one. Nothing near to what I used to have in the lilac room…but then I also have a lot fewer books.”
“Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine.” She waves the remark away but I have a creeping suspicion she’s putting on a brave face for me.
Best to play along I guess.
“All right, let’s go pick up Himowa and Yobu then.”
“Yes! Let’s.” She passes me in the hallway and strides her way to the cockpit. 
There are round porthole windows set in every door, I peek through one of them and find a kitchen that looks surprisingly recognisable.
“You have a Jigani kitchen?”
“I wanted to take on a Jaobainu chef for my trips so yes.”
I cock an amused eyebrow “So I’m your chef now?”
“What? No! No that’s not what I meant at all. I mean this ship was meant for me to travel to Cygne and back but I can’t cook so a cook would have to come along and…well I guess I have four cabins so a butler and maid would fit as well but-”
“I’m kidding, don’t worry.” 
“I just expected your cook to be Cygnian.”
“And miss out on braised pork belly and noodled soup? Not a chance!” She opens the door to the cockpit.
And the light comes streaming in.

The cockpit is almost entirely made of glass held together with brass beams that arrange the windows into a five-sided prism. In the middle is a large chair made from cloudy glass in front of a console with a large steering wheel and a sizable collection of pullies, levers and buttons. 
Looking out into the garage I notice a bright light at the end of the tunnel. 
Elizabeth sits down while putting on a pair of leather gloves and asks “ready?”
“I was ready about half an hour ago.”
“Right.” She opens a valve, flips a switch and puts her hand on the steering wheel. “The acceleration is a bit jarring for first-time fliers, I recommend you take hold of my chair.”
“Okay?” I do as instructed and the moment my fingers have a grip she pulls a chain down. The machine rumbles and coughs and then leaps forward pushing me back with what seems to be an invisible slap in the everything.
The world zips past like a dream on drugs and I hold on for dear life. 
The bright light grows bigger and bigger until we leap on through and then I feel myself getting pressed down as the machine lifts off the ground.
My ears are aching in my head and I feel a strange mix of wonder and terror as we narrowly pass the trees, climbing higher by the minute.
“It’s only a short trip to the docks so I think we can fly on the low for now.”
“I have no idea what that means but if you say so.”
“It means I’m going to stop climbing and you can let go of my chair soon.”
“That’d be nice yes.”
She pushes a lever gently forward and just like that the pressure I’ve been feeling dissipates as the ship rights itself and takes on a constant speed.
“How was that?” She asks.
“Terrifying, but could have been worse.”
“Good, we’ll be doing it again as soon as we pick up Himowa and Yobu. Also, could you do me a favour?”
“What is it?”
“You mind putting on a kettle?”

I head back to the kitchen, rummage through the shelves and cupboards until I find a kettle and then look for water…
There’s a faucet in this copper beam that runs down the wall…
I open it gingerly. 
A massive spray of liquid shoots out, shattering on the inside of the teapot.
I quickly close it again and find it’s already halfway full.
I smell.
Smells like water.
I dip my pinky in it.
Tastes like water too.
Okay good, it’s water!
I head over to the firebox.

By the time we land again I have a pot of oolong at the ready.
Elizabeth walks into the kitchen holding a small box wrapped in paper.
“I haven’t spotted Himowa and Yobu yet but the two hours haven’t passed so I’m not too worried. However, since we have some time to kill I thought I’d give you your birthday present.”
“You got me a present?”
“Got a problem with that? There’s a challenge to her tone and I shake my head.
I take the box, it’s heavier than I expected. Elizabeth gets up to pour the tea while I pull off the wrapping paper. I open it and gasp at the weapon contained in there. It’s black steel with sleek geometric patterns cut into the body, the handle is cold, shimmering black and carved with a diamond pattern to improve grip.
“It’s not onyx, it’s obsidian they look alike but it’s softer, it’s also pretty heavy,” Elizabeth explains pointing at the handle. “I noticed you have a bit of a correction upwards so I imagined you may want a bit more heft, Xjaa assisted me of course, I’m nowhere near an expert on firearms.”
“How much did it cost you-?”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“I said it doesn’t matter.” She repeats sternly.
“Thank you.” I wait for her to finish pouring and then give her a hug. “You know I won’t ever be able to give you a gift that’s half as nice right?”
She shrugs “The point of giving a gift isn’t to get something in return, it’s to make people happy.”
“I guess.” 
“So now all that’s left for us to do is wait for the others to get here, fly off to the horizon and find a nice shooting range in a country we don’t know and shoot some rounds.
I laugh “I’d like that yes”
“We should wait in the parlour.
We talk about plans and the great beyond. Elizabeth pulls a book from her collection and opens it to a map of the world. Picking out places to see and things to do.
When our cups drain I pour another one.
And another.
A small hint of worry starts to form in the pit of my stomach as I heat water for more.
The second pot goes cold as we’re both full and Himowa and Yobu are still not here.
The hint of worry is growing bigger, eating its way through the minutes on Elizabeth’s watch.
“What time is it?”
She pulls out her watch “Half-past seven.”
“They should be here already.” I want to scream. There’s a pitch-black ball in my stomach and I want to scream and let it out.
Elizabeth tries her best to sound lighthearted as she suggests “Maybe packing takes longer than expected? Do you want to go and check?”
I nod.
We hurry to grab our coats and rush to the restaurant together as the ball of worry grows bigger and bigger and I’m squeezing Elizabeth’s hand as I drag her through the streets.
The moment Elizabeth and I reach the door I know something’s wrong.
I don’t even know why it’s just a feeling.
I try the door, it’s unlocked.
I slam the door open and rush on in, Elizabeth trailing behind me.
Then my whole world shatters.

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