Excerpt from Chapter 2 of The Rooftops of Lakortia
Aaliyah: The Gift, and the Heartswood.
Aaliyah looked back to check that Orin was still following her. She knew they were being followed, though she hadn’t seen a single sign of pursuit, it was a feeling she couldn’t shake. The neighborhood of modest waddle and daub dwellings beneath the rooftops she crossed was giving way to a newer portion of Forum Heights where the newly rich had been building ostentatious villas, small by comparison to the older families up on the Heights themselves, but with a key feature she thought might allow them to escape their pursuers. She needed a house with an open interior garden and a compluvium. The compluvium, the square opening in the roof of many of the wealthy merchants and nobility of Lakortia, was a relatively new architectural fashion brought over from the Edeline Kingdoms from across the Salvian in the last ten years. It was a feature that made more sense to Aaliyah in this arid city than in the jungle lands where it was invented. Most compluviums spilled into an impluvium built into the floor, which was, in turn, connected to a cistern under the house. Once again, she thought, my mind dwells on useless facts when I’m flustered.
She was indeed flustered, for Orin’s reappearance in her life, and under such rare and strange circumstances, was having a discombobulating effect on her feelings. She knew this for only when she was shaken did her mind pump random bits of knowledge into the forefront of her thoughts. It had taken much effort to control her mind thus, and the sudden lack of discipline was dangerous considering the circumstances.
There, the red tiles that graced the roof of the building she was currently running on were discolored in a way that was characteristic of a cache of clay found across the Kortian Bay fifteen years ago that had run out eleven years ago. The single ring of the bell she heard in the distance had a timbre that she could identify as having more tin than normal, which meant that it was a bell of Fiery Daremdon, and that it was marking a third of the hour gone, for the Daremdonians reduced all common measures into three. So her thoughts ran with every observation, across and over knowledge that she never forgot, but that at times like these she could not control. Orin, Gremselash, the cave, the queen elephant bee and her memories were still clear in her mind as if the trauma of the colony’s destruction was Aaliyah’s own to suffer again and again. All these memories were throwing her off terribly, for to her Orin seemed like a character from a novel come to life. The Aaliyah that had known Orin for one night, that had held a knife to his back, and not long after kissed him in a ray of moonlight and adolescent delight, she wasn’t real. She was just the pretty girl from a story that had ended, a story that the grown Aaliyah loved, but as much for its episodic finality as for anything else. Orin’s place in the story and in her life was no more than a mythic spirit who introduced the girl to a larger world of men. Even when she took Dale into her bed, Orin had crossed her mind only briefly. But there he was, grown up, injured, on the right side the fight, but the foolish side of the evening. Still handsome—though as a man more than the boy of her memory—and he still had that laughter in his eyes that she remembered, and was the part of his story she most treasured. One thing is certain, she thought, I have to stop reading those Prothenian novels. They all seemed to Aaliyah to be written by undersexed noblewomen, and her current reaction to Orin was proof of their effect on her.
She thought to herself: wasn’t there more to that night than the kiss and the melted ice feeling she had in her stomach that came with it? The queen bee’s memories also held fragments of his childhood memories, and she could still feel the desperate fears and pains reserved exclusively for the homeless, starving orphans of the world. That night long ago she was outside herself for the first time, if not truly seeing the world through another’s eyes she had felt with another’s heart, which might have proved more potent an experience than she had considered before. She had awoken from childhood that night in more ways than one.
Aaliyah saw a suitable villa just a few blocks away southeast on a small slope. It had a large open garden and two compluviums, one above a chamber adjacent to the garden. She led Orin to that roof and over it to the open garden that must have been a hundred feet long, and forty feet wide. She was pleased to see an opulent fountain, far too large and garish for the size of the garden, sitting in the middle of the garden like a marble mushroom. She leapt to it, and motioned Orin to join her, which he did. He almost lost his footing on his bad ankle, but caught himself in time to save face.
“Follah, step where Ah do only, and make no noise,” she said to him. Jumping towards the chamber where the impluvium was built into the floor, she caught the lip of the ceiling between the chamber and the garden with one hand and swung out over the impluvium alighting with almost no perceptible splash in the foot deep water. Crouching, she spun all the way around taking in every detail. So far she noticed neither restless inhabitant nor diligent servant. It was going well. She beckoned Orin to follow her, and he did, landing with a slightly larger splash than hers on his one good foot. She smiled at him, and he smirked. She tiptoed through the water in the direction away from the garden, and said “Wait here.”
She leaped out of the water to one of the gargoyles that hung out from the edge of the compluvium whose mouths acted as fountains for the rainwater. She pulled herself over the side, and looked again in the direction from whence they had come. Still no one seemed to be giving chase, but she had that instinct to mistrust her eyes. She ran over the roof towards the garden again, leapt onto the fountain, then out to the other side, ran up to the apex of the eves, and down the other side. Then she retraced her steps back to the garden fountain. Once there, she checked the herbs growing near the fountain and saw an oregano bush she could reach and yanked a large sprig of the aromatic leaves from it, tucking them into her belt. She repeated her leap to the chamber with the impluvium and tiptoed to Orin who waited patiently on the other side. She split up the oregano sprig giving half to him, and then started rubbing her body with it as if it were a sponge. Without having to be told, Orin copied her actions. Then she pointed to the four foot, fat-bodied urns on both sides of the impluvium, and crouched behind it on the side opposite the garden. Orin did the same. She looked up through the compluvium, and waited.
Sometime passed with her staring through the conference of gargoyles above who seemed to be looking about wildly with the same intentions as she. They were not carved, but gypsum plaster casts, which meant they were cheaper, (made in the last five years, probably by the Parisi family casters who served the families who couldn’t afford true marble). She looked across the pool of water at Orin briefly and at first almost jumped up because he didn’t appear to be there. She focused closer, and there he was, almost blending in with the wall behind him. He looked to be a part of the wall, almost like he was a fresco of a shadow.
Right before her mind started searching for an appropriate fresco style that matched the stealthy Orin’s form, a true shadow passed overhead. She looked up again into the star-studded night sky and watched another shadow, and then another leap over the compluvium opening. Another dozen shadows passed and were followed by a moment’s silence. She checked the garden through the crack between the wall and the curve of the urn. On the large vulgar fountain in the center of the garden squatted a Maganhar of the tracker variety called Stealcians. These grotesque creatures with their grey skin and blackened limbs that burned to the touch, noses pulled back from the faces with iron collar that wrapped about their heads, were familiar to Aaliyah for she had faced a few before, though so far she had avoided challenging their large clawed cousins known to her as Befylan. She had seen those beasts from afar, but never faced them. Then there were the eyes—always those tragic screaming eyes—on both varieties that made her almost ill. She could draw one conclusion from this night if nothing else; the Stealcians were the first real proof that the Dunad agent was working with the Eluvenoi.
The Stealcian was sniffing in the air, then it sniffed the fountain basin by its own feet, and then it sniffed the air again. One last time it drew in breath through its nostril’s slits. It stared long and hard at the urn where Orin hid. It raised itself to its full lanky height, and made a loud barking noise three times through its semi-attached lips. The tendrils that attached the upper and lower lips trembled with the sound, and Aaliyah, in an attempt to look away from the thing, looked down. A shiver of revulsion went up her back, for she had forgotten that these things were naked, and male. Then it turned and leapt to the roof where Aaliyah had hoped to lead it. Then it was gone.
Aaliyah looked to Orin, who had seemed to reappear from the shadow of the urn he hid behind, and she held up a hand to signal him to wait. A few moments passed in quiet stillness till finches started fluttering about the garden cautiously. Then a shadow passed over the compluvium, causing her to shrink back from her relaxed position.
She checked the garden; it did not land there, whatever it was. She looked back through the gargoyles, and watched another shadow pass. It was winged, wide as a man is tall, and it had a bulbous head, but it was moving too fast for her to pick up any more details. The finches had disappeared again, and the second shadow was followed by a third and a fourth. Then a group of three passed overhead, their bat-like wings cutting through the air. One landed beside a compluvium gargoyle, and Aayliyah got a close look at the creature. Its body was sinuous and looked broken in places, as if it had been pressed into its current form in a mold made by a ruthless artisan. Its stubby, crooked legs ended in vicious talons that crushed the gargoyles body that stuck out over the impluvium. Its head was misshapen and knobby, with long asymmetrical jaws that wagged back and forth, a forked tongue dancing between its dozens of fang-sharp teeth, some broken and jagged, and others long as a dagger. However, when she saw the eyes that had that clearly screaming quality, her disgust was almost matched by the horror caused by the nature and density of the cloud of creatures that passed over her head. A new Maganhar, one as yet unheard of by her or her confederates, spread its veined wings wide, reached its abominable head down to the gargoyle, and crushed the plaster statue’s head in its jaws, snapping the metal frame within it like balsawood. It flapped its wings twice, lifting off the mangled statue at its feet, and joined the cloud of hundreds of its kind as they flew into the night.