Chapter 9 of Gravity’s RevengePosted by in Uncategorized
Ceiling of Elders
Enchantresses craned their necks to watch the elders ascend on six wallways, black and white paths leading between columns of blue marble. Each elder enchantress towed a train of gowns. The ceremonial dresses were woven into each other, Lightened so they swayed and shifted behind the elders like multicolored tails of sea serpents. Hiresha had armored herself with her full entourage of dresses. To be taken seriously, she had even donned the official golden hump.
She had decided she had no choice but to voice her concerns for the Academy. The chancellor would denounce her for it, Hiresha assumed, and she rather hoped the Ceiling of Elders proved her wrong, even if it meant public embarrassment. Hiresha’s tongue curled in distaste. Her worries sat rancid in her mouth, and she had found no appetite for food that day.
Alyla would be one of those to see Hiresha’s disgrace. The enchantress had given the novice the fennec and the amethyst bracelet to hold. The fox chirped in rapid succession at Alyla, but even his antics failed bring a smile to her deadened face. She could not stop blinking, and Hiresha had noticed the skin around her eyes had been puffy and veined.
Minna scared her terribly last night. Alyla, a girl who finds speaking in public frightening.
With their swaths of clothing, the elders could not sit down with any degree of certainty. To avoid the awkwardness of having to reposition a store’s worth of gowns, no chairs awaited the elders. Instead, coiled silk hung between gilt posts, harnesses for the enchantresses to lean forward on in comfort. Hiresha stayed standing, as she feared to fall asleep.
On second thought, she gripped the rope. She hardly wanted the embarrassment of falling in front of all these women.
The chancellor, too, kept to her feet. Within the grotto of her oiled wig, her lips contorted in an expression directed at Hiresha that seemed to say the chancellor already knew what the provost intended and was thinking how best to ridicule her for it.
“This meeting,” the Chancellor of Precious Enchantables said, “was called to discuss the tragic, unfortunate, and undoubtedly self-inflicted deaths of Enchantress Miatha and a visiting lord.”
“Lord Tethiel died?” Hiresha’s hold on her purple lanyard tightened, the cord clumping into knots between her hands. She imagined Tethiel traveling down from the Academy, losing connection to the Skyway, and tumbling over the limestone cliff.
“The Ceiling does not yet recognize the Provost of Applied Enchantment,” the chancellor said. “For a point of clarification, the nobleman in question was Lord Yunderdones. In the midst of his tour two days previous, he slipped away from the other gentry. A witness report from Novice Emesea indicates that he ignored visitor guidelines and threw himself off the Academy Plateau.”
Balmy relief mixed within boiling worry in Hiresha. Two deaths in one solitary week. Perhaps the novice was mistaken, and he too fell.
To Hiresha’s left, the rector made a sharp noise of disbelief. Her fingers fidgeted over the ornamental daggers decorating her belt.
The chancellor turned her squint on the rector and her triumphant dome of white hair, a frizzy peak enclosed in a mesh of gold wire. The chancellor said, “The grandeur of the Mindvault Academy is the closest experience to the afterlife the living can attain. Yet it must not be associated with journeys to said afterlife. Any implication of acts of violence would distract potential donors.”
The elders faced each other over a granite surface patterned in four concentric spheres, the centermost green, and the outer a circle of red. On the other side of the design, an enchantress sighed, opening her hands to reveal mismatched gloves of clashing colors.
The chancellor nodded to her. “The Ceiling recognizes the Dean of Somnium Exploration.”
Brooches of jeweled flowers glittered in the dean’s grey dreadlocks as she spoke. “It is always students of hard enchantment who throw away the glorious gift of life. They—”
“The correlation does not equal causation,” Hiresha said. “The Grindstone’s students tend to have more debt than—”
The chancellor held up a hand. “The dean has the Ceiling.”
The dean cast a pitying look toward Hiresha and the weapon-strewn rector. “You must require your students to take more courses in the Somnarium, to reach the radiant oneness within.”
The rector’s column of hair tilted back as she scoffed. “Adding to an already overburdening curriculum would only—”
The chancellor closed a fist then opened her hand to another elder who was waiting with palms outward. “The Ceiling recognizes the Warden of Faceted Knowledge.”
Hiresha had opened her hands as well, but the chancellor had ignored her. I have to tell them now.
Age had bent the warden so far forward that the golden dome that decorated her hump was higher than her head. The warden also wore a mask of onyx, and she spoke in a brittle voice.
“The Ceiling of Elders has thrice rejected measures to construct barriers around the circumference of the plateau. Three, eleven, and twenty-seven decades ago respectively, similar measures were blocked.”
Hiresha flexed her fingers open and closed. The rector rambled on, and the chancellor refused to acknowledge Hiresha.
“It was decided the implementation of walls would give a prison-like atmosphere to a place dedicated to the infinite. Barriers of chain or stone would be anathema to the….Oh, dear. I lost my thoughts. What were we discussing?”
“The prevention of further depreciation of the Academy’s reputation through irreverent suicide,” the chancellor said. “The Ceiling recognizes the Dean of—”
Hiresha spoke first. “I have reason to suspect they were not—”
“Provost, if you please. The dean has the Ceiling.”
Hiresha had no intention of following the conventions, which would have her wait until all those older than herself had spoken. They must understand the danger. She threw a glove in protest into the center of the circles of granite. The purple fabric grazed the stone then flipped into the air. It tumbled down from the Ceiling. An enchantress below caught it before its amethysts could strike the floor. The fennec yipped.
The elders glared, stared, or raised an inquisitive brow. Hiresha’s exposed hand tingled in the tower’s chill. A purple garnet dotted midway on each finger, embedded in the skin. Hiresha felt a flash of uncertainty. I’m the youngest here. Could I be mistaken? Though her heart thumped, her eyes felt heavy and weary.
She said, “The Enchantress Miatha didn’t jump by her own will. Perhaps the lord did not either.”
“Take care how you implicate the Mindvault Academy with speculation.” The chancellor frowned at Hiresha’s bare hand. “The Ceiling remains to the dean.”
“The dean hasn’t a cohesive thought in her head.” Hiresha pinched her eyes shut then forced herself to speak. “The Academy dropped Enchantress Miatha to her death. The magics of Attraction may be weakening on the plateau.”
A chorus of gasps rose from the floor.
“She didn’t say what I thought, did she?”
Veins stood out in the chancellor’s neck. “The Ceiling will come to order.”
Despite the dismay, Hiresha felt relieved. She was still not certain if she had seen a true plummet or Tethiel’s illusion, but she now felt confident the following investigation would find the truth and save lives.
The Warden of Faceted Knowledge touched her black mask. “There have been no recorded incidents of—”
“Can you substantiate that, Hiresha?” the rector asked. She leaned toward Hiresha, and the woman’s black eyebrows jutted with stray white spines of hair. The daggers she wore on her sleeves flashed, more gilt scrollwork than blade.
For a moment of panic, Hiresha could think of no proof. Then her fatigue receded enough for her to find an answer. “I am prepared to take anyone into my dream laboratory, to view my memories.”
With a snap of silk sleeves, the chancellor passed the Ceiling over to the rector.
The dome-haired woman asked, “You saw the enchantress fall?”
“Not precisely, but given her facial expression—”
When the rector frowned, faint wrinkles crossed the liver spots on her ebony face. “Interpreting motive through expression is imprecise.”
Hiresha knew it was, but she had hoped that the Rector of Rarified Armament—a colleague of equally rare skill—would have supported her.
The dean flashed her mismatched gloves and spoke next. “Hiresha has an exquisite dream, even if it is monotonous and overly constrained. I trust she has reasons to think the way she does.”
Hiresha felt sick with resentment toward the condescension. Yet, she met the gazes of the elders. “If you won’t believe me, think back over these last days. Have you noticed any peculiarities in the enchantments? A slip? A misstep on the wallways?”
“You have been deceived,” the chancellor said. “The novices have tricked you with a prank. Had I known you would be deluded enough to cause this outburst, I would have forbidden it.”
“A prank?” The Rector of Rarified Armament wore frames of gold over her ears that extended in wing designs, and the metal was blinding in the sunlight. “This is hardly leaving her favorite chair on top of the Ballroom. Or tying her smallclothes to the side of the Grindstone.”
The frizzy-haired dean spoke next. “If a prank, does this mean Enchantress Miatha still lives?”
“Twice, a member of the convocation has feigned death by jumping. Both incidents led to expulsion.” The warden’s eyes widened within the holes of her mask. “Or were we discussing murders?”
“We most definitely were not,” the chancellor said, “because nothing so sordid occurs in the Mindvault Academy.”
The warden opened her knobby-fingered hands for permission to speak again. Hiresha did not wait for approval. She said to the chancellor. “I didn’t mistake a dress stuffed with straw as a falling enchantress. Why would you call this a prank? What do you know of it?”
The chancellor’s eyes darted over the circle of elders then up to the floor below them where enchantresses clutched their gowns in distress. The chancellor pawed through the clutter of amulets emblazoned with baboons and scarabs on her chest. Her twitching fingers rested on her access amulet, painted nails tracing around its circle designs.
When she at last spoke, her voice was measured and calm. “I know nothing of this incident. Except that anyone would judge it more likely that Provost Hiresha has committed a misjudgment than that a goddess’s enchantments have gone awry. If it was a prank, those novices involved will be expelled without tuition remittance.”
A suspicion itched Hiresha that the chancellor knew more. Hiresha wondered how the novices could be involved. Unless the chancellor knows Minna is a Feaster, who played a part in an illusion. Hiresha tried again to speak. “This was no common deception that—”
“The Ceiling goes to the Minister of Orbiting Bodies. I trust her voice of reason will dispose of this nonsense.”
The minister adjusted the several scarves strewn over her throat. Her silk was embroidered with constellations.
Hiresha held her breath, knowing the minister’s assessment would be respected. She had never failed to predict an eclipse or a star storm. Renowned for her precision and level-headedness, she had been named Minister of Orbiting Bodies despite her suspiciously masculine features, her height, and whispers that she was, in truth, a man wearing a dress.
“This morning,” the minister said, “I surveyed the valley floor by farglass. One rooftop of Stonton was cratered, likely by a fallen individual. Nearby at Half Bridge, the debris of the sleigh scheduled to arrive yesterday carrying Academy supplies was littering the streets. Children were sweeping the wreckage, and women wore the white of mourning.”
“The sleigh driver must have drunk overmuch wine,” the chancellor said. “He steered off the Skyway. Or the horse team panicked.”
The minister continued in her thready voice. “The fallen sleigh might be supporting evidence for Provost Hiresha’s theory, as unprecedented as the hypothesis may be.”
Hiresha felt the unbalancing combination of thankfulness for the minister’s collaboration as well as the terror of perhaps being right. She hoped she might yet be proven wrong, anything other than that the enchantments were disintegrating under their feet. What is happening to my Academy?
The elders looked no less shocked, the rector clutching the side of her head, fingers covering the gilt ornament surrounding an ear. The warden pressed a palm to the smooth blackness of her masked brow. The dean squeezed her eyes shut and chanted something under her breath.
“You do not understand what you say.” The chancellor stepped back from the ropes around the center of the Ceiling. Her sleeves fell about her boney elbows as she thrust outward with her hands as if to push away their words. “None of you do. The enchantments of the Mindvault Academy cannot be failing because….”
The chancellor’s wig floated off her head. She tried to catch hold of it but only succeeded in slapping her crown of lank and thinning white hair. By then her skirts had curled upward, and she had started to fall.
She screamed. She flailed her arms. In a wash of lace, the chancellor dropped in front of a window burning with afternoon sun and snowcloaked mountains.
Later, when Hiresha had time to view her memories in the calm of the laboratory, she would see that the chancellor flipped midair in an arc of blue and orange skirts and a kicking of slippers. Far from trying to catch her, the enchantresses standing below stood shocked or stumbled and flung themselves away. The back of the chancellor’s neck collided with the granite floor tiles. It sounded like two bamboo training swords cracking together.
In the chaos of the moment, Hiresha knew only panic, bright and hot as the blood flowing between the backstepping enchantresses. Alyla shrieked and dropped the fennec. The fox pattered forward to sniff the spreading red.
Next to Hiresha, the rector stiffened then tipped backward in a faint. The minister caught the larger woman but toppled with her to the Ceiling. Hiresha dashed down the wall but found the chancellor already beyond help.
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