An exerpt from Royal House, by Heather McDougal
Ruskin stood about as Con checked all the parts of the Dragonfly. He didn’t really know what he was doing, but he hoped that Ruskin would go away if he stalled long enough. The wind-barque looked in excellent health, its long steel legs smooth and shiny as ever, and the brass fittings gleaming like new.
“Well,” said Con, putting his foot on the lowest foot-hold, “It was nice meeting you. Thanks so much for your help.”
Ruskin smiled and nodded, but did not go away, and Con began to sweat a little, thinking of the little man up in the cabin, asking questions.
“Does it travel fast?” he asked, as if to prove Con right.
“Uh, yes, I suppose so.”
“How fast does it go?”
Con tried to think how to explain knots and wind-directions to someone who had lived all his life in a forest.
“Uh, well, it goes faster than a, um, beast running…?” said Con, hoping that would suffice, but Ruskin went on smiling up at him.
“What kind of beast?” he asked, and Con almost groaned.
“I don’t know what kind,” he answered, somewhat shortly. “I don’t know what kinds of beasts there are in the Forest.”
Ruskin nodded his head knowledgeably. “A vine snake?” he suggested. “They are quite fast, faster than a man can run.”
“Yes,” agreed Con soberly, “definitely faster than a vine snake. Now I really must be going. Goodbye,” and he climbed up toward the hatch.
But Ruskin went ahead and asked the question that Con was dreading. “Can I come with you?” he asked. “I have always wanted to fly through the air.”
Con, whose head was inside the cabin by this point, froze.
“Uh…” he said, thinking desperately. “It’s not as, uh, great as it sounds. You can get airsick and -”
“Airsick? What’s that like?”
“It’s when your stomach gets upset at the motion of the flying. Also, it’s pretty scary. And I’m not a very good pilot, either.”
“What’s a pilot?”
“The person who flies the machine.” Con took another step upward, hoping that would be enough to send Ruskin away.
But the little man had his foot on the bottom step, ready to climb up. “I don’t mind. I would like to experience this, even if it is frightening.”
Con shrugged mentally. “All right, just make sure you sit in the back. And I can’t fly very well if you ask me questions, so please keep quiet.”
“Oh, of course, of course!” promised the little man, and swarmed up behind him. Once inside, he peered around the cabin wonderingly, touching the plate glass and the polished wood panels in awe. “This is very beautiful,” he said, but Con ignored him.
Pulling the lever to close the hatch, Con muttered, “Hang on,” and pulled the ‘up’ knob. The Dragonfly leapt nimbly into the air, and Ruskin fell over onto the back couch. Glancing back over his shoulder, Con caught an expression of surprise and fear on the little man’s face. It was clear that he had not understood a word Con had said beforehand about how frightening it could be.
The Forest was a bumpy green sea below the slopes. Con, who was beginning get a feel for the wind-barque, turned the thing and flew west, heading toward the distant smudge of sea. He could hear the little man breathing heavily behind him whenever he righted the craft, which kept leaning. It was not a steady ride or a smooth one, but they passed over the greenery below without much trouble. Con was surprised, then, when Ruskin groaned behind him.
Turning, Con saw that Ruskin was lying curled up on the floor, his face ashen. His eyes were squeezed shut. Con cursed under his breath and adjusted the little ship to hover, trying to set it so it would stay perfectly still, then walked back and knelt by Ruskin.
Just at that moment the cabin of the Dragonfly lurched, and Con was thrown into Ruskin, narrowly avoiding putting his knee in the little man’s face. Cursing, he turned toward the controls, but the wind-barque seemed to right itself, so he reached instead for the basket of supplies the West Wind had given them.
Sure enough, inside was a bottle of spirits, probably some kind of fortified wine. Con carefully tipped a little into Ruskin’s lips, corking it as the little man sat up spluttering.
“What was that?” Ruskin demanded, wiping his mouth. “It tastes bad.”
“That was wine,” Con said shortly, putting the bottle back in the basket. Then he turned accusingly to Ruskin.
“See here,” he said severely, “You said you didn’t mind if it was frightening.”
“I don’t mind,” the little man said, “But I’m still frightened.” He looked out the window. “Are we supposed to be in this tree?”
Con’s head jerked up, just as the Dragonfly lurched again, tipping them down the floor, and he had a brief glimpse of a huge branch, like a great mossy arm across the bows of the wind-barque, before he was tipped out the hatch like a spider from a cup. Falling, he had the confused impression of hands with scratchy fingertips, and lots of leaves, before he lost consciousness.
When he awoke, Con was alone. The ground under his cheek was smooth and mossy, flecked with flowers the size of his little fingernail.
Lifting his head, he groaned in agony and let it drop again. Perhaps his back was broken, or his neck. He tried moving his fingers, with better results: he wasn’t paralyzed. He moved his head a little, experimentally, and found he had a crashing headache.
Very slowly, he rolled over and looked up toward the sky.
Leaves and flowers, ferns and vines: so he wasn’t dead, then. Upside-down, he saw the twisted roots and massive trunk of the Master Tree, and groaned. Back again! Was he doomed to go in circles?
Sitting up was terrible: he was stiff all over, and his back seemed to have been turned to wood. His head felt like it might shatter.
Sure enough, there was Baba’s hut, in a slightly different position now. The intricate carvings glowed at him across the clearing, though many of the plants that grew on the walls seemed to have mysteriously died or fallen off.
Grunting, Con stood up and staggered toward the hut, thinking of Baba’s tea, and then stopping when he thought of her dinner invitation. Better not go inside, he thought.
Staring up at the little house, Con thought it looked slightly more dilapidated than he remembered. Insects of all kinds crawled over it, swarming. Con shuddered, wondering where the bugs had come from.
“Baba!” he called. “Excuse me! Baba?”
A head poked out of the window, the white bun falling to one side as Baba squinted at him. She had tiny glasses on the end of her nose, and she peered at him remotely.
“Who is calling me?” she asked.
“It’s me, Baba – Con!”
“Con? Con? I don’t recall any Con.”
Con felt chilly, and noticed the light in the Forest was getting dim with the lateness of the day. “I had tea with you this morning! Don’t you remember?”
The old lady squinted at him again, then shook her head. “I’m afraid not,” she said, “I don’t know anyone named Con, though I’ve met a great many people. I remember each one.”
“But -” Con began, but the head was withdrawn and the window closed firmly.
Knowing Baba’s preference for politeness kept Con from shouting, but the darkness was coming on quickly, and he wasn’t certain what to do. Ruskin seemed to have disappeared. Was he still up in the Dragonfly, wherever it was, all rolled up with his eyes shut? Con peered up through the gathering dark at the top of the Master Tree. It looked different, suddenly, than it had in the morning: less beautiful, more awe-inspiring, and a little fearsome in its huge darkness. And the shape seemed different, though Con couldn’t say how.
Way up in the profusion of leaves, far, far above, Con thought he could see something glimmer. Was it one of the legs of the Dragonfly? Though he peered and stared, he couldn’t be certain. He was just going to have to wait until morning.
As he turned his gaze back to the hut, something touched his leg, causing him to look down. A small, silvery thing was climbing his pantleg, something remarkably like a large insect: but looking closer, Con saw it was a small machine, the merest tiny collection of cogs, clinging to his pants like a burr. It rolled itself slowly upwards, scouting.
Quickly, he picked it off and held it in front of his face, where it whirred and kicked, to no avail. “Whatever it is you want, I haven’t got it,” he told it, and set it gently down among the leaves nearby.
And as he did so, he saw, in the dim light, that there were hundreds like it, moving in the late light. Everywhere around the clearing they crawled, rolled, whirled, or skittered: tiny clockwork creatures, all moving, no two alike.
Con looked around for a place to sit down and think, a place free of the rustling, whirring machines. His head still throbbed, and his shoulder was definitely giving him trouble. Baba’s hut loomed, its chicken-legs glowing in the near-dusk, its door still shut tight. The more Con stared at it, the more something didn’t seem right, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
The Master Tree shifted slightly in the gloom, and Con again saw a silver glimmer, high in the branches. But the dark was coming down fast, and just then he saw a lamp go on in Baba’s hut.
I’ll just have to risk it, he thought to himself, and giving up on the place to sit, he walked to the hut and knocked as politely as he could on the door.
A curt voice inside said, “What?”
“It’s me,” Con said stubbornly. “I’d like to talk to you.”
“My name’s Con,” he explained again. “I was here this morning, and you gave me tea.”
The door opened a crack and a long nose poked out. “I’d remember giving you tea,” it said, “For I haven’t any left. It would have been lovely to have you or anyone to visit, if I got a cup of tea out of it.”
“But -” Con began, and then was suddenly struck with an thought. “Sorry, uh, I really don’t mean to be a bother, but do you have a sister?”
“Yes?” said the voice, and the door opened a little wider.
Con could see that the woman inside was actually quite a bit shorter than Baba.
“Ye Gods!” Con exclaimed, before he could stop himself. “I’m so sorry! It was your sister who offered me tea. You must have thought I was a loony!”
The door opened fully, and the little woman peered curiously out at Con. “Which sister?” she asked, finally. “I have two.”
“Two?” Con exclaimed, shifting his feet in the darkness. Something metallic crawled in his hair, and he brushed it away.
“Yes, two. Was she tall? Or slim and younger than me?”
“Oh, tall. She was quite kind, actually.”
The old woman regarded Con carefully from behind her spectacles. Her eyes were black and very intelligent.
“Kind, eh?” she said, almost to herself. “I’m not certain I would call her that. Still,” she opened the door further, “I suppose you should come in before it gets any darker.”
Con, absently picking a tiny lightning-machine off his sleeve, nodded gratefully at her as he slipped inside.
The inside of her house was warm and bright, and entirely different from Baba’s house. The structure was the same, but this house was absolutely piled with books, parchments, instruments, and measuring devices. In the far corner was a very beautiful orrery, its brass clockwork shining dustily while all the planets, enameled in different colors, slowly orbited a large sun covered in gold leaf. Next to it, on a shelf, were several wonderful-looking tools used for navigation – or perhaps for measuring the movements of the heavens.
All around the walls, and descending from the ceiling in a constantly-moving drift, were tiny cogs and flywheels, minute screws and twinkling springs, clinging to the beams and each other like a swarm of bees. Occasionally one would drop off into the mess below, and presumably roll or spring away back up the walls to its fellows.
A stool and a chair, both covered in papers which curled at the edges and were covered with dense, spidery writing, stood inconveniently in the mess. Muttering, the old lady lifted piles and shuffled clock-parts until there was room for Con to sit, then went to open cupboards and mutter some more at the lack of food.
“I don’t have much for dinner,” she said, “Just some bread and cheese. I don’t eat much,” and her dark eyes twinkled at Con. “My tastes aren’t as wide as my sister’s, so you needn’t worry.”
Con smiled shyly, glad that dinner would be something other than himself, and went on watching the delicate motion overhead.
Pushing aside a stack of books, the old lady laid a crusty brown loaf and some rather smelly cheese in front of Con before seating herself on the stool. Something fat and metallic rumbled under the table, and she kicked it.
“Quiet!” she said sharply, then turning to the bread with a very long, old knife, she began sawing briskly. “What is your name, again, young man?”
“Con,” he said, watching the bread peel away from the knife. It must, he thought, be very sharp.
“Ah, yes, I think you’ve told me several times, haven’t you, but I wasn’t listening. You may call me La.”
“Yes, or Baba if you like.”
“But that was what -”
“Oh, my sister is full of silly notions. She likes to hide her name. Baba is a fine title for any woman of our age and stature.”
“All right,” Con said, still not certain what he would call her.
The bread was filling and fragrant, and the cheese, when spread thinly, was delicious. Con ate hungrily, thinking with regret of the hamper full of Hesperion’s food in the Dragonfly.
“Now,” La, or Baba, said when he was done, “We’ll need to find you a place to sleep. If only I didn’t have so many measuring-devices! They clutter everything up – but I need them for my work, so I simply have to put up with it. Don’t mind the machines, they’re harmless.”
This said when a long, thin creature like a ferret was unearthed. It unrolled itself and skittered away on drill-bit legs, while Con drew back in alarm.
Finally, a space was made under the writing-table in the corner. Baba the Second – or perhaps he should call her Baba-La? – laid a thick blanket on the rug and Con gratefully wrapped himself it. In the dimness under the table, he could still hear the tiny crackling, tinkling noise of the machine parts on the ceiling. Baba-La went on muttering and pottering, until Con’s eyes closed and he fell into deep sleep.
© 2007 Heather McDougal