Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The White Tower

Elkie waited until she was sure that no-one was looking, then she knelt by her chest and rested both her hands on its lid.  She relaxed her mind, clearing her thoughts, and moments later she could smell the tang of ozone from the sea as though she were hovering over it, and hear the cries of the gulls as though they were lazing on air currents next to her.  Her fingers tingled as she gripped something unseen and felt it flex, then she moved her hands just so and wrapped thin strands of air around the chest.  They bent and strained, pulling against the knot that she tied, and when she opened her eyes again the chest was floating just above the ground.  She waited, feeling dizzy, for the disorientation of being one moment in the air and the next on the ground to subside; the world seemed to spin before her eyes for a few moments like it did when she was horribly drunk.  Then it settled down, with just a metallic aftertaste in her throat, and she stood up again.
"Twenty epha to carry your case to your destination," said a light, even voice.  She turned to see the speaker, one of the handlers she'd been watching earlier carrying cases ashore.  She smiled,
"I'm sorry, it's really very light," she said, and gave it a little kick.  It jostled forwards a touch, not quite sliding but not obviously floating either.  The handler shrugged, and started to leave.
"Wait!  I'm looking for–" she started to say 'Magister' and then thought about what Captain Jerriss had said.  "I'm looking for somewhere to stay," she said.  "Somewhere... respectable."  She'd been thinking about saying that she had money, but quickly realised how dangerous that could be.  "Somewhere a lady might be seen in without any ill being thought of her," she added.
"The higher up the hill, the more expensive the room," said the handler gesturing.  Elkie looked, and saw that on one side of the harbour Wharfhaven rose upwards, while on the other side it was much flatter and seemed to spread out.
"Would there be any that you could recommend?"
"I don't stay in inns or hotels," said the handler.  "But I've taken luggage up to the White Tower a few times, for people posher than you.  So maybe you could ask there where you should stay?"
"Right," Elkie felt her cheeks heat as she blushed.  "Could I ask for directions...?"
"Follow the road there," he pointed, "and keep going left when you have a choice.  The White Tower's about fifteen minutes walking; it's white, and it's got a tower."
"Thank-you," said Elkie, now too embarrassed to ask anything else.
The streets of Wharfhaven were clean and narrow, wide enough for three people to walk side-by-side but not then for anyone to pass them.  The houses were densely packed together, usually terraced though often of differing heights, with painted doors and large, airy windows.  Most of the windows had window-boxes, though they grew herbs rather than flowers, and the windows all had curtains, often half- or quarter-drawn to preserve some privacy.  Apart from the briny sea-smell there were occasionally whiffs of ammonia that got rarer as she walked higher up the hill, earthy scents from gardens, and a soft, cinnamonny scent that seemed to drift in when the breeze dropped.  The hill was steep, but not impossible, and Elkie was very glad that she didn't have to carry the weight of the chest as well as her travelling bag.
The White Tower was easy to find, and when she walked up the gravelled drive and through the arched front-door, a young woman with a severe face and pulled-back hair hurried over to her, high-heels clicking angrily on the tiled floor.
"You're late!  And you're inappropriately dressed!  What are you thinking!"
"I'm sorry?" said Elkie, trying to put her travelling bag down.  The severe woman grabbed it and forced it back into her hands.
"You should be sorry!  Stop stopping and get moving!  They're all waiting for you!"
"Who are?" said Elkie, still trying to put her bag down.  "How can I be late?  I've only just arrived."
"You were supposed to be here an hour ago!  It was made very clear in the contract."
"What contract?"
The severe woman stopped trying to push the bag back into Elkie's hands and peered closely at her face.  "You are Melissa, aren't you?"
"No," said Elkie.  "I'm not.  I'm looking for a room to stay in while I visit the Magister."
"Oh.  What? Who?  Why are–?  What is–?"  The severe woman's face lost its hard set as she struggled to understand who Elkie was.  "The Magister?"
"Yes," said Elkie.  "I'd like a room please.  If you have one."
"The Magister's here today," said the woman.  "Are you a guest then?"
"Yes," said Elkie, hoping that this would help the woman out and get her room sorted out.
"Oh.  Oh!  I'm so sorry, I'm so very sorry, but I've – well, we've – been expecting Melissa and she's so late now.  Oh.  Oh, look leave your bags here, and of course we have a room for you.  Just go through, through the double doors over there to the terrace, that's where everyone else is.  I'm so sorry."
Elkie set her bags down, and laying a hand gently on the chest unlaced the knot of air that surrounded it.  It settled on the tiled floor with a gentle click.
"Those doors?" she said, pointing.  The severe woman nodded, and then hurried to the front door to look for the luckless Melissa.
"These doors," said Elkie to herself as she walked towards them.

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