Back | Next

Chapter 1
Gewgaws, Ornaments and Hooey

Tab Vidler stared out over the Quentaris battlements towards the new sky-city hanging in the air, halfshrouded in cloud. It had appeared with the dawn on Quentaris's port side three days before. Tab could make out guards patrolling the parapets and sailors scurrying over its burgundy sails like insects. They were so close that Tab felt sure if she threw a stone she could hit one of them, but so far nobody on either side had thrown anything – not even words.

Verris's marines stood watch at the City Wall, while in the Archon's Palace the Grand Council squabbled over what to do. The new sky-city was smaller than Quentaris, but more nimble. It was easy to see how easily it moved. Still reeling from the assault by Tolrush, Quentaris was too weak to defend herself against further attack, let alone start one. Meanwhile, Quentaris, moored to the world below by a great anchor, drifted gently on the tide of the wind, and its people held their breath.

‘If they were going to attack they would have done it by now,’ Tab's friend Philmon muttered under his breath.

Tab could hear the long groans of the masts and the flapping of the vast sails above her. Somewhere in the city behind her a blacksmith hammered with the rhythmic clank of metal on metal. Merchants murmured as they traded with one another. Even the children played hooey in the squares in hushed tones.

‘Why are you whispering? It's not as though they can hear you,’ Tab snapped.

Philmon stared at her, surprised. ‘I have to get back to work, anyway,’ he mumbled, and slouched away with his hands in his pockets.

Tab rubbed her forehead. She was ashamed of being peevish with Philmon, but her head hurt. She had been casting about for an animal to mind-meld with for days, but all she was getting was a crackling noise. The fuzz inside her head made her irritable. She was also plagued with the fear that her skill had only been temporary – that she might never be able to do it again. What would that make her? Just an ordinary rift orphan. What would she be good for?

‘Philmon!’ she called after her friend. ‘I just wish something would happen.’

‘Hear, hear!’ called one of the marines. A rumble of chuckles rolled along the wall.

‘Look!’ growled another of the marines, Vrod the troll – pointing with a clawed finger adorned with brass rings. ‘You is getting your wish, little one.’

Vrod made Tab nervous. Sometimes he looked at her as though she were a snack.

Tab shaded her eyes with her hand. Vrod was right. A small vessel was setting sail from the sky-city and heading for Quentaris. She traded a glance with Philmon and they both broke into a run, heading to the old throne room in the Archon's Palace where the Grand Council met.

* * *

By the time the council members reached the harbour the small vessel was gliding into the port. All the bigwigs gathered on the wharf, surrounded by guards. The Duelphs and Nibhellines stood at the front, Tash Morley to the side, and the Archon cowered behind him. Tab and Philmon stood behind Captain Verris on tiptoes, or crouching, trying to get a better view.

Pickpockets took advantage of the distraction as Quentarans banked up five deep to peer over the walls and gawp at the visitors.

There were three in the boat, two males and a female. The first stranger climbed out and stood on the wharf. Tab couldn't help but stare. He was small, hardly taller than her, thickset and blond with friendly wide-set eyes. He looked like a child, but as she watched she could see that he had laughter lines on his face. She guessed his race was simply smaller than hers.

‘Ho there!’ he said with a grin and a wave.

‘Ho to you,’ replied Chief Navigator Stelka.

‘You're new to sky-trading, aren't you?’ the small stranger said, hands on hips.

‘What gave it away?’ Verris asked suspiciously. Verris – Lord of the pirates and captain of the marines was a favourite of Tab's.

‘Looks like the whole city has turned out for little old me.’ The stranger craned back, looking at the Quentaran sails. ‘You don't have any flags up. You didn't signal your docking port. You ignored our hails. You're ... how can I put this, you're a little rude.’

Tab scuttled closer to Philmon and whispered, ‘I wonder how many other sky-cities there are ...’

‘Lots of them, I bet,’ Philmon replied solemnly.

Tab bit her lip. New sky-cities might bring new friends, but others would bring fresh enemies. At least when an enemy city stayed in one spot on the ground you knew where it was. She was beginning to understand why the Archon might be worried.

‘We didn't mean any offence,’ Captain Bellgard said.

‘None taken!’ the stranger said with a broad grin. ‘Are you thinking of settling on the world below?’

The council members shifted on their feet and Tab wondered how many of them had been in favour of settling here. She could see the appeal of stopping in one place that might have all the resources the city needed, but wouldn't that make them sitting ducks for some larger city floating above? Either way Quentaris was going to have to boost her defences. Tab hadn't realised how vulnerable they were. She was glad these first visitors seemed friendly.

‘We are determined to return to our homeworld,’ Stelka replied.

The pint-sized visitor nodded. ‘Wise. There is a vicious predator on this world.’

‘Our scouting parties have not seen anything.’

‘It is not their season now, but it will be soon. You would do better to trade your supplies than set foot there again. Unless you have souls to spare.’

‘Thanks for the warning,’ said Commander Storm, head of the City Watch.

‘My name is Kel. I'm captain of that frigate over yonder. May I approach?’ He took a step forward, and the guards bristled. There was a rustle of fabric and a clink of metal as they readied their weapons.

‘Whoa,’ Kel said holding his palms up. ‘Rude and suspicious. You know, for most sky-cities trading is commonplace, almost tedious. There mustn't be much to do here, eh? So, what can I offer you?’ His two companions hoisted a chest onto the dock. ‘We have some incense. Very rare! Or gem stones.’ Kel bent down, fossicking in his coffer.

The Archon peered over Tash Morley's shoulder, keen to see inside.

‘None of them are useful for anything,’ Kel continued, ‘but some cultures like to display gewgaws and ornaments about their person to show how important they are. Made of glass mostly, strung along a strip of leather, or a chain of metal.’ He looked up to see Stelka and other council members placing a hand on the jewels around their necks or wrists. ‘Yes, like that!’ he said, beaming. ‘You know how to heat sand then? Not complete barbarians, are you?’

Tab and Philmon stifled a laugh at the look on the Chief Navigator's face.

Tab wasn't sure but she thought Kel winked at her as he stepped forward and placed a purple gemstone into Stelka's outstretched hand. ‘We have travelled the worlds and gathered together the most amazing crafts and artefacts. We have creatures you've never imagined, delights you've never tasted, spells and pipettes and potions galore.’

‘And a revitalising tonic,’ joked Verris.

‘Why sir, as a matter of fact, I have the very thing! A magic animal that heals the sick. You'll never have fever or blight in your fair city again. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it!’

‘Excellent,’ Verris said, nodding for his marines to stand at ease.

‘So, you're a pedlar?’ Chief Navigator Stelka said.

Kel shrugged and shifted on his feet. ‘We prefer the term sky-trader. It has more of a ring.’

‘And there are lots of ... sky-traders in the worlds?’ she inquired.

Kel nodded. ‘As common as clouds, madam.’

Stelka blinked. ‘Do you have any icefire?’

The three sky-traders exchanged glances. ‘Normally you'd start negotiations with a cubit of Hixasic measuring irons, and then work your way up to the most valuable thing in all the worlds,’ Kel explained with a grin.

‘And a Hixasic measuring iron is ...’ Bellgard raised his eyebrows.

Kel finished, ‘the least useful item ever made, and the most easy to get.’

‘You can use them to stir paint,’ observed one of Kel's companions. ‘They also make an excellent back scratcher. There's some species that would find them very useful as walking sticks. Very short ones.’

‘I know!’ said the second, snapping her fingers. ‘Giants could use them to pick their noses, if they felt using fingers was bad manners.’

‘Lady giants,’ the first companion agreed, nodding.

‘I'll be sure to suggest it next time we meet thousands of lady giants,’ Kel said sighing.

‘About the icefire?’ Stelka pressed.

Kel rubbed the back of his neck. ‘We might have such a thing lying around. Might not. I'd need to check my stock. I think at this stage the most important thing to determine is what you have that might be of value to us.’

* * *

It seemed to Tab that the sky-traders had been in the throne room with the council for hours. The city was preoccupied with waiting again, but this time the solemn fear had been replaced by barely contained excitement.

Philmon's cousin, who was also Tab's cabin mate, Amelia, had joined Tab and Philmon. The three played hooey with some of the children in the Square of the People outside the Archon's Palace.

Word had spread fast. Sailors seemed to be focused on repairing rigging right above where the children played. Grown-ups found reasons to hang around the square and speculate on what the sky-traders’ currency might be, given that they seemed to have little interest in gems or metals.

‘Children!’ whispered one.

‘Blood!’ suggested another.

‘Thickleberry tarts,’ guessed the baker.

‘Spoiled boingy deer meat,’ drooled Vrod.

Many Quentarans remained at the harbour where one of the sky-traders waited with his craft, but he was less talkative than his captain.

Eventually the doors to the palace opened and the two sky-traders stood with the Grand Council on the steps.

Tab picked up the hooey ball and cradled it in her arms. Many of the children sat down cross-legged.

‘We have reached an agreement,’ Drass Nibhelline called out.

The crowd waited.

‘Captain Kel and the sky-traders will trade goods with us in return for us teaching them how to play Quentaran games.’

A doubtful murmur rippled through the crowd.

‘When you're in the sky a long time you get bored,’ Captain Kel explained. ‘My people start scrapping amongst themselves. New sports are an excellent way to pass time, and they are something we can trade with other cities. You might know something new that we haven't seen before. That's valuable to us.’

The people gathered in the square seemed unconvinced.

Captain Kel shrugged. ‘Adding games will do. Games with a wager. Joy tiles. Whatever you have.’

Philmon, Amelia and Tab smiled at each other. Tab had been worried about cities attacking, about war and fighting. Now she felt silly. ‘That's it? We're going to teach them how to play hooey?’

Back | Next