Friday, January 14, 2011

PoPP Stories: "Kensim, City of Citadels" (Project Feathers)

A Traveler’s Introduction to Kensim
By Benithew, a certified scribe for the Guild of Historians

For griffins who have never before seen our capital city, arriving for the first time must come as quite the shock. It is called the City of Citadels for a reason—on most days it looks like a single, giant castle resting on top of the clouds. The buildings are not thatched or wooden, or even made of bricks huddled close to the ground; Kensim consists of nothing but tall, vaguely triangular earthen spires that jut far into the sky above. Their style and make are unlike anything else found in the Griffin Nation—and indeed, if a visitor were to suggest that griffin paws could not make such a place, they would be on to something. Historical records tell us that our longtime allies, the wyrms, raised the city from the earth as a gift of good will. As any new arrival will soon realize, these structures were designed for function rather than visual impact—though it is true that they simultaneously serve this second purpose, as well.
There is only one sensible way to reach Kensim safely, and that is by air. The location was originally selected based on strategic merit, not ease of access. At the time Kensim was chosen to become our nation’s capital, the Peacekeeper was still deeply entrenched in the Pre-Nation War. Because the capital is situated atop a tall cliff surrounded by canyons, climbing to the city is dangerous if not impossible, and made even more so by the thick cloud cover that usually surrounds the city’s base. Even flying can be hazardous as there are many strong currents that run through these canyons, some powerful enough to smash an unsuspecting griffin into a craggy cliff side.
In wartime, these attributes were highly valued for their importance in fortifying the city from attack, but today they mostly serve as nuisances to city dwellers and visitors alike. Anything that cannot be grown or manufactured on the cliff must be flown in on the backs of griffins. Visitors, also, are strongly advised to take a sky map of the area if they are not accompanied by someone who is familiar with the air currents here.

Eldenore sat across from me at the table; her white wings were pressed against her side so that her wingtips did not touch the floor as she sat upright. The scribbling that made up my manuscript was spread out in front of her, held in place with the palm of a large, weathered paw. Her eyes darted across the first page with exacting precision.
I waited as she read through the introduction of my first historical account for the Guild. I found it very difficult not to fidget—I couldn’t will my tail to stop twitching, and at times I noticed I was absently rubbing my claws together. I couldn’t help it. It’s not every day that the Guild of Historians asks a young and inexperienced scribe like myself to write an official account, and I was extremely excited.
Eldenore paused and scratched the curved tip of her beak with a claw. She glanced up into my eager eyes with her more impassive, fern-colored ones. She hadn’t even finished reading the first page yet.
“Well?” I prompted, a little worried.
She crossed her forepaws matter-of-factly on the table. “I do not think the Guild will like the fact that you called the city’s fortifications ‘nuisances.’”
That was Eldenore; I could always count on her to speak her mind. That’s one of the reasons why I asked her to review my manuscript, and not someone else. Still, I couldn’t help but frown as my elation left me.
“Should I remove it?” I asked tentatively.
She smiled as she shook her head. “Of course not. It is the truth.” She set the first page aside and began to read the second. I watched her read for a while longer before realizing that I was starting to feel apprehensive. I needed to distract myself.
Our table was positioned on a platform above and to the side of the restaurant’s entrance—a large round opening cut out of a spherical section of the tower that was high above the ground. Most of the restaurant’s patrons preferred to fly into the building rather than climb up all that way; thus, the opening was large and well suited for regular air traffic.
I looked out past the landing area and even past the towers that marked the sky harbor, where a group of muscular griffins were swooping in with large burlap bags filled with something-or-other that the city needed or wanted. Beyond the harbor there were only clouds and vague glimpses of the canyon’s edge—the mark of Kensim’s great entrance, and the only angle from which it was safe to enter the city.
I hardly ever left the city, and I preferred it that way. I belonged here and had everything I needed here, so I never desired to leave. The trip is a pain, anyway. While the winds within the city are usually tame and mild, many of the currents that surround it are difficult to navigate—even when following the safe path. I was never very good at flying, and there is really nothing out there worth going to all that trouble for. Kensim is the hub of the nation. Anything of importance to a scholar eventually comes through the gates here. I’ve never missed out on anything.  
Eldenore would disagree, no doubt. She prefers to be out there instead of in here. Despite all the wonders and conveniences of the city, she leaves at the first opportunity.
A thought came to me.
She looked up. “Yes?”
“How long do you expect to be in Kensim this time?”
She shrugged her wings. “Not as long as usual. Doham is reviewing my next dig in a few days.”
I tried to hide my disappointment. “You’ve already requested a new dig? But you just got back a week ago.”
“This is a special case. Our last excursion provided us with an intriguing lead, and my team and I are very eager to follow up on it.”
“Then you’ll be leaving again soon?” I felt a bit put out.
Eldenore tilted her head and cooed. “Come now, Benithew. You know as well as I how Doham functions. Even if I push harder than usual, gaining the approval necessary to proceed could take months. We will have plenty of time to chat between now and then.”
“Promise me you will not worry, at least for right now. This dig is not even approved yet.”
I studied her. She seemed as confident and knowledgeable as always, but it seemed forced, somehow. “All…all right.”
She attempted to reassure me with a smile before she returned to reading.
I guess that would have to do, but I still wish she could be around longer. She is something of a mentor to me, and there are many occasions when I’m overwhelmed and in need of her experienced and calm guidance. However, she is rarely there when I need her most.
 Still, I cannot fault her for her interests. Just as I have a passion for research and could not dream of being away from the Great Library, Eldenore cannot stand to be away from her excavation work. I think in a way we embody the opposite extremes of the Guild—I am the scribe who collects and interprets known history, and she is the adventurer who discovers the unknown and returns what is lost. I understand her role is important. In fact, I enjoy many of the stories of the present and past that she brings home.
Eldenore set the final page of my manuscript to the side. She seemed irritated.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Benithew, are you okay with this assignment?”
“What do you mean?”
“Essentially, you are writing a simplistic tourist guide—and just the introduction, at that. It is an insultingly small project for someone with your talent and passion for history.”
“Everyone has to start small.”
“But not everyone does.” She nibbled at her paw. “It bothers me that they think so little of your passion. Goodness knows they need an honest soul like you among their higher ranks.”
This was one thing I could never understand about her; she seemed to have a great distrust for the Guild, even though she and I were as much a part of it as anyone else.
“The Guild wants to be sure I can write to their standards,” I pointed out. “It’s a safety system—like how you need Doham’s approval for your excavation.”
Eldenore tapped the table with a claw. “If that is their purpose, then neither is very good at its job.”
“Maybe the system isn’t perfect, but it works well enough.” I frowned. “Look at it this way: at least I don’t have to go before the council at Doham to get my manuscript approved.”
Eldenore laughed. “Ah, yes. Be grateful for that.”
I smiled, glad to have made her laugh. “So, for your dig…you never said where you were headed this time.”
It looked like the change of subject caught her off guard. “Ah…” she paused. “Heja.”
My feathers prickled. “The desert? Isn’t that area dangerous?”
She waved her paw dismissively. “No need to worry. My team has already studied the area extensively, and we are preparing with the utmost caution.”
“But why Heja? That place is a wasteland…”
She leaned forward and rested her head on her paw. “You are aware that the area was once fertile grassland, correct?”
“Yes—it was long before recorded history.”
“Maybe it was not as long ago as we previously surmised.” She flashed me a smile. “During our last dig, we came across an account that suggested a large settlement was thriving in that area as late as 100 BF.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Just because there were griffins living there doesn’t mean the area was still grassland at the time. That the place would become a desert in less than a hundred years is preposterous.”
“Exactly.” Eldenore seemed invigorated by my skepticism. “But this is what carvings in Lafnic suggest, regardless.”
I fanned my wings. “How, then, is it possible that this event was not recorded by the historians of the time?”
I expected her to pipe up with her latest theory and make me feel foolish for not realizing it myself, but she didn’t.
“That I don’t know.” Eldenore sighed and looked contemplative. She saw that I was shocked and swished her tail. “Oh, I have a few ideas, but none are satisfactory.” She spread her paws out on the table. “Benithew, if we manage to find that ancient city in the desert, I will not pretend to know what lays in store for us. However, I know this much—this will be my longest and most extensive excursion yet. When I am gone, I will be gone for quite some time.”
I was starting to feel uneasy. “But…”
She held up a claw in warning. “Shush for a second. I want you to know that you are perfectly capable on your own—and so am I. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
Contrary to her assurances, this is when I really began to worry. I’d known for a long time that digs often carried an element of risk, but Eldenore was one of the best—she had been practicing archaeology since before I was even old enough to join the Guild. I was always concerned when she left, of course, but every time she reassured me. That was nothing new.
What was new, however, was her destination and sense of uncertainty about what she would find there. Never before did she show such trepidation for an upcoming dig—and her anxiety was probably warranted. Heja was one of only a few places in the nation that was still completely uncharted—the area was inhospitable and difficult to navigate.
This time, I wasn’t reassured in the least.

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  1. Excellent story. I actually read the whole thing.

  2. I’m glad you like it!

    Watch for the next installment in about two weeks.

  3. Great story! Your characters and setting are wonderfully vivid. Looking forward to the next chapter.