Chapter 16 Part One: Here Comes the Birdy
The sounds of the busy street were below them now; floating up through the open window to a second-floor apartment above a small tea shop. Flowers and herbs grew in little pots that hung over the windowsill, and the sun angled in to illuminate the room.
The walls were painted forest green, and shelves filled with plants lined the walls. A faded yellow couch sat near the edge of the room in front of a long table littered with water stains. The only thing on the walls was a long, yellow scarf that stretched out to fill empty space, pinned up at either end.
There was a wooden divider that split the small room in two, and James could not see beyond it. His desire to respect the couple's sincerity and privacy was all that was keeping him from looking behind to check for surprise visitors, in case it was some kind of trap.
A trap, that is.
The man James had met in the alleyway had invited him into his home and introduced himself as Marren. James had listened to his story, but parts of it got muddled when Marren would start crying again. James tried to piece it together.
From his understanding, Marren and his wife, Linda, had made a routine trip to the outer city to visit a farmer who sold them tea leaves for their shop that they couldn't buy elsewhere. During the business exchange, Linda was occupied with stocking their wagon while Marren was paying the seller. While their attentions were held by other things, their six-year-old son, Killian, wandered over to a nearby fence to look at the farm animals grazing.
Then they heard a blood-chilling screech from a griffin.
A giant shadow passed over them as the griffin began to swoop down. Marren and Linda both ducked. Marren ran for his son, but by the time he started running, it was too late. The griffin had scooped up their son in its talons and carried him off into the sky. That was about where Marren's story would no longer be understandable, and he began to cry when he spoke of his son's screaming.
James had a difficult time knowing how to respond. He stood with Marren in silence for some time before Marren's tears stopped until he said the only thing he could think to say.
"If there's anything I can do to help..."
And that was how he ended up in their apartment.
He stood by the edge of the window, just close enough that he could keep an eye on the street if he needed to. Marren sat on the couch while Linda started pouring tea into mugs for each of them, despite James's repeated objections to the offer.
"I know the story sounds ridiculous. Even to me it sounds ridiculous," Linda said as she moved her thick locks of hair over to one shoulder so they wouldn't get in the way of the cups. "Griffins don't come that close to the city, and even if the guard believed us, they wouldn't be able to do anything about it. They just told us that Killian's -" he voice faltered, and she looked up at Marren, who's covered his face with one hand. "-they said he'd probably be treated like any common prey," she continued, fighting to keep her voice steady.
"But it wasn't just a wild griffin," Marren muttered, rubbing his eyes.
James looked between the two of them, raising a brow. Linda caught his look.
"It was one of the griffins from the games," she said.
James raised both brows. "Are you sure?"
"Griffins don't have purple wings naturally," Linda said with a bitter scoff. "That's something people do to them. It must've escaped, but I don't know how no one's been talking about it. The purple one's a rising champion - not that we bet on the games-"
"We don't gamble," Marren interjected for emphasis, still with a hand shielding his face.
"It's a fool's pursuit," she added. "But it had to have been the Ranger."
"That's it's... title?" James asked.
"Royal Ruddlan Ranger. It's a lot of r's," she said.
James sighed and turned his gaze back to the street outside. A young boy was struggling to lead a dog through the crowds. The dog snatched something from one of the vendor's booths, causing a small commotion. He sighed. If a griffin from the games had escaped that wouldn't be good press for the games. If it was paired with safety warnings it'd be likely to cause hysteria at worst, and a loss in sales at best. As much as people enjoyed watching griffins fight, everyone knew they were beasts to be feared, especially when they were conditioned their whole lives for violence.
It wasn't likely that their son was alive, whether or not the griffin was escaped from the games or not. But he'd never heard of a griffin intentionally hunting a human. Then again, that was probably more Clandestine's expertise...
"If the public's not aware of the Ranger's disappearance, they probably have some sort of private search party going for the beast," James hypothesized aloud. "I'd imagine the loss of a popular fighter wouldn't go unnoticed for very long. It'd be difficult to say they were just retiring it after it's recent success."
Linda and Marren were silent in response. James held his gaze out the window for a drawn-out moment before looking over to them. Marren was sipping his tea. Linda was walking over to James with a mug. There was a brief moment of awkward hesitation on James's part before he took the mug with a thankful bow of his head. She reciprocated the bow and went to sit by her husband.
"Do you think it might cause trouble looking into it?" Linda asked. "Is that what you're saying?"
James looked down into the steaming cup. "I'm not sure. Admittedly, I'm not wholly acquainted with Ruddlan politics. Though I'm aware much of the city profits come from the games."
Marren looked up at James, his expression weary and strained. "One loose griffin won't kill the games."
"Have any griffins escaped before?" James asked.
Linda and Marren exchanged a look. "Not that we've heard of," Linda answered.
James pressed his lips into a line. All he had was speculation. He needed to talk to people on the inside. Even if there was no hope that their son was alive, if a scared, escaped griffin was flying around town, that would be good for no one. He wanted to imagine that the city authorities were on top of it, but doubt had already set itself in his gut.
Of course, they wanted to keep it quiet that a griffin had escaped. They had a reputation to keep. Tourists to ensure the safety of. Business to keep. They weren't worried about a small shop owner's family getting closure for the loss of their son.
He took a sip of the tea and looked back out the window. His eyes lifted up above the street and found the arena peeking out above all the buildings in the distance. He could hear Marren sigh.
"It's... it's alright, Matt. Thank you for taking the time to listen," he said.
"And for actually believing us," Linda added.
"I know there's not much you can do," Marren continued. "And you're only passing through."
James set his cup down on the windowsill and turned around towards them, leaning against the wall. "I'm not sure what I'll find, but I'll do some digging," James said. "You deserve some answers. For your son."
Marren and Linda both looked at each other. He could tell they weren't sure what to think of him, and he wasn't sure himself. All he'd told Marren was that he was passing through town looking for work. The previous job he mentioned working as a cowboy didn't necessarily qualify him as a detective, and he knew they were thinking that by the looks on their faces.
But the two of them had a shop to run, and they couldn't just drop everything to figure out what happened to their son or find a griffin.
James on the other hand... he could do one more thing before he dove back into the wilderness and said goodbye to civilization forever. As long as he could keep his head down while he did.
Alexander was a looming threat in the back of James's mind as he approached the arena, and the looming building only grew larger. The sun was still high in the sky and the city was buzzing with energy. Sellers in front of the arena were shouting about ticket deals for the upcoming tournament, and people filled the city square in front of the arena, but there were no griffin fights for the day. That, James quickly gathered when he entered the grand arena's halls and noticed people far below in the pit, past the staggered levels of seating, raking through the dirt and cleaning.
As massive as the building appeared from the outside, the inside was equally overwhelming. James found himself longing for the simplicity of the forest and Elliot by his side. But he'd left his horse in a stable, nervous for when he'd return to him. He couldn't walk a horse into the building, as large as the sweeping arches that cradled the double-door entrances were.
Where he'd entered, at the middle level of seating, there was a large walkway that circled around the seats, level with the first row. Souvenir and food shops found homes on the far wall ready for watchers of the game to wander up the steps, along with ticket booths and betting stations.
Large pillars appeared every few yards, holding up the second level of higher seating. Signs pointed to stairwells leading upward. Colorful paintings of griffins in battle and advertisements for local goods covered every open wall.
A tall, metal fence surrounded the base of the seating area, closest to the dirt pit and the gates through which griffins entered. The fence stretched upward into a dome, creating a cage of metal and netting that looked intentionally built to keep the creatures in, and away from the viewers.
James wished he could pause to take it all in. But doing so would be likely to draw attention. Only newcomers susceptible to hungry sellers stopped and gawked at the structure that had become normal to the locals. The last thing he wanted was to be called out by someone selling feather accessories or the latest griffin guide.
So he kept walking through the crowds. The sheer amount of noise and business felt like an uncomfortable cloak that was as necessary as it was overwhelming. It made it easy to disappear into the chaos, but he never did like crowded, busy cities. And he wasn't interested in anything the arena had to offer.
He was looking for something, or somebody useful.
Of course, he wasn't too sure what exactly it was he was looking for. He knew the city guards wouldn't be very useful, and he assumed he'd get the same treatment Marren and Linda had received. Anyone who was involved with the griffins would be likely to give him the same vague answers and tell him there was no griffin loose, and there was nothing to worry about.
But surely, someone had to have witnessed something. Had it escaped in the day? In the night? Such a thing couldn't be so isolated. Someone had to exist that had no motivations to hide it. It was just a matter of finding them.
But in a city so large, the likelihood of that was discouraging.
James caught sight of an unmarked stairwell leading to lower levels. There were no guards stationed there, only a small sign he was able to read when he got closer.
"Authorized personnel only."
For the five remaining seconds he spent approaching the doorway, he debated against the decision he already determined to follow through. Any hint of hesitation might draw suspicion and make him look like he didn't belong. One more check of his surroundings could catch someone's eye. He couldn't bet on being invisible to strangers who wouldn't care or notice. He never had that luxury.
He went down the stairs. If he had to, he could always say he couldn't read. It was as believable a lie as any in these parts.
He held his breath as the stairs came to an end. He'd entered what looked like a storage area on the lower level, underground. Mirroring the upper floor, there was a hall that followed the curve of the building, but it was narrower. There were unmarked doors and small slits of windows at the top of the ceiling letting dim light in.
The only people in the hallway were two workers pushing a cart down the hall, away from him, and two guards passing him in the other direction. No one appeared to notice his presence as he stood still on the second step, waiting for them to pass.
He counted thirty seconds before stepping out. In the event someone came down the steps behind him, he didn't want to be caught doing nothing.
He hurried down the hall, following the direction the workers went. He adjusted his hat on his head and kept walking for what felt like quite some time. He didn't run into anyone for several minutes, and he found that his senses were anxiously waiting for any signs of someone coming from ahead or behind.
He considered turning back, but his feet kept pulling him forward. He straightened up with a start when he heard yelling echo down the hall. It sounded faint, but as he slowly drew nearer, he could tell it was coming from inside a room.
On the wall closest to the center of the arena there was a wooden door that stood open just a crack, letting the sound carry through. He approached on light feet, trying to understand what was being said.
"I don't care about why you didn't see what happened!" he heard a woman screech. "I've got twenty people breathing down my neck for your mistake, and now my job's in jeopardy."
A deeper voice protested. "Please- I swear it wasn't-"
"This isn't an argument, Gideon. Coming in late is one thing, but losing a griffin is final. You're fired."
Silence hung in the air. He could hear steps shuffling towards the door. James backed away and made it appear that he was only starting to approach that section of the hall at the door opened, and a tall, husky man shambled out with his face downcast. His short hair looked unkempt like he'd never seen a brush in his life.
As the man closed the door behind him and looked up, he and James made eye contact. James had been anticipating it would be awkward, but he wasn't prepared for the man's awkward shuffling to the side and ducking of his head, as if he'd interrupted James in the middle of something.
He started to turn away. James took a few hurried steps forward.
"I... I couldn't help but overhear," he said.
The man sent James a pleading glance. "Look, man, I just got fired, I really don't-"
"I know. That's terrible," James replied in earnest, putting on the face of Matt again like a worn-in pair of shoes. He felt some measure of pity for the man, but he also had no idea what had actually happened yet. He drew up a sympathetic grin. "I heard about the griffin escaping but I didn't think they'd blame the stablehand. You're no griffin tamer."
The man let out a sigh and looked back at the door he'd left behind. He started to walk and James followed. He showed no objections to it.
"I was just cleaning one of the empty cages," he said bitterly. "It wasn't my fault."
"What happened then? With the griffin?" James asked.
The man shrugged. "Some kind of smoke came flowing into the room. I thought there was a fire, but then I must've hit my head on something... I fell asleep somehow. When I woke up, the griffin was gone. Its egg too."
James had to withhold his surprise. The griffin had an egg? "That sounds-"
"Fake? Suspicious? Yeah, tell me about it."
"I was going to say convenient, but yes."
The stablehand rolled his eyes. "Look... guy. We're really not supposed to talk about the loose griffin much."
"But you were fired," James reminded him.
"Yeah, which means it's not my business anymore. They're looking for it and I have to go looking for a new job now."
James's eyebrows drew together.
An egg. An egg. Clandestine had seen someone selling a griffin egg. Griffin eggs couldn't be that common, could they?
The stablehand glanced over at James and James removed his look of confusion. He could tell the man was losing interest in talking about his recently lost job.
"But it's taken a kid," James said.
The stablehand stopped walking and stared at James. "What?"
"It's taken a kid. Does your boss know that?" James questioned.
"Wh-what? No. No? I don't know. She didn't mention a kid. How do you know the griffin took a kid? When? Where?"
"Yesterday. Who would know if a child was snatched up by the griffin?"
The stablehand's expression was growing more worried. "Who? Look. I don't know, guy. If Ingrid knows she hasn't said anything. But if anyone knows it'd be Barlowe."
James blinked, trying to remember why the name was familiar. Barlowe... Barlowe...
"She's got an eye on everything," he said. "But really, I've got to go. Before Ingrid finds me again."
James gave him a nod. He'd stopped listening to the man. "Good luck finding a new job."
The man scoffed and turned to walk away. James did the same and turned the opposite direction. Now he really needed to go back. He hurried through the empty hall, back to the stairwell from which he came. His thoughts were swirling.
An escaped griffin, a missing egg, all kept quiet because of Barlowe. The name rang around his head and he searched his memory for anything of relevance. He could remember that Barlowe was someone important. Someone - oh.
She was the mayor. He mentally facepalmed.
So she was the one pulling the strings in the games? Why did she have her fingers in one loose griffin case when she was busy running a city?
James felt his heart lift when he spotted the stairs. Someone was going up them, so when he reached the foot of them he waited a moment and listened for the echoes of a heavy door opening and closing up top before going up himself.
He'd been lucky. But he still had many questions, only one lead to follow, and with his face? He had no idea how he was going to get a conversation with the mayor.