Watch closely for you might see gold, high over the tree-covered ridge at the back of the mountains, not too far from the frightful hidden Gryphon Lairs. Above green leaves pitching like the sea in the wind, a fair youth of sixteen summers age rides a mighty winged amber and chocolate beast toward the sun. The youth weeps and tightens his lips bitterly, ashamed that he wants to be alone and angry toward his brother for having made him feel so. And look again, as the fair youth and his mount grow distant in the blue eastern sky, a twelve summers boy of gold with wings of his very own rises up in the air from the green waves of leaves, sees his friend flying off, and follows.
But already the unnoticed night-polished raven shadows the first fair youth, the target he has sought for so long, and he sees too the golden boy light delicately into the sky. The raven quickly decides that he can make good use of the winged child too, and the fate the raven has in mind for both boys creates not even a shadow of sorrow to disturb his cold and brutal heart.
* * *
In Port Cedryssene, the jewel of the Northern Amer coast, there once lived three brothers. The boys had greeted the world in hiding, and were raised by a couple who were not their blood-parents. But the boys were loved as if they were blood kin, for the not-parent parents had no children of their own, yet such another's same fate had shaken out so that the boys had come to this childless couple, and not the other. The three brothers were curious and playful, proud and strong, and to separate them for even a moment was a task harder than taking beauty from a fresh-bloomed rose. Each boy was as different from the other as the sun from the moon, and as both of those from the stars. As boys are wont, the brothers were restless and given to fearless exploring in the streets and piers and outlying forests of Port Cedryssene, for what fear had they who were always together? The brothers thirsted for adventure like the three inseparable friends of a recent Dumas novel that the boys had devoured with laughs and cheers and pretend swordfights. And during their adventures the boys had stumbled upon a secret and kept it close, telling no one; a secret that would horrify the good citizens of Port Cedryssene were it to be revealed.
The boys had become Gryphonwind.
Port Cedryssene was a magnificent city, the envy of all other cities that strove to emulate its richness. Why, Port Cedryssene possessed many vertiginous stone and glass towers, some of which were a score or two stories tall! The city was Northern Amer's main center of commerce and learning and alchemical research; the best Dragondanz team called Port Cedryssene home, and the best League of Ivy University too, as well as Northern Amer's vital and uproarious stock market. Port Cedryssene nestled against mountains between the two lesser lights of New York City and Boston Town, mountains that curled like a protective hand north and west of the city. Look to those mountains now but look fast, for the brothers must stay hidden even while riding their gryphons; especially when riding their gryphons. The boys are in their sixteenth summer, born together as one, fraternal triplets of a mother who was a witch of light magic and a father who...but we'll return to the father. Suffice to say his power and reputation caused the boys' frightened mother to seek their secrecy and safety by going away from him.
Márton came first from the womb, and screamed at the cold indignity of being born. He was noble and tall and had red hair so dark it was almost as black as his father's. Márton's heart was not vicious but he loved the fight and the someday-hint of heroic battle, and abruptness of emotion and aloofness of character were his main faults. Rezsó came second, and squealed less than most babies in their first moments of life, as befitting one wise, silent, and resourceful. He read books and loved to know things; his strength was in seeing both sides to every problem, but such insight can sometimes cloud proper judgment, and that was his weakness. Tall but lean where Márton was muscular, Rezsó's hair was the bright copper shine of a new penny-piece, and he and his older brother shared green eyes. Clement came last, and laughed upon the taking of his first breath, and grew to be gentle and loving and dreaming. He was the little brother, subject of pranks and punches and playtimes spent watching while Márton roughhoused with Rezsó, who found himself in thrall to his older brother. But Clement, poor, put-upon Clement, loved his brothers, and though he was small with strawberry blond hair and sky-blue eyes, he could, when given the chance, hold his own against Márton and Rezsó, at least for a while. Clement's virtue was that very fraternal and encompassing love. But it was not Clement's fault that his love sparked a wildfire of events that nearly destroyed Port Cedryssene.
Listen to the night as it falls, for when the winds are right you can hear the creatures in their Lairs squawking, roaring, and singing their solo songs of disdain and pride; for northwest of Port Cedryssene, there are gryphons in the mountains.
Centuries ago, before zeppelins graced the skies and railway cars clattered to and from the glass and steel station at the heart of Port Cedryssene, there were naught but a few tottering mud-huts and animal-hide dwellings alongside what is now called Cedryssene Harbor. But in that long ago, all over the world flew the Gryphonwind, like knights on winged mounts dotting the sky above castle and town. The gryphons chose their riders, humans who dared join those magnificent not-quite lions or eagles, but fabulously more than either. Gryphons held themselves proud and aloof, not like dragons that eventually learned to make peace with humans and had their own residences in Port Cedryssene, the frightfully open-air Dragon Trees that loomed high and seemingly unsupported near Cedryssene Central Station and the University and north of the industrial yards. Look to the mountains, dark and tree-capped, that shield the Gryphon Lairs, additionally shrouded by dreadful whispered warnings from human parents to their offspring; "If you misbehave, the gryphons will come at night and snatch you from your bed and eat you!" Look fast, for you might catch a glimpse of the three dark spots against the sky that are the first gryphons in centuries to choose human partners: fierce and intemperate Devvskai, whose Gryphonwind is Márton; smart and inquisitive Rakhnyall, whose Gryphonwind is Rezsó; and happy and affectionate Ffinzgyor, whose Gryphonwind is Clement. The three gryphons are close friends, nearly as close as brothers. Look fast, for the boys fear being seen from the city, a sight that would anger and panic humans, or to be spied from the Gryphon Lairs, sparking an attack from the Lairs on the traitor gryphons who bear humans on their back and angering the terrifying nightmare of a Gryphon King, called Torrynsegh; or heaven forbid they might be scouted from the towers of Greifspitze, in the mountains over the pass southwest of the city. Greifspitze is the castle of the dangerous King of Port Cedryssene, András Katona, whose ferocity defended the city against armies from New York City and Boston Town and Philadelphia, and even armies from overseas, from London-on-the-Thames and El Madrid and Roma di Christi. King András, the reclusive and mighty warrior, was the chief star of Márton's boyhood dreams.
The sun begins to set, and the boys spy gryphons rising in flight over their Lairs, headed north for their nocturnal hunting. The Gryphonwind dive down to a clearing and land, and decide it is time to return home before their mother not-the-one who birthed them begins to worry. The Gryphonwind take to the air again, and they must hurry for in the light of the waning sun the boys and their mounts see the silvery zeppelin Morning Star, the largest and finest airship in Port Cedryssene. In the distance the Gryphonwind can hear the hum of the Morning Star's engines as she banks gently toward the main mooring tower of Cedryssene Central Station. She is piloted by the boys' father not-the-one who sired them, and he docks his ship filled with passengers and cargo from Boston Town. Dinner will be soon; the boys hurry.
* * *
The three gryphons flew their riders down the face of the mountains toward the city, skimming over treetops now shaded by the vanishing sun. But the swift flight was still dangerous, as the flickering alchemical city lights might capture some spark or flash of the winged gryphons' golden-caramel and chocolate colored bodies. Near the base of the mountains but still in the woods, the gryphons landed and let their riders dismount, and the boys bid their gryphons farewell for the night. This always brought a tear to Clement's eyes, which always brought Clement a knuckle-rap on the head from Márton, which in turn elicited a sympathetic chuckle from Rezsó. With whom Rezsó sympathized wasn't always clear, as he understood the motives of both of his siblings too well.
The brothers walked out of the woods onto a cobbled street lined with small shops and iron streetlamps. The street was quiet for the night save for a few strollers making their way to a bistro or a local theatre or a small park. The boys found the end of the trolley line and took hold of one of the clangorous contraptions, and the brothers laughed and talked all the way home. They barely noticed how their shoulders bumped together over and over during the sway and buck of the trolley ride.
Father and Mother (for that is what the boys called them, not knowing better) lived in a wide apartment six floors up, with a view of the northern mountains at one end and the lights of the city at the other. The city view was capped by the bluish-yellow shine of Cedryssene Central Station, which was itself topped by a mooring tower with the big silver zeppelins nuzzling it like the fruit of a peculiar and pretty tree. The apartment's windows were wide open to catch the mountain breezes, and the boys smelled their familiar home six blocks away, and the delicious cooking scents made them rub their bellies. Birds sang their last songs of the day and crickets began their evening serenade. Sometimes in the sky high above, the boys saw a quick yellow flash of dragon-breath. Above the brothers, a black raven made careful peregrinations to stay out of the light while he followed them.
Saqr al-Dhi'b was the pilot of the Morning Star, and his wife Nazirah raised the boys and did piecework for other women, which was how, years ago, she came to know the witch Paliki Veres.
The boys eschewed the pinging and knocking elevator to tumble up the stairs instead, and burst into the apartment like the King's army, and greeted their mother with vigorous hugs and kisses that had lost none of the same enthusiasm of their greetings when but toddlers. Nazirah stood firm against the onslaught of her children's love, knowing how easily such affections might vanish from the bashful maturity of young men. Then she ordered the boys about while she finished cooking: set the table, open the wine, and for heaven's sake wash up! Then Father came home, and he reeled under the hugs and backslaps of his young men. Dinner was laid out, stewed lamb and vegetables and couscous, all smelling of cinnamon and coriander and onions. Afterwards, around vigorously steaming mugs of thick coffee, in the ancient and pure flickering light of candles, the three brothers learned their truth.
Saqr lit a cheroot and drew deep of the smoke. He rested his elbows on the table, and rubbed his rough chin under his moustache. "Sixteen summers have come since you were born," he said to the boys. "Every eye in Port Cedryssene can see that your pale skin and red hair does not come from al-Dhi'b blood, or from the womb of my lovely Nazirah."
Nazirah sipped coffee and said to the boys, "Strangers do not notice this detail in a city as vast as Port Cedryssene, at least not while you have been children. But you are becoming men, and now this matter becomes dangerous."
On the sill outside one of the large open windows squawked the raven that had followed the boys home.
"We noticed this about ourselves," Márton said to his parents, "that we appear different from you. But we thought it rude to ask."
"You wanted to ask," Rezsó said to Márton, "but I convinced you to wait."
"Those who murdered our parents," Márton said sternly, "must pay."
Saqr chuckled. "They were not murdered, my son."
"Márton's heart," Rezsó said, "is always primed for romance and battle."
Clement leaned forward, his eyes wide and blue. "But does it really matter?" He turned to Saqr and Nazirah. "You raised us well, and we love you more than we could ever love our real parents."
"Do not say that," Saqr said, "for you do not know them."
"Your mother may earn your love, gentle Clement," Nazirah said, "for she was a brave and beautiful woman, through and through. But your father..." Nazirah stopped speaking, and shivered.
Saqr began to tell the boys their story. "Your mother was Paliki Veres, and seventeen summers ago she was a maid, waiting on Queen Bakarne at Greifspitze."
Márton's green eyes turned wild and happy. "Really?"
Rezsó laughed. "He's halfway to the throne, in his head."
Clement also laughed. "Márton al-Dhi'b, the scullery boy who is the true king!"
Márton scowled at his brothers and hunched his shoulders over his coffee.
Saqr cleared his throat. "Paliki Veres had magic, bright magic that befitted her open heart. While in the castle she kept secret her magic, knowing how courtiers and ministers with evil hearts lurk in castle shadows looking to tempt or force pretty girls to turn their bright powers toward evil ends."
Márton, wary of laughter, whispered, "Was an evil wizard involved?"
Rezsó shook his head and smiled, while Clement covered his mouth with his hands and giggled.
"No," Saqr said, "only the wandering eyes of an ordinary mortal, a man with a childless house who blamed himself for his misfortune, and yet had begun to keep his wife at arms' length. Such is the caprice of troubled men. This man's eyes settled on Paliki and he took her, for comfort and for forgetting. When Paliki learned that she was with child by this man, she feared his anger might lash out at his wife, or at her, or most horribly, at her sons. For she knew from an alchemist who sounded her womb that she carried three healthy boys. Rather than see the boys she created taken from her or come to other harm, she turned to a friend, my wife Nazirah, for at that time we were learning that our house suffered the same fate as that of your real father's house. And Paliki gave birth to you in our home, one not so nice as this for I was as yet only an apprentice zeppelin pilot. Then Paliki ran away, ashamed by her weakness at falling for the beauty of your father, and terrified he might find her again, and learn where you lived; her boys, his sons. A man like him may see you as a symbol of his failure at choosing a bride, and that sort of jealous heart may kill to find relief and revenge."
Márton raised his head. "Who is this evil man who hurt our mother?"
Rezsó chuckled. "Grab your sword and mount your gryph -- er, horses, lads!"
Nazirah glowered at the boys. "I have told you since you were able to walk that I do not wish to see you play at games where you pretend to be Gryphonwind."
Clement cast his eyes down, since he could not disguise an untruth in them.
"Just children's games, my love," Saqr said to Nazirah. "Old legends, like knights on horseback." Then to the boys he said, "But this reality is far more serious. Now that you are grown you must know two things, two truths you must forever hold dear. One, Paliki's last words to us were that she loves you, always."
"The evil man who forced her from us will pay," Márton said.
"Our mother was prudent and wise," Rezsó said, "and planned well precisely so we would never say those words."
"Maybe it is just a misunderstanding," Clement said. "Who is this man who is our real father?"
Saqr inhaled deeply from the last inch of his cheroot. "András Katona," he said, "who sits on the throne at Greifspitze."
The raven squawked again, and with a fluster of wingbeats took to the air and departed.
Márton dreamed of wars and riding to them atop Devvskai; Rezsó thought of vast libraries and learning, and riding atop Rakhnyall to see the world; Clement felt a small stab of fear as he sensed his brothers' dreams, and wanted only to ride forever next to his brothers atop his beloved Ffinzgyor. Saqr drained his coffee mug and broke the boys' silence.
"The truth is," Saqr said, "you three boys are the princes of Port Cedryssene."
* * *
The raven banked over the cobbled streets of Port Cedryssene, his magic an ancient taunt to the modern alchemical lights and trolleys and zeppelin towers of the city below. The raven squawked at the hurly-burly bustle of the marketplace closing up for the night; average people all, the same in Port Cedryssene as in London-on-the-Thames, where the raven had presented his latest alchemical research to Queen Victoria at the Exposition, not long ago. The raven shrieked at one of the wood and steel Dragon Trees, and a few young dragons hissed and snapped back, unseen in the dark except for small taunting flares from their throats. Dragons, the raven thought with disdain, lowering themselves to life and commerce among humans. Not for nothing did the raven admire those lofty and independent enemies of humankind, the gryphons.
Northeast the raven flew, away from the glittering Central Station and the ornate but lately disregarded worship-shrines, over the poorer dwellings of the city north of the industrial yards, until he passed out of the city and descended toward the woods along the shallow lift that began the northern mountains, to what appeared to be a towering, overgrown cluster of gnarled and tangled trunks of enormous pines, junipers, and cedars, all crushed together like a mangled fist. The raven lighted onto a thick, horizontal trunk that snaked around the upper reaches of the cluster. Then the bird changed form, and stepped through a prickly curtain of branches into his dwelling.
The man that the raven had become was moderately old, with wisps of silver-black hair and steel-blue eyes in a wrinkled but not unhandsome face bearing a nose that arched forward in a way not unremindful of his sometime raven's beak. He was lank, and not as tall as he first looked. Kauldi Azarola was his name, and he limped from an old battle injury received when fighting in the army of the father of the city's present king. Kauldi stepped to a table and touched a finger to a lamp filled with blue alchemical gas, and the lamp lit. Most mortals used a phosphorus match or even, daringly, the newfangled "captured lightning" run through a wire to light their lamps. But Kauldi, though mortal, was not like others, and it was his desperate desire to become immortal that drove him to the desperate deeds of his search, one important aspect of which had finally borne fruit that evening.
Kauldi heard thunder rumble like an alchemical gas explosion from behind the mountains north of his home. The black silk of Kauldi's cape slithered behind him as he mounted the stairs to his laboratory. Once there, Kauldi cranked the handle that raised seven steel rods into the air above his tree-tower; captured lightning, yes, but freshly captured and still wild was the most effective form of this power, sparking and dancing and dangerous. On a steel console, small alchemical lights of different colors responded to Kauldi's touch, and glowed like an assemblage of rats with rainbow eyes. The rods would capture the lightning from the storm, send it hissing through the wires and pipes of the console, and to a table and a metal dish. In this dish Kauldi now placed, fresh from the icebox, a heart taken two days ago from a nine-year-old harbor rat Kauldi snatched practically from under the eyes of the overseer who hired out his boys to unload ships. The boy had been offloading a heavy coil of rope, which Kauldi deftly used to truss up the child for kidnapping.
The boy's heart fell into the metal dish with a sodden plop; such a waste, Kauldi thought, now that he knew where to find the three hearts for which he had lusted over sixteen summers. For Kauldi's dear sister, suffering from her own brush with her brother's power, had known Paliki Veres, and suspected the maid was pregnant, and whispered her suspicions to her brother, not out of malice but just as gossip. Kauldi knew the witch Paliki by reputation, a fierce and proud woman who resisted the dark temptations of the wizards of Kauldi's breed. A bribe to an alchemist lured to Kauldi the information he needed: the witch carried triplets, boys, and their bodily matter would provide perfect catalysts needed in Kauldi's quest for a forever life. But Paliki disappeared before her time for delivery, and Kauldi sought far and wide for her whereabouts, sending word to the crepuscular wizards and mountebanks of New York City and Boston Town and Philadelphia and Loch Chicago, even overseas to London-on-the-Thames and Paris and Berlinsberg, to Persia and Palestine and the Kingdom of Egypt, where the desert dragons knew Kauldi's name and despised him unto death. Yet no word came back, so well had Paliki vanished with her offspring. Kauldi moved on and rued the loss of the boys until a spy he barely trusted, a dangerous associate who hated humans, came to the wizard knowing he sought the young flesh descended from magic.
"It must be them," said Gryphon Barttylln. "They are the right age. They have the look in their eyes of magic, and they carry themselves like princes. And they have profaned our race. They have become..." The gryphon spat. "Gryphonwind."
Barttylln had told Kauldi what he knew four weeks ago, and since then Kauldi-the-Raven had sought clues by following the princely-seeming lads and spying on them in their lovely but no more than mortal home. But Kauldi was patient, and tonight his patience had been rewarded.
The storm tumbled over the mountains like an angry battle of bears, and it flashed and roared like a game of Dragondanz, and the cities' zeppelins rumbled toward the sea to ride out the storm there. Through a window, Kauldi watched the zeppelins depart, and wondered if Saqr al-Dhi'b was at the helm of his Morning Star or if he had sent his co-pilots to tend the zeppelin; and if Saqr were not home, would now be a propitious time to take the boys? But no, not all three at once; for even a wizard of Kauldi's power could not grapple with three strong and fast boys like these daring Gryphonwind.
But Kauldi had seen, while he spied on them, that the three boys would sooner slice off a limb than spend their days apart. How, Kauldi wondered, do I tempt them apart, three boys who seem immune to the tantalizations of power, flesh, and wealth?
Lightning crackled down the rods of Kauldi's tower, sparked and spat through the wires, and flashed in the dish that contained the lost boy's heart, with added potions that made an as-yet even newer potion. Kauldi braced his legs against the sway of his home in the storm, sniffed the thick brown goo in the dish, and dumped it on the floor for the rats' dessert, once they had finished gnawing all the meat from the dead boy's bones.
Part One of Four