To Eziel, it felt like cloud-jumping was the closest he’d ever get to flying.
He let his body fall off the weathered wooden plankway he’d been running on to fall five feet onto the stone archway below as he braced his legs for the force of his weight. He didn’t miss a moment before he took the curve of the arch at a run, the clouds like a mist around him. He felt the breeze along his cheeks, the adrenaline reaching into his fingertips.
He was cutting it close, but he’d make it. He wasn’t the highest-paid cloudjumper in Aeria City for no reason.
Next was a set of stone merlons along a curtain wall which he hopped between, not breaking his pace as he leapt between embrasures until he got to the end of the crumbling battlement. It was a relic of years gone by, compared to the maze of wooden and steel walkways the clouded city had become as steam power had come into play.
When the stone ran out he jumped the foot between the stone and a metal rod hanging between levels that would ease his descent down the ten feet to the walkway below. He wound around the pole and felt the hair twist across his face with a smile breaking his cheeks wide.
He traversed the curve around a disintegrating stone turret on a timber slab no thicker than his fist, balanced precariously but with practiced ease. He jumped from wooden plank to wooden plank, each taking him a level lower, lower, before he swung a rope across the empty, clouded space between two districts.
The cloud jumpers may be the middle class solution to a mail system that had abandoned them, but that didn’t make the job any less precarious.
Ezekiel wouldn’t have it any other way.
When he made it to his goal, a quaint little home with light green shutters and overgrown vines up the trellis, he gasped in air with deep gulps. He knocked on the door and pulled out the single rolled parchment with a glassy black seal. Urgent, it said, which to him meant little more than an enjoyable run and a larger purse for his trouble.
Which is why he was surprised when his initial knock bore no response— nor his second, or third, more tentative with every iteration.
“Hello?” he finally called out, and peeked through a darkened window. He saw no signs of life. “A message for ya sir?”
He waited, but heard no response. At this rate, I’ll miss getting any other jobs today. I must deliver this message and return before I lose my chance for another round.
Eziel eased through a thick, warped iron gate to the left of the front door, which protested with a high pitched squeak at his intrusion. Beyond the gate were flowers—more varieties and colors than he even knew existed in Aeria City. They seemed to flourish despite the high altitude and moisture, even the ever-present mist from the cloud cover not diminishing the vividness of their petals.
Leaning forward, he touched a bud of a white and pink snapdragon, only to jump when a voice spoke over his shoulder.
“Beautiful aren’t they?” When he startled, the person chuckled, a quiet crackle that spoke of age. He turned to see an old woman, skin wrinkled around mouth and eyes, smile wide and near toothless, cloud-white hair pulled into a braid on her neck. “I imagine you have something for me young man? Or do you just enjoy the flowers? I wouldn’t blame you, I think we could all use some time to smell the flowers once in a while.”
Eziel didn’t waste a moment, and held the envelope in front of him like an offering. He locked eyes with the woman and nodded his head in acknowledgment. “This message is for you, Ma’am. Urgent.”
The woman stared at the envelope without expression, and Eziel felt awkwardness in the silence, arm still outstretched towards the woman, confusion plain on his face.
Instead of taking the envelope, she smiled and brought her shawl closer around her shoulders. “Would you like some tea, young man?” And with that, she turned away and moved deeper into the garden without further comment.
Eziel dropped his arm, an itch beneath his skin left him to debate on dropping the letter on the nearest table to flee with nary a payment if it meant getting out of this job. It wouldn’t be the first non-compliant job he’d taken, and it wouldn’t be the last. Whatever it was, it was taking far too much time and he was losing money and patience with each passing second.
And yet he found himself moving his feet to follow her into the garden to where she had a porcelain tea set already set up, complete with biscuits and a bowl of sugar.
“I hope you like jasmine tea. It’s a blend a dear friend of mine makes herself, and I daresay it’s the best jasmine tea you will ever taste. Come, sit.” She motioned to an empty wrought iron chair across from her, the back a twisting design that moves along the seat into sturdy straight legs. All this metal is expensive. What could she possibly do for a living?
“I’m sorry ma’am, I really must be going. I must deliver more messages yet today and I cannot be late. Here is your delivery.” Again, he held out the message. Eziel was relieved when this time she took it in shaking, near skeletal hands. She removed a velveteen bag of coin from her robes and placed it in his outstretched hand, and he had to hold back a sigh in his relief.
He turned to leave when her voice stopped him in his tracks. “Are you not going to wait for a reply?”
His heart beat faster. He’d been gearing up for a leisurely run to headquarters, but if he were to do a return trip with another urgent fee, he may not need to go to headquarters at all. But there was something about the woman that put him on edge, it made his teeth clench and he felt dizzy with it.
Still. Double pay was hard to pass up.
“Of course,” he said instead, and returned to her side. He set his hands behind his back to wait patiently.
She watched him for a moment, then motioned again to the seat. “Then sit, young man. You cannot expect an old woman to write with someone standing at attention in front of her. Have some tea, a biscuit, breathe. Surely you can do that.”
He wanted to reply with a snide comment but held it in with a sharp inhale. She wasn’t the first one to get on his nerves and she wouldn’t be the last. Dealing with customers was his least favorite part of the job.
But surely a sip of tea and a biscuit couldn’t hurt? He picked up a soft, crumbly biscuit and brought it to his lips, taking a cautious nibble. It tasted of cinnamon and nutmeg, a subtle spiciness that balanced with the sweetness deliciously.
Feeling the hair on the back of his neck rise he looked up. The woman was staring at him with a gentle smile. “Good?” she asked, and her voice was soft, almost reverent. Eziel felt out of place immediately, and reached for the jasmine tea to calm his nerves.
He took a small sip, the bitter tea in perfect combination to the biscuit, but surely he wouldn’t tell her that. Yet, he would be a good guest at minimum. “It’s good,” he said, not giving further comment.
She nodded, then turned to the missive. She broke the wax seal and then opened the scroll on the table before her.
Eziel couldn’t help the curiosity that ate at him, and peeked at the scroll over his tea cup. Instead of a normal letter in the proper order, the scroll seems to be nonsense, scratches that made no sense to him. A different language maybe? One of the Old Ones? But aren’t those forbidden?
“I know what you’re thinking,” the woman said, though she didn’t look up from where she was studying the scroll. “What does a crazy old woman like me have to do with the Old Ones?”
She looked at him, and Eziel didn’t even try to pretend that he hadn’t been staring. His heart is beating too quickly, it feels like it will explode from his chest. He clenches the handle on his tea cup, and nearly coughs on the remains of the tea in his throat.
“Do you want to know, young man? Will you take my return message?” She doesn’t move her eyes from him as she rolls up the parchment, and he gets the sense that she’s asking him so much more.
“You are a cloudjumper the likes of which has never been seen, I’ve been told. It’s like flying isn’t it? But my dear Eziel, there is nothing like the real thing. The Old Ones knew. Would you like to know what it’s like to really fly?”
How does she know my name?
His hands shook.
His breath quickened.
He set down his tea cup. Straightened in his seat, took a deep gulping breath.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” he began, and though she tried to hide it he can see the disappointment written on her wrinkled face. “I must return to headquarters for today. I cannot deliver your message.”
He stood, turned his face away from those unnatural aquamarine eyes—how had he not noticed before?— walked back through the flourishing garden, the thick iron gate, and onto the brick roadway.
As he walked along the broken tile, at a pace he’d not allowed himself in a long time, he thought that maybe he’d lost something irreplaceable.