When the eighth long ring chimed, it didn’t stop on the sixth note. The timbre turned from the bells of the highest carillon to the raw or piercing double trumpets you only heard in the cliffs — because of course the cliffs lacked the restraint and poise of sky music. And yet, the sound closed in like a coming doom.
The trumpets remembered the carillon’s melody inf repetition, and they melted, culleted and reglazed it in the logic of the Frinan anthem: Mlaen’s anthem, the one she’d commisioned only days after taking the throne. It shone out, because you always heard Dwylla’s anthem blaring at Dim-Fflamio games or being played out of key somewhere in the Moyo-Makao. Above, the doom drew closer.
I looked up; everyone did. The trumpeters flew in a skein behind three dragons who pulled your gaze like the wind. On the left, a small dragon in prim black and gold; to the right, a hurricane of colors that made me dizzy just looking at them; and leading at the skeinhead there flew a dragon wreathed in red and gold robes as ornate as any I’d seen in the cliffs.
Landing in our cordoned off patch of road, in the emptied out center, orbited by the various crowds of guards around the alley and cliffwall, the trumpeters were in a circle around the three: all were dressed in black, and it smelt deliberate, like a way of accentuating the colorful dragons.
A caesura, and then they blew a great final chord — and we felt it, even away from the road, all the way by the cliff. That chord hung in the air, vibrating and fading glacier-like. The long release of the sound hinted at some unseen, resonating chamber.
When the circle of trumpeters kneeled, they revealed the secretary Cynfe, and the treasurer Bariaeth, and the faer Mlaen-sofran.
“Blindness,” swore a voice across from me — the Dynfderi adviser. He had looked up from the card game we were playing (a game I wasn’t losing, necessarily) and he said, “This can’t bode well.”
I opened my mouth, but a high, eager voice interrupted:
“It’s the faer!” Beside me, Digrif leapt and landed in a kneel. Two guards — the pink guard, Ceian, and a plain-dweller… Jarce? — smiled or clicked at him.
Looking at the rest of the guards, though, they all watched the new arrivals with frowns or lines: it was all focus and seriousness, but no surprise. Had they expected this?
I glanced back at the adviser. “Do you know what they’re doing here?” I whisper-asked.
“With this much fanfare, I glimpse we’ll find out.”
So he didn’t.
I peered at the new arrivals. Having arrived together is about all was in common.
Cynfe — whom, despite myself, I looked at first — looked around steady, scoutingly, her fangs out. I saw guards scowling back, and the blue-green wiver met their gazes unfaltering.
Bariaeth, in discordant counterpoint, smiled beatifically, and his glance could mollify the guards whom Cynfe had put on edge; but it wasn’t dramatic: some looked neutral or skeptical, and only a few actually smiled back.
And Mlaen-sofran was a mix of the two; yet it seemed less, and not more, because of it. She didn’t smile or scowl, only watched, despite her ever-clouded brilles. It was as if all of her reactions were kept to herself, and she offered up nothing to the world.
That one moment, with all of us watching the arrivals in dewing anticipation, dragged on and on. The trumpet’s chord, still ringing out, made the interval felt; it was time hanging in the air. Like that, Bariaeth’s beatific smile became small and ambient; and even Cynfe’s scowl faded. The faer continued to watch, cloudily, and the moment dragged even further on.
And then faer flared her wings, and she must have unclouded her eyes — if only instantly — because there was something intense in her gaze for a glance that wasn’t there before or after. Whatever it was, she kept it from her face, which relaxed and waited, and her tone, which simply asked:
The question was, “Is this my guard?”
Trumpets had struck silence, and the faer’s words lay there in it, for a moment.
Mlaen had returned to her neutral, cloudy-eyed watching. With her mouth set in a thin line, you knew she wouldn’t be the one to clear the silence. And whoever did would have the attention and judgment of the all the guards. Mlaen had crafted the delivery of her question, giving the words a sense of deep, officious importance, and whoever dared respond would be thrust to that same standard.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that when the response finally came, it was Rhyfel the younger chuckling and saying, “Well, it sure isn’t Bariaeth’s guard.”
It wasn’t that his joke was particularly funny, as much as it was an excuse; Mlaen had everyone wrung near their limit, and the drake’s timing shattered the tension like glass. There was laughing — not everyone, but enough that it would be weird if you weren’t even smiling a little; Adwyn was laughing. I was clicking a little, but not so much that I missed the calm glare that leapt from Bariaeth’s face right at the high guard.
The treasurer’s lips moved in a murmur, and of course I couldn’t hear it all the way at the cliff wall. But it was one word and free to guess: ‘Yet.’
Besides Bariaeth — and beside Bariaeth — were the two dragons who also weren’t laughing. The faer might have quirked her lips, but her head was turned away, looking at the high secretary: and she, on the other foot, wore an expression that was more teeth and fangs than lips.
She growled, and she said, “Whoever you are, you’ve failed. Each and every one of you.” Her wings had flexed a bit, not quite spreading. “Whenever the thieves decide to do something more destructive than mere stealing, I loathe to see what becomes of this town.”
The faer was shaking her head, and touched a wing to her secretary; and that was enough for her to relax her face and fold her wings back at her side.
The faer’s was the calmest response I saw, besides Digrif’s confusion. Among the nicer reactions from the guards were half growled jeers along the lines of, “Spit off,” or “Don’t you belong in a tree somewhere?” or “What the ash are you doing here?”
The treasurer smiled. “With that said,” he opened, “one may note that some of us have failed you more than others. After all, how much can we do on flawed orders? Can we trust leaders who know scarcely more than we do?”
There were guards nodding, there was Adwyn frowning, but I only pouted. It wasn’t even subtle.
Meanwhile, the faer yawned.
When she was done, “Indeed we cannot,” she slowly said. “This is why I remain faer. I was notified of the thieves’ escape less than two rings ago. On my orders, the inquirers recovered another ape corpse and captured the remaining thief. Two inquirers did what one — two — three — four skeins of my guards could not. This is a disgrace.”
The faer’s look grew pointed. “Rhyfel-ychy, is this my guard?”
The scarlet dragon glanced up to meet what must have a desert of a gaze, and said, “Yes. But I reason you would’ve had an easier time hunting these louts when surprise ain’t on their side.” The words were careful, balanced to remove emphasis from any particular part of that sentence.
He added, “Adwyn’s reports said thieves. Scent it like we did. A dragon can’t fly carrying weight like a corpse — should we have expected just thieves to afford peak quality gliders?” He shook his head. “I know two alchemists in this whole town, both purportedly loyal — should we have expected alchemy?” Rhyfel the younger whipped out a wing. “This shot straight out of nowhere. No one saw this coming.”
“I can see it, but I am not content with failure.” Mlaen paused, then said, “As embarrassing as this episode was, and is, this endeavor remains recoverable. We have a single task that will allow us to call this a victory, which I shall entrust to the best among you. For the sake of yourselves and this town, succeed.”
“Mlaen is taking this far more seriously today. I wonder what changed.”
I glanced at the orange drake sitting across the playing card strewn boulder. “This is a matter of Frinan security,” I echoed, “isn’t it?” I clicked my tongue before adding in a different tone, “Last night it was just humans, now it’s dragons working against us, too. That changes a lot.”
Adwyn rolled his head. Maybe it was indifference, maybe it was me saying things he already knew — but he had asked.
“I know Mlaen,” the adviser said. “Even thieves of this caliber wouldn’t be enough to startle her; she would trust Rhyfel the younger to ground them. But summoning the inquirers? Deigning to give this speech? She is worried. I glimpse there’s something more to this, something she for now only suspects.” He licked his eyes. “But she has a certain intuition. We can assume there’s depth to it.”
I flicked my tongue. “Hinte thinks the Specters are behind this.”
“They very well may.” The military adviser looked at me. “We’ve had our fill of speculation, for what evidence we have. Now, we should act.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “What can I do?”
“You can go home,” Adwyn said without smirking. “I know you don’t want to be here, and I can tell you have no investment in what we are doing. You can go home.”
“But I do have investment! My friends are in this — they might get hurt.”
“Then you should find Hinte and ensure she does not get hurt,” he said. “Or gets anyone hurt. Explosively.” There was the smirk.
I rolled my head and gazed searching off toward the butte that Hinte had disappeared from. Beside me I heard wings unfurling, claws scraping gravel, and then Digrif speaking:
“What are you going to do, Sofrani?”
“Glimpse what I can of Mlaen’s suspicions, and whatever brings the treasurer here,” he replied. “And perhaps, a little scheming.”
I dropped my gaze to watch the military adviser take off and glide toward the ring of black-cloaked trumpeters, leaving me with Digrif and the guards some strides away.
“And then there were two,” I said to Digrif. “What are we supposed to do now? I feel a little useless.”
“Find Hinte, like Adwyn suggested?”
“She can take care of herself. I don’t know why she ran away, but she’ll come back when she’s ready, won’t she?” I looked away from Digrif. “Why don’t we find some way to help the guards? Show Adwyn that I am invested?”
“Well…” Digrif started. His tone reached and searched for something, and I glanced back at him. “What if Rhyfel is right?”
“Well, no one saw this coming.” Digrif scratched the ground. “Adwyn-sofran is a military adviser, and that makes him a strategist, right? And well, Ushra is like, the best, cleverest alchemist? They say he can bring the dead back to life. Well, together, they’re the smartest dragons in the cliffs. Or well, there’s Anterth’s scarlet snake — but I mean in Gwymr/Frina.”
The handsome gray drake shook his head. “What I’m saying is, they’re the smartest, and neither of them saw this coming. Adwyn-sofran thought it was just humans, and Ushra thought it was some other stronghold. It makes you wonder what we’re up against.”
“It was a surprise,” I said. “It’s not going to work twice.”
“Still, that bluish-green wiver was right. The guards failed — we failed. The thieves were right beside us and we still couldn’t stop them. Maybe we really don’t belong here.”
The warm-gray dragon kicked a rock, and between his sad frown and the sour tinge in the air, you’d think this all was some personal failure.
I brushed an alula over his shoulder. “Digrif, don’t blame yourself for this. I’m the one who failed, not you. You did everything you were supposed to.”
“We were both right there,” he said, nudging me away. “You flew after them, I just stood and gawked.”
“So did all the other dragons around us, even Gwynt and Adwyn. It doesn’t mean anything that I was the one looking right at them, wondering why they were so tense. It could have been any of us.”
A sudden drawl from behind me, some dragon saying, “So you’re the one who chased after those thieves?”
I spun around, and there was Jarce, running an alula over his twisted horns.
“Um, why do you ask?”
“Just been reasoning about things, after the faer’s little speech a ring ago.” He frowned, and said, “Tell me, what even is a human, anyways?”
“Well…” I scratched my cheek. “Do you have sloths down in the cliffs? …No? Well, they’re like uh, rats, except a lot bigger, without any hair.”
“That’s it?” the plain-dweller drake said, tossing his head. “And why in Dwylla’s name is the yawning faer spitting up this much fuss about hairless rats?” Jarce was glancing around, and as you followed his gaze, you saw Gwynt and Ceian leaning in. By them stood the cliff-dweller perfect over whose ashcloak a red sash sat clashing, Adwyn’s spy (who’d returned), and a plain-dweller wiver bigger than any other guard.
“Just riddle it,” Jarce was saying. “The sleeping faer for once deigns to flap outside her hall, riles up the bleeding inquirers, and gets everyone dripping about some critter no one’s ever heard of.” They pause for a breath cycle. “Just riddle it. What’s really going on?”
Digrif spoke up, voice a little flat. “But humans are real. There are stories about them. They say there used to be a town on the other side of Anterth, down in the valleys. Banti/Gorphon. Used to be. They fought with a bunch of humans and — lost.”
The big plain-dweller lifted her head, held it aloft. “This is Gwymr/Frina, hatch. You think some mighty town-destroying creatures going to be coming at us, through the fires, in the gray season? It don’t fledge sense.”
I clicked, saying, “Do you think something from the other side of Anterth is going to know what a gray season is?”
Jarce dismissively waved a wing. “All I’m saying is, this all smells funny.”
“And I was there when Hinte fought the humans in the first place!” I said to the fool. “I know how everything happened.”
The white-cloaked guard — the prefect — licked their eyes. Peering, they said, “Hrm. Aren’t you rather young to be sifting? Thought Mlaen didn’t let hatchlings into the lake anymore.”
“I am twenty-two gyras old!”
“You don’t look it.”
“At least I don’t look like the wrong side of a tortoise!”
I spun around again, huffing. When I caught Digrif’s eye, I asked, “You want to go find Hinte?”
And like that, we were striding away from the throng of guards, toward that butte.
I said, “I just don’t think the garters stand any chance at all. I mean, you name yourself after the most harmless snake, and do you expect anyone to take you seriously?”
“It’s just a name,” said the drake. “And, well, I think garter snakes are cute.” He rolled his head at me.
“They are cute. It’s just, a Dim-Fflamio team shouldn’t be cute, they should be fierce.”
I looked up. We’d walked a dozen strides or less from that edge of the market where all the guards were milling, but even that was enough to free up the light from clouds, and let it fall playfully across the gravelly emptiness.
Big buttes and cliffs like afterthoughts gave the land around here structure, but that was just more space for Hinte to go storm off into, or whatever it was. Digrif and I craned our heads all around, peering at the big rocky things. For maybe the fifth time a skink or monitor on the cliff darted about, and I jumped like I’d found something.
Despite the buttes, this place was lousy with trenches and edges. I peered over one, and a long-dead wildcat rotted down there. I held my tongue and walked on.
Digrif was leading the way. At least I could steal away in conversation with him, even if we were aimed at Hinte. What else was there? Trying to be invested, on my own, amongst the guards who glared and muttered at me?
“Hey,” came a voice, and there also came a poke. A wing patted my shoulder. “Cheer up. Everything’ll be fine right when we’re back with Hinte.” The handsome gray drake smiled, and dawn take me if there still wasn’t a shiver from that, slithering up from my tail.
I looked down and away, buried my gaze in one of the trenches around here, and stepped in some direction. Digrif followed after me.
“Don’t believe her act.” he added, late. “Hinte hates being alone. We all do.”
I tossed my head, but watched him from my sight’s edge. He just hitched his wings, and started away, leading again. I sighed. Digrif cared, but he wouldn’t push. No one would.
Then Digrif tripped off a trench edge, fell plop down the ground and you had to laugh. I slinked over and Digrif was fine and laughing too.
I jumped down after him, into a trench big enough to be a gully. I looked around —
“Ah!” I yelled and half-fell over.
Crouched and leaning against the trench wall, there was a scarlet cliff-dweller limply holding, in his forefoot, a long aluminum sword. Behind him lay a covered forms — one of the bodies being guarded — while beside the cliff-dweller the pink-scaled drake, his head craned up like a sunflower. On the other side of them, some gravel disturbed like footprints.
Already Digrif had found some kind of bow. “Rhyfel the younger-sofran!”
I hitched my wings and I glanced at the pink drake. “Ceian. You get around quickly.”
“It helps to be going somewhere.” He grinned like it was funny. At least now he wasn’t grinning like Rhyfel in a cheap mirror — but it probably wasn’t out of any newfound discretion.
Rhyfel stabbed the aluminum sword in the ground, and it only leant over a little bit. He nodded at us and said, “Yo Kinri, Digrif. Don’t think I got a chance to say good job with the thieves, but it was. Keep it up and you could be guard material.” Then his voice slipped low, and he muttered something.
Hopping up from his bow, Digrif said, “Thanks!”
I only flicked my tongue. “What was that you said?”
A little smile. “Ah, nothing. Saying we’ll need it, going by the scent of things with the humans.”
A gray-scaled head was tilted. “You don’t think Adwyn-sofran’s plan is going to work?”
“Nah, I don’t.” Rhyfel glanced between us. “And get yourselves out of the sun. It’s cool in the shade.”
A little closer to the high guard, he was saying to us, “Don’t get me twisted, I love the fella, he’s good, but he plays Skirm” — Rhyfel waved a wing — “where you take turns, follow rules, and — let’s face it — no one plays it as good in the cliffs.”
“I don’t know Skirm.”
“It’s just another war game. You play one, you played then all. Point is, Adwyn doesn’t expect much out of his obstacles — definitely not smarts. He fucked up with the thieves.”
“Did you expect any more of them?”
…Was I defending Adwyn? Maybe today’s would turn out as dense and strange as last night. It almost has.
A head turned — Ceian’s. He frowned at me.
Rhyfel licked a brille. “Adwyn called down the storm himself when decided to go shop in the middle of a mission. There’s confidence, and that’s too much of it.”
“I mean, he trusted your guard,” I said softly, looking away, and darting my tongue out. The pink drake now outright scowled at me.
“My guard was tricked and lied to.”
“Hey, maybe we shouldn’t argue,” said Digrif. “It’s all done, isn’t it?”
Ceian dropped his scowled and nodded at Digrif. “Yeah, let’s cullet the circling talk.”
I spat on the ground. “So. What were you two talking about?”
Ceian flicked a tongue toward Rhyfel. “Asking the big guy here about the past. Pretty slick history. You wouldn’t know.” He glanced at the warm-gray drake and back. “‘So anyway, why does everyone calling you Rhyfel the younger like we’re about to forget? The elder’s pretty old and dead, ain’t he?”
“It’s kinda an odd thing to stress,” I added.
Rhyfel paused for a beat, a long beat, then spoke quiet. “It’s just about your name being synonymous with a traitor. Kinri, you’d know all about it, I reason. Nothing too deep to it.” He tossed his scarlet head. “Just have to distance yourself from it, be your own person.”
“And you still end up feeling like nothing’s changed at all.” I nodded at him.
Rhyfel gave me a real smile and looked close with those too-black eyes, saying, “Gwymr/Frina’s good for that.”
“Good for feeling that way, or good not feeling that way?”
He only laughed.
I growled, but tossed my head. “Of course none of you are going to be straightforward. It’s like Adwyn is contagious.” I pushed gravel for a breath cycle. “So. Adwyn was saying he has you at the table for whatever his schemes are.”
“ ‘Course he does. I may look cliff-dweller — well, I am — but I’m Dyfnderi. Mostly cause old Rhyfel’s housename meant we weren’t exactly allowed in Gwymr/Frina with our heads still on. Treason’ll do that.” A savage grin. “Really, I was just tellin Ceian how Mlaen found and dragged me back to the cliffs. It’s a story.”
Before he could continue the first short ring chimed.
So Rhyfel took his sword out of the gravel, and said. “But it tastes like I have to go about now. See you at the gate.”
“Okay.” I looked down, at where his sword had been before my gaze drifted, caught what I’d missed, and I said, “Hey wait, there were three prints in the gravel here, who was —”
“I was wondering when you’d notice,” said a voice, jaggedly.
I heard the heavy fall onto gravel behind me, and I didn’t turn. “Guess that’s our search. Hi, Hinte.”
“I couldn’t hide from you, could I?” She stepped forward, and I chose to turn. She muttered something about being narrowly perceptive.
A very small smile sneaked onto my lips, and I replied, “You found me first.” I didn’t like how nostalgic I felt, and I blamed it on Rhyfel.
Digrif was watching with a more open smile, slinking over the black-cloaked wiver. Ceian over there was gawking at Hinte, some smile working onto his face.
“Are you here to apologize?” she asked us.
I met orange eyes. “Nope!”
She turned away at that. The wiver paused there, before she started walking away, toward that ramp-like path out of the gully. “Good,” she said.
It was a thought, untangling breath before I realized I could follow after her.
Digrif was stepping after her too, murmuring, “Hinte doesn’t make any sense.”
I glanced at the dark-green wiver, and then back at him. “I think she likes it that way.”
I didn’t really know where to put myself. Where to stand with Hinte had always came easy — maybe I trailed after her, maybe I’d bounce in step beside her — but now I had to think about it, and that was what awkward was.
So I walked beside Digrif. The warm-gray drake was trailing resistantly after her — right now he followed behind her, but he’d sidle forth as if warming up to something before it fizzled out.
After a few of these, I chose to walk up beside her myself. “Hey Hinte,” I started. Digrif wanted to apologize, but I… didn’t know. Was it my fault she hid away? “About earlier, um, you see…”
Hinte didn’t turn. Her strides grew quicker.
At least it wasn’t a long walk back to the alley. The clouds were still drawing in from the east, but it seemed a temporary thing, looking at the horizon.
A little bit of time passed.
“So Hinte, d’you hear faer’s speech?” The warm-gray drake finally found it in him to stay beside her.
“No. It was not worth my time.”
“Hinte! That’s disrespectful. It was the faer.”
“I mean, she’s kinda right?” I started. “It was for the guards mostly. It doesn’t really affect us.”
“Still, it could have been important.”
I shook my head, and told the wiver, “Mlaen mostly just yelled at the guards for losing the bodies.”
“Good,” said Hinte. “Someone needed to place the guard. They’re a mess.”
We walked on awhile, and then we were back at the lip of the market. You started seeing guards again.
“So. What were you doing with Rhyfel?”
“Talking. He is not as tongueless as he acts.”
“Well, of course,” Digrif said. “He’s the high guard! He’s the one who stands between Gwymr/Frina and lawless chaos.”
“You wouldn’t know by meeting him.”
“That’s just because he knows how to have fun instead being all serious all the time.” Digrif drew his wings close. “You two could learn from him.”
“…I’m fun,” I said, and the warm-gray drake smiled. With an alula he poked me, and I bounced a little.
Hinte was saying, “This is a mission. It is serious.”
Digrif didn’t smirk because Digrif doesn’t smirk — but it wasn’t simply a smile. “Well, I disagree — this isn’t a mission. We’re waiting for the real mission to start, the one the faer says’ll go the best among us. You two, probably.”
I laughed, enough that I had to pull a wing over my mouth and Hinte was peering at me.
“Regardless,” she started, “if not to apologize why did you two find me?”
I flicked my tongue, but it was Digrif who replied:
“Because we’re friends,” he said.
Hinte held the drake’s gaze for a while, before her line of a mouth grew very, intentionally flat, and she turned to step away.
“So,” I said, looking between the two of them. “Where are we going now?” I gazed to where the trumpeters had cleared out. “I say we find Adwyn.”
“No.” Hinte turned around to say this. Digrif watched, scratching his cheek.
“Why not?” I asked. “He said he was figuring out what’s up with Mlaen, and doing some scheming — we should find out.” But I saw Hinte was already shaking her head. “Is this about what he said earlier? Maybe he’ll apologize.”
“I don’t want apologies.”
Digrif stepped forward. “Well, how about this: Kinri can go find out what Adwyn’s up to, and Hinte can go back and see what Rhyfel had to leave for.”
“And you?” she asked.
“Well… I stayed with Kinri last time, maybe I can go with you this time?”
Hinte glanced at me first. She said, “Do what you want.”
“It’s only fair,” he said. “Is that alright with you, Kinri?”
“It’s — fine. Maybe he’ll tell me more without anyone else there. We’ve got some kinda alliance thing.”
Hinte still frowned at me. She breathed in, and it felt like a sigh as she softly said, “There are worse dragons to ally yourself with.”
“Like who? Bariaeth?”
“Him, or the Specters.”
“But…” I started, “we don’t know that my brother is up to anything bad. Maybe after I explain my alliance with Adwyn he’ll reconsider.”
“Do you even know what your brother wants?”
I looked up. “Maybe? He always — we always said we would change House Specter, fix it. That was when I was going to be Zenith — and I think that’s part of why he wants to help me back.”
Hinte was still. “And everything — everyone you leave here in Gwymr/Frina?”
“I —” I lowered my gaze from the sky. At Hinte, I continued, “Um, I didn’t really think of that part. I — don’t think of this stuff much.”
“Tongueless,” she said. Mouth flat, fangs a touch visible, she added, “Would Adwyn be any different? Think about whom you follow and why.”
Hinte stepped back, turned, then stopped. Looked at me. Said, “I told you I wouldn’t walk away again. May I go?”
“If not my brother, and not Adwyn, who am I supposed to follow?”
“Follow your tongue,” said the black-cloaked wiver.
I glanced at Digrif. “I just want to live a simple life,” I murmured.
A distant bird caw cut through the silence, and I finally said to the wiver, “I’ll be — fine. You two just go find out what the high guard is up to. He probably knows when we’re leaving.”
Hinte nodded at me, still peering too intensely out of those eyes that were orange and not black. Before she left, she spoke.
Her voice was faint like a zephyr:
“To be the winds which know no rest
“And wuther restlessly awhile
“Or sough in quiet is a joy
“And is unknown, to still, dead air.”
Above, valiantly, the suns beat light on the clouds, and resulted nothing except igniting a little glow.
But the alley was the same in the sky-light, if darker. And it fit, with the dusk breathing down and with how vacant the area was. The guards for the final task must have been selected or something, because the ranks here had shrunk by at least two thirds.
I padded across gravel riddled with growths that were more roots than spouts, and I tended toward that cliff across from the alley to check among the guards.
With my stars, you already knew it wasn’t that simple.
Back at the cliff, most of those guards were still standing around like weeds that listened: Jarce, with the twisted horns, idly clawed the gravel and was grinning at the speaker; the big wiver beside plain-dweller smiled too, subtle, and leatn against the wall; Ceian, somehow already back over here, bounced on his feet, grinning almost savagely (I knew he hadn’t gotten over it); and the prefect was still here, tapping toes, frowning, and looking around as if waiting for the speaker to quiet.
That speaker was Gwynt, black tongue waving, and his wings moved in emphasis for his voice, which sounded half-comedic, half-storyteller, like someone in the cadences of a long joke.
“…And he said, the houses are falling!” Gwynt finished in a high-pitch. The other guards chuckled loosely.
I tended closer; Ceian scowled, but Gwynt smiled me over.
Wrinkling my snout, I said, “I don’t get it.”
“She says,” Jarce started, “having not heard half the —”
“Yeah,” Gwynt interrupted, “The high houses are pretty irrelevant these days. You wouldn’t have heard of them.” The interrupted drake only tossed his head.
Jarce was looking at Ceian, muttering, “Who’d have thought when you need daddy Dwylla and his coffers to keep your life together, you don’t know what to do when he’s gone?”
Gwynt chuckled at him. Glancing at me, he said, “Right after Dwylla alighted, everything seemed fine, but after some generations pulled by things got worser and worser for the high houses. There ain’t much left of them, these days. They say you can still find the last scions in bars wailing that the houses are falling!” He clicked.
The big wiver snapped out her wing. “It ain’t Dwylla’s fault, it’s Mlaen’s. Dwylla did right by this place. Mlaen meanwhile is selling this town part by parcel to the gray scales.”
Gwynt now. “Mlaen’s just trying —”
“Mlaen ain’t trying ash. Have you seen prices of anything these days? Have you seen what the sifters have to deal with just so their bosses can turn a smidge more profit? And don’t get me started on what they’re selling. I was in the market today and saw a mountain-dweller glass vase. Glass! Can you imagine the nerve they must have, to sell glass to us!”
Gwynt sighed. “Don’t mind this wiver here. She gets worked up on the slightest breeze.”
“I ought to get worked up! This is significant, and Cyfrin ac Dwylla will be so much better off once that red tyrant is off the throne. Bariaeth will lead so much better.”
“Uh, is that the old name of the town? I thought it was recognized as Gwymr/Frina.”
The wiver gave me a grin I didn’t like the taste of. “My voice must have slipped.”
“Nah, you just got too much to drink at the Dadafodd,” said Ceian. “Next thing we’ll see is you in a Dychwelfa gown, singing the glory of Dwylla, I’ll bet my toe.”
Gwynt nudged Ceian. “Don’t do that.”
I flicked my tongue, glancing around. “So uh, this might be a weird thing to ask, but… why was Dwylla so special? Dragons talk about him like he was a — deity.” I saw the prefect perk up, frill flaring, now listening.
“They say Dwylla had two eyes,” Gwynt started.
“I should hope,” replied the prefect.
“Yeah, but you see, one of these eyes was pure black, and the other was pure white. They say he can look right at you and see all of the good and evil in a dragon.”
“And not just that. He was — radiant. A plain-dweller, but with white scales!”
I said, “Like Bariaeth?”
“No no, not like Bariaeth. Dwylla had pure white scales, like the clouds — like a sun. He was something noble. The treasurer is a cheap replica.”
“He says he’s Dwylla’s scion.”
“Then the blood is dirty.”
Ceian muttered, “That ain’t the only part of him that’s dirty.” Jarce laughed him; Gwynt smiled.
“Anyway,” I started, shaking my head, “have any of you seen Adwyn?”
“You checked the alley? Saw him smirk his way over there with the treasurer himself.”
My frills flared, and I lowered my head. He laughed, but instead of mocking you found something inviting in the curl of his frills, something friendly.
“I’ll — go do that.”
He smiled me off. But before I turned in full, he added, “Oh, that’s it — I’ve seen you at the Makao, haven’t I? That inn on the north side?” I nodded. “Small town, ain’t it. Say, you up for some cards later today, after all this? I drop by there for some Wicked Licks most days, me and some friends.”
“That sounds — nice.”
The carillon rang again, the second short ring. When I glanced, I saw dragons marching away with the blockades; and the road was opened up again. Guards slinked away from the area in pairs or flew lonelily away. I saw Jarce leaving like that, and the big plain-dweller wiver.
The sky was big above me, and the crowd fading away felt like the emptiness reaching down.
In your frills hinted sounds like bird calls, faint winds or fainter voices, and footsteps.
Onto your tongue wafted smells like the lingering mess of bodies, food they might have snacked, and a nasty, fearful smell sticking around that was the bad echo of the farmer dragons the guards had captured — the thieves’ family, who might go to Wydrllos for their ignorance.
Then there was a smell of holly.
“Specter,” came that lilting voice.
I slowly rotated.
There, in shoes with holes for claws, in robes that clung tight to her body, with her legs crouched readily, and her tart fangs protruding from her frown, the secretary of Gwymr/Frina stood before me.
“You look like you might attack me,” said I.
“I am prepared. An enemy of Gwymr/Frina stands before me, and she wears a weapon. A fool would be calm and pleasant, dealing with you.”
“So Adwyn is a fool?”
“Yes.” Cynfe clouded her eyes. “This afternoon has evinced that.”
“Okay… You don’t like me. I already got the message. Why are you bothering me now?”
“We received Adwyn’s note. He was too indirect with you, and I will emend that,” the secretary said. “The adviser will not be harmed. The faer will not be harmed. The Specter will receive from you no further communication.”
A pause like between lightning and thunder.
“When you fail any of this, you will die. I have Mlaen’s permission. Your friends will be tried as accomplices. Your country will bare the weight of your breach of the Severance.”
Cynfe stopped there.
The words forced me still with fear. But there was a gap, that respite between agnizing some sudden doom and reacting to it. I chose to adjust my mask then, try to dew sweet, not spicy.
I said, “I didn’t think I was that scary.”
“You are a fool. It’s worse.”
Clouding my brilles, I said, “Are you leaving now? I can’t imagine you have anything important to do here. I do.”
Cynfe spat. It splashed on the ground and wet spots dotted the Specter cloak’s sleeves.
The blue-green wiver leapt, and she was gone.
As her shadow sped away from me, it was a squeaky gasp that left me. The dew on my fangs abruptly spiced. Beneath me, legs trembled weakly and I could have fallen over.
I looked around, but none watched me. One pair of the faint voices snapped loud and intense, as of an expanding flame. I saw the gleam of certain cream-white scales at the alley’s lip.
I tended closer.
“Why, Adwyn-gyfar, would you render such outlandish conclusions?” The treasurer laughed. “I suppose you must lay blame on the innocent when you gaze is so narrow as to miss those truly at fault.”
Adwyn was staring at the drake. “I don’t glimpse you above lying, Bariaeth.”
“I do not need to lie. Why, I don’t even need to convince you. Rather, you must convince Mlaen-ychy there is anything at all to your speculation —”
“Allow me to finish. To try to convince Mlaen you’ll need evidence. Should you even be capable of sifting the truth, you’ll soon discover that I have no incentive to ally myself with them.”
“Again, these are mere words — by which I have nothing to judge except their sound. And it doesn’t help your case in the dimmest that you seem to know who lies at the top of this, and yet you keep occluded.”
“Of course. They pay their taxes. If they have secret smuggling deals with humans, and if they perform dark magic rituals to revive their dead prophet, well, whom am I to judge?”
I padded closer to the alley’s mouth. Bariaeth stood high in front of Adwyn, blocking his sight of me. Neither knew I was there.
Unless they bothered to flick.
Adwyn was saying, “Perhaps before that may’ve been defensible. Now, however, they’ve committed crimes and you must name them.”
Bariaeth’s clicking. “A small correction,” he said. “The thieves have committed crimes. If I had evidence sufficient to link the thieves to some other party, believe me I would name them — for there is quite the reward in revealing them. But until then, I won’t. It’s a matter of justice, you see.”
“Then tell me who this is, and we could work together to absolve or convict them.”
“I’m afraid I won’t, not until I have reason to believe you would be any help at all. If you can discover this other party on your own, perhaps then talk to me.”
“Or, maybe you’ll only want to work together when Adwyn might solve it on his own.”
Bariaeth snapped around. Adwyn looked over. I smirked.
“The Specter. I should have guess you’d be sulking around here.”
I tilted. “Did the faer not tell you —” I stopped. I continued, “that she wants me on this special mission? I was there when the humans attacked.”
Thank the stars. I was near shaken up enough to blurt my thoughts: Mlaen hadn’t told him of Adwyn’s note, hadn’t even revealed the details of the mission. My smirk wasn’t an act, now.
“Surely the squirrel would be enough.”
His nose wrinkled. “The alchemist’s spawn. I’ve been informed that the heroics of all last night are her work.”
“Hardly,” spoke the adviser. “Know that Hinte would not have escaped the lake without the quick thinking of Miss Kinri.” Adwyn stepped forward, now beside the cream-white drake. In his white frills was said, “I’d show my appreciation, were I you. An alchemist’s displeasure is dim for your health.
Bariaeth did not jump. But he stepped to the side, distanced Adwyn.
Adwyn waved his tongue at the drake, then looked away. He told me, “I must find Rhyfel and finalize everything for the trip. Follow me when you’ve had your fill of the treasurer.”
The orange drake slipped out and slinked away.
Bariaeth stepped after him, but paused before me. He peered at me, and I peered at him.
In the daylight, Bariaeth didn’t look that bad. He had a nice, long snout, the hornscales beneath it grew garden-like, while the horns behind his head had a cute length to them. Scales fair like a cloud-dweller, pink eyes plain but not bare, he didn’t look that bad.
What grounded it was his ugly scowl. It was a wraith’s scowl.
He spoke. “I scent that you’re warming for that orange-scale and his noble quest,” Bariaeth said. “What’s that drake been feeding you? Some dillershit about friendship and unity?” The cream-white drake shook his head. “You’re a Specter. You see through all that political riddling. He’s talking about money,” — he pinched alula and pinion — “they always are. What value does any foreign fat-belly taste in this pit of a town? Glass and metal. It’s all we’re good for, you’d think, when every fifth dragon you meet is some flavor of sifter.”
I tilted my head. I was turning toward Adwyn, but Bariaeth was high-walking toward me, so it didn’t read as dismissive as I meant it.
“Dyfnder never cared about us until our lake started gleaming. Remember that, little wiver. Adwyn might believe his gab — methinks he’s too smart to, but he might. You shouldn’t.”
“And I should believe yours?”
“It’s not mine. It’s common knowledge. They’re talking our hard-earned electrum and aluminum, out where none of us can even taste it. That’s theft, in spirit.”
“Oh, you’re part of the problem. You may say you’re an exile, but we don’t reason for a second that you’re here by chance. I’m sure the Specters back home would like a pretty little trade patent with the mudlings, won’t they?”
“You would know. My sister was just telling me that I should work with you.” I looked up. “One of us is lucky I really am an exile, I just wish I knew which.”
It was near the outskirts of the cordoned off area, smelling like tortoises and crushed plants, when I heard, as chased after Adwyn, a plaintive jagged voice.
“Stone-shells are too heavy to walk on the lake,” she said, whisking a cloak-concealed wing at a red-shelled tortoise as wide as two dragons, with carapace textured rocky and scratched. The big boy was stepping his fat feet inside a fence or pen thingy that looked like it’d been tossed up breaths ago. I padded over from her side.
“Sure they are,” some plain-dweller handler replied, “but Rhyfel-sofran told us the human camp was in the cliffs on the other side of the lake, yeah?”
The black-clad wiver rolled her head and glared at the tortoises. That tortoise snorted at her.
The handler said, “You can just walk along the edges, can’t you?”
“It will be slow. More than slow the stone-shells.”
A drake approached from behind. “Have patience, Gronte-wyre~” Adwyn said, “time is hardly of the essence.”
“I am Hinte.”
A smirk. “Perhaps you should act like it.”
“I think,” I started, slinked toward the glaring pair, “that the thieves make it more urgent, don’t they?”
“I glimpse not,” he said. “The thieves got their little victory — they will be in hiding — for the next few days if they have any sense. And we’ve enough guards here they won’t try anything. We’ll be prepared.”
Hinte said, “And why is anyone still listening to you?”
Adwyn continued, looking at me. “Surviving the lake is more important — between the heat and the clouds, exerting ourselves by rushing over the lake is ill-advised. We need to carry supplies for all of us, and for that, tortoises.”
I looked at the munching turt behind that pen that probably did nothing. “And they’re cute.” I glanced to the dark-green wiver. “Right, Hinte?”
She was walking away from the adviser. I low-walked after her, and now I stood near where, under Hinte’s peering eyes, a warm-gray drake twiddled his halluxes.
“Hey,” he said without looking up. Looking over his shoulder, he wasn’t twiddling his halluxes, but entwining some snarled red roots. The roots are thick with twice the girth of my claw. Textured rough and flaky, the roots snapped under the gray dragon’s twiddling.
“What are those?” I asked. “Those, uh, dinder roots?”
“Yea. They grow pretty awfully in the soil here, though.” He pierced the root with a claw. The root writhed, lethargic and bloody. But the blood was white. He did this a few more times — but the response from the roots was never quick enough to stop him from opening bleeding gashes.
“See? They have no life to them — It’s like they’re diseased. And they’re supposed to be ten times this big!” He twisted the roots again, with strong, frustrated motions. He tied the roots into a sword and made to poke me with it; but the roots just drooped away from me. As did his frills.
“They are stunted,” Hinte said. The drake looked up, tilting his head. “What? The plants need a certain nature of soil to grow. When they do not have that, they growth stunt.”
“They growth stunt?” The black-clad wiver kicked a foot at me, but it didn’t connect. “Ow,” I said anyway, and I swiped at her.
“Their growth stunts.” Hinte looked at Digrif. “Do you know nothing of farming? This is simple.”
“Well, I was always more of a construction type. Whole family was, I think. I’d never grew anything before. But I missed the roots, sometimes, so I gave it a shot — how hard could it be, really…”
“I guess it is harder than you expect?” I asked.
I saw Hinte’s frills flinch before I heard the final click of fastened supplies. Rhyfel’s commanding growl came next:
“Time to leave, fledgelings.”
Hinte turned with me, but we waited for Digrif to stand. Together, we went over to where the guards spurred two stone-shelled tortoises to move. There were blanketed forms, three of them, that stunk, and a bunch of pycnofiber bag. Here was Adwyn beside Rhyfel, Gwynt beside Ceian, and the prefect frowning at — Cynfe?
The orange drake smiled at my look. “Our party has… grown, some.”
I glanced at the blue-green wiver. “Why is… she here?”
She gave a grin with teeth and fangs. “Oh, Mlaen wants there to be someone here whom she can trust not to disappoint.” She found it in her to close her mouth. “And, given the circumstance, someone whom she can trust at all.”
Cynfe’s black and gold robes had switched to something all black. When I peered closer, I saw thick gray nets covering her legs and wings.
I looked away. For the silence, I said, “And the rest of them?”
The scarlet perked his head. “My picks. We need good stock in the lake, and a prefect.”
At a wing signal from the high guard Gwynt came up and took our bags, and strapped them onto the turts. He and the prefect put themselves beside the ambling turts, spurring them to move till they had a good pace, and climbed atop. When the high guard and the adviser started moving, we followed after them.
“Ooh, can we ride the turts?”
Rhyfel said, “Nah. A big turt can carry maybe three dragons for a pace. There’s one too many of us.”
Hinte glanced at Digrif, then me, but didn’t say anything.
I held her gaze, though, and tried, “So Hinte, about earlier —” And like earlier, that was how about far I got before she turned and stepped away quick.
Digrif could only frown when I looked to him.
So we all padded on like that, turts in the lead, Ceian slinking after the high guard, and Hinte just in front of us.
I looked ahead, toward the Berwem gate. I’d never seen it in the daylight, and the sight slacked my tongue. The gate towered, a great bronze-rimmed granite shield. Three other gates like it guarded the town, scoria brick things that pinnacled the other outroads. Maybe they rose taller, or stood fatter; those were trade roads, after all. But the Berwem gate had a certain ancient durability to it. The frowning white face of Dwylla the eternal didn’t hurt.
We walked toward it. Hinte fell back to walk beside us in silence. Ahead, Ceian tended closer to the chatting pair, Adwyn and Rhyfel, and the high guard pushed him back. He sulked up onto a tortoise with Gwynt and road on like that.
When I looked back behind us, strides and strides away, a cloaked figure, hood up, followed behind. When the sunslight slipped under, scales were blue-green.
And so, we set out for the cliffs like that; the detours were all done, and soon this mission would be over.
Clouds were closing in like anticipation, and a fourth little ring was fading behind us.
* * *