Sometimes the stars visited in fire and rock and for a night we fluttered a little nearer to heaven.
Down here, while you rested belly-down on some harsh slab, the stars could almost be painted on a shell, and whatever numinous world they limned could well be an existence apart. Most times it was.
Dusk dwindled away, and the stars were settling down. I thought they’d be as bright and beautiful as ever. Below them, though, as some dark blue dot on some crumbly butte in some forgotten spate of cliffs in the vasty night, I stared up and couldn’t keep the dew from my fangs. Couldn’t not wonder just how we connected to this infinite sky under which two dragons could die, without it even flinching.
A bright white rock was up there, burning its way across the dusk like an arrow sped from some forgotten bow. The night sky was vast and aimless; but then like to a cynosure you could look up, and see that heavensent rock flying right there as it crossed the threshold of worlds, unbarred and unbourned, yet swift on some unknown mission.
I saw it, and I smiled.
When the meteors came, every year, it was a hallowed time; the star season would lift anyone’s spirit.
And so, craning my head up, clearing my eyescales, and gazing at that seeking star, I let my worries and despair take a step back and let myself wonder like a stargazer. Who was this meteor? What did she seek? Where might she light?
The Severance of Earth and Sky was pockmarked with exceptions, and one of those permitted sky-dwellers to recover sacred meteors. With a laxer penalty, that was. This one would doubtless be too small, not worth it.
I let that thought take a step back, too. Every meteor was a little piece of heaven, and this one, it shined its light, for me, after a absolute storm of a day, and right now, that meant more than even the wanion fireball we wrenched from the ocean in 545.
Despite everything that had happened (and everyone it happened to…), this was a night like all the others, spent atop a cliff, the stars in my eyes. For the heavens, nothing had changed, and maybe for me —
You heard the rub of a scroll furling up, and then rough threads tied tight. Some deep murmuring. It was Hinte. I glanced over at the darkgreen wiver, and like that some words fell into the quiet:
“My aunt told me Stellaine comes down on meteors like that.” I waved at it. “Like a gift from the Cloud Constructor, something to make life more beautiful.” It was a gift that House Specter had twisted toward manipulation and deception — because of course they did.
Hinte spoke bristly and quiet, like she wanted the silence to stay. She said, “Do you believe that?”
She shook her head. “There are no gods, Kinri.” Her scroll fell into her bag.
“What!” I looked at the darkgreen wiver, stared a bit. “How can you say that?”
Hinte still stared out at the horizon, at the sun draining away.
I looked up. Then I glanced back. “If there’s no Cloud Constructor, then how do you explain all of this?” I waved my wing all around. “Why are there — why is the sky beautiful?”
She hisslaughed. “It is a mess.”
A mess. I gaped, and the alchemist just regarded me, her lips upturnt slightly. I turned around, drew my wings across my breast.
“Okay,” I started. “So you’re a blasphemer, and you hate stars. Fine. Of course.” I clouded my eyes for a beat, and let a smirk or smile play on my lipscales. I said, “If we’re sharing embarrassing secrets, well, once I thought I looked good in a bright red dress. No one said anything for a whole day!” I covertly, under a wing, glanced back at Hinte hoping for — I wasn’t sure what.
But she still looked at the sunset, and kept silent. Her lips moved like in prayer.
On the butte, behind us, the two tiny trees were now burning down to ashes. All the scrolls lay in her bag. Our lunch was bones.
Hinte shifted. Frill held in foot, she relented and added, her voice like early flowers, “…Sometimes, I still pray. To Hazer, or to Regene. Mother — Haune believed. Had believed. It is — a habit.”
“Still a blasphemer.” I blew my tongue. “The Cloud Constructor reigns high.”
“Over more than clouds?” Her flicked tongue twirled in the air.
“Err, it’s kind of a twist in translation. In Käärmkeili it means more than clouds. Every high floaty peaceful thing. Every cloudly thing.”
“Then why not say that? Why translate it to y Draig?” A tossed head.
“Because it’s… political? Important names are translated. I’m a Specter, and not a Kummitus. It’s supposed to be universal. So it’s House Locrian instead of House Ristiriinen, Cynosure instead of Huomion Tähti, Selcouth instead of —”
At that Hinte jerked her head. “Selcouth?” She saw me nod, and slowly said, “Tell me what that is.”
“…It’s a — weird house. With weird dragons. Always bagged up in heavy cloaks, never walking the street without a path clearing for them. They take the best tables at all the balls, and the next-to-best too, because no one will sit near them. They never show up to summits. They don’t have an estate. I don’t even know who their Zenith is!”
Hinte had a subtle face throughout all, frowning like when seeing that first human.
I waved my tongue. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” she quickly said. Before adding, “Your naming scheme is tongueless.” She clouded her eyes, muttered, “Sky-dwellers.”
“Forest-dwellers,” I rebutted. “Mother always said you were godless. Why are you like that?”
Once again looking at the horizon, she said, “Unlike the sky or anyone else, we are — we were free thinkers. We did not let a church cower us into submission.”
I flinched at the jaggedness of her tone. She’d been bristly before now, but this was another step. Had I pushed her too far?
“So um,” I started. “…What do you pray for?”
She didn’t speak for a bit. With a glance, she frowned at me, and looked away. “You would not like it.”
“So? Tell me. We’re friends. No secrets?”
“Many things. Different things.” The wiver shifted, and one foreleg fell over the other.
“Okay. Were you praying earlier? I was.” No response. “I can share what I prayed for first. I… was hoping those guards find solace somewhere beyond. It was — I don’t know why they had to die.”
“I do,” she growled.
She shook her head. “It was right in front of you.”
“Fine. What did you pray for, Hinte?”
Staring at the horizon, now. A sigh. “It was not a prayer. It was a promise.”
“Hinte, what did —”
“I will tell you tomorrow.” She stood up wings wide, muttering something that could’ve been, “I hope you’ll forgive me.” She was crouching to leap.
“Hinte-gyfar, you said you wouldn’t walk away again.”
“I did.” Still crouched.
“So I want to come with you, whatever you’re doing.”
Hinte paused, folded her wings. On her lips a thoughtful frown bloomed. Then she flared wings anyway, and without turning said, “Did you not already tell Mawla you would be with her this evening?”
I — did. She was expecting me. Was I an awful friend? Would she hate me now?
This could have been — should have been — my first enjoyable flight all day. Not to be tainted by nervousness (of being late to Hinte’s), or dread (of what Adwyn really wanted), or anticipation (of trudging through the Berwem again) or sheer panic (of chasing the thieves).
Instead, it was all of them.
It could have been the end of any other day, and I could have just been flying, winging out to the cliffs southern to relax and gaze the stars. I wanted it to be like that.
I did this every night. Sure, Mawla would be there, but that should have made it better. I could relax around Mawla, and not worry if I measured up to some invisible standard. She already thought I was cool, and not even knowing my boring day job or seeing Hinte — more heroic than me by far — could change that.
But smelling me late and tasting that I didn’t seem to care at all — could that ruin it?
I’d already had enough practice this evening: I let the worry step back. Now I looked down instead of up, at the houses and mesas blurring below.
The south gate stood on the far side of a neighborhood, and you could only call that neighborhood colorful. While the ridges had their businesses in Gwymr/Frina, rare was the mountain-dweller actually living in the cliffs; but all of them seemed to end up here, on the south side. The canyons seemed to hesitate in sending over anything save advisers or diplomats; but when those dragons deigned their way north, all of them seemed to end up here, on the south side. And while news never left the land of frost and flame, sometimes dragons did; yet, as if the ash-dwellers wouldn’t go farther north than needed, they too ended up here, on the south side.
Yet looking down at the dragons right now escaping the twilight, you didn’t forget that this was Gwymr/Frina. The crowd was in the key of brown and red. But like spices, mixed in were the dragons only at home on the south side: the mottled grays of the odd mountain-dwellers, the faded oranges of the canyon-dwellers, the blacks or bright whites of ash-dwellers. There was one dragon whose scales were lightgreen.
You would think I’d live here. You’d think it’d be easier to light down, and brandish my fittingly unfamiliar scales. You’d think I’d belong here and not in the sterile, rootless center.
I hope you’d make that mistake, because I had.
The south side saw me visit three times: first for somewhere to sleep, then somewhere to work, then for someone to talk to. I’d learned the same thing each time: the south side was still Gwymr/Frina.
Canyon-dwellers were just cliff-dwellers with higher stances and lower views of everyone else; the ash-dwellers wouldn’t even speak to me (Uvidet excepted); and the mountain-dwellers seemed okay, but there was a reason Digrif always asked me to make his deliveries to the south side.
(And no, I hadn’t ever tried talking to the forest-dweller. There were stories about forest-dwellers. They couldn’t all be like Hinte. And that one had a necklace of bones so I definitely didn’t want to find out more.)
In the south end, no one stepped too close to me, I started every conversation, and the prices I got at shops were dubious. That all doesn’t sound that bad, and it wasn’t — as far as I knew, that was just how Gwymr/Frina was.
Then I’d seen them.
The dragons in green robes lived in the south end.
I hadn’t lighted here since.
Breathe. I was treshing hard, wings vaulting me high over the south end. I had buried my worries about Mawla only to dig up old ones. Breathe, Kinri.
The south gate was coming up, and down in front the guards were up in monitoring stands. Looking at me.
Angling my wings, I went down. Now, I could just fly on past to the cliffs southern, but then the guards would scurry after me and ask questions. Easier this way.
(In truth, leaving the town unrecorded at all was an offense, but you needed my kind of luck to get caught. Like the crime of crossing a skycart lane while carts flew by, it was petty. But I had a certain tendency to be noticed by the guards anyway.)
The road winding up to the south gate sunk a little into the ground, like a lazy gully. It widened quite a bit just before the gate, and it gave you an adequate landing.
I flapped twice to soften my descent, and fell down on hindlegs before the gate. It wasn’t the shieldlike Berwem gate, and it wasn’t the welcoming, flaunting main gate. It was the south gate.
Down in front were two plain-dwellers, one standing by the pulley’s rope, the other, still on his hindlegs in a monitoring stand, still staring down at me, scales still chocolate brown. His frills were working — not writhing, not yet. Hello, Ffrom. Were you reassigned?
He said, “You.”
I knew how I dealt with the drake last time, and after dealing with Adwyn, I reached for the Specter poise, put an icy chill in my voice and spoke like the clouds:
“Me.” I gave him a smile. “Surprised to see you still with a red sash. Seems Rhyfel swallowed your lies, too.”
“No. Rhyfel swallowed youse’s nonsense about a conspiracy. To think I’d be shackled for doing my job — to think I dodged Wydrllos just ‘cause that sleepy faer needs more guards.” He popped his tongue, jabbed the other guard with a wing. “Some bleeding ship Mlaen’s running, ain’t it.” The other guard shrugged his wings, kept chewing something black.
“I don’t think doing your job was ever the problem. You did it poorly. Even I can guard a dead human.”
“Well, when Aurisiuf himself lights down before you, we’ll see if you have my kind of guts. I chased the thieves to their hideaway, I fought them to a stalemate while big Rhyfel and your squirrel friend were takin their time, and for my trouble I got a building burnt —”
“You are the reason the thieves could act at all!” I lifted my head up, drew my wings for composure.
“I was the —”
“Hey,” the other guard cut in. He spat out his tobacco. “Y’all think you can argue up and down on your own time? I’m done with hearing it.”
“I only wish to enter the cliffs southern.” I looked between the two, the wings of a plan starting to open.
“And I ought to deny you. What will you stir in the cliffs after that dire nonsense in the market? On the heels of two other drafty figures, no less.”
“N–Nonsense?” My voice frayed, and my head fell. I tried to lift it high. “I am a hero. I helped save the town today! You ought to let me in for that alone.”
“What utter help. I fancy to recall you dropping your knife at the net like a fool. At best you were a stuttering courier for Adwyn. A whelp purporting as a hero.”
“I —” There was a sourness on my fangs, and my head fell low. My tail was coiling round my hindlegs, and my forelegs bent. It wasn’t all an act — how dare he, was he right? — but I leant into it. And in the corner of my eye, I looked at the other guard. But Ffrom kept speaking, digging himself a hole.
“Can’t deny it, is what. You’re not the hero, you’re just the dumb skink who enables the villain. If youse had just handed them over last night, none of that dire nonsense in the market had to happen. Truly —”
“Truly, you need to spit the fuck off, Ffrom. You’re a guard, not a rambling drunk. You ain’t got no reason to stomp on this little wiver, and you ain’t got no reason to detain her. Keep your frustrations to yourself.”
I looked up to that plain-dweller guard reaching for his bag of rank chew, and gave him some appropriately watery smile. Internally, on the Specterly part of my mind, a smirk unrolled itself.
Ffrom, meanwhile, spat his tart venom and flapped away. He sat himself atop the gate, looking down on me like a little hatch.
I took a breath, signed my name on the exit scroll beneath one ‘Alwam’, and went through gate half striding, half flying.
Mawla had told me she’d be here, but not where. So I took flight over the cliffs southern, peering down every butte. It was a view worth a painting. The ravines here didn’t cut as deep as those leading to the Berwem, but they didn’t stand as slumpy as the those in the east side of town, either.
The biggest difference with both was the red mud that was cliffs southern, some kind of chalky rock that crumbled at a touch and when it rained ran like venom. It stuck to my feet when I walked, but it wasn’t gravel and that counted for everything.
Above the red mud, the cliffs were clothed modestly in green and purple ferns, and sometimes, you could see the white of a silversword, and if it weren’t so late in the gyra, the black and gray of the bamboo would only look mostly dead.
Tortoises stomped all around, their jaws always munching something. I saw only one big white cat, and it wasn’t prowling. Everything else in the cliffs southern could only be heard or smelt.
I listened to the crooning, chirping and whooping and it all could have been very soothing, even — especially — in its unceasing activity. But there was something familiar in it, something — callous. The rousing stars above were austere in their great uncaring stillness; nature was more grounded, more present, and yet just as unphased by the day’s tragedy, the loss of life. It was worse.
Crooning, chirping, whooping. The smell of the last flowers, of carrion carried on the wind, something electric, something fungal, and the smell of a distant fire. The day was over, and the stars were coming out. A friend was waiting for me. Maybe, just maybe, I could relax, appreciate this atmosphere like I had so many nights before.
My nerves never did quite settle. All my reassurances were dissolving like flimsy wood under acidic unease. But they stuck around long enough you thought they were working, if only a little.
That was why I — shouldn’t have, but I did — smile at the half-strangled growl of, “Get the fuck off me!” that cut through everything. The world wasn’t ok. There was still something to do.
That smile lasted a thought. Then I realized I recognized the voice.
My flight turned from bounding to rapid threshing. The sound came from my right, didn’t it? I flew toward it, tending lower. I flew past a high butte. Were the ferns up there waving? The wind didn’t —
“Gah!” was my elegant response to the flutter of red and blue that popped from under a fern. “What are you doing here, Staune?”
“Slicktongue went to see Citrusface and Guiltygrin, but didn’t want me to come and screech, no. Nestling said you were heading to these here cliffs, yes.”
I flew on, and the parrot kept pace. “Why me, though?”
“You’re starly,” she said in what I started to hear as my voice.
“Okay. But I need to get to one of my friends. Her name’s Mawla. She’s in danger.”
“Get the fuck off me!” Staune mimed, including (mercifully) the distant volume. The parrot then made a harsh thoughtful sound and said, in Ushra’s voice, “Slicktongue says that’s a bad tone.”
“It means something bad is happening to someone — someone I know.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“We’re going to save her, of course.”
“Perfectly acceptable,” she repeated high in my voice.
I frowned. “Could you ground it, Staune? This is serious. No time for jokes.”
“Acceptable,” she said, and not in my voice.
Staune watched me fly lower, and the parrot asked, “How are we going to save them?”
“We’re going to fly toward the sound and stop whatever’s happening. How else?” I paused in stride, then emended, “I’m going to fly to her. You need to fly back to the gate, though. Tell a guard something is wrong.”
“Unacceptable! I shall come with you, yes.”
“No. The guards need to know.”
“No. I shall come.”
“Fine.” I started banking. “Then we’ll both go back —”
Mawla was in danger. What would I do if the guards found her already —
What if she was another dragon I couldn’t save?
“No,” I said. “We’ll both fly to her.”
“Acceptable. I shall show you the way. Parrots have good eyes.”
“Um, I can just smell her. I’m a dragon.”
“Follow me, yes. Parrots have good eyes.”
“Staune, I can fly faster than you. Light on my back.” I banked the other way, again aligned for that electric smell. Mawla’s smell.
Staune screeched. Just for a second. I flinched in my flight, almost fell out the sky.
“I have a plan, yes. Clever parrot. I fly around and you fly straight. Can’t see both us, no.”
“Staune —” I shook my head. “Fine. I guess that works.” I shook my head. “But I’m going now.” I angled my wing, poured determination into the vans.
But before I left the parrot, a remembered smell of ash and urine lighted on my mind’s tongue like reminder. I quickly added, “No, I have better idea. You fly around and hide and wait. When I say ‘Now!’ you burst out and surprise them.”
I leapt and flew off.
“Kinri is coming and she’ll ground you. You’ll see. She’s definitely coming. Obviously.” Mawla stood panting, backing away. Her ashcloak pressed tight to her.
“The useless Specter. Might I ask where she is? If she’ll bother with you — and why would she? — then what ever is keeping her?” They — he? — stood a hooded figure. Deep green robes. Menacing toward Mawla with a club in a large wing. Venom dripped from their fangs and it smelt sharper than fermented poison.
I couldn’t see their face, but their voice sounded like a sneer looks, without a trace of anger and their measured steps flowed with patience that knew it wouldn’t wait long.
It made the violence — between the club, the scream, and the leg Mawla clearly wasn’t favoring — so much more puzzling. They seemed calm.
“I don’t know… She had something to handle at the market, I saw her there. But she’s coming. She said she would.” Mawla still spoke it in that high and strained way of hers.
I stood behind a boulder atop a cliff even taller than the one Mawla faced her opponent on. My legs crouched just a little bit more. Breathe. I would leap down to rescue her. Right now, though, I was closer to Mawla’s back than the figure. The hooded dragon would see me first. I had to time it just right.
In a dozen breaths I could be down there, but it would be dozen breaths too long. Even in the growing dusk, my silvery cloak meant the figure would see me like day. Sight didn’t suffer till it was full dark, and the moons were already out.
It would be me alone against them and their club. I didn’t even have Hinte’s knife anymore, like the failure I was. What could I accomplish?
“But she’s busy at the market, isn’t she? Somehow, I know that will keep her away. It isn’t hard to fathom, with how readily she abandoned you before.”
I couldn’t see the yellowbrown wiver’s face, but I breathed relief when she didn’t rise to the bait:
“What did you do to her?” she asked.
“What did she do to herself? Who else but she made the mistake of involving herself in these matters?”
“That green-scaled witch,” she answered. “She doesn’t care about whatever dillershit was in the lake or the market, or whatever reeking matter you’re rattling about. She just wants to bed that alchemist’s daughter.”
“And yet, I do not care. This isn’t about her, and I am not involved in the market operation.”
My forefeet scratched at the dirt under me like I wanted to scratch their eyes. If I could just find a way down there, unseen.
I lay prone on the cliff. Maybe if I slithered to the other edge… but I worried to let Mawla and her attacker out of my sight for a breath.
Mawla was saying, “What is this about, then? Could you give me any excuse before you start a fight on my day off?”
“Oh, oh, where are my manners?” Their tone scorched dry. They continued, “Are you this dreadful to whomever you meet, or are you just as witless as your kind looks?”
Mawla stopped for a beat and brought a wing to her face. “You’re the musician. It’s so obvious.” When the figure lunged at her, the yellowbrown wiver stole back. “Dwylla’s melting rods, are you some kind of hatchling? I kick you once and you decide you ought to hunt me down with a club?”
“Do you think you can treat me like the common trash of this mudpit? I am above you.”
Had to do something. I’d steal back and slither to the other edge. Then I could sneak over, take it out before this got even worse. Quickly I moved, but sneakily.
I couldn’t see them now; and seeing how close Mawla is to getting caught — it put lightning in my legs.
There was a scramble, a yelp, and a woosh and I was at the edge of the cliff again — caution was for later.
What I saw pushed me into a stand, a leap. Mawla had dodged a club swing, but her other wing took the blow.
The positioning was perfect, now. As the stars would have it, Mawla had dodged away from me; and now the musician — Bauume — had his back to me.
I didn’t flap my wings — even though the promise of speed sung to me. I glided stealthily, stealthily. So stealthily, I didn’t even breathe!
When my hindfeet crashed into the hard dirt, when my forefeet closed certainly around that length of the club, when time froze for a breath, I knew the grin on my face was the widest I’d ever had.
It was only matched by its twin on Mawla’s bloody face.
That clarity held for another instant, then it shattered. The figure was twisting. I was groaning as something hit my stomach, coughing as my back slammed the ground straight into my air sacs, and screaming as Mawla leapt forth to help me.
I was standing up. My forefeet still held the club, so that worked. I wrenched my gaze. Mawla limped back at an angle, to my side. Following her eyes, there was the musician, staring out of a green hood’s darkness, wings outstretching.
His hood was nothing like the thieves. Instead, it was that deep green that — reminded me of things. The day I met Hinte.
Bauume exhaled in what could be anything from a cough to a laugh to nothing.
“What a shame. I don’t hope, but I thought there was a possibility that one with breeding as overvalued as yours would have sense. But Specters were always self-destructive and worthless.” He spat.
Fire burned in my glands, and I felt the tang dripping from my apertures. That same Specter chill returned to my tongue, but I looked at the wiver.
“Maybe I’m mistaken,” I told her. “I had thought now was the time when he would fly away with his tail between his legs.” I scratched my cheek. “Do you agree, Mawla-ann?” The honorific was a — choice. But I needed Mawla to know I liked her, that the musician’s words were residua.
“Have you forgotten that your name carries nothing down in the mud? I will not take orders from you.”
My legs moved without me, and the club rebounded off the figure’s head with such a crack.
It was — a rush.
I watched the musician peer at me with his head atilt. Cowl shifting as though his jaw were working. Had he thought I wouldn’t?
He spat, and tossed his head upward. “You disgust me.”
When he crouched and took off, I let him. Part of it was because I kinda told him to do that, and part of it was because my bloody, bruised friend was right there.
And what could I — what would I really do if I caught him? What would feel better than a club swing?
I reached out with a wing. It was behind Mawla’s head and I pulled her close as I stepped toward her.
She reached out with a unsteady wing, and it was a hug now.
“Are you okay?”
She laughed. “I grew up on the east side. I got worse as a hatchday present.”
“But right now, are you feeling okay?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine by tomorrow. Have to be if it turns out there’s sifting again.”
“I should take you to Hinte’s. She has —”
“No. Thank you.”
“What are you supposed to do?”
“Follow me. I know a drake.”
We didn’t get far, Mawla leaning against me to walk, before we had to stop.
I mentioned the sounds, didn’t I? The wind in ferns. The oddly active buzz of insects. The crooning, chirping, whooping. They were all quiet sounds, quiet I think because dragons were nearby. You got used to that quiet, letting your footsteps come softer, letting your reassurances to the dragon beside you go murmured, letting the quiet in.
Then, immersed fully in that utter quietude, you heard it, and you had to stop.
Staune strutted out of the ferns, beak open. Letting out that sound worse than terrified floatrabbit screams, worst than the pangs of House Locrian’s machine timbres.
Mawla started nudging me to get us out of there — but as the sound burned on, the wiver changed her mind, limping claws out toward the bird.
The screech cut off with a sonic huff, and a red and blue head twisted to stare one eyed at me.
Before the sifter reached her, the bird kicked off, went flapping and yapping right at my face. She came up to my snout, even as I drew back, and pecked. There was a spot of red on her black beak, now.
I stared, feet bunching dirt, at the baffling parrot. She flapped up some more height and lighted on my snout. The parrot, as tall as my leg, had such a high judging angle.
The yellowbrown wiver, already turned round and stepping gropingly toward the bird, paused at that. You could watch how her expression mutated: for the first time, she heard something besides a dragon speak, with a brain the size of her clenched foot. Even I’d flinched first time I heard a bird speak, and I’d had a noble’s diet of strangeness. It probably upset her whole world, hearing a parrot talk.
Also, it was her voice.
The accusing word stopped the wiver only a breath, though, and she kept forward, reached out a foreleg.
“Mawla, no. She’s a friend.”
She peered. “That the alchemist’s demon-parrot?”
She peered closer. “No, color’s wrong. It’s the purple one you gotta watch out for.”
Still the yellowbrown wiver grabbed the parrot. Wrenched her off my snout. Then Staune fluttered free, and pecked Mawla too.
Fleeing now, the bird found another fern beside the the path she could light on and still look down at me.
“What’s wrong, Staune?”
“You lied. Said Staune would help, yes. She was ready to help, yes. You called for to help, no. You did it all yourself.”
She spoke with her bouncy parroty voice, yet it singed like it was hot with anger.
“Staune, the plan went wrong as soon as I got there.”
“You saved Mawla, yes.”
“But I wanted to ambush him! He wasn’t supposed to have a club…”
My voice said, “When I say ‘Now!’, you jump out and surprise them.”
“I had to fly over quick and save her! It was over in instants. “There was no time to call for you.”
Quietly, that warbling mixture of Ushra and Hinte — Staune’s voice – said, “You forgot me.”
I took a step back despite myself. Another denial was already rushing up my throat but I pushed it down. Maybe it was instinct, like I could tell the tides of conversation, feel it shifting deeper.
Staune’s head had fallen low, almost hidden in the wings hugging herself.
I looked around. Mawla had stepped twelve paces away, back turned. She leaned against the cliff wall, looked toward the town. Cowl of her ashcloak pulled up, I couldn’t her face — and she couldn’t see us.
With that measure of privacy, I looked back to Staune. Considered a few seconds, then reached again for that older, Specterly voice, one deep and stormy. It was more than a voice.
“Staune.” I frowned just a moment, then said, “Why do you think I forgot you?”
The answer had been easy to read. But she made it easier still and said, “I was useless.”
I licked a brille. “I didn’t want you to get hurt, Staune.” Ushra would kill me.
She opened her beak. “You’re just like Wrinklyfrills. Lying to help.”
It would have hurt.
Still, I kept going. “But you aren’t useless. Listen, can you fly back to the gate? Make sure that drake doesn’t come back through there. Tell the guard if they’ll listen. Can you do all that?”
She screeched, just an instant more. I saw Mawla turn, ready to do — something.
I said, “If you can’t…”
Staune kicked off, fluttered toward town. Instead of walking that same direction, I fell down on my haunches, buried my head in my wings, heaved a sigh, and let my sour or bitter or tasteless or untastable venom dew and flow.
Mawla returned with a poke.
“I would let you have your moment, obviously, but I – we kinda do have to get back, do something about this wing. And everything else.”
“I feel like crap. I am a terrible friend.”
“Yeah, no. I barely know you, and you’re great. I don’t think too many of my friends would have bought me out of that. You did.”
This time, a wing slapped against my back. “So get up.”
“I saved you, sure, but I forgot Staune.”
“And I’m more important. Get up.”
“I manipulated her.”
“You said the right words, like a good friend. Get up.”
“I’m just like —”
“Get Up already!” Strong feet gripped my sides and lifted. I was held in the air then dropped on my fours. The sifter returned my earlier hug.
Mawla looked back with an unamused line. “Now come on.”
Frowning, cloying on my fangs and tail around my legs, I walked us toward the southern gate without meeting Mawla’s eye.
From the other side, it seemed an accident. The southern gate cut into a shallow streamworn bed out of Gwymr/Frina — long since dried, but it had the watery texture. On the other side around the gate there’d been dug a wide tidy area. The stone façade was painted and laved. Walking up from the wilderness, though, splashed mud caked this side, and the banks of the dried stream slumped over the stone like a slimy eater.
Below that, eroding mud had formed or been formed into a slab on which a cliff-dweller guard lay and stared our approach with eyes of the night shift.
Like a recurring joke, the plan went wrong almost immediately. I asked the guard, “Have you seen a parrot?”
They were standing to open the gate. “Nope.”
I stopped and Mawla stumbled against me before harshly blowing her tongue. But I was looking up, brows creasing as I peered at the stars, my fangs dewing spice.
Had Staune abandoned us? No way she couldn’t’ve get to the gate already. Unless… had someone stopped her? But there was no one who’d want to — except Bauume. And the dog wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her, either.
“Mawla, do you smell Bauume around here?”
Flicked tongue. “Not even slightly. Haven’t since he took off.” She nudged me as she had whenever I’d slowed walking. “Birdbrain probably forgot, don’t get dewed out about it.”
“I trust Staune. And why else wouldn’t she get here?”
“Bauume don’t even know about her, don’t even have a reason to stick around here.” Her cowled head jerked up, before easing back down — keeping her face in shadow. “Hey guardie, seen a greencloaked venthole breeze by here any?”
“Nope. You louts going to actually come through, or just loiter?” They’d yanked the pulley and opened the gate while I’d not looked, and now leaned back on the mud slab, glaring.
“C’mon Kinri. Don’t get yourself knotted up. It’s the alchemist’s problem.”
“I liked her…”
The sifter pulled my foreleg forward, then pushed a hindleg forward too. It got me to start walking, and we were through the southern gate.
“Hey again,” said a plain-dweller guard, nodding at me. It was the one who’d let me through earlier. “Kinri and Alwam, was it?” They had the exit scroll in wing, scratched something off it. Then they asked, “You two doin alright?”
“We’ve… been better.”
“Way better,” Mawla’s clipped voice. She was now nudging me a lot more, suddenly eager for us to move on. Had the pain gotten worse?
I was quickening my pace for my own reasons. If that guard was still on watch, then —
“Look who it is, with an accomplice now.” The chocolate brown drake lighted down other side of Mawla. He had a smirk on that scarred face.
It twisted something in my gut — he knew something. “Have you seen a parrot?”
“Consorting with the alchemist’s demon pet too, are you?” Ffrom shook his head. “No, I don’t know about any parrot. But I do know about your friend here. Tell her to lift her hood.” Mawla had stopped nudging me, gone very still.
“Ffrom,” came the stab of the other guard’s voice, “will you ever stop harassing this wiver? They’re free to go. Let them go.”
Ffrom frowned, glancing between his partner and Mawla. “I’ve been told —”
“— that this wiver —”
“I’ll give you an ari to shut up. That sound nice?”
Ffrom did pause at that. It made me pause — he had had a sword where other guards had clubs or nothing. Would an ari really be that tempting?
It was a pause for a second, but it was enough for Mawla to start limping away without me. I held her back with a wing, and she growled a little.
“Just a second,” I said. I looked at the chewing guard. The plan, right. “Hey, have you seen a greencloaked drake come back through here?”
Ffrom cut in fast. “We haven’t seen any greencloaked dragons.”
I smirked, and calmly said, “In that case, we’d like to report both trespassing and unprovoked assault.”
Ffrom frowned deeper. While the chewing guard now flared his frills, the endlessly frustrating guard nodded lazily. “Tell me more,” he drawled.
Mawla poked me with a claw, strainedly whispered, “Quit it. The guard is no help.”
“We’ve got to get the guard looking for him,” I told her. “He found you in the cliffs, he could find you again. I might not be there to help.”
I looked back to Ffrom, and she did too. I said, “Okay. His name’s Bauume. Wears a deepgreen cloak and has a weird accent. I’ve seen him busk at the east market, and also hanging out on the road to the Berwem gate.”
Mawla popped her tongue, and told me, “He ain’t gonna tell no one.”
I looked back at the guard, and looked at him with that analytical eye my family had trained, seeing dragons as no more than bags of tells. I was not sliding back toward that: I gave everyone a doubt’s benefit, clouded my eyes to those tells. My patience had just — mysteriously — ran out with this particular dragon.
I could see it in his smile. It was a smile modeled after other smiles. He had, in fact, shone the same one last night, promising to take the humans to his prefect.
Hinte had been right.
“Which, I would suppose, is his own mistake.”
No one present had said it.
But I know the voice, acrid and airy. It had only been a few rings.
Even as the shadows around us swirled and gulfed, the air in my lungs seemed to twist and I couldn’t breathe.
All I could wonder was: would this be my last thought?
It wasn’t, because next I remembered Mawla, and said, “Run!”
Mawla twitched, but —
“Too late,” said that voice.
It had a direction, now, and I saw her standing above the prone fallen form of the chocolate brown guard.
I met the gaze, and looked into my own eyes, my own face. She didn’t have my headband.
Uane stepped from the waxing fog around us like a storm made flesh. Claws of light crawled above her scales, and flashing fangs of white stabbed across just as soon as you stopped expecting. A mosaic of color still rippled across the fabric of her Specter cloak, as if devouring the iridescent gray of inactive medusa fiber.
She was the storied war mistress of Specter incarnate. The wild colors had the look of a painting, and it wasn’t a trick; the colors of a Specter cloak were magic.
Yet still I glimpsed a discoloration like a blight seeping subtly through, same as last time. Now though, it was diminished in an obvious way, like it were being corrected. But it broke the spell, gave the visage a flaw which brought back into the world of real things.
Uane, in a word, reified the Spectacle of a medusa cloak. I found odd; whenever we had tutoring together, she never could focus on anything abstract. Patterning a cloak was everything abstract.
Maybe that impatience withered with the chance to intimidate, or maybe someone had patterned it for her.
However it came to her, it worked.
She smiled as if hearing the thought, and, folding her wings, said, “Art thou impressed? Dost thou miss this power?”
The earlier thought came back. It had felt good. That was just a club. To have a cloak and once again rend light, to control perception, control light — wouldn’t that feel good?
I answered, “No.”
“Pity, such a pity.” Was that a sigh?
“What are you doing here, Uane?”
“I grow weary of these Dychwelfa thugs interfering with our plans and walking over my sister. If thou hast no pride in thy name, it seems I must have it for thee.”
I shot another furtive glance down at Ffrom’s body.
Uane looked down at the guard for the first time. “Oh, worry not: they are not dead.” She flexed her wings, and frowned. “Though it would be easier if they were. One less pawn against Mlaen, hm.”
“Don’t, Uane. They haven’t done anything to deserve that.”
“I do not care.” She flexed her wings again, and then, as if remembering something unimportant, one wing dug a feathered form from a cloak pocket. “Oh, and were you looking for this thing?” It fell limp to the ground.
Staune. Eyelids closed, feathers askew, and — her chest rising and falling. I felt something settle back down in my gut at that.
“Curiosity worse than a cat,” she muttered. “Keep better control of thy pets, next time. I could have hurt it worse. Killed it, perhaps.”
My hindlegs dug clawed into the silty dirt behind me, but my forelegs gingerly picked and held Staune. “You okay, little hen?”
Softly, a “Starsnout.” I smiled.
Mawla was nudging me now. She’d slung her weight to her good legs and was staring hard at my sister.
She was saying, “Kinri, who is this?”
“Um,” I started, crawling out of my thoughts. “This is my little sister, Uane.” In my forelegs the parrot moved and stretched.
The yellowbrown wiver looked between us, brilles clearing, brow widening.
The resemblance was there when you looked for it. Scales the same shade of night-sky blue, eyes the same staring silver, and the same hornless head. She didn’t have my white freckles, or my overlarge frills — and somehow she was taller than me.
But there were more interesting differences. There were scars across her face like thin vines, rings piercing her frills, and an seething imperiousness I’d lost — thrown away — a long time ago.
Her face was in a sneer, but it only looked worse when she smiled. “And who is this mudling, Kinri?”
“My name is Mawla, skink.”
Uane rounded and slowly said, “I do not think I was talking to thee.”
“Skiiink,” came Mawla’s voice.
Uane rounded on the bird perking up in my embrace. Staune writhed free and fluttered up to light on my head.
“Keep the squirrel’s bird quiet.”
Uane’s voice. “I don’t think I was talking to skiiink, no.”
“Staune, please don’t taunt my sister. She could kill you.”
“Acceptable,” she said, and hopped and wriggled into my cloak.
Mawla glanced at me. “What’s your sister doing here? She get exiled too?”
“No, it’s uh, it’s a long story.”
She brushed a wing. “Suffice it to say I’m far less foolish; I would never be exiled.”
“Don’t tempt the stars, Uane. You could be worse than exiled for leaving the Constellation unsanctioned.”
“Could, but won’t. Lord Ashaine is far too capable. I am far too capable.” She gave me one of her smiles. “Unless thou hast some plan in mind, big sister?”
Big sister? I —
I clamped down on the sweetness in my glands. With Mawla here, it was so easy to act like Kinri and guilelessly fly into that trap. I had to settle into my mask to deal with my sister.
Sighing a cold sigh, I glanced up to meet her gaze. Her words unraveled before me.
I asked her, “How much have you been watching?” A medusa cloak could hide you from sight — dragon’s sight. Parrots have good eyes.
“Now that would be telling, now wouldn’t it?”
What she didn’t say: I’ve seen everything that matters.
“In real words,” Mawla started, “she’s seen enough to gloat about, but not enough to gloat with.”
“I bet you —”
“Mawla, please —”
My warning was the Specter’s wings flexing. I cut myself off, and lunged at the yellowbrown wiver. My wing flew to cover her head. I thrust a foreleg up were her neck had been.
A long, deep cut across the outside of my ankle. It would hurt soon.
“Keep this other pet quiet as well.”
I smelt Mawla’s spicy dew below me. I whispered, “I’ll get rid of her, I promise. Just don’t goad her again.”
Uane, meanwhile, rolled her wings. The illusionary fog around us redoubled. Enyswm had almost fully set, we stood in darkness now. Only the ravenous flicker of the Specter’s cloak lit. You saw her eyes shine.
It, well, it intimidated.
Intimidation wasn’t supposed to work on Specters.
I regarded the discolored medusa fibers, the subtle glitches haunting the details of the illusion – spots of color, writhing unreadable shapes, light acting as light didn’t. Even not knowing what to look for, you’d feel something off in your gut. You’d be on edge.
It had been an honest question. How much had she been watching? Not enough to gloat with. Something was wrong with the cloak.
I said, “A shame your cloak falters so.” Hypocrite I was, I goaded her exactly as Mawla shouldn’t.
“And look what I can achieve while it falters.”
She flexed again, sending suggestions of illusionary cats stalking in the shadows, fictitious bats perching on crags, and spiders that weren’t there hiding anywhere they should be.
I flinched. Because she wanted me to flinch.
“I thought,” she said, “that thou mightest have had it in thee to grow stronger, braver, with a little direction. Such a shame.”
I glanced down at Mawla, who twice over might not be here if not for me. “I have grown braver, Uane. And I didn’t need your direction.”
“Thou thinkest heroics will grant thee anything? A true Specter is powerful. The Spectacle is about power. And thou hast none. No worthwhile allies, no cloak. So much nothing.”
Her knife flashed out again in the dark. “Quiet.” Then she said, “I am beginning to wonder if thou simply dost not care for thy cloak the way we do.”
More words to unravel. My mind’s wings were aflutter, but the flight was too long. Uane was continuing before I had grasped her implication.
“Thou mayst think thou hast betrayed us, cloakless, but thou hast only made things stormy for thyself.”
Adwyn. I said, “Were you expecting hasty work?”f
“No, but I should have expected hasty betrayal. Do not pretend thou intendest to do anything when all the administration now knows.”
“But —” I dropped the airy Specter voice. She could see right through it. “The administration is kinda starting to trust me, star by star.”
“A damning statement, if ever there were.”
“Point is, I may be useful without being like you. Killing isn’t — isn’t very subtle.”
And knowing the star-absent despair that gathered like a fog around any death, how could I ever kill anyone?
“Useful in what capacity?” Uane looked down at Ffrom, who stirred as if slowly tending awake. “Thy method of problem solving appears to be running coilytailed to a guard and tattling like a moltling.”
“I clubbed Bauume.” My tail felt the tool still in my bag.
She smirked intense at the name. And she said, “Cute. You clubbed him, when thou shouldst have ended him. Now he’s running around, plotting a revenge twice over. The precise caliber of problem solving we need.”
“He’ll think twice next time! And if Ffrom hadn’t been here, the guards would have found and stopped him.”
“Rhyfel is flying this way. You can test that theory on him.”
I didn’t let her prediction unbalance me. It was irrelevant. I said, “I don’t need to break the law or do things alone. Ask — ask Asahine about the hero’s refrain.”
“I do not think I will.”
“He’ll tell you we were supposed to do things different. Not act like Specters. Be good, instead. That’s what I’m loyal to. Ashaine’s ideals. He should be too.”
Her cold regard glinted with a new glare. “I would be less insulted if thou were lying. Thou art a Specter whether thou wantest to be or not. Ideals do not advance our ends.”
Ideals are our ends. I said, “But I can.”
“Thou mayst, but thou wilt not. The evidence is clear, and stars know who has thy loyalty, but it is not Ashaine. Thou hast spat upon our designs.”
I opened my mouth to speak — and Mawla, forgetting, opened her mouth too, but neither of us were swift enough.
The Specter illusionmaster said, “Thou mayst beg forgiveness if thou wilt — but of course, thou wilt not. Know thy last glimpse of family, big sister.”
She turned, wings aspread. The cloak’s pattern was flaring, and the mosaic twisted. The shadows of her wings looked to stretch twenty times.
“If thou actest, we will notice. But if thou lookest, we will not be found.”
And like that, my little sister flew distant off into the vast darkness. The clouds only seemed to clear in her absence, stars returning to judge.
“What a skink,” said Mawla. She was trying to stand up. I got off her.
Staune was chirping high in reply, and fluttering over to her.
On her feet, the sifter nudged me. Smiled at me. I smiled back, a little wobbly. As if now invited, she threw a wing over me, pulled me a step closer.
She said, “You did good getting away from that mess. If your whole house is like that, I don’t know how you turned out alright.”
I didn’t. “Ashaine and Vaale were nice. Sometimes. I miss them.”
“Well if they really wanted, they could come and smell you.”
“They couldn’t. The Severance forbids it.”
“Didn’t stop her. If that cat is the one who cares enough to show up, well it doesn’t say much nice about the rest of them.”
“She’s here because my brother told her to be. She doesn’t want to be.”
“Doubt it. She wants you in the same skein she’s in. All the talk about pride and loyalty and what.”
The wiver poked me again. Grinned and said, “She wants her big sister to give her a word-hug. Tell her she’s not stupid for believing the Specter gab.”
“That doesn’t sound like Uane. I know my sister.”
“And I know siblings.”
“But uh, she was acting. We were kinda both acting. That’s what they taught us.”
“Whatever.” Mawla rolled her head and prodded the bird on her withers until she chirped and clawed the dragon back. The yellowbrown wiver started saying, “So tell me about this ‘betrayal’ nonsense. Sounds juicy.”
“It’s not. Just — tart. They want me to… wanted me to kill. Adwyn.”
Mawla continued, “I can’t lie and say I’d miss him — or anyone’d miss him — but that’s a little much. More than much.”
“Yeah. I confessed to Adwyn a bit later. That, I think, was my ‘betrayal.’ Now, he knows there’s a Specter in Gwymr/Frina who wants him dead, and that I have — reasons to want to help them.”
“You do? Will it pay pretty?”
“Um, no. She said they’d give me a Stellaine shard, for my cloak.” I tapped my cheek. “And… and maybe Uane is a little right. I’m powerless.”
Gwynt and Ceian. Take to the highest skies, I prayed.
“So? Fuck power. Friends are better.”
“Maybe. But a little power wouldn’t be bad. I am still a Specter. It was how I was raised.”
She tossed her head. “And it’s not how you turned out. Look at her, then look at you.”
“We act different, but we’re still acting. You wouldn’t understand, we both grew up in the courts of the Constellation. I had it worse than her, even, because I was going to be Zenith.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“It’s just not that complex. You’re nice. She isn’t. Pretty simple.”
“I act nice.”
Mawla brought a wing to her head, sigh a breath. “Flick. I get wanting to think you’re some master manipulator and every nice thing you do is some act,” she said. “Wrang is the same way, except he’s awful about it. You don’t want to be like that drake. Face it, you obviously are nice — you go out of your way to be nice. Just riddle it: what sort of great big scheme do I blow into? I’m an ashy sifter, that’s all you know. You’re silly.”
“Whatever.” She started poking Staune again, and it turned to whole battle. “What do the Specters even want? You never hear about them except as some spook in the sky.”
“Mlaen’s favor. I came here so I could get a spot in the administration, and sway things. But really, I had wanted to help them most so I can end my exile and get back to the Constellation, be home again.”
“Why? If these are the sorts waiting for you back there — you ain’t said they aren’t — what could you possibly want in shouting range of them?”
“Well, imagine if you had to leave the cliffs.”
“I do every night I get to sleep. I’d be on the second boat out of this shithole if I could pay it.”
“Oh. Well, for me I — wait, why the second boat?”
“You never want to be the first in line to anything. Let some sap eat the danger if there’s any and give you time to turn around.”
“I — okay. Well, I like the sky. It’s… I don’t want to say it’s better than the surface — but it really is. Beautiful, open, free. Everything’s bigger in the sky, because there’s more room.”
Mawla just rolled her head without committing anything. She blew into Staune’s face, and the parrot gave truly awful squawks.
Staune fluttered away and throned herself on some fern. We rested awhile like that, Staune chirping some simple, bizarrely upbeat song, while Mawla was looking up, searching for something.
Though I followed her gaze, I only saw someone flying high east — from the town hall? But it wasn’t what she was looking at.
When she finally spoke, the wiver’s voice was so quiet I only caught it by seeing her mouth move.
“I kinda hope you’d stay here awhile if that works for you.”
I met her blue eyes and smiled.
She made a sharp, short sound that was — but didn’t feel like — a laugh. “Thanks. I know a lot of dragons, but none of them are really friendly.”
Time passed awkwardly, my eyes darting around. Eventually I broke the quiet with, “So uh, I guess this means we’re friends?”
The light brown wiver grinned at me. “Yeah.”
A high squawk pierced the air. “And about me?” the parrot asks.
“You’re cute,” Mawla said.
“We’re friends too, Staune. You helped me out today, and you really didn’t have to do that.”
Staune spoke in my voice, “You’re starly.”
The parrot fluttered back onto my back, and we were all smiling under the night sky
Sometimes the stars visited in fire and rock, but sometimes they visited in friends and enemies. We fluttered a little nearer to heaven all the same.
* * *