“Begone, skyrat,” the forest-dweller said. “You are not welcome here.”
Arall was behind us, already walking out of the room, her toes releasing a door handle. She was muttering, “I keep telling her that, and she’s still here.” When released, that stone door paused, about to shut us inside, like a trap soon to snap closed.
At least I wouldn’t be trapped here alone; besides that forest-dweller — “her unholiness” — who right now was raining her ire down on me, there was Mawla, slinking around, half unseen.
We’d come to a resident’s room. And now, not six breaths inside, the plain-dweller wiver was — quietly, stealthily — plopping herself down on the bed. It was the bed of the forest-dweller. The bed of the forest-dweller who was still wearing that necklace of bones — the forest-dweller who had no less than seven knives strapped to her side, and had no less menace than poison with scales. It was the bed of the lady who was known as her unholiness.
Mawla had confidence.
Enough confidence that, as I scented the sweet, spicy venom wafting off her fangs, I decided to straighten my legs, uncoil my tail, and dared to look again into those cool gray eyes glaring.
I told her, “I have a name, and it’s a lot more dignified than ‘skyrat’.” My emphasis sounded definite, and not overcompensating.
“I, too, possess a name, and it is more dignified than aagh, it’s them! Much more dignified.”
She continued to glare — it must come natural to forest-dwellers — and once again I broke eye. Nervous frills were unfurling. Flaring wide. To show — confidence.
The Dadafodd must have thick walls — or at least this room did. Soundwise, it was an entire world apart. Gone were the crwths’ creeping melodies. Gone was the singing and chatter. Sometimes there was a thump — so I suppose if you strained your frills you could satisfy yourself with some flaw, some sound leakage, but…
I shook my head, and my frills waved. My frills, still unfurling, wanted to wilt the more they listened; this room was grim thoughtfulness itself. Stepping into it, the first thing you heard were the metronomes. Three of them, all beside each other, all at different speeds, all ticking away as polyrhythmic percussion. The biggest one, in the middle, had atop it a parrot, beak open, perched.
It had to be a dragontongued parrot — the doctor was forest-dweller, and the bird was the right size. When I first saw it, though, I had thought she kept an owl; the parrot was thicker than Staune, covered in black, and on its head there rose tufts of feathers like mighty horns.
The parrot had their head cocked, and they had affixed me with a sharp, indraconic gaze. Wide open was the beak, crooning the lowest note you ever heard out of a bird. More notes came, and it was a bassline descending chromatically, rough and sludgely, until it took a sudden tritone plunge like a final dark revelation. Then there was silence like slumber. The beak closed. A beat passed. The quarreling polyrhythms of the metronomes fell in synch for a single beat. Then opened again was the beak.
And over all of this there chimed a constant ostinato, whose source you had to glance around for; and moments later you saw it, sitting lonely on a shelf. There, in a corner, whirred a thing of gears and steam, metal arms chiming bells in a quick rhythm faultless. A machine rhythm.
But those bells were tuned to some strange forest key, and, between the unentraining polymeter, the uninviting bassline and the strangely-keyed chiming, this… ‘music’ only disquieted.
Shivering, I lost nerve and curled my frills up again. Brilles clearing, I looked again to her unholiness.
She was a doctor. The doctor — that’s what they called her when they weren’t joking. Her room smelt near-fatally of alcohol and acids — stuff that cleaned, yet stuff no one had bothered to scent palatably. Her black robes were crawling with needle holes and gold threads that lingered where Drachenzunge words had once been sown into the robes, but now were torn off. (I stared long enough to parse clan names, patients names, and philophagers. I stared long enough to know she was called Zelle and the parrot Knocha).
She was a doctor. But I had known doctors only as dragons of brightness and health. Those who erased aches, set broken bones, and told me I couldn’t eat ten kellua apples everyday (for the best, really).
But this dragon, she seemed more like a — mortician, really.
It made me kinda uneasy, trusting Mawla and her injuries to this forest-dweller, “her unholiness”. Why couldn’t the sifter have just swallowed my suggestion of Hinte?
Suddenly — to me, all thought-lost — Zelle jabbed out a foreleg, toe-rings glittering in the lamplight. The stone door behind me, before shut like a trap, now leapt open again, yanked by an unseen force. The foreleg hung there, rodstraight in the air. Zelle’s glare tightened. She was looking at me.
The background music stopped.
“Begone. I do not desire your presence in my quarters.”
“Why! I haven’t done anything at all. You have no reason not to want me here. I’m Mawla’s friend.” A frill — quickly — uncurled to point at that wiver.
Zelle’s gaze followed, and saw the plain-dweller sitting on her bed. “Get up,” she commanded her.
Mawla could have been shoved or yanked, that was how quickly she was on her feet. Shuffling to my side, she draped a wing over me, gave me a single tug closer, a demonstration. She said, “Kinri helped me get here at all. I think she’s fine to sit in here while you work.”
The doctor lowered her leg. She turned subtly, gaze falling to some shelved book. Speaking sidely, she said, “You do not determine that. Watch what you say, or I may simply refuse to service you.”
Slowly and gingerly — I almost didn’t feel it — Mawla pulled back to her side that draped wing. “Kinri,” she started. Then silent moments — she might’ve been thinking, I wasn’t looking.
My forefeet, clenching into fists, scraped the rock with high sharp sounds. I repeated myself, saying, “You have no reason not to want me here.”
If a scowl and a smirk could coexist, they had done so on her face. She said, “I have every reason to recoil from the presence of someone who consorts so freely with the Gären’s spawn.”
Zelle stamped her leg. “Hinte sits at the source and heart of all the theatrics of the day.” She spoke in the cadence of one who’d found the perfect argument. “Hinte is the student of Aurisiuf — of whom I need say no more. She is the daughter of Feuer — whose incessant warmongering fuels the forests’ self-immolation — and of Haune — whose fetishization of religion had resuscitated long-dead, better dead, dogmas.”
There was a pause for breath where the only movement was Knocha the parrot twisting to preen his feathers.
“And, spawning that Haune, there was Ushra — whose bibliography of horror led directly to the alchemical nightmare that is the war — and there was Gronte — whose treason against the old monarchy is what incited the war in the first place.”
Her look settled to only a scowl. “Cursed, cursed, cursed. Hers is a deeply cursed line, and she has every single indication of intending to walk that same sordid path.”
The foreleg lifted again, this time jabbing right at me. Pushing me back, just a bit, but that could’ve been my doing. Zelle concluded, “And your Hinte will drag you along with her.”
There was a certain truth that rang in her tenor, the sort of verity forged by some extreme of experience.
Zelle said, once more, “Begone, skyrat.”
And I was gone.
The Dadafodd sat protectingly over its underground chambers like a mother her clutch. All the guest rooms lay down here, the doctor’s room deepest of them all. I wondered why, before my body gave a telling shiver. A chill lingered down here in the deepest. Would be useful — for something.
Zelle’s words lay in my head, and had settled down for now. I wandered the dark, tight corridors. The diggers couldn’t have had any coordination at all when they carved out the lower floors. The little bit of the layout you could comprehend by just walking the halls drew, in my mind — instead of any sane geometrical layout — the blindly crawling cracks inflicted upon rock after the hammer came down. Some halls had seen more wear and erosion — implying some were older. So you imagined, whenever the Dadafodd needed to expand, the diggers simply brought the hammer down once more.
I wandered. I knew I wanted up — maybe out, too — but the precise path eluded. Just walking through any vaguely inclined hall, as I did, might be working. Or might not be.
Maybe I smelt them. Maybe I was on guard. Maybe I was just too tired to be scared.
Either way, a voice from the shadows spoke suddenly. They said, “You have no idea where you’re going, do you?”
I sighed. This soon after, I hadn’t forgotten the voice. “Ehnym, was it?”
I turned round. He wasn’t pressed slight to the wall or peering covertly from some crevice. He was standing there. The plain-dweller drake shuffled up the hall’s center, enshadowed only from being in the void where the light of two lamps reached for each other.
Tongue flicking, I asked, “Why are you sneaking around here?”
“I wasn’t. Sneaking is a waste of time. I followed until it was obvious you weren’t leading. You never noticed.”
“Of course I wasn’t leading! I didn’t even know there was anyone else.”
The drake rolled his head, exasperated like I misunderstood. With the tone of someone changing the subject, he said, “Chwithach was curious what you were doing in the Dadafodd. Said it was out of character, and wanted me to ask.”
I opened my mouth, but he preempted me.
“I told him your friend got attacked in the cliffs. I told him you walked her here to get seen by the witchdoctor. That sound about right?”
“…Yeah.” But how did you know that? I cleared my brilles fully, looked closely at the sharp-eyed, languid-tongued drake in rag-like clothes. Ehnym wasn’t returning the interest, his gaze wandering.
“Naturally. So the friend is being seen by her now. Now you’re wandering all listless and thoughtful. Zelle told you all about Hinte’s family, didn’t she?”
“How do you —”
“She’s telling the truth, Zelle is. But don’t listen to just her. Haune was merely a dreamer, she wasn’t aiming for something political. Ushra is any other alchemist — all of them’ve had their work twisted by the military. All of them. And Gronte? She had her reasons.”
Still shuffling, Ehnym was close enough I could see his face now. He’d delivered the words calm, almost recitingly. Now, though, a smirk played on his lipscales, and life inflected the tone. “Feuer, tho? He can burn alive. Don’t spare a doubt for him.”
I squeeze my expression. “Do you expect me to remember all that?”
The truth, though, was I could. It was more politics, more history. A future zenith had a mind for names and motives, of course she did. And a — once future zenith like me still had a mind for names and motives.
“Where are you going now?” He’d asked in that same topic changing tone, not sparing a syllable for my question.
“Out for some air. I — need to breathe.”
“Aren’t you?” A little wry flick of the tongue.
I sighed, and broke eye with the drake. A sidestep toward the wall, and I was suddenly sliding down to sit leaning against the cold stone. Tired of standing up, tired of walking.
Ehnym only need a moment’s glance before he was my mimic at the other wall.
So we sat there, watching each other, expectant. Ehnym flicked his tongue only from time to time, and lazily whirled the forks. He brilles stayed half clouded, and he watched me only peripherally. He had out a scroll out already, eyes in saccades down the page. He seemed to have a resting thoughtful face.
I was a small dragon. I had to look up to most everyone I met; my trunk had an embarrassing kind of length that left me hoping for one last bit of growth (until then, I wore thick-soled shoes, and sometimes, without trying, found myself standing on toetips). Moreover, my fore- and hindlegs were just strong enough to lift me (hardly a challenge, that), and I had never fought at all till I left sky.
And right now, I was alone in the dark underhall of the Dadafodd with a strange drake of unknown motive. It was not a comforting situation.
Ehnym had Sinig’s lankiness without his muscle. He had legs and wings I could wrap a foot around. When a wormrat dodged fluidlike out of the shadows, he’d jumped.
Altogether, this was not a comforting situation. But it could have been scary.
I looked up, watched flickering lamplight play with the ceiling’s crags.
My thoughts turned over a few more times. Ehnym was still here. Still reading, and hadn’t said anything more.
I broke first.
“What do you want?”
“Fifty scrolls and a house somewhere quiet.”
I didn’t laugh. “Right now. Here. Why did you approach me? Why haven’t you left me alone?”
“You have friends. So surely you have something better to do? With them? Not me?”
“You said you were going out. Surely you’ll do that? I appreciate the chance to rest my legs, but you seem to be waiting for something.”
I almost answered the implied question — but conversation didn’t flow with this drake. He made it… clipped.
I said, “You seem to know the underhalls better than I do. I was expecting you to lead me up.” I wasn’t, but the line had the right feel. An implied accusation.
“Should have said so.”
The plain-dweller drake stood. His scroll already was gone, and he started walking without a glance. But it wasn’t an effort to keep pace; Hinte he was not.
“After you get outside,” he started, “then what?” He didn’t look back to see my tilted head, but must’ve inferred it. “Your friend’s with the witchdoctor. That’s the reason you came out here, isn’t it? What are you doing now? Going home?”
I was going outside to figure that out in the first place. But before I said it, my mind lighted on that prior conversation, outside the tavern. I smiled or frowned, and said, “I’m going to find Hinte.”
What’s one more adventure today? And maybe this one can get a proper dramatic end. Chasing Hinte over the nighttime cliffs. Stopping her right before she reaches the humans. Convincing her to stop right as the suns rose, like a good story’s final confrontation.
(It was a flight of fancy, a proper daydream — I didn’t realize I was that tired, but I could outright see it, in mind. And yet, even in its thrall, a part of me noted how cleanly the daydream steered away from the hard parts: finding Hinte at all, convincing Hinte at all. Whether it was already too late at all.)
I was still in the Dadafodd. Ehnym had said something.
“I just said ‘thought so.’” He repeated it with such a great sigh. Then, “Here.” A tail slipped into a bag, and held out a glinting metal form.
Red aluminum, like half a seashell. Recognition. It was the magic heirloom Chwithach’d bought, that carried sound. “I don’t —”
“Chwithach wanted you to have it, for now. I’ve no idea why, but perhaps there’s something to you.”
I took the metal shell, held it up to my earhole. I heard only the rushing of wind and the beating of wings.
Again, Ehnym hadn’t looked back, but must’ve just inferred. “He’s flying right now. Fleeing. Just keep an ear out in case he’s something to tell you.”
I darted forward, landing beside the greenishbrown drake. “Fleeing? Fleeing? Is Chwithach-sofran in danger?”
“No. No. He’s just leaving Gwymr/Frina at the advising of a friend. It’s for the best.”
As we walked, the inclines grew steeper till we at last came to the stairwall climbing up the Dadafodd proper.
“Here you are,” he told me. “But… one last thing.”
I looked tilted at him. “Well?”
“You’re going after Hinte. Alone? Perhaps I can accompany you.”
I stopped walking. I flew into that daydream once more, but this at, at the site of that sunrise confrontation, Ehnym was there with his wry smile, languid tongue, and clipped, quipped lines.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be alone. And no thanks.”
I gave him another once over. “You’d… no offense — well maybe some — but you’re dead weight. Your wings are like twigs! You’d slow me — us down.”
“Why would speed matter? Hinte is your friend. You think you’ll have to chase her? I think the actual trouble is finding her. I can help with that.”
“Why would you help?”
“It seems you’re meaningfully more interesting than I initially judged.” He tossed his head. “That, and having to give the transmitter to you is a waste of my ability to help. But if I accompany the person I give it to, then I remain able to help.”
I tossed my own head with a snort or growl, and leapt onto the stairwall. Starting up, I glanced back.
Ehnym had a brille slightly clouded, and wore a smile more sincere than wry. He sounded sincere. He said, “I want to help.”
And I don’t want you to.
Maybe another day I might’ve reached for a more kind, thinking part of me. But I’d done it so many times tonight that once more wasn’t anything.
In that airy Specter voice, I sneered, “Maybe you should wonder if you were ever able to help.”
Second floor Dadafodd, threshhold of a door. It was half opened and I half stepped through. I glanced frowning up at the sky. I was thinking.
As wrong as he was, Ehnym was right. About one thing at least.
The difficulty wouldn’t be catching Hinte. It would be finding her. Even Rhyfel and Ushra were having trouble with that. Any gradient was long blown away by now.
Where could I even look? They had said she was going to Chwithach — at least, that had been where they were looking. But Ehnym said Chwithach was fleeing — and whoever had the other shell was audibly flying.
(Was that a coincidence? Why was Chwithach running? I didn’t want — he couldn’t be tangled up in all this conspiracy. But he had something secret going on.)
The other teacher Hinte had — the other one who’d know enough about humans to… hunt them — he was Aurisiuf, that’s what Zelle said.
There was nothing more to add to that fork of thought.
A sharp kick from behind! My grip slipped off the door. Unheld, it started falling shut and would have closed on me — crushed me with its stone weight! — but stopped suddenly.
“Can’t you hear me? Move.”
I scrambled forward — till I could turn around. Tall cliff-dweller drake, annoyed jaw working, angry eyes looking down. At me.
I… hadn’t stepped through the door, had I? I must’ve been blocking the way.
“Sorry, sorry!” I was out, out on the balcony.
Thank the stars: the cliff-dweller, after spitting off to the side, sulked on pass. The railing-less catwalks were slung from this balcony to a far butte, and in short order the dragon was forgotten down their length.
Thinking, thinking, thinking. It was a well-worn path in me. I could think, easy, I could think until someone got tired of me thinking and pushed me out of the way. I should do something.
What could I do?
Chwithach wanted me to have the magic talky shell. It carries sound from the distance, he said. The librarian would be on the other side of it, and it’d be just like in the library: I’d speak into it and he’d speak back, conversation. Magic conversation.
I spoke, then held the thing up to frill. Still wings beating, still winds rushing. Nothing doing.
I stared at it. It had worked earlier, at the library. Something must be wrong — there had to be something I could do to make it work again, and get to talk to Chwithach again, and ask him what was going on.
Where the half-seashell-looking thing would be hinged if it were a seashell, there crawled out three little bent fingers of metal. I poked them and they had some give and I twisted and bent them. The sound shut off or amplified deafeningly or unleashed to this most gruesome roar like of a dread beast from beyond the stars and it in volume rose and rose and rose.
I dropped it like a boiling mug and it went clank against the balcony’s stone floor and now it had a dent. I looked around, but there was nobody staring. Some dragons on the street below the catwalk glanced up but couldn’t fully see me or whatever kind of mistake this was.
After a few false starts, after telling myself nobody was going after me because of this, after reminding myself it would be ridiculous (hilarious, absurd, silly) if I called forth a demon just by flicking some rods, and after maybe a few more false start and the hatching of some nerves, I brought the magic shell to my earhole again, praying the stars it wouldn’t roar.
Wind and wings couldn’t be heard, not anymore. There were bugs chittering and birds hooting like in the depths of the cliffs. A few beats, and the voices spoke. One a murmuring report, and the response was the welcome textured growl. Chwithach was on the other side.
But the voices sounded to me small, like the came from afar of the other magic shell. Maybe I could have scrunched my frills and made out a word or half of one, but the dull humming, that opaque tone, still lingered in the sound that issued from the shell. Intelligibility just wasn’t there.
But Chwithach was there! I heard his voice. I went back to the metal fingers and made sure they were in the same alignment I’d found them in. Time to try again. (Because of course he wouldn’t hear me while flying — but now, maybe?.)
“Chwithach?” I asked the shell.
They talked more — no hitch in their conversation like they might’ve heard. Nothing doing.
I wanted to throw the shell. Watch it smack against the far butte or hit some passerby on the head or go careening off into the night. But the librarian had trusted me with it. It would be safe with me. That dent was nothing, right?
I wiped the shell on my foreleg, then licked it and rubbed it to shine. It was fine. Back into my bag it went. Listless, thoughtful, I looked up at the stars.
I should do something, I thought.
Look at what you accomplish when you try to do anything, another me responded.
It was a voice like mine (or Uane’s — still fresh in my mind). Acerbic and airy. My voice was capable of it, I was sure. But Kinri didn’t talk that way.
I sighed. Maybe it had a point, though. What had I accomplished? I did kinda know where Chiwithach was, now? Somewhere in the cliffs. He was with someone. And their murmuring voice was telling.
Now the choice was: stay here, or leave. Leave for the Moyo-Makao, or for the cliffs? I felt the vog over my mind, I knew if I stayed too still I’d skip a thought and find it was morning. It was late. And did Mawla even want me to stick around? I saw the last look she gave me. Was she having second thoughts, finally?
I would leave. And I’d have to go to the cliffs. If it was a chance to stop Hinte, it was a duty.
I felt with my tail the magic shell. I would figure that vexation along the way. Three fingers, how many configurations could it have? It couldn’t be worse than patterning a Specter cloak. I’d figure out why Chwithach couldn’t hear me, fix it, and I knew I would — did — have an ally in him.
It was a plan.
I took a step toward the catwalk. It might not be polite to takeoff here (I hadn’t seen anyone else do it) so I started across to the other butte.
I had a plan. I smiled. I skipped forward — and stopped when bamboo planks gave too readily under my weight. A plan. This was good.
Maybe at some unconscious depth I remembered him. Maybe I picked his voice up across the distance, over all the other talkers outside. Maybe the stars saw to it, in some starly way.
But however it came, I did glance backward, and did see Digrif still sitting outside the Dadafodd, the little bush beside him half plucked clean in nervous impatience. I saw him looking all around, searching, calling confusedly, till his gaze locked to something. I followed it.
I saw a hooded dragon approaching Digrif outside the Dadafodd.
“You look around like you’re waiting for someone.”
“Well, I am. I’ve been out here for a ring at least, but they haven’t shown up. I — I’m starting to think maybe they just won’t show up.” Nervous as it sounded, Digrif’s deep voice rang in the night.
When I saw them, I had darted off the catwalk. Now, back on the balcony, I couldn’t crane my head too far over the edge — I wouldn’t risk that — and so the face beneath the cowl remained unseen. But the way Digrif looked at her — probably it was a knowing smile she gave him.
Either way, the warm gray drake sputtered a little, then started, “Unless — it’s you?”
The figure stepped toward him, found a spot on the bench. “Not so loud, little dragon. Do you want someone to hear?”
A hitch, a pause. “No!”
I could hear the falseness in the tone. Could the figure?
At length, the reply: “Good.” A large brown wing slipped from under the cloak, and found itself wrapped around the warm gray drake. “I trust you found your way here safely?”
“Well, yes.” Digrif flicked a tongue in thought. He glanced up, probably saw the dark scaled head peeking from above. I drew back before the figure followed his gaze. I heard him say, “So, are you with the thieves?”
“We aren’t thieves, drake. Do you think those apes belonged to the faer?” There was an edge like the first crack of glass in the tone. Subtlety, Digrif, subtlety. Do you want them to catch on?
The wing wrapped around him patted the drake. “Of course not.”
“But you messed with the guards, and fought some of them! That’s not exactly a good thing to do, is it?”
The glass of their tone chipped further. “The guard is not justice, child. Don’t assume the red sash confers any special wisdom.”
“But there’s still no reason to resist the guard like that.”
I peeked. The brown wing had slipped a little lower, like the cloaked figure was waning in wanting to keep it there. “How fledgless, how naïve. Do you have any grasp of what’s truly at stake here?”
Digrif might’ve opened his mouth for an instant, but the figure was swiftly adding:
“No, you wouldn’t. The vexations of secrecy, I suppose. Come, child, I can take you to someone who can explain the matter so very clearly.”
“Couldn’t you?” Digrif blurted. “Don’t you, uh, don’t you have a grasp of what’s truly at stake?”
Did the glass break? All was quiet. Then there was their voice, it was also quiet. It said only, “Quiet. Come with me.”
“I think —”
“Did you come here for more than the wastage of my time? I thought you wanted an audience. I thought you wanted to understand, to help.”
“I, I don’t grasp” — why Digrif, why that word? — “howcome you can’t just tell me, here, simply.”
“Here in the open night, in the quiet, where any might hear? Tell me, little dragon, is that truly what’s the matter? Or are you hoping that your friend above will hear this as well?”
“Well, I — don’t have a friend above.”
“You don’t? Truly? Perhaps it was just a shadow. My apologies.”
“Thank you. I am not your enemy, child. I don’t want to sabotage you. Come with me; there’ll be a tavern full of witnesses. I cannot harm you.”
“It’s not — I’m not worried about harm. I — well, I like Adwyn and the guards. I don’t want to betray them.”
“Nonsense, child. You won’t have to betray or work against any of your friends. Soon you’ll taste that this little misunderstanding with the guards is a speck in the scheme of things.”
“Will you come with me or will you not, little dragon?”
I darted to the edge of the balcony.
“I… hm. I think I’ll hear what you have to —”
I jumped, then. “Digrif, stop!” I said.
Twisting under the balcony and landing in front of them was a trick, but I was a sky-dweller.
“Kinri?” Was he surprised, or did he pretend surprise?
Either way, I grinned at the drake.
(Why was the hooded figure smiling subtly too? They looked at Digrif, and behind them a tail lashed.)
Unperturbed, I spoke. “Remember what I said earlier, about Hinte?” I got a nod. “I finished what I had to do in the Dadafodd. We can go after her now, stop her.”
Mouth parted, brilles cleared, he said, “Oh.”
“So c’mon! It — it might already be too late.” If the flat, fading tone of my words wasn’t a bummer, the way it emerged so abruptly after the chipper ‘c’mon!’ made it so.
Appropriately, Digrif’s brow knit in worry. But he glanced to the figure. That was answer enough, and I knew — I could read — where he’d fall.
I turned around.
“Kinri.” There was a warmth to that voice. There was one other wiver in all the world who’d spoken my name that kindly. I knew the figure had to be a wiver now; only a mother could nurse that tone. “Don’t be so hasty, darling. I think you of all people should see the big picture, hear what Hinte and Chwithach aren’t telling you.”
It wasn’t enough to make me turn around, it really wasn’t. I took a step forward.
“There’s more! Call it a token of our goodwill.” I heard the slice of something sharp pulled free.
A glance back sealed it all. It was an obsidian blade, light catching on glinting glass. It was Hinte’s knife.
And it reflected light enough to her features to see the wiver’s beatific smile, to see the inviting way my reflection lingered in her eyes.
“All yours if you take the time to hear us out,” she said in temptation. “All yours.”
“So um,” I started as we walked through the Dadafodd, “I’m Kinri and this is Digrif — you know that, I guess — but what about you? What’s your name?”
“They prefer to call me the priestess.”
“I get it — being mysterious is fun — but it doesn’t do much to sell us on the whole… trusting you thing.”
“What are you a priestess of?” Here came Digrif with the conversational questions. Asking the questions she wanted asked.
“Dychwelfa ac Dwylla. The church of our once and future faer, Dwylla the eternal. We give guidance to those in our charge — a rare and valuable thing, here in the land of glass and secrets.”
I didn’t back up. Where Digrif was following behind the priestess, I walked beside her, even when it edged me into slabs. Looking her in those inviting eyes, I asked, “Are you implying you and your church don’t have secrets of your own?”
“So skeptical, dear. You do not trust easily, do you?”
“Why would I?” I retorted.
The murmured response: “Only the first time, I suppose.”
She took a step forward, and this one I didn’t match, having stopped to think about that reply.
Digrif asked, “What’s that mean?
“She knows.” The priestess shook her head. “It’s nothing important, worry not.”
While my gaze whirled around the inside of the tavern once more, my thoughts played with this new piece of information. She was alluding to Hinte, she had to be — my first friend in the cliffs, maybe the one person down here I trusted. (And look how she repays that trust, that voice of mine-but-not-really-mine noted).
But the real answer was in the style, not the substance. That reply had bite. The priestess — had — nursed tenderness in her tone… but clearly it wasn’t something she was beholden to.
With that click of a conclusion, I roused to attention — the priestess was glancing back, at me, with something like a smile.
“Oh, you have a proper thoughtful look about you now. I’d love to know what’s roiling underneath.”
Hm. I thought a moment. Silence, or lie, or truth? I thought, and then I decided. “Just wondering how much of this all is an act.”
“I don’t act, dear. I actually care about you, Kinri, I do. You’re lonely and homesick, working a dreadful job and struggling to keep a room at a ratty inn. You’re so starved for friends or allies, that the alchemist is whom you turn to. I see that, Kinri, and I dew for you.”
“D-don’t.” It — the word — was a wall, a barricade, hastily thrown up and ready to fall down immediately. That — that was me, what I was. It would have been electrifying to hear those words out of any other mouth. But this was the mouth of a thief.
Why were they the ones who seemed to care?
“Where are we going?” Here came Digrif again, with the well-timed questions.
“To a certain slab on the second floor, to meet a pair of drakes. You’ll recognize them, Kinri.”
And I did.
The slab where they sat wasn’t in the shadowy corners or under an alcove. It was in the open, sitting where the piping of the crwths and pibgorns wafted and the drums’ rhythms easily found a head to bob or foot to tap.
“Weird,” I started, “that you worry about dragons overhearing when this is where you want us to meet.”
“Around this many dragons, this close to the music — it’s fine. The self-conscious secrecy you suggest only invites eavesdroppers.”
Unlike me, Digrif was quick to slink to the slab and lay down on a mat. There were two empty spots on the near end — for either of us — and one empty spot on the other side, for the priestess.
Beside that empty spot were the drakes she mentioned. The drakes I knew. The drakes I should have — against all doubt’s benefit — have expected.
Dieithr, and Wrang.
“Oh greetings, Kinri. It’s right fine to see you again,” said Dieithr. The brown drake propped himself up on his mat with a foreleg. In the other foreleg, he had a glass of something bitter and piercing that made my tongue curl when the stench touched it. He sipped and gave me a smile.
Wrang had stood at our approach. The plain-dweller wore robes with a gold trim, and in a wing he had a cane or scepter. He nodded at me. “Kinri.”
Digrif glanced back with a little frown. “Wow Kinri, everyone seems to know you.”
“It’s just because I know Hinte, I think.” I started toward the mat, while the priest looped around to her spot.
“Kinri, I know Hinte too! But no one knows my name.”
Wrang smiled. “Don’t draft yourself down, Digrif. You aren’t irrelevant. I simply have a prior acquaintance with Kinri here.”
“I gave you chance to steal the sword from the humans in the lake, right?”
That erased Wrang’s smile.
“I hadn’t thought you would be this combative, dear,” the priestess murmured. “Perhaps you should be sleeping.”
I stopped, considered her words. Was I being combative? It’s just — I had, on some level, trusted these dragons, doubted for them. But they were tied up in conspiracy. Hinte’d had been right, on every account.
(I’d wanted to see the good in dragons — was that mistaken?)
Hinte had been right. I wondered what she would say, if she’d been standing here. I, at length, replied: “I’m annoyed, is all. If you’re so put off by it, why don’t you start making sense? What are you all doing here? What’s going on?”
Dieithr took another bitter sip. “Dychwelfa ac Dwylla,” he started, “is more than just a church. You could think of us as a…. coalition of those who have Gwymr/Frina’s best interests at heart.”
Wrang gestured up with his scepter-wing. “Yes, exactly. We, more than anything, strive to protect Gwymr/Frina — against humans, against Aurisiuf, against Mlaen-sofran if need be.”
I liked to think my growl was a good imitation of Hinte. “And you strive to protect Gwymr/Frina… by stealing human corpses and trinkets?”
Dieithr. “Think of it as the most subtlest strategy of a veteran skirm player. Not easy to comprehend or explain, but that same obscurity baffles our enemies.”
“Sure. But — and excuse me if this is my tired combativeness speaking — I didn’t come here for more mystery and obscurity. Give me actual answers.”
Dieithr sipped once more that bitter drink. He sat down his cup. Licking his brilles, he murmured. “Yes, you deserve some answers, don’t you? Have a seat then, these won’t come quickly. But I assure you, this is screeds more than you’ll ever get out of Hinte or Aurisiuf.”
Dieithr took a deep breath. I took a seat. It took a moment for him to finally open his mouth, and maybe it was a coincidence that the rhythm matched what the instruments on stage were playing. Either way, they did, and it was poised to imparted the next words with a sense of poetic verity, and completed the image of an old story teller beginning once more…
But the next voice you heard wasn’t at all a storyteller’s, or even a drake’s. High, scratchy, feminine.
It came loud from the other side of the tavern and stopped all music in its passing and even the scattered conversation quieted.
(Really, you knew there was only one dragon who could get away with this interruption.)
A dragon stood atop the stairwall, staring right at me.
“At once, skyrat,” the forest-dweller said, alula beckoning.
* * *