Along the roads into Gwymr/Frina the scattered lamp- and sign-posts mixed with bright-colored signs warning of trenches and sudden drops. Little glider-scorpions emerged from the deeper crevices, flitting in the night with the short, sporadic glides that named them. Often the whirring of bats rose with the calls and buzzes of the scorpions, but when one appeared, the other would grow silent, hiding or hunting.
We passed a few houses dotting the ravine at its widest, where the posts instead fenced off their yards. Here, netting rose from the fence-posts, and blocked any inward flight. The nets met big poles rising from the roofs, making the houses like spiderly pyramids.
One house was a little cottage with outer walls that gleamed where others faded invisibly; instead of black bamboo fences that blent with the night, the outer walls flaunted proud glassy bricks. It looked gaudy and frilly, and I shook my head, and drifted my eyes beyond the gate. Lit by a crimson lamp, the little garden inside looked dim and sad.
Around the garden sat a few piles of rocks — the strange air wells that gathering water down on the surface. In Tädet/Pimeys we had fog nets and collected water from the clouds — but I guessed this worked for them.
We continued on. My canteen had been refilled at the dew pond, but I’d hesitated at first — if I filled it, it meant no more ghost canteen. As cool as it sounded, I couldn’t really drink ghost water. And maybe a ghost wouldn’t have a problem with alighting twice.
Nearing the town proper, the roads became worse for walking, lined with filth and droppings. Muckrakers would try to clean them, but it wasn’t enough. Holding my tongue, I didn’t smell the worst of the stench, but the clean streets of Tädet/Pimeys stood clear in my mind.
I prodded Hinte, pointing a wing at the lower catwalk. It was about a wing-beat above us. She nodded.
With a powerful jump and three flaps that fought my corpse burden I landed on the catwalk, and glanced behind me. Back on the ground, Hinte’s wings bristled as she stalked toward a stairwall.
Leaping down I landed beside the wiver with my tail coiled and my frills folded. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Hinte looked at me, lips almost forming words, but she folded her frills and tossed her head. She walked to the base of the stairwall, her gait still dripping fluidity and grace; it clashed with the weight she carried and with the trace of annoyance that bedewed her fangs. It left me idly wondering.
Before us, the stairwall rose, and it was everything that made craggy cliffs and old tree bark easy to climb. Foot-sized knobs protruded out, and toe-sized depression sunk in (bigger on the inside so you could hook your toes in them). We climbed up and stood upon the catwalks, blades of stone that jutted from the ravine walls. Suspension cords flew down from higher up to secure, and pillars stabbed obliquely into the walls to support.
Glassy feet clanked on the stone. While our glass cracked and grinded, shards caught and stuck in the black slime, reducing the sharp edges to mere pressure and dull pokes. Our scutes were thick enough to bear it, in any case.
I tossed agonizing glances at my black-coated and glass-molting legs; the sight pulled a disgusted squeak from my tongue. I wrenched my gaze away, and caught the black obelisk rising in the distance. Rising high and illumed by golden-white lights, you could call it a sort of beacon. As we walked on it grew larger. Standing a building or three away from the town hall, it made the perfect meter for our progress.
Maybe Hinte even aimed for the obelisk itself, to check the water clock. But I wouldn’t — shouldn’t — wear her patience any thinner by asking.
As the obelisk loomed larger, the passersby became more frequent, sometimes even an pair walked together in the night. The concerned or bewildered glances at our backs came more and more often. After one too many, Hinte hissed at me, jerking me into a wide break in the ravine face. She reached into her bag, grabbing two dark, folded cloaks and thrusting one out to me. I tilted my head.
Then my brilles flashed clear. I took one cloak and draped it over the corpse. The cloak’s placket fell and hung like a dress under my torso and the sleeves fell loosely over my limbs. I didn’t fasten them.
Hinte had put on her own cloak, its black fabric threaded with blue and pink, and pulled a cowl over her head. A moment passed where we adjusted each other’s cloaks, the dark-green wiver still not meeting my eyes.
She touched my headband, and I flinched back. The wiver hissed and backed off and turned away.
We set off again, and this time we didn’t attract many gazes. The few that lingered only looked curious instead of fearful or worried.
Like that, we continued on. Hinte still wouldn’t look at me, and I ran a tongue over my fangs.
We hadn’t reached the faer yet; I still had a chance to find some way to apologize, some way Hinte wouldn’t ignore.
The stars still shone high above me. As I gazed up at that sacred vista my vision melted into the chain of remembered nights I had spent under this very sky, stretching back to my hatchhood. The comfort of lying out under the sky on a warm night, with the breeze caressing my scales, with the hoots and shrieks of black owls filling my frills, it called out to me. But would I have preferred an evening lying out on a lonely cliff to this fang-wringing adventure with Hinte?
I let my gaze fall from the sky to the cloaked dragon in front of me. My tongue felt a drop of sweetness dew on my fangs and I let it stay there.
“Hey,” I started without looking up to my companion’s face, not checking if she was listening. “What–what did you mean when you said, hide your fangs, earlier?”
Instants stretched to moments, and moments stretched until they snapped under the strain. I glanced up at the dark-green wiver.
She met eye and at length a reply marched out. “It’s a saying.” Her brow narrowed, and she said, “You speak Drachenzunge. Have you not read of Jammra the squalled?”
I broke eye and looked at the ground, the dark-green wiver shaking her head and looking away too. The wiver didn’t turn, watching the road in front of her and glancing at the growing obelisk in the distance.
“Well,” I started at some point, “I’ve seen allusions, but my tutors never pressed more than the minimum, enough to call it a job finished. I never had the talent of my brother, or even my sister, and they never tried to make up for that.”
My companion clicked her tongued twice, but I couldn’t puzzle out the meaning. Maybe she couldn’t, either.
When I glanced back up, Hinte’s determined line had shifted just a little. “A pity. It’s a famous epic. Jammra was a peerless warrior, but he fought with his fangs instead of his claws. His nemesis was the twisted Wauchu, who desired to be queen, back when the forest still had queens. She was a wiver of evil and ruthlessness, and Jammra was a drake of compassion and courage, so he had sworn himself to stop her.”
The dark-green wiver halted for just a moment, and I caught up enough to walk beside her. She continued, “Their nadir, their final battle, was in the deep of winter, at the crest of a cycle. They met unexpectedly in a valley, each having come there alone, each to fight and kill a terrible Roggenwolf. Instead, they fought each other. Jammra, being a fearsome warrior, easily overpowered Wauchu. But before he could strike the final blow, she tried her final gambit. Seeking to exploit his compassionate nature, she told him of her miserable past.”
Hinte paused there, and flicked her tongue. It was a few breaths before she continued, “It is said that her tragedy was so great that Jammra’s fangs dewed with a magical sourness. Yet he had sworn an oath to defeat Wauchu, and a warrior held sworn oaths above all else. So he inflicted a final bite even as his fangs dewed very sourly. So great was his pity for her that his tears healed the villain of her evilness instead of stilling her.”
The wiver paused again, this time to watch me. She nodded. “When she came to, Jammra remained, and as his oath required so the battle would continue. To protect herself, Wauchu fought back. But Jammra now know his nemesis’s heart, and with it, lost his will to fight. So he let Wauchu defeat him.” Hinte stopped walking there, and looked at me.
“And so Jammra died,” she said, like a cadence. “Wauchu claimed the glory of slaying the Roggenwolf. She had lost her dark ambitions, and instead became famous heroine rivaling Jammra himself. But she fought with her claws and left no oath unfulfilled.”
Hinte lifted a forefoot, and clenched it. “And that’s why warriors must fight with their claws, not their fangs. And even if our duty causes us great sadness, we hide our fangs and carry it out.”
I tiled my head. “But… it ends just like that? Jammra just lost?”
“So Wauchu won? But she’s the villain! She killed Jammra…” I looked down at the road below us.
Hinte tossed her head, but with my head turned I only caught her shadow twisting in the light of a passing lamp. “She wasn’t a villain at the end of the story.”
I drew my wings to my body. “You can’t just stop being a villain.”
“It’s how the story goes,” Hinte said, glancing at the obelisk. “Jammra’s magic venom healed Wauchu of all her wretchedness, and she became a great heroine.”
I slowed down a bit, licking my eyes and watching a ragged white figure walking in the ravine below. When my gaze returned to the catwalk, I caught up with the dark-green wiver. “Why couldn’t she just do that in the first place?”
Hinte tossed her head, then drummed her alula in the air as she said, “She wanted to become queen at all costs, get revenge on the ones who ended her clan.” She drummed her alula a few more times as if to say, and so on.
“Hey, that sounds interesting! Why’d you leave that part of the story out?”
“I left many things out.” She whisked her wing. “I told you what mattered.”
I waved my tongue. “I guess that makes sense. But if she only wanted justice, why was she so evil?”
“She broke promises and betrayed dragons to get her way.”
“Well…” I trailed off, tasting my words. My gaze trailed off with it.
A mother glider scorpion dodged from the catwalk and hid behind a rock, dozens of pink children wriggling in a pile on her back, nestled under her wings. Her pincers clicked, and her venomous tail glistened in the moonslight. But she held her children tight, and when one fell she stopped to pick it up.
Hinte looked at me, while I still watched the scorpion. She glanced at it, and forgot it just as quickly — as if she saw things like it everyday.
I settled for saying, “Nothing.”
Glancing back at Hinte, I rubbed my foreleg as I wondered how to explain just what annoyed me about her story. That phrase, hide your fangs, reminded me of similar phrases in Käärmkieli, the sort of maxims that had defined my childhood. I folded my frills back and my tail dropped limp between my legs.
Hide your fangs. But I had left the sky to do just the opposite, to feel and express whatever I wanted. Could I confess that to Hinte? How would I even start explaining? ‘Oh, one of your famous legends is completely wrong?’ ‘I think we shouldn’t hide our fangs even if it kills us?’ I had already frustrated her with one bit of carelessness.
I stopped watching the scorpion and sighed. “Why is it that Jammra, who was so good, had to fail and die, but Wauchu gets to fly free?”
“The world never forgot about Wauchu’s past. But she didn’t let that stop her.” Hinte glanced behind her. “My mother would say that stories are questions, not answers.”
Did I taste a tinge of sourness in the air?
Hinte continued, “She said Jammra stood for dragons who act with their emotions instead of their minds. It stilled him. But because Jammra created another great hero, because he had redeemed Wauchu, she thought his compassion wasn’t a failure. So she would say the story asks if compassion is worth sacrifice.” She glanced at me again, and this time I met her amber gaze.
I smiled. She frowned, but the swell of her frills wasn’t in annoyance. A beat passed with that, marked by an anurognath’s croon emerging from the night. Hinte broke with my gaze first, glancing at the obelisk. I looked up at the stars. The anurognath swooped down, nothing but slender shadow, flying from the highest catwalk and pouncing on something behind us. I didn’t turn, but my frills caught the screeches of a glider-scorpion. My gaze lifted higher.
Jammra couldn’t be a failure. But I didn’t really agree with redeeming Wauchu. If she was evil, some magic venom wouldn’t change that.
“I think that makes more sense,” I said, licking my eyes. “But you don’t agree?”
Hinte looked back again. “Ja, I said Jammra died, and Wauchu lived, so we should be more like Wauchu.”
“Wretched and miserable?”
“No, just winning. Living. Fulfilling our oaths,” she growled. “What I’m saying is, fight with your claws, hide your fangs.”
The dragons we saw, above and below, changed from random straglers and loners to the more usual crowds of Gwymr/Frina, but thinned this late in the night. We began to see real houses, either below the catwalks or built onto the ravine walls, and we had entered the town proper.
With two thirds of my canteen left, I heard an cheery, questioning voice call out, “Hinte?”
We turned in opposite directions, and I fanned out my frills, listening.
Hinte tapped me from behind with a wing. She said, “Over here.”
The source of the voice stood on the opposite catwalk, a warm gray dragon waving at us hard enough that his body jerked with his wing. Digrif. What rotten winds we’d run into him when I looked like this.
My frills flattened against my neck, my tail hidden in the folds of the cloak, and my alula came to my face to adjust the bandages until they felt flat and straight and wait, are they bloody? Dirty? Maybe I should pull the cloak’s hood over my head.
Wiping her goggles, Hinte looked left and right across the ravine, but no bridge connected our catwalks for as far as we could see in the dark. She waved him over. The warm gray dragon leapt over to our catwalk But he undershot, and fell until he grabbed the edge of the catwalk and pulled himself up.
Settling, he smiled at us. Even in the dark, his warm gray scales would catch your eye, halfway between the mottled grays of the mountain-dwellers and the reds of the local cliff-dwellers. Curling hornscales lined his long muzzle, and longer, straighter horns emerged from the top of his head.
In the darkness you only saw hints of the his laborer muscles, but I had looked at it enough to read the rest from those hints — the sort of tight, comfortable muscle you wouldn’t mind being embraced in at night.
Demons below, Digrif was cute. I wished we had a chance to talk more, but he never really noticed me. He never even remembered my name!
I licked my eyes. The warm gray dragon stood with a thin, dark-green ashcloak draped over him, not fastened to any legs; it billowed in the breeze. On his legs, plaid yellow and white sleeves clung loosely over his forelegs. On his back, he carried around a cardboard box, nestled between his wings. It hadn’t fallen or even flipped when he leapt over!
“Hey Hinte, hey Hinte’s friend,” he said with a wiggle of his frills that seemed like a wave too.
The wiver returned the greeting in a dismissive hiss. “Digrif. How unfortunate.”
“Oy, pleasant as ever.” He was drawing his alula together, across his neck. “But I see you were out in the cliffs again, off on your mysterious adventures.”
I clicked my tongue, a little. Hinte might’ve glared or just glanced.
Digrif looked at me. His dark-yellow eyes flickered in muted yellow sclerae, seeming to smile with him. “Oh, and you have an accomplice now! Why was I never invited?”
“Kinri has not bothered me for as long you have.”
Digrif’s head jerked up. “What? That’s the opposite of how it is supposed to work!” On his back, the box had slid back a bit. He jostled it, setting it aright. The warm-gray drake had stand high to meet Hinte’s low stand.
Hinte waved a wing. “No, it is working as designed. Doing it your way would encourage you two to bother me.” I gave Hinte a sidelong, tongue-waving glance. I’d never heard a line of reasoning so Hinte before.
Digrif’s head tilted as he unwrapped her twisty logic. “Hmm. That almost makes sense. But it’s still unreasonable. How can this be so asecret if she can just join you at random?”
“This was her first time,” she said.
“Well yeah, but I don’t get why I can’t come for once!” He upset the box again but caught it before it slid any.
Hinte glanced at the obelisk. “We need to leave now. This is important.”
“Huh? What happened?” Digrif asked.
“It is nothing to you.”
“Why so harsh? I’m only curious.”
“We just found some creatures in the cliffs,” I said.
He looked at me again, this time seeing the bandages on my face. When he jumped a bit, the box slid again. This time, he let it slide to the ground with a small thud. Looking back to me, taking in my bandaged face, his frills widened and he mouthed a ‘woah.’
I preened, fluttering my frills at him. Could he smell my chamomile perfume?
I said, “These, uh, humans. They injured Hinte, and we don’t really know what they were doing there.”
“Hm.” Digrif scratched his neck.
“So we were just heading to the faer to tell her what happened.”
“Oh, godsluck to you. I hope you’ll get there in time.”
“Thanks Digrif. I, uh, we appreciate it.”
“What are friends for?”
Staring at Digrif and his golden eyes, I strained to keep another flutter out of my frills. I looked up.
“Ooh!” I said, my gaze falling back to the warm gray dragon with another skip of my heart. “Hinte had said that having two fledgling sifters in the lake at once was really dangerous. So um, we couldn’t both have come? Maybe when you come we won’t all nearly die.”
I glanced at Hinte. She stared at me from my right, her visage looking extra vicious with the unnatural yellow of her goggles. I tried a smile, but gave up when her look remained unchanging, frills like glass.
“Yeesh. You two look sca-ry. Did these humans do this to you?”
“No,” I said. “It was uh… rockwraiths. It’s kind of a story. Maybe we can tell you later?” I glanced at Hinte.
“Ouch,” he said, wincing. “That’s a lot for one evening.”
“It was! It was — it’s like it’s us versus the rest of the lake.”
Hinte’s look changed, frills bending, face gaining a touch of — warmth? She said, “It was.”
Digrif must have sensed something different too, because he glanced to Hinte face glowing with curiosity, tongue flicking out all the way.
“We are leaving.” Hinte jerked me away. Turning to Digrif, she said, “I will tell about this, in the morning, at my home, over breakfast. Do not be late. For now, forget this.”
Digrif must have caught something in her tone, because he lowered his head instead of pressing. His farewell was, “Don’t wait for the falling rocks.” He waved us off.
I returned the wave, but Hinte had already twisted around. Giving me one last smile, he leapt to the opposite catwalk and slinked off. I turned to follow Hinte, but looked back one last time.
Digrif had left his box on the ground, and was rushing back to get it. He undershot the catwalk again, and this time he sailed past it, lighted somewhere on the ravine wall below us. But he climbed up again at some point, recovering his box at last.
My wings covered a muffled giggle at the whole sequence. Silly Digrif.
A violent thrum of strings echoed from farther up the ravine. The intervals came harsh and dissonant, like a composition from House Locrian. A nostalgic trickle dewed on my fangs, and I fanned my frills.
Further up the curve of the catwalk, several strides away, two dragons were sitting in the shadowy gulf perfectly between lampposts. Hindlegs dangled off the edge of the catwalk. Both had cloaks; only one wore the hood up.
The hoodless dragon waved his forelegs and brought them down in chopping motions. A thick, smooth voice was saying, “…a tad too disc — err, dissonant. Oh, try a root a few pitches thinner, like,” the hoodless dragon reached over, bringing down his foreleg. More strumming strings came, sounding thinner, less angry.
I was padding closer to the pair and slipping in front of Hinte, oddly pulled look at the closer figure. All you saw was a cloak that hid everything about them, with a color you couldn’t make out in the night — only that it had color.
In contrast, the bright, metallic strings of the instrument glinted; they looked brighter, more distinct, than anything else about the musician.
They pushed the other dragon away, alulae poking, before returning to strum the instrument in their wings — a vague, long form in the darkness, with a round shape in the middle. The playing still sounded dark and angry, but the discordant notes had receded a bit.
“Would it ground you to stick even one clear tick in there?” They shook their head. “Scarcely a smile in your spirit.”
The musician growled something, but it came out low and quiet.
The hoodless dragon whisked a wing. “Whatever. I know I’m not a musician. Why play me something unfinished?” When the speaker looked away, they caught our approach. “Look, more sifters. Mawla, these your consb–conspecifics?”
Behind them, near flush with the cliff face, a shadow shifted. Moonlight glinted over ragged white fabric, illuming a familiar sifting suit. Brown frills squinted and jingled.
“Yeah, them the crazy human-hunters I told you about,” came her saccharine voice.
The hoodless dragon leaned back, kicking their dangling hindlegs. “Human-hunters? Interesting.”
The strumming lulled for a few beats. The musician glanced up for once. “Did you catch them? I have heard humans are dreadfully difficult to catch.” For his tone and mien, you expected a growl — but his voice sounded precise and pitched in a way that didn’t clash with the music.
“We did,” Hinte had said without turning.
I gave some halting tongue-clicks, looking around over at the three dragons. “That’s a perfect description. Why do they have to be stinking clever?” The musician had looked at me when I spoke, and it took only a beat for their frills to wrinkle into a sneer, and fangs to tinge venomous. What was that about?
Mawla hitched her wings. “That’s nature keeping us on our toes.”
“I’d rather stay on my belly. It’s more comfortable.”
Hinte was in front of me now. She prodded me, then started pulling me along. I stumbled after her. We walked toward the dragons. The musician’s song was rising high before it fell to a crash of notes. It rose again, slower. Why did it seem familiar?
The hoodless figure spoke, shifting to get a better look at us. “So.” They held a long rod, dark and unidentifiable in the moonlight. You couldn’t tell if they pulled it out then or had just held it idly. They twirled and spun it in their forefeet, tossing it up and asking, “Did these humans have any treasures? Legend says that humans carry magical gemstone.” The rod fell back into their foot. “Or something.”
I glanced beside me. “Did you find anything like that, Hinte?”
The rod-twirler spun their rod into the air. It tipped, and they caught it with a hindfoot. “Oh pity. One could hope,” they said. Beside them, the musician was glancing at the wiver beside me, frills thoughtful.
Mawla slid down beside the hoodless twirler, opposite the musician, and dangling her legs with them. She said, “Like they’d give you any treasure if there was any.”
“Oh, don’t doubt my persuasivity.”
“But I can, after you couldn’t even convince me to open my bag.” Mawla flicked her tongue at the sky, patting a bag by her haunches. “Face it, you couldn’t talk a sun into rising.”
The twirler was spinning the rod around their hindfeet. “I simply didn’t wish to have it.”
At this Mawla just rolled her head and glanced slowly around. Her dark eyes landed on me and stayed there, watching as I stepped forward with Hinte. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. I broke eye before it might last too long, looking over to the hoodless twirler or the once-sneering musician.
The twirler spun the rod around a toe a few times before saying, “Mawla, catch,” and tossing it into the air again.
Mawla looked at the twirler, face shadowed with the lamp behind her. Though the night hid her face, her wings drew together and the rod fell past her, cracking against the catwalk in time with her saying, “Nah.”
The twirler was reaching a wing past the sifter to stop the rod from rolling off. I wrenched my gaze from the three to follow after Hinte. The smooth voice was laughing, and after a beat addressed us:
“Oh, where are you two going so fast? Off on a moonlit date?” The twirler had tossed their rod back up, watching us with a smile.
“No!” I squeaked.
“No,” Hinte growled.
They caught the rod a heartbeat before it would smack them in the head. “Don’t bite me, ’twas a question.” The twirler spread their wings. “What other business is worth slinking so intently after, this time of night?” They tossed the rod up again, this time breaking eye to watch it.
The words fell from my mouth, “We’re going to the faer!” I took a moment to slow myself. “She’s going to get to the bottom of this human business.”
The rod fell past the twirler’s forelegs. It rolled down their dangling hindlegs and leapt from the curve at their hindfeet, flying into the air again. They caught it.
The musician hadn’t looked at me again, their gaze seeming fastened to the filthy road below. Their strumming quickened, and the discord fled from the song, waning to a floaty progression of chords that suffused the ravine. It became thin and implicating, rising, rising, rising to a climax.
The twirler tossed the rod again. “Is the cloudy faer even going to be awake this time of night?”
“Don’t you know?” Mawla replied. “The faer never sleeps. A friend told me so. The fires in the town hall never go dark.”
The twirler caught the rod, humming.
Meanwhile, the song fell to another discordant crash. The strumming became a wavering tremolo and stayed there for a bit while the musician spoke. “And he told you her secretary would eat you if you looked at them the wrong way as well?”
“Well, yeah,” Mawla was saying. “She’s the faer’s stray. The faer can’t even keep this town under control.”
Even when the musician laughed, it was in key. “Ashwits, everyone sleeps. Stories are stories.” The tremolo rose, rose, rose to a peak and lingered there for a bit. There was some odd nostalgia to it, even within all the darkness, but it was something I felt, rather than being there in the music. The melody was trembling at its peak; I expected it to crash again, and ruin the buildup. Instead it glided down, as if the chords carried the song back to its beginning. Emptily, because it denied it the implied climax once again, but still pleasant.
Mawla was saying, “Everyone dies after a few dozen gyras, too. But I bet on you hearing the stories that the eternal faer lived three hundred. How you riddle that?”
“Not living in a slum does a wonder for your health.”
Mawla huffed, and jabbed the twirler beside her with a wing. “Smack him around with your fancy rod, would you?” the yellow-brown wiver asked.
The musician spoke low enough for their words to blend with the strumming and hide. Whatever they said, it only had Mawla scowling higher.
The twirler was nudging Mawla beside them, but spoke loud enough we could hear. They said, “Could be worse than the cloudy faer. They could bump into the treasurer.” They glanced over to me, then to Hinte. “Especially with scales like those. If you go, hope the faer has him leashed to some tax patents.
The musician suddenly struck a sharp interval. They said, “Why would the faer listen to you two, an exiled sky-rat and a traitorous alchemist? It’s a waste of time.” Neither their voice nor their playing had faltered. Mawla had stood up and stepped back toward the shadows of cliff face.
My voice became loud. To be heard in the ravine. “What in the wind is your problem? I’ve never even met you!” My wings flared and spread as I spoke.
The muscian turned their gaze back toward the road below. “If only I could retain that pleasure.” A single note now lingered, filling the ravine. Then it became a progression, crescendoing to another climax.
Hinte growled — the music paused — and the wiver at last deigneed to look at the figures ahead of us. “Shut up before I make that the first pleasure you lose tonight.”
I glanced at Hinte. She had turned to face the dragons, and salty venom scented her bared fangs. A smile tugged at my lips.
I looked back the musician, then said, “And what’s wrong with being an alchemist? Hinte hasn’t even betrayed anyone.”
“Her clan name proceeds her, just as your name proceeds you, Specter.”
My wings flared wide. The sheer loathing in his tone bit me. “My name is Kinri, not Specter. My family is irrelevant.”
The musician spat venom trailing out in the twin streams down to the road below.
A hindleg clad in ragged white kicked the musician. “Get over yourself, Bauume.”
Bauume and his strumming faltered, and he took breaths to keep his balance on the catwalk.
Mawla’s growling voice continued, “Kinri is alright. She grounded those humans and she’d ground you too.”
“You’ll regret this, mudling.” Bauume spread their wide wings. “This is a waste of my evening.” The musician dropped from his spot on the edge of the catwalk, gliding off into the night.
I’d never hear the end of that song.
“What was his problem?” I said.
“No idea.” Mawla rolled her head, turning the catwalk’s edge. “I just found these two after I sloughed that loser, Wrang. They seemed fragrant enough, and I had a night to ride out.”
“And,” the twirler started, “you can imagine I would enjoy her levity after spending an evening with that cat-tongued wraith of a drake.” I flinched. Hinte jerked her head.
“Maybe he spent all his good spirit on that music of his,” Mawla said.
Hinte glanced at the obelisk. “We are leaving.” Hinte turned again and stepped away.
“Oh, maybe don’t go to the faer with this.” The twirler was climbing to a stand in front of us. “Do you want the extra scrutiny?” They carefully tossed their rod.
“Yeah,” Mawla said, stepping away from the edge too. “Nobody needs the faer and her ten thousand laws waving a tongue in their direction.”
Hinte walked on. I stepped after her, saying, “But the faer needs to know.”
Mawla just waved her wing, and climbed onto the cliff wall behind her. “Yeah, but if it matters, then the guard will scent after it soon enough. No use shattering the glass. Let it fall on someone else’s head.”
“But… that just seems wrong.”
“Flick,” she said, looking down from the cliff, “you had a storm of a day and got a nice, tangy story to tell out of it.”
“I guess.” I had stopped moving, but Hinte stared at me from a few strides away.
“Isn’t that enough? You don’t need to call down another storm on top of that. And that’s all involving the faer is going to do for you.” Mawla reached the catwalk above us. She said, “Just hop in bed and rest up for another day in the lake, is what I say.” She climbed up the next catwalk, and waved her tail as she stepped out of view. “Sweetest luck, Kinri.”
“Mists hide you,” I said without thinking. Her laughter reached me, fading as ragged-white figure disappeared into the night.
“Kinri, stop wasting time.”
The twirler had caught their rod, but I hadn’t seen when. They stood there, blocking our path. They said, “Consider what I’ve said, Kinri. You don’t have anything to gain by taking this to the faer.” They paused. Instead of tossing their rod, they let it stand on their sole, balancing. “Don’t you want this day to be over?”
But I looked up at the rod-twirling dragon standing there, alone. I looked at the bright-white figure waiting for me to catch up to her.
I said, “Why would I listen to you? You’re alone, and both of your companions left you. I’m following Hinte.” I turned and strode toward the wiver, who had the presence — the height, the muscle — to force the twirler aside.
I wasn’t alone. If that meant calling down another storm, letting the glass shatter on my head, making this day even longer?
It’s what I wanted.
It hadn’t felt like not a long walk from there to the city center. This time we traveled without fuss. I had questions about the twirler perched on my lips, but the calm silence between Hinte and me along the way didn’t bear breaking. It felt like I’d made up for my thoughtlessness.
Here in the center of the town rose an obsidian pillar, a monument to Dwylla, who’d quelled the pits and turned the Berwem sifting outpost from a labor camp to a blossoming town. Cyfrin ac Dwylla had been the first name for the town, his honor. This obelisk was the town’s pride of the town, and it was to remember Dwylla, the eternal faer. It circed a few strides at the base and rising dozens of wing-beats into the air.
I stepped over to the base of the obsidian pillar. It met the ground in a stone fountain that doubled as a water clock. While Hinte checked the water clock, I gawked at the obelisk. The glassy black obsidian glimmered in the light of the Ceiwad and the yellow-white lamps lining it, and a simple line pattern engraved its surface.
Along the length of the pillar, the pattern tended to a few sparse lines that ran a few strides before turning or meeting another line. Simple, minimal. I guess it fit. Dragons always talked of the eternal faer being someone straightforward and plain.
At the bottom of the pillar was a small, flat likeness of that faer. Black and white opals were his eyes, tiny white aluminum plates were his scales, and brilliant stained glass was his tongue. The portrait showed him with his left foreleg raised in command and his right off to the side, wielding a pickax.
The pillar looked of Geunantic make. It wasn’t a hard guess to make, with that invasive purple eye symbol above the likeness’ wing. I’d seen it drawn, etched, engraved; peering from anything nearing related to Dyfnder/Geunant. Rainbow rays flew out from the eye, and above it, on the opposite side of the old faer’s likeness, there burned a fiery sun (you couldn’t tell which). That sun somehow had fewer rays outpouring than the purple eye.
Below the portrait lay a short dedication to the first faer of Gwymr/Frina.
‘Dwylla,’ it read, ‘of deepest gaze, whose wings shall shelter us now and forever.’
‘Take to the highest skies.’
Even among high-class dragons, Dwylla had lived a very long time. He reigned for seven generations before alighting one night in his sleep. While he lived, he had been like a pillar of the town. The eternal faer, they had called him.
It was a story stuck with dragons and traveled far beyond the town because you couldn’t, as the usual went with rulers, pin Dwylla’s age on the work of a team of master alchemists. No, Dwylla had shunned alchemy. His superstitions had sparked the Inquiry and still lingered.
Before that, his longevity had attracted forest- and ash-dwellers hungry for his secrets. I could wonder if the reason I’d been told to come here was some echo of that.
“Highest skies, mister faer,” I found myself murmuring.
Hinte prodded me, meaning she’d finished checking and we could leave. A fifth of the night had passed, but Mawla said the faer didn’t sleep. Even if they did, wasn’t it rumored she worked late into the night?
We walked the few blocks to the building. It felt like a long walk; flying would be so much faster. But even without Hinte’s injuries, we couldn’t fly with this sort of weight.
What waited for us at the town hall? Hinte said these apes trespassed in our territory. That they resisted their arrest. And they had fought and schemed and injured and made a mess of things.
I no want death dragon.
I bury comrade. Please.
Humans had no fangs, didn’t they? They deserved what we gave him, didn’t they?
Tracking down those two had felt so easy. Even their crafty resistance proved futile in the end. If the faer’s administration followed Hinte’s lead, tried to stop the other humans from making things worse, would that episode repeat again and again, but with the dragons on the offense?
The human’s eyes had been wide, even in death. Even after Hinte had ended it all, its last gesture had been holding the foot of its dearest friend.
We didn’t make things better. Could I? Try to explain the humans’ side of things?
I looked up. Hinte was looking at me.
“You are dusty,” she said. I peered at her. Now that I was paying attention, my eyes caught the dust from the Berwem coating her suit and scales. I must look the same way.
“So are you,” I said.
“My scales are duller, it is harder to notice,” she said, “and I do not care.”
I smiled, and that seemed to be what she’d wanted, because she turned and we walked forward like that.
The town hall towered before us. Polished granite frame the building in regality. Shaped like a hexagon, it stood about a wing-beat or three high, and had two stories ringed with windows. The main entrance sat on the roof, and two ramps rolled down to the streets on either side
Clumps of night guards patrolled or kept watch, both on the building itself and the surrounding rooftops and walkways. I’d pulled the cloak’s hood up like Hinte and stuck closer to her, but none of them gave us unusual scrutiny. As we walked toward the town hall, we drew more attention — but how could it be otherwise?
From the base, one of the ramps spiraled us up to the roof. What was the point of these things? Stairwalls took up less space and were so much quicker.
The roof, a tiered thing, sprawled out, with the highest tier wrapping around and over most of it, dropping once near the roof’s center, before at last sinking down in three wide stair-steps to the doors. They slanted slightly, and had the holey look of futilely polished pumice. Silly material aside, the door had the massive, belittling look of something imperious; its presence seemed to command the rest of the roof.
Three alert guards ringed the roof, one in a prefect’s fullrobes, and the others naked. The red-scaled prefect was high-walking up as soon as we came off the ramp, and the others fell in sycophantic step behind them. Frowing, the prefect looked us up and down — mostly down, for me — and they said, “Move along. This is no shelter.”
Hinte stood high. “We have business with the faer.”
The prefect shook his head. “Save it for the morrow,” they said, and firmly, “Move along.”
“Oh, is the faer asleep?” I asked. Hinte glanced at me, and looked back to the prefect with a certain crook to her lips.
“Move along,” they said. One of the guards behind him, face wild with hornscales, stepped forward in punctuation.
Hinte stepped forward too, and she said, “My grandfather is Mlaen’s personal alchemist.”
The wild-horned dragon started to speak, but the prefect nudged hard with a wing, and only the prefect spoke, voice very calm or strained.
They said, “Then bring your grandfather here in the scales. I’m not swallowing your words alone.”
I didn’t like the way Hinte’s claws were out, scoring the gravel of the roof. I pouted up at the prefect. “But this is important!”
“It is a matter of the town’s security,” Hinte said, very level. After a breath, she added, “It could endanger the sifting parties.”
“Flick at yourselves.” It was the last guard who spoke, a plain-dweller so quiet I forgot them. They continued even as the prefect jabbed them, saying, “We let in someone that looks like you to do, and we’d have to let in every vagrant with an excuse. Move —”
The pumice doors slid open then, and a slender figure, scales dark-red slinked forth. Black and yellow robes rippled with their steps, and I watched their stride stopped just behind the prefect, and the two guards let them.
The prefect jumped with a yelp at a poke from the dark-red dragon. I laughed behind a wing, and Hinte wasn’t so nice.
A look like sour flames flickered at me and Hinte, before it snapped over to the offending dragon behind the prefect. At the prefect’s glaring, the newcomer flinched and cringed.
“I have a message,” said that dark-red dragon.
The prefect rolled head, and let the newcomer lean in near their frills, and whispered something.
“I see,” was the response. “Now spit off.” And with that, the dark-red dragon slinked back in faster than they slinked out. The prefect turned back to us, still looking sour, and said, “Seems the treasurer is aware of your coming, and vouches for your credibility. You may enter.”
I smiled and let out a cheer, but Hinte was frowning even deeper.
As the two guards strode back to their places, the prefect was turning away; but they added, “And he says to tell Ushra the lout owes him a favor, now.”
“This place looks so sad,” I murmured.
Like a husk the hall’s lamp-lit lobby lay empty this late into the night.
There were oil or glass paintings hanging on the walls, and two dusty scrollshelves. On the wall in front of us sat three corridors, all opposite the spiraling ramp the doors had spat out. Two corridors opened far to either side, one dark and silent, and the other lit with dim, dispersed light and the equally dim, dispersed murmurings of a few distant voices. The middle corridor was a ramp leading even deeper into the building.
Like usual with cliff-dweller buildings, it was half-underground.
Hinte stood beside me, looking like I felt. Inside the hall, she’d at last taken off her goggles. She glanced at me, and in her dark, near-black scelerae, her rust-orange eyes were flames and burned with an intensity that erased the tired, flagging lines of her face. I smiled at her, and she only inclined her head.
“Do you feel that?” I asked, rubbing a foot against a foreleg. “It feels like chasing down the humans or facing down the rockwraiths. Doom.”
Hinte remained silent, frowning in thought.
I looked up to the ceiling. The sight there lit my frills — a mosaic of stars! It covered the concave ceiling, stretching to where the ceiling curved back on itself. It wasn’t accurate. The night sky didn’t look anything like this; none of the stars or nebulae were positioned anywhere near any real formation in the sky. But the work looked so bright, so detailed, so unexpected, and so convincingly stellar, that I found myself forgiving the artist’s ignorance.
When I looked down, Hinte’s frills worked in thought. She said, after some time, “Yes. I worry if the faer will find some fault in defending ourselves against the humans or ask just why we were in the Berwem.”
“Or believe the two of us?” I asked.
She waved a wing. “No. Ushra is the faer’s personal alchemist. The musician only spat up superstitious slime. Mlaen is smarter than that.”
I looked downed, and scratched a bit at the rock floor. “Does it feel like there’s something deeper at work? Some… plot? The rod-twirler dragon didn’t want us going to the faer, and now the treasurer seems to wants us to.” My brilles flashed clear. “And the twirler didn’t seem to like the treasurer. What’s going on?”
Hinte looked at me the way she had when I’d ask about the crysts. She took forever to finally say something, and it was, “This country is not called the land of glass and secrets for nothing, Kinri.”
It was then that I heard footsteps padding up from one of the corridors — the dim one — and bringing a scent of ripening holly. A secretary flitted into the room, wearing a simple black and gold halfrobe covering her breast and falling over her forelegs.
Wings apart from her body, head held high, she didn’t look as small as I did. Instead, she stood eye-level with Hinte, but without the forest-dweller’s muscles. Her frills fanned as she stepped in, and they were half as long as Hinte’s. My own frills folded back at the sight, and I glanced at the floor.
She searched us as she entered, and clouded her yellow eyes when she saw me. Why? Was it one of those things that was just different on the surface? In the sky’s courts, clouding your eyes when you looked at someone meant, ‘You are unimportant, I don’t care about you! Flick, I don’t even need to see you clearly, ha ha.’
I clouded my own eyes in response, but I doubted it sent a very impressive message. The secretary smiled back, with her teeth. Her secretary would eat you if you looked at them the wrong way. I cleared my eyes and jerked my gaze back to the star mosaic.
Then I looked back at her.
The secretary’s scales caught the lobby’s lamplight, glinting a shimmering blue-green where her black and yellow robes didn’t cover them. Was she mixed sky and forest? I’d never seen anything like that. I opened my mouth to ask about it, but that was when her gaze left me.
The difference stung; the secretary smiled on seeing Hinte and waved her tail at her. “Oh, it’s Gronte’s granddaughter. Hello, Hinte! What brings you here this late?” she asked. Why did she sound so cheerful?
“Cynfe-sofran.” Hinte said, inclining her head. “We must see the faer at once.”
Cynfe. Oh, I’d heard of her. She’d come up in conversation sometimes, during nights at the inn. I would always wonder what she had done to earn so much ire. Was she that unpleasant, or something else? I glanced at her scales. Something else, maybe.
“Ooh? It must be important if you want to bother the faer with it! Why not tell it to me and I shall judge if it is important enough to bother her?”
Hinte pulled at her cloak enough to reveal the three dead apes tied to her back.
Cynfe’s smile disappeared in a heartbeat. “I see. I will alert the faer at once.”
The blue-green wiver slinked back up the ramp. In her wing-digits, she grasped a rolled up scroll of papyrus, and an inkwell. Her frills narrowed at Hinte, who’d inched closer to the corridor while the secretary was gone, but she said nothing, only dragging her claws along the carpet, beckoning us. Like that, she led us down the middle corridor.
It winded and finally opened to a room with a throne at the head and various mats along the fringes. The walls were decorated with more paintings, styled with the recurring golden yellow, bright against the gray granite.
The faer stood near the center of the room, waiting like a some shining white beacon. Nothing about her was white, yet you couldn’t shake the impression.
Her hornscales were colored like the rest of scales — a sort of ruddy red, almost, but not, brown; the look of recent-shaven hornscales. They lined top of her head and the bottom fringe of her face, spiky and giving her a wild look, but controlled, too: at just a glance, you could taste the care she took in maintaining her face. It still straddled the line of good taste — for someone of her position, at least.
The faer stood there in robes that only looked plain. They were colored patriotic red and yellows, yes, but those reds were deep, and the yellows were bright. You knew those dyes would cost far more than a few day’s meals.
All the symbols of Gwymr/Frina were inscribed along her robes, with fibers of woven glass. Those same stained glass fibers abound across her robes, marking the highlights and transitions and seams. Even in Gwymr/Frina, in the land of glass and secrets, it was a sight.
I bowed, alongside Hinte, splaying my wings and clouding my brilles. Hinte lowered her head to the carpet and raised her tail.
The faer didn’t wait to speak, though, her voice a tired growl. “My Cynfe-ann tells me this is a matter of utmost importance. We’ll skip the formalities.” Even as she spoke, her brilles were clouded, a look you might call bored, or sleepy.
The blue-green wiver twitched at the use of her name. Glancing at the faer, the secretary unrolled the scroll. Holding the page steady with both forefeet, she unlidded the inkwell with her wing-digits and dipped her other wing’s alula into it.
“Yes, my faer,” Hinte was saying. She rose from her bow, and I copied her. She didn’t hesitate to start telling our story. As she spoke, Cynfe was scratching lines onto the papyrus. “Kinri and I were sifting in the fields of the Berwem, when we tasted a suspicious scent: sweat and blood. We followed it out of the lake proper, to a hollow in the surrounding cliffs. There we came upon an injured, dying human.”
While the faer slowly flicked her tongue, Cynfe narrowed her brows, frills bristling as she stared at the page. She only lifted her head a fraction when she spoke, and asked, “Dying of what?”
“A rockwraith bite,” I said.
“I killed it,” Hinte continued, “and Kinri decided it must have fallen from an overhang above. There was no blood trail. I instructed her to watch the body, and I flew up to overhang. There I–I found two sleeping humans, and off to the side was another keeping guard. It was spooked by my arrival, and shouted, and woke up the other two.”
Cynfe dipped her wing-digit into the inkwell again, without taking her eyes from her page. I glanced back at Hinte. One forefoot was above another, scratching. Even when it stopped, it stayed there.
“I reacted as quickly as I could. I leapt at the guard, knocking it to the ground. I tore out its throat. By this point one of the others had reached me, and stabbed my wing. I clawed at it, knocking it away from me, so that I could focus on the last one. But it had stepped up behind me, and slashed its blade at the tendon of my hindleg. It backed away, and I turned and lunged at it and bit its shoulder. I knocked it down and returned the other one I knocked away.
“Taking that human alive would help your investigation, so I choked it until it stopped moving.” The faer shifted, toes curling. Cynfe looked up from her page again, eyeing the lumps under our cloaks.
“One of the humans is alive, then? Does it need restraint or medical attention?”
“…No,” Hinte said, “as we were returning to town, that human awoke, escaping with another human who had feigned its death. We tracked them down, and I killed them.”
Cynfe asked, “Where did your… companion get her injuries, if she did nothing?”
I shifted, my wings hugging my body and my tail around my hindleg. “We,” I started, “were uh, ambushed by rockwraiths as we were coming back — in the Berwem, it was very hard to see.”
“Rockwraiths, plural? How many were there?”
“You killed them?”
“Kinri chased them off.”
I looked at her, head tilted. Her lips twitched. My tail squeezed my leg, and my frills preened. She prodded me with a wing, and I turned back to the faer and her secretary.
“Did anything else happen?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” Hinte said, “while I was gone Kinri spotted a shadow moving in the distant smoke. She chose not to pursue it,” she paused for a moment, “deciding that investigating was not worth leaving the one human unguarded.” After a beat, she added “That is all, my faer.”
“I see,” the faer said. “Have your injuries been treated?”
“And where are these humans now?”
“I have them with me, faer.” Hinte once again pulled at her cloak. After she prodded me, I followed her example.
I blurted, “Do you believe us?”
The faer, maybe for the first time, really looked at me. Their frown became less of a smile as her face shifted in recognition, and she said, “It is beyond question that something is within all this. The details remain to be determined.”
The red wiver looked away from me like a weight lifting, and addressing no one in particular — implicitly, everyone — she said, “I suppose this merits some discussion.” She then turned to Cynfe, and to her she asked, “Is there anything pressing? No? Then who can we spare?”
Cynfe had met the faer’s gaze, eyes above above her page. “Treasurer Bariaeth is still here,” — the faer’s frills contracted tight — “as are Rhyfel and two of the prefects, who may or may not be still awake. The ridges’ advisers have left, as have two of the Dyfnderi advisers.” She brought an alula to her chin. “Only the military adviser, Adwyn, is still here.”
The faer waved her tongue slowly. “No great loss, then. Bring me the only two who’ll have something worth adding.”
“Rhyfel and Adwyn?”
‘Adwyn,’ I half-murmured to myself. Did it have to be Adwyn? The Dyfnderi’s eyescales never clouded when he looked at me, and I had been indebted to him since the moment I walked through the stone gates of Gwymr/Frina. That debt hung, a dark cloud on the horizon.
We waited in that expectant silence awhile. I dared to watch the faer, silently. Just like the last time, her brilles never cleared, always remaining cloudy, like she was forever in danger of falling asleep on her feet.
The blue-green secretary came back down the ramp with a cliff-dweller and a canyon-dweller trailing behind her, flicking their tongues, bemused.
I looked on the left first, because I knew who was on the right. Beside Cynfe came a scarlet dragon swaggering forth with a savage grin, fangs bared. They took in the room with startlingly black eyes.
Golden-accented black armor clad the dragon — schizon by smell — enwoven with dark bamboo plates; armor which covered the front of the legs without hiding their muscular thickness. A sword strapped to the side, in a sheath, and above it was a holster not unlike it; I caught the high guard placing a thick scroll there, just as the dragon stepped in the room.
I could name all the emblems inscribed goldenly over the armor’s plates, glyphs for “battle,” “loyalty,” “Cyfrin,” among others. Seeming to eclipse the others, there was a glyph centered just below their neck, reading “Dwylla.” Centered though it was, it was fading.
There was that smell, that odor, of stabbing schizon, but it came subdued, faint and washed-out in a way that Hinte’s schizon stuff never smelled. As if this armor wanted to hide or disguise its material, and Hinte’s stuff wanted to brandish it. My tongue waved further, and I caught a strange, cloying scent on the high guard that I didn’t know how to place.
Studying the face like that, hard and commanding as it was, a mind occulted within those black eyes, and even the drake’s stance betraying loose power, I finally placed this Rhyfel as the head of the Frinan guard. He looked old; and there had been no likeness between the black and gold armor he wore and the red and yellow sashes of the guards I passed on the streets of town.
His father, Rhyfel the elder, had been the hero — then traitor — of Gwymr/Frina. I wonder how it felt to live in that shadow, to be expected both to live up to and escape from the legacy of highness Rhyfel? I supposed I was in a similar situation, dragging around my family name, Specter — but the difference was I did not care, something I doubted held for Rhyfel here. It must weigh.
He caught me looking, and grinned. It was a grin that reached his still-startlingly black eyes, and you wouldn’t have guessed that. “Heh. Kinri, is it? A crizzle to finally meet you.”
“Um. How do you know of me?”
“Adwyn talks of you every once or twice. And it’d be a trick to not at least know of the spooky new sky-dweller in town. With nobility no less — and don’t look like that, you don’t have a reputation. Not yet, I’d say.”
I shook my head, and broke eye with the black-eyed dragon, glancing to his right, at the orange drake I recognized at first glance, who was already looking at me, and smirking.
Adwyn wore a dark-blue dress curling under his midsection and contrasting the orange of his scales. The dress swirled with various glyphs, and the loose sleeves didn’t reach his lower legs. Most of the glyphs were foreign or unintelligible. I recognized only one, the stylized emblem of Dyfnder/Geunant: that same rainbow-rayed purple eye beneath a moon eclipsing a sun.
I met his gaze, and tried to hold it. Short lines were flowing out around his metallic-red eyes like rays, painted in some purple pigment dark enough to pass as black. His right foreleg was at his chin, rubbing, and his frills were flared.
Adwyn looked serious — yet he smiled back at me. “A fragrance to meet again, Kinri-ychy.” He looked to the corpses on our back, and his look changed as appropriate. He said, “Some shame it was to be within these circumstances.”
Rhyfel, though, never broke his grin.
With those dragons here, the faer waved her wings toward a corridor left of the throne. Cynfe and the drakes followed first, then the two of us. Together, we all walked down the corridor toward the meeting room.
Along the roads into Gwymr/Frina, we had reached the faer and the town hall. This had been our ultimate destination, the climax of our journey. We made it.
* * *