Would this day ever end? This entire adventure had passed in one day, in one evening. Yet, in my mind, in my aching legs, and in my relationship with Hinte, a whole cycle might have passed. More had happened today than in any other cycle of my life.
Routine dominated my days. Wake up before the second dawn ring, Kinri. Check by the coutiers, maybe your brother finally sent a letter. Go to moil at the Llygaid Crwydro every day, except (stars, don’t forget!) not on the purportedly-sacred crestdays and troughdays. Hope Cthwithach-sofran has time to teach you anything, else you’ll have nothing else to show the day wasn’t waste. Let Uvidet-gyfar drag you out to play cards at the Moyo-Makao every other day. Check by the courtiers again, you never know. If you grow bored of things — when you grow bored of things — you can beg the guards at the south gate to let you out, and fly some laps in the pretty red ravines south of town. Then sneak out at night and look at the endless stars.
All of the excitement and terror of this break from routine had exhausted me… but it was worth it, to spend some time with Hinte that wasn’t just phatic fumbling.
With that thought that my thoughts lighted back in the present, only to turn to a springing worry that maybe this all may just as well have ruined my chance to be friends with Hinte. Worries like company, and it wasn’t two breaths before my dewing turned to considering all big, important dragons around me and what they were thinking. Why was Adwyn glancing back at me? Why was Rhyfel walking so close to the orange drake? What were Cynfe and the faer murmuring about? Why did it sound like nothing related to the humans? Did Hinte feel as alone as she looked right now?
With my heartbeat quickening and my feet stumbling forward as we followed the faer toward the meeting room I found myself planning my next conversation with Hinte, searching long the face of the orange-eyed wiver, wracking my brain for something simple that might thrust us into a nice tension-wringing exchange — but nothing came, even when I opened my mouth hoping anything would come out nothing came, and I closed my mouth and licked my fangs — did anyone else smell my worry? — but maybe this wasn’t so serious, maybe this wasn’t worth all this worry? — and maybe you should slow down, calm down, and breathe, Kinri, and–and with that you find yourself finally slowing, stopping to breathe, and breathing deep. I continued on, relaxing my shoulders, and curling my neck. I was fine. This wasn’t anything to worry about.
I didn’t really know anyone here besides Hinte — and I couldn’t really have a normal conversation with the military adviser or the faer, anyway. Maybe secretary or the high guard? But the blue-green wiver padded in front of us, murmuring beside the faer, and even the scarlet-scaled high guard’s mere presence felt intimidating.
The atmosphere here sat so serious on my wings. My mindeye aimed searching, longing glances to the silly side of things. But the gyras spent in the courts and parties of sky, of my family dragging me to act just like them, obscured my sight, and all I felt were old instincts returning.
Keep your tail down, hang it by your hindlegs. Do not raise it, do not coil it. You are not some dewy-fanged slut or farm-wiver.
Clear your eyes when someone looks at you, keep your frills listening.
Keep your frills by your neck. No one wants to see them.
Flick your tongue if you must, but do not wave it. Nothing smells that good.
If some sot’s scent is so strong you can smell it, wave your tongue. They clearly think they smell that good.
Keep your fangs in your mouth, and keep your venom on your tongue. If I can smell your dew, something is wrong.
And hide your fangs, you are not some dewy-fanged slut or farm-wiver.
We’d reached a single black bamboo door, and when the faer inclined her head, Cynfe darted in front. The doors revealed a meeting room dim and empty. Light from the hall rushed forth, and met with the night sifting in from a wide window perched high at the opposite end of the room, a dance of moonlight, lamplight, and coy shadows cast by interminate, ambiguous movements of unseen figures.
Cynfe slinked in, quickly lighting the lamps that circled at the farthest fringes of the room. Now lit, those lamps reversed the flow of light pouring in through the window; and, revealed a simple room centered with a drab gray slab higher than my knee and orbited by soft mats, and further away, smaller and darker slabs. The triangle-like center slab was glaring with piercing yellow specks and brimming with long, angular streaks of red. Around the slab sat the nine long mats, concave and fit for lying in with some comfort — but not too much comfort: this was a meeting room.
Various maps scattered around the walls and surfaces in a mess, and vague books lined a single bookshelf. But the center of the slab’s surface lay blank. The faer walked to the farthest corner of the three, and stood there.
I watched the faer gesture Hinte toward one of the other slabs off the to the side. The black-cloaked wiver stepped over and dumped the bodies overtop the maps and I copied her. As we stepped away I saw Adwyn glancing over at the bodies, the orange drake’s features curling into a disgusted sneer. I found myself thinking of the ornery musician on the catwalks.
The faer had lain on the mat at the head of the slab, Cynfe beside the faer, and Rhyfel beside Adwyn, those two lying at a different corner of the slab, the orange drake brushing a wing against the other.
We could have lay beside the blue-green wiver — she seemed interesting, and I was doing a bad job of hiding my repeated glances at her scales or her black and gold robes. A secretary — maybe she could tell me what I had to do to become one.
I was stepping toward her when Hinte lay the last corner of the table, away from everyone else, and I didn’t have much a of choice then.
With that, the faer spoke, brilles cloudy, pulling a stack of paperwork from — somewhere. She said, “As we are all present and seated, Cynfe will you review the incident?”
The secretary recited Hinte’s account of this evening in rapid bursts of y Draig I had trouble following. The cliff tongue had always been my weakest, after Pteron, and the one I had used least until — a few dances ago.
I didn’t see need to listen, anyway. And I didn’t need to think about how I fit into all of this. It was easier to try to slip into the facade of old Kinri, be a passive observer, try to learn what all the dynamics here were.
Adwyn lounged on his mat. His frills twitched in listening, but it was effortless listening. Beside him, Rhyfel had a frown and frills spread wide, nodding at every word from the secretary.
The faer had said these two were the only two with anything worth saying on the matter. Adwyn, I could more than see; in all my experience with him, he’d never given an impression besides coiled, waiting intelligence. Rhyfel seem to have more to him than impressions, though.
The red wiver lay idly watching over the table. In front of her, she had a stack of pages dense with text and held in her wings a glass pen. You couldn’t know what sat on those pages, but it was what had occupied her while the secretary recited.
Now though, as her secretary’s speech seemed to be cadencing, she watched over the table with a certain intensity, even as her brilles remained deeply clouded, and even as she rubbed her eyes in apparent tiredness.
Maybe it was the power you knew lurked in those eyes, maybe it was the harsh but balanced angles of her face. Whatever it was, her gaze hardly left Adwyn and Rhyfel, and I was glad for that.
For their part, Adwyn frowned and Rhyfel nodded along.
“…and that is all.” The secretary wiver set a wetly inked page on the table and produced up another, this one blank.
When she finished, the mysterious high guard whistled loudly and turned his savage grin to Hinte. “Nice acts, Gronte-wyre. Mighty impressive,” he said. Beside him, Adwyn gave a thoughtful hum, and the faer was glancing between them. Rhyfel continued, “They must make ’em fierce in those forests! I know your boy, Ushra, from way back. The resembalance is something.”
The faer coughed then, and gave the high guard a pointed look. The high guard tilted his head, and she spoke low and casual, saying, “Your father knew Ushra. Your tongue slipped.”
“Yeah, yeah, Ushra and the ol’ Rhyfel — she knows the story, I reason. Suffer it to say I heard all the old drake’s stories of that drafty old alchemist.” His voice came loud in the room.
The blue-green wiver was glowering at him, frills wrinkling. She jotted down Rhyfel’s commentary with sharp jerks. As you glanced around, most were looking at Rhyfel, but Adwyn glanced at Cynfe.
The military adviser said, “The coordination and reaction of these humans gleans interesting.” He steepled his feet, and said to Hinte, “You stood your ground well, Gronte-wyre.” Hinte’s frills were twitching at the title. He continued, “What is it you do? You must work with Ushra in his clinic, correct?”
Rhyfel laughed. “If it’s still a clinic when you got to wait ’til the stars align with both moons on the crestday ’fore he deigns to overcharge you for an examination.”
Adwyn licked his eyes. “I can see the reasoning.” He waved an alula as he continued. “Ushra wants to keep his return to the cliffs a rumor. Seeing to anyone at all is going to reveal that in the long run. It is admirable that he does anyway.”
“Yeah yeah, he’s a good fellow — or was, maybe — but it doesn’t change that he charges out the sky. It’s not like he’s starving for pyrite, at all.”
“Then seeing anyone at all would be a charity, would it not? Irregardless,” — he looked back to the dark-green wiver — “you might have your claws full helping your grandfather, but I say you look like you would make a fine guard. Consider lighting by to see me and this lug here if you ever get tired of waiting around or cooking.” He gave a smile to Rhyfel.
Hinte looked to the ground at the offer, twiddling her claws.
I looked over to the faer, who’d returned to reading the paperwork in front of her. Beside her, the blue-green wiver had a glare to match Hinte’s.
Cynfe said, “Let’s not forget our topic.” You’d startle to know she only sounded as exasperated as she did. “Rhyfel, do you recognize these apes?”
The scarlet drake turned around to the corpses, flicking out his tongue and crooking his frills. Then at once, he folded frills back in some triumph. He was sliding to a stand, and saying “Ah yea, I know ’em. A breed from those wet plains off the rocky coasts. Called themselves the Ulfame, I recall.”
Adwyn stepped over to the scarlet drake, and together they picked through the human’s bags, the orange drake wearing an expression like having to wade through the filthy streets barefoot. They pried open cloth bags, and patted down their armor. My frills twitched. Would the humans have objected to treating their belongings like this?
Rhyfel lifted a leg of the human — the same leg which Hinte’s knife had… desiccated.
The high guard did laugh, but there was an complex undercurrent to it. “Like grandfather like father like daughter,” he said, and looked at Hinte. I didn’t catch the look, only the wiver stiffening beside me.
He only said, “Be careful, Hinte.”
It was a while, Cynfe marking over her transcriptions, the faer alternately reading her papers or peering blearily at the dragons lying. The sounds were the two drakes picking through bags, and whispering to each other. I flicked my tongue, and smelled the intermingling of the holly, the cloying smell, the eyepaint, the grapes and my chamomile. I didn’t wave my tongue, but I flicked it out just a little more. Try as I did, there wasn’t much more than that — maybe a lingering lunch, maybe some tasteful colonge. I did a little frown. Mlaen didn’t smell like much.
It felt like a long time. Maybe it was a matter of course, sitting here and twiddling my halluxes like I did, but it was a moment extended like there’d been a shortage of them.
At last, the orange drake came across some pouch, and tore into it, revealing a small folded piece of parchment. Unfolding it, looking over it, he said, “Ah, this must their script. So tiny! Rhyfel, you’ve studied languages — do you recognize any of this?”
The high guard took the parchment and scanned it. “Oh, the bloody Ulfame,” he said. After a moment, he added, “I recognize this script, of course — those apes love to borrow from each other. But I can’t ever keep hold of the difference between it, Kuazo and Jua-Mwanga,” he said, his tongue pronouncing with ease obscure syllables I’d never heard.
“Not too many to hold amind, at the very least. I’ll see what I can manage — but you’ll want to run this by ol’ Chwithach-gyfar over in that library of his, what’d he call it? …Yeah, the Sgrôli ac Neidr. That old snake knows more about these humans than I ever will. But I reckon I can taste the gist.”
Rhyfel scanned the page, for once his grin faltering, waning to an abstracted scowl. He stared the page, claw tracing and retracing the lines of the parchments’ script. He clouded his black eyes, and deliberated for a moment, then two, then ten. They cleared. When he spoke, the contemplation had tarnished all his earlier mirth.
“This is an odd dialect… But I can easily make out some talk of payment and travel — past the language barrier, the diction is all impressively straightforward for humans. Not having a lick of trouble translating it.”
Adwyn, beside him, rolled his head and lightly hit him with a wing.
“Anyway, what I’m tasting is these apes were hired to explore the cliffs, or something in that way. The armor and weapons they had could be foul intentions, but I reason it’s just for protection.
“I call this a peaceful expedition — they obviously know nothing about Gwymr/Frina or our cliffs. Riddle it, what sort of squalled fool dresses up for traveling by the Berwem? In chain and leather?”
Adwyn gave a hissing laugh, but Cynfe still stabbed at the high guard with her humorless look.
The faer was looking up, first at Rhyfel, then around the slab. “So, attacking these creatures was a mistake?” she asked.
Yes. I almost said it aloud.
“You could say that, yeah. I’d say it serves them right, ’croaching on our cliffs, attacking our dragons.”
The faer lifted her head, looking at the high guard. “I taste they will not take the killing of their explorers well, however.”
Rhyfel inclined his head and turned back to the bodies. Adwyn was on his mat already.
“My faer,” Hinte spoke, covering her right foot with her left, “I had little choice in the matter. The first ape we encountered was nearly dead from the heat and its fall. When I encountered its companions, they initiated hostilities.”
Hadn’t she said she leapt at the humans as soon as they shouted?
“They must have mistaken you for some manner of beast, I bet,” Cynfe said, looking up from her scroll. Yet her wing still scratched lines in the paper! “I know I would have!” she said with a clicking laugh.
Hinte hissed sharply, glaring at Cynfe.
Cynfe only laughed harder. “Oh, lighten up, little hatchling. You jump out the smoke dripping blood and gore from your claws and wearing those creepy goggles. I wouldn’t have greeted you with hugs or smiles either.”
Hinte relaxed a bit at this but snapped her tongue.
Maybe as a final slight, Cynfe added, “Oh, or maybe I would! I’m sure Gronte’s little hatchling jaunting around like some forest warrior is a cute sight~”
“Enough,” the faer said.
“Deepest apologies, my faer~” she said liltingly.
The faer sighed and instead turned to Hinte, saying, “I do not doubt that you made reasonable choices, Gronte-wyre, but they were choices, and no amount of reason will help us if this sparks conflict with these… Ulfame.” She pronounce the name slowly. Despite this, it didn’t sound quite like what Rhyfel said.
Rhyfel spoke up, voice sharp. “The old wiver’s got a point. The humans won’t like their comrades disappearing at all, at all. They’d send a legion, then an army, if they ever found out.” The humans had armies? He nudged Adwyn, and glanced the faer and Cynfe. “You all know what happened to Banti/Gorphon. It ain’t there anymore.”
I felt my brilles going pale.
“Well, do we have the numbers to handle conflict?” Cynfe was asking, voice leveling.
“At the moment,” Rhyfel started, “our ranks are pitiable. We can start a draft — it will take a trice to get them ready, but it can be done. But we’re little players here — I wouldn’t try to fight a human army the size of the Ulfame in the first place.”
I looked up at the ceiling, a simple gray brick pattern. My brilles clouded, and my frills folded against the drone of the meeting. I didn’t want to imagine humans slaughtering a dragon town, and I didn’t want to imagine dragons killing more humans. It just happened that way.
“Shall we reach out to the other strongholds?”
“Perhaps,” Adwyn said, licking an eye. “Though the forest-dwellers will want nothing to do with us, given Gronte’s betrayal. No, I would not be surprised if they went as far as to try and help the humans against us, should they find out.”
“Then what of the ridge-dwellers? Or the sea-dwellers?” Cynfe was still transcribing the talk, but she lapsed when talking.
“Indeed, we could reach out the either of them. Though I would not advise advertising this… precarious position.”
“It’s hardly precarious. The apes will take a while to react. They far from all-knowing. Or knowing, period.” Cynfe clicked her tongue. “Flightless mammals. It’d take them cycles to move anywhere, and that’s after they get it between their frills that a party’s even gone missing.”
“A slow death is hardly preferable.”
Cynfe rolled her head, and her tone lost its light edge. “We have good ties with the ridges, I would suggest we get our… assistance from them.”
“I’d hesitate to give more to the gray scales. It’s — sour, as it is.”
“What about Dyfnder/Geunant?” Adwyn’s brilles cleared as he watched the faer.
She gave Adwyn a look. I didn’t catch it, for it lasted just a second. But Adwyn looked away, puffing some air out of his nose. He looked to the opposite end of the room from where the faer sat.
His gaze drifted, and for a second it met mine. There was hint of piercing analysis in the furrow of his brow and the bloodless clarity of his brilles. Cynfe had given me similar looks, but where the secretary would look my way accident, Adwyn nursed a certain motivation that gave me pause. I didn’t like this look.
The red wiver placed their foreknees on the slab, steepling their feet as they looked around. The room was silent, reeling from the severed thread of conversation.
I looked around. Hinte looked up from her claws, staring at Rhyfel, indirect and furtive. Cynfe had stopped scratching on her page, glancing around, waiting for someone to speak again. Rhyfel shifted, as if he were about to say something, but it was Adwyn who broke the silence.
“Well, then do you think Pteron would condescend to help us, should we reach out?” He was smirking.
“Not without a pound of scales. Leave the damn Pteroni to their desert.”
“Um,” I started. My frills flattened. My minders would have snatched my tongue if I wasted breath on injections like that.
The room focused on me. My tail hung by my legs, but it twitched. I continued, “I — I think you may be missing an option.” I spoke as steadily as I could. “My faer,” I added, late.
“What is it?” Cynfe asked. Her eyes almost had a resting glare, intense and critical.
“Well, maybe going into this with pride and dominance is the wrong approach. I mean, Rhyfel said we are a bit-players. Can we appease the apes instead of trying to resist them?”
The faer hummed. “That is a valuable perspective, Specter-eti,” they said, meeting my eyes. Like always, they were clouded to the point I couldn’t even tell what color they were. I wanted to say white. “And it would be worth considering, in any other situation. I dislike violence” — Rhyfel snickered — “but there are few diplomatic options available to us while we bear four dead apes on our backs. These Ulfame will want Hinte’s head for this, and one dragon’s life is not worth even twenty dead apes.”
“Dearest apologies, my faer,” I said with pure sincerity, but Cynfe humphed and soon hissing laughter filled the room. Only Hinte and I didn’t, and even she smiled. “Sorry.” I mumbled.
“She raises a another point, however,” Adwyn said, glancing. “We are missing angle, here. Our cliffs are dangerous — would these silly apes not just see that these explorers perished from their own foolishness?” He turned his gaze from me, regarding the nails of his forefoot held.
“But they will send a search party — search for sign of these apes. What will they think when they find none?” Cynfe said, looking at Adwyn. As an afterthought, she scratched several, several lines of symbols onto the page as the orange drake considered.
“So we plant the bodies somewhere in the cliffs. If their search is any good — worth starting a war over — they will find them.”
“And the ripped throats? And the… leg Rhyfel pointed out?”
“Feed them to the wraiths or the cats. It is not an implausible demise for a human that near the Berwem.”
“It is a coward’s solution,” said Cynfe. “We are not weak, and if we cannot deal with these apes —” She stopped. “My point is that we cannot hide from the apes forever. We should deal with the matter with confidence, rather than resting on our bellies and breathing for ignorance to save us.”
“We can monitor the cliffs, then. If my plan works, it will save us quite the worrying — at worst, do you think it won’t delay the humans?” Adwyn hitched his wings. He regarded the secretary with what was more a smile than a smirk, and you heard a certain allowance in his tone, but only when talking to her. The secretary merely tossed her head.
“And another thing,” Rhyfel said, only now returning to his seat from examining the bodies. “We need to clean up the camp site where these apes were sleeping.”
“Why?” Hinte asked.
“Your kills sure don’t sound — or look — clean, and the apes couldn’t have been living off what they could carry on their backs — any search party is going to find that campsite and reason out the rest.”
There were a few beats of silence after this, before the faer spoke, looking up from her paperwork. “Is there anything else?” She looked around the slab. We all shook our heads in turn.
“Alright,” the red wiver said, then, addressing the room with a final cadence. “I do not think these approaches are exclusive.” They stood up. “Cynfe, please prepare missives for the mountain-dwellers. Mention them that we may face difficulties, and may require help, but be terse with the details. Dismissed.
“Rhyfel, enlarge our armed guard and begin patrolling the cliffs. That these creatures trespassed in our territory and were discovered by accident is unacceptable. This could have happened before, and may happen again. Dismissed.
“Adwyn. Prepare the inquirers to join you on a mission to the coasts. We shall try negotiation with these Ulfame, if the need arises. I shall discuss the details with you in private. Dismissed.”
There was a chorus of, “Yes, my faer,” as the three named stood and departed, and went their separate ways. Cynfe left first, quickly. Rhyfel glanced at Hinte as he left, and Adwyn glanced at me. As they left, the faer faced my companion.
“Begone, Gronte-wyre. You have done enough.”
Hinte lowered her head, standing and turning to the doors. I started after her, but the faer called to me, saying, “Remain, Specter-eti.”
I couldn’t but do as I was told. I waved at Hinte, and she didn’t return it, limping away. That stung. After all we’d gone through, and she didn’t even wave?
The faer had walked from around the slab, and stood a few strides from me. Without the host of dragons falling in line around her, the faer’s presence was merely intimidating, and not dominating.
Examining me, the faer spoke, a tone of suspicion in her voice. “Hinte’s story,” she started, “is it the whole truth?”
My frills worked as I thought. A few beats passed before I cleared my eyes, venturing, “I think so, my faer.”
“You may call me Mlaen-sofran if you wish.”
“Okay, my Mlaen-sofran,” I said, before looking down.
She clicked her tongue, and waved a wing. “And you were saying?”
“I was guarding the first corpse while Hinte tracked down the others. But it is not like her to lie. I believe her — completely.”
“Yes, Gronte reared a fine granddaughter. But even the most honest of dragons sometimes shape the truth in their image. Between my Cynfe’s teasing and Rhyfel’s flattery, I feel she had something to prove, and suspect perhaps this influenced her retelling of events.” She paused, rubbing an eye. “But you do not know, so let us be rid of the topic.”
Mlaen-sofran walked near the corpses, and gave them a peering look. “I still have a few questions for you, though,” she said, and I nodded. “Mind shutting the door over there? Thank you.”
When we were alone, closed up in that room, the faer asked me, “Did the human speak a dragon tongue?”
“I — what?”
“Y Draig, perhaps. Did it speak?”
“Uh, it did. It was all garbled and solecistic, though.”
The red wiver nodded. “I see. Did the humans have anything particularly… interesting on or near their bodies? A warm, heavy rock, perhaps?”
“Not that I — oh! I don’t know if this counts, but they had this alchemy orb… thingy that smashes open and blinds you for a bit. It’s very harshly bright.”
“I see, I see.” The faer snaked her head a little closer. “My final question: were there any other dragons in the lake?”
My legs tightened with a jump. “Well, um…”
“Thank you. What are their names?”
“They–they were just sifters, out late in the lake. They weren’t up to anything.”
“You’ll understand that I don’t trust that. What are their names, Specter-eti?”
I had to look up to meet her eyes. “I’d rather you didn’t call me that. I’m Kinri now, my family doesn’t want anything with me.”
“You’re rather obvious for a Specter, you know.” She gave a sharp breath that might have come with a smile, were this a smiling sort of thing. She asked, “Again, what are their names?”
“I don’t want them to get in trouble!”
“You aren’t helping their case, thinking they’ll get in trouble. My inquirers can question them within the night. If they’re as innocent as you’re convinced, what is there to worry over?”
“…Mawla and Wrang. Their names are Mawla and Wrang.”
“Mawla?” The red wiver frowned. “That is a familiar name, and there are precious few good reasons for my being familiar with a name,” she said. “Be wary, little dragon, if those’re the sort of friends you’re making.”
I looked down.
Mlaen-sofran was sighing. “And did I hear that last name aright? Wrang?” A nod. “Wrang of Llosgi Hoddi? What is a Llosgi drake doing sifting…” The faer shook her head. “That renders things — difficult.”
I turned away from the faer, toward the window.
“Wrang and Mawla. Thank you, Kinri. Trust in the law, and not whatever impressions they’ve given you.” I didn’t see whatever expression she had.
I saw the faer slinking toward the door, and waving me after her. “Walk with me,” she said; and we left the meeting room like that, room light still lit.
Walking back down that corridor wasn’t any easier or less nerve-wracking. There were hints of distant activity, though — a tinge of new scent, the dull thudding of vague movement — that only made the feeling of not belonging loom higher.
As we walked, Mlaen-sofran’s next words were measured and weighed, holding a faint whiff of accusation. “I know why Specter sent you here, Kinri, exile or no.”
That would make one of us, then — if you believed her. I smiled to even entertain such a familiar tactic.
She was continuing, “And I hope you don’t think what you’re doing somehow escapes their plans.”
I padded along after her. Mlaen-sofran didn’t lead; but she didn’t walk beside me, either. I asked her, “Why?”
She had looked away. She was looking up somewhere, gaze distant. “Gwymr/Frina was always supposed to be a place to escape the past. It would be a shame if you only remained shackled to your history.”
I asked her, “What does Specter want — in your estimation?”
“What does any foreigner want? It’s in the name — the land of glass and secrets. There’s so little else here.”
I rolled my head and said nothing. We’d rounded the corner back into Mlaen’s throne room. The red wiver murmured to me, “I suspect you’re working up the courage to ask me for some position in my administration, one of these days.”
She’d stop walking, and I turned to face her, standing high. “Well, yeah. I’d like a job better than sitting at a counter in a shop. And I used to be a scribe and secretary for my — mother.”
“And it gives you perfect avenue for influencing the faer, as per your family’s agenda.”
“I don’t work for my family, I came here because my brother asked me to.” He still had hope for me, and I still had hope for him. It was something I didn’t even share with my sister…
“I’m not going to tell you no. Just know that I won’t consider it until this business with the humans is over.”
I nodded, and glanced over at the corridor leading out of the throne room.
The red wiver caught my glance, and asked, “Do you sleep soon?” I nodded, and she added, “Alright. Regarding this human business, Adwyn-sofran will meet with you and Gronte-wyre sometime tomorrow, to arrange a plan with the corpses.”
Then with a bit more light in her voice, she added, “I hope you don’t mind another day in the lake. Until then, take care to not to start any more wars.”
I waved a wing at her and didn’t wait to slinked from the throne room, off the pumice-doored lobby.
Behind me, I heard, “May Balance keep you, little dragon.”
Toward the lobby, I waved my tongue, and sifted through the flowers and precious metals wafting around for that holly smell I’d tasted when we entered.
My head turned around until my tongue lighted on the gradient. I slinked up that corridor the secretary had first appeared from. As I walked that gradient, I found an office.
The walls of the office held paintings, of towering cliffs in a stark lighting; of Mlaen-sofran, smiling, not wearing her faer robes; and of Cynfe herself, form messy and unfamiliar, standing over a dead, hunted boar. Below them sat a desk, piled with colored scrolls, inkwells, and stacks upon stacks of fancy dillerskin parchment. Between the desk and the shelves by the window, the same three colors repeated again and again. Were the scrolls color-coded?
Cynfe lay at that desk, holding a flat-tipped pen, sliding that pen over the page at a slug’s pace. Her pen lifted. Blood flushed to Cynfe’s brilles, clouding them. Her mouth parted, drawing two breaths. Her mouth closed, her eyes cleared again, and her pen descended.
There came a jerk and deep growl. Salt scented the air. When she looked up with her wings spreading, frills flared and her fangs prominent, we had disappeared from the town hall. We stood on some plain, and Cynfe had become a massive, lethal raptor, where I was a tiny skink entrapped in her gaze.
“What,” her voice sang, high, mellifluous, saccharine, “do you want?” Her claws didn’t slide closer. Her fangs didn’t glint. I didn’t tremble. Even a little bit.
“I — um, I just — I’ll — I’m sorry.”
“Well~?” her voice shifted pitches, mid to high, and it didn’t sound artificial or do anything but magnify the mood of the room.
“I sorta, well, I kinda wanted to chat?” My voice stuttered and whined, and I didn’t feel in control of that anymore. I reached for the commanding clarity of my Specter voice. But I stopped. The guards had bowed to me, and my gut had squirmed as I watched.
I swallowed another breath. But no, that wasn’t what stopped me. Cynfe would just laugh off any intimidation attempt of mine. I was nothing underneath her.
I licked tart venom from my fangs.
“It–it just struck me, I guess. Your scales I mean. Are you, err, from sky? The forest? Something else?”
Her frills winkled back and her eyes clouded. “Do you think I could possibly be from sky? With scales like these?” Her brilles clouded. “You must have molty eyes or glass between your frills.”
“But… It’s just, well, you aren’t a cliff-dweller? Like me. I thought we might have that in common.”
“I have nothing in common with you. I hatched in these cliffs. I fledged in these cliffs. I am a cliff-dweller.” She looked back to her page. “Something you’ll never be.”
“Go stick a blowpipe in your vent and crawl back onto whatever dung heap you awoke on. I have work to do.” She folded up the page on her desk and fed it to a wastebin.
I coiled my tail around my leg, lowering my head as I scrambled away from the doorway to Cynfe’s office. And like that, I was alone, again. My wings hugged tight to my body.
As I slinked away from Cynfe’s office, a cringing figure in prim black and gold ducked into a room just down the hall. I kept walking but glanced back — the other secretary was peeking back out, and they jerked their head back out of sight just as they caught me looking.
I rolled my head at their antics and walked to the pumice-doored lobby. Nothing but to go home now, I guess.
I would have called them a plain-dweller if they’d looked anything like one.
He had creamy-white scales, immaculately overdesigned robes (I could count more than twenty colors if I tried, all of them arranged in a chaos of patterns and shapes), with a fatness that reminded me of the proudest sky-dwellers, who could afford to be flown around instead of fly (even if he wasn’t all the way there), and his pink eyes crowned above a broad muzzle with lips smiling beatific.
These all conspired to limn him as some rich and foreign dragon. He had a youth to his features telling that wealth was inherited instead of earned, and though he looked rich and foreign, he wasn’t a mountain-dweller (there wasn’t a touch of gray on him), and he wasn’t an ash-dweller (his eyes weren’t black). And he definitely wasn’t a cloud-dweller.
If you ignored all the evidence against it and only looked at his broad muzzle, wide frame, and bulbous tail, you’d find it easy to call him a plain-dweller.
If you didn’t… then well, he was an enigma.
His heavy hurricane of a voice was speaking, saying, “The Specter, aren’t you? Of course, you are. I saw you and your pet alchemist stumble like a ring ago.” He gave an exaggerated tapping of his alula on his chin. “I’d pondered just what you might want, this close to the faer.”
I stopped gawking and tilted my head. “Something happened, it —”
“I know something had happened. But I do not believe in coincidences. If you’re here, it is because you desired to be here. You will tell me why.”
I worked my jaw. What could I say to satisfy this dragon? “Well, I was talking to Mlaen about a position in this administration, that’s all.”
“And interrupting Cynfe-gyfar’s delicate archival work.” The drake grinned at me, as if catching me in lie.
“Err, I —”
“So, you want to be a secretary, I take?” he said, flicking his tongue.
“Well, yes. I don’t have much skill for any —”
“Or, you have an ulterior.”
I bared my fangs at the drake. Stop interrupting me! But I licked my fangs and swallowed the thought.
The drake laughed. “Think about it. You flick once at Cynfe-gyfar and there’s all the motivation you’d ever need,” he said, throwing up a wing. “I have to call her Gyfari, for dewing out loud! Me!” He was tossing his head. “I heard some idiot looked at her the wrong way and lost an eye for it. On the cloudy faer’s own bloody orders!”
My brilles paled, and my tongue found its way to my eyes, as if I might lose them in a moment. I didn’t choke down my squeak.
“It isn’t hard to imagine some one scenting out that, and deciding they wouldn’t mind acquiring such treatment as well.” The creamy-white drake’s gaze snapped back to me, accusative brown eyes peering and coming to rest somewhere deep inside of me.
He clicked his tongue, and leaned in closer. “But that isn’t it, is it? You want the influence, having the faer listen to you.”
“It’s not —”
“You were in that meeting room. You saw how she acted. A secretary, a scribe — whom dragons listen to? Who can mock the faer and get a smile rather than a noose?”
He let the question hang.
I would have, too, but my brilles cleared and I asked, “I was in the meeting room. But you —”
“Know her history,” he said quick. “She is predictable.” Looking dead at me, “It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
He let the question hang again, and I let it hang too this time. Then, like dropping a fluttering page, he added, “It is almost as though she isn’t just a secretary, no? I shall allow you to ponder that.” He leaned back away from me.
Salt gathered on my fangs. “What do you want? You’re holding me up.”
A hallow smile. “I like to keep a tongue on what happens in my administration.” He released a breath. “Truth be told, you couldn’t influence the faer whether you did ever become a secretary or not.” Looking at me again, his tone was light, “I just don’t want your kind in my administration. We’ve got enough gray scales, Dyfnderi, and whatever the flames Cynfe — gyfar is.”
He glanced up. “Would you believe I am the only native with any kind of power in this town? That cloudy faer dropped all the high houses from the administration, and somehow no one else with plain-dweller scales ever makes it this far in the administration. Ponder that.”
“But you don’t have plain-dweller scales.”
“That’s because I’m noble. I have the blood — the last remaining heir of the eternal faer, in fact. Bariaeth ac Dwylla. Remember that name.” He smiled beatific. “Though, you will not need to in a few gyras.”
“Um, that doesn’t really explain it. Or anything.” Taking a breath, I asked again, “Don’t all natives have brown scales? Or brownish scales?”
“Leucism. Dwylla and his children have native blood, but we’ve always stood above the rest, always were special.”
“So if you’re the first faer’s heir, and this is your administration, why aren’t you faer?”
“I,” — he cleared his throat — “We do not know. Care for a story?”
“Um, I asked.”
Another laugh. The laughs were the one thing honest about him. “The story goes that at the height of the his power, Dwylla’s wife became gravid.” His face was a scowl. “But instead of welcoming his coming heir, he ordered her to take her egg, as far away from the Berwem as your wings will take you. He said to take the heir and never think of him again.”
He stabbed a gaze back at the center corridor, where Mlaen-sofran had disappeared to. “So Dwylla made some spiritless, boneless cliff-dweller faer instead of his own scale and blood.”
Looking back at me, with triumph and the tone of practiced finality, “But, at generations’ last. We — I — have returned, the rightful ruler of Gwymr/Frina. Now, it’s a matter of waiting.” He gazed at me with a gleam in his clouded brilles, a triumphant smile that asked you to revel vicariously in his achievement.
Instead, I frowned. Something bout his behavior touched a note that echoed. I brushed a frill against my headband.
For all that it was going so awfully, I did have mission here in the cliffs. Here was a chance. Lowering my head in acknowledgment, folding my frills in submission, looking up in pleading, I said, “I don’t suppose you could make me someone important when you become faer?” My tone wavered just enough to notice without grating.
Bariaeth was nodding at me, his smile taking on a haughty quality, of a noble that might condescend to help me. I breathed out in small relief. I hadn’t done anything like this in a while.
He said, “I meant what I said when I told you I don’t want your kind in my administration. But you’ll be kept around.” His smile faded, having stayed its purpose. The husk of the smile didn’t leave his face, though. “After all, It’s not often you find someone in this game whom you can so easily read. Not like Adwyn or Ushra-sofran.”
In my mouth, cloying salt dewed my fangs, but nothing betrayed that on my face. I nodded in rhythm with the drake and watched him.
He turned around, saying, “I don’t trust dragons. Do you?”
Looking up slow at Bariaeth, I frowned. As I peered at the noble dragon in his immaculate robes, his creamy white scales, his eyes laced with intelligence, all that struck me was how alone he looked. Here was the rightful faer of Gwymr/Frina, sole heir of the eternal faer. And… was there any one for him to share it with?
“Um, don’t you have siblings?”
A beatific smile. “Of course not.”
“A partner? Close friends?”
“What would be the point? I have other things to focus upon.”
My frown deepened. He worked alone. And — he saw me come in with Hinte, and talking with Cynfe, with Mlaen — yet he only deciding to speak with me with I was alone, too.
How different would I look in his eyes — in anyone’s eyes? Clawing for a little wingful of power, scheming and making a mess of things. Here was the rightful heir of Specter, sole sky-dweller in all the land of glass and secrets. But… I had Hinte, I had Digrif, and Uvidet and Awld — and maybe Mawla too.
Do I trust dragons?
What else could I say? “I do.”
“And that is why I shall be throned, and you shan’t even draw close.” He turned away from me. “You cannot trust. Incentives are better than trust. And I know what you want, what incentives you’ll need, in time.” He glanced back just to smile, and said, “But for now, here,” tossing a coin back at me.
A pure electrum piece. One hundred forty and four aris. Five cycle’s pay at the Crwydro Llygaid. I looked up, and Bariaeth ac Dwylla was gone.
I pushed open the doors of the town hall. Opening the door, the heat of the night washed over me. I let out a sigh. Turning to leave, a weight lifted from my back. Though Cynfe’s invective still burned on my fangs, the anxieties of dealing with politics and agendas sat behind me. For now.
My tiredness rears its ugly head. My eyes blurred, and my legs ached, protesting the day’s events. I let out a long-building sigh, and began my trek home.
When I exited the hall a bright-white figure stood there, waiting on me. I waved my wing, she gave a lazy flick of her tail. Blood rushed to my frills. Hinte didn’t mean anything by it, but that gesture was so much more inappropriate, back in the sky. I tossed my head, clearing it.
By now, Hinte had turned and started off. Her pace was slow, inviting me to fall in step, and I did. We walked along awhile. At one point, she spread her wings as if to fly, but she closed them a heartbeat later.
“I’m sorry,” I said without thinking. “Really sorry.” I added — this wasn’t just unfortunate, it was also my fault. Hinte only flicked her wing, saying nothing. We walked under the amber streetlamps as a zephyr gusted at our sides and shadows twisted in the light of the moons.
Hinte bristled her wings beside me. The bandages caught the lamplight, looking amber. My feet clenched, scraping the road. Hinte couldn’t fly anymore because of those apes. They had hacked at her foreleg, betrayed us when we offered them escape for the cryst it stole.
“Why did this all have to be so complicated?”
Hinte tossed her head. “The faer will handle it.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean, why couldn’t we have found some dumb monster in the Berwem instead of those apes?” My brilles clouded. “I just can’t get those last moments out of my mind.”
Hinte tilted her head.
“I mean, like the way the last one looked so surprised, or how that one only wanted to bury his friend. It’s…”
“An insult. I cannot fly. I lost an entire day’s work in the Berwem. This was not something we decided. They brought this on themselves.”
I cowed down a little. “Yeah, I know. They don’t — I’m not saying they not monsters. It’s just kinda of sad, at least? It drags.”
“Do you expect me to feel something? What I feel is the three different sets of injuries, and the paingrounders keeping me from falling over right now. And my bags, empty and empty.”
“Right.” I hugged my wings to my body. “I lost my crabs, too.”
Hinte glanced at me, eyes clouded. “You already bled them.”
“But I was going to cook them or something. Now I can’t.”
Hinte’s gaze lingered on my for a moment, before she shook her head and looked away, tail lashing.
“We–we gave them what they deserved, I guess.”
Hinte still hadn’t looked back at me. “But you still wish we hadn’t?”
“I just… don’t feel better because of it?”
I’d rather just toil in the shop and stare up at the stars. Chwithach bothered me with enough frilly philosophy puzzles. I didn’t need any outside of the scrolls, ones where I might chose the wrong answer and do something wrong.
We had continued walking, and Hinte had stared at the ground awhile before she muttered, “You remind me of someone.”
My frills perked up. “Who?”
Hinte looked away. “It’s not important.” Hinte’s gaze found Ceiwad hanging in the west.
I looked away too. My wings flexed. Flying out into the cliffs, even sifting to a tiny, tiny extent, had felt fun — something new, something that I hadn’t done before. Hinte had been abrasive at first, but we grew a bit closer in the end. She’d smiled, shared stories.
My toes move to my left foot, feeling a ring of indented scutes on my left foreleg’s toe, where I had once worn a ring that had grown too tight. “You remind me of someone, too.”
My gaze lifted again, brilles clearing to stare at the stars. Hinte had brought her gaze back to me, but what she asked was, “Do you want revenge on whoever made you leave the sky?” When I looked back, I saw that she was looking at my headband.
“I — no. I made me leave, it was my decision.”
I reached to the top of head, feeling the cloth headband there. Underneath, hidden from sight — except Hinte had seen it once — House Perdition’s judicators had burned, seared, a mark of exile into my scales, so deep that no amount of molting would heal it. It still hurt, but it faded and I could bear the pain. If I pressed, I could feel the welts spelling matua — meaning grounded in Käärmkieli. My branded forehead ensured I could never be admitted into any skycity.
But would the brand of ‘Specter’ as my surname have been any easier to bear if I had stayed?
“Why would you leave your home?”
“It — I guess it didn’t feel like home?”
She hummed, and the conversation choked there.
I looked back in front of us. “So, do you want, uh, revenge on whoever made you leave the forest?”
“Ja,” she didn’t hesitate.
“Well, may the stars lead you.” It was my turn to look away, and I followed Hinte in looking at the pale green moon. When I stumbled, I dropped my gaze, and saw that I’d tripped over a bit of Hinte’s cloak — the one she’d lent me. I took it off and passed it back to her, and as I did I stared at her wings and her hindlegs.
“Are you okay, after everything that happened?”
“Because, well, because you’re one of my only friends down here. I mean, I know we’re probably not real friends or anything, I guess I just hate seeing someone I know and like hurt.”
“Aside from not being able to fly?”
“I said I’m fine, stone frills. My wings will heal.” She paused. “You were hurt too.”
“Yeah, but nowhere near as badly as you. Mostly just in my legs, walking’s going to drag, but walking already drags.”
We came to the canal stretching across town and walked along it some ways. I watched the waters glimmer in the moonlight. I soaked in the sight, it was one I would miss when the gray season came.
When we reached a bridge, Hinte turned to me. “I do not regret bringing you with me, Kinri.”
I jerked my gaze from the waters to her.
“I will head into the cliffs next crestday to look for plants. Will you come?”
Would I? I had never expected Hinte to be doing something so dangerous in her free time. If I had known everything that would happen today, there was no way I would have agreed to come with her.
I had cowered behind a boulder when something moved in the vog. When I had dared to fly into the center of the lake, in spite of the danger, I nearly died. And while it was not the Berwem, Hinte said the cliffs would not be more forgiving, that they were just another set of dangers.
But. What about our teamwork against the humans? Or saving Hinte from the rockwraiths when I could have just ran away? And, underneath it all, this had not been so bad. It was exciting, a break from the endless grind of my daily life. Down on the surface, without my brother Ashaine, there was no one to break me out of my routine. I met Hinte’s gaze. Maybe I needed this, someone to make my life interesting.
“Y–yes, of course.”
Hinte lowered her head. She turned, ambling toward the bridges. “Will you keep what happened today a secret?”
“Um, what? Didn’t we just get done unsecreting everything that happened today?”
Hinte worked her jaw, mouthing ‘unsecreting.’ It had made sense. To me. “We didn’t tell the faer everything. Anything I’ve told you that I haven’t told them, can you keep it secret?”
“Do you trust me, Kinri-gyfar?”
I don’t trust dragons. Do you?
I looked to the waters. “I — yes. You saved my life. Multiple times. How could I not trust you?”
Hinte didn’t smile, but her frills extended, and her tail fell, hanging by her legs. She glanced at the waters of the river, and asked me, “Why did the fired accountant cross the river?”
“To get to the other bank.” I gave a fangy smile. “What? Maybe it doesn’t translate well.”
Hinte rolled her head, and took a step toward the bridge; but she turned and looked at me one last time.
“Will I see you in the morning?” she askeed.
“At–at your house?”
“I will see you then. Silent winds, my friend.” Her paces picked up, and she disappeared over the bridge, leaving me with the lingering scent of grapes.
My friend? I squeaked. A small, warm wave of heat rushed over my body. Despite the looming horror of war that I might have the blame for, I had my own victory to celebrate. After everything that had happened in the Berwem, me and Hinte had become friends! At long last.
Hinte’s frills twitched at my squeak, but with her back turned she couldn’t see the frilly grin on my face. For the best, really. I waved her off, waving my wing hard and fast enough to vex my sore, injured leg.
I turned and low-walked away, struggling to find a familiar street. I must have looped around a few times, but I came to a main road I could follow back home. Shuffling through the streets of Gwymr/Frina, I found walking alone again a little sad. Did Hinte make it home okay? I didn’t have a reason to think she wouldn’t. But I didn’t know anything with kind of day we just had.
And she would have to walk all the way back. I clenched my claws. I twitched my frills, but I could still hear Hinte’s shouts and screams. Those brutish apes had threatened, injured my friend. I growled in the lonely night, startling someone in the shadows that I had not seen. Cringing, I walked on with my head lowered.
I reached the familiar corners near the inn I stayed at, the Moyo-Makao. My motions felt automatic as I leapt in the air, then flew a lethargic flight to the elevated porch of the inn. I pulled at the handle. In my tiredness, I missed the handle and instead grabbed the bamboo floor of the porch. I grabbed hold on the second try, pulling the bottom of the door.
Stepping into the lamp-lit lobby, I gave an exhausted wave to the bartender, then I trudged up the steps. If that ground floor held anyone or anything of note as I walked in, I passed it by, too worn out to attend to my surroundings. I reached my door. Room 35. I stepped in, not bothering to lose my clothes or clean my forelegs as I collapsed on the my bed, sifting off into a sleepy mess, so glad this day had ended at last.
Somewhere above, as if guiding, the endless stars still shone.
* * *