“Silent winds, my friend,” said Hinte as she turned, waving her tail. While she appreciated Kinri’s help in the lake, she breathed relief at parting ways with her. The exile had no appreciation of the thoughtful silence, always annoying her with unhatched questions. But worse, she acted utterly apterous when she opted not to ask questions. As if her tongue were rubber and her frills were stone.
There were worse issues, however. Such as Hinte deciding to carry back all of those apes. When she should have known the inquirers would return regardless, when she should have known the weight would have her helpless to fly. Or that it would put her at the mercy of thos rockwraiths Kinri had doubtless stirred up. Hinte wasn’t helpless.
The apes had escaped because of her tonguelessness. If she had tied them down better, if she had ensured they held no surprises, if she had thought to remove their weapons, if she had brought more emergency mixtures, that incident could have been avoided. She was better than this. These were hatchling mistakes, and she did not have the exile’s excuse of being a hatchly sifter. Her Dozent would be disappointed.
The dark-green wiver fell back on her hindlegs, crouched tensely, prepared to take off. Then, she remembered. Apterous rockwraiths.
Could she exact a proper revenge on them? In the academy, she learned of the alchemical plague that had eliminated the arboreal songwraiths from the forests. She wondered if her Opa or her Dozent knew anything about it. She swatted her dark frills at the thought. Nothing for it, right now.
More pressing would be defending herself better. Her Dozent’s knife wouldn’t suffice, even if she still had it. That left alchemical tricks, and Opa would know plenty. And she knew which she wanted; she’d dreamt of it since Academy.
As she crossed the canal and entered the clean and empty west side, Hinte took off her cloak. She bristled her freed wings, felt the punctures nimbly mending. The cloak was an embrace or shield, but she didn’t need it at night, on the west side of town. Elsewhere, however? Even long after the Inquiry, a grain of suspicion regarding alchemists ran through the town. Their work, of course, was accepted.
Most of the town ignored or forgot rumors of Ushra’s return, but the Gären name itself wore alchemical connotations, even outside the forests. And treasonous connotations because of grandmother. And so, she did not garner friends, or even friendliness. Even above the… unsavory reputation of forest-dwellers themselves.
Ushra had not helped that. Besides being the sole surviving alchemist from before the Inquiry, besides being older than Gwymr/Frina — older than Dwylla — yet still living, Ushra was a surgeon. You did not become surgeon without being well-acquainted with dragon anatomy and physiology, with corpses and cadavers.
It offended the frilly religion of the cliffs. While their offense fledged an ashy sort of sense, it did not fly. Nothingness awaited you after you alighted. Corpses were sacks of flesh that would only turn to rot and dust. The cliff-dwellers, however, insisted that your body acted as a vessel, that on death some distilled would evaporate out toward some life-after-life. If you believed that, then of course you would protect your corpses from science and medicine. And if, despite that effort, someone had gained enough familiarity to perform surgery?
Ushra had studied and invented die Wundervernarbung before the war, before there was a overabundance of listless, lifeless bodies. Even then, there had not been a shortage of cadavers; but there had not been a shortage of fledgling anatomists and surgeons, either. The academy had a system, and if a student needed extra cadavers for further research, there were forms to fill out, intervals to wait. Ushra’s mind worked faster than that.
Whether it was for practicing surgery, or perfecting a flesh regenerating formula, there was suspicion against anyone possessing a skill that required intimacy with dragon physiology. Why?
They robbed graves.
Those days had long landed for him, Ushra had said. Now that he once again acted as head alchemist of Gwymr/Frina, he did not want for cadavers. But, he had continued, it would be a shame for you to lack those skills should you ever need to travel abroad.
Traveling abroad. The world held a number of alluring sounds and smells. As a Gären, even unmoored from the forests, she did not want for money to spend or gyras to live. But would she ever follow that trail? Her Dozent, her grandparents, even Digrif and Kinri all lived in the cliffs. Was there any cause to leave? She flexed her wings, and tasted welcomed salt on her fangs.
The walk home was slow. She moved like a tortoise, unable to fly, only able to inch forward, step after step after step. The pace gave her time to macerate in the events of the day. Her jaw was mouthing the words that had set everything in motion.
“Have you found them?”
She’d lighted on her Dozent’s map and his calculations. She’d confronted him like this, and he’d answered, his eyes never leaving his bottle, saying, “Yes, I found — something. In the dustone cliffs. At long last, ha.” But why did his tone sound so hopeless?
“Let me go investigate, I will taste whatever is there.”
“It’s been a fruitless search for so long.” It hadn’t sounded like he was talking to her. “It would turn out no different.”
“Then I will bring someone. With two tongues, I will find them.”
“So assured. If you catch them, pry at the shadows, then it all begins.” He licked his eyes, and his tongue hung in the air for a beat. “Let me sleep, hatchling. We have two days — and you wouldn’t let me rest till then, would you?”
Her Dozent had never told her the full extent of his mission, never even told her who ‘they’ were. She had her guesses — that Wrang character; and perhaps even the rod-twirler and the angry guard Ffrom. But Wrang stood more centrally; he catalyzed this somehow, she knew. He had smelled of sour metal and ozone, and she knew exactly what magic smelled like.
Whoever it was, her Dozent had been right. Someone was using the apes. Hinte’d solved that problem. She only wished Dozent’s solution didn’t leave her claws dripping. But there was no guilt in justice; and there was no loss in justice, either — only gain. Only gain.
And now, with the threat of war on the horizon, she found her gaze searching that star-splattered sky above. What had he meant with his words? It all begins.
Staring up the sky, Hinte’s dark frills folded back. More than once Kinri had dragged her out in the southern cliffs, to ‘gaze at the stars.’ As if there were anything worth seeing in the mess of diminutive suns that hid from the luminous lovers, who far outshone any offering of the night.
The exile, whose night-blue face looked as messy with silver scales as the sky above, she could tell you everything and more about any of those stars. How they were indispensable for navigating high in the sky over days and days of anonymous ocean, or how they were moving and you could see it if you built a telescope the size of a house. Kinri had said the stars watched you no matter how far you went.
When did it all begin for all the little runt suns up there?
Hinte swatted her frills.
It never had. Hinte spread her frills and brought her gaze back to the earth. The stars were nothing. Blind and silent. She wouldn’t have time for such pointless musings if she could fly. Apterous.
Hinte did reach her home. As she stepped from the gravelly lapilli to the soft, loamy soil, she felt at home on two levels. If you clouded your eyes and held your tongue, you could pretend you never left, never had to leave the forests. Hinte could almost forget what happened, why she now lived with her grandparents.
She was very still. When the dark-green wiver cleared her eyes the illusion broke, as it should. The house stood before her, one story tall, not unlike a traditional Teif/Günstig house. Yet it lay on the ground, a departure. The neighborhood itself lay in a basin of sorts, a distance from any canyon walls, which had dragged any choice from them. Ahead, the looming shapes of trees and other plants writhed in the wind and shadows. It felt welcoming in a way the red and amber lamps of Gwymr/Frina never had.
The dark-green wiver strode toward the house in a high walk, ignoring the ache in her legs. The Gären estate had a wide and raised porch, fit for landing. At the moment, Hinte appreciated instead that she could climb onto the porch. Apterous.
Hinte eyed the walls of the house as she marched toward the door. The windows sat narrowed in the cute slit design of the forests. In those windows lay glass, another departure, something that was, in the forests, a luxury. But they lived in Gwymr/Frina now, where glass sold like brick. The walls, however, were built of wood, something that had traded places with glass as a luxury. It had slacked her tongue, seeing so many houses built of scoria or even stranger stones. The town had houses built of dustone or fire clay, too. But those were just sad.
She gave the windows another glance. Light was slinking out from breaks in the dark curtains; Hinte didn’t give herself time to groan. Before she stepped onto the porch she had stripped out of her sifting suit and scraped the largest chunks of glass from her legs. If you flicked, you could still taste she’d been sifting. Ushra would. But Hinte pulled out again her cloak, covered it all up. She would step into her room before anyone had time to wave their tongues.
The short, wide door lay before her. It opened inward and its handle perched on the right edge. She glanced at the keyhole just below.
Falling to her hindlegs, the darkly cloaked wiver pulled from her bag an opaque glass not larger than her claw and a vine of blue fruits that were not grapes. She bit off a single tiny fruit and uncorked the glass jar. The hard red substance sat like chalk inside. But after a beat, Hinte spat blue saliva onto it. The substance liquefied and grew translucent. A silvern key were floating to the top.
The darkly cloaked wiver took the key in her wing-digit, unlocking the door, and dropping the key back, where the substance was already reddening again. The key sunk back, and hid. It had once again hardened, but the forest-dweller gave it a second glance. She flicked her tongue, dipping her claw into the jar, and she scented. The jar’s contents smelled of overwhelming rot and fermentation, but also spice and cinnamon. It was dying, then. She would refresh the culture tomorrow.
Replacing it in her bag, she stepped through the door. The scents of the house washed over her. But she focused on one aroma above all others: Entwining itself in the alchemical and biological aromas of his workshop, wafting to her through the door, under that frilly painting Gronte kept around, mingling with the fresh blossoms of the desert flower blooms in the front room, overpowering the lingering rot and minty grapes, and like that finding its way to Hinte’s tongue, there came the scent of Ushra, not unlike dried apples or salted quinces, but so much older. The rest of the workshop scents climbed over each other to reach her. There came the usual aromas, but also that of rotten cultures and almost fermenting hogshind. What had Ushra been working on this evening?
But, coming from the opposite direction to meet the opposite reception, the smell of tanning leather and bitter, poisonous schizal roots reached her. Gronte was still up and working, then.
Hinte stepped through the house, legs bending and dropping her to a slinking low-walk. Walking through the hallway, she passed the door to the dining room first. Glancing in, there lay an old dark-jade wiver on one of the leather mats around the dinnerslab, nearest the doorway. Her back was turned, her tail was swishing, but Hinte did not doubt the old wiver could smell her entering.
On the slab, a bird perched, facing the dark-jade wiver and several dull rocks lay between them. He stood there, a parrot cloaked in blues and with purples and a ridge of feathers rolling down his head, his head cocked, and staring at the game board. But that little head jerked up at some traitorous footstep of Hinte’s. At that he forgot all about the game.
“Eeh! Nestling hath returned!” squawked the bird.
Hinte looked at the parrot, angling her frills in frustration. But that evaporated as she stared at the purply parrot, bouncing between its two talons and hooting at her appearance.
Hinte licked a drop of salty venom from her fangs. She said, “That’s fledgling to you, Versta.”
Versta upturned his head and crowed. “Ueh. Yer still in the nest, nestling.” Then a dark-jade alula poked the parrot. Versta gave a trill before turning his back to the dragons and hopping over to bowl at the center of the dinnerslab.
The bowl was wide as your foreleg’s length and tall enough that, with the contents half-gone, you couldn’t see from the doorway what was there. But she smelled spiced slipfrog, twisted carrot roots, and the blue fruit Hinte kept in her bag.
Versta, having snapped up a small carrot root in his beak, peered back at Hinte with one eye, but the alchemist had already turned to the old wiver.
Gronte, standing to face the darkly cloaked wiver, had shed her work clothes for an apron some time ago. Her electrum necklace, a flourish on the locket, hung over it. Her frills, worn with a few holes in them, seemed to smile at Hinte.
Her grandmother said, “Welcome home, Enkelin.”
“Hello, Gronte,” Hinte said, and looked away, gaze finding again the painting over the workshop door, all oily and bright. Gronte had commissioned it many gyras ago, dances after Hinte first fledged. All five of them had likenesses in the painting: Hinte, Gronte, Ushra, Versta and Staune. Versta sat on Gronte’s head, wings spread, while Staune perched on Ushra’s alula. The painter had caught Staune glaring at the purple parrot, and preserved the moment.
Hinte twitched her frills. The painter had taken pains to exaggerate her fading hatchly aspect. Her likeness’ eyes and frills were bigger, wings smaller. She did not remember smiling when she posed for this painting. Gronte and Ushra looked younger too, many gyras more than the few drops that had passed since would have allowed. But that was a matter of course.
Her grandmother was talking. She’d said, “It is very late — so much later than typical and it seems odd. Did something happen?” Gronte had gripped her necklace, but slowly released it as she finished speaking.
A moment passed with a dark-green forefoot sliding over another as Hinte glanced down the hall, toward her room. “No. I am only tired. Can I sleep?” She pulled her cloak tighter around herself.
Gronte waved her tongue, contracting frills. She was smelling the scent of die Heylpflanze and die Wundervernarbung, scents she could recognize even among the sulfur and ash clinging to Hinte, and among the endless smells suffusing the house. Being the matriarch of a famous alchemical clan would do that.
The wrinkly smile faded and Gronte’s brilles cleared with it. “Come here, Enkelin.”
Hinte lingered at the doorway a beat more before submitting to the force underlying her grandmother’s voice. Into the room she stepped, but still stood paces apart from Gronte.
The old dark-jade wiver extended a wing, brushing it against Hinte’s cheek. Hinte didn’t flinch away. It wouldn’t have helped. She did look down, though.
Despite this Gronte watched Hinte, it was when the young wiver looked up again and met the elder’s green-eyed gaze that she asked, “What happened?” She looked much older than her likeness in the painting, but it was an echo of her true age. Being the matriarch of a famous alchemical clan would do that, too. Or would have done that. The gyras in the cliffs were already showing on her face. Hinte would not feel sorry for her.
“Some trespassers in the Berwem,” murmured Hinte.
Gronte’s head snaked forward, her tongue flicking. “So is that where you go every cycle?”
“Yes.” Hinte stepped toward the dinnerslab, and Gronte stepped out of her way.
Gronte’s brilles clouded, and it was a beat before she asked, “So, who are — or were these trespassers?”
Hinte reached one of the dark-gray mats around the slab, but did not lay down just yet. “Humans. I will tell the whole story over breakfast. I invited some friends. Two.”
Gronte’s voice came from behind her. “Who?”
Hinte raised her head to look into the bowl, but Versta leapt in her way, spreading his wings to hide the contents. With a claw Hinte poked the parrot, and he jumped. “Digrif and Kinri,” she was saying.
Gronte hummed as the young wiver perused the bowl. “That second name seems familiar, but I cannot place it.” Gronte brandished an alula, and the parrot fluttered to perch there.
Hinte glanced back at her as she lay down on a dillerskin mat. “Night-blue scales, bright white freckles, rather small. The exile.”
“Oh, the Specter. Yes, I remember her.” Gronte smiled. “And who was the other?”
Gronte gave some melodic hum at this, and was winking her right frill.
“No, it is nothing like that. It was Kinri’s idea ot invite him, not mine.”
“Sure,” she said, a little too fast. “But can you tell me anything of what happened? You look like you just fought in a war.”
Hinte flinched,scored the leather mat a little with her claws. She kept her frills still while she thought.
The door to Ushra’s workshop made no sound as it opened, but the outflow of those scents was just as telling. At the footsteps padding through the hall, Versta broke his silence and clucked, raising one wing. “Ceya, the student returneth!”
The old, light-green drake stepped in, flicking his tongue. “You weren’t even alive when I was still a student, you minnow of a bird.”
Versta ruffled his feathers and warbled. In a moment he’d snapped down to the floor, waving his tail. When he cocked his head off to the side, he might seem to be facing an unrelated point, but one eye stared at Ushra. A parrot’s one-eyed glare. The dark-jade wiver prodded Versta and she again brandished her alula. Versta took the hint, hopping onto her wing and breaking his stare. He went back to peering at Hinte with one eye.
Gronte stroked Versta. “I imagine he hatched the habit because of — Ziplin.”
The room seemed to pause at the name. Hinte glanced at her Opa, watching for a reaction. Gronte looked up. She did not seem to alter her expression, but she might have held her breath for a moment more. Versta droned a low warble, bristling his wings.
Nothingness awaited you after you alighted. You left no soul or spirit in your wake. Only a lacuna, a hole where a dragon should be.
Ushra brushed name off with a lash of his light-green tail. “I have dried my fangs. That lout should too. It was gyras ago.”
Gronte only sighed. “They were like brothers, tartness. Versta has calmed down since then, but it will still take time to solder.” Versta squawked over to Hinte, lighting on her withers and wriggling into her cloak.
Ushra’s tone didn’t waver a notch. “And I have lost brothers as well.”
“How many?” She knew already, of course, but the drake didn’t even flick his tongue.
“Eight,” he said, in a tone that had the as you know woven in.
Versta darted around on Hinte’s back, hidden under her cloak. Hinte tried to catch the parrot with a wing, and he brushed against a bandage.
“Yes, and Versta only ever had the one. Take it in perspective, dear.”
Versta wriggled back to Hinte’s withers, squawked — squawked. “Nesty fledgling fell,” he said.
Hinte was mouthing “nesty” while Ushra turned to look at Hinte. The smaller wiver tried to push the purple parrot from her withers. Versta snapped his tongue, and pecked at the green dragon’s neck. Hinte growled and bit the parrot’s side, her fangs folded back.
“Minnow!” called another warbly parrot voice, rushing in after the alchemist. Staune flew by the play-fight between Hinte and Versta, pushing the purple parrot with a talon. Her flight did not betray that, however, and only Hinte and the other parrot felt any of it. By appearance, she was flying in dutifully after Ushra. And Versta happened to fall to the ground about that time.
Staune landed on the slab, a parrot of reds and blues. She stood as high as any of the dragon’s legs, half again as tall as Versta. She cawed, “Ground yourself, ueh!”
Versta responded with a garbled trill, and Staune returned it, louder, and soon the room filled with snapping and clicking sounds.
“Ground yourselves, both of you,” Ushra cut through. His voice was not loud, hidden in the parrots’ cacophony. But Staune fell silent. Versta did not, and Hinte smacked the bird. She only hit hard enough to be felt, she knew, but Versta exaggerated the blow, tipping himself over and waving his wings about. He opened wide his beak, but did not make any more sound.
Ushra brandished his alula, but Staune sauntered over, and let him pick her up and place on his withers.
Gronte looked to Versta acting out on the floor. “What were you saying, Versta-gyfar?” She emphasized the honorific, and the implication was clear: This was no time for frilliness.
Versta hopped to his feet and lighted again onto the darkly cloaked wiver. An eye level with the dragons, he spoke.
“Fledgling here fell. Lookee the wrappings.” Versta clutched a part of the cloak and pulled, revealing. Hinte jerked away and the parrot fell down onto his back
Gronte’s alula brushed against her locket. “Enkelin. Are you hurt?”
Hinte gave glances to Gronte, then Ushra, then Staune, and finally a burnt glare to Versta. “Was hurt. I’ve treated the wounds and wrapped them.”
It was Ushra who snapped his tongue. Brow narrowed, tongue flaring, he said, “Show me.”
Hinte pulled her cloak, revealing her bandaged wings and her bandaged hindlegs. Ushra’s only reaction was a clearing of his brilles and a twitch of his frills. He licked both of his eyescales before leaning in closer. “Rockwraiths?”
Hinte nodded. Her grandfather stepped closer. At his prodding, Hinte extended her wings.
Ushra examined her membranes, then her legs. “Ah, at least two of them. But not all these wounds were given by bite or claw.” Ushra waved a tongue. “Tools.”
“Indeed. Humans, out in the lake, it was,” Gronte said.
“Apes in the Berwem,” Ushra muttered. He flicked his tongue, staring at Hinte. “What happened?”
“Digrif and Kinri. They are coming for breakfast. I will tell you all then.”
Ushra arched a frill. “You had said you would be out with Specter-eti this evening —”
Gronte rounded on Ushra. “Did you know where she would be?”
“She had asked for the glazeward and respira recipes, and her bag hums with crysts. The rest was free to puzzle out.”
“You knew, and thought nothing of it?”
“She is past fledgling. She can make her own decisions.” He waved a light-green wing.
“Have you forgotten about the Berwem Interdiction? She cannot sift on her own.”
“Well, my granddaughter can make her own decisions —”
“The Berwem Interdiction?” Hinte asked. Gronte turned, about to answer, but Ushra continued.
“— and regardless, it is important you inform us of what occurred in the lake. Those weapons could have been poisoned. And the rockwraith bite is venomous — ineffective against squamata, but their foul mouths promote infection.”
“I cleaned them.”
“And I shall clean them again.” As if commanded, Staune leapt from Ushra, then flew into Ushra’s workshop.
“Give the wiver some rest, tartness. Today has been exhausting, I should imagine.”
“It is pressing,” Ushra said. “Hinte, you had cleaned it — how?”
“I washed them with my canteen,” she said, her right foot falling over her left. “The tool wounds are treated with die Wunder, the bites with Heylpflanze.”
Ushra lowered his head down to Hinte’s ankle, his tongue flicking out. A beat after just the forks touched the wound, it slipped back in his mouth. His frills were wrinkling in thought.
“Hmm. These tools were poisoned — a simple, inorganic toxin causing burning irritation and spasms. Its effect is waning now.”
The drake had determined all that from smelling the wound. Ushra had been one of the greatest alchemists in the forest. His skill and scholarship alone would do that, but his sensitive tongue had been what turned him into a legend.
“Fortunately for you, die Wunder causes complications only with foreign biological materials —”
Staune returned, dropping a bag by Ushra’s feet, then lighting onto his withers again.
“Clearly you do not, or you would not be so careless. Die Wunder is a mixture for a sterile hospital setting, or dire, fatal wounds. Never an ordinary field situation. I did not give you that emergency vessel to use like some common poultice —”
“It was life-threatening — Kinri was stabbed in her neck. She would have —”
“Threatening your life, Hinte. Would you use Wunder if the next knife had come for your neck, and you had nothing left to save you?”
Hinte remained silent, looking away from her grandfather. When she finally spoke, her voice became a whisper.
“Alchemists save people.” Her voice was small in her throat. Ushra said nothing, but did not look away from Hinte. He finished dressing her wounds in that silence.
Meanwhile, Staune watched Versta watch Hinte. The red parrot half-spread her wings, and opened her beak, as if to mime a caw. The purple parrot mimicked her. After a beat, the red parrot’s motions become more excited, her head twisting and her beak gnashing. But her talons remain planted and unmoving, not stirring the alchemist from his work. Before long the mimicked motions became animated enough to elicit a involuntary squawk from Versta.
“Shattup, you minnow.” The last two words mimicked Ushra’s voice.
Gronte sighed. “Staune is going to remember that one.”
Versta ruffled his feathers. “You started it, you nesty fledgling.” For some reason, Versta decided to say it in Hinte’s voice.
The red parrot just upturned her beak and cocked her head away from the purple parrot. She then tapped Ushra with a talon, whispering, “Eat?”
“Go ahead.” The light-green drake had finished with Hinte’s leg.
Hinte looked between Gronte and Ushra, tongue measuring her words. “Opa, I —” hesitance caught up to Hinte as she met Ushra’s black-eyed gaze, and her words faltered on her tongue. So she altered her course, asking, “Has that stray cat messed up your gardens today?”
“No.” He paused his rifling through the bags. “You had something to do with that, I presume?”
Hinte hummed, but Versta pecked her on her cheek. Hinte nudged the parrot. “Quiet,” she said.
“Are Kinri and Digrif okay?” Gronte asked, cleaning up the game board, forgotten, with dull stones sitting lonely on the slab.
“Kinri took some bites too, but we both came through the gate fine. Digrif was not with us.”
“Was she with you the other times?”
Hinte paused a moment to consider. “No.”
“Enkelin,” — she saw her granddaughter’s frills wrinkle at the saccharine title — “you could have at least taken one of the parrots with you. It would be safer.”
She could not do that, she knew it. But just saying that would be revealing in itself. She could lie; but the parrots would never forget it if Hinte implied they could not have helped her. A moment passed before Hinte could think of a innocuous rationalization. “Versta is your parrot. Staune is Opa’s. Maybe if I still had one of my own, I would.”
Her fangs ached at using Sonnesche’s lacuna to cover herself up. She looked down, mouthing, I’m sorry.
Gronte looked at Ushra. He clicked his tongue. “What a coincidence,” was all he said.
Hinte tilted her head. But it was Versta who cawed an elaboration. “Monsun can’t fly! She’s fat.” Hinte flinched at the name.
“Quiet, the both of you.” Gronte turned to Hinte, giving her a sympathetic look. “We wanted to keep it a surprise. Monsun is gravid, though we don’t know when or by whom.”
“She’s awake? How–how long has it been?” Hinte hadn’t payed much attention to Monsun when she had been brought back from the forests. No one held it against her. It was a knot, on so many levels.
“She is awake regularly,” Ushra said. “Only often enough for us to coerce her to eat. Or force her to. But she’s been in torpor ever since she arrived.”
“And before that?”
“We don’t know,” started Gronte. “They all but thrust her into our wings when she arrived, told us nothing about how she’d been coping or why she was so melancholic, she was missing feathers, among other things, which told a story on its own, and she doesn’t speak of anything but —” Gronte stopped herself. She touched her locket and started to lift it, but let it fall after a beat.
“But now she’s gravid?”
“Yes. And well, she eats voluntarily, and has for the three cycles now. She’s asked for you come see her when you’re ready, Enkelin. It makes me think she might be getting better.” Her voice shook a little, and Versta trilled melodic.
“Is she still awake?”
“I last checked on her rings ago, I do not know.”
Versta trilled, high and discordant.
“Will you be quiet, Versta-gyfar?”
“Nuh.” Versta cocked his head, giving the young wiver a one-eyed stare from her back. She met it, frills narrowing.
“Do you want to go outside, then?”
“Suree!” Versta was excited, but he remained still on Hinte’s back.
On the porch, Ceiwad illuminated the night in palest green. Hinte had taken a lamp with her, and it cast a small muted circle on the porch. Versta took the opportunity to flex his wings, flying circles around Hinte’s lamp, miming a moth. Hinte watched, nursing a glare in her frills. The venom dewing her fangs grew poisonous. She wavered first.
“What do you want?”
Versta landed on the porch, opposite Hinte in the lamplight. He stood close to the lamp, so that he could stand above it and cast scary shadows on his face.
The parrot said, “You know.” He leaned forward with a wing to his breast in some formal gesture. “Our arrange-a-ment.”
“Yes, you did it.”
“I did well?”
“How did you do it?”
Versta hopped around on the porch, turning his back to Hinte, pausing before completing the circle and facing her again. “Dropped a rock a its head! Never saw it coming — like a black parrot, I was.”
“And the body?”
“Hid it under a fern. I can show you.”
“You didn’t do bad, Versta.”
“Enough to get your end of the arrange-a-ment?”
“Ja.” Hinte stepped to the door, but the parrot flew to her back, settling between her wings.
“But I want credit. Your credit wasn’t a part of the deal.”
“Fine. Ushra will not care. Do you want to tell Gronte what you did?” Hinte craned her neck to see the bird behind her.
“Nyih. I can tell Toastyfeathers though. I bet minnows can’t kill wildcats.”
“And minnows do not fly or talk, either. Your plan is not going to work.”
Versta walked to Hinte’s shoulder, warbling a cascade of notes that ended high. Hinte understood it as a question. Any forest-dweller would.
“Staune will not stop thinking of you as a minnow.”
They stepped in the house like this. As they padded back toward the dining room, they caught sight of Ushra walking out, and Staune fluttering in the doorway. “She has a point, dear,” came a voice inside the room. “You need to eat. When was the last time you did that?”
Ushra patted some dust from his robes. “Three days ago. I can eat at breakfast in the morning.”
Gronte’s head pressed forward. “You need to eat everyday, Ushra.”
The light-green drake still didn’t turn. This time, at least, he waved a foreleg. “Hardly. As long as one isn’t flying or warming, he can go plenty of days without eating.”
“I’m not talking about your body, tartness, but your fangs.”
“My fangs are perfectly healthy.”
Gronte sighed. “I am the only one in this family who cares to use the dining slab.”
Versta trilled, “Nai.”
Gronte rubbed his head. “Oh, I haven’t forgotten about you. You’re my second family.”
Staune lighted down in front of Ushra. “Uah,” she trilled. “You broke this long, no? A few more minutes won’t change much, yes?”
Ushra had stepped aside to let in the white-clad wiver and the purple parrot when they appeared at the threshhold. When he turned, Staune landed on him again, giving a contented trill.
“I left the choicest pieces at the bottom,” Gronte said from the other end of the slab.
Ushra grunted in response, and Hinte laid herself back where she had lain before. In her absence, a plate had appeared in front of her mat, a mix of the bowl’s contents. She noticed some boring mushrooms, smelling mild enough she did not notice them earlier. Their surface was dotted with black and red dots, spices.
Hinte poked one of the blue grape-like berries. “Verbogentraube? We eat enough of these unlocking the door, Gronte.”
“And we have too many of them. We need to eat more before they rot. And these are pickled. You’ll like the taste.”
Hinte began eating her plate without further complaint. She was hungry, after sifting the Berwem, so she finished her plate before anyone else, even Gronte, who had started before her. She looked to her grandfather, her Opa. He sat, ignoring his food, holding an inked red feather, scratching symbols onto a small scrap of the fernpaper he kept on him in sheaves.
Hinte started, “Opa, I —” But she could not decide how to word her request; she altered her course: “— wonder, do we have any keimfrei dust around?”
Ushra twitched his frills, but his forefoot remained steady. “Are we alchemists? Of course we do.” He looked up from his notes, fixing Hinte with a wrinkle of his frills and a wave of his tongue. “How much do you need?”
“Not more than sixteen grams. It’s for — perfume.”
Hinte ignored the melodic hum Gronte gave at this.
“You taste the most disparate mixtures.” Ushra tossed his head. “Is it research? Should I be concerned?”
This was the least dubious of all of her recent ventures. It should be the easiest to justify. So why did an explanation elude her tongue?
“No,” she said. After pausing, she settled on her words. “Nothing to be concerned about.”
Ushra stared at Hinte, and she broke from his black gaze, watching the slab.
Gronte chewed her meal, smiling and watching Versta hop about the slab without much else to do. He tried poaching some of Ushra’s neglected food, but Staune screeched him off.
Hinte tried again, “Opa, I —” Ushra was already suspicious, and this would catalyze any remaining doubt in his mind that something was up “— want you to check my wings. They were injured multiple times, I couldn’t fly on my way back to Gwymr/Frina.” Again, Hinte had altered her course at the last moment, failed to voice her real request.
Ushra stepped over as Hinte spread her wings. It was beats before he said, “Hm. Numerous lacerations, punctures.” He looked closer at the hole where the arrow pierced her wing. “Wings heal quickly, but avoid flying for next… six days.” He flicked his tongue. “You applied die Heylpflanze, correct? Then I will apply another poultice in two days.”
Gronte’s frills worked as she watched, fingering her necklace. After Ushra returned to his seat, she spoke. “How were your wings injured?” While there some concern lay in her tone, here was also a sharpness, as if she wanted to scold but held herself back.
Hinte thought of the first fight with the humans, the archer, and the rockwraiths. “Fighting too many things at once, or sneaky things that misdirect or ambush.”
“If there’s that much of a pattern to it, do something about it,” Ushra said without looking up from his notes.
I am trying to, she wanted to say. Why couldn’t she just spit the words? Hinte looked down to her plate, but it was still empty. She glanced to Gronte. Would she say something else? Ask another probing question?
But Gronte swallowed her questions, and let her frills fall back to her neck. “You should check on Monsun before you go to bed, Enkelin.”
Though the Gären house stood one story high, it had an attic. Reached through a ladder at the very end of the hallway, Hinte had used it quite a bit in the past, for the roof could be reached through the attic. She had gone to the roof a lot when she learned to fly again.
How fitting that where she once faced the prospect of flying again, she now faced another specter from her past.
The floorboards of the Gären house did not creak as Hinte slinked to the hatch. The dim light from the fixtures did not waver. Her heart lay calm in her breast, and her breath flowed in regular draughts. The conversation back in the dining room was small and phatic behind her.
Hinte knocked on the hatch to the attic, but there was no response. Already standing on her hindlegs, she unlatched the hatch and pushed it up, the door flipping before sliding to a soft stop by some unseen mechanism. Hinte leapt into the attic, not even glancing at the ladder.
A weak, trilled, “Kouou,” was the response, just two notes repeated a few times. Hinte looked around. The attic was the blind darkness of night, so Hinte retrieved her milkmoth lantern from her bag. The light cast glairy white light.
A corner of the attic lay shielded by colorful drapes, embroidered with blooming trees. The drapes were taffy pink and baby blue. She could not have forgotten the shades. She had a whole drawer full of dresses colored just so.
Another halting, “Kouou,” from the parrot. Hinte licked away the sour venom on her fangs.
Behind the blooming drapes sat a tiny bed. On the left sat a shelf of wood and glass toys. On the right, a shelf of colorful scrolls. A parrot-sized jacket of knitted schizon hung above the bed.
All of these had a thin coating of dust. Except, Hinte noted, a single double scroll near the front. Unlike all the others, it had some length of the scroll rolled into its top roller.
Hinte breathed, and looked to the figure in the bed. She did not recognize the parrot. Monsun’s feathers, once a dazzle of whites and grays, were mottled, some broken or lost. Her beak was flaky, and she trembled in her bed, under the pink blanket.
Hinte’s fangs soured. She did not lick them.
“Haune.” The parrot droned again, weak notes. “Is that you, Haune?”
“No–no. It’s Hinte.”
“Hinte, Hinte, Hinte.” Monsun croaked, and turned over in the bed. She pulled the covers down to see the wiver beyond the foot of her bed. Hinte stepped closer. “Ha” — Monsun croaked again — “Hi, Frau Hinte. Has Haune-sofran awoken yet?”
“Yes. Haune-sofran is brumating, sleeping out the winter. When the spring comes she will awaken, and Monsun will be there greet her and everything will be okay again.”
“Has the spring come, Hinte-ychy? Has Sofrani awoken?”
“No, Monsun. Haune still–still sleeps.”
Hinte now stood beside Monsun’s bed and climbed onto the raised mat there. It was cushioned like the mats downstairs, but rose as high as a stool.
“Then Monsun will wait for her. Spring will come and everything will be okay again.”
The voice of a lacuna was an aching silence. A lacuna was a hole that never filled. It could only be forgotten. Hinte did not want to forget.
“Do you remember her, Monsun?”
“No. Yes. Haune and Sonnesche. Do you remember them?”
“Why would Monsun forget Haune-sofran or beautiful Sonnesche, why why why.” Monsun trilled, discordant and offended. “Sofrani is the limest green with frills like dark stormclouds and wings like a canopy. She always has a smile and one fang out, and can hit a moving target at ten throws, and when she yells it’s like,” the words gave way to into a blaring trill. The dark-green wiver hissed a halting laugh, but some of her venom dripped onto the floor below. The sour scent was overpowering now, and Monsun finally noticed.
“Do you miss Sofrani, Ychyr?” Hinte lowered her head. “Spring will come, won’t it? You came.” Hinte tried to smile, but could not shake the feeling that something was wrong with it.
“Where is Sonnesche, Hinte? She is always on your shoulder.”
Hinte jerked her head down, staring at the floor. The sourness on her fangs was a trickle now, and she could not wipe all of it with her tongue, so she used the sleeve of her leg. Hinte sobbed a halting half-growl, half-hiss, but drew her wings to her body before looking back to the gray parrot. “She sleeps with Haune.”
“Spring will —” Monsun croaked.
“Do you remember Sonnesche, Monsun?”
“Ahah, yes, why why why would I forget? She’s a little song-parrot, her singing makes the whole room stop to listen. She likes to poke her head around, gets you into trouble a lot.”
Hinte gave another sob.
“Everything will be okay, Hinte-ychy.” Hinte continued to sob, and Monsun closed her eyes after a few beats. When Hinte looked up again, Monsun had opened them, but they were half-lidded.
The gray parrot’s voice had become a squeak. “Is that you, Haune?”
“Hinte, Hinte, Hinte.” Monsun brought a wing near her face. “Has the spring come yet, Hinte?”
“No, Monsun. Haune is… Haune still sleeps.”
“Monsun will wait. She’ll be there to greet her, to welcome her.”
Hinte wiped more venom from her fangs, and thankfully the flow seemed to have lessened.
“The winter is so cold, Sofrani.” Monsun’s voice was distant, and she did not seem to be looking at the forest-dweller. “So cold, cold, cold. Why won’t the spring come, Sofrani?” Monsun continued to tremble in her bed. She was shivering.
Hinte climbed into the small parrot bed, sliding under the covers with Monsun. She enveloped the parrot in her wings, and felt herself growing very warm with affection. The parrot’s shivering might have eased a fraction, but Hinte did not trust her judgment.
“Hinte?” the parrot asked.
“Yes.” Hinte’s voice had grown soft. As she looked at the gray parrot and heard her warm trill of response, she felt a kind of hope blossom in her breast and flow to her fangs. It flowed out as sweet venom that the parrot smelled, and she eased into Hinte’s embrace. Hinte remembered this feeling, the same feeling she felt when she stood on the edge of the house, when she flew for the first time since leaving the forests. She kissed the parrot’s forehead, and her voice was a wisp.
“I will be your spring, Monsun.”
Footsteps came from the hatch. Hinte stirred, not quite sleeping, but not fully aware. She did not know how long she held Monsun, but her lantern had dimmed, shining paltry light and almost dead. A wrinkled face appeared by her side, a purple parrot perched beside them.
“Enkelin,” Gronte said.
Hinte released the sleeping Monsun. “I should have come here sooner.”
“You needed time. We didn’t rush you to fly again, for the same reason. She didn’t like to be pushed, either.”
“I am not that much like my mother.”
“Yet you remind me of her so much. I don’t think she thought herself very much like me, either.”
“She would have been right.”
The lantern’s shadows hide Gronte’s reaction; she only stepped to the side, to let Hinte climb out the bed. When the young wiver was on her feet, Gronte wrapped a wing around her anyway. They walked to the hatch like this.
Hinte jumped through the hatch, lighting on the ground floor first, and Versta was fluttering after her.
“Why are we being so quiet?” he asked.
“It’s about respect, Versta,” Gronte said as she jumped down, closing the hatch behind her.
“Respect for whom?” Versta mimicked Gronte’s voice.
Hinte clicked a soft laugh at that. “For Monsun.”
“But she’s coocoo. She even know what respect is anymore?”
“She is hurt.” Hinte scratched her cheek while her tongue wriggled in her mouth, hunting for the right words. “Imagine if you lost Gronte, would you be in a good place?”
Versta trilled low.
“Remember Brennun/Gewolbe?” — Gronte folded her frills — “Remember how Gronte made enemies that day? Imagine then being left with ‘family’ who do not care about you or your lost.” Her voice came loud enough she paused a moment, and spoke again at half the volume. “And the only dragons who do care thought you were dead.” Hinte made a chopping motion with her wing. Salt scented the air.
Versta cawed, returning to Gronte’s withers. “He gets it, Enkelin. Calm down, please.”
“Fine. I need to talk to Ushra before I go to sleep.” To finally ask him.
As Hinte started off, she added, “No Verbogentraube when Kinri comes tomorrow, please?”
“Oh, Ushra will be cooking in the morning. My price for letting him away from the dining slab so soon. Ask him about it.”
Hinte walked away, toward Ushra’s workshop. Versta called, “Nighty night, nesty nestling.”
She tossed her head, saying, “See you in the morning, Gronte.”
Versta squawked at this, but Hinte only walked on. Gronte called out to her, but the dark-green wiver had already made the turn out of sight.
The workshop door stood sturdier than others in the house, the sort of hallow stone door common in homes of those who could afford them. Hinte pulled it, and stepped inside. Ushra stood in his black work robes as he measured the progress of some long-running reactions occurring in the large cauldrons arrayed on the left wall of the room.
Straight lines, rows upon rows and labels defined the room. Ushra would spend the first and last rings of most days organizing and reorganizing the workshop, making it bleed a sort of order that stuck with you, infected you.
In a word, the room was meticulous. Precisely how, Ushra would say, any respectable alchemist kept his workshop.
Hinte slowed to gaze at those projects of Ushra’s that were visible. Her eyes were drawn most to the tank with a bubbling hog corpse, the one she had smelled from the hall. The flesh of the hog looked to be devouring itself from the inside, while the outside roiled with bubbles and boils. If Hinte had to describe it, the word she’d reach for was polyps, and that was telling enough. Hinte shook her head, and walked further into the workshop.
Staune was trilling at Hinte’s appearance, and Ushra waved a wing without looking up. “Hello, Enkelin. If you need your good nights, I left a few written over by the door. Cross yours out.”
“No, it’s not about that, I —”
“Hinte! You dropped this in the dining room, I was trying to give it to you.”
It was the metal loop Kinri found in the Berwem. Hinte examined it again, holding it in two toes. “Thank you, Gronte,” she said, almost smiling.
Hinte stared at the loop. The exile had said it reminded her of Hinte. Was it the barbs? The way the metal twisted around itself? Was the meaningless, worth-nothing nature of the ring? She clenched it in her foot. No, Kinri was too nice for that. But would she mean it without realizing?
It was a joke, not a veiled insult. She was acting like Ushra`. Kinri meant well.
Kinri, Hinte’s new friend. Kinri, with so many injuries, because her new friend hadn’t been good enough.
Hinte had to do this. Turning back to Ushra, she took a deep breath. She could not alter her course again. “Opa, I —” yes, Ushra was already suspicious, but, Hinte knew, and loathed to admit, that Ushra was keener than her, and her deflections were pathetic; he already knew something was up “— want dragonfire.”
“What?” It was Gronte who asked; Ushra understood immediately.
“I want dragonfire.”
The parrots stood still, Staune on her perch, and Versta on Gronte’s withers, both looking around at the dragons, watching at their reactions. Hinte couldn’t see Gronte’s face, but she heard the concern in her voice. Ushra, with both frills arched, just looked bemused and suspicious.
But the light-green drake did not turn around. “Dragonfire,” he muttered, finding something awfully frilly and disgusting about the word. “Unhatched dragonfire. I wish the academies would stop filling students’ heads with such fledgling, tongueless nonsense.”
“Nonsense?” Hinte said. “Wars have been fought and won with dragonfire —”
“It would be better if they had been fought and won without it. It is redundant, dangerous, and you don’t need it. Yes, warriors might have won a battle or two with alchemical venom — but what of the damage to their fangs? What of the damage to their glands? What of the feeble-tongued aspiring soldier who opts for a dragonfire operation, and the feebler-tongued alchemist who cripples their glands permanently or gives them a defective mixture?”
“But that is irrelevant,” replied Hinte. “You perfected die Wundervernarbung — dragonfire is beneath you.”
“Flattery should be subtler than that. To work, that is. You cannot outright lie. I’ve hardly perfected die Wunder.”
“What he means is,” it was Gronte starting, “he was an adventurer too, once — with Dwylla (may he fly forever) and Rhyfel the elder, and none of them needed dragonfire.” Versta trilled, punctuating Gronte’s words. “Shush,” she murmured.
“And we did more than slither around the Berwem. Yes, this business with the humans and the wraithen is unpleasant, but hardly enough to justify dragonfire. Unless you have some ulterior purpose, dearest Enkelin?”
“I am in danger, I need the protection.” From the contraction of drake’s frills, Hinte knew it was the wrong thing to say. Hinte stepped back a fraction. “There —”
“Why do you need this protection, Hinte-ann?” Gronte said. “You can stay away from the lake, isn’t that protection enough?”
“Rhyfel offered me a position on the Frinan guard.”
“Are you planning to stop barfights and catch diller thieves with dragonflame?” He snapped his tongue. “Why even leave the shop? You have no battle experience outside the academy drills, and that was gyras ago. You are an alchemist, not a warrior.”
“The faer thinks this might cause war with the humans.”
“So you want to be the heroic fire-spitting dragon who saves the day? Wars do not work that way.”
“If I could defend myself, I could be a medic there, I could make a difference. Instead of whiling away time on research no one will use or maybe seeing to whatever patient you deign to help.”
“I still have correspondents in the forest. My research is being used.”
The dark-green wiver glanced down, then glanced back. “Would you have discovered die Wundervernarbung cooped up in a shop like this?”
Gronte cut in before Ushra could respond. “Why are you so adamant about this?”
She thought of her Dozent’s words.
It all begins.
She thought of Monsun, and how much the bird needed — something.
I will be your spring.
She thought of Kinri, the squalled.
“I am not a warrior, but an alchemist. How else shall I fight, but with my fangs?”
It felt frilly in her throat and sounded frillier off her tongue. But her trip into the Berwem had stirred something within her. Something that wasn’t satisfied with dry, sterile lectures and experiments, be them from her Opa or her Dozentin.
No, she wanted to heal. To taste the sweetness of staring off decay, of giving life its chance. But to do that, she had to make her own peace, to put things in order her way. To finish what had started in the firey lake, and the fires of the forest all those gyras ago. To light her silence with the roar of flames.
And if she ended like Jammra herself, grounded by her compassion, to heal her final foe instead of blazing forth with anger and vengeance?
It wouldn’t be a bad way to go.
Ushra had shooed the wivers from his workshop. Versta followed Gronte without question, and Staune trailed behind them. She revealed her ulterior when she flew to the almost-empty bowl on the dining slab. While Staune finished off the leftover food, Gronte collected dinner plates.
Versta perched high on a light fixture and waved his wings wildly in front of it. The moving shadows provoked a flinch from Staune, and the red and blue parrot leapt and swiped at the purple parrot and an, “Ueheh, minnow.” Swiped, the purple parrot now had some of the feathers of his ridge crooked.
When Gronte had cleared the slab, she stood by Hinte, watching her, frills working in thought. An alula ran up and down the chain of her necklace before settling on the locket. Hinte watched Versta play in the light, but kept Gronte at the edge of her vision.
“Versta,” Gronte suddenly said. “I left a boning knife in my work room. I’ll need to clean it before the night’s close. Can you be a dear and get it for me?”
Versta trilled and waved his wings in the lamp a few more times before he hopped into the air and flew out of the dining room.
“Hinte-ann, Enkelin, did Monsun tell you she wanted you to look after her hatch?”
Hinte turned to grandmother with a flare of her frills, eyes clearing in an instant. After a few beats, she lifted her head, humming a ‘no.’
“Would you? I’ll understand if you don’t want another parrot after…”
After Sonnesche. The day stood clear in Hinte’s mindeye. The spicy wood floor of the compound, the wavering kakaros light, the colorful walls of the basement where she hid. The certainty that this was the last day she’d experience any of this. The last, saccharine-sweet song Sonnesche had chirped for her, before she had given Hinte the slimmest chance of escape. The mad flight away, away, away. The half-frilled, unsmiling merchant with a hat that had thrust her toward her grandmother, out in the canyons.
She had flown, so high and hard, the fluttering, humming flight only a small fledgling could manage. Afterward, it had felt like her wings were broken. The world became silent.
Sometimes she still brandished her alula, waiting for a perch. Sometimes she still twitched her frills, waiting for some mellifluous trill.
But because of Sonnesche, Hinte now lived. Because of Sonnesche, Hinte did not end up like Monsun.
“I…” How could she get over that? How could any other parrot compare to lovely Sonnesche? “I have to think about it.”
Gronte wrapped a wing around her granddaughter, and for a moment they sat like this. Then Versta squawked his way back into the room, clanking a bloody boning knife down on the slab. He lighted down in front of the two dark-green dragons.
“Hye. Why it smell so sour in here?”
Hinte looked at the parrot. “Because you look ridiculous with those crooked feathers.” Hinte patted the parrot down its head, righting the feathers, while he protested with dissonant warbles.
“You dragons are weird. You don’t make any sense.”
Gronte drew her wing back to her side, and smiled. “You’ve had a long day, Enkelin. Rest for the night.”
Hinte did not smile, but her frills waved. “Silent night to you, Gronte.”
Versta flew at Hinte’s face, pecking a frill.
“What was that for?”
“Because you look ridiculous with those frills sticking out.” Versta mimicked Hinte’s voice. “I can’t do anything about them, but now you know.”
The floorboards of the Gären house thudded as Hinte slinked to her room. The dim light from the fixtures faded as Gronte put them out. Hinte’s heart fluttered in her breast, and her breath came in staccato pulls. The conversation in the dining room came sparse and dwindling behind her.
She sat the loop Kinri had give her on her nightstand, where she would see it in the morning. After putting out the few light fixtures in her room, Hinte climbed in her bad, and curled under a thin blanket. She brandished her alulae at the lacuna, and she fanned her frills, listening to its voice.
Hinte did not sigh. But her breaths came a little deeper as her mind macerated in the day’s events. With sleep crawling to her head from her aching limbs and protesting wounds, it gave her no time to ruminate. But she had time for one clear thought.
Hinte was so glad this day was finally over.
Her next thoughts fumbled as sleep claimed her, waving and floating away into a sleepy mess.
She dreamed of the winds.
* * *