Oleuni’s lonely light slipped into my room and glowed the curtains. I roused awake… and then it faded, just as when the first dawn ring stormed in some time earlier; after that, it’d only taken the moments to find the pillow aflung somewhere and bury my head under it before I floated back to sleep. I murmured promises about getting up soon and that’s all I remember.
I only had to fly out to the Llygaid Crwydro and plop myself down behind a counter after the second long ring of the day, and that gave me enough time to convince myself awake somewhile later.
A note of something like a forgotten worry rung somewhere in my mind.
Some time after, an insistent short ring prodded at me. When it sounded I was laying somewhere in the valley of half-sleep, and stayed there awhile. It wasn’t until the light in my room exploded into full day — Enyswm rising, the second dawn ring chiming — that I started to have any trouble with my half-sleep.
My eyes, even clouded, couldn’t hide from the loversuns’ combined light. The day pressed over my brilles, even as my frills covered them. Stretching and curling under the blanket, I settled into another comfortable pose. I’d almost drifted back — not to sleep, but to something — before thoughts of my responsibilities flared suddenly across the surface of my bleary morning mind. I had to get up.
My frills freed my eyes; but I only managed that. Drifting again. I just stared at my pillow. More flares, more calls to action. Get up! To help with that — really — I played around with my sheets. Doing something should keep me awake, at least. I had to get up.
I flexed a foot wrapped in a sheet. Nights in the cliffs tried and failed to be cooler than the days, so you didn’t need blankets to keep warm. As I played, the thin sheets split under my claws. I gave a confused murmur before poking my snout. Oh, my claws had gotten sharp. I needed to file them. Maybe I’d do it today or tomorrow.
A frills brushed my face, and I felt the slight singing from last night, still there. How I wish I’d had a mask.
The sheets had met a better fate than my pillow. Where my pillow lay somewhere on the floor (who did that?), my sheets had at least stayed on the bed, though they’d curled and wrapped all around me. Had I just not moved that much last night?
Well, my forelegs still felt the prickly, crackly feeling of the salve and lake’s glass spittle on my forelegs, and an odd smell lighted on my tongue as I lay there: evil sulfur lingering from my dreams, the smell of dying glass and ash, haunting me.
I flapped my tongue and kept it still in my mouth, but it had already set my mind in motion. My wings wriggled as I was flying back through yesterday’s events: sifting, exploring, more sifting, tracking, hunting, the wraiths, walking, and then the meeting.
So after all of that, of course I’d fallen over onto the inn’s bed, dove into the covers, immersed myself in sleep. The memories pulled at the stitches of my dreams, and they gave me one last shudder before they drained from my mind:
Tripping, falling into the glowing maw of the lake, even my trout slipping away from me as I melted.
A perfumed olm leaping from the gilded plates of a dining slab, eating my tongue.
A creepy human lumbering in the sulfuric clouds of Berwem, somehow dewing without fangs, and begging for me to just bury it.
A shadow slinking through the vog, through the molten glass, through the water in my canteen, stealing the obsidian knife and bleeding away.
Wraiths with mocking dragon voices that destroyed everything I tried to build.
A mud-dweller with writhing frills, waving a shining bronze sword, saying, “Listen, I’ll take those fangs off you, Specter-eti.”
Digrif finally remembering my name, except he pronounced it just like mother.
Cynfe towering above me, ripping my wings off as her scales reddened to a bright scarlet.
Hinte walking away, again and again.
One note of those dreams struck and stayed, filling my frills. Hinte. Hinte, the friend I didn’t deserve, who I’d nearly left to — a fate with the humans.
The words we had exchanged last night echoed in my mind, “Will I see you in the morning?” “Yes!”
Oh, I didn’t have time! Hinte expected me at her house — and I didn’t know when!
I yanked my head from under the pillow, and it rubbed along a wet, drool-y patch. Eww! I wiped at my jaw; but I didn’t feel the cool smoothness of my scales. Instead, I felt a rough, shattered surface of glass moving as my foreleg, and my unclouding eyes met — the murky glass of Berwem.
I let out a low, growling groan, and at last woke up. Sliding from the bed, past the shining window restrained by white curtains, I sighed and scratched my headband, right around my ‘matua’ brand; a part of me never remembered I’d left the sky until I stood up.
Think of happy things, Kinri, like how Hinte became your friend or the awesome, terrifying story you now have to share with Chwithach.
Falling to a stand, the rocky floor gave its warm, black-speckled kiss to my glassy feet as I clinked over to my wardrobe, a chest crouching with a slant opening.
The chest’s doors gaped, the left only half-shut and the right still opened wide. I smiled. Yesterday, I had rushed out of the inn’s window to work, with the frilly half-hatched thought that (somehow) if I started my day earlier, it would make my evening with Hinte come that much faster. Silly, silly Kinri. It had been one day Sinig couldn’t joke about me being late, though.
I dug through the drawers and grabbed a short-sleeved, plain dark shirt. You knew it could only be a work shirt. It was boring seriousness you could wear.
Already it was falling onto my back before I felt my breast and the dusty white fabric that still clung to it. After ripping the new shirt off and throwing it onto my bed, I fell onto my flanks, tore off my hindleg’s sleeves and yanked at the shirt… but that couldn’t get the trunk past my forelegs and head.
After I stopped to breathe, the suit’s trunk slipped off and flew its way to a clothesbasket. I’d need to wash it at some point, but not soon, not now.
Hissing at my glass-covered limbs, bandages were unwrapped. Slow as you might, the wounds still hurt. I scraped and peeled the glass, starting at the cracks before prying bigger pieces off.
“Ugh,” I groaned. I couldn’t scrape too fast, because that might rip at my scales or flare up one of my wounds. So I went along at a tortoise’s pace, probing and backtracking as my fangs dewed with salt and my careful tugs grew more and more forceful, if not at all at all less careful. When I scraped one big piece off, revealed was the black salve still clinging to my legs, hardened to sticky shell.
Was it a sigh or a growl?
When the second chiming short ring mocked me, I paused to give what was a growl and to slam my foot against inn’s wardrobe, and punctuate the unfairness of it all.
Shards of glass sprayed out. Flicking my tongue, I did it again; and again, the glass sprayed.
I didn’t smile, because I was too rushed to smile — but the edges of my pout eased a bit.
The sunlight shifted a bit as I was slamming my legs against the wardrobe, catching glass shards and sparkling them.
I had work to do… but did I have the time to do it?
There came a loud knocking at the door.
It ruined my rewrapping the bandages, and I just jerked them unraveled, and they were swirled the back around in a few seconds. It was a mess and didn’t even cover all the cuts. Probably looked worse than no bandages.
I leapt to the wardrobe, throwing the suit over the hidden side of the bed, and searching for something I could cover myself up with. You didn’t need it, in the cliffs — dragons here didn’t wear more than a ventcloth unless they had a reason to.
But I fledged in the sky, in a noble House. I’d never went out without at least a halfrobe. Unless I had a point to make. And then, something had to have really worked me up for that. I hadn’t gotten that angry, let myself get that angry, in a long time.
I wasn’t in a high mood, but no one in Gwmyr/Frina — no one at the door — could make that worse unless I let them. So I breathed calm, and cleared my eyes.
Sitting in a ball at the bottom of the chest sat in the only cloak I had so far, my Specter cloak. Käärmkieli glyphs swirled across its silvery, cloud-gray surface. For buttons and decorations the cloak had precious gemstones. In the breast my name had been calligraphed in such a commanding style that it looked down on me even as I held it in my feet.
It would have to do.
Still more knocks came, louder, quicker. I leapt to the door.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said as the door opened, my tail coiling under my cloak. I pulled the door from the wrong side, so I needed to step around it, blocking my view of my guest.
“Oh, you are up. Privetik, madame Kinri,” she said. I should have known, but I didn’t want to.
Stepping around the door, I saw my guest: Uvidet. The innworker’s scales looked the bright, unblemished white of the ash-dwellers of the land of frost and flame. They gleamed. It reminded me of some the noble ladies in the higher houses of sky, who shined their scales. It looked beautiful. Tedious, but beautiful. Her eyes and sclerae were a shade dark enough you mistook for black.
I smiled and folded my frills down. The innworker smiled too, opening her mouth, revealing her teeth, also a shiny white, something that stood out to me even as I had grown used to it.
“Hi Uvidet,” I said, and my tail uncoiled. “I’m up. Do you need something else?”
“You know I am not satisfied until I see you step out of door.” She was shaking her head, but smiling. “But yes, they sent me up to see what the noise is — have you heard it?”
“Oh — I think that was me…” I bat away my unfastened sleeves, showing the cracked glass and chipped scales on my foreleg.
The innworker scowled. “Eesh, that is messy. What the fires happened?”
“Uh, I was in the lake. Sifting.”
There was a thoughtful hum at that. “Hrm. Well, try to keep it down or take it elsewhere — it was far too loud.” She tone had been cadencing, but she added, dropping to a sudden low voice, “And tell whoever gives you your salve that it is terrible quality. Sand should not cake on your limbs.”
“I — will, I guess.” I looked up for a beat, and tried the words, “And uh, you don’t have to knock at the second long ring. I’m leaving now.”
“Oh? What for?”
“A friend wanted me to have breakfast with her.”
I hadn’t finished before the ash-dweller was beaming, and when I did, a wing reached out and her alula brushed my cheek. “A wonder that you are at finally getting out of your room. It is not good to be so lonely and —”
“Uvidet, please — I um, don’t know if she was expected me before now or what, so I need to get there as soon as I can.”
“Enjoy yourself, Kinri. You deserve it.”
Uvidet had disappeared down the stairwall, waving me bye with her tail. She twirled her tail in a circle instead of the side-to-side I saw so often.
I’d waved my wing, even though she couldn’t see me, and like that she was off again to whatever job she handled in the mornings.
The door was closed. I stepped back into my room, pouting. How was I supposed to clean my forelegs without smashing them against something? The sound must have disturbed someone, so I’d just have to manage. My legs were wrapped again, and I didn’t bother with any more scraping, but slid off some looser pieces. Like that I sighed and stood up.
My forelegs were hideous!
I clamped down on my disgust, licking my fangs and tossing the cloak on the bed. I sifted through my scattered shirts, garments that covered my neck, breast, and base of my wings. Shirts down here didn’t tend to have sleeves, and the ones that did didn’t reach to my knees. It was all very revealing, more than anything I could have gotten away with as a fledgling. But, with the heat and winds that blew as zephyrs instead of near-constant gales, you couldn’t really be surprised.
Except I could not fly out with my forelegs looking like this! Having yet to live through a gray season, I had no ashcloaks, or any kind of cloak besides my Specter cloak. I had a raincloak, but it might look frilly in the clear weather.
With a huff, I snatched up the Specter cloak. My name still glared at me from its breast. The gemstones still glinted up from the buttons and joints. I felt them, their cuts sharp and satisfying. I could list the species and their meanings without missing a beat. All Specters could.
Yellow citrines, for our wealth and power. Set inside the hood, above either eye, they were stars, light for when the clouds breathed on the suns or when one walked in the night.
Violet-blue iolites, for our shifting duality. The pleochroic stones looked different from different angles. As if twofacing were something to brag about.
Ghastly black jades with golden rutiles like fangs, for our protection and introspection. A priest once told me the stones were gifts from the Cloud Constructor himself, one of the only four gemstones you’d find aloft, the only aloft magical stone besides star-blessèd Stellaine.
No matter how pretty or keen the gems looked or felt, each weighed, a reminder of what I’d ran away from. I felt the empty receptacle where the cloak’s plackets met just below the neck.
House Specter had hatched its name from the Specter cloaks. In the last war of the heavens — the one which had, in the end, drawn the Constellation and the Severance — Specter distinguished itself with magical cloaks of woven medusa fiber. These cloaks could reflect, refract, and distort light, creating illusions, camouflage, and other things. They wove light.
Legend has it that the tenebrous cloak of Ashaine I could wield light ten strides away. He had used it to great effect, my tutors said, when he brought dozens of rogue or Empyrean skylands under the Concordat of Stars. And when lasting peace lighted on the sky, the great dusk, House Specter turned from war to politics, and the Specter cloaks turned from implements of battle and espionage to implements of ritual and spectacle.
All children of high Specters had one. They costed a fortune to make, fortunes that elders expended again and again to maintain an image. I had brought it with me to Gwymr/Frina. Because it was mine, not because it was anything more than a piece of trash to me.
I could sell it. But that empty receptacle stopped me. The silken cloth, the gemstones, the overall beauty of it, could net me plenty. But the empty receptacle once held a shard of star-blessed Stellaine, the stone that fueled the magic of the cloaks. If I could repair that, find some Stellaine down here or another fuel source, it would be an implement again. I could live my whole life from selling of it.
Which was a pretty long way of saying I didn’t know if wearing my most valuable possession was a very good idea. But Digrif would come to Hinte’s house for breakfast, wouldn’t he? No way he could see my legs like this.
I danced the cloak in front of me, watching the way the fabric shimmered, how the gems seemed to go out of their way to catch the light. It looked striking, regal. Maybe it would overwhelm, but better to try too hard than not hard enough, right?
The cloak was over my torso once more. My wings had found their coverings; it ran down the forearm to the alula, and trailed ribbons for each finger of my wing. It dragged — of course it dragged — but it looked elegant. I’d ripped the ribbons, and they snapped with a click of clasps undoing.
The buttons of the cloak found their holes, and I could at last forget about it. I slipped my feet into sandals, but the hindpair was still covered in dust. Bleh.
I looked over the room a last time, but there was nothing I could remember forgetting. As if to push me on, the third short ring chimed its smarmy little song, and I found myself on the other side of my room’s door closing.
In the hallway only the doors to other rooms stood. On the left there were four doors stretching down to a window overlooking the streets below, and I padded over to window just to have a look, even though I’d lived here for dances. The world was dimly limned in the late half-morning light of a single sun — Oleuni had risen, up and about sooner than anyone I knew, while Enyswm still crouched behind the cliffs and buildings just above the horizon.
Back in the hall, another dragon stepped out from a door, some plain-dweller with a dark tongue I’d seen once or twice before, maybe a new resident or so. I never fledged conversation with them. They’d leave in few days and our paths would never cross again. And if they did, would we even remember?
The floor looked a cozy red, of some stone found deep in the pits. Craggy but not too craggy. It looked uneven, natural ground; but I’d feel comfortable resting a drink on the floor. Another bit of local weirdness.
The light flying in through the windows lit the common room. The lamps from last night now sat opaque and glum; at this time of morning, most lay in bed or do whatever their job is, and so the room sat nearly empty. But some dragons lay at the slabs, eating.
The large, hexagon-shaped room had long, hallow slabs on either side in two long rows. Each broke a few times from one end of the room to the other, the breaks wide enough to step through. Those slabs could lay about four dragons on either side; and while most had eight mats, some as few as four or five and a couple as many as twelve. One had twenty mats crowding over each other around it!
Looking closer, some stray playing cards scattered on the floor under between the crowded slab and one mat. And a few coins!
I slinked over to that slab and slid between the mats. Picking one of those coins — it was only glass, not metal. A game piece. Oh well. It fell in the pocket of my foreleg anyway, along with the few cards scattered on the floor.
The floor only had three glass pieces. One red, another an amber, and the last one blue-green. The cards were low: the liar, head lowered, frills folded, ingratiating; the soldier, wings flared, claws raised, attacking; and the alchemist, tongue flicked, head tilted, questioning.
As I stood up to leave, the familiar face of the waitress passed by. Today she was working at the counter. And unlike the scheming Adwyn, unlike the tired Mlaen-sofran, and unlike the anonymous, scowling strangers, Ffein had the second friendly face I’d seen in this town, a pale red smile ringed by jingling bronze piercings on her frills. I couldn’t see her uniform from here, but I would bet on the same amber and black all the Moyo-Makao workers wore.
“Morning, Kinri,” she said.
I waved a polite hello or goodbye to her as I walked on. She still remembered my name after all this time, even I always had trouble with hers. Her voice and presence fell diminutive in a odd way. She was smaller than me even, and her voice sounded whispery even when she spoke up; her wings seemed to forever hug her body, and she didn’t say much when she did speak.
On the streets of Gwymr/Frina, the twin lights of the sun now lit up the world in combined volley of light. As the cycle pushed on, Enyswm danced closer to Oleuni, the twin shadows of objects merging as one, and the chilly crestday approached.
This part of town was something of a center of entertainment. Nearby was a theater (Dychwelfa ac Theater or something) and a scrollshop (owned by someone with a really long name) and a gallery (that was really big despite being mostly empty). I’d never found the time for theater, but the bookshop had a selection like leftovers and prices like quicksand. And the gallery — well, they didn’t want me there, so I can’t really judge it.
After a few paces and a few beats of my wings, I was rising over the town. Before long, I flew above most buildings. Hinte lived across the canal, on the west side of town. Would I be late?
A lot of Gwymr/Frina rose high into the air, buildings that stood four or five stories. The tallest buildings leant against cliffs, among them the inviting curves of the Moyo-Makao, now far behind me.
The buildings all had an alien squatness about them, broad and thick. The mounds of ash piling on the roofs or yards and various ruptures or faults all around betrayed the motivation: these buildings have to weather the ashstorms for gyras to come, and the quakes.
On the hills and buttes among the buildings, streams of dragons walked or milled about. Here and there I could spy a red sash, sometimes made easier to see from being mounted on a mighty tortoise.
I flew past the bridge over the canal cutting through town. With nothing else to think on, except the gnawing worry of being late, I stared down at the panes of metal and glass, and remembered the bland histories studied in the Sgrôli ac Neidr:
The Dyfnderi had fledged a gift of this canal back when Dwylla had still lain in the town hall. Connecting to a bunch of channels far north, and running water from some Dyfnderi diversion dam they’d built gyras and gyras ago, it was water. Gwymr/Frina could drink and farm because of it, and sometimes you saw little boats going up or down it.
I guessed it emptied in a distant river or something, but I could only stomach so much of the trivialities. What mattered was that relationship of Gwymr/Frina (or was it Cyfrin ac Dwylla back then?) with Dyfnder/Geunant hadn’t soured yet, and Chwithach-sofran said the canal was some kind of symbol of goodwill between the two. Dwylla never let the relationship grow beyond that, though, and between his eternal stubbornness and their ever-deepening insistence it did sour.
When the eternal faer alighted and faer Mlaen took his place, it gave the Dyfnderi another chance to establish with us something more than just peace. If what I had seen in the hall last night showed anything, though, the faer was flying on her predecessor’s winds.
“What,” I had asked Chwithach, “do the canyon-dwellers even want with this town?”
“It’s a point of pride for them,” the librarian drake had said as he adjusted his sash. “Dyfnder/Geunant is old, and in fact more of a small country than a city. They hold the deepest gemstone mines, and they maintain an mighty military with a flawless record of defense. It’s the carrot they dangle in front of any newcoming settlement: We can protect you, make you rich.”
“Then why didn’t Dwylla take that offer? It sounds pretty nice.”
“From the beginning, Cyfrin ac Dwylla had been his — it’s right there in the name. If you lived here then, you lived ac Dwylla. So his refusal had been plain jealousy, not wanting to relinquish control of his town to would-be sovereigns.”
At that I had found myself imagining Dwylla with deep blue scales, silvery eyes, and that all-too-familiar sneering hauteur. My next words might have come out a little harsh, a little high. “Why? That sounds so frilly, refusing an alliance-jassa sekkyytt — err, I mean refusing out of… err, egoism?”
“Some think that, yes. I do. But in the end it seems to have worked out for us and thus has remained a sore point for the Dyfnderi. We grew rich on our own, and, nestled up against the blazing Berwem, we had faced down all enemies alone. Even our faer had seemed immune to death, back then.”
The librarian had then did that thing where his clouded eyes caught the light in a glint, and he added with a light tone, “I do think the canyons may have gotten the last laugh, here; for when they at last grudged to recognize us as a stronghold, we were named Gwymr/Frina, the glass of secrecy. Ostensibly, they meant it in the old sense, secrecy being merely set apart, as our faer was so bent on having it — but the subtext is there to be read. We had to be hiding something, to dare abstain from joining their protectorate, hehe.” His voice had faded to a murmur. “I’ve begun to wonder if they were right.”
I glided up the canal, angled for the sloped and rising part of town. I’d decided I had to know the details of local politics, if I were to lay myself in the faer’s administration. And if that didn’t fly, I still had my debt with Adwyn to worry about — some grounding with the relationship between the land of glass and secrets and the land of chasm and wisdom would help, there.
On either side of the canal sat thick panes of tempered glass, split by rods of aluminum. When the ashstorms came, they’d push those panes over the canal, and ash couldn’t touch the water. The fat bridge crossing it, sturdy even compared to the town, was arching high enough not to block boats.
Sometimes, you saw laborers lugging carts of stuff over the bridge, and you didn’t wonder at its extreme stockiness after that. Except for poor dragons crippled or clipped, flying always trounced walking. Faster, cleaner, easier — flight was draconic par excellence. But you can’t fly around carts, and no simple beast could do that either. So stuff was carted over the ground.
I flew lower, snatching a better look. The bridge was framed in bronze, but its deck was cobbled tephra. The deck tended a wingbeat thick, but it fledged sense; caterpillar cows could get huge.
A few guards lay on the bridge. They looked up at me as a passed, and peered.
As the rolling slopes flattened, the houses and streets and the entire atmosphere grew more sophisticated, more wealth on display. Any occasional panhandlers or starless walking about didn’t — couldn’t — come here. The roads looked better, not clear of waste; but I could almost feel comfortable walking on it. Almost. The yards stretched open, spacious and covered in mosses or hardy fungi. It tended something of a familiar rolling green look.
Something felt missing, though. While some yards had really big ferns or bamboo sprouting out, you didn’t see much of it. Maybe two yards had those decorations.
One yard has no flora at all. Just bricks. Across the whole yard.
Around the yards’ perimeters lay various kinds of walls, some of scoria brick, or black bamboo or just piles of dustone — and above them, more nets. Some looked frayed or had holes, but most looked intact enough.
Yet on the whole the nets seemed less intact than the nets I had seen on the outskirts of town, over the farms. I flicked on my tongue. Maybe it wasn’t so strange. In town, the nets were images, there to look secure. But in the cliffs, you needed the nets. They protected you every day, keeping pests and predators out.
I sighed. Some things hadn’t changed.
Just moments of flight after that, I was gliding down to the road that led to the Gären estate, Hinte’s house. It stood low and sprawling — and only one story high! A concave roof sloped, way steeper than any other you saw. That seemed dangerous, because ashstorms. But maybe they were braced. They should be braced.
Once you looked away from the small house — was that wood? — there yawned an estate like it had eaten four other yards. You could tell, from just their decoration, that they missed the forests. More flora grew in just their yard than the entire neighborhood. It held had the first trees I had ever seen in the cliffs. Hardy ash willows, a bleached white. I had liked them since I’d first seen them, even when their droopy melancholic look.
Trees looked, smelt, and tasted nice! Ferns, massive though they were, just clouded in contast.
Only gyras ago the trees had been planted, and now they were thin, just tens of heads taller than me, and their limbs already tended to droop. Poor things.
On the porch little flowers grew out of little pots that lined every surface on the porch, crowding over the mats and the slab. Did they just really like flowers? Or maybe they were just alchemical.
I was gliding down beside their net, a thing as well maintained as any other net in the neighborhood. Beneath the net, there crouched a scoria brick wall on the surrounding gravel, and there was a gate.
The feeling of the dirt under the soles of my shoes was not the feeling of the gravelly lapilli in the rest of the town. This dirt grew real grass, instead of the textureless mossy imitators in the rest of town. While it looked pretty and natural and different, stepping on it flipped my mind. It was familiar, and not in a good way.
For just a moment as I walked into the yard, I stepped instead into Specter Manor. If I clouded my eyes and held my tongue, it was like I never left, never wanted to leave, the sky. I could almost forget what happened, why I was so alone.
I was shivering. When I clear my eyes the illusion broke, as I’d hope. The house stood before me, and it looked like Specter estate the way a chunk of wood looked like a shard of star-blessèd Stellaine.
Some of the flowerpot’s buds had appeared in the alchemy scrolls I studied: whistlecones, khren roots, and a poisonous flower I knew as kuolo-suukko but the locals only called ‘the sweetness.’ Vines grew across the house itself, leaves plump and broad. In some places, they blocked out the windows. The walls were white wood, and where I could see shutters, they looked a very black brown.
I knocked on a door made of another wood I didn’t know. After a few beats, it swung open. A light-green dragon stood in the doorway, wearing a black halfrobe that only covered them past the wings — Ushra. I’d seen him once, in the distance, and Hinte talked about him enough.
Ushra seemed a small, thin figure; but also gave a sense that this impression missed something. He smelt of cloying alchemical fumes, burnt ink and mighty grapes not as strong Hinte’s grapey smell. His piercing dark eyes gave me the impression that he saw right into me, and saw things even I didn’t.
He’s a good fellow, Rhyfel had said.
“Hi!” My frills expanded a little as my gaze rose to meet his, and I smiled.
He didn’t react. I look him up and down for some shift or anything. But —
A bright red and blue bird perched on his alula! It was craning its head around, and one of it’s strange purple eyes was always pointing my way. I fanned my frills at the cute bird, but when the it squawked high and loud, it turned to a flinch.
Ushra took that moment to say something: “Who are you?”
“Kinri. Hinte invited me?”
He narrowed his brows. “Where were the two of you last night?”
I flicked my tongue and replied, “The Berwem?”
“Which mixture was used to treat your wounds, Keimfrei dust, or die Wundervernarbung?”
“Die Wunde — the second one.”
“Who else is coming to breakfast today?”
“Digrif?” I said. “Unless Hinte invited someone else without telling me, I guess.”
“What color are Hinte’s eyes?”
“Yellow?” I said. A beat. Then, “Wait no, was it orange — err, red?” I looked to Ushra’s eyes, but they had clouded and I couldn’t make out their color, other than it being very dark.
“Who was Hinte’s mother?”
“I — what? How do you expect me to know that?”
“I didn’t. When —”
A voice sounded out from inside the house, saying, “Let her alone, tartness.”
Ushra said, “Come in,” and turned around.
But as he did, the bird lighted from his wing and fluttered down in front of the door. “Last question.” Ushra’s voice came from the bird’s beak.
I jumped back, wings spread. “Ah!”
“What angle does the morrowstar make with the horizon at the ninth crestday of a sea-dweller’s left year?” The bird hopped forward, wings half-spread, punctuating its question.
I tilted my head. “Would that be… a third of a radian? I guess it depends on the time of day. But you’d be measuring something else if it were actually day or night. So I say somewhere between a third and fourth of a degree radian. You said a left year?”
The bird looked off the side, only one eye facing me. A beat passed before it said, “Come in,” in an exact copy of Ushra’s earlier words.
I waited for the bird to flutter back to Ushra before stepping inside.
The door opened into a short corridor, and Ushra’s voice came from further along it, asking “Are you a navigator?” He glanced back at me. “Or just a stargazer?”
“A stargazer, mostly,” I said, but Ushra had already disappeared into a doorway.
Through the first doorway of the corridor, in a room with a knee-high slab orbited by mats, sat another forest-dweller, with jade scales darker than Hinte’s, on the mat just below a window. Through the other doorway, lay a room with some tall, barrel-shaped plant by the window and very comfortable-looking fluffy mats arranged in a triangle. One mat was big enough to hold two dragons, the other two only one.
In that room, high on the wall, there hung a painting. A small Hinte bounced in the middle, while Ushra and that dark-jade dragon stood on either side. The painted Ushra wore dark fullrobes dotted with the spiraling, cursive script of the forests, and a dark-jade dragon wore a uniform looking almost militaristic. Hinte wore blue and pink clothes.
The little hatchling in the painting looked cute; but I could never tell her older self that. Well, maybe unless I wanted to dare her to find some way to administer poison with a glare
Before turning away, I took a cheating glance at the eyes in the painting — the younger Hinte looked out from a gaze cloudy and rust-orange, while Ushra peered forth from a deeper orange, completely clear. The jade dragon regarded you with plain green eyes.
I lingered on the jade dragon for a moment, and glanced back at the forest-dweller sitting in the other room. It was them. Looking closer, I could see an age difference between the likeness and its source. Other than that, the military garb was gone, and they now wore a gleaming locket I couldn’t find in the painting.
Below the painting rose a dark brown door, ajar. More alchemical smells wafted from inside. Almost soon as I glanced at it, it opened and from it stepped a dark-green wiver, door hanging open behind her. My breath caught in my throat.
The last thing she’d said to me last night had grounded all of my fears that we weren’t really friends — or maybe it’d been an admission that our night in the lake had changed things. My next words would feel like a response, and I didn’t know what to say.
The dark-green wiver was sill peering at me. I hadn’t said anything.
“Hi Hinte.” I may have squeaked.
A shadow of a smile touched her lips. “Hello, Kinri-gyfar.”
I looked up. How was this supposed to go? In the Constellation, in House Specter, we had formal patterns of interaction, words to greet every flavor of interlocutor from highest friend to unspoken enemy. Systems of analyzing every deviation, from untasted or ignorant slip-ups to deliberate, significant variations.
I’d tossed all of that aside. And it wouldn’t have helped me here; The formalities didn’t translate. And… if they did, it didn’t matter because I wanted to be authentic, be Kinri instead of the once-heir of House Specter.
But what was the authentic thing to say here? What did I want to say?
The door snapped to a shut on its own, and I jostled. “So, um. I’m not late, am I?” I licked an eye, watching Hinte through the other.
Hinte laughed, a small hiss. “If Gronte were cooking, you would be. Gronte had Opa cook breakfast today. Opa always tends to his workshop before anything else.”
I sighed, easing a hitch in my breath cycle I wouldn’t admit was there. Another hitch didn’t ease, though; that still hadn’t been what I wanted to say.
I tried, “About last night,” — at that her brilles cleared, and I faltered. I found another prickling anxiety instead. “Something I didn’t mention. Someone talked to me in the town hall. Bariaeth — ac Dwylla. The treasurer. They were… weird. Do you know anything about them?”
“Other than his having half the town thinking he should be faer instead of Mlaen?” Hinte tossed her head. “Ushra is a little uneasy when he comes by the house, and he tends to send me out of the room when they talk. And Gronte, she gives him — strange looks.”
“As she were seeing a lacuna — a ghost from her past.”
Looking up, I said, “Thanks.” Bariaeth had some mysteries to him. I — didn’t know if I’d be taking his offer.
But I swallowed, and admitted, “That um, that’s not what I really wanted to ask. Last night…” Hinte flicked her tongue “…it — I had nightmares about it, when I went to sleep.”
Hinte’s smile melted into a blank expression that betrayed nothing. “About what?”
“About all the times I almost died — I almost died seven times!” I looked down, cringing at the pathetic fraying in my voice. “And about other things, too.”
“Um. I dreamed of the humans dewing. And Cynfe ripping off my wings. And–and about losing you.”
A alula brushed across my cheek. I looked up. Hinte didn’t smile, but the intensity in her eyes wasn’t analyzing or judging. A flame that would cauterize, not scorch.
“Kinri. We won.” With that, Hinte stepped away, into the opposite room.
Before I moved, I asked, “Will you walk away again?”
Hinte lifted her head, but her back was turned. “No.”
The dining room didn’t impose, press in, or really stand out — nothing like the meeting room from last night. But it felt drab and serious as it did none of those things. The tiles on the floor alternated black and brown, the dining slab looked deep and black and shiny, and scratched with white. Obsidian? How much had that cost?
I peered closer at the slab. It rose low enough that you could eat from it standing high or low, or sitting on the thick mats around it — those mats rose to above my knee height, but that was just me.
At the other end of the slab, the dark-jade dragon lay with Oleuni shining bright behind them, drinking from a teacup and smiling at me. A closer look at their current garb showed a white halfrobe covering her haunches, inlaid with black schizon seams. The black whiff of the schizon stabbed my tongue, and it almost hid the cloying aroma that clung to her — not unlike Ushra’s, but also not like it. A sash sat over her breast, reading ‘Gären vor Gronte’ in Drachenzunge —Gronte, Hinte’s grandmother.
Smiling back at her, I granted a small bow. I looked up to meet her eyes, and pretended that was just her sitting on an elevated mat.
Were they the one to called out for Ushra to let me in?
I started, “Thank you for — ah! There’s another one!” I whipped my wing at the purple bird, standing on the slab beside the dark-green dragon. It had been doing something with its wings spread, but I had interrupted.
“Another what?” Gronte said. Hinte was still watching me as she lay down on a mat, expression something complex.
“The talking bird things… that one talks too, doesn’t it?”
Before the dragon could respond, the purple bird squawked and spoke in a strange voice. “Gah! There’s another one!” It brought its wings up beside its head, then said in a saccharine voice that almost sounded like Gronte, “Another what?” It paused, looking around, then spoke, again in that unfamiliar, stuttering, whining voice, “Those talking lizard things.”
Wait, that was my voice! I bared my fangs at the bird.
Gronte snapped her tongue at the bird, but smiled at me, saying, “It’s fine, Kinri. He’s a parrot, they can mimic voices.”
“…And make frilly jokes.” I huffed and turned away from the parrot.
She held out her wing, and the purple bird hopped onto her alula. When she looked back to me, the wiver said, “We haven’t made introductions. You know Hinte. They,” — she pointed to the doorway on the other side of the room — “are Ushra and Staune. This,” — she bounced her alula — “is Versta, and I am Gronte.”
“Oh, I’m Kinri,” I said, “and, um, that’s it.”
Gronte hissed a short laugh before flicking her tongue and looking down to my breast. “That is a beautiful cloak you wear. Is it silk?” Hinte narrowed her brow at Gronte.
I smiled. “Kinda. Medusa fibers. It’s, uh, like silk. Smoother, and more durable, and other things.” Hinte snapped her tongue — so soft only I heard it — and looked away from both of us, staring out the window.
Gronte waved her tongue. “Who made it?”
“Um. It’s from the sky.” I scratched my cheek. “You’ll never meet or hear of them…” …And I had forgotten.
“Oh well.” Her frills folded, and she asked, “I imagine you won’t part with it, then?”
“Not until I add a missing piece. And it’ll be very, very expensive.”
“That’s just fine. Pray light by me when you get that missing piece, if you would.”
I nodded, looked around the room. Another door stood opposite the first, where Ushra must have gone. Another spiky, spherical plant sat by this room’s window, and a cute flower pot sat in the center of the slab, orbited by the plates and cups. On closer inspection, the flowers looked shiny and off-color. Metal? I’d never seen anything like that.
Gaze still drifting, I counted the mats. Six. Should I sit? Gronte-sofran never gave me permission.
The parrot’s squawk interrupted my thoughts. “Pray light by me if you pluck any manners!”
Turning back to the bird with writhing frills, I said, unthinking, “I’ll pluck your manners!” I took a step forward.
Gronte shook her wing, and the purple parrot turned to her. Scratching its neck, she whispered, “She didn’t mean anything by it, dear. She’s never seen a dragon-tongued parrot before.”
“Sorry,” I murmured. I glanced over at Hinte. She stared out the window, eyes roaming and seeming to hunt for something, brilles never more than half-clear, as if she were shrouded in thought.
“It is accepted.” Gronte took a sip from her teacup. “You are taking this a lot better than most of the townsfolk. To them, an ‘animal’ talking is a perversion, they take religious objection to it.”
“I mean, it is kinda weird. Are they, um, like dragons? Can they think?”
“I’m right here, you minnow!” The parrot’s voice warbled. It sounded discordant and it drove stakes into my frills. The parrot lunged from Gronte’ wing, and flew at me! But Gronte stopped it with her other wing.
“Minnow? What is that supposed to mean?” My frills were already writhing, so I bared my fangs instead.
“I’m saying you’re a wee little minnow, you minnow,” the parrot said from behind Gronte’s wing.
“Versta, go check on Monsun.” Her voice had a forced levelness that bled the excitement from the parrot.
“Don’t wanna,” he said; but when Gronte lowered her wing and shook his perch, the bird fluttered to the ground instead of flying at me. The purple parrot walked out of the room, scratching its way to the hall.
“He is…” Gronte paused a bit to find the words. “…excitable. He is not as offended as he looks.”
I nodded. “I’d just call it hatchly, but I guess excitable works too.”
She tossed her head. “To answer you question, yes. Parrots think and feel as much as dragon’s do. They have trouble picking up our language fully, and their emotional lives are a bit more… lopsided — you may say ‘hatchly’ — but its a matter of parrots being very different from dragons, and so they don’t take the same things seriously that we do, and don’t understand every aspect of our culture.”
“It could still be polite, at least.”
Hinte folded a frill. “He, not it.”
“I’m Sorry?” I scratched a foreleg with another, looking around the room.
Suddenly Gronte said, “Kinri!” with a start of her wings. “Sit down, sit down. Anywhere you like. You don’t need permission.”
“Kinri-ychy,” came Ushra’s voice from beyond the other door; he emerged, and continued, “show me your forelegs. My Enkelin asked me to take a look at them.”
Still perched on his wing, his parrot, Staune, fluttered down onto the mat beside Gronte, where the older wiver scratched the bird. I slinked over to Ushra, and extended my forelegs.
He looked over them for but a moment before turning them over. He furrowed at the gash, and prodded it, and kept up the pressure until I hissed in pain.
“I see you have been using my glazeward recipe,” he said, but not to me.
“Yes,” said Hinte, staring at the slab.
Ushra hummed, and didn’t reply. He finished looking at my forefeet after a few more beats.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“For now, of course. My granddaughter did a serviceable enough job. None of it is urgent.”
“Do you need to look at my side?”
Ushra said, “My granddaughter asked me to look at your legs.”
“Keep your modesty.” Ushra was already turning toward the kitchen, and a burnt orange eyes was almost glaring at him.
“Okay then. But about the uh, glazeward salve…”
“Well um… Should the glass stick to my forelegs like this?” I waved a foreleg.
“It varies with the formula. The mixture I employ is somewhat… primitive, I would suppose, compared to what the sifting companies utilize currently. I am a pharmacist, not an engineer, and so I have little time to investigate the trivialities of vitrification… And so my salve may indeed have such practical deficiencies.”
“Well… how do I get the stuff off? It’s a painful to scrape this all off by foot!”
The dark-jade wiver cleared her throat. “Well, there are scrapers in the east market trained for just this — they do a better job.”
“Nonsense. Some of my patients come to me after having fallen in the lake — I have unguents for exactly this.”
“I imagine Kinri-ychy would prefer to keep her scales,” Gronte said.
“Yeah… I do like my scales.”
Ushra looked at me. “They are blue,” he said. Slow and deliberate, as if it may cause offense.
“I like blue?”
I waved my tongue, confused; but Ushra turned and disappeared into the kitchen again. So I tossed my head and lay beside Hinte, an empty mat away from her grandmother. On the other side of the old wiver, Staune was preening her feathers.
After a few beats, Ushra returned, carrying a plate of hot food in his wings. He moved around the slab, letting everyone get food, and poured tea from a kettle.
The main course was a peep of tidbit chickens, a dozen of them, each about the size of your foot. Beside them are various plant- and fungi-based dishes I didn’t know on sight. One of them looked some kind of root, and others faded into the gallimaufry of greens and browns.
I looked around the slab. I didn’t like eating with others. It was rude and vulgar, and base, animal action. But it would read more rude to refuse, wouldn’t it? A Specter–a nice dragon compromises. I took a little bit of each dish and two tidbit chickens.
Staune was grabbing pieces with beak and talon, taking a whole plateful. I flicked my tongue at that. Was the bird planning to eat all of it?
Gronte spoke before I could ask anything, saying, “Hinte has refused to any details of whatever happened last night until you were here. Now that you are, there are — aspects of it that concern us.” Her alula touched the locket at her breast, and it lingered there for a beat.
“You mean the, uh, incident in the cliffs?” I asked.
She nodded while Hinte looked up from getting her breakfast, spooning bits of the mixed fruits and nuts into her mouth. She’d taken none of the leafy green stuff; but it didn’t taste that bad!
I chewed more of the soft and stringy greens. They had a hint of salt or some spice that gave them a nice flavor. No accounting for taste.
Hinte spoke up between bites of chicken, “I knew the topic would come up. I won’t repeat myself. Digrif will be here soon.”
I tried the root; it tasted spicy sweet, a flavor I never expected from a root.
“How do you know what happened?” I asked. Ushra had looped around the slab, and now gave Gronte her meal. I tried taking another root. Ushra snipped at me, taking it back. My frills deflated, and I settled for starting on the tidbit chicken.
Beside Gronte, Ushra muttered something to Staune. The bird flew up onto the slab and stood there. Ushra sat where she’d been, leaving two empty spots. One was on the other side of Hinte — for Digrif, maybe — and another right beside me that would sadly stay probably unfilled. As Ushra pulled out a leaf of fernpaper from his robes and started scratching ink on it with a feather, the red and blue parrot hopped over in front of my plate, upturning its head so that one eye watched me.
I drifted my gaze from the bird to the master alchemist, watching the furrowed look morph as he wrote. Then my eyes flashed clear, and I licked them, but I hadn’t mistaken.
Ushra’s eyes were black. What had they been in the painting? I don’t think it was black.
Gronte had spoken. She’d said, “We know because the papers reported it in some detail.”
I’d almost forgotten what I’d asked, and spend a moment to taste her meaning. I glanced between the light-green drake to the dark-jade wiver.
“Oh?” I said, and felt some hope tingle in my glands. Would I get recognition? Fame? “What do they say?”
Gronte held up a leafy page on the slab. It looked greenish, made from some fern. Various headlines and articles sprawled across its surface, titles clawed in the large pictographic glyphs of y Draig, while the articles in its smaller, flowing script.
The newspaper was only a few folded pages, more sprawled and haphazard than the newspapers of Tädet/Pimeys, which were like small booklets. I scanned the page she held up, looking for the article she meant.
The old wiver slid the page across the slab to me. The red parrot then grabbed it in one talon and offered it with a trill.
The parrot peered intensely at me as I began to read the article.
I couldn’t help a giggly click at the title: ‘Fierce hatchling slays monster in the fires,’ it read.
My breakfast sat there untended as I read. My eyes moved across the page in slow and backtracking sweeps. In the sky my clawed y Draig had gone unused, even apart from the weird dialect of the backward Gwymri. It was getting better every day I had to work as Mawrion-sofran’s scribe, but I couldn’t help reading judgment or maybe scorn into the glances at me.
My frills deflated as I read, and by the time fourth short ring trilled, I had finished.
The article mentioned me by name no more than once. If it hadn’t spoken of two dragons in the Berwem near the beginning, wouldn’t have even known I existed! At least the story didn’t seen very accurate otherwise. It read as though Hinte had fought four apes at once and won, unscathed.
“This is… not what happened.”
“It appeared so,” said Ushra. “But what truly happened?” He peered at me with those mysterious black eyes.
“Wait for Digrif, he will be here,” Hinte said.
At Hinte’s hindrance the conversation lulled. I focused on my food, but Ushra’s red parrot flapped and interrupted me.
I looked up at it. “What do you want?”
I glanced down at my plate. I had taken four of the large nuts but hadn’t touched them. I picked up two and passed them to the bird, who took one in a talons and one in its beak.
“Ceya,” it trilled as it fluttered back to Ushra, cracking and smashing one of its new nuts. I smiled. It was almost cute. Where Versta just passed my knees, Staune came almost up to my withers. Maybe Staune was older.
I had half-finished my first tidbit chicken when came the expected knock. Ushra left to answer it, and after a moment you heard talk from the front room, but couldn’t make out the words, save hearing that same interrogation tone Ushra’d inflicted on me. Soon the alchemist returned.
And from the door, in the companionable light of the loversuns, an familiar drake walked — but not Digrif. He stepped further into the room, and a bright glow lit his orange scales.
* * *