Rousing III: Interpret

iiiiii

i.*

In silence I slinked away from the Gären estate and toward my sinkhole of morning shift.  Around me the west end was sleeping.  The birds didn’t chirp too loudly, there weren’t very many dragons out walking, and even the wind seemed to hold its breath.
That left it easy to hear the soft, stealthy padding that came up behind me.
I said, “Hello again, Adwyn-sofran.”  Your tongue caught the scent of eyepaint.
“Greetings, Kinri of Specter.”
A twitching blue frill brushed my headband, and metallic-red eyes caught that.  I walked on, forcefully, and left the orange drake trailing behind me. Why here, why now? I’d had enough of this smirking, scheming wraith at breakfast.
“What do you want?” I asked him.  “I need to get to work.”
“Just a little chat,” he said.  “About⁠ ⁠—⁠ events.  They merit reflection, do they not?”  The adviser preformed a short, low leap that put him right beside me.  He was stretching his wings, rolling his neck, and relaxing into a low-walk.  Then he continued, “Their attitude, let’s call it.  There’s the same inventive paranoia about both of them, by turns charming and vexsome.  I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“Okay,” I said, and lifted myself into a high-walk.
He sighed as if denied something. “Simper as ever, I see,” said Adwyn, and he tossed his head.  “You heard the alchemist⁠ ⁠—⁠ a plot of another stronghold against us!  As if we did not dig up half the bronze in their weapons.  As if we did not have the protection of Dyfnder/Geunant in all but paper.”  His tone had an kind of negotiated sound to it⁠ ⁠—⁠ like it might have been ironic if it didn’t sound sincere.  He gave me a knowing smirk as he strode up to me again.
“It’s not that far-fetched,” I said. “Maybe Ushra made it sound more sinister, but the apes are really creepy.  Maybe there is someone behind them, pulling puppet strings.”
Adwyn leapt high.
I jerked to a stop, looking up. Did he expect me fly after him? …I wanted a reply, and he had to know that.  Transparent.
I sighed. Mornings made me fly to work anyway. My hindlegs vaulted me into the air and passed off to my wings.  When I’d caught up to the orange drake, he must have heard me, because now he was speaking.  His voice was a growl or shout, pitched to carry.
“Forgive the tangent; I’d forgotten to tell you,” he said. “The faer wanted you to hear that your Mawla has turned up innocent.  At least until Wrang⁠ ⁠— looking to be the true actor in this matter⁠ ⁠—⁠ can be investigated.  Something that is hampered by his family’s influence.”
The military adviser was threshing wings lifting him above me; he saw my smile.
Mawla was innocent. Of course she was; I knew it. The stars would keep her away from this mess, wouldn’t they?
Then my smile faded to a frown — why had the adviser changed gears so suddenly?  It wasn’t just forgetting, he was too calculated for that.  I fanned my frills, listened.
His next words had the rhythm of a consequent. “Tell me, do you know of the Sgrôli ac Neidr?  The, ahem, library of snakes?
“Of course I do.  I go there every⁠ ⁠—⁠ most⁠ ⁠—⁠ some days.”
“You know Chwithach?”  He saw me nod.  “Tell me, how trustworthy is he?”
“I trust him.  He’s kept my, uh, interest in alchemy between us.”
“Sightly.”  Adwyn nodded.  “I know Rhyfel-ann has bright things to say about him —⁠ and I would ask the head guard myself, but I feel as though I ask too much of the drake.”
He glided closer to me, and spoke lower: “When you go to the library again, inquire as to whether anyone has recently checked out scrolls about humans, or the Gorphonic mines.  Tell him I asked.  I’d like the information⁠ ⁠—⁠ all of it —⁠ on paper.  Parchment.”
While I nodded, my frills were working.  I asked, putting twist in my voice, “Are you admitting Ushra might’ve been reasonable?  That someone is behind the humans?”
Adwyn flapped, and floated a bit higher, and then fell back down.  “I will admit, there is, perhaps, some grain of obscured reason in it.  Perhaps.  We don’t know what was going on out in the lake last night, and I will not speculate on it.”  He paused.  Then, “With that said, there are groups inside Gwymr/Frina who could see benefit from a conflict with the humans.  Groups connected to some other stronghold, who would have us ally with their benefactors.”
“Like you and Dyfnder/Geunant,” I said, and banked closer to catch his reaction.
The drake didn’t even flinch. “Yes,” he said. “Can I have no loyalty? The Dyfnderi are peaceable⁠ ⁠—⁠ we keep to ourselves, we have been friends to the cliffs from the beginning.”  As if quoting something, he said, “It was stubborn Dwylla who refused our appeals and Mlaen who continues to trace his foolish footsteps.  We can see what’s best for Gwymr/Frina.  We always have.”
I sat silent, and watched the buildings below slowly drift past⁠ ⁠—⁠ just like I would on any other morning, flying alone, dragging my flight to work.
But as I quietly flew on, the drake seemed to be waiting for something. I asked him, “What do you want from me?”
“The Empyrean⁠ ⁠—⁠ excuse me, the Constellation of Houses⁠ ⁠—⁠ hates Dyfnder Geunant, and House Specter most of all.”  He spoke slowly.
I tilted my head. Did we? I had only heard of the Dyfnderi from my tutors. They were the defensive, reclusive orange dragons who lived in the deepest canyons, in Dyfnder/Geunant, the stronghold that was a country in itself.  They were infamous, I guess, but only in history books, not in life.  Why worry about the mudscales when there were rogue skylands and the odd nadir revolt or tantrum?
Adwyn was still talking. “When you arrived at our gates, I had wondered if this was their vengeance come at last, if Specter had sent an agent disguised as a feckless exile.  I’d argued you in to keep an eye on you.
“And it seems that your incompetence wasn’t feigned, that you left the sky, an expatriate, not an exile.  And you hide your mark of exile⁠ ⁠—⁠ as if it were some embarrassment.  What, are you trying to escape your family here?  You’re running away?”
“I–I was encouraged to leave, but the decision was mine…”
We continued to fly.  I saw the squat black Llygaid Crwydro building pass below us, but I stayed quiet.  I was going there.  But would it be an insult to point it out?  I needed to stay on his good side, at least till I had full citizenship.
When he spoke again, his voice was just loud enough to be heard. “Specter-eti,” —⁠ the canyon-dweller’s voice, sharp and distant, seemed to caress each syllable in a way that might be violating if I had felt any connection to that family name⁠ ⁠—⁠ “you care about technology, about knowledge, correct?  Most sky-dwellers do.  Or do they still let you have scrolls in the sky?”
“Well, we have books⁠ ⁠—⁠ like little scrolls you flip through.”
A nod.  “You may not have learnt⁠ ⁠—⁠ sky loves to forget any history not involving itself⁠ ⁠—⁠ but the inked press is a Dyfnderi device.  One we devised to preserve and spread our scripture and ideals, one that’s had something of a life of travel.  The sky has its letterpresses, the ridges have gravure presses, and the forests had something of the sort.  Or has if any are left in the ashes.”
“So?” I said.  “Do you have any point at all, or did you made me late to work to fan your pride?”
“I sought to clear the airs.  Give you a more reliable perspective.  History distorts, and I wouldn’t trust your⁠ ⁠—⁠ trust sky’s impression of my canyons.  And you agree that knowledge is valuable, no? I’d expect you to wonder where presses came from at least once or twice.”
“Inventing stuff doesn’t really make you starly, though.  Pteryx invented bronze and telescopes and all of those magical things with scary names.  Look at them.”
He grunted.  And then he spoke again, and it finally felt as if he’d deigned to make his point.  “I’ll be clear.  My loyalty is currently to the faer, first and foremost.  But middle and last remain for Dyfnder/Geunant and the beautiful caverns and rivers that grow and flow there.  I will see this town united under the violet eye of Dyfns.  That has been my goal since before I sent to Gwymr/Frina.”
Stars, I hope not, I muttered under my breath.  I’d seen that ugly eye of Dyfns⁠ ⁠—⁠ that oversaturated-purple slit eye with a rainbow of even more oversaturated rays squirting out, just like the eyepaint Adwyn always wore.
It was appreciation for their false god, I knew. Dyfns, bearing all sorts of frilly meaningless titles like “the depth beyond depth” or “he of deepest gaze.”
Their obsession with eyes in general was probably more plain weird than it was heretical, but I doubted it was starly, with how far the canyons were from the winds of the Cloud Constructor.
(It had been a sad thing, the priests would always say, to plunge the surface into spiritual darkness, but the Severance had left us no choice.  Maybe one day it would be lifted, and I could step into a temple of the stars again.)
Adwyn spoke again, and I’d only just leapt out of my thoughts to hear it.  His words fell dramatic and faultless, the coda of a practiced speech.  “In time, the faer will see the safety of our gaze and the ridge’s influence here will stop in its tracks.”
I didn’t say anything, and we flew along coiled silence awhile.  Then, I suppose he stopped waiting and dropped his last line.
“I would want to see you join me in this, Kinri of Nothing.”
I held my breath for a beat.
Kinri of Nothing. It — it fit. But I almost preferred being Kinri of Specter, the sourcerous, wretched sky-dweller exile.  Kinri of “it’s her.”
“Join me, Nothing-eti, and you can escape your past once and forever.  You can at last get the recognition you desire.”  He gave me one last knowing smirk, the echoes of his words ringing in my ears.  Adwyn left in the light of the twin suns.

At some point the title stopped echoing in my head, and the silence it left wrung.
I glided down, angled north, at the Llygaid Crwydro. It translated to something like ‘the wandering gaze’ or ‘the roaming eye.’  Such a Geunantic phrase.
With a mutter, I came down through thick ashy clouds that spread out like a floor beneath me.  The gray season had only just begun, and it was still cycles before the volcanoes would start puffing out ash.  I had flown through ash clouds before, when Tädet/Pimeys had drifted by a ring of volcanoes in the high east.  It was worse than flying through snow; ash was so heavy it would drag you out of the sky if you were unprepared⁠ ⁠—⁠ and ‘prepared’ meant not being in the sky in the first place.
The world beneath the clouds still gleamed brightly under the big scattered clouds.  It dragged out a frown⁠ ⁠—⁠ I was about to lose four long rings to the shop, and it was sunny out.
As I lighted down in front of the Llygaid Crwydro, I was scowling at it. It looked a squat, unassuming building.  The sign had stylized glyphs with those creepy Geunantic slit eyes inside the circles, two of them, and they glared down at me like some night wyvern.
Instead of pitch black scales, this creature had pitch black bricks. And its wide, white doors were the gleaming teeth of an open maw.  Rawr, it said, as it readied to swallow me and my energy and happiness.  On either side of the door were colorful mounds of ash.  Natural piles once, but now they had fragments of stained glass pressed in, colluding into a sort of rainbow mosaic.  Claff’s work.
Down in front of the shop lay a drake on a bench, smoking a roll of smoldering fernpaper.  Scales a ruddy, almost brownish red, he wore glasses and had a thin, stretched look to his frame; he had muscles, but they seemed to be fighting the long, lanky look his skeleton wanted for him.
Like me, his hornscales were flat, disbudded stubs. He’d been the first I met down on the surface with them.  Even Uvidet, in all her feminine beauty, still had hornscales, but they are smaller, entwining into thin coils.  Which, I had to admit, looked cool on its own.  But not very wiver-like.
As I slinked up, he was glancing at me, and looking more somber than smirking. Hitching his wings in a curt greeting, he said, “Kinri.”
“Sinig,” I replied I smiled at the brownish-red drake who smelt of fernpaper, tart venom and a metallic whiff that might not be blood.
A nod. “Fancy cloak today.”
“I didn’t have anything else.”
He tossed his head.  “Fair.  You’ll have to sit at the counter today.”
“Oh.  Claff is sick again?”
“Yep.  It’s worse this time.  Papills.  He didn’t wake up day before yesterday.” He took another pull of his burning roll.  “Was asking about you yesterday.  You should go visit him sometimes, show ’em you care.”
“I⁠ ⁠—⁠ uh…”
Claff was… well, he was nice. When we talked, he made me laugh sometimes and I guessed I missed him when he was gone.  But… gah.
I should go visit him. He must really feel awful, because he worked so hard when he was here.  “I guess I’ll go see him this sometime.  Later this evening, maybe.  I⁠ ⁠—⁠ thanks for telling me, S.”
“Yea.”  He adjusted his glasses and looked up at the passing clouds and skycities above.
Time for work. Sighingly, I started forward. “And here I expected a nice, relaxing day of inventory,” I said as I walked past him.
“You can still do inventory,” he said, not taking his eyes from the clouds. “After the fourth ring.  You’ll need to, at any rate.  New shipment coming in.”
I glanced back. “What? No help?”
Sinig brought his gaze down to me.  “I could say I did my good deed for today by not pointing that you’re late, again.  Or speculating on what that smell is.”  I looked back and he was smirking now.  I glared back.  He only rolled his head, continuing, “…Mehbe.  Depends on what the crowds look like later.  Wait for it.”
“Crowds?  Today?”
“You never know.”
I tossed my head.  What more could I ask?  So I turned and walked into the maw or door of the Llygaid Crwydro.
Like many buildings in Gwymr/Frina, the Llygaid Crwydro had stone doors. They were a light, almost white stone, and did nothing to ease the impression of vicious teeth.
I swallowed and pulled at the handle. The hallow door swung open and smacked me in the face.
Like many buildings in Gwymr/Frina, the Llygaid Crwydro had stone doors that tended lighter than they looked; and I still hadn’t gotten used to it.  Behind me there was a clicking, but when I turned.  Sinig regarded me solemnly, inclining his head.  I snapped my tongue, and left it at that.
As I stepped into the shop, good-humored Sinig lay behind me and lonely counter lay in front.  That was as good a statement of the day ahead of me as any.

The innards of the shop greeted me, as they always did, lifeless and still, and smelling of some sweet fruity scent floating over dust and strange old plants.  The line from the door split the shop proper down the middle; two counters were on either side stretching only a few strides long. Beyond that, the shop was shelves and tables, and some support beams.
Four rings, Kinri. It was only four rings.
I walked further in.  My sandals gritted on a floor like sandstone, and my gaze avoided the strangely high ceiling.  Unlike a lot of the north end, this shop rose up only a single story, without an attic; the owner’s quarters squatted down in the basement.
This time of morning he would be minding the hatchlings, and his mate busy in the guard.  From all I’d heard, the family he’d brought to the cliffs all worked cushy administration jobs and left him alone to take care of the new hatches.  (If you listened, you could sometimes hear the squeaks and laughing or crying, and so many thumps.)
You could kinda see why I’d been hired, despite being, well, me.  With the hatchlings taking up most of his attention, I filled in some of the less important duties: taking inventory, tracking and balancing finances, or even more boring things, like sorting and organizing the shelves.
I glanced over to those sanded pumice shelves and tables. They stretched or spread along walls wide enough you could leap from one to the other.  On them crowded the piles of clothes and tools and books, and I told myself they wouldn’t need organizing for a few more days.
Murmuring, I told Kinri that there really wouldn’t be that many customers because the east market was crowding, that the inventory Sinig alluded to would only be a couple of boxes, and mostly, that all the moil was small today.
At the very least, a certain plain-dweller was sitting behind one of the two counters.  Arall, a long, tall wiver with a generous wingspan almost as wide as mine, short by only a few clawspans.  She was wiping down some dusty plate inlaid with bright metal, and regarding me with a mask of mere civility, not waving or really acknowledging me until she asked, “Sinig told you to take the other counter today?”  She spoke fast enough a beat passed before I untangled the words.
I nodded, meeting her eyes just once for politeness then letting them eye the shelves again.
“Good,” said she, and went going back to wiping the plate.
At that, I slipped behind the other counter.  The wiver always needled me with how brusque and abrasive she acted⁠ ⁠—⁠ like Hinte, but not in a good way.  And yet, she seemed more approachable than me, with so many more customers buying from her.  It suited me, but still vaguely stung.
As I slipped behind the counter and its little wooden flap entrance slid to a close behind me, my gaze wandered, avoiding Arall and falling on where Sinig lay outside the shop, then on my bag, then on the board games Claff had left under this counter, with a dozen again pieces and rules only he tasted.
With the plain-dweller drake coming down with all kinds of awful diseases, I was working the counter more and more.  It was rings of mind-numbing waiting and hallux-twiddling, punctuated by bargaining and bartering and brokering.
And it all twisted my tongue and stuttered my words in that same way anything reeking of the same maneuvering and manipulation from back home would.  That still was an act, but a comfortable act, an authentic act.
I looked up, adjusting my headband. The molten heat had left my face with a stripe of unsinged scales where my headband had been last night.  I could never set the headband in the exact same position, so it brushed against the singed scales and smarted a little every now and again.
Sighing only once, I lay on the raised stone rest behind the counter. It spread like it was designed for bigger dragons, and it only underscored how little I was.  I hugged my wings closer body, and it made me smaller.
Without getting up, I reached out for the soapy water and rag hid underneath the counter.  Setting both on the counter, I unlidded the water with my wings, the rag dusted off with my forelegs⁠ ⁠—⁠ all done for want of something to do with myself, really.
I took the rag, wetted it soapily and wiped the counter. In here it would dust overnight, because the air stayed dry and sooty.  I wiped with slow slowness.  If I finished too soon, I would need to find something else to do. Wipe down, wipe up. I could try starting one of the stories in Gronte’s book, labor through the translating.  Wipe left, wipe right.  But I did need to clean this counter, so I’ll finish this first.
Sometimes, cleaning this counter, it wouldn’t be enough to sate me, and I’d look over to the other counter, where now Arall had moved from her dust plate to the countertop itself, like me.  I’d see this, and I would try to fledge it into a competition of who could clean their counter the cleanest first.
I would say, “Arall, bet you can’t finish your counter before me.”
And Arall would roll her head, and stop cleaning her counter.  I’d droop my frills, and wouldn’t lift my gaze from my counter.
Left and right, left and right, I cleaned. Then up and down, then up and down. Then left and down, then right and up.  Then a circle!  Then a spiral!  A smiling face.  The glyph for ‘Kinri.’  Under it, the glyph for ‘Digrif.’  Around them, a curling tail.  Wait.  Blood rushed to my frills, and I rushed to rub that out.
Right and left. Down and up. Ugh. My tail patted my bag, feeling the book Gronte gave me.  Down and ugh.  Left and pat.  With a long-building sigh, I doubled my pace, and finishing the counter in a single jerk of a movement, some rag-dulled swipe of my claws.  I ripped the book from my bag with a huff.
The book of nothing, she’d called it. It greeted me with pages of old laid paper that smell of sweet wax.  Inside, the colorful letters danced across pages with a vibrance that spoke of a claw-inked scrolls.  I flipped all throughout the book until I came across something that looked like The Confusion of Underbrush in Drachenzunge.
I peered at the slender symbols, fangs dewing salty as my familiarity dribbled back to me.
“My syllabus demands…” I murmured, translating.

The Confusion of Underbrush

My syllabus demands that multipart essays be individually numbered, that liminal parts be footed with “To be continued…” & that the form & function of every part be exhaustingly stated in the subtitle of said part.  Every so often, a student will come to me & ask why I demand their multipart essays be labeled so sillily; “Any one of these seems quite sufficient,” they would say, “but the ensemble together seems quite redundant.”  In reply, I tell them tale of how the War of Underbrush was started, just as I will now tell you.
There once lived a queen who ruled over a large city with a great & terrible army. She had a great many stupid advisers, & one smart one whom she trusted.  The stupid advisers meted out what they thought would keep the large city happy, & sometimes the smart one countered this.  Nearby to the large city, some of a certain race of dragons with spiny-frills had taken up residence in a dark damp clump of forest which no-one wanted.  Till one day, the bigots of the large city demanded the queen do something, anything, about them.  (This was an unenlightened age, & so a great many tongueless ideas were quite unfortunately in vogue: that spiny-frills would invoke the venom of the gods, that their witches would cook up unhatched eggs, even that they were plotting a takeover of the large city.)  It came that the stupid advisers echoed the will of those bigots, & the matter was brought up at every meeting thereafter.
The shop’s door opened and a little bell jingled, jostling me from my glazed-eye reading, and I was almost smiling for it.  The door opened to a brown, rugged dragon stepping in, naked save the cloth band wrapped around the base of his tail and a sack on his back.  His name escaped me; but maybe I’d never heard it.
Anyway, he was a hunter and tanner who dropped by with hides every other cycle. Today’s would be the last haul he would bring in before the gray season arrived in full and all of the game in the cliffs would wane scarce.  Even the skinhounds would grow lethargic and sedentary.
The drake wasted no time going directly to Arall. I licked my fangs. It wasn’t anything about me, maybe she was just more familiar, having worked here longer than I had.  My frills were drooping anyway, and I returned to the story dryer than the shop.  The meaning tucked away in those slender symbols seemed to come a little easier now.
There once lived also, in a different city, a famous, if trenchant, philophager, & a master of language renown for much, most of all her treatises in & of her mastery of backward branch.  Call her Halhalje.  They say her mother’s mother was spiny-frilled, but she ever denied these accusations & no records remain to be quite sure.  Yet in spite of these suspicions, she had risen high to prominence, commanding respect from the learnéd across the land.  It was all very impressive at the time.
Halhalje had a particular delivery of lectures that was alternately the sweetened poison tone of those words said before some long-anticipated murder, or the bombast of such that might inflict those killings.  All the while, her phrasing rarely strayed from that rarefied verbosity of academics, but it didn’t quite suffer from it.  It was a contrast.
You will know that the forest’s poetry spat out its philosophy, began her first lectures of the gyra.  Even its name is poetry: know a ‘philophager’ is, in the literal, a love-eater; for a good poet should strip the world to its skeleton) .  Halhalje would say this with some bite & a particular snap, & the sounds would fill the lecture hall.  & know that a number far too large of schools of poetry had flourished, as is their wont, & that all but the most mercilessly abstract eventually spat out their own little school of exposition or argumentation.  But you are fledglings, you won’t care about that.  Let’s talk about two: the fair backward branch & the slimy long vine.
Halhalje paused for a beat, & the crowd of students seated look bored, only a few paying quite rapt attention (for the philophager was a good speaker, but not a miracle-worker).  To introduce her next point, the lecturer began breathing loudly, & then continued:
When you talk, you breathe, said Halhalje.  Arguments breathe just as well, & being smart dragons we divide them up like this & call the parts breaths.  Know that that backward branch goes is two ‘branches’ in the first two breaths, probably your position & your interlocutor’s, & it’s done with a meeting of the branches that reconciles them, she said, & punched her feet together.  The details get elaborate (as does, I add, anything academics find stimulating) but what you fledglings need to care about is the aesthetic: here, two branches subequal yet distinct, & a meeting which privileges neither side; an aesthetic of fairness.  Remember this, & you might claw something worth looking at.  Obversely, the long vine goes by persuasion, instead than negotiation, Halhalje started, & her tone had noticeable tarnished.  The first breath argues for your interlocutor’s position, the second will show how that weaves into a position partway between the two, & the last breath shows how this liminal position weaves into your own.  Halhalje then sat down.  This is an aesthetic of gravity, of the inveterate pull of reason⁠ ⁠—⁠ or mere slimy rhetoric, most often.  Regardless, one can see all the common here: both argue for each side & a composite; but the journey of one is the destination of the other.  Halhalje was waving her hands around as was the usual gesture of summary.  Suffer it to say that the aesthetics of philophagic argumentation determine the form & content.
I could go on, but Halhalje, having yet to publish some book of her own, would scarcely appreciate her lectures begin repeated here.  You know what matters for the story, regardless.  It wasn’t long after giving this introductory lecture one year that the philophager returned to her office to find a certain letter there.  The aforementioned queen had mailed her.
A bell jingled, jostling again me from my reading.  I placed a marker rod in the book, frills crinkling as I looked to the door.  It was Sinig, looking the slightest bit disheveled.  He waved a wing, and low-walked back to where Mawrion clawed at paperwork and watched his hatchlings.
Why did he have to watch his hatchlings? Ashaine and I could do whatever we wanted as hatches, and we lived in the sky.  What was there to worry about on the surface?
I waved back at Sinig, giving the book of nothing another look, frills relaxing as I looked back to the book.
Meanwhile, thing had not grown better in the large city.  It came to pass that more & more of the queen’s advisers & the large city’s elite called for, nay, demanded, action against the spiny-frilled dragons.  They asked them to be killed, or at least forced from the dark damp clump of forest which no-one wanted.  Sensibly, the smart adviser asked of the queen to claw a latter to enlightened Halhalje, entreat her just what should be done about the spiny frills.  Neither of them had read the phager’s works.  After many cycles, the phager did reply back, & with three scrolls.  The queen, a patron of the learning herself, & fancying herself philophagic, studied the scrolls.  In them, she read a long vine argument which grew from trusting & accepting the spiny frills, to a measured & sympathetic approach, to starving them economically to coerce them out of the dark damp clump of forest which no-one wanted.  Against her initial judgment, the queen was taken in by this argument, & her treasurers & judges set to work to implement the philophager’s interdicts.
Like you would too, the spiny-frills in that dark damp clump of forest which no-one wanted did not take well to the embargoes.  While some starved or were preyed upon, a few took to burglary & vandalism upon the large city which had denied them basic dignities.  One day, a spiny-frilled bandit killed, perhaps accidentally, a visiting noble in a robbery gone artfully wrong.  The large city was in uproar, & the queen, with all her advisers breathing on her frills, had come to a final decision.  The great & terrible army was roused & unleashed upon the nestled village in that dark damp clump of forest which no-one wanted.  Just like that, in a single day, the peaceable village in the dark damp clump of forest which no-one wanted was destroyed & its inhabitants were killed, drake, wiver, & hatchling.
When that trenchant philophager Halhalje learnt of this, she was star-crushed; for she hated long vine, seeing it as a slimy, manipulative form.
No, her message had been in backward branch.
I laughed, but it choked after thinking a step father.  It was such a depressing piece of history⁠ ⁠—⁠ and it was phrased like a joke’s punchline.
Gronte had wanted me to read this, but why?

ii.*

My head lay on the counter.  Two long ring each chimed at some point.  I may have stumbled close to sleep once or twice, but never near enough to really rest.
A bell jingled when I was closest, jostling me from my nap. A dark figure entered.  They were short but long⁠ ⁠—⁠ still taller than me, but only just so.  They wore a black cloak, embellished with pale gold and gray threads. Various glyphs decorated — most prominent among them the old symbol for Cyfrin ac Dwylla, a purple flame melting a rock struck through by a pickax.  In the left corner, a stylized glyph for faer Dwylla spread, but a diagonal slash struck through it.
They advanced to the counter and I lurched my head up. I cleared my brilles, only to find a mask covering their face, and reveal only peering, brilliant gold eyes that dart to my headband, right where the matua brand lay, and settled on me.  Did they know?
“Omoù ptèromai, Specter-eti.” Their voice was a private murmur.
I snapped my tongue.  Would I ever be rid of that stinking title?  But I licked my fangs and said, “Greetings and welcome to Llygaid Crwydro~”  I righted myself out of my slump.  “What can we do for you?”
“I would like to sell this,” they said in a strange accent with long, low sibilants.  Reaching into their cloak, they pulled out a foot-sized object in a black schizon pouch.  Its strings were pulled at and its contents dumped onto the counter.
My frills were wrinkling before I saw it. When the glowing red stone slid onto the counter, a familiar, unwelcome hum vexed my frills.
A cryst.
The thing itself gleamed a deep, sparkling red.  Gleamed.  It looked more than an actual gem than the stinking stones we’d dug up.  Cut into many faces, each side was a little triangle.  The vibration of the cryst rumbled even deeper, more intense than any of the crysts from yesterday.
The gem-like crysts hummed with more clarity and focus than any I’d dug up. Where the others resonated with a cacophonous chorus of interleaved, staggered vibrations, this cryst sang in a single voice and melding overtones.  It was an undulating note in tremolo.  And it sounded almost like music⁠ ⁠—⁠ almost sounded good.
Then I recovered, remembered that I supposed to be bartering. I hummed a thoughtful hum, and didn’t mean for it be in tune.
“It’s pretty, I guess. And sounds nice,” I said. Is there anything else to it?”
Their frills wrinkled under their hood and their eyes grew sharper, giving the impression of being evaluated, interpreted.  But where someone like Ushra or Adwyn had eyes that pierced, these eyes seemed only to prod.  Only needed to prod.
They said, “It is of particular value to those with… certain talents.”
“Oh.  It’s magical, then?” I asked.  I popped my tongue in a very no-nonsense gesture, halfway between a snap and a click.
Their eyes shifted a bit at my response, intense and almost glaring. Their frills shifted too, tending less prominent under their hood.  “It is not magic.”
I rolled my head. “Anti-magical then, is that —” I cut myself off. The words had just left my mouth when I cringed.
They hissed, and said, “Better,” before adding in a lower, even more private tone, “You are a practitioner, then?”
“No,” — I tried to measure my words before saying them — “I have a… friend.  She knows more about this than I do.”  It was all I could do to keep another reaction from my face.  I was just digging myself, and Hinte, deeper, wasn’t I?
I tried forcing more seriousness in my tone, without reaching for my ariose Specter voice.  “But it doesn’t matter.  There aren’t a lot of practitioners around here, and the ones there are hide it for–for a reason.  Saying this is magical makes it less likely to sell, not more.”
They snapped their tongue when I said ‘magical’ again. What was their problem?
They said, “I am not selling it as a instrument of magic, only… pointing out that the market exists.”
“I shall not buy this on the hope that there is a practitioner in this town besides yourself.”  Too much.  I pulled back the seriousness.  “It’s a cool bauble, I guess?  But… curiosities only really go for so much.  I’ll, um, give you maybe ten aris for this.”
“I usually sell these for five times that, at least. In the east market, that is.”  I could read a smile in the folds of their mask.
“You do that, then. Have a nice day~”
They stared for a moment and closed their eyes in thought.
“Thirty.”
“Ten.”  My frills wrinkled.  “If their prices are so much better, why not take this to the market?”
“There is quite a crowd of dragons at the market today. This shop doesn’t seem to have that problem.”
I clicked my tongue. “Good one. Your jokes might net you more than these rocks.”  I poked the red cryst, and it wobbled but didn’t fall over.
The mage’s eyes cleared. “It’s one of a kind. Does that not improve the price?”
I flicked my tongue, giving the stone another look. While the cut looked complex, it also looked regular.  As I turned over the crysts, listening to how the hum shifted, my frills unfolded, miming my exploits in the Berwem, and I caught something.
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “You have another somewhere under your cloak.”
Frills flattened and hissing laughter came from under the hood.  “Very good,” they said as a foreleg produced the implicated cryst.  Their mask shifted again, and they said, “I can part with both of these for that price.”  When they set the cryst on the counter, my breath cycle hitched for a beat.
That sonorous rumble and pale green body? “Sterk,” I mouthed. I looked back at the mage, giving them a closer look.  The question perched on the tip of my tongue.  But I flicked and said, “Only if you have some schizon to wrap it in.  One hum is enough. Two will drag on my nerves, drag on everyone’s nerves.”
A tongue flicked.  “Are you sure?  Three halves is quite the harmonious interval.  The only one I’ve seen called perfect, in fact.”
I whisked a wing. “That won’t stop it from waxing tiresome.”
The mage waited a beat.  Then, “Fair.  Consider this,”⁠ ⁠—⁠ they brought their forefoot to the counter and now it held a short bronze rod, tipped with a white stone⁠ ⁠—⁠ “I call it a synkén rrávdos.  It dulls the vibration of nearby crysts.  More importantly, it is cheaper than schizon cloth.”
“Ten and three,” I said.
“An understandable offer. I suppose I shall take it.” They place both crysts on the counter with the ‘synkén rrávdos.’
After reaching under the counter for our coinsack, I payed out the amount in gray-yellow coins, counting from ‘one’ to ‘ten and three’ in a conversational tone.  I finished, and they didn’t take the aris.  I just gave them a bland smile, saying, “Is there anything else you need~?”
Their brilles clouded, then cleared. Their mask shifted, but still hid whatever shift of expression caused it.  “Do you sell gliders?”
My brow furrowed for a beat, before I said, “We have two.”
“I shall take the better one.”
I slinked around the counter, weaving past three support pillars, to where stone wheels, ash-sled blades and diller leashes lined the wall.  Sitting on the slab just below it, among a few other things, lay two rods smelling of tanned and painted dillerskin.  One looked the grayish black of firm but snappable gray bamboo, while the other looked sturdy, brown wood.
The wings of the first folded down, which halved the width but still let the glider take up half the slab.  The other had wings folded to its sides, loosed by latch at the top that kept the wings spread in flight.  That one only took up a rod’s width sliver of the slab.
Back at the counter, the mage bought the wooden glider, leaving me with the aris I just payed and then some.
My scroll unrolled and lay in front of me, but I watched them leave, tongue waving, I took a sip of my water, washing a metallic lightning taste from my mouth.
“Who was that?” I murmured, staring at Sterk.

Just then, a bell jingled, jostling me from my rest; and in stepped a brown wiver with her left frill ringed with piercings, a wide laughing mouth and dark-blue eyes that lit up as they lighted on me.  She smelt oddly electric.
“Kynra! They said I might catch you here.”
“Hi!” I said.  My tongue searched around.  “Mawla, right?”
“Got it in one.” She slinked to the counter and leant over, smiling not far from my face.  “So.  I licked the papers.  Tastes like you went to the faer anyway, last night.  How did it go?”
“Well…” I cast my gaze to the ceiling. “The faer was… perceptive. The secretary is just as scary as they say.  Everyone else was weird or creepy.  But everything turned out okay.”
“Obviously,” she said, scowling. I tilted my head, but she must have been talking about something else because she continued with, “you wouldn’t get a mat in the faer’s administration if you were a decent, normal dragon.”
I frowned at the wiver. Did that mean I wasn’t decent, or I wouldn’t get that position?
“Think about it,” she was continuing, “have you seen a single plain-dweller in her skein?  She has a whole flock of gray scales, even Dyfnderi⁠ ⁠—⁠ screaming Dyfnderi⁠ ⁠—⁠ but not a single plain-dweller.  Except Bariaeth, and Bariaeth doesn’t count at all.”
Under the force of her words, I drew my wings toward myself and rested my head on the mat.  Did I upset her?
“Sorry.” I glanced away, eyes clouded. “My frown wasn’t at you. I was just thinking about how I was trying to get a position in the administration, maybe as a secretary or something.”
“Oh–oh, you’re fine, Kynra, obviously. I —”
“Um, it’s Kinri.”  I was still looking away.
“Whoops. You’re fine, Kinri.” She spoke my name slowly, trying to get it right.  “Guess I spend too much time idling at y Dadafodd.  Didn’t mean to turn this into something serious.”
I glanced back. “I think,” I said, “things turned serious for me the day I asked Hinte to take me into the lake.”  I looked away again, licking my eyes.  Why I made the topic about me like that? It was rude.
I cleared my brilles and jerked my gaze back to Mawla.  “The lake!  Why aren’t you in the lake?  I thought you were a sifter.”
Mawla grinned and gave me one of her throaty laughs; with it, the electric smell grew, gaining a metallic hint.  She said, “That’s actually why I tracked you down.”  She paused, snaking her head toward me until I could count the scales on her snout.  “No⁠ ⁠—⁠ blinking⁠ ⁠—⁠ sifting.  At all!  You must have worked some magic in the town hall, because the boss gave us all flight⁠ ⁠—⁠ paid flight.”
Mawla had gotten a little closer with every exclamation. Her grin had grown until her teeth were revealed, including her fangs.  She gave the impression she might bite my nose off if it wouldn’t hurt.
“That’s good?”
“It’s delicious!  Of course, I love”⁠ ⁠—⁠ her clouded brilles caught a glint of light⁠ ⁠—⁠ “the lake as much as everyone else.  But a day of freedom?  That’s a whole notch on its own.”
I smiled at the wiver, even as I slid back some. I could stay calm and professional here if I wanted to.  It wouldn’t even be hard.
Hide your fangs.
I didn’t want to.
Mawla was looking around, first back at the door, then gawking at Arall, who turned away⁠ ⁠—⁠ staring⁠ ⁠—⁠ somewhere over there, and the sifter gave her an unreturned, excited wave; then she was gawking at the dusty, webbed rafters above, and she gave them a scowl; and then she was gawking at me, and she gave me a faltering grin.  “So, that’s the news.”  She looked away and back again, and this time looking very much at me.  “I like the way you’re handling this.”
“What?” My head had tilted after I asked the question, I was so confused.
Mawla rubbed her frill piercings with an alula.  “We’re strangers, and you could have kept it at that.  But instead you were nice last night and you’re nice now, smiling and letting me gust.  It’s sweet.”
“You’ve been nice enough so far.”
Mawla tossed her head.  “Yeah, I have, obviously.  But it’s been a dance, you’re just as much to blame.”
My eyes went extra cloudy. “How am I to blame for you being nice?”
Her head tossed, and her tone was amused hissing.  “It’d be a lot easier not to if you weren’t all cute and friendly.  Flick at your molty, green friend if you want an apprenticeship in how not to do any of that.”
“Hinte’s friendly too… in her own way,” I said.
“Obviously not.  She said I had a drake’s name.”  Mawla drew her wings together.
“Maybe it was a joke?”
“Sure, sure.  But what about taking the credit in the papers?  She’s stealing all your glory.”
“I — I —” I could be calm and professional. “You think so?” But that wasn’t what drew Mawla here, was it?
It wasn’t wearing a mask, it was just deliberately not wearing a mask.
No, no, cringing, simpering Kinri was the mask.
“Obviously.” She yawned, as if me or the question had bored her. “If my whole squad doesn’t praise your name for this flight by the end of the day, I’ve done something wrong.”
“But I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“Would it have happened if you weren’t there?”
I twisted my head. Would Hinte have made it back without my help? “I don’t think so.”
“See it? It’s obvious.”
A bell jingled, jostling me from my conversation.
I saw Arall had only just turned around, so I waved a wing at the mud-dweller stepping in.
“Welcome to the Llygaid Crwydro~” I said. “Let me know how I can help you.”
Mawla seemed to find that funny, hissing just under her breath.  “Sweet lilt.  Do my name.”
I glared at her, and she fluttered her frills at me.  With a tonguesnap, I said, “You smell, Mawla~”
She hissed harder.
“I hope you’re entertained, because I have to do my job now. I might have to handle that customer.”
Mawla lowered her head with some sagely gleam in her blue eyes. “Yeah, jobs drag.”  She glanced around again, touching her piercings again.  “Anyways, the real, real reason I came here: I’m⁠ ⁠—⁠ Well, I don’t really have anyone.  So even though I have some freedom today, I have nobody to while it with.”
Licking my eyes, I said, “You want me to spend the evening with you?” Mawla only mouthed the syllables, this time.
I blew my tongue at her. “My schedule is mostly tied up today. I can’t say I can.”
“I can wait. Do you know the red cliffs down south?”
“I spend most of my nights down there!”
“That’s where I’ll be. It’d be my day if you’d drop by.”

A bell jingles, jostling me awake again.  A cloying, poisonous smell told me who was there before I lifted my head.
Stiffly, Gären vor Gronte strode right by my counter, and with her eyes roaming the shelves and signs, she missed me.
I watched her quick steps take her to three spots among the shelves. She searched intently enough I didn’t think she came here often⁠ ⁠—⁠ or even at all —⁠ but she was a quick enough search to find whatever after just a few moments.
And the dark-green wiver turned for a counter and then she saw me.
“Kinri?”
Standing in front of my counter, she smiled and laughed. “Ja, it is you. Hello.”
“Good afternoon~ Did you find what you were looking for today?”
“I did, thank you.”
I nodded, and spoke normal, saying, “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“With the market open?”
“That’s a part of it.”
“Well, I wanted to keep away from the crowd for this,” the dark-jade wiver said.  “The market’s so busy today, at full Ceiwad.”
“Why is everyone saying that?” I asked.  “You’re not even the first to come here on that reason.”
“Of course. If someone’s here instead of the market, it’s for a reason.” Gronte grabbed her basket.  “Regardless, let’s finish this deal before we talk.”
Gronte bought two pots, a big stirring spoon, a bagful of bones, and a jug of vinegar.
“Alchemy stuff?”
Gronte nodded, silent.
I told her the starting price for her selection — ‘Twenty and five aris’ — and she bought them all without haggling.
“So,” Gronte said, her basket still on the table. “Have you read any thing from the book?”
“I have! I read The Confusion of Underbush, like you asked.”
“Good!  Can you guess why I recommended it?”
“Well, I guess there’s some similarities with the situation with the humans, I guess.”
A wrinkly smile. “You’re a clever one. It’s exactly that. I thought it was somewhat appropriate.”
“Are the humans the city, or the spiny-frills? I never puzzled that one out.”
Gronte scrunched a frill.  “I had thought it clear that the humans were the city.  I never considered the alternative.”
“Does that mean you don’t think the humans might be, well, innocent? That we shouldn’t have killed them?”
The older wiver looked away and remained silent for a few beats. “Do you think the spiny-frills were right to do what they did?  That they had no other choice?”  Gronte shook her head.  “No, I take it back.  The situations aren’t quite comparable.  It’s just… she’s all I have left.  They didn’t kill her⁠ ⁠— thank Hazer⁠ ⁠—⁠ but they hurt her and…”
Gronte took a step back. “No, I’m sorry to inflict this all on you. Let me answer your question: I don’t know.  I had thought that whatever we did to the humans was justified but…”  Gronte shook her head.
“Vengeance is what I want, but it’s the easy path. It would be harder to move forward without more loss of life⁠ ⁠—⁠ any life, yet I don’t think anyone is pushing for that amongst Mlaen’s administration.  I’d like to⁠ ⁠—⁠ share that perspective.  I can talk to my tartness about it, he has more influence than I do.  And, perhaps you do as well.  Think on it, please?”
I clouded my eyes, and thought. The image that stained my dreams crawled up in an instant: a dewing human clutching its comrade and pleading.  I could say I already made my decision, and it wouldn’t be a lie.
“I will.”

iii.*

In the window a massive beast lumbered, long and lean, with a load pathetic compared to its bulk.  Fourteen slim legs supported its weight, each as fat around as a dragon’s.  The length of the creature was repetitive, as if it had once been a natural thing, but had that midsection resculpted and appended to the end again and again and again like clay.  Mossy chitin glinted in the light, textureless green alternating with foggy pools of collected water on its back and sides.  Even from the door, I could scent the chemicals smelling like burnt garlic which kept flies and parasites away, and coupled with it the rank scent of the fungi and moss all over.
In a word, it was a caterpillar cow. One of the strange creatures the surface had offered, a creature that really couldn’t decide if it was to be an oversized insect or an oversized beast.  Whenever I saw it, I was torn between laughing and shivering.
Despite the name, they weren’t cows or caterpillars or even close to either. Like cows, they were grazing, simple-minded herd animals, and like caterpillars, they loved leaves, tasted nasty unless cooked just right and knit themselves a cocoon to brume out the summers, emerging each gyra with new chitin and fresh scent.
The creature had its many-tongued, tapering head stuffed in a feed bag around its neck.  For that I was grateful.  Their mouths split down their head and writhed with tongues and flexing muscles.  Their eight eyes glinted, black and alien.
I flicked my tongue, and I was subjected to the stench of the caterpillar cow. It brought the forest-y odor of its flora, and yes, I could even smell the sweetness of its feed and the chemical scent of the buggrounders, but the unwashed mass of its body and the awful odor of its manure washed out any pleasantness.  Its rear stood out of view, so I can only hope whoever owns this cow had a bag to catch its droppings.
On its back a number of boxes lay strapped. A stocky plain-dweller sat astride, spurring the creature on.
A ruddy-red and a dark-orange drake landed by the head end of the creature. The Mawrion payed the rider as Sinig took two boxes from the back of the caterpillar cow.  Mawrion, too, took a box after he finished.
When they entered, Mawrion called for Arall, telling her to help unload the boxes.  But not me.  It fledged a little sense, at least.  I wasn’t really built for carrying things.  Mawrion might not have even considered me for the job.
My wings hugged my body. “Oh well,” I murmured.
They brought in our cyclic shipment of new goods.  It meant I would do some more inventory today.  I prayed the stars: please let it be with Sinig, and not with Arall.  After five boxes, they finished.  Arall went back to her counter, while Mawrion gestured for Sinig and me to go back and organize the new stuff. Yay, but also ugh.
We walked back, me falling into step beside him.
I folded my frills.  “Hi, S.”
“Hey, K.” He glanced at me once for politeness and continued to looking forward.
“So, I guess we have inventory now.” I followed his example, but still glanced at him in the corner of my eye.
“Yea.” He made some dismissive gesture with his wings, but gave up partway through, and it became a sort of floundering motion.
I looked up. Then brought my gaze down. I wasn’t that predictable, Staune! “So um, what are you going to do today⁠ ⁠—⁠ later, I mean?”
“Have a few fights down at the ring, fly with some friends, maybe eat something,” he said.  “Yourself?”
“Uh, going to the library, then the east market. I already ate something.”
“Our eternal rivals,” he said, tone dry.  “I am hurt that you would betray the shop like this.”
“Someone asked me to come with them, it wasn’t my idea!”
“Ah,” he said.  “Want to go flying in some downdrafts tomorrow, then?”
“Sure!” As long as you weren’t too close to the ground, it was a nice mix of tricky and thrilling and overall high fun.
We’d reached the room where the boxes went. Holding open the door, Sinig said, “That was a joke.”  He looked at me now, head tilted and tongue waving.
“Oh. But I used to that a lot when I was fledgling, with my…” I looked away.
“You mean your family never hit you with that ‘if all your friends flew into a downdraft, would you?’ argument when you wanted to copy someone?” he asked.  I’d looked back, letting out a breath when he didn’t ask about my trailing off.
“No?” I flicked my tongue at him. “I’m not from around here, and we don’t even speak y Draig where I’m from.  Our saying are all different.”
“Really?” Sinig low-walked over to a crate still speaking, “Weird. You sound almost like a native tongue⁠ ⁠—⁠ Minus the accent.”
I preened at the compliment. When I had first come to Gwymr/Frina, my y Draig dragged and would slip Käärmkieli words all the time.  I’d improved, high thanks to Chwithach.
I said, “I’ve known it since I was small.”
“That doesn’t really narrow it down much,” he said in that annoying, scentless tone.  He was joking, maybe, but about what?  At my blank stare, he added, “You never exactly stopped being small.”
I snapped my tongue. “Gah! Since I was smaller, then.” I let out a big breath, baring my frills.  Changing the subject, I said “I learnt all the major dragon tongues.  Was made to learn, anyway.”
“Impressive,” he said, again scentless. Was that sincere or some advanced joke?
I tossed my head and ambled over to a box and uncovered it.  Having gotten one of the ledgers on a slab by the wall, I began tallying up and sorting the contents of the box.  Inventory.  At least it gave me to time think.

The ruddy-red drake glanced at me.  “You want more smalltalk?”
I lowered my head into the box, hiding my smile. “Sure? I mean, it’d be nice.”
“Ha.  Well, I don’t know what you want out of it.  I could share some observations from my ride this morning, but they aren’t very light,” he said.  Then, “Or we could talk about the weather.”
I lifted my head from the box.  “Well, that might not be the worst topic.  I’ve never been in Gwymr/Frina for a gray season, but I just got out of the Berwem —⁠ it is like that?  All ash and vog?”
“And acid rain. But… no, not all the time. Ash and acid come, but we get normal weather too.  But it gets wicked hot.  Vog’s only a problem when the winds get drafty.  And then you can just grab a gasmask or some cloth in a pinch,” he said.  “Or be rich and afford to just brumate the gray season.”
“Oh, okay.” I looked up. “Thanks.”
“Berwem is where it all comes from, makes sense that it would be worst there.”
“Yeah.” We kept sorting after that. I finished the first box, followed by Sinig with his box.  “So, what were those heavier observations?”
“Saw lots of guards and their turts milling around like riled ash-ants on my way to work and when getting these boxes.  Something’s up.  Even saw an inquirer poking their muzzle around.  That won’t end good.”
I found another glider in my box, but it was a cheap bamboo one. Balancing it on my head, I said, “What do inquirers even do?
Sinig continued sorting.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said, in that tone.
The glider fell onto the pile with the wheel and sleigh blades. “What kind of answer is that!  What do they do?
He clicked.  “If you need to know that, I don’t want to be near you.”
“Are–are you messing with me?”
“Only a little.  I don’t know what specifically they do, I just hear the stories.  My brother says his father says they aren’t as scary as they were when Dwylla was around… But they still make my frills stand on end, and I’m not the only one.”
“Oh. My friend mentioned Rhyfel’s inquirers once — something about them sniffing evidences.”
“Rhyfel,” he said, flicking his tongue. “Be careful around that drake — I’ve had friends get on the wrong side of the guard.  Wydrllos’s cells aren’t fragrant.”
“I’m not doing anything drafty, S.”
“What were you doing in the Berwem?  You don’t look like a sifter, and you already have a job.”
“I didn’t know it was illegal! I was following a friend!”
“Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of dragons go down like that.  Just be careful, K.  You aren’t a bad sort and I’d hate to have to get to know your replacement.”
I popped my tongue. “If that wasn’t a backwing’d compliment —”
“Backwingèd.”
“What?”
“It’s three syllables, not two.  Stress on the second.”
“Gah! Did you grow a tongue just to mess with me? You’re worse than Chwithach.”
“No, my sister was a poet. You pick these things up.”
“A poet?”
“Yeah,” he said. “There was a song she wrote for me a few years ago — do you care?”
I found some spherical object that might have been a compass. I rolled it around.  “Sure.  We aren’t really busy, go ahead.”
Sinig lowered his head, but stayed silent for a few beats. His lips moved, as if remembering the lines, then he spoke, his voice a iambic pulse.
“When ash-clouds raged and spit their flakes,
“That hatchling molted, sprung a drake;
“When scoria filled the air in spray,
“That fledgling filled the ground, then lay. 

“But I have watched you try and try,
“And true to time, your wings did fly;
“Yet then, to learn, I left my home. 
“It dried my fangs — they were but bone.

“As dance and season came to pass,
“The greenery would never last;
“Bright skies grew black, suns seemed a sore
“Above, an’ dull shadows crept into my core. 

“Aground, life seemed most bleak and wrong…
“But friends I made, and found my song:
“And lifted by these thermal bonds, I sang;
“Now love’s sweet kiss bedews my fangs,

“And I become a mother… 
“Do I still love my brother?”

I had stopped sorting to listen.  When he finished, I folded my frills.  “That’s…”
“Old.  From when she had just left for university and was only then discovering her love of poetry.  She got a bit better.  Well, before her new job ate up all her time.”
“No, it’s pretty! Very pretty. It’s just… how do I put this? I know nothing about poetry.”
“Same as me, then. My sister sucked up all the smarts in the family. She sings verse and leads.  I punch things and smoke.”
“No, I mean I never heard anything like it. I’ve never even read poetry. It’s–it’s not proper.  Artistry is for drakes, wivers take up science.  Or war.  Or trade. But not song.”
“That is the most unhatched rule I’ve never tasted.  Where is this?”
“Huh? We’re in y Llygaid Crwydro.” I gave him a silly smile.
“No, who shovels this drafty ‘artistry is for drakes’ manure?”
“Tädet/Pimeys. It’s one of the larger skycyties. And it’s not a rule. It’s just⁠ ⁠—⁠ how it is.”
“Glad I’ll never be able to go to the sky, then. Sounds worse than Pteron.”
“Hey, the sky is…”
Great. Wonderful. Exactly where I’d want to be if I had hatched with any other name.
“…pretty okay.”
“Why leave, then?  You know you can never go back⁠ ⁠—⁠ and you really don’t smell like the type to get exiled for something bad.”
“Don’t–don’t worry about it.”
“Okay, not pushing.  It’s personal, right?”
“Yeah.” We continue sorting awhile in silence. “Kinda odd to end it on a question like that, though.  It feels… maybe a little unfinished?”
Sinig looked over. “Oh no, that isn’t the end. There were two more lines that got smudged and lost in the letter where she’d it sent to me.”  Sinig took his glasses and wiped them.  “I’ll never know the answer to her question, but I like it that way.”
I hummed before saying, “I don’t think I could live with the uncertainty.”
Tossing his head, he just said, “It keeps life interesting.”

My box half-emptied with that thought on my mind.  My life had certainly become a bit interesting lately.  I’d lost count of how many times I almost died in the Berwem, and then there was Ushra’s conspiracy theory, whatever the guards and that inquirer were up to, and Adwyn.  My thoughts danced like that, and settled on my question from earlier.
“What do you think of Adwyn?” I said suddenly.
“What?”  Sinig glanced back at me.  “The military adviser?  He’s a killer, a Dyfnderi noble who got booted out of his country.”
“The faer seems to trust him, though.”
“The faer does all sorts of silly things.  She thinks she knows better than everyone,” Sinig muttered.  He adjusted his glasses, and added with effort, “And she does, but you never taste it until after it’s all said and done.  I wouldn’t trust him as far as his dress falls, but the faer must see something in him.”
“Should I trust him? He wants me to help him fledge an alliance with Dyfnder/Geunant or something.”
“The thing to know about Adwyn — and the rest of the canyon-dwellers in town hall⁠ ⁠—⁠ is that you don’t care whether they succeed or fail.  The only thing to want out of an alliance with Gwymr/Frina is burried in the Berwem.  If some contract with the canyons materializes, the only result will be who gets claws on the metal and gems the sifters dig up.  Nothing ever changes here.”
“Sure, but he said he could get me — recognition. Give me a name besides my family title.”
“I don’t see it being worth anything unless he gets you a slice of the trade cake.  And no offense, K, but I don’t think he’ll think you’re worth it.”
I jerked my head from my box to the ruddy-red drake. “What! What do you mean I’m not worth it?”
Sinig slipped off his glasses for a beat. “I mean, you’re like me. We’re not big dragons, we’re just flying one beat at time.  We don’t have big plans for the world, and I don’t want to see you wuthered up in someone’s grand vision.  It’d be a waste.”
I glanced away⁠ ⁠—⁠ back to the box of new stuff.  From somewhere in my memory, I heard my brother’s voice.  I’m going to change things, sister, he said.  We’re going to change things. A House Specter without masks, without tradition breathing down our necks.
Your House Specter.
It waited for me, up there.  Gwmyr/Frina was a part of the plan, his plan, and soon the outrage at me would blow away, my exile would blow away, and I could return.  It wasn’t a hope or dream, it was the plan, stars willing.  And if they weren’t?  If I were stuck here, then Adwyn had a plan, too.  I couldn’t live without wind under my wings, even if that meant being wuthered up in someone’s vision.
Inventory went on, and soon I come across a glazed vase, painted with constellations and asterisms.  I smiled at the stars, tracing them with my toe.  How much would this cost? “Hey, S, what constellation did you hatch under?”
Sinig snapped his tongue, giving me a skeptical look.  “You believe in that fortune-tasting ash?”
“Why not? The stars are mysterious and powerful — why can’t they affect dragons’s lives?”
“Because the motion of the stars is completely determined? Ask any stargazer.”
“I am a stargazer.  Being determined doesn’t mean anything.  The seasons are determined⁠ ⁠—⁠ they come every year.  But will you tell an ashstorm it cannot affect anything?”
“I can lick an ashstorm.” He whisked a wing. “Starcharts have never given anyone anything but a pretty sight.”
I smirked. “Stars aren’t used for navigation?”
“Still just a sight.”
“Fine, but what about the tides? They match exactly with the phases of Ceiwad —⁠ and the perturbations can be attributed to the meddling of Laswaith or one of the loversuns.”
“Moons don’t meddle.”
“What do you call all the volcanoes that start erupting with Laswaith’s perigee?” I said while sliding over a spiked metal glove thing for him to identify.
“Para–what?”
“Perigee.  When the moon is closest to the world?”  I waved with my wing while I dug the last things out of this box.
“Look, I’m just saying it’s wasteful thinking. I have a friend like you — wastes all her money on that charlatan⁠ ⁠—⁠ excuse me⁠ ⁠—⁠ ‘fortune-taster’ in the slums.”
I jerked my head up from the box. “There’s a fortune-taster in Gwymr/Frina?”
Sinig covered his face with a wing.  “Great, I just gave her more business.”
“Maybe I should go there myself, see if I can prove there’s something to it.”
“Do it, don’t do it.  I don’t care⁠ ⁠—⁠ I’m just saying, the sooner you stop blaming your trouble on drafty stars and fickle gods, you’ll⁠ ⁠—⁠ oh, not you, sorry.”  Sinig wiped his glasses, looking back to the utensils he had pulled out, then arranging them.  “I have this conversation too much.”
I smiled. “It’s cool.”
We stayed all silent after that, and finished in that silence.
* * *

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