“Hi? Who are you?” I asked the immaculately-dressed plain-dweller.
He clicked his tongue once before replying, giving me a disarming smile, “Oh, me? I’m nobody. I might have dropped by the Llygaid Crwydro twice or so, but I am in Gwymr oh so scarcely. No, you wouldn’t remember me. And I don’t remember you. How odd.”
This plain-dweller had stood listlessly in front of the library, looking all around, and checking a pocket ringglass. Over their breast and forelegs a silky red robes with twisting green filaments flowed. On the breast of the robes lay some embroidered pickaxes and a pile of ash. Even for a library patron, they looked well-dressed.
Really, they looked out of place. Their green eyes met mine, and their frills spread out like an invitation.
I was saying, “It–it is hardly odd. I’m a stranger and not very interesting — I would forget me too.”
“Oh, maybe for you, but not for me, scarcely for me. Why, look around you. Do you see any other with scales as blue or cloaks as regal as yours? Even a traveler such as I has scarcely seen the skylands, or a royal sky-dweller. And what a pity, when everything he’s heard makes the wonder of heaven itself flush warm with envy.”
I rolled my head. “Are you some kind of poet?”
“No, no — while I fancy myself some erudition, I could hardly scent the rarefied airs of poetry. No, I am just a traveler, and a lover of scrolls.”
Trying a smile, I said, “I like scrolls.”
“So I have heard. The librarian — Koo-ith-ick, was it? — He speaks highly of you.” The smile wasn’t an effort, this time. He saw me lift my head, mouth opening. Almost in response, his voice took on the textured growl of the librarian, or at least an imitation, “Never seen one so quick with figures, or clawing so neat.”
My head fell, and my open smile turned to a frown. That was it? Calculations and neat clawings? Maybe there was nothing else worth mentioning about me. My frills drooped, then the traveler noticed and interrupted himself.
“— Oh, is my impression so bad?”
“No–no, it is nothing.” I whisked my wing, and was looking away, cringing. We stood out a street from the library, some dragons passing by. Some benches rose up from the side of the road, cracked and crumbling.
“Nothing. Keep your spirit any sharper and you might cut yourself.” He shook his head. “Whatever. I did have a purpose of sorts here. Of course this smalltalk has been enjoyable enough so far.”
“Come, lay with me.” He wave a wing at the benches beside the road. Clasping his forefeet, he started, “So. You are from the skylands, no?”
I flicked my tongue. “I flew down here a few dances ago.”
“Yes, it was a question,” he said, slow.
I glanced up. There weren’t any skylands in the sky, aside form a vague form near the horizon that could be a lot of things. “There isn’t really a ‘where’ in the sky… Our cities blow on the trade winds, so a skycity that is over the northern sea might be over the ridges next moon.”
“Fine, fine. So pedantic! Which skyland, then — Is that the proper question for you, your sharpness?”
“Um, I lived in Tädet/Pimeys. It is a big city. We have four libraries.”
“Truly an enlightened metric.”
“Oh, nothing,” he said. Conversationally, he continued, “So, how do you even move around up there, betwixt skylands? Do you just fly around all day?”
I looked up again, this time catching the flows of flying dragons overhead. “You’d wait for the skyland you’re going to come close enough for you to fly over to it. If you had the money, you could pay the navigators to alter the city’s flightpath. But it can get expensive. You make bids, and you have to pay even if you are out-bidded.”
“Ha, and dragons still pay?”
“They pay a lot. Too much, my — some would say. But it’s good for the city.”
He was nodding. “And what about your architecture? The legends say the cities above the clouds are alien, scarcely like anything on the earth.”
“Well, that’s mostly because of the Severance. We, err, they don’t have access to surface stone quarries, and the stone that makes up the island is limited and very important. So we build our houses out of grown materials. We don’t have windows either, since you can’t grow sand. And there is no endless expanse of land like there is down here. We build up. Since gravity is no problem, we can do things surface-dwellers can’t.”
“Oh yeah, you said the sky is mostly empty. And I suppose it is —” he cut off to look up, craning his head to scan the sky despite the buildings. “— since I can only see one skycity,” he finished, whisking a wing toward that moon-sized form drifting near a cloud a few sixth-radians above the horizon. “So, how did you get here?”
“I, uh, I flew.”
“Flew! Where was this Tahdet-Pimohsh? When you did that?”
“Over the ocean. I mostly glided. It only took a few days.”
“A few days of just flying?”
“It’s pretty normal for traveling — hey, you’re a traveler, this should be normal for you too!”
He took a beat to respond, “Oh, longest I have ever flown was two, three rings in my youth. Riding is much more comfortable.”
Surface-dwellers! What kind of dragon couldn’t fly for a few days? This conversation was really starting to grate on me. I felt like some overworked academy instructor, endlessly explaining the most basic facts.
“Can you not just look any of this up in a scroll? Even this little library will have some scrolls about the sky.”
“Yes, yes, of course. But there is something about speaking to a real person about matter. Dead scrolls are scarcely the same.”
“What? Scrolls are way better than asking a person. Scrolls don’t stutter and you can reread them.”
“Oh, but there is no life in it! You cannot smile and laugh and joke with a scroll. There is no entre — err, interak — err, interactivity, yes that’s it.” I laughed. “What? Do not laugh at me. I had to find the right word. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is —”
“I know the quote.”
“As I would expect from a scholar such as yourself.”
I flicked my tongue. A scholar?
“But we are getting distracted, shame on you.”
I lowered my head, frills folding. “Sorry.”
“Sure,” he say before I even finish. He glanced up. “Say, do you miss the sky? the other Specters?”
A frill ran over my headband. The scar underneath had almost stopped hurting. “I —” My voice caught. “I left for a reason. Next question.”
The traveler bit his lip and, looking up, seemed to interrogate the clouds for another question. Then his brilles cleared and he said, “What is the biggest difference since coming to the surface?”
“Well… do you see how I have my horns disbudded here?” The light-brown drake made some inscrutable wave of his foreleg. “Well, in the sky all wivers have that — but down here, everyone looks like a drake and it is so confusing.”
“Oh?” He smiled. “So — How would you react if I told you I was a wiver?”
I tossed my head. “I am not even surprised at this point —”
“Oh, I’m not — Just messing with you.” He kicked a loose piece of lapilli on the ground. “So, what do you do? Found any use for your unique talents?”
“Err… not really. I, uh, just work at a general shop. The Llygaid Crwydro.”
“‘The Wandering Eye?’ Very interesting name. Very oh… Geunantic?”
“Owner is Dynfderi.”
“Heh, Dyfnder and their eyes.”
I tittered. Finally, someone who got it like I did!
“I see.” The joke pulled a guffawing hiss from him and it bled back onto me. A passerby in a cloak peered at us with a confused look, then smiled and tossed their head. I glanced back to the traveler, and smiled at him.
A long ring cut through the laughter. The sixth ring. I glanced back the library, but the traveler had already starting talking again, “Say, have you ever met a forest-dweller called Hinte? Acts like she’s shedding every day of the cycle?”
My head jerked back to him, my frills flaring in an instant. “Hinte? She isn’t that bad…”
“Yeah, because you are both alchemy-tongued wivers. Have some sympathy for one lacking such advantages.”
Smirking, I said, “Did you mean to say ‘scarcing such advantages?’”
I laughed again. He used my joke!
We settled, and I wondered aloud, “How did you know I was an alchemist? I didn’t tell you.”
He gave me a wide-frilled look. But it turned into a grin, and he said, “You smell like it.”
Was that a compliment? I’d take it as one. “Thanks.” Maybe I could become an alchemist.
“But you know her — Hinte — then?” I lowered my head. “Would you know what this business with the lake is? Something about monsters, I heard?”
“There were these spooky ape things with skin like mud and armor and weapons.” He flinched when I said ‘skin like mud.’
Recovering, he said, “Oh, you were there, then?” My frills faltered.
“I was. Not like the papers can taste it.” I looked away. “We did it together.” I muttered.
“Oh, don’t be like that, the papers aren’t just about what happens, they’re also about how it sounds. Which story do you think Gwymr/Frina would rather hear? Gären vor Hinte, hatch of the Ushra, slaying a quartet of monsters in the fires? Or the same with that sky-dweller who hasn’t been here six dances fighting humans with friendship and teamwork?”
I didn’t turn. “The second.”
“Uh huh. And did you buy a paper?”
I grunted something unintelligible.
“So. You must know what really happened, no? Where those humans really just hanging around in the lake?”
“No, I think they were exploring or something. We found them after they had been attacked by wraiths, bleeding out.” I shuddered.
They had looked away and watched the passersby as they asked, “Did you get all of them? Did none escape?”
“Um. Some of them tried to escape. But Hinte is the one who caught them in the first place, you would have to ask her.”
“Oh? You had nothing to do with it?”
I bared my fangs. I didn’t growl. “But I did. I guarded the first human corpses while Hinte fought the rest. I scared off the wraiths! I didn’t fight the humans, but I helped a lot otherwise!”
“Oh, is she some kind of fighter? Why leave it all the her?”
“I — I…” I was scared. “Someone had to guard the body.”
“And nothing interesting happened while you guarded?”
“There–there was a shadow.” And Mawla. His tongue flicked, head pressing forward. “But I — I could not aban–abandon the body — So I did not.”
“How very practical.”
“I — practical, yeah.” Another cloaked passerby walked by the bench. Were they the same one? The cloak made it hard to tell.
“Why were you two in the lake in the first place?”
Looking down, I said, “Sifting.”
“Just sifting?” His head pressed forward, tilting as if in disbelief. “For nothing in particular?”
Should I tell them? Hinte had made it so secretive. She told me in confidence, as a friend. Could I just tell him? He were nice, fun. Cute. For a plain-dweller. But Hinte was a friend, and I fought for her secrets. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, spill it without comparable effort on their part.
And yet. He was nice. And too silly to really do much harm.
“Have you heard of crysts?” I could tell them the innocuous part.
“Hum… No, never heard anything like that.”
“You should be glad. They sound awful,” I said, in my best imitation of Sinig’s scentless tone.
“Ha, ha. I am sure that would be funny if I knew what you were talking about. Is it some esoteric alchemy regent?”
What? Did they mean ‘reagent?’
“It —” Mages were feared, even more than alchemists. “— is, yeah.”
“Ah. Have I mentioned how I hate alchemy? Because I hate alchemy.” He tossed his head, grimacing with enough exaggeration that it might just be a complaint and nothing deeper.
“I like alchemy. Sometimes. Mostly when I am not doing it.”
He clicked. Reaching into his robes, he took out a ringglass with its sand split between the two bulbs. “Oh, seems like I have to go. I like you, what was your name?”
“Kinri. Miss Kinri.” My frills might have fluttered.
“Oh, glad to meet you. Am mister Dieithr.”
“Am glad to meet you, too.” My tail coiled. “Is this goodbye?”
“It is. I have places to fly — drop by the Dychwelfa ac Theatr sometimes, if you want any more of me. It’s the one just past the Moyo-Makao. Not that other theater. Fair… Scrolling, I suppose? Taste you later.”
Taste me. Oh. My tail, already coiled around my leg, strangled my hindleg. That must have been a slip of his tongue. He acted silly and slipped up a few other times in the conversation, too. It was nothing.
I said, “Fly well, mister Dieithr.” My frills out-stretched like a pair of wings around my face. My fangs were bedewed. I looked away.
Dieithr said, “Oh, and I meant it about coming to Dychwelfa. It’d be a shame to lose track of someone like you.”
Um, I got the point. Why are you pressing this? It was a thought, what I said was, “Will there be other people there?”
“Oh, not quite. This’ll be a privitive meeting, you and me.”
No. “I’ll think about it,” I said slowly. “I have plans today.”
“Let me guess — you’re heading for the market?”
“How did you — yes.”
“Might I suggest not going this time of day? Or today at all? It’s all quite crowded. And there are been a rash of violence lately. Some say there’s a new drug on the loose — and all the miasma coming with that. Best to stay safe, I say.”
“As I said, I have plans.” I said, tone cooling.
Then I peered closer at the plain-dweller. “Wait… I know you! You’re the rod-twirler guy from last night — who told me not to go to faer!”
He smiled intensely. “I see I am distinctive.”
I rolled my head. “Whatever happened to that Bauume creature? The angry musician drake.”
“Him? Oh, still angry. Quite angry, esp–especially at your wiver friend. The one who kicked him. He’s a grudgeful one, as will be no surprise.”
I nodded. Tone still cool, I said, “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
He inclined his head, and leapt after murmuring some farewell. I spat.
I glanced at the suns trailing fiery lines in the sky. Oleuni was leading Enyswm behind a cloud gray and dreary, floating a few sixth-radians away; and ultimately, leading him to a grave at the west horizon. A short ring chimed as I turned to the library. Oleuni’s alighting wouldn’t be long from now, then; there were only four more long rings in the day. Had I really lost so much time to that conversation?
I started toward the library, hoping Chwithach wouldn’t be too disappointed by my lateness.
Gwymr/Frina had only one library, the Sgrôli ac Neidr — something, Chwithach assured me, reflected the smallness of the town instead than any lack of culture. Even then, the one thing that stood out to me about the library was its location
Up in Tädet/Pimeys, you would find libraries only in the highest districts, among the House palaces and the Cloud Constructor temples, or near the stone pubs and high entertainment centers. Meanwhile, the Sgrôli ac Neidr lay on the east side, the poor and dirty bruise of Gwymr/Frina. Each of our four libraries belonged to a noble House, whether Specter, Locrian, Obelos, or Cynosure; and each was a familial library that’d opened to the public as a charity, before taking some life of its own. Meanwhile the Sgrôli belonged to Chwithach only, and he’d opened it as a charity too, but in this case, the charity went both ways.
plain-dwellers lined the streets here, most naked or near-naked; a lot of them looked dirty or haggard, some of them missed legs, one missed a wing. More than a few had those sifters faces, the ones that had been singed and burnt so often it became a part of their color.
Whenever one caught sight of me, you could flip a coin whether they’d glare or scowl, or just not react.
Still, I’d grown used to it all, coming here almost daily for cycles now. It’d started soon after meeting Hinte; her love for alchemy shone through even then, the one topic she talked about with any fluidity. She had been cool and mysterious, and I wanted her to know I could be a cool alchemist too. Maybe I still could.
Unlike the rest of the roads on this side of town, filth had been raked from this road. And if you looked over at the near-spotless walls of the library, you could imagine the it had been lifted from across the canal.
I stood in front of the library. By the standards of the rest of the street it looked big, sprawling across about three times as big space as the houses or storefronts around it. Yet by my standards, it looked so tiny. And still, the library survived, tried to flourish, just off the donations of its patrons. So even this size inspired, spoke some testament to Chwithach’s patience and passion.
The doors stunk of cheap gray bamboo, and looked well-cared-for. Someone somewhere made money polishing and smoothing the wood, keeping it from tending worn or sooty with ash. I pulled at the handle and stepped in.
The floor was bamboo too, and smelt it. The interior sprawled, even while cut up into four areas. Nearest to the door was a cozy reading area with a bunch of cushy pycnofiber mats sat in a semi-circle and facing out of the window. Three dragons sat apart on mats, poking scrolls.
One was a sharp brown drake with bright, alert eyes, had a hefty pile of scrolls on either side of him, and he scanned the page rolled out in front of him at a quick pace. The second closest to me, a big red wiver with a flower held by her frill, lay in front of a thick double-scroll, tracing its lines. She had a smile I recognized. The last one, a dark mud-dweller with long straight horns, lay on his back, wings spread, looking relaxed and lazy. His foreclaws held the scroll close to his snout, almost resting there, and his brilles had clouded and didn’t seem to clear.
All of them looked familiar, and they were here often enough I could almost put names to their faces, names that seemed to danced up to the tip of my tongue. Only one did come to me: Awld, the wiver. We’d been friendly when I’d volunteered, she’d even gifted me some scent, once or twice. But she worked in the evenings, and once I got my morning job at the Llygaid Crwydro, we’d drifted apart. Why was she here now? I’d ask later, after I’d checked in with Chwithach.
Behind the reading area stood rows upon rows of scrollshelves. They stretched to the ceiling, high enough that footholds extended up them all.
In between these shelves flitted the librarian, organizing shelves, replacing scrolls. I slinked over, gaze roaming the rest of the bottom floor. At the back wall, a bunch of alcoves for private reading ate into the wall in two rows, one above the other.
The last section of the library I looked at — but the first thing you’d probably see — was a low counter just in front of the doors. A few scrolls sat open, recording checkouts and other record-keeping. Chwithach or one of his volunteer assistants would sometimes be found behind it. The plan was ‘always,’ but there was none right now.
I frowned. He only had a few assistants, and they were paid a pittance — I used to work here, when I’d just arrived in town. I couldn’t put together the time now, but I sometimes promised myself to start again, and I always would after a sight like this. Yes, Chwithach was only a short flight away, and yes, there was even a little bell to get his attention; but it stood as a reminder of how thinly he was stretched. The only library of Gwymr/Frina deserved more.
I leapt over to the shelves. I was careful to only glide. Never flap in a library. Chwithach had disappeared behind one of these shelves. Where was he? I had just seen him.
“Hello, Kinri,” came a voice from behind, a thick, rich hiss that always had a friendly growl underneath.
“Gah!” I jumped and spun around. “Oh, hi there, Chwithach-sofran.” I coiled my tail around a hindleg. I looked at the burly red cliff-dweller, the Gwymri librarian. Calculations and neat clawings. Maybe there was nothing else worth mentioning about me.
I smiled at the librarian, but for just a few breaths, I wasn’t sure if I would.
He smiled back, and flicked his tongue. The librarian wore few clothes, a halfrobe hiding his rear and hindlegs, and sandals on his feet. The robes looked plain and ragged; lifeless beige and patched over many times, a few of the larger patches had designs covering the stitching. Chwithach always wore halfrobes like this. He had a few others, but I’d seen them all.
Turning around, scraping his hindclaws, he said, “Caught up in the flow of life, I see. I do hope it was a nice thing that delayed you.”
I stepped after him. “Well… I met a stranger out in front of the library. They talked too much and asked too many questions. They were so smarmy.”
In front of me, the red drake tilted his head. “What were they doing in front of the library?”
“Walking around, I guess. They didn’t seem to be doing much of anything. But they left in a rush, saying they something to do.”
He tilted his head further, but tossed it and only said, “Well, no telling what his story was.” We walked over toward the counter, and Chwithach asked, “Is there anything you’d like for today?”
“Hmm, yeah. Do you — do we have any scrolls on crysts? Or humans?”
“Crysts, crysts,” he said, tapping his chin. “From the Berwem?”
He seemed to peer at me. After a few beats, he spoke with deliberation. “Well, they aren’t very common, or valuable, and there has scarcely been —” I popped my tongue “— What?”
“Nothing, nothing, go on.”
“There hasn’t been much research on them, a few papers I’d licked here and there, not all I am sure I can find again. Prepare for disappointment, I’d reason.”
“And humans, hmm. The mountain-dwellers and sea-dwellers have much more contact with those creatures than the cliff. Do you speak either language?”
“Well, my mountain always stank, but it still is — was —- better than my y Draig. And I don’t think I actually ever learnt to read the sea’s script.”
“You should. Their orthography is quite fun, and most expressive.”
I fluttered my tongue. “I don’t think it compares to Käärmkieli —”
“Oh, but it does! You will recall sea was the last dragon nation to sign the Severance of Earth and Sky. The sea always had good ties with the sky. Some even considered sea a part of sky, at intervals.”
The red drake shook his head. “But I digress,” he said.
By now we’d reached the alcoves, but Chwithach turned to finish explaining. “The sea-dwellers were masters of trade, and their languages reflects that — a creole, an amalgam of many tongues. And the clawing system has been developed, standardized by some of the best minds. Learn it, please — I am sure you will appreciate it.”
He waved a wing and meant something by it. “Now, I take your sudden interest in these creatures has to do with that messy business in the lake?” I nodded. “Unfortunate, that. Was it your friend who grounded them?” I lowered my head again. “Ah. Well, I disagree with her actions on principle. Humans are creatures just as us, some I even count as friends.”
“But–but they shouldn’t have been in our cliffs. They were creepy and threatening.”
“Our cliffs? They are but formations of rock. We have no special right to them. Why, Gwymr/Frina has existed for fewer than twelve generations.” I wrinkled my frills. “My point is, our names are inscribed nowhere upon the cliff faces. Do you think the Ulfame would allow travelers if they had known dragons lived here?”
“You know their name?”
“Yes, Rhyfel the younger came by this morning, to share his findings and thoughts.”
“Did he show you their creepy bodies?”
“Creepy? They may be strange, but they find us just as uncanny.”
“Then they are blind.” I scoffed, frills bending.
He gave a twist of his head. “Have some empathy, Kinri. Do you think tortoises think they look strange?”
“Probably. Turts look funny at anything they have never seen before — apes definitely count.”
“The tortoises, I mean. Do they think of themselves as strange-looking?”
“Tortoises are cute!”
He gave another, bigger roll of his head. “Then how about wraiths, then? Do they find themselves as ugly as we do?”
“The beastly things probably like it.”
“Ough. Kinri, my point is their creepiness is subjective! They do not think of themselves as creepy.”
“So? They are creepy.”
He covered his face with a wing. “Moving on, how long do you have to study today?”
“I can’t stay as long as usual today.” I licked my eyes. “Actually, do you, um, have any newspapers? Since I don’t have time for studies I could lick what the papers are saying about the incident.”
“Of course, I read every paper.” He patted a bag by his side, reaching in. When I looked back, his head had snaked forward a bit. “Why can’t you stay as long, if I may ask?”
“I have to head out the market later, at the… seventh ring? I think.”
“No, just helping Adwyn with — err, I probably shouldn’t have said that, it’s kinda high secret stuff.”
The intent contraction of his light red frills and the steady flicking of his tongue marked him curious. But he waved a wing. “Oh, I tasted nothing, forgot you even said anything.”
I smiled and clicked my tongue — then paused, in my mind a certain orange drake looming. “Oh! I forgot something… It’s kinda secret too, but Adwyn wanted to know who here has checked out scrolls about humans, or human-related stuff like the Gorphonic mines. He wants the information on some parchment.”
Chwithach had his gaze lowered. “I don’t have parchment. Only fernpaper.”
“Maybe he won’t mind?”
The red drake only had a frown for that. “Blame me if he does. I’ll have it ready before you leave.”
He turned round and almost started off — but then he flared his frills and he reached into his robes and pulled out a jingling pouch. He dug through it and piled its contents — all strange devices that might’ve a purpose — and after several found a sort of mechanical ring-glass.
“Here,” he said, winding up a wheel on the side until the sand reached some marker, “this will go off just before the fourth ring, should be enough to get you in time to the — market.” He left the ring-glass on the table as he swept the other things back into the pouch; and as if forgetting he left an aluminum thing that looked like a metalworker’s impression of a seashell.
“Thanks, Chwith —” A bell was dinging by the front. Interrupted, I looked over to the source, where a portly cliff-dweller hung by the counter, wearing a half-robe and haphazardly clutching several messily rolled scrolls in wing and looking around with waxing impatience.
“Ooh. I need to handle that.” The librarian stood up. Before I could remind him of the metal shell, he pulled his foot from his bag, revealing a clawful of rolled newspapers. “Here you are. I hope they are of help.”
Chwithach darted off, leaping and gliding to the front counter, landing on his mat without a hitch. I couldn’t see it, but I could imagine his lazy smile and frill-flutter, looking as if he hadn’t just performed those acrobatics for their sake, as if he had been sitting there all along. So silly.
But, he gave me what I wanted. I rolled his scrolls to me and glanced them over. They were clawed in y Draig, with notes scrawled in the margin. “Oh, perfect,” I murmured. I smiled now, because it wouldn’t last.
I had dipped my attention into two of the papers, but couldn’t immerse myself with the trip into the lake later today still looming over me. I kept peeking at the little ring-glass Chwithach-sofran had sat down near me to remind me of the ‘shopping trip’ later today.
And these dry newspapers, or maybe the book of nothing, were all that offered any distraction — I had glanced over, and the red wiver, Awld, had disappeared at some point while I found and talked to Chwithach.
It was then I heard a voice. “Hello, Kinri.”
“Ah!” I turned around, all around, but the librarian hadn’t sneaked up on me again, yet it had sounded like his voice. “Where are you?”
“In my office,” he replied in an opaque tone. “Are you intrigued? This is an old Aludu Dymestl heirloom I bought for cheap. They called it magic. I don’t quite understand how it works, but it carries sound from the distance. I thought you might appreciate it.”
Listening close, from the aluminum shell you heard his voice buzzing faintly, and the opaque tone was a very dull roaring or humming that infected the timbre of his voice, like a wind’s wuthering. I picked up the shell and poked it. There was a very warm glow creeping from within it, and I put it down.
“It is an utterly fascinating implement, but alack, I am no mage. That said, there is someone whom I’ll have look at it, and perhaps there’ll be a chance of making another, and, spirits willing, one with less evidence of wear and malfunction. If so… the possibilities boggle.” The nastiness infecting the sound was waxing worse, garbling his words, and even eclipsing some. Even then, I still heard that cute curiosity-tinged smile of his in the tone.
I said, “Chwithach, I can’t really hear you. Your voice is getting kinda messy.”
“Is it? Ough, that tends to happen after a short while. Here, let me come to you.”
The red drake was lighting down behind me not two breaths after. He had a twin of the aluminum shell in his wings, and slipped it into a pocket as he slinked forward. Smiling, the librarian grabbed the shell beside me and started to ask about how I liked the scrolls he’d left, but I interrupted him.
“Oh!” I said, “have you ever heard of a, um… synkén rrávdos? A strange kind of rod thing?”
“No,” he flicked his tongue. His frills worked for a beat before he said, “Are you sure of that pronunciation?”
“That’s how it sounded.”
The librarian’s frills flared, and he fixed me with an intent look without losing his usual warmness. “Odd. The word sounds archaic and —” his head dipped a bit “— from some language I can’t place. Where did you hear it?”
“From this weird customer at the shop today. They had a black cloak with Dwylla slashed out and yellow eyes and this accent I’d never heard before.”
His frills worked, and I could see their brilles clearing when he said, “Did they greet you with anything strange like, ‘Omoù Ptèromai?’”
Chwithach lowered his head, licking his eyes. “The miser. Yes, they light by the library often enough.”
“Do they have a name? I can’t imagine a mother naming their child ‘the miser.’” Maybe my mother, if she could rename me.
Chwithach looked away. After a beat they said, “While he does, he’s in hiding. If he hasn’t identified himself to you, I’m afraid I cannot.”
I peered at the red drake. “You’re the last person I expected to have secrets, Chwithach-sofran.”
Somehow, he nodded. “I don’t have secrets, but I keep secrets,” he said. “Consider your interest in alchemy. Just as I wouldn’t tell anyone of that without your willing, I wouldn’t reveal the miser’s secrets.”
“Well, where could I find him if I want to ask him?”
“I’d rather not say.” His head turned, still not facing me, but I could see a sliver of his pupil. A beat. He turned to me in full, “I can, however, arrange for him to be here at a good time one day. Or try.”
“That would be fine.” I glanced back at the papers I had only opened, and the librarian seemed to take the hint and started stepping away — before he stopped, and peered back at me.
“Before I go, could I ask something of you?”
I nodded, and Chwithach paused for a moment, as if to give his words time to bloom before he released them.
He said, “You know, Kinri, I love this library.” His gaze moved to somewhere beyond the window by the entrance, and he continued, “It’s like an ickle hatchling. And running it is my giving something back to the town. But it feels… passive. We have readings here on occasion, and I’ve gotten to know the patrons and — well, my point, I think, is that it seems I could do more for Gwymr/Frina than just run a library.”
It didn’t sound like he was done, but I said, “I think you’re doing just fine, Sofrani.” I tried to give him a smile, and at least he wasn’t looking at me just then.
“Of course, the library is good,” he said with a tossed head. “But there are other possibilities. As I said, I could do more. But… not alone. I know a few things about languages, about literature. You are a stargazer. Your friend, Hinte, is an alchemist. The miser is… a mage.”
Chwithach paused, and there was significance. “It’s enough to start an odd little school. We could have it in the library, and teach — it would be the first proper school in Gwymr/Frina. Free for everyone. I think the town needs it.”
I was silence for a bit, and I frowned, but it was only a frown because a smile wasn’t coming.
The librarian shook his head. “Ah, don’t answer me just yet. This isn’t small, so sleep on it. I’d just wanted to bring it up before you left.” He gave me a smile and a nod, and then turned around.
For once, the librarian walked instead of flying. He walked away slowly, thoughtfully.
I tried reading the papers again after that, and I stopped when there was only a scratch or so of sand left in the ring-glass. I rolled the cheap paper up onto their cheap scrolls, unrolling and trying again and again to convince them to roll up just right, then slipped them all into my bag. They fell into the pocket where the crysts’ glass flakes had settled, instead of the one where I still hadn’t cleaned the dried crab blood. It might take a vigorous scrubbing to get rid of, now.
And it smelt. Had everyone been smelling that? Oops.
I low-walked over to the counter. Chwithach looked from his page, where his wing-digit scratched spicy ink with what looked the tooth of some creature. It was bigger than what a rockwraith would have, and the wrong shape to be from a skinhound.
He finished a word with a flourish and met my gaze with a small smile. “Ah, farewell, Kinri-ychy. Say, before you leave let me give you this little flyer I designed for the school. I’d like an opinion of it before I hand it to someone with a press.”
He held out a scroll. I took it with a polite smile — and felt a bump of folded fernpaper underneath. Adwyn’s report. It slipped discreetly in my pocket before the scroll was unrolled.
Of the advertisement, the first you saw was a charcoal rendering that resembled the librarian with bigger horns and tighter scales — yet somewhere off. I licked my eyes and peered a little closer — and saw he’d drawn his reflection.
Opposite the rendering was wiggly text naming the library and some hours and some directions. The glyphs were outlines that alternated being shaded and not.
I was frowning when I glanced back up. “Um.”
“You don’t needed to answer now. Sleep on it. I’ll see you soon.” He slid out some drawer into which went his inked paper. He glanced back slowly, eyes clouded. “I don’t suppose you have anything to donate today?”
“Oh, of course I do, Sofrani. Here.” I searched my bag with my wing, searched a coinpurse, and gave a few electrum pieces. “Take this. I appreciate for all the help.” He took the coin, dropping it behind his counter.
Giving me a salute and a crinkling smile, he said another farewell, just in case: “And always, it is my pleasure. Fragrant readings to you, and see you soon.”
I smiled and returned the salute. “You too.”
Brightest Oleuni reigned high above, and was pursued by Enyswm. I climbed high above the hot air of the sifting town and again wandered the line to Hinte’s house. I didn’t rush, and relished the wind under my wings. Flight was luxuriating, and — while it was completely cloying to say — it lifted me after a morning in the Llygaid Crwydro.
From the sound of it, you wouldn’t think I was moving quick, but I still made it to the house before the fourth short ring chimed. Coming down on the white wooden estate, you saw two little dots walking away, one cloaked black and another near-gleaming warm gray. I touched down lightly behind them and slinked forth with small steps and short strides.
“Greetings, Kinri,” came the wiver’s voice. Hinte didn’t even turn.
Digrif, at least, had the decency to be surprised: he turned left, right, then up and down before he finally caught me behind him. He startled like that, wings flaring out and near-gasping, “Gah! Kinri!” as some kind of greeting.
Clicking my tongue, and sidling up beside the drake on the other side of the humorless wiver, I jabbed him with a alula. “Hi Digrif, and hi Hinte,” I said, and smiled at Digrif. When I glanced at Hinte, though, it faltered. Which story do you think Gwymr/Frina would rather hear?
Hinte stood there in her dark cloak threaded with blue and pink, while Digrif wore plain white clothes. His clothes were in that mountain style, split into an upper shirt and lower ‘pants.’
I was still my Specter cloak, and naturally I looked better than either of them.
“I trust your winds were fair?” Hinte asked, and she started forward as she does, spurring us on behind her.
I looked up, feeling the wind on my face, and said, “Well, I did get some strange customers today.”
Digrif said, “Oh?” at the same time in front the wiver said, “Strange how?”
I flicked my tongue and caught a rotten stench. I grimaced and started, “There was this odd dragon in a cloak and an accent I’ve never heard before. They knew about crysts and had a weird device for muting them.” I glanced at Digrif. “And they’re apparently a mage too.”
The words were the kindling to light a reaction — Hinte’s was freezing midstride, but her face was hidden; Digrif’s was jumping slightly, and his face was drawn in fear and curiosity.
I smiled at Digrif, and I added, “But he seemed okay, if a little weird. The librarian knows him.” My gaze craned higher, away the rotten stench, and I was thinking with my tongue, “I wonder what color their scales are? All I saw were golden eyes, and they’re obviously not local…” Could they be another exiled sky-dweller, like me? The Constellation was big and I couldn’t have heard every aloft accent.
When I looked, Hinte had slowed and looked down, glancing at the big giant ferns dotting the roadside. Following her gaze, she was peering at some claw-sized ash-ants devouring a poor skink. Five of its legs were already bone. So that was the stench.
Digrif asked, “Why do interesting things always happen around you two? And I’m never there for any of it.” His tone had the air of a private grievance.
“You should be sweet that you weren’t there. Today is the worst day to work at any shop that isn’t the east market. A whole day of almost nothing!”
“Oh.” Digrif’s frills fall a bit. “But didn’t you say you had more than one weird customer?”
“Well um, not quite. The miser” — Hinte glanced back — “was the only really weird customer I had, but there was that sifter from last night, Mawla and she tried to thank me for Adwyn meddling with the sifting teams.” Hinte tossed her head, muttering something that probably didn’t matter.
Digrif lowered his head and turned to look in front of us again. We’d reached the canal by now, where two robed cliff-dwellers marched a stinky caterpillar cow toward the bridge. After Digrif pointed it out, we hurried across the bridge, me complaining of sore legs and Hinte saying, “Apterous rockwraiths,” under her cowl, but with enough force I could hear her.
“Oh! But I did meet one other interesting character,” I said, looking up and around — everywhere except to the road beneath us “There was this one mud-dweller who —”
Hinte coughed, mumbling, “plain-dweller.”
I tilted my head, and say “Huh?”
“They prefer to be called plain-dwellers, not mud-dwellers.”
“I thought all Gwymri were cliff-dwellers,” Digrif said, in an accent that mangled the town name. He said ‘gwee-mer-ee.’
“Gwymr/Frina,” Hinte said, enunciating the proper ‘gwuhmr vree-na.’ (How was her pronunciation so much better than mine?), “is a mix of plain-dwellers, cliff-dwellers and canyon-dwellers. It is why the natives here are a mix of browns, reds and oranges.”
Digrif’s head tilted. “But, we’re in the cliffs, dwelling in the cliffs. Wouldn’t that make us all cliff-dwellers?”
My voice was a whine, that affected whine. “I was just being descriptive…”
“You can continue with your story,” Hinte said, giving the rotting skink one last look.
“Okay, well. So there was this odd mu — plain-dweller dressed in silky robes. He has this odd accent. It reminded me a bit of some of the older houses in Tädet/Pimeys.”
“Is it odd hearing something so refined down in the mud?” Hinte muttered.
“Yes. I mean, no! It is just… not something I expected.”
The black-cloaked wiver turned away and Digrif winced, lifting his wings.
I groaned and just tried to continue, “Well, they were just sort of there, waiting for me. They asked a few questions, and left.”
Hinte turned back to me, a glare forming. She tilted her head and asked, “What questions?”
“Just who I was, where I lived and hmm…” I said, and trailed off. “They also asked about you, your sifting and the crysts we were looking for.”
“And you just told them?” Hinte asked, voice rising.
“Sorry, I guess? But what was I supposed to do! He seemed nice enough. I didn’t see the harm in it.”
“Kinri.” The dark-green wiver glanced back at her house. “Did you not hear a word of my grandfather’s concerns? There is a group in this town conspiring with the apes. You may as well have gift-wrapped that information for the enemy. Tongueless idiot!”
“Assuming such a conspiracy exists! Rhyfel and Citrus — Adwyn don’t seem very convinced.”
Hinte started to say something, but Digrif tilted his head at me, breaking her view for a moment. He said, “Citrus-Adwyn?”
My frills folded. “Uh-ha, that. It’s what Staune called him, Citrusface. It’s fitting.”
Digrif hissed a laugh. “And now I’m going to be thinking of oranges the next time I see the highest Dyfnderi adviser.”
Hinte cleared her throat. “Do you think this dragon just tracked you down and waited for you out of pure sweet-fanged curiosity?”
“Why not? You saw the papers this morning. Both of our names were in them.”
Digrif scratched his neck. “Were you in it, Kinri? I don’t remember seeing your name.”
I couldn’t help the cringe that rippled across my features at that, so I looked up. “I was in the Gwymri Times. The Cyfrin Report just called me an acquaintance of Gronte-wyre Gären.” Hinte gave a low hiss at that.
“Ooh, okay. So in others words you think they just wanted to meet the names of the day?”
“Names?” I emphasized the plural.
“Yes.” Hinte growled, “that conspirator met us not too long after you left. I was back in the workshop with Opa, so Digrif and Gronte met with them first. As it seemed he wouldn’t leave, was when I came out to run them off.”
I looked up. Above me, pterosaurs and dragons flew about. The sight made my wings twitch; but I glanced back at Hinte’s wings — covered by her cloak, but beneath that, they were bandaged. That was my fault, my useless cowardice. I slipped farther behind Hinte as we walked.
A short ring later, we crossed the canal, climbed a cliff-face and crept toward the lake. It gave us some privacy and something close to a sense of moving fast enough — if only to me.
We also chatted along the way, Hinte most of all, and it helped distract from the tortoise’s pace that we kept. But it soured for me the more the conversation leant toward my conversation with Dieithr, and, just once, Hinte’d brought up me running off on my own in the lake when the conversation strayed back to last night. I’d growled and stomped in front of them, putting the dark-green wiver all out of my sight, and I’d still walked a little in front since then.
Below us, along the ravine that rode into the Berwem, the bulging stalls and tents of the east market crawled into sight from behind the cliffs, and, standing at the very edge of the market, a stone gate towered.
The Berwem gate, framed with the abundant bronze and aluminum sifted from the volcanic lake itself or dug up in the pits, sat wedged mid the ravine that wound directly into that lake. Several guards, garbed in Gwymri red and yellow, stood before that gate. From up here, they looked like little geckos.
The stalls and tents filled the clearing from last night, and edged away all of the desolation the night had hinted at. Instead, with the wafting scents of food and the low rumble of hundreds of conversations, it seemed cheerful, or at least calmly collected.
I glanced above, along the jagged clifftops that leant toward the lake, and there were the tortoise-mounted guards doing guard stuff all along the clifftops. Adwyn’s words, the restrictions on entering the Berwem, seemed to echo then, and I made to leap down into the market, my wings already flexing.
Someone — Hinte — yanked my tail. I was halted in the air, and floundered for one tense breath before scrambling for my feet and some balance against the cliffwall. My fangs were cloying and I sputtered awhile before spitting out a coherent objection:
“Eww, eww! What the heck, Hinte?”
She only tilted her head.
“You just touched — yanked my tail! You do not just do that!”
I climbed to my old spot on the cliff, and glared hard at Hinte all the while. She just gave me a nonplussed look, eyes cleared and tongue flickering.
“What? Is this more sky-dweller residua?” she said after a short moment. “It is just another limb. I do not taste what the problem is.”
“Gah!” was all I said and stomped away again.
You heard Hinte’s footsteps approach and smelt her scent getting closer.
“What,” I started before she said anything, “did you want, Hinte?”
“You cannot just fly down into the market.” She had a dark-green alula pointed at the market below us. “They have a net above it. It’s cheap cotton, but still a net. We have to go through one of the main entrances.”
“The guards keep an eye on everyone that goes in and out of public spaces like this. Especially here, given how many valuables are on display.”
I snapped my tongue. “So we have to trudge through the market to get to the lake?”
The black-cloaked wiver didn’t answer, instead starting down the cliff-face herself. I followed her with another snap of my tongue and a making an exaggerated expression, fangs unfolded and frills writhing, that drew a laugh from Digrif. Together, he and I stepped off the cliff.
I walked down the cliff wall head-first while Hinte climbed down backward, her body pointing up but her head looking down, the goggles around her neck bouncing. Digrif, on the other foot, jumped down toward the ground, at least to start, beginning at the most solid, most easily gripped outcroppings of rock and leaping to another and another. Then he missed and skidded down the face and hit smack the bottom.
I waited until I had asked, “Are you alright?” before I laughed. Hinte just tossed her head and kept working her way down, cloak billowing around her. I was halfway, and she was only a third down.
Lines of dragons waited in front of the market — three of them. They weren’t slow lines, it turned out; it was the sheer volume of dragons entering and exiting that created the line. It was enough that you heard that murmur of crowds rising like smoke.
Almost a dozen guards stood up front, watching everyone that entered. I peered, brilles clear and tongue waving. There were three guard groups here, one for each line, and every once in a while they would stop someone — maybe they had a visible weapon, or a suspicious face, or sometimes nothing obvious to me — and while they didn’t, dragons slinked inside in almost fourfold bursts. As I watched, the guards rotated out, one at a time. This interrupted the rhythm, but it was tight, considering everything.
A long ring chimed and shook the crowd below us. We only sped up our climbing just a hitch. After we all got to the ground — me having helped Digrif up and then together waiting together for Hinte inching down — and as we slinked toward a line, some tall black-clad dragon strode up to us.
They wore a wary half-smile and unmistakable eye-paint. This was Adwyn, for all that the black schizon helmet he wore hid it.
He had ditched his red dress from earlier for this utilitarian, almost military garb similar to Rhyfel’s armor from last night, with black bamboo plates sown in and black cloth covering the whole of his stocky legs, tail, and neck. There were no glyphs inscribed on the plates, though, and it didn’t look custom-made like Rhyfel’s, but it did look good.
“You are late,” he said, in an almost unnoticeable lilt. Now some seriousness like a mist was arising in his tone, now.
“Late!” I said. “You said to meet you at seventh ring.” I never lost count of rings, but I didn’t even need frills to know the seventh rung just breaths ago.
Adwyn’s smile faltered, and I almost believed it. “Oh? Are you that reluctant to join me?”
My fangs vitrified. Was this a ploy? Unbalance me with his proposal, give me a day to stew and demand a response when I couldn’t avoid it?
“We had to walk all the way here, Sofrani,” Digrif said, the only one who had thought to bow to the highest Dyfnderi adviser. Or was the only one forgot not to bother. “It was slow.” I glanced at Hinte, and the wiver mercifully didn’t react. Unless those scores in the gravel by her feet hadn’t been there before.
“Ah, but one never knows what will go wrong; earliness is humility. And you fledge no eagerness to get started, do you? But it isn’t every day that you get to stop a war with a Dyfnderi veteran — or if it is, you lead much more interesting lives than I know of. I expected you all to jump at the opportunity.”
There was something about the way his tone danced and wavered. He was acting — that much was obvious — but what was underneath it? Why harp on this point and not just get the job done?
I shot in the dark. “A veteran.” I let wonder light my tone. “What are you a veteran of?”
Adwyn smiled again. “Plenty. Dyfnder/Geunant is protectorate, and our name isn’t just a title, unlike some countries. There is no end of threats to some orbiting stronghold, or militant insurrection menacing our freedom. More impressively, I served in the skirmishes against the spiders in the caves far up north of the canyons, and grounded the Ragan Mountain back when the Constellation was still making trouble.” He flared his frills and licked the wistfulness from his tone. “Of course, what I do anymore isn’t the same kind of interesting.”
The affected wonder dropped with a snap. “Are you talking about the Raga rebellion? That mountain was rogue! They defected from the Concordat of Stars! We — the Constellation has been peaceful for hundreds of gyras!”
“Hmm. Is it not funny, then, how consistently the sky gets these so-called rogues? Or how sky never deals with these defectors on their own?”
“We — they are stretched thin! The Constellation is five times larger and twelve times sparser than any land nation. By the time they knew of Raganari’s betrayal, her mountain had already been grounded. There was nothing we could do.”
It was true. The Severance of Earth and Sky promised that no sky-dweller would land on surface-dweller land, and no surface-dweller could enter the skycities.
Exiled sky-dwellers — like me — were exempt from the Severance, forced to tromp around in the mud. We were never allowed to return to the sky. Ever. This many great dances after the Severance was signed, exile had waned to something of an archaic, cruel punishment. Some cities still used it, even overused it, but Tädet/Pimeys wasn’t one of them. I was exiled on request.
When Hinte’s voice reached us, she had already begun stalking toward the gate, and the market. “It does not matter.”
“Ah yes, Gronte-wyre sees the idea. Let us set off,” Adwyn said.
This time, Hinte turned back to say, “Do not call me Gronte-wyre. I am Hinte.”
Adwyn gave a small bow, motioning his alulae out. Some Dyfnderi curtsy? When he rose, he was smirking at me. Why? I had nothing to do with that.
“If I may take the lead, Hinte?”
She only grunted, and Adwyn high-walked to the front of us. I nudged him when he passed, Chwithach’s fernpaper note fell to his grasp. The adviser gave a motion of his head that could be read as a nod, and was smiling.
We were led to where he’d appeared from. There, we found a yellowish pumice cart covered by a bland tarp. The pumice looked sanded down, but the stone’s surface still swarmed with holes, like someone in the last stages of a blood lice infection. I shivered. I’d had little brother, once, and we hadn’t even realized until his scales were pockmarked with holes and crawling with wriggling, blood-fattened insects.
A few guards stood around it, vaguely enough that it didn’t become clear they were watching until Adwyn motioned them away.
Under the tarp, the ape corpses looked only bumps in the bland beige. Adwyn took the reins of the cart himself, rolling it behind him.
He said, “We aren’t in any kind of a hurry. Ushra was right, at least, about how time is more of suggestion for this mission.” He looked back. “Do any of you regularly go to the east market?”
I lowered my head, and said, “I’ve never been.” Crowds made my scales peel — I got too many stares whenever I went out.
“Yes,” said Hinte.
“No,” said Digrif.
Adwyn smiled at that, and I had to work to see the draftiness hidden underneath. “Ah, let us shop, then. We can prepare for the journey into the cliffs. I love this market — it is where I bought this armor, see.” He wiggled a bit, showing off.
Hinte stepped toward him, examining the material, eyes clear but lips frowning.
“It is schizon?” she asked. “I don’t know many weavemasters who work with this outside of the forests.”
“Indeed. But we have Saumsanra here, some a traveler who once took up residence in Cyfrin ac Dwylla in the early days. He’s in Anterth anymore, gray season and all, but still trades with us quite a bit.”
Hinte’s head jerked up in the way she would when I spotted a cryst in the lake, or that one time I found a rainbow slug in a flowerpot. “The Saumsanra? My Oma speaks of him as if he were dead.”
“Of course, who else? He has enough students at this point, and we have no shortage of competent weavemasters, only lacking the forests’ abundance of schizal roots. So schizon cloth is a luxury — for now.” Adwyn gave Hinte a look. It might have been the look he had when he gave me his speech to me, but my angle wasn’t very good.
Instead of waiting in line Adwyn walked right up to where the guards watched the crowds. The schizon-clad adviser withdrew a silver-green coin from a pouch. He showed it to the guard. Their frills expanded, and the guards that weren’t occupied with the crowds lowered their heads in curt bows.
The lead guard said, “Sofrani Adwyn,” and stepped aside, allowing him to pass. Before he did, the orange drake waved his wing over the three of us. We followed, me smiling at the guards whose expressions of indifference had turned to courteous regard — except for one familiar muddy red face that didn’t look anywhere near us.
There was a short pink-scaled guard that broke away and scurried up to us. They had a big grin that didn’t sizzle at the heat of Adwyn’s vexed scowled.
“Hi? Who are you?” I asked the pink-scaled guard in sown-together rags.
* * *