Rousing V: Suspect

iiiiii

i. *

“The bodies need to be guarded,” the pink-scaled guard was saying to Adwyn, “don’t they?  You’re plenty big and strong sure, but I can watch your back.”
Didn’t they hear me? “Who are you?” I asked again, a bit higher. I stood somewhere behind Adwyn, beside Digrif, but I knew they could hear me.
The short, mouse-like dragon at last glanced over, frowned, and tossed me a, “Ceian,” before turning back to the schizon-clad adviser.
Hinte stood beside the orange drake. “Do we need a little fledgling slowing us down?”
The guard glanced at her, and his frills popped open and there may have been a gasp or mutter.  “You’re the alchemist’s spawn!” they said, and stepped back.
The wiver declined her head so that the shade ate her face, and at her neck the amber goggles were regent eyes.  “My name is Hinte.”
You saw a pink head tilt. “Why do you have a name like that?” They had the look and stance of some traveler guarding against a strange wraith that wanted tea and dancing.
The fledgling alchemist said, “Because my mother — why do you care?”
By now I was stomping up beside Hinte, saying, “Will no one tell me who this weird little guard is?”
The guard turned a narrowed-brow gaze to me a breath before they laughed, and Adwyn only sighed.
“Some orphan drake Mlaen’s fond to, whom Rhyfel also has taken a shine for. Quite the graspingly ambitious sort, which looks impressive from a distance as much as it does nothing to endear him to me.”
Ceian scoffed with his tail flicking and a forefoot smacking the gravel. “And you’re the sort who thinks he can bundle up a dragon in a few breaths, Sofrani.”
The adviser only smirked.
“Chance you could deign to inflict the same on this⁠ ⁠—⁠ colorful cast here?  Never seen these jokes.”
The orange drake looked back at my night-blue face, at the warm-gray drake behind me, and at the dark-green wiver beside me.  He sighed and plainly he spoke:
“Back there is Digrif, an orphan without your luck.  He works harder than he acts.  Beside me is Hinte.  Ushra’s daughter.  A wiver raised by money and the absence of limitations.  And the other one is Kinri.  She’s a sky-dweller if you omit everything that make sky-dwellers noteworthy.”  He paused.  “Which is a compliment.”
Hinte looked at the orange drake, but shade still had her face; meanwhile, Digrif, with sweet-tinged fangs, was back there softly kicking bits of gravel.  I didn’t react: if I didn’t act like a sky-dweller, it was all a part of the act.
Over there Ceian was nodding vaguely at Digrif, but he settled on Hinte and said, “She doesn’t look bloated, or dress bloated.  I’d even hazard she doesn’t act that bloated neither.  Too jagged.”  His tone wavered between unease and nothing in particular.
“She lives in Gwymr/Frina,” said the adviser with a laugh. “That sees something of a damper on that sort of thing.”
Ceian flicked his tongue, brows narrow, but I saw him stop it and pull it into his mouth.
Brightly he said, “So Sofrani! We decided you needed someone to guard the cart with you, right?  And as you can see:”⁠ ⁠—⁠ the pink drake waved at the guards letting the crowd into the east market, like a strainer; where Ceian had stood among them someone had ran to fill his place, and now glared at the drake, who was continuing⁠ ⁠—⁠ “my spot has been filled.”
Adwyn tossed his head and said, blankly, “You have raised a gray point.” A forefoot had been lifted and tapped his horned chin.  He nodded once.
“No,” Hinte said. “We will be slow enough as it is. We do not need another drag.”
“He’s nice, though.” Digrif slipped up beside me, looking at the wiver. “He’d make sharp company.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” I shook my head at the warm-gray dragon. “This is a serious mission, Digrif.  You can’t just bring someone along because they seem nice.”
Hinte gave me a look.
“What?”
Adwyn said to Ceian, “It’s a gray point, but I am entertaining my own solutions.”  He turned, regarding us and our little brewing argument.  “And alas, you’ve stirred a certain discord we could do without.  It’s nothing against you, you must see.  It’s only Hinte is awful when she doesn’t get her way.”
With a starfallen pink drake behind us, with Hinte scowling and Digrif frowning, with Adwyn lugging the weight of the holey pumice cart on, and with waxing unease curling onto my fangs, we marched forth wordlessly.  I could look at the silly side of things, find something to cheer someone up.
I glanced at Hinte, and shook my head. I was walking behind everyone now, Digrif between me and Hinte or Adwyn.
We entered the market proper like that.

The first thing you saw in the market was food, our food.
This was the start of the gray season, and now almost all of the foods on sale had grown here, been prepared here, without owing more than their names to something outside the cliffs.  After all, no merchant would trudge through the Berwem, through dust clouds and eruptions, just to sell in the land of glass and secrets.  To Anterth/Gwirion?  Maybe.  To Dyfnder/Geunant?  Of course.  But to Gwymr/Frina?  The only dragons who would care to were the mountain-dwellers, and they had better things to sell than crops or livestock.
In a word, Gwymr/Frina was obscure — and because of that, I’d decided to settle here instead of the skip mountains or the hovering shores.  Most exiled sky-dwellers ended up in either of those, and I knew why.  I loved the Constellation’s open skies, its immense heights, and everything.  I just couldn’t live where I would be reminded of them everyday.  Nothing could compare to the sky, so I decided it would be better to forget about it, if it came to that.
So I had fallen to the cliffs. Yes, my brother had suggested it, but I decided it.
Rubbing the singed scales around my headband, I glanced at the stalls around me; they were simple things, easy to build and tear down, and, being made of rough paper drapped over bamboo rods, they sat somewhere between flimsy and not.  They weren’t ugly; but I didn’t look at them, either.
Each stall around us wafted some delicious aroma. Gwymr/Frina’s clifftop outskirts were dotted with small farms; and there they raised cliff goats, gigantic land snails, fourteen-legged caterpillar cows, Hägre hogs and tidbit chickens.  And dillers and turts, too, but you shouldn’t eat those.  Here, meat from those animals scented the air with a lure restrained only by their price tag.
And one stall, it sold fish! I waved my tongue, yet before I could slink after it, Hinte’d broken away herself and slinked over to that stall selling Hägre hog pork.  Before I’d even unclouded my eyes she’d bought a whole roast.  Being from a smaller kind of hog, about knee-high and half as long as a dragon, it sat clumsy and tottering in Hinte’s cloaked wings. She tried to place it in her bag, but it wouldn’t fit.
She kept trying, so I giggled, stepped over, and said, “Just put it on the cart, Hinte⁠ ⁠—⁠ is too big,” I said, waving over to where Adwyn carried the cart.
Rust-orange eyes peered at me from under her hood. She flicked her tongue once, but took my advice.  She placed the roasted hog on the cart, away from the tarp-covered bodies.
Hinte broke off two of the hog’s six legs and offered one to me. I took it with a murmured thanks, even as I turned away to bite into it.  It was polite, but Hinte didn’t really have a sense of those things.  I took another bite and tasted again the crisp, almost-sweet flavor of roasted Hägre hog.
“Hey!” Digrif said. “What about me?”
Hinte hissed.  I prodded her with a wing (or rather, tried to prod her, failed, tried again, failed again, then finally turned around to aim true).  With Hinte’s attention I nodded at her.  She snapped her tongue at me, but relented.  Returning to the cart, she broke a third leg off and passed it to Digrif. I looked at Adwyn, tilting my head and raising the hog leg in my foot.
He shook his head.  “I am not hungry,” he said.
“And I would not have given one to you if you were,” Hinte said between bites.
I gaped at her, but Adwyn laughed.  Shaking my head, I settled into step behind everyone else again.
We walked on for a bit, roaming the stalls and crowds. I’d seen larger crowds before, at House parties or Constellation assemblies, but none in Gwymr/Frina.  It didn’t take twenty steps to remind me why I avoided them; scattered gazes all around lingered or stared, some almost glaring. I kept my head down, and tried not to scratch at my scales⁠ ⁠—⁠ they felt like they were molting.
At one point, Adwyn stopped suddenly, saying, “Allow me to find somewhere to hide this cart.  I won’t be lugging it around.”
The orange dragon turned and strode toward one of the cliff walls. Digrif and I trailed after him, but he brandished a wing at us.  “Go.  I am not your minder, and this diversion is as much for your own benefit as mine.”
I flattened my wings and stepped away at once.
Foots sounded, and I glanced at the warm gray dragon coming up at my side.  “Hi, Digrif,” I said.
“Huh? Hey Kinri.”
Looking away again, fangs damp, I found Hinte a ways behind us.  When did she get there?  Then I moved my gaze to her wings – she’d doubled back to wrench her roast from Adwyn’s cart.  Roast in wing, she was low-walking away.  With another prodding glance to Digrif I shot up and half-glided, half-flew to Hinte.  I planted down beside her first — no question of that — but Digrif wasn’t more than a few breath cycles behind me.
Together again, I walked between the two friends.  I brushed my wings against them as we waked, but that only pulled brief, puzzled glances from each of them, so I sighed and looked around at the crowd, then back at Hinte, then around again.
Surrounded by the gazes of strangers, I curled tighter in on myself. No one noticed.

The crowd writhed and spilt over itself.  Like pillars in the chaotic mass, wherever we looked there were guards in high-stands or high-walks, each one looking purposeful even if I only saw them stop and question a plain-dweller twice.  The crowd flowed around them; for some⁠ ⁠—⁠ often cliff-dwellers, often clad in halfrobes⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was because they stopped and inclined their heads in respect, and for others⁠ ⁠—⁠ often plain-dwellers, often clad in ashcloaks⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was because they stopped and slinked around the guard, disappearing into the crowd.
Rising even more pillar-like, even more purposeful, some guards prowled around on crunching red tortoises, their shells painted in blaring golds.  Where the crowd flowed around the guards, it parted around the turt-mounted guards.
One of those guards walked by us just now, and the parting of the crowd let me glance at the stalls around us.  Here, weaponry and armor lined the counters and crates.  There was even a stall with two suits like the one Adwyn wore⁠ ⁠—⁠ each with its own unique touch, of course.  I glanced at the signs below and⁠ ⁠— woah, that was expensive.
I asked Hinte, “How much would a suit like that cost back in the forests?” She had been staring at me⁠ ⁠—⁠ waiting for me to stop looking and start moving again?  I took a step forward.
Most of Hinte’s face was shadowed in her hood, but you knew Hinte wrinkled her snout at me.  “Anywhere from a only quarter to only half of that.  The forests are big.  Not everyone is sitting on a field of schizal roots, Kinri-gyfar.”
“Hey,” Digrif butted in, “are those schizal roots anything like the dinder roots they build their houses with back in the mountains?”  He was smiling at Hinte.
“You cannot build houses out of schizon, Digrif,” Hinte said, slow, and Digrif cringed a bit.
“How do you even build a house out of roots?”
Digrif twisted his head, and the cringe turned to a smile.  “Dinder trees get big!  Real big⁠ ⁠—⁠ and they have to regrow themselves⁠ ⁠—⁠ the blastwinds in hurricane season usually sever their crowns⁠ ⁠—⁠ sometimes even their trunks!”
“Huh,” I said. I lifted the tip of my wing to my chin. “You know a lot about their trees…”
“Yep! I’ve harvested the roots with my dad — I even built some houses with him before we came back to Gwymr/Frina.”  His frills fluttered, and honey pride scented the air.
The crowd beside us cleared again for a heartbeat, and I glanced among the stalls they’d blocked.  One, with a fernpaper covering painted colorful and jaunty, was a jeweler’s stall⁠ ⁠—⁠ the sign above it read, ‘Glyster’s Gyms.’
Hinte had already walked away from us, standing in front of that stall, tearing off pieces of her roast for the stallowner and chatting with smiles and fluttering frills.  Her hood was down just a bit, but a wing by her snout hid her scales and gave her conversation a secretive edge.
Digrif and I were padding closer.
“—⁠ Glyster.  How have you been?  Are you ready for the ash?”
“Of course, I’m ready, darling.” Glyster’s voice was a saccharine hiss, and seemed to click her tongue once with each pause for breath, giving her words a giggly undertone.  “You know mining always picks up when the lake grows so savage.  And more mining means more gems.  I’m excited!”
Glyster paused to brush a jingling frill with her gleaming scaled foreleg. The frill looked weighed down with the number of piercings it had, and half of them had gemstones embedded.  “And you?  I can’t imagine you’ll have all that much to do with the lake in the throes of the gray season.”
“I am worried about things other than ash and sifting, right now.” Hinte twisted her frills.  “And you forgot one of my questions.  How are you?”
“Oh, a notch disappointed.” Glyster lowered her head, holding it in her forelegs.  “Aurisiuf usually brings me fresh crysts this day of the cycle.  Have you seen him at all, at all?”
Hinte glanced back at me, then at Digrif, and said, “No, I have not.”
“Oh well.”  Glyster lifted her head again, mending her smile.  “Now say, do you…”
I glanced away from Hinte’s conversation and spun my gaze over the crowd. It felt like every second face I saw was staring at me.  Not always long, but gazes lingered in a way that made me so very aware of how out of place I was on the surface.
I needed a break from this. I turned away from Hinte and her conversation with Glyster and started away.  I glanced back for Digrif, and saw Glyster beckoning him over.  I sighed, and walked off.
I’d step away, get things in order. No one would notice, anyway.

A short ring passed.  I finished a small errand I wanted to run, acquired a scroll I’d was searching for, an astronomical table.  I flipped through it⁠ ⁠— in an alleyway.  Nothing else of note happened.  I made to return to Hinte and Digrif.

ii. *

The suns condescended from high above like distant certainties.  Lonely clouds floated about beneath them, and sometimes a suggestion of a skyland far away.  The murmur of the crowd in the east market was a thick, and I waded through it.
My gaze might have gouged the ground as I walked, staring down; it felt that heavy.  Looking down like this, I didn’t see anyone glance my way.  When I heard jingling and clicking I was back to where Hinte was talking with Glyster.
Hidden in the crowd I approached and felt the clicking of Glyster’s sweet voice countering the jagged growl of Hinte’s.
Then someone said my name, and I padded closer, still hiding in the throng of dragons.  Listening, closely, I still couldn’t hear every word.
“— —’s been asking about her, wanting to know if she’ll —. And I care, too, but about the — side of it.”
Hinte spoke slow, her tone from somewhere distant, even while she stood nearer to me than Glyster.  She said, “She is a friend.  I owe her my life.  But she’s scared and flimsy.  We cannot trust her for this.”
“Maybe. But he thinks —”
“I can smell her coming,” Hinte shot in.
And that, I guessed, was my cue. I stepped out of the shifting crowd. Hinte turned to meet me, her lips curling in a way I might have once taken for the shadow of a smile, but now I wondered if it had some other meaning.
“Kinri-gyfar,” she started with an incline of her head, “this is Glyster. You ran off before I could introduce you.”
“Nothing happened,” I blurted. “I just wanted some time to myself.” And I didn’t get it.  I’d had a⁠ ⁠—⁠ conversation.  But it was over now.  Everything would turn out as planned.  Had to.  I rubbed my raw, sore neck, and forgot.
Hinte was tossing her head. “I mentioned her to you last night. She’s agreed to look at that gem, that…  immortal raisin you found.”  Any other day, I might have considered the sour expression she wore a victory, but I had other things to worry about now.
I had it in me to murmur the correction, “It’s the raisin of immortality,” but not loud enough to be heard.  Glancing at Glyster, she had a smile that told me she knew the name was a joke.
“Okay,” came my voice, now louder.
I met Glyster’s gaze.  She stood a tall cliff-dweller wiver, and off her body draped a revealing silk dress with breaks like the ribs of a snake.  Her scales were blood-red, and her wings draped over her like a second dress.  Between the immaculate clothes, the electrum piercings with rubies, jades or garnets that ringed her frills, and those hornscales like nothing so much as blades of grass, the only word to describe her was cliff-dweller.
She regarded me with a smile, even if she had eyes for Hinte most of all. “Hullo, Kinri.  A fragrance to finally meet you.  Here,”⁠ ⁠—⁠ she took something from her stand⁠ ⁠—⁠ “do you want a candy?”
The candy was a clear yellow and smelt of pure sourness. After a single glance and flick from me it slipped into my pocket⁠ ⁠—⁠ the same pocket that held the cards from earlier, where they rubbed together and collected dust and lint.  I ran an alula over the cards with their worn, pealing edges, and then dragged the finger over the candy with a private grimace —sour.
But I smiled at Glyster and said, “Thank you.”
“But of course — and don’t chew it, sweetness. It sticks.” Her frills — the one that wasn’t weighed down with piercings⁠ ⁠—⁠ fluttered at me.
As my wing dug into my bag for the raisin-gem, I asked Hinte, “Where’s Digrif?”
“Over there, annoying some poor stallowner.”
Where she pointed, Digrif sat, all four feet on a big slate crate, waving his wing as he chatted with another cliff-dweller stallowner.  They stood behind a stall of hammers, nails and other tools I couldn’t name.  While Digrif shifted as he talked, the stallowner didn’t.  I didn’t get the feeling they were really annoyed though, since they could always just tell Digrif to go away.
I held the gemstone, and then Glyster held the gemstone. She scrutinized it for a breath, and when the second short ring chimed and interrupted that, she set it down somewhere unseen behind her counter.  “I’ll look closer later.”  Smiling, she continued, “I think I’ve held you three up enough.  Do you have other places to be?”
“No.”
“Well, I have, um, things I need to do.”  Saying that had both Hinte and Glyster peering at me.  I brushed their gazes off.  They weren’t what whittled at me.  Rubbing my hurt neck, I turned and started toward Digrif, while finding myself, in my mind, a ring in the future, meeting instead Adwyn’s sifting gaze.  Would he see right through me?
No, he wouldn’t, couldn’t.  While no one watched, I knit my feelings into a knot, buried them.  My face relaxed in a way it hadn’t in gyras⁠ ⁠—⁠ into a mask that hid.  Adwyn would think everything was the same, that nothing changed with me.  Had to.

It was a weapons stall, and it displayed a few aluminum and bronze swords.
Here, the stalls sat sparser, with more room to themselves. It gave each stall room to breath, an identity, something to catch the eye if just for a heartbeat.  This stall, though, stood a little taller, and it was made of stone instead of thick paper laid over bamboo reeds. The difference caught the eye and left it trapped, ensnared awhile.
Digrif caught my stare, followed it, and his frills flared in excitement. He leapt over to the stall and spoke, voice bubbling over, fangs sweetening, “Hello, O stallowner.”
“Oi hatchlin’ — what ya lookin’ ova?” The speaker was a mud — plain-dweller.  They had a gnarled, rough look.  Their horns grew out of control, and some of their scales parted from their face.  They watched Digrif with what might be good-natured smile.  Or an ingratiating one.
“These swords — they are uh…for sale?”
The stallowner laughed.  “Course they are, course they are⁠ ⁠—⁠ I ought to be broke if I bought a stall just to let you look at it!”  They put wing on the counter, leaning over it, head snaking forward.
“Heha, yeah.” Digrif glanced back at me; I smiled — what was I supposed to do?
The stallowner had a rag and a sword. Wiping the blade, they said, “So — I suppose you are lookin for one of these weapons?”
Digrif glanced back — at Hinte this time. “Well… yeah.”
The stallowner lowered their head.  Their lips curled into a frown with dreams of being a smile.  “You have any trainin with one?”
Digrif looked down, poking the ground with a claw. “…No.”
The frown tightened as its dreams were crushed.  The stallowner said, “Pity.  You can’t just pick up a sword and swing it about however you please — you need trainin. Lots of trainin.”
Digrif gave a vigorous poke to the ground and met the stallowner’s gaze again.  “Well, my dad’s buddy fought the spiders a few years back. Maybe I can get him teach me!”
“Sure, hatchling.  As long as the money is the money.  Just I’m an honest drake, couldn’t sell you a sword knowin you can’t use it.”
Pride dewed again on Digrif’s fangs, this time with a hint of cloying embarrassment.  “Thanks?  But uh…  how much are they?”
The stallowner smiled. “Oh, about forty, fifty aris, average. Cheapest one I will give ya is thirty and five.”  I winced at the price⁠ ⁠—⁠ that was ten cycles’ stay in the inn.  Maybe twice or thrice my cyclic salary.  Ouch.
Digrif, though frowning, grabbed a coinpouch from the pocket of his ‘pants’ and counted out the amount.  I watched, slack-tongued, and Hinte didn’t, her gaze wandering as she ripped the last bites from the hog leg.
“I shall take that one, then.” Digrif was saying as he finished counting. The stallowner took the plain aluminum sword from the bottom of the rack, setting it down as he slid the coins to himself.
The warm gray dragon lifted the sheathed sword, testing its weight. I could smell the dillerskin leather of its sheath from here, but it wasn’t a bad smell.  After a few beats he set the sword on his back between his wings and nestled it, smiling. He laughed a little and stepped back over to where we waited, watching.
Hinte gave a tonguesnap when he returned. “Just what are you expecting to do with a sword?”  The wiver glared at Digrif.
“Uh, fight? You and Kinri already got into a scuffle with humans — what if more come looking for vengeance?”
I couldn’t help but click at that. “Digrif,” I said, between tongueclicks, “that isn’t going to happen.”  I couldn’t help my heartbeat hitching, though.  How could we defend ourselves if we ended up in another situation like the one in the lake?
My tail slipped into my bag, and wrapped loosely around Hinte’s oily knife, and I breathed a touch easier.  Then I glanced back and ran my tail along the knife’s length again.  How was that glazed olm blood still oily?
Digrif was replying, “You would have said the same about Hinte getting attacked by a horde of apes!”
I tilted my head. “Horde?”
“Four humans, Digrif,” a soft voice said from behind us.  I would have jumped, but I didn’t.  Digrif, though, did, and Hinte turned, eyes not even clearing as they met the orange dragon’s gaze.  Adwyn continued, eyeing Hinte “One lay dying, and two had just woke up, according to her report.”
Hinte turned around, a foot dusting off her cloak’s sleeve before coming to rest on the other.  I watched Hinte, so I wouldn’t slip and glance back at him.
Digrif was saying, “So? My point flies!” With both Hinte and I silent, we were wedged in the middle of the argument.
On one side Adwyn said, “No, it does not. The humans are unaware anything has happened, and will remain unaware for some cycles.”
On the other Digrif deflated his frills, glancing back to me. I granted a small smile and a careless toss of my head.  Hinte was walking away, and Adwyn strode behind her.  He might have glanced at me, I wasn’t looking and I didn’t care.  As I started after them, eyes to the ground, Digrif followed after me.
As he caught up, Digrif cocked his head.  “You smell like blood.”
“I tripped.”
“Ouch, that doesn’t sound fun.  Did you get it wrapped up?”
Rubbing my neck, I said, “Um, I cleaned it all up.”
“Okay then.”
We walked along for a bit. I glanced back at Digrif, and waved my tongue. “So. Where did you get the money for that sword?  It seems a little out of nowhere.”
Digrif strode a bit closer to me. “My dad was a bit worried after I told him what happened to you two.  Wanted me to get some kind of protection, so I wouldn’t…  you know.”
I looked up. “I guess.” Glancing back at Digrif, and I bit my lip and said, “Sorry if I made you feel a little silly back there.  I…  um.”
Digrif was shaking his head. “It’s fine. I’m used to it.”

The weapon and armor stalls faded behind us, giving way to a new theme.  Looking around, there were outfits resembling the sifting suits I’d worn with Hinte yesterday, and some that didn’t looked nearly as good.
My tongue flapped and I looked around at all of the sifting goods. For either the glazeward salve or the respira fumes, only a single stall sold them, each tended by a hat-wearing, brightly red cliff-dwellers with silky purple fullrobes.  The mixtures were marked as high as twenty aris for a bottle.  The advantages of having an alchemist friend, I guess.
Hinte’d told me those ugly bright white suits warded off heat. I didn’t believe her⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was still panting hot⁠ ⁠—⁠ but all that surfaced in my mind now was the worry that today I’d been finding out just whether she was right.
Among the blinding white suits, there were sifting rods, shovel-like sieves that looked just like the metal rod the apes had, and dark-lensed goggles that didn’t have the iridescence of Hinte’s, some arm-guards that were supposed to prevent sand from caking onto your limbs, and aluminum claws I didn’t grasp the use of.
I winged the sieve from my bag, giving it another look. I looked back at the sieves on display.  The design was similar, very similar, down to the handle.  Maybe the humans had the same ideas? I put the sieve back in my bag, and kept looking around.
We passed some poor scrapers offering to clean your forelegs of glass and dust for a few coins.  I was about to leap over to them just then, but Hinte stopped me with a wing over my breast.
…I kept looking around.
One thing you didn’t hear so much here was buskers. It felt odd to miss the unasked-for music that polluted public spaces and the ragged musicians who brought it; but when my frills felt the sharp hum of strings, it was a break from the growls and hissings which weren’t for my frills.  As I padded a bit closer, there was a curious nostalgic undercurrent in that pulled me in.
Over near the edge of the sifting goods section, a drake in a dull purple cloak strummed a stringed thing, glinting metallic and brighter than anything else about him.
They crooned in an accent I could lull into, and slowly the singing went from wordless pitches to some accusative song:
“Can’t cross the seas nor skies astarr’d,
  “Until the fires have grown cold—
  “Like the legends haven’t told,
“We sift while life is barred.
“We bare the heat, the drought, the lake,
  “The bossdrake’s unescapèd call,
  “The fiery moil which bitters all—
“We sift for heart’s warm sake.
“The fires are trudge and toil for what?
  “Reward so meager for the plight? 
  “Potential pay that makes it right?
“It simply doesn’t cut.
“I do not sift for glass or gold,
  “And nor to make a life⁠ ⁠—⁠ that’s true,
  “But only for the love I knew. 
“I sift for something old.
“My love escaped into the clouds
  “Beyond which scarcely could I find
  “The flames or words to change her mind
“The flames that could have vowed.
“Now time has past like scales that slough
  “My fangs have faltered, dessicated
  “(A sifter’s final fall, but fated). 
 “It seems flames weren’t enough.
“Across the seas and skies astarr’d,
  “Until my flames had grown too cold,
  “Like the legends haven’t told,
“I’d sift’d till hope was marr’d.
It stirred something in me, and I glanced at the busker again.  The dull cloak, the metal strings⁠ ⁠—⁠ the memory came fast.  He was the angry drake from last night.  It stopped my padding forth quick and standing still I simply peered at him awhile, wondering about the love he’d lost and what other depths lay in his past.
But I wouldn’t talk to him again, and I wouldn’t patronize someone that unpleasant.  The plain-dwellers stepping past who did let me cloud my eyes and continue wandering the stalls and all the strange sifting instruments arrayed.  The busker kept strumming away, and his secrets kept resounding in the music.
The one thing that caught my eye above all else was the gas-masks.  I waved my tongue and broke my stride with the others, looking closer.  The design of the masks varied: some of them⁠ ⁠—⁠ the cheaper ones, I noticed⁠ ⁠—⁠ looked like woven sacks with glass holes for eyes and a bulky respirators near the mouth; some were simple dust masks you wrapped around your snout.  The most advanced I saw was unique⁠ ⁠—⁠ there wasn’t another like it: woven schizon in a sleek, form-fitting design; near-black lenses stared out, contemptuous; and its black, disk-like respirator was smaller, sophisticated. Where the other masks had simple holes, this one had a tongue-flap.
I let out a quiet squeal on sight. How cool I would look in a mask like that? …I glanced, with effort, at the price: ninety aris.
Frills deflating, I looked at the other options. I didn’t consider for a heartbeat the sack-looking masks.  But there were sets a few notches more advanced that didn’t look hideous, and didn’t cost ninety aris.
I spotted some with promise. Blaring a patriotic red with golden streaks, and glassy wing patterns over the frill guards, these masks looked like they could make Staune seem a cliff-dweller.  As I stared at the masks, the owner of the stall turned around to peer at me.  They were a deep orange⁠ ⁠—⁠ a canyon-dweller.  Their face was specked with dark-gray freckles.  They regarded me, cool and impassive.
“Greetings. Have you come to buy a mask?”
“Um… sure?”  Behind me, where the stallowner couldn’t see, my tail was doing all manner of embarrassed acrobatics.
Their eyes shifted at my questioning, un-sure tone, but it didn’t ever reach their voice.  “You want one of these red ones, it looks like.”  I nodded my head a little.  “Alright.  I shall sell you them for⁠ ⁠—⁠ let us say⁠ ⁠—⁠ thirty aris.”  My wings hitched at that — what! They continued, “How many are you going to buy?” Their eyes glanced behind me, where my friends and Adwyn stood — I thought.  I glanced back to be sure.
“Hmm…” I hummed. Me, Hinte, Digrif… Adwyn. “Four. But a hundred-twenty is far too much!  I cannot buy that⁠ ⁠—”
“What are you doing, Kinri?” a voice⁠ ⁠—⁠ Hinte’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ said, coming to my side.
“Oh uh, I wanted to buy some gas masks — for the trip back into the lake,” I said, frills folding.
“What?” she said, taking in the stall and the masks filling the shelves and clouding her eyes.  “What is the point?  We have respira.”  She turned and walked away.
“What the blind?” the stallowner said. “How could you not afford my midrange gas-masks, and then turn around and chug respira without worry?”
Hinte’s response was, “It is no concern.” With her back turned and her form hidden in her cloak, it was all you got.
The stallowner frowned, then smirked. “She’s an alchemist, isn’t she?”
They were peering right at me, so they saw my brilles clear, my frills twitch.  The smirk stayed long enough to let me know I’d been bested, and fell back to a frown, as the stallowner hissed and shook her head. “Of course, she’s just another stuck-up alchemist who thinks they can live in the depths of their vials.  I almost pity you and her.”
Hinte gave a dismissive hiss, which felt a bit less dismissive when I could hear it from over here.
“I don’t not need a mask, Kinri,” was what she said as she lifted to a high-walk and strode futher off.
“Well. I think I’ll only need three, now. Is seventy or eighty possible?” I asked, tone pleading.
“Eh,” they said. “Look, I could sell you all four for a hundred. Your friend needs it⁠ ⁠—⁠ she’s clearly not getting enough air to her head as it is.”  I jerked back, claws scoring the gravel, brow narrowing.  But I grounded the impulse, tied it up with the dewings I’d removed to build my mask.  This was a good deal, I thought.  It was what I wanted.
“Um. I can’t bring you down to ninety?”
“No, I am being generous.”
“Then I guess that’ll work.” I reached into my bag for my coinpurse. I wrenched the amount and dropped the purse back into my bad.  I could already feel the lightness in my purse.
The stall owner slid them adroitly across the counter coin by coin, checking my counting themself.  I took the four masks and started to turn, but the stall owner stopped me.
“Hey, stop. A gas-mask is not as simple as just strapping it to your face and wandering into the vog.  Here,” they said, then produced a bag, quickly filling it with some thick green and black discs.  They picked one up and extended it to me, explaining, “these are cartridges.”  They grabbed one of the masks⁠ ⁠—⁠ the same kind I just bought, and then, “You insert them like this and they absorb the sulfur in the air.  They cannot last forever, so you shall want to switch cartridges sooner or later.”
Across my face fell a look like I almost slipped from a cliff. “Oh, thanks.”
“Don’t thank me⁠ ⁠—⁠ it’s my job.  If you want to thank, pray your gods for you to not ‘die’ or ‘suffer serious injury’ out in the lake.  I am liable so long as you wear our masks.  Faer’s new system.”
I flicked a tongue. “Insurance?” They nodded. “Don’t I have to sign somewhere for that?”
“What are you talking about?” they said, “I have your names — I read the papers⁠ ⁠—⁠ you are Kinri of Specter, that must be Hinte of Gären, of course I recognize highness Adwyn.  And that other hatchling has scales that nearly pin them down.  Who are they?  Donio?  Digrif?”
“Digrif.” The warm gray dragon jerked at his mention but at my head shake went back to listening to Adwyn explain something with wide wing gestures.
“Yes, see? I have things handled.”
“But how will they know to blame you when something happens?”
“All controlled purchases in the east market are documented. I could not get out of here tonight without registering this transaction.”
“But — what stops you from just… not registering? Or putting down bogus information?”
“That is fraud, madam. Are you implying something?”
“Oh… no!  I⁠ ⁠—⁠ I will go.”
“Do.”

“Thank you, Kinri.  This was quite thoughtful of you.”
“Wow. We’ll look like proper sifters yet. Sharp thanks, Kinri.”
“You wasted your money.  Gas-masks are inferior to respira fumes.”
I sighed past the salt on my fangs, and put Hinte’s mask in my bag. What could I do?
Adwyn was saying, “Do not oversell your alchemy, Hinte. Gwymr/Frina was built on top of sifting.  If alchemy were the only way, some clever sap would have known it and made rich because of it.  Respira is not perfect⁠ ⁠—⁠ it has its disadvantages.”
“Such as?” Hinte shifted, staring at Adwyn.
Adwyn held out a forefoot.  He extended one toe.  “It heals your lungs, but without perfect quality and refinement, the repair is incomplete.”  I stared at Hinte.  Holding out another toe, the adviser continued, “And the damage to one’s lungs accumulates over time.”  He extended a third toe.  “It is rather expensive —⁠ not very trivial to brew.”  He extended a fourth, “And⁠ ⁠—”
“Ha,” Hinte laughed in a wavering tone.  She yawned, and then her expression and voice seemed to settle.  “It is not my fault you cliff-dwellers are in dire need of competent alchemists.  Respira is trivial⁠ ⁠—⁠ in Teif/Günstig academies, we would brew it as busy work or punishment.  Do you think I would botch something so trivial?”
Adwyn brought his forefoot back to the ground, and shook his head. “Be that as it may, we have the masks.  There is no good reason not to use them.  If a sifter wants a mask like these, they’ll be paying out of their own pocket.”  Adwyn popped his tongue. “Basic caution implores us to use them, Hinte.” Adwyn’s tone had become bronze, as if he would take to ordering Hinte around. It was easy to forget⁠ ⁠—⁠ with his irreverent, observant demeanor⁠ ⁠—⁠ that this schizon-clad canyon-dweller was a military veteran, a former commander.
Adwyn glanced my way, and I was looking away, hard.
Hinte was turning away.  “I cannot wear the gas-mask over my goggles, regardless,” she said, fingering the goggles hanging around her neck with an alula.  She saw Adwyn tilt his head.  “What?”
“Tell me about your goggles.” He smiled. I narrowed my brows.
Hinte whisked a wing.  “Gronte made them for me.  She did the weaving herself, but she had help for the glass.  It’s for the ash and rain.  Polarized, and filters light based on the angle of incidence to keep out reflections.”  She glanced to the ground, muttering as if it were an embarrassment to admit, “Something only the Gwymri know how to make.”
“Heha, Gwymr/Frina is the land of glass and secrets. Secret glass.” Digrif had tried putting on his gas-mask already; but he had it on backward, eye holes at the back of his head, and was looking in the wrong direction as he spoke.  I walked over to fix his mask.
Adwyn slipped on his mask as well; between it and his schizon armor, you could miss the few orange scales that were still exposed.  Adwyn had lowered his head, saying, “Has your grandmother taught you anything of her craft?”
Hinte’s face I couldn’t see, but her tone sounded level, the kind of levelness that came from not being calm, if by some small yet significant amount.  “She has tried.”
“Would it be beyond you to modify your mask to fit over your goggles? It’s a gift, and I would hate to so it go to waste.”
When I turned, I saw Adwyn was talking to empty space; Hinte had already stalked off.
A properly masked Digrif, Adwyn and I low-walked after Hinte. Her tail lashed and her frills writhed, but seemed to fade as she distanced herself.
I watched Hinte, wondering if I should say anything; but salt still dewed on my fangs (scared, flimsy, can’t trust her), and in that moment of hesitation, Digrif slinked right beside Hinte.
“Hey Hinte,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
Hinte regarded Digrif with a glare less intense than the one she’d been giving the ground a heartbeat earlier.  “I know when I am being manipulated.”
Adwyn curtsied. “See my apologies, then, Hinte. I meant you no harm.”
Hinte snapped her tongue.  She said, “It does not matter,” in a low growl.  She scratched one forefoot with the other and waited for Adwyn and me to close the distance between us.  She started off⁠ ⁠—⁠ if she were following Adwyn, you couldn’t tell for the first few steps.
As we walked, Adwyn started speaking, saying, “I looked over the bodies again, before leaving them in the charge a few guards.  I found some interesting objects among the bodies⁠ ⁠—⁠ they aren’t any kind of evidence, so I plan to sell them.”
Adwyn didn’t seem to be done, but in between his sentences Hinte stabbed a question.  “Will a human search party not notice if the possessions of the humans are gone?”
“I doubt a search party will care, as long as some valuables are still there. I shall only sell some.  And irregardless, glazed olms are known to scavenge for metals.  That could cover us, but we can’t count on the humans knowing that, so I held back.”  He looked over to Hinte, then me, starting to lick his eyes only to find them covered by the mask’s goggles.  “Since you two are responsible for bringing the humans to us, I thought you would want a share of the spoils.”
“No,” Hinte said.
“I would,” I said.  Peering at Hinte, I asked her, “Why not?”
“It does not matter.”

iii. *

We didn’t go far from the sifting section before Adwyn stopped us and pointed at the ground beneath us.  “Stay here.”
Behind and to his left stood a stall stacked with plates, folded cloth and rows of vases, all decorated with curling tails, angular weapons and excessive glyphs —⁠ the plates and vases were all colored glass, and the cloth was of some smooth material I didn’t recognize.  Other things scattered over the table, but they didn’t come in pairs, let alone stacks or rows.  Was that a rope of golden thread?  An obsidian spear?  A cryst?
At our angle, we could see both our canyon-dweller, standing front of the stall, gas-mask off, and the cliff-dweller behind the stall and glancing up with a bored look.  Adwyn smiled at the stallowner, and they smiled back, tongue scenting.
Adwyn waved his alula around and made an impressed noise. “This is quite the assortment of goods you have here.  A little bit of everything, isn’t it?”
“Indubitably, it is. Something of a bazaar, I have here — a bricolage of wares, if you would.”
Adwyn lowered his wing, smile becoming a contemplative curl of his lips. “Exquisite taste, if I would say as much.”
The stallowner narrowed their brow, but before they could respond, Adwyn was peering at the counter, lifting and examining this or that object.
He had the cryst in his grasp when he spoke, only a few breath cycles later. “I have to see, this is the most interesting thing sitting here.  I haven’t seen anything quite like it.  Tell me about it.”
“Oh, that is a little curio some stupid sifter left me. They said it was worthless.  Ha!  Mud-dwellers wouldn’t know value if it spat on them, you must know.”
I gasped a bit and glanced at Hinte, whose frills hadn’t moved a notch. They were still.  I prodded her.  “I don’t sound like that, do I?”  I whispered.
“Sometimes you do,” she said. “You’ve gotten better.”
I squeaked.
But Adwyn was laughing with the stallowner. “That they don’t. Entirely unlike yourself⁠ ⁠—⁠ you have quite the tongue for value, if your collection is anything to judge by.  How much would you say this is worth?”
“Oh, thirty and six aris, say?”
“That sounds reasonable.”  Adwyn tapped his chin with an alula.  “But, how do you see tempering that price with a trade?  I have this knife, and I want your opinion of it.”  Adwyn grabbed a knife from his bags and placed it on the counter.
“It is bronze and slight rusty.”
“Indeed.  However, this is not just a knife⁠ ⁠—⁠ if it were, I would sell it to one of those brute weapons dealers.  No, this knife is special.”
The stallowner watched Adwyn for a moment, tongueflicks becoming more pronounced until they finally asked, “What makes it special?”
Adwyn looked away, distant. “Have you heard about that second act in the lake?”
“The mess with the monsters?”
“Quite. You see, this knife was the blade the monsters fought Gronte-wyre with. I risked quite a bit for this.  I see it as having a certain symbolic value, no?  It’s not just a knife, it’s a monster’s knife.”
“Oh–oh.  How much is it worth?”
“Ah, I don’t know, I trust your judgment.”
“Well, thirty and six seems also fair, does it not?”
“It does. Though maybe this is worth a bit more than the rock? After all, this isn’t some stupid sifter giving this to you.”
“Oh, you’re right. How does forty and two seem?”
“Forty.  I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
“Is it a deal?”
“Almost.  As I said, I risked quite a bit to find this for you.  As lovely as the stone is, it won’t help me find more monster trinkets.  If you give me the full forty, I’ll see it back to you with the next trinket I find.”
“That sounds…” The stallowner was lifting a wing to their face.
“I know you can smell a good deal when it meets you.”
The stallowner nibbled a bit on their alula, then jerked it away when they seemed to notice.  “Thirty and eight.”
“I — yes, I understand. Thank you for being reasonable,” he said. And that was that.
Adwyn returned to us, smirking, in a flurry of questions.
“I didn’t know canyon-dwellers could dance⁠ ⁠—⁠ where did you learn that?”
“What the void was that ‘mud-dweller’ residua about?”
“Why didn’t you sell your knife when we were in the place with all the swords?”
The smirk cracked under the strain. Adwyn sighed.
He looked to me.  “The Constellation’s courts are hardly unique.  I am thirtieth in skein for the Geunantic throne⁠ ⁠—⁠ I needed as much skill in⁠ ⁠—⁠ dancing, as you say⁠ ⁠—⁠ to survive.”
He looked to Hinte. “Scowl as you will, but validating a dragon’s strongest dewings is a quick way to build rapport.  It has little to do with my true dewings toward plain-dwellers.  They are dragons like any other.”
He looked to Digrif. “Why, if I went to a proper weapons seller, he might know how much the knife is truly worth.”
As we walked off, behind us came a cry of outrage. The stallowner stared at the Dyfnderi adviser, a storm limned in scales gathering on their face.
Adwyn’s smirk returned, and stayed with us as the stall faded behind us.

We were slinking through the crowds, me on the opposite side of Hinte⁠ ⁠—⁠ as far as I could get without it being obvious.
As if summoned, the smile and electric smell I was becoming familiar with spawned from the faceless mass of dragons.  Her frills, both pierced and not, bounced as she sidled right up to me.
“Kynra?”
“Kinri.  I told you.”  I was baring my fangs at her, but I couldn’t hide my smile.
Kinri. I’m going to get it, obviously. Kinri. See?”
I tossed my head and went back to watching the stalls we passed, Mawla padded beside me.  Adwyn, gas-mask back on, still scanned for another stall to sell more human trinkets to, but he broke that hunt to run an shamelessly measuring look up and down the sifter beside me.
Mawla had glanced that way — but aimed at Hinte, not at Adwyn, whom she didn’t seem to notice.  She nudged me.  “I see you’re starting to slough that green wraith.”
“What?” my voice frayed. I tried, “What makes you think that?”
“Last night, you were slithering after her like a little snek, and now you’re all the way over here and looking everywhere else you can.  It’s obvious.”
I wasn’t going to discuss this with her. “Why’re you here in the market?”
Mawla glanced behind her.  “Just, y’know, buying things.  Most entertainment happens in the evening⁠ ⁠—⁠ or at night.  So I’m wandering around to ground time, looking at things and maybe buying them if I want them enough.  Maybe I could show you how, some time.”
“You mean like bartering?”
She giggled.  “Sure.”
Her giggling died down a bit, but faltered as it did, and that revealed something I’d never noticed about her voice.  It was always extreme, deep, throaty growls or high-pitched enthusiasm… always strained.  But why?
Hinte broke from a muttered conversation with Adwyn. Looking down her snout at Mawla, she said, “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing questioning me? Go back to licking orange vents.”
I spoke above Mawla.  “There’s no sifting today, Hinte.  Adwyn told us this.  She’s a — friend, I was talking with her.”
Hinte whisked a wing.  “We are busy.  This mission is important.”
The sifter grinned. “If it were important, I don’t see why —”
“Mawla, please.”
“Fine. I’m leaping so long as this — as long as she’s here. Are you going to be able to make it this evening?”  Her dark-blue eyes half-clouded, glinting in the sunslight.
“I’ll — try.”

I flicked my tongue, scenting ink and fernpaper.  Not just any ink though⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was spicy and familiar.  I’d been smelling it every day for cycles.  Was this where he bought it?
I let a smile touch my lips, but continued walking with my friends behind Adwyn. Then I heard that familiar textured growl of a voice, and I frowned; but it was Hinte who found him.  I caught her glancing at a ashcloaked cliff-dweller laughing and banging a foot against a stall.  Out of his ragged halfrobes and librarian sash, my eyes had moved right over him.
Hinte continued walking, so I slinked up behind him. Standing there, I grinned. At last, I would be the one sneaking⁠ ⁠—
“Hello, Kinri.”  Chwithach turned and smiled at me.
“Gah! At least once. Can I sneak up on someone at least once?”
“Evidently not.  Though I’ll say you had a crack of success when you first arrived.”  he said, then added, “But you stopped to bask in it,” in that prodding, teacherly tone.
I blew my tongue at the librarian. “What are you doing here, Sofrani? Who’s handling the Sgrôli ac Neidr?”
“I left Ehnym in charge of things; I’m only gone a ring.”
Ehnym.  I’d heard the name before.  He had to be some library regular, some volunteer.
“Why’d you come out, anyways?”
“Ran out of ink.  I’m clawing a good multitude of letters, getting operations in an order.  And I needed a breath cycle of fresh air, anyway.”
Claws scraped gravel. “My Opa always said to have more ink with you than you would ever use.”
Chwithach’s words were soft. “That may well work for the faer’s head alchemist. But I can scarcely afford a surplus of anything, even ink.
Hinte waved her tongue, her brow furrowed in thought.
Under Chwithach’s cloak another tongue flicked.
My frills snapped spread. “Is that —” I started, but my words gave way to a squeak as a slender, white head poked out of the librarian’s cloak, eyes a pale gray, pink pits along its snout.
Snake. I’d fantasized about a having a snake since I was a little hatchling. They were sleek, cuddly, dangerous, and way better than skinks or turtles or monitors.  My face wore every parcel of my reaction, and I didn’t bother adjusting my mask.
Chwithach chuckled, rubbing the snake’s head with a alula. “Yes, this is my pet.  Ceiwad, say hi.”
The snake gave a long hiss, tongue dancing out of the mouth. Slithering further up the owner’s neck, you could see the brilles clear and track all of us, wary tension written into every scale.  Chwithach gently gripped the snake and lifted him from his cloak a little.  The snake was just thick enough around that his feet couldn’t curl around all the girth.
I stepped closer, extending an alula for Ceiwad to scent. “Are they a boy snake or a girl snake?”  “Boy.”  “Are they a biter or a choker?”
Ceiwad touched my alula with a tongue-fork, then retracted it. After a beat, he yawned at me, fangs unfolded.  When his jaw closed, he let me pat him on the head.
“Well, ‘chokers’ will bite you too.”
I scratched under Ceiwad’s head.  He jerked away.  “I know.  But it’s not the bite that grounds you.”
“Fair enough. I still prefer to call them venomous and constricting snakes. It’s the system the forests use, and they are masters of natural history.”  Chwithach hummed. “For instance, would you believe wraiths are anatomically closer to true snakes than dragons? It’s —”
“Trust you to make even snakes boring.”  I looked up from Ceiwad to his owner.  “Did you mention the forests? Is that where you got Ceiwad?”
“Ah, yes.  He’s a leucistic swamp python, the most expensive thing I’ve ever had —⁠ he cost more than the library.”
“How did you ever pay for him?”
“I had an, how do you say, fascinating youth.  I had a small fortune at times, but it had always been rather… mercurial.”  Chwithach looked away.  “But the truth is, Ceiwad here was a gift⁠ ⁠—⁠ from the miser, in fact.  Though my association with him is a part of that youth⁠ ⁠—⁠ anyway, even though it was a gift, it was horribly expensive, and I insisted on paying him back, even though he only ever took half of it.”
I booped Ceiwad’s snout, and left him alone after that. “Huh. Ceiwad looks a bit old.  You and the miser must have some history.”  Obliquely, I watched the librarian, sifting for some tell, another scrap of information about the mysterious hooded dragon.
The librarian smiled, and gave it to me. “Quite. It was he who convinced me to have the library built and stay in Gwymr/Frina.  Fledgling Chwithach had been planning to leave for Dyfnder in order to fight in the war against the spiders.  Can you believe that?” He sighed, but it was one of nostalgia.
Fledgling Kinri was going to be Specter Zenith and change things.  Can you believe that?
Brother told me it was still possible. That this mission would erase all of my mistakes.  Had to.

When we left Chwithach, It had been Adwyn, and not Hinte, who’d pulled me away.  Hinte had walked up to us, yet when she saw who I chatted with, she gave him a curt nod — and the librarian returned it, with a pensive line in place of a smile.  She left us after that.
Now, we — or rather, Digrif and Hinte; I stood back — sat and watched as Adwyn did his thing again, this time haggling over one of the human’s necklaces at a stall smelling of all the nice metals: electrum, pyrite, zircoril, cobalt, irid.
Or we had, until a voice like arrows shot in. “Aha, I thought I saw you two in the sifting aisle.”
All of us turned around — Hinte like a flame snapping, Digrif like a poked turtle, and I like an impassive, observant snake.
Toward us stepped the first sifter from last night, the one whom I gave a cryst. He’d exchanged his sifting suit for… nothing.  I could imagine he had a vent-cloth wrapped around his unseen tail and he did have a necklace, humming with a hidden cryst.
I kept my eyes on his face, not his thick legs or exposed muscle. At all. He spoke with a rough, coughing voice, saying, “I realize you have a new drake with you, and we haven’t had introductions.  Sound like a good trade to you?”
I smiled to some extent. “Sure! This is Digrif, that is — Wrang, right?”
“Wrang, yes.  Wrang of Llosgi Hoddi.”
Llosgi Hoddi. It was a name that’d come up a few times in my study of Gwymr/Frina.  But the cliffs were nothing like the sky; even the oldest houses here went back fewer than a dozen generations, and even the most powerful were nothing next to the sifting and mining companies.
I’m not sure what look filtered to my face as I recalled these things. Whatever it was, it brought a smile to Wrang’s face and he gave a small bow.
“Heh. It’s been a while since someone reacted to our name with respect stead of ignorance.”  He smiled or grinned.  “From a sky-dweller no less!”
“Um.”
“It’s no insult, don’t worry.  You seem far more like a goodly plain-dweller than some condescending sky-dweller⁠ ⁠—⁠ even if you don’t look it.”
A whisk of Hinte’s wing prompted Wrang to silence. “You can stop flattering her.  It worked.  She’s ready to do whatever apterous thing you want to ask of her, now.”
Wrang turned a cloudy-eyed gaze to Hinte. “You assume too much, Gronte-wyre. I have nothing to ask Kinri for.”
Hinte growled and stalked off to stand by Adwyn.
“I don’t want to tear a rift between you two, so I’ll be leaving now; but I leastly wanted to ask about the paid flight for the sifting teams.  The timing is awfully right, and Lilian says Mawla is convinced you are to thank for it.  And well, is it so?”
“Not really.  It’s all been Adwyn pulling strings.”
Wrang’s tongue slipped back in his mouth, and a thoughtful hum slipped out. “That makes a bit more sense, at least.  But I do appreciate the gift you gave me last night.  So I thought I’d ask if you cared to join me at the Dychwelfa ac Theatr tonight.  I know one of the actors.”
“I don’t think that’s possible. My schedule tonight is really full.”
Wrang paused for a beat at that; then, “That’s fine.  Tomorrow?”
“Maybe. My plans have had a habit of expanding lately.”
“If you have the opportunity, I imagine you’ll have a good time.”
“Thanks? I’ll think on it.” I looked up. I’d seen so many familiar faces at the market today.  Was it always like this?  “So um, why are you in the market?”
“Ah, just following some friends. They had some plans for the day and brought me along.”  He gave a prideful smile.  “It’s a good thing, too.  I got to do my good deed for the day because of it.”
I tilted my head.
“Saw a thief steal some dillers just a bit ago, gave the guards a tip.”  His tone gained a sly edge, “Saw Mawla about then, too.  She was nosing after you; but I sent her away.  She’s not the type you want to keep around.”
I didn’t say anything, looking away.
“I have to say, today has been horribly exciting in that way.  That wasn’t even the only time I saw the guard chasing after someone.  Some ship that Mlaen’s running, isn’t it?”
“Uh, the faer’s doing their best, isn’t she?
“I wouldn’t know just from living here.”  Wrang glanced at the sky and said, “I should be heading home about now, check on my hatches.  Dwylla guide you.”
I watched Wrang take off and glide way. Once he was gone, I slinked to Digrif and Hinte and joined them in watching what was once a haggling broil over into a shouting argument.
“What do you mean? This is a Frinan necklace? How could a human —”
“What I mean is you have some gall trying to sell me of my cousin’s necklaces.  Its even got her signature on it! ‘G’ for Glyster!”
“That doesn’t⁠ ⁠—”
“And then you try to cloud my brilles with some nonsense about monsters, you’re just a crook who thinks they can peddle lies and leech off Hinte Gären’s heroism.  Spit out of my sight.  Now.”
Adwyn took a breath, but before he could say anything more, they continued, “Now!”
He strode away from the stall with a complex look on his face. He waved his wing and we fell into step beside him.
“Sounds like that didn’t go overly well.”
“I made several mistakes.  Things rarey bode well once you fall on the defensive.”
“What were you defending?” Digrif asked.
Hinte muttered, “Against the truth.”
“We started off on the wrong draft,” Adwyn said, rubbing a temple with an alula. “I mispronounced his name, and mistook him, at first, for a wiver⁠ ⁠—⁠ the frill piercings are common among them.  At this point I had, perhaps, ruined any chance of a good deal, but we are short on time, so I decided I should sell here and start for the lake.
“My rush must have shone through in my behavior.” Looking to the side, Adwyn continued offwing, “For good reason is one of the first rules of haggling never reveal you have any unusual need of the deal.  This weakness had encouraged the drake to demand unreasonable prices.”
Adwyn shifted to a high-stand. “Then I tried selling it as a monster trinket, as I had at the other stall.  The drake pointed out that the necklace was locally made, then mistook my shock for guilt and, things plumeted from there.”
Hinte said, “Are we done wasting time here, then?” She was glaring at the Dyfnderi adviser.
“We are done spending time here,” Adwyn echoed. “This development demands the faer’s tongue.  But first we must check on the bodies.”  Adwyn began high-walking.
“Why?”
“Just follow me.”

The spot Adwyn had chosen for the cart was an alley between a flat-topped brewery and a sagging house, both leaning against the market’s eastern cliff wall.  The crowds thinned here, and the sparseness seemed to make the red and gold of the Gwymri guard that much more numerous.  Maybe they were; we were at the very edge of the net stretching over the market, and someones had to guard it.
As we approached that alley Adwyn looked around with a waxing scowl in his eyes. Everytime we passed a guard, he’d call out, “Of that light?” and with each absent response, the depth of frustration in his eyes doubled.
But as we reached the mouth of the alley, the orange drake stopped, staring in, tongue flicking before he strode into the alley.  Without following him, I cleared my eyes and let my gaze flow down the alley.  I shivered at the sight of the holey pumice cart, but I kept looking for what had the military adviser on edge.
The alley went back a dozen strides or less, and was empty save some half-hardened puddles of muddy ash and bits of trash.  The window’s curtains were shut, and six-legged skink startled off further up the house’s wall.
My brow furrowed and I looked back to the cart. The tarp was still in place, and there were still bulges underneath.
I gave up figuring it out, and glanced back to the orange drake now standing just before the pumice cart.  He was pressing a foot against a tarp-covered bulge.
He said, “Blind take them. It’s just as I glimpsed.”
Adwyn looked back at us.  “The bodies are gone.”
* * *

1 thought on “Rousing V: Suspect”

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