“The bodies are gone?” I said with a snap of my tongue. “Where did they go?”
Adwyn was still prodding the tarp in front of us, and still speaking, thinking aloud, “These are sandbags, decoys.”
The orange drake, face hidden behind a dust mask, turned from the cart. When he did, every careless scale had been shed. This Adwyn, I could imagine, was the last thing Raganari had seen before her end. “We have been robbed,” he said.
I looked around, to Digrif and to Hinte, frowning confusion. A moment passed, and my brilles flashed clear. We’d been robbed! I looked up, the confusion cracking and hatching a quintet of questions. How? When? Who? Where? Why?
Hinte only growled wordlessly; while, with excitement befitting any other situation Digrif said, “Brigands!”
I glanced at the warm-gray drake, and then at the dark-green wiver trying to maim him with just the curl of her lips. I started to opened my mouth, but a deep growl beat me speaking.
Adwyn, brushing off Digrif’s excitement, spoke in a voice like stones rolling down a mountain. “This is enemy action. From now until this is resolved, you three will follow all my orders when I give them. This is serious.”
I tilted my head. “What? Why do you think it has to be enemies? Why not just normal thieves?”
Adwyn pointed at the cart. “I’d say ordinary thieves are less likely to bother with such a boring, out-of-the-way cart, in a market like this. And then, upon discovering this cart held human corpses — rather than anything valuable — they make to steal them anyway. And finally, after it is all done, they carefully replace the bodies with sandbags before fleeing the scene. Rhyfel and I deal with enough reports from the prefects to know no thief in Gwmr/Frina operates like this.”
After that, he reeled on me. All of the calculating warmth from earlier was gone, replaced with unadorned suspicion. Once his eyes had interrogated my face, the military adviser spoke, voice venomous.
“It was you.” His tone was half-assertion, half-question.
“I — What! No, I had nothing at all to do with this! At all!” My frills flared and my wings unfurled before I folded them back up.
“Of the six dragons privy to the details of our plans, only the three of you are aware that we brought the bodies here to the market: I trust you the least, and you are the only one here with time unaccounted for.”
I opened my mouth, and closed it. I didn’t do it. Why couldn’t he see that?
I broke from Adwyn’s gaze to look at my friends. Hinte’s features were conflicted, fighting between disbelief and betrayal… betrayal won out, leaving a glare more intense than any I had seen her with before. Digrif was beside her, open-mouth in shock, but he looked to me with measured hope.
Looking back at Adwyn, I spoke slow, saying, “Time unaccounted for?”
“Digrif tells me while I hid the cart, you slipped away from the two of them and returned a ring later. What did you do during this time?”
I bared my fangs, spicy indignance burning on them. “I went to buy some scrolls while Hinte was busy chatting with that weird gemstone wiver,” I said, pointing at my glaring friend. While she was talking with that wiver about crysts or whatever, I’d wandered off to find a book stall, that’s all. All I wanted was up-to-date astronomical tables. Hinte would have been busy awhile.
My tail slipped into my bag and found that slim scroll — and the letter. I pushed the second deeper in my bag, I wouldn’t think of it right now. I had just been relaxing in the shadow of some alleyway, my mind caressing the figures in the book — and then they’d come. I didn’t want to think of about how the plan might be changing. Everything was already wuthering out of control.
“Which stall?” Adwyn moved his head forward.
I told Adwyn the name of the stall I bought my book at, something bland and boring they have such an unlucky name?“
Adwyn kept peering at the dark-green wiver, but he flicked his tongue at Digrif’s words. “Aurisiuf, hm.” The adviser pronounced the name in slow, deliberate syllables. As if it were a name read and not spoken.
“Nobody.” Hinte was looking at the clouds drifting high above us.
The orange drake shook his head. “Which stall, Hinte-ychy?” Adwyn hadn’t looked away from Hinte. His voice had grown another kind of urgency.
“…In the northeastern sixth, fifteen flaps from the Berwem gate. It is Glyster’s Gyms, with a silly ‘y’ where the ‘e’ should be.”
“Glyster’s gums? Glyster’s geems?” I wondered aloud. It wouldn’t work. It could only work if you ignored every rule about pronouncing y Draig, rules I’d labored to learn. It was just… silly. Was that the point?
Hinte didn’t smile, or really change her expression, but she glanced at me, nodding just a bit. “I do not know what she was thinking either. I call it Glyster’s Gems and she’s never corrected me.”
Adwyn gave one last evaluating look to Hinte, then turned to Digrif. “Did you tell anyone about our mission?”
“My parents, no one else at all, at all. And even then, not too much, I promise.”
“I ensured as much,” Hinte added.
I smirked at Adwyn. “What about in town hall? Whatever documentation you produced for this might betray us if someone in the administration is behind this.” Citrusface is up to something. Thanks, Staune.
When Adwyn glanced back at me I let smirk fade — he’d seen it, though. “Oh, not quite. This task is officially nothing more than a favor for the faer. There is no documentation of it.”
“What?” I asked. “Why not?”
“Mlaen likes to steer the ship. Especially when it comes to everything that matters. Between the high guard and the treasurer, the faer would be playing puppet three times removed if she went through official channels.”
“Alright.” I glanced up. “Could someone have been following us then?” I asked, fangs remembering the trickle of shame from Adwyn following me this morning.
The Dyfnderi adviser scratched his chin, and the moment before he spoke, he seemed to shuffle his words. “Not without an elaborate — and conspicuous — system of rotating spies. I watched our backs all along.”
I looked up. Then, brilles clearing, I said, “Well, what if they just had a bunch of stationary spies all over? They wouldn’t have to follow us, just report to someone, and it’d be like we were followed.”
“There still must have been a way for them to discover our plans. Mlaen’s private meeting room is a possibility — but we discussed the matter indirectly. The Gären house is more likely, but there’s still the matter of their knowing when to spy. Which all again raises the possibility of someone betraying us.” Adwyn’s gaze roamed over us, me most of all, seeming even more analyzing than ever.
“I couldn’t have had anything to do with this, though. I collapsed on my bed last night out of sheer tiredness. And then I roused and went to Hinte’s house first thing. And then I went to work until it was time to meet you. There was no room for these schemes. I certainly couldn’t’ve planned this out now while being in your sight — almost — the entire time!”
I caught Hinte looking at me from the side. Her glare had faded to a shadow of anger, but it still darkened her face. Waving her tongue, she turned to Adwyn and said, “Forget about spies for a moment. What abyss swallowed your tongue to make you do something as apterous as leave the bodies here? Without any sort of guard?”
Adwyn’s growl from earlier had reappeared. “Gronte-wyre, remember whom you’re speaking to. I would not make such a careless mistake. I left guards. Whoever is under this had them desert their post, or forced them from it.”
“Why is deserting the first thing you think of?” I asked, tongue flicking.
Adwyn waved behind him. “You must subdue three guards in straight daylight with none seeing or noticing their absence. How do you do it?”
I glanced at Hinte. “Poison? Then take their bodies like they took the humans.’”
Adwyn nodded. “One last question. Why are we still standing?”
“If they were to poison the guards, and have enough forethought to plant sandbags — not for the guards, whom they poisoned, but us — why would they not just poison us instead?”
Adwyn waited while I dropped my gaze to the ground and stayed silent. “Thus,” he finished, “Whoever is behind this most probably had them desert their post.”
Digrif hummed. “So, that means we do need to figure out who betrayed us. They had to be at the Gären’s house. It wasn’t Kinri or me, at all.” — I grinned, and Hinte glared — “Maybe it was that Ushra guy. He seems plenty creepy.”
Hinte covered her face with a wing.
I ventured, “Isn’t Ushra the faer’s personal alchemist? And hasn’t he been involved with this town forever? I don’t think he should be our first suspect.”
“If he’s the faer’s alchemist, doesn’t that give him enough sway to do this?”
“Uh no, I don’t think it does. If an alchemist asked you to do something, would you do it?”
Digrif scratched his chin. “Well, Is that alchemist Hinte?” I shook my head. “Well, I don’t think I would.”
“Exactly. Ushra couldn’t do this, Gronte is nice and I trust her, and I trust you two too.”
“If you three are done retreading everything I’ve reasoned in the last few moments, perhaps we could look in a useful direction.” Then, in a voice low enough I half-missed, Adwyn continued “Yet somehow I don’t imagine you are going to have anything useful to say.”
“So we’re thinking they spied on us?” Digrif said, scratching a frill. “But if they did that at Hinte’s house, wouldn’t they have to already know something was up?”
“No, Hinte was in the paper, remember? Our ‘hero of the town?’” I gave a laugh I’d grown and stored some place where it rotted and fell to pieces.
Digrif nodded. “Yeah, yeah you’re right. Maybe they could have been spying as soon as the papers were out. It doesn’t give them a lot of time, but it’s enough, right?”
Adwyn was muttering to no one, “Blind take them and rip their eyes from their skulls.” Then, speaking up, “Of course.”
I glanced at him. “Did you figure something out?”
“Yes. A guess. It won’t help us here. I shall pursue it on my own, when this mess has been painted over.”
Head tilted, I opened my mouth, but Hinte cut in, “What will we do next?”
I glanced at Adwyn. “You said the faer had a reason for not being open about this. Do they suspect anyone in the administration who would do this?”
“If she does, I know not. Mlaen never shares her suspicions with me.”
Digrif’s voice hopped into the conversation much like he hopped up when he spoke. “We could ask a guard if they saw anything!” He waved at the crowds behind us.
That was all Hinte needed to start walking away from us. We walked after her, Digrif sidling right up to her, while I fell into step beside Adwyn. Then I fell into step behind Adwyn. My tail felt Hinte’s oily knife. I gripped it. I released it.
Humming loudly for his notice, I spoke up. “Still,” I started, trying not to speak too fast, too nervously, “I have to wonder what their plan even is. What could they do with the bodies?”
Adwyn looked thoughtful despite his dust mask, brilles acloud, claws tapping his muzzle. “You must see these may be dragons who know of the apes’ presence in the cliffs to begin with. Then, they would want the humans to discover us, for their own reasons. Perhaps they think our plan to frame their death as a accident of the environment will truly blow the search party from the truth, and hence seek to stop that.”
“Assuming this conspiracy exists, and it’s connected to both incidents,” I murmured. But I heard echoes of Ushra’s reasoning from breakfast. Had he really been on to something?
“Hey! Hey guardsdragon! Over here!” Digrif called.
In the sparseness of the market outskirts the guard sash shone out: A few paces from the mouth of the alleyway high-walked a cliff-dweller in a red and gold halfrobe, who made to halt and leap over to us. The cliff-dweller peered down through red eyes and a tongue black with some kind of tobacco. He had horns like a drake.
With a simple incline of his head, he said, “Greetings, citizen,” before continuing, “What you need?”
“We need to know,” Hinte snapped in, as if not trusting Digrif to explain, “if you had seen anyone carrying around some… cargo. About this size —” she held out wings to the length, then width of a human — “and there were four of them.”
The guard grunted, and his face grew distant for a few beats, eyes darting behind clouded brilles. After a few moments, he looked back to us.
“Aye, I have seen a handful of dragons carting around loads like that,” the cliff-dweller said, brilles flashing clear, “and one of them was you. Were you robbed?”
“We were,” Hinte said.
At the same time, I said, “What about just the carts near here?”
“Hmm,” the guard said, scratching his breast. “I saw two. Well, three, depending on how exactly far ‘near here’ stretches. They were going a bit suspiciously fast, I’d reason.”
“And let me guess,” — my frills fell back — “they were heading in opposite directions?”
I covered my face with a wing. “Of course.”
Adwyn peered at me, Hinte growled, and Digrif frowned.
It was the guard who spoke, black tongue flicking. “You get a look at the dragon who robbed you?”
“We did not.”
“Makes our job harder. You have any idea who’d steal from you? What in exact was it they took?”
“We have none, Sofrani,” Adwyn cut in, “And that is not quite any of your business, at present.”
“Ouch, Adwyn, he’s just trying to help!” Digrif said.
“Wait, Adwyn? The military adviser Adwyn? Rhyfel-sofran’s second in command?” The guard scraped into a bow.
Adwyn took off his dust mask with a sigh. “Rise, Gwynt. Fly up and find your prefect. Have him bring me Ffrom, Geth and Bydbyd, no matter where they are or what they are doing. If you have chains, put them in chains. Tell every guard you see to keep a watch on everyone, especially carts, and let no one leave the market.” Adwyn paused, eyeing the guard. He nodded, still bowing.
Adwyn took a breath. “Do that as fast as you can, then send a flyer to Rhyfel the younger. Tell him we have another incident here. Report back here immediately. Dismissed.”
The guard didn’t even rise from their bow; they just turned it to a crouch, and leapt to air, threshing, their tail waving a salute as they left.
“How long will he take?” Hinte ground out the words.
Adwyn smirked. “That’s Gwynt of Graig Mras. He has a adequate pair of wings and twice the sense of the louts I left in charge of this cart. He won’t delay.” Adwyn clouded his brilles. “Or he won’t be the only one out of the skein today.”
And with that, we were waiting for the guard to return. Adwyn checked under the cart, Digrif waved at dragons passing by the alleyway, and Hinte stared at Digrif. I looked up, and considered the birds.
At length Hinte spoke, somewhat slow, almost as an aside, “Do you find it suspicious that Digrif thought to buy a sword before all this happened?”
Digrif’s waving wing fell and his frills folded. “What?” His voice was scorched with hurt. “Hinte, how could you? I told you, it is just in case we end up in another situation like yours in the cliffs. It is nothing sinister, I promise!”
Hinte peered at Digrif, waving her tongue, searching his face. She said, at last, “Someone has to be at fault. There are only the three of us. And I did not do it.”
I lowered my head. “Wait, that isn’t right…” I said, “there are four of us, not three!”
“Yeah!” Digrif said, frills rising again. “And Adwyn is the only one who knew exactly where the bodies were.”
Now it was my turn to reel on the adviser. “It was you,” I said in his tone. If only I were a parrot and could mimic his voice too… Continuing, in my voice, I said, “How can we be sure you aren’t the one colluding with the thieves?”
Adwyn looked up from the cart, didn’t clear his brilles. “Such a frivolous accusation. I already have full command of these bodies. What use is there is stealing from myself?”
I flattened my frills. “Oh.”
When Gwynt returned, he really needed to. Adwyn stood at the mouth of alleyway, and I didn’t like the curled-lip, clouded-eye glances he sent back at me. Hinte watched Digrif and me with burning scrutiny, eyes only ever half-clouded; but at least Digrif and I were able to talk about pleasant nothings with smiles and only a few cringes for Adwyn and Hinte’s suspicion.
But the guard had returned, and it was a wave of fresh air rolling past us. Adwyn grew stony, focusing on Gwynt, and Hinte gained a new target for her glare.
Two guards were trailing after Gwynt, one a glaring plain-dweller, big enough to punch a tortoise and with a kind of confidence in his step that said they knew they were right and didn’t even need to explain themselves; the other was a bewildered cliff-dweller who reminded me of Digrif, if instead of carefree he simply had no idea what was going on. Each had chains running between their legs, and a rope around their muzzles.
As Gwynt eased to a stop and the chained dragons stumbled into him, three more guards lighted onto the gravel with staggered crashes. One was a fullrobed cliff-dweller with the kind of resting sneer that said they were important and well aware of it — they had to be the prefect, going by the bamboo plates on their robes — and behind them landed the other two, halfrobed dragons with unidentifiable dark scales.
Every one of the guards except the sneering prefect and glaring prisoner scraped into a bow or something at Adwyn. Even the prefect inclined their head.
Adwyn didn’t wait for them; he was saying, “Gwynt, I told you to find three guards. Explain this.”
Gwynt rose with a sharpness that made me wince and rub my neck. “Sofrani! I had —”
“Cut with the formalities and tell me what matters.”
“I found only these two, Geth and Bydbyd. Ffrom wasn’t on patrol anywhere.”
Hinte jerked her head around. “Did you say Ffrom?”
Hinte turned to me. She didn’t look smug.
I only tilted my head. “Am I supposed to recognize that name?”
“He was the guard at the Berwem gate last night. The one who clearly wanted to take the bodies for themselves. Do you think it is a coincidence they are here now?”
I swallowed and looked away.
Adwyn was saying, “Cut their muffles,” and then Gwynt was ripping the ropes off with his claws. “Of that light?” he asked the prisoners.
“Nothing remains,” they said in offsynch unison.
Adwyn nodded. “Where is Ffrom?”
The glaring one responded, “Chasing a diller thief. Do you think he would abandon his post for no reason? It was important, and he left us to watch the bodies till he could alert the other guards or catch the thief.”
Adwyn stayed stone, and he continued with, “And what is your excuse? The cart I had you guard has been robbed. Explain yourself.”
The glare strengthened, now shining with something else — triumph? “We were chasing some ashcloaked wivers who were talking about Aurisiuf making a move. You’ve heard the stories, Sofrani. Would you have us ignore something like that?”
“Yes. More directly, I’d have you avoid falling for obvious bait. Do you think it’s a coincidence that both of these things happened right in front of you while guarding something important?” Adwyn waved a wing toward the prefect. “Take them to the town hall. We’ll decide if they belong in Wydrllos later.” I saw both guards wince.
The prefect spoke up. “Sofrani! Surely I’m needed here?”
“Are you here because you’re a prefect, or because you saw one of the carts with the stolen bodies?”
The prefect hesitated. “The former, Sofrani.”
“Then you aren’t. Take them to the town hall, and tell your guards to find Ffrom.”
The prefect, for his earlier hesitation, left at once with the chained guards.
Adwyn turned to the remaining guards. “Gwynt, I trust that you and these two will lead us to the thieves’ carts?”
“Aye. These three saw carts fitting your description. There are others, but I thought it unwise to deprive the rest of the market of guards.”
“No worry of that. Rhyfel is flying here with more guards as we speak. Our first priority is catching the thieves.”
A bow. “My apologies, Adwyn-sofran.”
Adwyn twitched, but turned to the sky. “Now, we wait for Rhyfel.”
I followed Adwyn’s gaze, along with the rest of us, and in heartbeats you saw black forms rising near the obelisk and winging toward us. Rhyfel and twelve guards flew toward the market in a v-shaped skein. They dipped below our sight for a few beats as they reached the edge of the market, then they reappeared, threshing back up to a height under the net, flying toward us. Some guards at the edge must’ve let them in.
They didn’t reach us before we got tired of holding our heads up, but they made it. Rhyfel and his twelve guards hadn’t even landed before Adwyn was speaking, his voice carrying.
“The bodies have been stolen. The thieves are likely still in the market; we have closed all the exits. We suspect they have accomplices among the guard. One accomplice, Ffrom, is still at large. The thieves have multiple carts, all of them going in different directions. We don’t know which one has the bodies, but these guards” — Adwyn waved at Gwynt and the other two — “can point them out to us.” Adwyn relayed this to Rhyfel the younger, his head almost in a bow. In his eyes there was a certain deep respect that hadn’t even dripped for Mlaen or Ushra. His tail looped around a leg.
Rhyfel nodded, face contemplative, frowning. He muttered, “This a just how I need to start my cycle: unraveling damn conspiracies.”
One guard, who’d flown right beside Rhyfel, prodded the high guard and muttered, “Every breath spit complaining is a breath gone, Sofrani.” Their scales weren’t cliff-dweller, but pink. Ceian?
“Of course.” And at that Rhyfel’s frown disappeared, a determined line taking its place. His gaze rolled over the dragons here and he said, “We need to get hunting! Guards, spread out. We’ll split up, stop the carts most likely to be our target. Hinte, Ceian, you come with me to find Ffrom. Adwyn, you and Gwynt will take Kinri and Digrif, hunt down one of the carts. As for…” I stopped listening at my name, tuning out Rhyfel telling dragons I’ve never met to do things that don’t really affect me.
I turned to Gwynt, still in his half-bow; Adwyn, looking as serious as ever; and Digrif, who smiled.
As we flew off, following Gwynt to the cart, I sighed. It was going to be another long day, wasn’t it?
Adwyn was still suspicious of me, I realized. He flew behind me, and when I looked, he was watching. I hadn’t even done anything wrong yet.
I shook my head, and I cast my thoughts to what we were up against. Thieves! Stealing the human corpses! What could their goal possibly be? In my head echoed Ushra’s theories from breakfast. Now, they didn’t seem so ridiculous.
“Could —” I spoke, voice stuttering yet loud in the open air, “Could these thieves be working with the humans somehow? Like Ushra said?”
Gwynt began descending at an angle, letting us all follow.
Adwyn cleared his throat. “It is a — distinct possibility. Not only would it patch over an as-of-yet unaccounted-for hole where their motivation should be, it also gives a justification for the presence of the humans in the lake in the first place.”
“Yeah!” Digrif added, “And think about how quickly they hatched this plan! They must have seen something like this coming — they’re totally in league with the apes.”
My frills deflated. There really was little doubting it. Had some dragon betrayed Gwymr/Frina? Or was this another stronghold’s scheme like Ushra said?
We were coming down just above the food stalls, near where we entered the market. In the crowd below, there were almost twice as many guards moving about. Just as Adwyn ordered, the guards were restricting movement out of the market, turning the crowd into a writhing mass of impatience.
Gwynt circled in on the entrance to the market. As I flew after him, I scanned the ranks of dragons straining to leave the market place. But Gwynt narrowed on a certain cracked pumice cart, carrying fat, fading green sacks. They were inscribed with some simple, rounded glyph you had to descend before making out — ‘seed.’
When the guard landed in front of the cart, its drivers (who held the cart by its reins) didn’t react. One played with the reins or scratched dirt from their foot. The another glanced up as we landed and away just as quick. The cart wasn’t moving, so the drivers and the two ashcloaked dragons, who walked beside it wore bored, impatient looks that might have blended in with the rest of the crowd a moment ago.
Now, though, swathes of crowd turned and gawked at us. They ignored Digrif, and, after a beat, Gwynt too. It was Adwyn and I who held their gaze. There was nothing new in the looks they gave me, but Adwyn garnered a mixture of respect, disdain and — most often, a simple lack of recognition, with a sense that this was someone obscurely important.
I landed by Gwynt and peered at the cart and its contents. I’d seen, in the distance, bags of seed on sale exactly like this, and the drivers of the cart seemed ordinary enough. Were these just dragons who happened to need a cart on the wrong day?
We’d only asked for dragons the guards had seen with carts that might be able to hold a human corpse. Some innocent regular dragons would fit that description, too, right? It might be why Adwyn had chosen this way of carrying the bodies — and might be why the thieves copied the idea.
Why couldn’t these just be normal thieves?
The guard stood right in front of the cart, and they said, “Citizen! We have orders from Rhyfel-sofran himself — we shall search your cart for stolen goods!”
One of the cart’s drivers stomped a foot, and growled. Garbed in a cheap ashcloak, they looked young, plain-dweller, with their features almost cute; but they had to spend long rings tending a farm, and it shone on their features, a worn, rugged look clawing its way onto their face. Their horns were hidden beneath a cowl, but their eyes pierced outward from under it.
When they spoke, it was in the rushed, anxious lit I heard from so many plain-dwellers. “You can’t do this! We’ve done nothing! Nothing!”
Another plain-dweller, older, more distinctively feminine, spoke in a more placating tone. “We’s just out to buy some seeds for youse farm, guard-sofran — we’s done nothing wrong.” Their wings hugged to their body, and their tone and look had an air of resignation to it.
“That remains to be seen — we hope you understand we cannot just make exceptions on whim. Orders,” the cliff-dweller guard said, sagely.
Gwynt moved forward, along with Adwyn, to search the cart. Adwyn said low, waving at us. “You two, keep watch.”
I raised my left wing in salute, and Digrif copied me.
I looked around the cart, taking in the dragons. There was the upset fledgling and the placating maybe-mother, while at a distant stood the ashcloaked dragons, cowled and watching. Through it all, there were two tiny little hatchlings running about. They had their heads low, and hugged their wings to themselves, and tripped over their tails. They seemed scared.
As I watched, they slinked around, probably trying to hide — but the smaller one stopped and poked her bigger sibling. She has an idea, I narrated to myself. She convinced her sibling to move in front of the placating mother. As they stood, the smaller hatchling climbed on the other. Facing Adwyn, she expanded her wings — her tiny little wings — to their full extent. Her fangs were unfolding, and the saliva dewing on them caught the light.
She growled at Adwyn, flapping and swishing her tail. The display lost some of its effect, though, because of the light brown hatchling’s tiny size and the high pitch squeak the growl emerged as.
Then a few things happened at once.
The fledgling was saying, “Ugh, Rhyfel, Gyddah, get down you dolts!” and reaching for the growling hatchling.
The hatchling unfolded their fangs in full, and the air filled with the scent of salty, acrid venom. The next instant, they spat, twin streams of venom flying from the apertures in her fangs.
Adwyn ducked, and not a drop of the venom landed on him.
And the mother shrieked, stepping back.
In a moment the fledgling was picking up the growler with a wing. Adwyn watched with a smirk tugging at his lips, peering at the larger hatchling — the one named after Rhyfel?
The fledgling was holding the growler up to their face, hissing, until she stopped wriggling and hung still, then she was sat with her accomplice on the fledgling’s back, out of sight.
No one was saying anything, everyone was glancing around, and silence settled on us like dustone vitrifying.
The mother spoke up like glass spurting through a crack, “Ah am so sorry! Your honor! Your majesty! Sofrani!”
Adwyn turned to the mother, looking grave. Gwynt had stopped rifling through the cart. He stood, lines of their face tight, alula on the hilt of their club. He looked around, eyes roaming, hard. When he meet Adwyn’s, however, he paused for a beat.
And then they burst into laughter. As the dustone silence crumbled, I started to giggle and Digrif chuffed on the opposite side of the cart.
The plain-dwellers, though, didn’t join us in laughing. The cowled dragons The mother just seemed there, wearing a sad, relieved sort of almost-smile. The fledgling, on the other foot, was glowering, twice as intense as before. If one could brew and administer alchemical poisons with only looks, I imagined we would each drop dead before we could swallow.
The guard and Adwyn each returned to their searching. The guard was ripping through and examining the bags of what — to all appearances — really was just seeds and other farming supplies. At that, I followed their example and returned to my own job — minor though it was.
Aside from the two speakers and the two hatches, there were still two others near the back end of the cart. One was the other driver, the other had stuck to the sides, and both had slipped to the back of the cart as time crawled on. Now, they just hung around the fringes. Afraid of the guards? They stood somewhere on the other side of the cart, opposite Adwyn and Gwynt — though Digrif was there, chatting. He stopped and stepped away when he saw me looking.
One of the cloaked stood low behind the cart, still as a rock, gaze upturned to the sky — or the net below it. Both of them wore hooded cloaks, too. That wasn’t odd — cloaks were common fashion among the poorer plain-dwellers I’d seen (they were cheap and simple to repair). But the cowls of these two looked bigger, enveloping their faces in shadows, and the torsos were baggier, obscuring their forms.
One of the cloaked moved, the one standing behind the cart. This one was shorter than the other, maybe. It was hard to tell with the cloaks hiding their body shapes.
The shorter one crouched down by the cart.
“You there,” Adwyn called out, “what are you doing?”
The other cloaked had slinked over to near the first and crouched beside them before Adwyn had even finished.
The cart flipped over! It dumped the unsuspecting guard on the ground, along with tumbling sacks of seeds and other debris.
Adwyn lunged! The mother screamed! I started into motion, falling into a crouch like the cloaked dragons. Maybe it was a guess, maybe it was seeing the cloaked figure looking up at the net, but I leapt into the air, threshing my wings. My timing was just breaths from perfect — both of the cloaked launched into the air, dodging Adwyn’s lunge. So I was flying after them, a few beats before anyone else reacted, even Digrif was down on the ground, helping Gwynt up.
I beat my wings, and anxiety flooded me to my wingtips. The thieves — these had to be the thieves — flew out, over the watching crowd. At first, the thieves sagged, as if pulled by an unseen weight. I dove after them. Then taut cloth wings blasted out from under their cloaks. Gliders. The glider, plus their wings, saw them rising, hurtling for the cliff walls.
Their rise left my dive overshooting, and I pulled out of it low enough to touch dragons in the crowd.
Shouts came from behind me, and then so did Adwyn.
We raced after the thieves like this. For once, I was in the lead, and doing something heroic. For once, I dealt with a familiar, comfortable exertion. You had to fly well in the sky. And it helped that flying was the best.
I grounded my thoughts with a growl and mammoth threshing of my wings. There was no time for the joy of flight, only determination. I had to do my best — this was important.
We flew along, Adwyn and I gaining on the thieves — but at different paces. Our chase, with the guards already on edge, gave us a flock of red and gold sashes trailing behind us with only the slightest idea what was going on.
I was close enough to count the toes on the slowest thief’s foot — they were missing a toe, it seemed. But despite my speed, the thieves reached the net before I reached them. Glider wings folding behind them, each thief clutched the net in their feet, but one left a foot free. That thief pulled something from their bag, passed it to the other, and pulled out an identical second. They made slashing motions after that — knives?
My wingbeats slowed a notch — did I want to confront them and get stabbed?
Their blades tore the net — they had to, with how they swung and swung. Hinte had said the net was just cotton, hadn’t she? Once the thieves tore holes enough to push through the net, they pulled themselves through — and I was there, almost there.
But they were already through, and the one with the knives was yanking a glass from their bag. Contents glistening in the sunslight, they uncorked it and with a fluid motion, threw the glass. The glass vomited out gray goop as it flew.
The goop turned to thick white smoke! It hid the small rips in the netting. Even as I watched, close enough to smell the dead plant smell of the smoke, the cloud heaved, expanding and expanding until it filled my vision.
The wind wuthered the net and clouds, confusing my memory of where the holes were. And if that wasn’t enough, I glanced to the edges of the cloud, where a strange mold crept over the cotton of the net.
I flew away from the cloud, not daring to find out if it were safe or what that mold meant. I glided to the net, clinging with three feet. I stared out as the thieves flew away in a slow bounding flight.
I still had the knife. The knife that Hinte had given me back in the Berwem to bleed the glasscrabs. With the courage and excitement, I tailed the knife fourth from my bag. I could do this! Maybe I would be a hero like Hinte!
The black blood-slick knife was in one foot and the cotton of the net was in the others. I was sawing at the fibers. They split and frayed and split and frayed under the knife. I laughed and wiggled in excitement.
Then the knife caught on a tighter part of the net. My grip faltered — the knife dropped! And it tumbled and spun, dropping to the ground…
I looked over, behind the ropes of the net, and watched the thieves escape in the distance.
The thieves were gone.
* * *