Chapter XV: Agnize

iiiiii

i.*

As the knife plummeted, my hope fell with it.  I hung there on the net for a few beats and then Adwyn arrived.
He didn’t glance at me; he unsheathed a short blade.  In a half-dozen quick, precise swipes, he slashed at the netting.  But instead of trying to cut all the way through like me, he resheathed the sword, gripped netting and pulled.
It came right apart, and Adwyn had flown through before my eyes unclouded.  I flapped after him, frills folded, tail coiled.
Glancing behind me, the flock of guards had reached the nets.  But they didn’t all try to squeeze through Adwyn’s hole, they just followed his example, without swords, ripping the net with their claws.
I turned away, looking for the thieves and finding them, after moments of scanning, both flying low over the town.  Nothing much had changed, aside from my falling behind Adwyn — about five or six wingbeats — and thieves now having a crushing lead on us: they were more than thirty wings in front of Adwyn.
Our flight lead us over the cliffs, then back toward the town.  The valleys between the cliffs grew wider, the streets filthier, the dragons walking and winging below browner.  It all looked familiar enough, even coming from this direction; I flew around this part of town enough times going to the Sgrôli ac Neidr every evening.
I gained on Adwyn, and we both gained on the thieves — even with the gliders, they couldn’t outfly us.
It was long moments of threshing — I even heard the third short ring echo below us.  The thieves were flagging, flying lower and lower.  Then they dropped out of the sky all together, landing somewhere among the dustone and bamboo buildings.
Laughing, I let a fanged grin play across my face.  They were done.  Dragons flew so much faster in the air than we can hobble across the ground.  They couldn’t escape us now.
Adwyn dove down before me, and I followed him, and togetherffff we glided the thieves’ sudden drop and found them low-walking to a basalt house with flaky windows and dented bamboo door.  I knew this house — the librarian lived here.  My eyes flicked back to the thieves.
They weren’t even high-walking!  What were they doing!
By the time we lighted down behind them, the thieves had reached the house.  I stared, wondering what they wanted with the librarian’s house.  When they reached the stairwall to the high porch, they leapt its height.
Atop the porch, one thief pounded heavy, cracking knocks against the black bamboo while another called out into the house, but we were just far enough away to not make out what.  They glanced back, saw our approach, and their knocking became more panicked.  Adwyn was leaping to the porch.  Had we at last cornered them?
And then they seemed to give up on the knocking and calling.  Instead, the taller thief yanked off their cloak and glider, throwing it to the floor.  Underneath was tight armor.  Schizon.  Aluminum plates.  What?  Weren’t these poor farmers?  They wore the sort of tight fullrobes that wouldn’t look out of place on a prefect.
My eye caught the familiar way they had the human corpse tied to their backs, just like Hinte.  As I watched, and as Adwyn pulled himself onto the porch, the shorter thief clawed at the rope harness.  When they shook themselves, the corpse thunked off onto the bamboo porch.
Both thieves ran to either edge of the porch!  Each took off in a separate direction and flew low away.
Adwyn had reached the porch with a curse, and I was only a few moments behind him.  After checking the body, he turned to me.  “Kinri!  Take this corpse back to Digrif and Gwynt.  Order the guards trailing behind us to split up here.  Then follow Gwynt back to where Rhyfel ordered us to return.”  He didn’t even look for my reaction before blasting off into the sky, chasing after the shorter, craftier thief.  Who, I remember, still had a cloak on.
I climbed onto the porch.  I didn’t linger, anxious energy still thrumming through my veins and Adwyn’s order ringing in my frills.  The glider was ripped from the cloak.  The human was tied to my back.  The trailing guards were right there.  Adwyn’s words were given.  I was in the air, flying away.
Winging the line from the abandoned building back to the market, I wasn’t sure what to think.
This just got twistier and twistier.

When I dropped out of the sky in front of the cart, the only difference I noticed was the mother and fledgling had been chained, and there were six more guards orbiting the pile of seeds and seedbags — the cracked cart was gone.
Digrif waved to me and Gwynt smiled just a bit.
“You made it back!”
“Where is Adwyn-sofran?”
I said, “The thieves split up.  One of them dropped their stolen corpse, and Adwyn chased after the other.”
Gwynt nodded, even as his eyes paled at the mention of a corpse.  “…Alright.  Rhyfel said to regroup by the edge of the market as soon as we find something.  Did you fly back with the ape?”
“Uh, I have this glider.  It takes the strain off my wings.”
Gwynt nodded and strode off, other guards falling in step behind him.  When he leapt, they leapt, and Digrif and I were a few beats late.  The guards settled into a skein, a ‘v’ shape with Gwynt at the head.  I took a spot the very end of the left fork of the skein, leaving Digrif with a spot right behind me.
Down on the ground, the remaining guards lead the mother and the fledgling away.
I glanced back at Digrif — he was peering at me.
He cleared his throat.  “Hey, how did you know the cloaked dragons were going to fly off?”
“I guessed?  I saw one of them looking at the sky, and I just — jumped.”
Digrif shook his head.  “How did you two get to be such natural adventurers?”
“I’m not.  At all!  I’m about as far from an adventurer as you can get.”
“So am I, I think.  But I can’t do any of the things you and Hinte keep doing.”
“So?  I don’t like almost dying.  It’s scary!  And I don’t like having the weight of doing something important pressing down on me.  I always mess something up.”
Digrif stayed silent after that.  I turned my gaze up to the sky.  Dark clouds were piling up, so dark I wondered if it would ash today.  It wasn’t ashing down now, not yet, so we kept flying.  Ahead, Gwynt shifted out of the head of the skein, and another guard took the lead.  The rest of us shifted back.  I looked, and Digrif had flown over to the other fork.
I flew on in silence.  The skein-head rotated a few more times, more clouds came near the suns, but at last we came the alleyway again, and I glided down with the rest of them, letting the glider do the work for my tired wings.  The guards had cleared the area around the alley, and about eight had stuck around, now just milling about down there.  Among the guards were prim figures in the black and gold halfrobes that told me they had to belong somewhere in Frinan administration.  Where had I seen them before?  On Cynfe?
And then there was a lone figure in a very black cloak with dark, dark red accents.  From the way no one ventured within spiting distance of them, they must be an inquirer.
We lighted down, and waited.

ii. *

The fourth little ring rung out, and you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d worked on a schedule.  Almost on time — but not really on time — the last of the guards lighted down in this little blocked off area.  What started as a slow pulse of guards coming in, or (some) leaving — too slow to call it a flow or even a trickle — had accelerated until here came dragons that, if not familiar, had become recognizable after the big gathering earlier.
The pink guard arrived with a cowering plain-dweller, looking smug and wearing their best imitation of Rhyfel’s savage grin.  The pink guard was passing the plain-dweller to another, older guard.  I watched that guard, and saw them take the plain-dweller to a closed off area with several other dragons, a mix of brown and one or two red.  Ffrom was among them, and so were the fledgling, hatchlings, and the mother from the cart.
Jerking my gaze back to the pink guard, I found, standing near them, Rhyfel the younger and Hinte.  Hinte’s wings — the first thing I looked at — were still covered under her cloak.  On her back sat strapped a glider.  It wasn’t the kind the thieves used: it was brown wood and woven wings of triumphant pale gold and gray.
Covering Rhyfel and Hinte, a fine layer of ash and soot sat and blew in the wind.
The other guards looked stony-faced, not seeming to have found anything at all.  Very few — three, it seemed like — carried anything at all.
One didn’t even have a human corpse as their finding.  Instead, they had a Hägre hog.  Maybe it was an easy mistake to make if you had never seen a human.  But didn’t they at least have a sketchmaster drawing an impression or something?  They should at least know what they were looking for.
I stared at Digrif, until I had his notice, and directed my gaze back at Hinte.  Whatever was going on with him earlier, he got my meaning.  Obliquely, Digrif and I moved about, trying to get to where Hinte waited.
Rhyfel, clad in black and golden reds, waved for the attention of Hinte, the grinning pink guard and a few others that had the same dusty look about them.  Closer, I could make out, right on the high guard’s neck, a bloody bandage.  If the stains told the whole story, the wound must be a forefoot or two in length.
When Rhyfel had their attention, those guards and Hinte started following him over to one of the prim figures.
Hinte, in contrast, had one of her cloak’s sleeves hiked up, and bandages covered it too.  It was the very same leg that had been slashed by the apes in her fight last night.  What starless luck.
As we crept toward the center of the small crowd of guards, I felt powerful yet faint flapping in the distance.  I turned, claws dragging tracks in the gravel.  Was it the thieves returning?  That messenger returning?
It was only Adwyn coming down with the skein of guards behind him.  One figure was out of place: one of the thieves… the one who’d already lost their cloak and their human.  Without further command, the guards following him split off, collecting around one of the prim figures — scribes, they must be.  Adwyn strode over to us, blood on his armor and his claws.  He stunk of dead plants.  We were only a few steps away from Hinte.  With her back turned, she couldn’t see us.  This, of course, was when Adwyn spoke up.
“Kinri.  Digrif.  Follow me.”
The orange dragon waited, and lead us off to our scribe.  (By coincidence, this had us standing just paces from the alley where this mess started.)  Our scribe was a portly cliff-dweller wiver with finely manicured horn scales and eyes a cloudy gray.  The scribe was crouched, forefeet gripping a long sheet of papyrus, right alula holding an inkwell that their left wing-digit dipped into it every dozen breaths, even as they weren’t clawing.
Adwyn was speaking, “Gwynt, Digrif, Kinri, we are going to debrief now.  Tell the scribe everything that happened today.  Do not worry about repeating things or getting them out of order.”  Adwyn cracked his neck, and glanced at the one other guard among us.  “Gwynt, do you want to start us off?”
The guard hitched his wings, not breaking eye with Adwyn.  “Sure things.”
“Excellent.  So, this is for the records: what is your name and family name?”
“Gwynt of Graig Mras, you know.”
Adwyn gave one of those half-smiles I’d seen him give Gronte or Cynfe.  “Graig Mras, hmm?  You all have been here for a while, no?  Do you still live with your family?”
“Yeah, we live in the old house by those big red-tipped ferns.  There with my sibs, parents, gramps, cousins, you know how it is.”
Adwyn nodded, gaze clouding for a beat before he looked back at the guard.  “So, how are you, Gwynt?”
The guard scratched the gravel.  “What do you mean?”
“The excitement of the day is over.  It’s been tense and tiresome, but things have run their course.  How do you feel?
Gwynt glanced away.  “Can I be honest?”  Adwyn nodded.  “I’m spitting confused.  Baffled, even.  I don’t have the simplest idea what’s going on, and I’m hoping this debrief might make something of any of this.”
Adwyn nodded, still with his serene smile.  “Would you rather one of the others go first?”
“I’m fine.  Where do you want me to start?”
“Your first observations of the cart, then our finding you after the theft, and everything that happened from there.”
“There isn’t much to say.  For all they turned out to be, they didn’t seem all that drafty at first.  I saw the accomplices slink into the market a few rings before the seventh, and the thieves weren’t with them then.  I don’t know when they came into the picture, maybe if you ask around you can reason it out.”
I was staring at Gwynt.  He seemed okay, but Adwyn, Ushra and even Hinte all seemed convinced someone had to have betrayed us.  Could it have been him?  I peered, trying to find some tell.  He kept scratching the gravel, twisting his frills, and glancing around.  But they didn’t really line up with his speech the way a real tell would.  He just looked nervous.
“Um,” I said, stepping into Gwynt’s slight pause.  “Am I allowed to speak during this?”
Adwyn turned his serene smile to me, and I didn’t miss how it became a smirk.  At least that was real.  “If you think it will help.  This is collaborative, to an extent.”
“Well, Gwynt, you kept track of the thieves’ cart this whole time?  How?  Why?”  It shouldn’t sound like an accusation, but I didn’t think Adwyn would miss that aspect anyway.
Gwynt tossed his head.  “It’s my job to keep a tongue on things.  I didn’t just keep track of that cart, there were others, and that’s just carts.”
I glanced aside.  “Okay.”  My brilles clouded while I thought, and I decided there wasn’t nothing to lose.  “You just seemed a little nervous.  I wondered if you were hiding something.”
Gwynt jerked his head back at me.  Then he gave a silly smile and a short chuckle.  “I’m that transparent, aren’t I?  Yes, I am hiding something.  It’s… I just thought it wasn’t that important, it–it didn’t have all too much to do with this.”
Adwyn frowned.  “Tell us.”
“Well, you know those guards talking about Aurisiuf?  Well uh.  You know, those cloaked wivers had approached me — approached us.  We were on break, and they were going to do a small prank.  It’s all the Aurisiuf stuff was, a prank.  It’s not like — it’s not like he’s real, right?  So I agreed, and when those guards were chasing the wivers, I helped point them in the wrong direction.”
There was a sigh, and then, “Thank you for telling us this.  You have no responsibility for the brainless abandonment of those three guards, even if you exacerbated it.  You did, however, lie to a guard.”  Looking to the ground, he continued, “Yet I find myself unconvinced of the severity of this, given their circumstance.  I’ll allow Rhyfel to judge this matter later.”
The shamefaced cringing disappeared in an instant, becoming a mad grin.  “Rhyfel?  Thanks, Adwyn.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Adwyn said, and added, “but you’re welcome.”

“Digrif, Kinri?”
My brilles had clouded over while I stared at a tentaclesnail crawling over the gravel.  Adwyn smiled serenely again.
Digrif spoke up first, “I think I can go next.”
“Excellent.  For the record, what is your name?”
“Uh, Digrif of — I never really learnt my family.”
“How are you, Digrif?”
“I’m glad no one was hurt, and that we got one of the apes back.  And I’m curious what cool things you and Kinri did without me.  And, I’m a little anxious to get this talking done so we can get back to our adventure and go to the Berwem.”
“Scratch that last sentence out.”  Then, “Digrif, start at the alley.”
“Okay.  So, we got to the alley after shopping for a bit, and then all the ape bodies were gone!  Well, I’ve never seen them, but Adwyn said there were only sandbags now.  After that, we walked out of the alleyway, and we were arguing about who did it.  Adwyn tried to accuse Kinri of doing it, but she never had a chance to do it, except for this one gap a third of a ring before it happened when no one knows where she was or what she was doing.”
Digrif looked over to Gwynt and smiled.  “Then we found mister guardsdragon over there, and he went to go arrest some of the betrayers and bring back reinforcements.  But while he was gone we kept arguing about who did it, and Hinte said I did it!  I just bought this sword to defend myself, honest.”
Scratching the gravel, he continued slow, “Then… then Rhyfel and his skein arrived, and sent us after the thieves’ cart.  When we got there, the dragons were really spooked, so I tried to talk to them and explain that things weren’t so bad.  One of the thieves is pretty big into Dim-Fflamio games, but she seems convinced one of the teams that’ve been losing all season are going to win any day now.”  Digrif shook his head and clicked his tongue.
I narrowed my brow.  “So you were talking to the thieves?”
“Well yeah, and the mother and her son.  Those two didn’t have anything to do with what the daughters did, really.  They said both of them haven’t really been the same since they joined this Dychwelfa something organization, and they don’t really get them anymore.  So, the mother and son are definitely alright.”
“But what about the thieves?  You said you talked to them.  What did they say to you?”
“I told you!  We talked about Dim-Fflamio.  She also wanted to meet up later at this weird pub on the north side, but that seemed kind of drafty.”
The orange drake asked, “Which pub and when?”
“The uh, Dadafodd.  She said wait outside at the last ring, and she’d find me.”
Adwyn nodded to the scribe.  “Make note of that.”  Looking back to Digrif, he said, “Continue.”
“Well, then the thieves did their cart flipping thing and Kinri and Adwyn chased after them.  Kinri seemed to know they would fly off.  And, not much happened after that.  More guards came and arrested the other dragons at the cart, and then Kinri returned and now we’re all here.”
“Is that all, Digrif?”
“I think so.”
“Kinri?”
I looked up at Adwyn.  “I don’t have that much to add.  My story would just be the boring part of everyone else’s story.”
Adwyn shook his head.  “You have at least two parts of your own: what happened when you disappeared, and what happened as the thieves were about to fly away.”
“Um…  I told you about what happened then.  Hinte was talking with Glyster, and I decided to slip away and buy something for me.”  I slipped my tail into my bag, wrapping it around the astronomy book.  Passing it to my wings, I said, “Flick, I can even show you!  Here.”
Adwyn didn’t take the book, frowning at me.  “And the other part?”
“That’s simple.  I was keeping watch like you told me, saw one of the thieves looking up at the net and guessed the rest.”  I stopped there, but Adwyn motioned me to continue.  “But that’s it.  I flew after the thieves, until they got to the net and–and just waited for you, and then flew after him with you until we caught the thieves and they escaped again.”
Adwyn’s frown deepened just a bit.  He said, “Is that all?”
“Yes.”
“Then I shall begin my story.  Let the record show that I am Adwyn of Dyfns.”  Adwyn paused for the scribe, then continued, “The incident began much as has been described by others.  I left the cart in the charge of Ffrom, Geth, Bydbyd, and once we had returned to it…”
I went back to staring at the tentaclesnail.  He’d had crawled forward a good bit, and found some ashants he was snapping into his mouth.  I picked up a bit of gravel and tossed it smack by him.  He startled and sucked all his tentacles into his shell.
I looked at Digrif.  Someone had to have betrayed us, right?  Could it have been cute, handsome Digrif?  Who smelt so deliciously?  Hinte said it was suspicious that he decided to buy a sword when he did.  And he’s the only one we can’t definitely trust.  I’m me, Hinte was there to kill the apes in the first place, Adwyn wouldn’t need all of this scheming, and maybe Gwynt was still hiding something, but he only came into the picture after the betrayal had already happened.
But why would Digrif do something like that?  It doesn’t make sense.  And the sword doesn’t mean all that much, when he doesn’t know how to use it and his reasoning for buying it, well, it fledged sense.  For him.
And who else did that leave?  Ushra?  He suggested a conspiracy exists.  Gronte?  Versta?  Staune?  It was even sparser.  Staune seemed trustworthy enough, and Versta probably didn’t have a scheming bone in his little bird body.  Gronte didn’t want a war between humans and dragons.
This wasn’t going anywhere.  I looked up, peering at the scribe.  As we delivered our stories, the scribe scratched out the words in a jerky, esoteric shorthand.  Y Draig was a very different language than my native Käärmkieli, and despite my extensive experiences with shorthand back in the sky, these austere lines and dots were just about meaningless.
Almost, because I was making an effort to learn it, with great difficulty; it helped that I could do scribe work for Mawrion.  With enough focus and time, I could decipher the symbols.  But that defeated the purpose of shorthand.  It lacked the intuitiveness of my first.  Even when I cut my losses and wrote out in y Draig’s longhand, my wings would always want to switch back to my native script at some of the most inopportune times.  Could I never master it?
Maybe I never would.
I shook my head.  I was distracting myself.  There was something I should be listening to, someone I should be looking at.  I just… really didn’t want to.  Didn’t want to think of it.

iii.*

Adwyn was still talking.  “…I ordered Kinri to return the corpse to Gwynt and Digrif, and I pursued the thief who still wore his cloak.  At this point, a skein of guards was en route, with orders to split and pursue either thief.
“Chasing this thief took us out of the north end.  At one point during the flight, about twenty dragons with identical cloaks flew to and around him and tried to let him escape in the confusion.  It worked,” — Adwyn smirked — “for a few moments.  But the true thief was the only one flying away with support; the distractions all flew alone.
“The chase ended in the west end.  The thief and his support landed in the a…  brick yard.  It was an ambush — of course it was an ambush — but I called off the guards too late, and we fought.  The thieves produced another vial of the smoke mixture that allowed them escape from the market.
“The obvious effect of this was greatly increasing the danger of the ambush.  We could not see, and the smoke grew thicker every moment.  But this smoke carried along a sort of mold that clogs the throat and restricted movement.  Water kills it, and this was the only thing that saved us.
“Many of the guards were injured in this, and it was for that reason I called a retreat, and allowed the thieves to escape.
“That is all.”
The scribe scratched the last line with a flourish.  “Hum.  That’s everyone?”  A nod.  “Shall I return to the hall, then?”
“Do.”  Adwyn waved the scribe off.  He turned to us and said, “Thank you for your time, everyone.  Gwynt, you may take the remainder of the day off.  Digrif, you may back off from the operation now, conditional on your telling no one of it.”
Digrif said, “And miss the real adventure?  This just got interesting!”  Digrif froze, and quickly added, “If that’s alright you, Sofrani.”
Gwynt said, “If Donio’s fledge thinks he can handle this, what would I look like backing well enough off?”
“Very well.  Go find Rhyfel-sofran and Hinte-ychy.  They should be finished by now.  Kinri, stay.  We have something to discuss.”
Digrif waved at me as he stepped away.  I swallowed, and tried to wave back.
I turned to face Adwyn, and he wasn’t even smirking.  “Kinri.  I’ll look straight to the point.  The purpose of a debriefing is to get a record of what happened, as it happened — even if that record is embarrassing.  I saw what happened at the net: you reached the net first, but dropped your knife.  I see that it is a small omission, but if we cannot trust you to speak honestly about the little things, how can we ever trust you with the bigger ones?”
I looked down, scratched the gravel, clouded my brilles, huffed.  Even as it stung, I could taste that he was right.  There were things I had good reasons for hiding, but this wasn’t one of them.  It’s just… I wanted to be instead of a disgrace some kind of hero, and heroes don’t drop their weapons, right?  The Kinri who saved Hinte from rockwraiths, who stood against the humans, she wouldn’t drop her weapon.
“I know why you did it, Kinri.  You’re transparent.”  I flinched, and he added, “And that’s not a bad thing; it’s a virtue.  My point is, I know you want glory, and I want to tell you it doesn’t matter.  There are more things worthy of your time than the admiration of strangers.  Do you have goals, Kinri?  Ambitions?”
“I… had wanted to settle down, maybe find a cute drake and maybe lay a few eggs.  Just live a simple life.”  A frill brushed my headband.  “And, if I’m being really dreamy, maybe one reunite with my brother again, in the sky.”
Adwyn nodded.  “And none of that quite entails becoming some kind of hero, does it?  Regardless of what you want, you can get more done in the shadows than in the light.”
“Says Adwyn, the military adviser Adwyn, Rhyfel-sofran’s second in command,” I echoed Gwynt’s words.  I could make a good parrot.
“Yes.  Note well: the military adviser Adwyn.  Dragons recognize me for my position, but I am hardly famous in myself.  The Rhyfel?  Of course.  The Ushra?  Sure.  The Aurisiuf?  Unfortunately.  But the Adwyn?  You’ll never hear it uttered.  I’m middling significant here, and that’s all I need for my ends.”
“What are your ends, Sof — Gyf — Adwyn?”
“I love Dyfnder/Geunant, and I have grown to love Gwymr/Frina.  I long to see them united.”
I looked up at the clouds drifting by.
Adwyn cleared his throat, and I met his eyes.  He said, “With that out of sight, there is a more important matter to address.  What truly happened when you left Hinte and Digrif?  I know you didn’t just buy the book.”
I could have broken eye with him.  I could have hugged my wings to me.  I could have scratched my headband.  Instead, I stole my face into a mask, swallowed hard, clouded my brilles, and thought.  Then, abruptly, “Do you know of the capabilities of a Specter cloak?”
Adwyn furrowed his brow.  “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Mine doesn’t work.”  I glanced away.  How would I explain this?
I pointed a wing at the alleyway where the pumice cart still sat.  “Can we have some privacy?”
The military adviser nodded.
Standing in the alley, in sight of no one but him, I began, “After I bought the scroll, I was sitting out of sight, flipping through it, I was alone, I — I had wanted to get away from the crowd.  Well, as I was alone, the shadows near me swirled and gulfed…

It was a very clear day, and a cloud had just passed in front of the sun.
I was in the middle of the east market bustling with dragons, and I couldn’t see anyone else.
I was all alone, and she said, “Hello Kinri, the Specter with no cloak.”  Behind me, her voice was a wind from the shadows.  On the nape of my neck, her perfumed breath was a shiver.
On the front of my neck, her cool edge was fear.
Any other day, I might have yelped and pressed myself — fatally — onto the knife.  Maybe it was the stars, maybe it was the pitch perfect pronunciation of my name, and maybe it was the unmistakable way the shadows swirled and gulfed around me.
But regardless, I knew the time had come.
Underneath every mask, I’d seen this confrontation coming, and so I composed myself.  The second it took for me to do that, however, was enough for my instincts to squeak and flinch and draw a biting red line on my neck.
Breathe.
A wet tongue flicked, and then came the report of a murmuring voice so motionless, so glassblown, so familiar in its inflection, that the confirmation quickened my heart further, flushed the blood from my brilles, and scared me.  I shifted my face out of phase of my mind.  It turned to a door, behind which things are heard but not seen.
It all felt very dramatic.  What they said was, “Is that blood?  Such a delectable scent.”  What made it so vitrifying, though, was how it was said.
She spoke in Käärmkieli.
I was in control — of myself — as she turned my head, and lifted her knife, and licked her tongue at the red line.  I didn’t shiver or squirm, I didn’t squeak, and I held eye with a blue-scaled face half-hidden under a wearable, shifting mosaic that could have been a cloak.
I was in control, but behind my door I shrieked, bile rose in my throat and I threw off the Specter and flew so far away.  None of these things happened, but I could imagine them.
My door was shut, and the voice that left my throat was very level as it said, “Please release me.  We both serve Highness Ashaine.”
“I serve the Highness, yet thou appearest to have more loyalty to these mudly dragons than to the Constellation — than to thine only family.  Such a disgrace.”
Just above, above the — silver edge, I stared intently at the mess of colors that was her cloak’s sleeve, letting it take up my field of view completely.  I spoke again, drawling, “Is this an illusionmaster chiding me about appearances?”
The silver returned to my neck, quick.  “It is a manner of speaking, my pedant.  Thou dancest with my words; for thine actions speak against thee.  Or rather, they remain silent; for thou hast done nothing to further our ends.  Thou disappointest even thy brother.  As is to be expected from such a disgrace.”
“What would you have me do?  The faer does not trust me.”  I heard her sniff.  “Yet,” I added.
“Spoken like no Specter at all.  We can scent a bevy of options from even our distant position.  Thou hast made no advances with Bariaeth, whom thou knowest holds much power and no loyalty to the faer.  Thou hast made no effort to capitalize upon thy relation with the high alchemist’s heir — which would be effortless on thy part.  Thou art entertaining that vexsome canyon-dweller who stands in way of our plans.  Thou seest the faer’s brother everyday, and thou hast not even noticed.”
“So I haven’t rushed my results.  I was not aware we had a timetable.”
“Indeed thou art not.”  The Specter dragged their blade along my throat, scraping just shallow enough no blood squirmed forth.  It was a continuous thing, their blade dragging steadily and tracing patterns.  “Highness Ashaine grows impatient, Kinri.  He entrusted thee with thine inheritance, and after all the dancing it took for him to allow thee to keep it, thou hast wasted it.”
“Have you come to chastise me only?”  I affected my tone, the best I could do to sound bored.  I looked around, as if not caring about the deadly blade by my throat, or the trained assassin in killing distance of me.  My eyes darted to her cloak, and I contemplated intently the colors.  My brow furrowed as I noticed how they seemed… less vivid, almost distorted, compared to the other cloaks I’d seen, in the sky.
She was saying, “No.  I have also come to decide whether I should kill thee where thou standest.  Or not”
“You–you couldn’t.  You wouldn’t.”
The knife under my neck turned, caught a sunbeam and reflected it right at my eye.  It shouldn’t have worked at all in the shade beneath my muzzle, but that didn’t matter so much this close to a lucent Specter cloak.  “Oh, thou art correct.  I wouldn’t make it so quick and boring.”
“If–if my brother truly ordered me dead — and he would never — even you wouldn’t have made such a game of it.”
I felt the blade press deeper.  “It is disgusting to listen to such a disgrace pretend to know me.  Thou shalt quiet thyself, and I will fulfill my mission.”
I said nothing.  If I did die here, would I lose so much?  Hinte barely considered me a friend, and even Digrif or Uvidet and I aren’t close at all.  They’d get over me, forget me.  Maybe — even the endless stars realized how useless I am.
“Is that defeat in thine eyes?  It suits thee.”  The knife’s pressure eased by the smallest.  She continued, “We have an immediate task for thee and an immediate reward, something even the Specter with no cloak will find within her minuscule capability.”  She reached in her robes, grabbing a familiar white crystal.  “This is a shard of star-blessèd Stellaine.  The very same which was confiscated from thee after thou had vandalized —”
“I told you all it was like that when I found it!  For all the things I did that you all couldn’t appreciate, I really didn’t do this one.”
Even as the knife licked me further, I glanced back at her.  “I wish I did, though.  It was an ugly statue.  I just didn’t have enough paint.  Or any slugs.  Or a lightning rod!  And therefore I couldn’t have — and didn’t — do it.”
More blood had oozed out from my neck.  Instead of the responding, the Specter licked it.
I sniffed.  “Could you not?  It isn’t very conducive to civil conversation.”  I paused for a second while my frills worked.  I gambled with, “I know you’re better than this.”
“And thy hatchly caterwauling is even less conducive.  I tend not to converse with hatchlings hatchlings — they say I’m a poor influence.”
There was a time when it would have been natural to counter her words with a false barb like, ‘I can’t imagine why.’  The Specter had made it so easy to fall back into that habit of familiarity.  So easy — as if it were a trap.
It had only been cycles; I was still a Specter.
The sky-dweller pulled their head back, a drop of my blood still on their lip.  “So why shouldn’t I entertain myself?  Particularly when you’re doing such a disgraceful job of it.”
Sniffing, I said, “Why did you come here, Uane?  If it’s not the chastise me, then tell me why.  You’ve told me the reward, but what’s the mission?”
Behind me, Uane grinned; and I could tell so easily, from the pinch of her knife pressing closer, from that twitch in her shadow, from that same pop of her frills flexing, and from that single drop of sweet joy that lighted on her fangs.
It had been gyras.  Even knowing what had come before and what came after, it had been gyras.  I let her near forgotten scent draw out a smile on my face.
Even knowing what had come before and what came after, I had missed my little sister.

Adwyn’s frown was waxing deeper, and he cut my story off with a wing.  His voice was soft, dangerous.  “There is another Specter in Gwymr/Frina?”
I tossed my head without looking at Adwyn.  “I don’t know!  She might be gone by now.
“Yet they were here.”  Adwyn stood straighter.  He said, “Kinri, tell me exactly what is happening, concisely.  This is now a matter of Frinan security.”
“Uh, you know how you thought I was some kind of Specter agent?  Well…  that isn’t very far from the truth.  I had a sort of… mission in coming here.  I don’t know what they’re plotting, but they — my brother wanted me to get the frill of a faer, gain some kind of influence in the land of glass and secrets.  It’s why I tried to become a secretary or something for Mlaen-sofran.”
“So you have been in contact with the Specters?”
“No!  This is the first time something like this has happened.”
What is this new order of yours?”
I held my breath.  I didn’t look at him when I spoke.  I didn’t speak louder than a murmur.  I dragged the words out of my throat like weights, and let them plummet.
I said, “I have to kill you.”
* * *

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