Clouds drew in asudden and hid the suns, bearing down on the world. The ninth long ring came to a close like it was seeking us out in the cliffs, faintly.
Out here little skinks slithered along the cliff faces, hunting the last glider-scorpions and tentacle-snails before the gray season in full fell. The calls of the ax-crested pterosaurs filled the air, sounding reedy and warbly. I saw one swoop down all asudden and fly off with a dust turtle I hadn’t even seen, hiding behind a low fern.
“Poor little turt.”
“Pterosaus have to eat too.”
I looked around. Past the Berwem gate, all the guards had pulled ashcloaks over themselves, though they maneuvered the red sash onto the outside. We walked up that same ravine that wound us back into town last night, limned almost adventurous in the sky light.
The pink guard was slinking back beside the dark-green wiver, more subdued, but not so much as when talking under Rhyfel or Adwyn. “Hey, uh, Hinte, was it? Everyone called you Gronte-wyre, but I don’t think that was your name.”
The dark-green wiver glared at the guard. “Call me Hinte.” Then she said, “Why do you need my name?”
“To talk. My name’s Ceian, the youngest in the guard. But I’m going to be the best some day.”
“And you’re my age, and already doing cool stuff, so I thought you might make a good friend.”
“Me? The creepy alchemist’s daughter?”
“Oh. I forget about that.” The pink guard frowned, brilles clouding. “Well, you didn’t do any weird alchemy stuff back there. So long as you don’t do any of that, you’re fine.”
Hinte turned away from the guard and high-walked on. The guard kept up, until Hinte scowled and said, “And just what is weird alchemy stuff?”
“I don’t know. Whatever it is alchemists do. Turn sneks into snails, make dragons blind, raise the dead, unnatural stuff like that.” His eyes flashed clear. “I heard alchemists have a potion that makes you shit out your soul. Is that true?”
“First, souls don’t exists, they are absurd. Second, half of that is magical or impossible. If you could turn animals into each other, it would be magic, not alchemy. You can make dragons blind, but I have only read of one mixture that wasn’t temporary. And it is costly.”
The fledgling alchemist looked around. She continued, “And — you cannot raise the dead. It’s not even worth trying.”
Ceian rolled his eye. “Magic, alchemy, what’s the difference?”
“Alchemy makes sense. The harder you try to understand magic, the madder you become. Alchemy is reliable. Magic is mercurial.”
“It’s all the same to me. They’re both unnatural.”
“Alchemy is perfectly natural. It’s magic that isn’t. An alchemical agent doesn’t do anything that wouldn’t happen on its own. Alchemy follows laws, the same laws as anything else. Every piece of magic is different.”
“Um,” — I brushed my wings along my cloak — “Specter cloaks are all the same.”
“And what are they made of?
“Medusa fibers. Hairs from these vicious jellyfish things.”
Hinte snapped her tongue. “And what do those creatures do? To hunt, that is?”
“They make these really blinding flashes of light.”
She padded on a few breaths. Then, she at last said, “Compare your cloak to my knife. They’re both magical, yet could they be farther removed from each other?”
“You have a — magic knife?” Ceian stepped to the side.
Hinte looked at me. “Had,” she said.
“Alright.” Ceian tended a slight closer. “So, what sorts of things do you like?”
Licked her brilles, Hinte said, “Alchemy. Seafood. Birds.” She paused. “Drakes who know when to spit off.”
“Cool. I’ve never had seafood. Birds are kinda–-cute, I reason.” Times passed in footsteps. “So, what are you doing after this mission?”
From ahead, someone called, “Ay Ceian, let me get your take on this, c’mere.” Rhyfel was glancing back.
The pink-scaled drake dash toward him.
“Good riddance,” Hinte said. I grinned at her. She only peered, and said, “What?”
“He likes you.”
She rolled her head, and only said, “You are hardly one to talk,” with a pointed glance at a warm-gray drake.
“Still,” I said. “He’s cute. Especially when he isn’t being a vent. You could do worse.”
“With whom? There is no crowd of tongueless drakes pining for the creepy alchemist’s daughter.”
“Do you even talk to any drakes, though? Besides Digrif.”
“I sit in Dadafodd sometimes,” she said. “It’s more than you’ve done.”
I stopped walking.
She stopped with me, watched for a bit. “Should I apologize?”
I licked my fangs. “I — you’re right. I don’t really go out much.”
Hinte started low-walking again, and I did too, while she overtook me, I sidled up beside the warm-gray drake.
I forced my tail to hang still between my hindlegs. “I was just wondering. If tomorrow or some other day, you wanted to, um, fly down to the cliffs southern. They’re kinda pretty and there are cute pterodons and the clouds fly right overhead and uh…”
“Sure. Maybe overmorrow or so. I have job to handle tomorrow, don’t know how long.”
“Yay.” I look around. Hinte still low-walked ahead, clicking softly and several strides beside her Ceian had some smirk on his face. “Gah! I forgot you two were so close.”
“Don’t mind us, plan your date,” said the pink guard.
“It’s not —”
“Focus on the mission.”
I jumped again. Behind us padded the hooded wiver, who stared blank at me.
I high-walked till I was up beside Hinte, and had three dragons between the secretary and me.
We walked on like that, another wind coming down from further through the ravine. It was dirty with dust and vog, and, with that stench of sulfur and metal, it was clear, in my heart, where we were headed. I coiled my tail up.
We advanced toward the Berwem.
There was a weird smell as we walked, and at first I thought it might’ve been someone’s lunch.
With the turts’ bags sealed tight, you had to wonder where. I’d left my bags with the turts, and Digrif, padding on beside me, had too. Hinte, on the other side, had kept her bags, but having bought that roast I wouldn’t guess she brought lunch.
Looking down from the haughty cliffs, the stone-shells were big rank boulders in front of me, but they moved. Gwynt and the prefect perched up there, and I would have smelt this on the black-tongued guard before now. Was it the prefect?
Throwing my gaze further, there was Rhyfel the younger and Adwyn up front, and Cynfe nowhere to be seen, not even behind.
When the wind turned and the smell waned, I tossed my head and kept on. Must be ambient. But slowly, the scent crept up again, now turned almost toothsome. Flicking a tongue, whirling the forks, you could catch details — coppery, and like boiled meat — and fill in the details: glasscrab meat.
They served it at the Moyo-Makao, always to a lot of applause. All I knew about cooking it was how delicate it was, scooping out only the good meat, with the shell all shattered and crizzly; and how long it took to cook, with the skin taking to heat like dirt. Cooking it was a day and a night’s work, but you did it for the taste.
The smell wavered and waxed with our march forward, until more details resolved: underneath and beside it were the smells of blood and smoke and spice. It made me slow down, and when I looked I saw more and more tongues waving.
This wasn’t the smell of a wild glasscrab.
I wasn’t sure what could cook meat in the lake. A dragon, out camping in the lake? But you couldn’t enter the lake without a sifting license. Were they trespassing? Or maybe they came here with a friend who didn’t tell that entering the lake is trespassing, and illegal. Completely understandable, really.
Hinte would’ve taken a mess of a detour into the lake — through the cliffs and caves and badlands — and it couldn’t be an accident. She didn’t even flick when Adwyn revealed her crime. And she said she’d sifted for almost half a gyra — but did you get that good at siftings that quick? On your own?
Hinte was smart — smarter than me, maybe. Ushra was that legendary alchemist, Gronte was that artificer turned fugitive. And yet, I couldn’t swallow that answer.
Adwyn hissed from somewhere up front, “Does any else smell cooked meat?”
“I do,” I said, amid a chorus of agreement from about everyone. “Smells like cooked crab meat.”
“Well,” someone started, “there’s a few sifting parties out this ring. Maybe they got a snack.”
“Mlaen canceled sifting today, idiot.”
“She can do that?”
A sudden scraping sound snapped off the conversation. You looked up — and a boulder stabbed down until it became a rock explosion! The sound was earthy thunder. A scar was gouged, a crater of rock and glass tears, and some blood that might’ve been a wormrat.
I was over by the rock in a leap, with Digrif and the prefect.
“Get away from the rock!” someone yelled, and it was Rhyfel.
There came a certain patting sound from behind, like the rain after the monumental thunder.
I was turning confusedly around — and a brown ape charged right at us! Snarling like a wildcat, wrapped in rags striped with grime, and lunging as if pouncing forth, it came at us — and the thing wielded a wicked bronze spear, and it was only like a spear. Something deadly, something known.
The spear went for the gray drake. He dodged out of the way, out of my sight. Then came his scream and I looked and there was another ape, and ropes were smacking against the cliff wall.
The new ape twisted its spear, and it pulled it out and there was his blood, dripping.
The black-tongued dragon was standing up, the white-cloaked dragon was standing up, the scarlet drake was coming, the orange drake was coming. There were swords out now. Three.
The green wiver was beside the other ape, and punched it. The ape staggered with a yell. I saw it’d stood over a bleeding pink drake and I saw the spear now stabbed at the drake again. In the sunslight the bloody thing seemed to glint.
With a tackle, the cliff-dweller was here now. The ape hit the gravel now, growling, and like that the spear was finally just a thing, rolling pathetically on the ground.
Pained, terrible yelling behind me. There was turn, and I was looking at an ape just strides behind me, restrained by a thick gray net that glinted baleful. Sizzling black burns touched its brown skin under the nets.
I smelt the ozone of magical lightning.
On the other side of the ape a blue-green wiver stood, fangs bared and lit bright in the sunslight. She wasn’t looking at me.
The blue-green wiver leapt over me.
Behind me, one ape now had a sword, and behind it a black-tongued cliff-dweller writhed with a belly open like a book. The gray drake, bleeding from his breast, lay on the ground still, but he sometimes moved. Near the cliff wall, the orange drake pinned the first ape, forefeet wrapped around its neck.
The dark-green wiver had a knife that didn’t glow, and another ape stood between her and a scarlet drake wielding his sword.
The prefect dashed up to them, and the ape lashed out once. The prefect bled in a gash just under the neck. And fell to the ground screaming.
The dark-green wiver stepped toward it. The scarlet drake stepped toward it.
The ape was shouting, looking around, and its face was contorting as if crushed by something. And it was wet, and streams of water rolled down from its eyes. The shouts became howls, until the scarlet drake lunged and wrapped a claw around its neck, and there was silence.
Someone shouted, and it was the adviser:
“Another one! From where we came!”
We turned. A fourth ape was treading toward us. It was naked, not wearing rags like the other two, and it walked slowly, on the hindlegs. The forelegs were extended, and both of the forefeet splayed; nowhere on it was a weapon.
A memory came from someplace distant, Chwithach telling me that apes were intelligent, but not equal to dragons. Did it want to say something with this? Emphasizing that it meant no threat?
This ape dropped to its knee, and it yelled, an utterance that was just a long string of garbage sounds. Some might resemble syllables, if something was very wrong with your throat. It yelled again, similar yet different, almost more familiar — and then again. The last one was something like intelligible:
“I go of peace dragon.”
Rhyfel let ape in foot fall, and it didn’t move. He measured his way forward, frills adjusting, tongue flicking, until he was steps from the ape, sword held in a way that could be the ape’s death in less than a breath.
The high guard spoke, telling us, “I reason it means I come in peace, dragons.”
“An odd demonstration,” Adwyn said, backing off his ape, and standing where he could see all three of them.
Rhyfel scratched his cheek, and when he spoke again, he had an in an accented voice pitched very high. It wasn’t y Draig.
The ape shifted its face, and there might have been something to read there, if you could read it. It spoke again, and there were sounds common with Rhyfel’s utterance. Of course, the texture was a world’s difference, and you wouldn’t have called it the same language if you realized it was language.
Rhyfel glanced at Adwyn. “It’s another Ulfame. That keeps things simple. It says it’s spoken with dragons before — and it claims we had some deal, and that we have betrayed them.”
Adwyn nodded. “With the thieves, most likely.”
Hinte jabbed a wing at it. “Ask why it isn’t attacking like the others.”
Rhyfel spoke again. The ape replied.
“It says its comrades were only grieving the ape you killed, and lashing out because of it.”
A sudden start in front of Adwyn. Onto the moving ape, he dropped a foot, and held the forelegs in wing. The ape was restrained like that, as it squirmed and whirled its head around. It saw the ape knelt in front of Rhyfel’s sword, and then it saw, laying on the ground by him, the motionless ape.
“You kill they monsters,” it howled, and it made more incomprehensible sounds.
Looking at that wet-faced, howling ape, and at the ape knelt down and curled in on itself, they seemed so small. The haunting creepiness of their visage remained, but the weakness tempered it. Between Cynfe, Hinte, Rhyfel, and Adwyn, the apes couldn’t hurt me.
“Adwyn,” I murmured, slipping toward him. “Just to be sure — the faer hasn’t any secret alliances or trade or whatever with the apes, right? Just checking.” I spoke low, and exaggerated the growling, hissing and clicking of my speech, spoke fast, and in general made it harder for the apes to grasp.
“Of course not.” He whisked a wing, and peered at me. “You’re thinking these apes must have been assisting the thieves — or whomever the thieves work for?”
“Well, sort of. I’ve no idea why, though —”
“I see it clearly: the thieves work with the humans from the shadows, but they saw them as game pieces — so killing them off was always in their plan, a plan which you — which we played blindly into.”
“Oh.” I said with my frills drooping.
Then I grinned. “Well, why don’t we wreck those plans?”
“What are you suggesting, Kinri?”
We’d been speaking lowly — but everyone was looking at us.
I said, “Hey Rhyfel-sofran, interpret for me please?” The big scarlet dragon glanced at Adwyn, and the adviser nodded.
“You got it,” Rhyfel said.
“Human!” I said. Rhyfel turned it to a few words, with deliberate, exaggerated pauses between them. He didn’t speak as quick as the apes. I continued, “You have been manipulated! We are not the dragons you worked with. They left you here, here to die!”
Rhyfel translated, and stumbled over one or two things before the human interrupted, standing up, and shouting. It was translated, “He asks who killed their comrades?”
I paused, some wide look on my face. I prayed the stars the human couldn’t read dragon faces.
“Ah, you see… there was something of a misunderstanding,” Adwyn said as I was still thinking my response. “The first of your friends was killed by a rockwraith, correct?” As he translated, Rhyfel made a slithering motion with his foreleg, hissing and flicking his tongue energetically.
The human turned its head to the right.
“He says yeah.” But he didn’t say anything.
“We found it — him, first,” I said. “But when my friend went to investigate, your friends mistook her for a rockwraith.” Hinte moved in the corner of my eyes — it looked to just put her knife up.
The ape made a cryptic motion with its arms.
“He asks why you stole their bodies, then.”
“To bury them.” I blurted.
Rhyfel translated. And there was silence.
Adwyn was nodding at me, and smirking. “Indeed. We are not your enemies, human. The other dragons are. The dragons who truly stole two of your friend’s bodies. We need your help to discover those real betrayers, the manipulators, and you can avenge your fallen friends.”
Rhyfel translated, “He says they will consider our offer, alone. He wants us to release the others, and return the bodies.”
“Kinri,” Adwyn said.
“Do you see them cooperating?” he asked, still restraining an ape.
“We have no choice.” Hinte answered for me. “The thieves have two bodies. They can undermine our plan, as it stands.”
“Yeah. The thieves have the other bodies — so long as they do, we share a common interest.” I looked up. “And we have no idea where these apes came from. It could be a search party already, for all we know.”
Meanwhile, Rhyfel said something to the ape, and it made a harsh sound.
Adwyn hummed at me. “Well reasoned. I glimpse hope for you yet.”
“Um, excuse me?” I said, my voice taking on some ariose pitch. “I am not in courts of sky because I don’t wish to be, not because I am unable, Gyfari.”
Did I just say that aloud?
“Feh. You fooled me.”
Rhyfel sheathed his sword, and the human did not attack. Adwyn released his human — and it didn’t attack. Cynfe was over here, suddenly, and removing the net. That human got up, so slowly, and staggered toward its conspecifics.
Rhyfel was at the tortoises, pulling off the blankets, carrying the corpses to the humans.
I watched with my feet dug into the ground as the humans hefted the three corpses and one (hopefully) unconscious.
They walked toward the Berwem.
There were still skinks twisting about. Smelly tentacle-snails crawled, and that might have been a lesser spider scuttling about. Anurognaths leapt from cliff faces, some eagle cawed very far away, and maybe the shadow of a dragon unawares drifted by.
The world didn’t stop, even as this final mission had. We picked up pieces, silently.
You knew things had gone awfully wrong when it was up to me to do heavy lifting.
I strained. Poor frail Digrif blurbled on the cusp of — death, yet somehow smiling, like the witness to a secret. He murmured something about heroes.
My forelegs clasped the black cloak threaded with blue and pink cloak, its green-scaled owner on the other side, and between us we lifted Digrif. Nearby, Gwynt, the prefect, and Ceian were also carried, uplifted by everyone’s cloak save my own. It was how we got the bodies up against the cliff wall, where we knew the vulture-bats wouldn’t try their stars.
You heard the fourth short ring trill in the distance.
The injured dragons lay against the wall, bleeding into the open. The guards brought no bandages.
On either side of me, were the uninjured or comparatively uninjured. Adwyn, the military adviser; Rhyfel, the high guard; Cynfe, the faer’s high secretary; Kinri, the dead weight; and Hinte, the alchemist.
We all looked to Hinte.
Adwyn spoke first: “Have you looked at all the injuries?”
“Yes.” She contracted her frills. “They will die before a flyer finds anyone. Perhaps they are already dead. Humans have poisons.”
Rhyfel took a step that could’ve started a lunge. He said, “Then what are you waiting for? I know you have potions.”
“Consent.” She hadn’t flinched. “Ask them if I may apply my alchemical mixtures to possibly alleviate or regenerate their wounds.”
The scarlet drake stared fire at her.
Meanwhile, the orange drake and the blue-green wiver were slinking over — to the prefect and Gwynt.
I paused, then found myself at the side of the warm-gray drake with a hole in his breast.
The heavy foot falls came — the high guard’s — and then Ceian’s voice.
“Hey Digrif,” I said.
He gibbered something. In there, somewhere, were the syllables of my name.
“This is important, so just nod okay? Hinte wants to heal you up with alchemy.”
Digrif’s head lolled.
Elsewhere, Rhyfel’s voice came, his tone like low yelling. Farther was Gwynt’s voice, firm and strained, and the prefect, some desperate pleading.
I poked the frail warm-gray drake. “C’mon. Heroes don’t — go out like this. You saved me — us. C’mon.”
A laugh, hissing. More gibberish — then something like a nod.
“Yes!” I lunged, and hugged Digrif, and got blood on my cloak.
I dashed back to Hinte and told her. She was already tending to the prefect, and the little gash under his neck. The thin cliff-dweller, naked without robes, wailed under the application of die Wundervernarbung.
Behind us, Rhyfel was still speaking, in that restrained yell, but Ceian’s voice rose to it, cutting in.
Soon the scarlet drake padded up behind while I twiddled halluxes, and watched Digrif slowly writhe.
“Ceian consents,” said the high guard. “Heal him.”
“He does not. I have frills.”
“I said heal him.”
“Hinte. I am Hinte. Scion of Gären, heir of Ushra. I am not yours. You cannot order me.”
Rhyfel stood there, frills twisting slow. He drained of expression in breaths, as if building the sigh he expelled. “Ushra’s reputation has twisted you. Like an overgrown vine. Or a cancer.”
As the drake walked away, she was whispering, “As I said, he isn’t as tongueless as he acts. As angry, as afraid as he is, and he doesn’t light to making threats. Even Adwyn does not manage that. Even Cynfe.”
Hinte stood up from the prefect. “I may not be acceptable as a guard now. And yet he does not brandish that.”
As we strode back toward Digrif, an orange drake stood a distance from the injured. Hinte glanced.
“Gwynt has declined your offer.” The adviser had a face weighed by sadness at wing’s length. He nodded once, and Hinte nodded back.
“Why? Do they think they can heal without Hinte’s help?”
“They don’t trust alchemy. It’s not right, it’s not natural. They’ll pray their bodies or the spirits might heal them.”
I shook my head, and we stepped away.
Hinte worked on Digrif, wiping die Wundervernarbung on his breast. Time passed.
Digrif had drifted off to sleep, and I’d watched Hinte apply die kleine Heylpflanze to Adwyn. Rhyfel refused. When Hinte went to check on Gwynt or Ceian, they wouldn’t allow her to apply anything at all, even bandages. Adwyn stitched up the cliff-dweller’s split-open stomach, and Rhyfel tied his cloak around Ceian’s chest riddled with spear holes.
I now stood away from the wall, watching Digrif lying there, healing. But my eyes tended back toward Gwynt or even Ceian. How they’d manage without alchemical support. Why they’d try such a thing.
Adwyn was beside me. He said, “I understand if you don’t wish to watch this. Cynfe has leapt away. You may too, I will find you when — it is all done.”
I looked at the adviser. His fangs weren’t out, and I kept mine in too.
I crouched and leapt, leaving two dragons healing by alchemy and two dragons whose fate was left to the endless stars.
The tenth long ring came in the quiet. A chime, yet it seemed a knell.
I sat on a cliff and watched skylands float by. Lying on my back, frills full and eyes gazing sighingly at the sky, I couldn’t have missed the thudding footsteps drawing toward me.
Instead of responding the tall cliff-dweller drake stood above me, face carved in deepest solemnity. I watched him, he watch me.
Rhyfel the younger finally said, “Gwynt is dead. Ceian is dead. I hope your peace with the apes is worth it.”
When I rolled over and stood, the high guard was padding his way down from my cliff.
I upturned my head and stared uncomprehending at the starless blue sky.
I stood on a cliff and watched suns drift by. Orbited by a harsh silence, I didn’t miss the scraping footsteps drawing toward me.
I didn’t mistake the grape smell, and as Hinte stood there beside me, I might have heard for the first time the silence that wreathed her.
Then she spoke. “Do not listen to what Rhyfel said, and don’t bother mourning the dregs. Their deaths are meaningless.”
Hinte pressed a wing out of her cloak. In it was a pink phial.
“A mixture? I don’t get it.”
“Die Wundervernarbung. Enough to have healed them both. They refused. They died.”
“This town loathes alchemy. Instead of taking the cure, they prayed to their false gods, their Dwylla, to save them.” Hinte waved a wing toward the four solemn dragons below. “This is the extent of his capability.”
I could only look up.
Breaths passed, and it might’ve been profane, but I tried a last time to say, “So Hinte, about earlier, I — I am sorry. Even if you don’t want apologies, I still shouldn’t…” But Hinte wasn’t there — she’d left before I opened my mouth.
I lighted down by the six dragons, Hinte not among them. The prefect nodded at me. Digrif dashed over and hugged me.
Adwyn was stately walking behind him. “You did good work today, Kinri. Mlaen and I shall deliberate some compensation for the three of you.”
I saw Digrif smile a little, and I only frowned. “Where is Hinte?”
“I couldn’t find her. The mission is over. I glimpse she saw no reason to remain.”
I tilted. “Won’t we have to debrief again?”
“Yes. But… I must understand if you need some time to reel from the events of today. Death is…” He didn’t finish. Instead, he looked between us, and said, “And you two look as though this is your first.”
Digrif nodded slowly.
“The first I’ve seen,” I said.
The adviser turned and waved a wing. The three other dragons started walking, and like that, we were walking toward town.
“So, Kinri. I don’t imagine you’ll join me back in town hall, will you? There are mattered I’d like to discuss,” — his voice dropped — “the treasurer, the Specters, the thieves. Turning us to the same page.”
I looked up. “Well… no. I should find Hinte. See what’s up with her.”
Adwyn walked quiet for a breath cycle. “I see. Here,” — he winged a gasmask from a bag — “take this.”
“You’re giving it back?”
“I wouldn’t want to be in your debt, is all.” He nodded, and slowed his pace till he was beside Rhyfel, and began a chat.
Left with the warm-gray drake, I turned to him. “Hi. So, uh, are you coming with me?”
“I, well, don’t think I should. A dragon with three wings doesn’t fly, and it — I guess it feels like you’re closer to Hinte than me.” He tilted his wings starlessly.
I looked up. “I suppose I am, yeah.”
As my wings and the thermals took me high above the cliffs, my thoughts orbiting those words. I thought about why, remembering.
It was my very first day inside the walls of Gwymr/Frina. Everyone stared, everyone peered. Whispers and mutters stalked me.
And there were some, cloaked dragons, who stared, glared more than others.
I had known there weren’t many sky-dwellers on the surface, but I never expected this. Days stretched by, and it dug into my nerves. I was out to buy food, and the digging struck something. I’d turned down an alleyway — I just wanted to escape the stares. The alley was a dead end.
And when I glanced behind me, I wasn’t alone. Three figures all trailed behind me. I might have said they sneered if they weren’t wearing deep green cloaks that hid their faces — and under those fringed cowls, masks. I couldn’t see a scale of their bodies, and their brilles didn’t count.
I’d worn my Specter cloak that day — of course I did — and there wasn’t a pair of eyes in that alleyway on anything else.
“Specter,” one of them said. It wasn’t the one in front, but that was all I could tell.
They stepped closer, closer, closer. What were they going to do?
What could I have done? If I turned and leapt away, they could catch me. If I climbed the walls, they could catch me. If I walked past them… I wouldn’t walk past them. I trusted the stars, but I didn’t trust my body. And if there were three dragons walking up to me with that kind of curdling confidence, I wouldn’t’ve tried my body against their if my inheritance was on the stakes.
“Help?” I called out. It was so low I don’t know what use it was.
I trusted the stars, and maybe they were the only one who needed to hear me.
Just then, a fourth cloaked, hooded figured walked by the alleyway. Unlike these three, this cloak was black, woven in with sparse threads of pink and blue.
They turned and strode forward and just — passed between a break in the formation of the first three cloaked. It seemed like they were on another plane of being. The oppressive approach of the three cloaks had been a physical wall.
And they just walked through the wall.
A jagged voice came from under the hood. “Kinri,” it said.
“Who are you?” I breathed. I’d clawed for my composure, and found it too late to matter.
“My name is Hinte, granddaughter of Gronte.” Their frills folded under their cowl. “Ushra has invited you to dinner. I’m sure these dregs will not even try to bother you.” She turned so that her gaze fell over each cloaked figure. Two of them flinched, but one only made a sneering sound.
“You would dare —”
“Come on, Kinri.”
Hinte stepped forward, but turned to watch me step past the cloaks. If the stresses she’d put on the names hadn’t been obvious, the reactions gave it away. Ushra was someone who mattered, even if I’d never heard the name. And somehow, they, along with this Hinte, were on my side already.
Did they know Ashaine?
I looked at Hinte and gave her my first smile since stepping into Gwymr/Frina. I stepped after her and the cloaked dragons couldn’t touch me.
It turned out neither Ushra nor Gronte had been home, and I just ate lunch out on a tall butte with her.
It was a good memory. And, more than that, it was a debt and a justification — why I had stuck with Hinte for so long. She had been there for me, in a way no one else had.
And, cringingly, I remembered what had happened next, as we walked and then flew away. I had wanted to convince her that saving me wasn’t a mistake, that I was worth it. I had tried, tried, tried to start a conversation, to relate.
“Hi!” “How are you?” “So why do you have those pink and blue threads in your cloak?” “What brought you to the cliffs?” “Do forest-dwellers really eat other dragons?” “Um, nice weather we’re having?” “Can you speak at all?” “You have pretty eyes.” “Am I doing something wrong?”
She hadn’t responded. And now, all these cycles later, I agnized: that was the answer. I was doing silence wrong.
Forest-dwellers were so obsessed with silence. Their poetry sung of it, as frilly as the sounds, and their stories dwelt on it. I didn’t get it. Or hadn’t. I’d tried asking Hinte about it, but she just ignored the question, and I couldn’t tell if that was significant or just Hinte being Hinte.
And now, gliding down from high above the town, aiming for that same butte where it all began, I saw a familiar lantern, and a cloaked figure with her hood down. Strides away, on either side, there were two tiny trees, aflame. They burnt dwindlingly in the dusking light.
I lighted by her atop that butte, and just stared at the horizon. Oleuni tested out the horizon, and, discovering that the sky there was fine, led Enyswm down to shine above the rest of the word. Puffy clouds and distant sky cities trawled the far reaches of the sky, the light of first dusk revealing hidden natures of their forms.
Most of the butte was hers before I arrived; besides the lantern, and burning trees, two scrolls spread out around her weighed down by stones. Even then, the wind meddled with the page. (Better than still, dead air.)
A lunch lay half-eaten beside the dark-green wiver, but she had covered it when I climbed up and hadn’t touched it since, for me.
Hinte rolled up a scroll and set it down by the other two. I sat where it had been, and hung my legs from the edge of the butte with her. Her eyes cast her gaze off to the horizon, joining mine at the sunset.
We sat like that, in silence. Hinte’s breath came in half-heard draughts out of step with mine. Her grape scent lingered and overshadowed the mellow contentment dewing on her fangs.
The sky darkened asudden with the last ray of Enyswm finding its mark. I licked my eyes, letting my gaze fall from the horizon. It fell on Hinte at the same time she glanced at me, in the full dusk light. Our eyes met and stayed like that awhile.
She returned it.
My gaze fell to the ground at last, as if for so long resisting gravity. I bought my forefeet together and drew my wings over me.
Maybe this is what she wanted. To just sit and enjoy silence with a friend.
So like that we sat, and watched the light slink away under the horizon. Above, the endless stars revealed themselves, as if rousing from some great sleep.
* * *