The drake felt death breathing down his neck. He laughed.
“I cannot imagine killing me will end well for you — or accomplish your goals, for that matter,” he said, peering down at nothing. He smelt the holly.
“One day I’ll find the will, you know.”
“What has it been? Ten, fifteen gyras?” He fluttered his tongue. “I don’t glimpse you doing this out of any lingering hate.”
Something sharp slid into a sheath. “I still don’t like you.”
A smile she couldn’t see. “Understandable. But as long as you do this, I can’t help but still see the knee high little moltling who couldn’t hold a knife steady, or even pronounce ‘kill’ correctly.” Quietly, he knew she wouldn’t do it, knew she wasn’t like him. Not Mlaen’s little flower.
She said, “I’ve come a long way.”
“You have. And some things never change.”
The larger wiver moved, and the smaller drake turned round.
“Quite the day we’ve had, Cynfe.” Adwyn found his usual smirk.
The bluegreen wiver tossed her head and slinked past him, down the twisting ramp. That ramp saw one into the town hall’s interstitial lobby. One could only move forward through it: up the left corridor one followed the smell of pyrite and electrum; down the middle a ramp lead to the officialities of Mlaen’s throne room, and on the right corridor there lingered the dust from feet of all the foreign advisers. Adwyn’s too.
The high secretary started into the lobby, and the military adviser came at her heels. She still wore the scaleconcealing cloak from earlier, and he still wore his schizon armor.
Scrolls rested here on shelves. Many were clawed in foreign tongues, in foreign scripts, and some were made illegible by time; no one had noticed. Some of the rugs or banners here were woven of a curiously fine silk; no one could place it. Paintings touched all the walls, tempting the gaze of all who came down here. They all had the same name clawed in the corners; no one had complimented her.
She didn’t even glance at the paints as she high walked past; but with the frustration working through her frills, it could just be other things drawing her mind.
“A day spent cleaning up your messes,” the secretary replied at last. “I have a stack full of untranscribed reports lingering because of this moil. Every day I wonder why Sofrani bothers keep you around.”
Who else was there? Instead of saying it, the adviser overtook the secretary, aiming toward the dusty corridor, toward his office.
His orange tail waved her to follow, or dismissed her. “I haven’t drafted my report either. It’s the last remaining task, today.”
“Knowing you, there’s still some way you’ll find to mess it up.”
Adwyn popped his tongue. “I wouldn’t look past the fact that we’ve uncovered no less than three traitors because of my detour, and I alone persuaded one of them to our side. A potential alliance with those humans, three guards revealed to be ineffective, and —”
“You can stop bragging,” said the secretary, trailing beside him. “Unless you’ll also own up to the unprecedented mess you created, blocking all movement out of the market, and the three dead guards.”
“Trivialities,” he replied. “My success speaks for itself.”
Wordless, the bluegreen wiver followed him to the mouth of the dusty corridor.
“…How lucky, that you didn’t know them,” she said. “That you can call them trivialities.”
Adwyn whisked out a wing, and trailed it along the wall. “Rhyfel’s spent enough time entertaining the pink drake. There isn’t all that much to him, in the depths,” he said. “Wasn’t, rather.”
“Have you ever lost anyone, Adwyn?”
A question which merited no answer — a question he did not answer.
The wiver had her frills fluttering smugly as though he had, though.
With a tossed head he looked down the hall. Their leisurely pace would bring them to his office after another quick exchange. The orange drake glanced at the wiver.
He asked, “What is your opinion of Kinri?”
The high secretary flicked her tongue. “Who?”
“The exile, the sky-dweller.” The embarrassing puzzle of a wiver.
The tongue disappeared, but no other reaction came across her bluegreen face. “She’s useless.”
“It would seem that way, wouldn’t it?” She would like it to seem that way.
The secretary peered. “I know that look. You’re thinking the precise opposite of what you’re saying.”
“You cloud me. I mean exactly what I say. There are, perhaps, elements I have omitted.”
There was only a hisslaugh, and her saying, “Transparent.”
“Is that a bad thing? After all, they say a cliff drake should be like glass: cool and trans —”
“Cool, and transparent, and brilliant. I know the saying. I’ve lived here longer than you.”
They slipped into the corridor. The light came dimmer here, and now the murmur of phatic conversation was rearing up in their frills.
“Irregardless,” the military adviser started, “it’s an odd thing to maintain, when Kinri did matter in the resolution of today’s — incident.”
A hum. “No surprise you’d be one to appreciate spineless diplomacy. We had those apes at their throats.”
“If not for peace, appreciate that this will leave us glimpsing the face of whatever conspiracy festers in Gwymr/Frina.”
“We already have a thief captured.”
“A thief who only admits to getting orders from some blighter claiming to be the shadow of the night.” Who could trust that testimony?
“Give them time. The inquirers know how to get confessions.”
So they walked wordlessly on till Adwyn turned the doorway to the office of the Dyfnderi advisers, where a light orange wiver had another, darker orange drake up against the wall, snouts pressed together.
He turned back around, and they continued walking.
“What about Hinte?” Adwyn asked.
The secretary found a smile. “Her. She’s cute. I do wonder what’ll come of her as an adult.”
Adwyn hummed without response. He said, “She worries me. One of the suspects was found by her admission. And emotionally — she’s cryptic.”
“She’s lonely. You would be too, if your only friend was that Specter.”
“There is the halfbreed, Digrif. She seems to tolerate him.”
“Oh? Good for her.” The secretary licked her brilles and smiled a different sort of smile. She was adding, “Gyras ago, Gronte was telling me how melancholy the wiver was.” Her voice dropped to a murmur. “I didn’t have the time to spend with her, then, and… that still hasn’t changed,” she said. It had the whispered quality of a confession, and the wiver was watching the rocky floor shift as she walked.
Adwyn’s low walk gained some stiffness. At length he said, “You keep Gwymr/Frina running. Don’t think you weren’t serving her anyway.”
Cynfe threw out a foot and shoved the orange drake to the side. His wing folded against the wall. She said, “I didn’t ask for your glassblown words. I can manage myself. I’d rather.”
The adviser always walked with a baton, strapped to a foreleg. Now a wing brushed the hilt. Lingered for just a moment. Adwyn, the black ascendant, had sworn a vow of pacifism; he reminded himself. Violence wasn’t proscribed; but it was discouraged.
They continued walking like that, strides more distance between them.
This corridor didn’t end. As it wound along, it curved. By now, the pair had looped around and were walked up the other hallway.
“What was the point of dragging me along?” asked Cynfe.
You chose to follow me. He didn’t say it. He licked a brille, tongue nimbly curving around his eyepaint. He choose to say, “A nice walk and talk with a friend?”
“I recall more of your sifting for opinions than proper talk.”
He nodded some acquiescence. “Fair enough. But the pair is becoming a quantity of interest. Surely it’s worthwhile that we read each other’s pages on the matter?”
They padded back into the lobby like this. Without answering, Cynfe strode over to the mouth of the ramp downward.
There was no bridge. She simply informed him, “Mlaen-sofran is expecting you.”
He clouded his brilles, thought of the pair of Dyfnderi advisers, frowned at the unwritten report that would for now remain so, and said, “I suppose I’ll see her now.”
She let the drake follow her down the ramp to Mlaen’s officialities. Under her breath, she muttered, “I still don’t like you.”
“You fucked up, Adwyn.”
It wasn’t the throne room, but standing on her dillerskin rest, wearing those vermilliondyed robes, staring down at the orange drake with her eyes strangely intense, that seemed a detail.
The red wiver had moiled in the dim of a single lamp, and now Cynfe darted around to light a few others. The reality that was limned in full light contrasted without contradicting: the faer’s posture hung taut and rigid, as if she were wrung up; her makeup had been washed away yet an acidic smell hung around; the two lamps were shining behind her, and the swelling shadows under her eyes weren’t just the lighting.
This was the faer of Gwymr/Frina. Perhaps the one truly exceptional player on their side of the board, barring Adwyn himself. With Bariaeth being… difficult — crytic behind his beatific smile — the faer stood the last remaining beacon for reaching the mystery at the depth of this mess.
And he had disappointed her.
Adwyn watched the red wiver settle back on her dark, dillerskin rest and watched her gesture for him to sit himself on a rough pycnofiber mat laying small before her desk. “I know,” he said.
The secretary stood herself at the faer’s right side, inkwell and fernpaper in wing, her scowl turned blank and receptive. Idly she was brushing her robes.
As ever, Mlaen-sofran watched. Contemplative, analyzing, regarding, peering, looking: all of these, but there was something more, something hidden. As ever, her brilles remained clouded.
Beneath her eyes a snout extended until its sharp end, where red lipscales wavered between an almost smile and an almost frown. A wing scratched her cheek; she yawned. Then at last, she looked down.
The slab of Mlaen’s desk was just stone. Papers swarmed over its face. None ever survived the night, yet they would return like weeds. A scratchy leaf of fernpaper laid center on the desk. It was Rhyfel’s report; Adwyn could read upside down.
He found himself looking back toward her face instead, though. While her brilles still looked cloudy, he could find the outline of her pupils scanning the page. He could watch the muscles around them shift and tighten, the slow sweeps as she took in the guard’s sketches, the saccades over text, and the instants where they were still.
“You should sleep, Sofrani,” he said.
Mlaen’s voice was drenched. “There’s still work to do.” She looked back at him. The faer didn’t quite have normal expressions anymore. Every emotion that played across her features was an inflection of the tiredness that leeched at every scale.
She folded up Rhyfel’s report, pushed it off to the side, and peered. “You’re never caught unawares, Adwyn. How much did you know?”
“Little enough to be, in fact, caught unawares.” Adwyn licked an eyescale. “This morning Ushra suspected the conspiracy of another stronghold. I found it ridiculous. Yet as I thought further on it, things blent together. The behavior of the humans. The presence of Wrang and Mawla in the Berwem. Ffrom’s insistence on collecting the bodies from Hinte.”
She said, “They were hints, yes. I found suspicion in them as well.”
He waved a folded wing. “Suspicious, yes, but even the scarlet snake couldn’t wring a deduction out of that. It only piqued. So I inquired the Sgrôli ac Neidr just whether any dragon had checked out any relevant scrolls, or otherwise shone interest in humans.”
He waited for the scribe to stop scratching, and smirked. “Guess who? Wrang. Circumstantial evidence, of course. This was cycles ago.” He licked a brille. “But you did suppose the humans could have been trespassing long before now, didn’t you?”
“More than a supposition. I knew.” She’d spoken, and kept watching.
The adviser’s brilles flashed clear. He waited for an elaboration, received none, and at length continued, “…Irregardless, after that I had scried further clues. I followed Hinte and sundry as they walked toward the lake, and they mentioned a certain inquisitive drake waiting for Kinri at the library. Blend this with the thieves anticipating our plans, and the conclusion gleams: the leak occurred at the Gären estate.”
The secretary scratched all this out onto the fernpaper, but spoke up when still: “Not necessarily.”
Adwyn whisked a wing. “Nothing is necessarily. Focus on the shape of things,” he said.
“We can go over the shape of things later,” the faer said with a tonguesnap. “Right now, tell me your conclusions. I do not need to step through every breath of your reasoning.”
“I suspect the Dychwelfa ac Dwylla.”
“The Return of Dwylla.” Her inflection could have been disbelief, or something about as skeptical.
Adwyn echoed an old explanation when he spoke. “It’s religion that worships Dwylla as a god or prophet, and waits his returning some day.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I know of all that happens in my town, Ychyr.”
Adwyn flicked his tongue, held it still a moment. “It sounded like a question.”
He wondered if Mlaen’s brilles clouded deeper. “No. The name, the notion, simply… vexes me whenever I hear it. I knew Dwylla, and alighting was the best that he ever got. He never knew peace. Selfish, stupid to want him back.” She added, “— if such a thing were possible.”
A different voice spoke. “Don’t distract yourself, Sofrani.” The secretary looked at the adviser. “Adwyn, could you give any reason why these are your suspects?”
“They have enough influence, and they appeared at the Gären estate. More tellingly, Wrang, Ffrom, and Dieithr are all members.”
“And how could they spy on you? I know you didn’t allow them to sit in on your conversation with the Gärens.”
Adwyn shook his head. “Listen closely, as this next step is the most complex. Consider the librarian, Chwithach. He’s quite familiar with humans, even claiming to be friends with some. He was present at the market today. And most tellingly, the thieves tried to enter his house whilst escaping.”
“I don’t see the relevance.”
“Chwithach possess a certain magical implement that… transfers sound. Placed appropriately, they could have listened in on our conversation.”
“The most complex guesses are often the most wrong. Why couldn’t it have been any of the dragons actually present?”
“Ushra and Gronte helped point us toward suspecting the meddling of dragons. Furthermore, Ushra is your alchemist. Gronte is — was the forest hope. Kinri foiled their plans. Neither Hinte nor Digrif left —”
“So Ushra and Gronte did leave?” Punctuated by inked scratching.
A telling hum, and then the red wiver clouded her brilles and she stayed like that for several moments. “You had known the Gärens were being spied upon, then? When did you know this?”
“I had all the pieces before we entered the market. The logic clarified during our… detour.”
“And you told no one?”
“I had circumstantial evidence. Suspicions, nothing more. To bank on them would be paranoia.”
“The line between paranoia and good sense is being right. You were right, Adwyn.”
“A draft of fate. Not something you can soar on.”
“How often are you wrong?”
Adwyn licked his brilles, took a look around the office. Looking away to corner, he said, “Well, I was wrong about Kinri.”
In the corner the red wiver’s shadow tossed its head. “So you think she’s no threat?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Balanced. But you’ve shifted the discussion. Paranoid or no, the very breath things stop being full in your control you shall report back to me. I am your faer. I decide what suspicions are worth banking our plans on.”
“If you put so much trust in my suspicions, know thenxs that I suspect waiting carefully and reworking our plans instead would have ended worse for all of us.”
“Pray tell why.”
“Bariaeth insists that he has no connection with the thieves, and yet he refuses to name a group which, after my prying, seems to fit the hints.”
“You are a keen enough drake. The clues are present, and there are so few groups in town.” The red wiver scratched her right cheek with her left wing, and he knew she covered some twitch of a smile. She finally elaborated, “You guessed it without his help.”
“It’s the appearance, Sofrani. Why would Bariaeth refuse to tell me? Suspicious.”
“Why would he allow you to suspect him? He enjoys these games.”
Adwyn clouded his brilles. “He has told you, then.”
“Of course. I am his faer. I am the faer. No working of this town escapes my gaze.”
Adwyn had, in his head, practiced the flow of the day’s events. Enough that when delivering his recitation to the faer, he found his mind traveling distant the landscapes of his mind. Then, starkly, a detail he’d kept hidden shone suddenly out.
Adwyn said, “There was something too sensitive to commit to my note or to my next report.” He watched her look up, start listening again. “There is another Specter in Gwymr/Frina.” The persistent echo of ink scratching never came.
“Yes, I know.” Mlaen said, now glancing away, reaching for another paper. “Her name is Uane. Kinri’s odd sister.” Her eyes clouded even deeper. “That cloak cannot fool me.”
“Then why ignore it? Her presence violates the Severance of Earth and Sky.”
The red wiver unfolded another paper, and looked over it. “Indeed. I know you Dyfnderi are rather attached to the contract, for having drafted it — but try to look at this from a perspective instead of from impartial law.”
“That’s lustrous, coming from you.”
Mlaen yawned, and said, “Flick, no one wants or needs a war. Imagine I flew to the next mountaintop summit and said, behold, a sky-dweller spy. What could anyone gain?”
She shook her head. “At best, we could demand concessions from the sky — and pray the earth that they don’t default and force us to hostilities. Or embargoes.”
“And yet we should not just ignore it and let the problem fester. The Specter wish me dead.”
Mlaen frowned, and waved her tongue. “That shall be addressed. I cannot allow my allies killing each other.”
Adwyn sucked in a breath.
“…Allies, perhaps, is too strong a word.” She was smiling. She explained, “Highness Ashaine wants trade. He is not entirely unreasonable.”
“You don’t care at all for the Severance, do you?”
“Of course. What does it offer Gwymr/Frina? Ashaine has medusa fibers, refined ixel, the fruits of the heavens. The Severance offers nothing.”
“Are you ignorant of the Empyrean? It protects us from the sky.”
Mlaen did not look over. “The Constellation is not the old empire. It is fractured and selfobsessed. The Constellation is far too busy policing itself to impinge upon any of us.”
The orange drake muttered, “The sky is dangerous.”
“Is this a hill you intend to die on?”
“I suspect it is one you might,” he said. “I value your good graces — too highly.”
“Good. Now, onto another matter —”
Adwyn cleared his throat. Mlaen flicked her tongue.
The adviser asked, “May I ask how you saw through the Specter’s cloak? It could prove enlightening.”
Mlaen smiled, almost to herself. It could be mistaken for reacting to the paper, if it were a possible reaction. “I don’t suppose saying it was faltering here in the cliffs would satisfy you?”
“Kinri attempted the same excuse. Why would the Specter, supposedly not idiots, send an agent with a defective cloak? Why would the agent act, knowing it defective?”
“Yet it does falter.” Mlaen shook her head. “But yes, that alone did not give it away. But for how I detected her… It is not a skill you could learn.”
A pause, and the faer looked up —
The red wiver was looking dead at him, and for perhaps the first time in their knowing each other, the Mlaen cleared her brilles.
Behind them was nothing dramatic. She peered forth with sharp white eyes. They moved around her muted black sclerae with a slow inquisitiveness that couldn’t banish all impressions of the tired, sleepless faer. Even so, her gaze seemed to grow more intense as her pupils shrunk and saccades ceased with her eyes focused on him.
Until now, it had been hard not to feel some distance between the two of them. Eyes were the seat of beauty and clear thought, and yet hers were ever hidden, ever clouded.
For perhaps the first time, Adwyn truly met her gaze, and smiled because of it.
It was a second like this before Adwyn started, brow creasing in worry and fear. He did not exclaim, or shift his seating, or even break eye, but his polite glance became a stare, and his tongue waved and whirled.
Even as he looked, it was hard to be sure, but the dimness of the room gave it away.
Mlaen’s eyes were glowing softly.
Adwyn licked his brilles, nothing changed.
Her eyescalesx clouded just a bit, and the glow faded so subtly. She frowned. “Be at ease, Adwyn-ychy. There is nothing to worry about.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mlaen was looking back at the page. Breaths passed, till the paper folded and found an arc to a bin.
She asked, “Have you heard the legends of Dwylla?”
“His eyes?” — he saw her nod — “I have. If you believe the stories, his white eye could see all the evil in a dragon, and his black eye could see all of the good.”
“Yes, that. The supposed purpose of the eyes is complete fiction. Started by the drake himself, perhaps. However, there is superficial truth to it.” Now one heard silence in the room, no papers shifting or ink scratching.
Mlaen licked a tongue up to a brille. “This is the Ohmal’s white light, a gift given to acolytes of the Gerddi ac Ohmal. Seven gyras of study, then your left eye is given to the light. A dozen and two, then your right eye is given. Beyond that — I do not know. No one more advanced than a dozen and five gyras tends to remain in the Anterth temple.”
It had seemed — academic, that Gwymr/Frina’s faer was older than his mother; a trivium that she had been personally picked by such a figure of myth as the eternal faer. Adwyn took a moment, clouding and clearing his brilles, and saw the faer again. Noticed that not only insomnia, but cruel time as well had authored her hagardness.
As habit, he slid back into analysis. “So Dwylla had studied at least seven gyras in this temple, then left?”
A nod. “He asked for proselyter duty to escape Anterth, and some cycles later abandoned the faith in whole.” Her lips smiled. “Ushra tells me he is responsible for that.”
The orange drake clicked his tongue, then said, “If only his left eye was a gift from the temple, why was his right eye black?”
“I do not know. I’d like to say it was natural, yet Bariaeth does not have them, and they kept the resemblance so strong in other regards — he even has his damned smile.” She tossed her head. “Regardless, the true purpose of the white light is to see — energy. Magic.”
He curled his claws into the pycnofiber mat. “Truly?”
“I gain nothing from lying.”
“I am… disturbed that I, that we, have never heard of such an ability.”
“The Gerddi is secretive. The temples are like universities. Admission is — harrowing, tuition is immense, and becoming an acolyte is all of these things again.”
“And yet, I still question why no one has glimpsed to sell this white light. It would be above profitable.”
“It is proscribed.” Mlaen said, finding another page of inked parchment.
“Forgive me if I don’t accept that stopping everyone.”
“Questioning the Gerddi is unheard of, defecting from it doubly so.”
“So it is a cult.”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“Then how did you escape? How did Dwylla escape?”
Mlaen leaned back, at last looking up to him. “I hadn’t even known of Dwylla until he came to me all those gyras ago. He is not in any of the records, and to the extent anyone in Anterth/Gwirion would deign to speak of Gwymr/Frina back then, he was known only as the eternal faer.”
“And for myself,” she continued, “it was returning to Gwymr/Frina. I have thought so much clearer since returning to my home. It’s — strange.”
Adwyn felt like an explorer in some guarded ruin, privy to legendary treasures. He dared tread further. “Forgive my asking,” started the drake, “but why did Dwylla come to you in particular?”
She glanced at him again. “To offer me the title of faer when he died. I accepted, and he — alighted just cycles later.” She returned to the page, read a little more, and folded and binned it.
“Again forgive me, but why… did he pick you?” he asked, and quickly added, “I’m curious.” Mlaen had reigned wreathed in mystery — a puzzle proscribed to solve.
The red wiver looked distant. “Anterth is a lot like Gwymr. The rich, the powerful, the educated, are so much more often cliff-dwellers than plain-dwellers. Dwylla had wanted to erase that line. Hence, a successor of mixed ancestry, who also hailed from Gwymr/Frina and studied in the same school he had. Not rare things, but altogether they perhaps made me unique.”
Adwyn nodded, slotting the piece into his jagged, half-unfinished picture of Gwymr/Frina and sundry.
“A last question: do you think — could there be some connection between this Gerddi ac Ohmal and this Aurisiuf legend?”
“No.” Her brow furrowed. “Where are you coming from?”
“It was just a reflection. It could explain why no dragon has sold the white light, nor even visibly broke with the cult. The so called Aurisiuf of the night could in reality have been a kind of enforcer or assassin to keep their secrets, and then superstition and legend ran wild. He’s said to have hunted Dwylla for years, and perhaps the noises about his returning — he has returned for your life.”
“One problem with that, I glimpse.” The wiver was smiling (smirking?) as she said it. “Dwylla reigned for nearly two dozen dozen gyras, and he died naturally in his sleep. I have been here for nearly seven dozen, and no shadowy assassins. Only disgruntled plain-dwellers.” She smiled an impervious smile.
Adwyn only frowned.
Mlaen, meanwhile, once more clouded her eyes fully. “And speaking of which, there’s another problem with selling the white light: it is not without its taxes. I cloud my eyes to hide my gift, yes, but it also reduces the strain on my body. Even still, it folds my lifespan. I would have alighted in about half these gyras had Ushra not been there.”
Adwyn thought of the ancient alchemist, and his wife. “I can see it.”
Time passed enough for another page to be binned. Then she said, “Now that we’ve culleted that tangent, shall we speak of more important topics? The apes, say.” Mlaen snaked her head forward. “You tell me that we’ve negotiated with them? That they’re allies now?”
“Temporarily. We only need them to catch the thieves —”
“The smugglers. They’re the ones with whom the humans have dealt.”
“Are you denying that there’s a connection? It’s a matter of simplicity. Who else would want the humans?”
The brownish red wiver was smiling at him. “Tell me Adwyn, what could someone want with a human?”
“Humans are magical creatures. Their organs could serve any number of purposes. Humans are prey. Their flesh is a delicacy in most countries. And, if nothing else, stealing the bodies interrupts our plans.”
Her smile had only grown larger. “Adwyn,” she started, “tell me, do you recall anything — odd, about the events in the east market?”
Adwyn knew condescension. “What are you saying?”
“Whatever the thieves want, I believe they have it. They let us recover the bodies we did. Staying in the market? The chase? The burning building? It was a game. A show. If they truly wanted to escape the market unknown, it wouldn’t be hard.”
The red wiver stopped, cleared her throat. “Or rather, they would have tried something different. Regarless it wouldn’t have worked.” For an instant her brilles uncleared. “After all, no working of this town escapes my gaze.”
Adwyn tossed his head, and just agreed, “We only need them to catch the smugglers.”
“After that, we can disregard them.”
A nod. But, “The Specter — Kinri won’t like that.”
“Let her,” Mlaen said, not looking from the page. “She’s not important. She doesn’t factor into our decision making.”
“I wouldn’t ignore her wholly. She saved Hinte. She made truce with the humans.” He paused. “She deserves some reward, say.”
“I’ll consider it.” The words came slow; Adwyn could feel the attention pouring onto the page. “But I will not consider her feelings when doing what is the best for this town.”
Adwyn leaned back. He glanced away. He said, “She’s more like her than you think.”
Mlaen paused for a moment. “Perhaps she is. I am not in the habit of rescuing every listless fledgling that astrays before me.”
“Only the first one, two, three times, I see.”
“Only the first time. Bariaeth was unavoidable. Ceian (peace be upon him) was… more Rhyfel’s choice than mine.”
Adwyn nodded. “As you say,” he said. “But is there anything else you wanted to discuss?”
Her eyes were clouding deeply again. She nodded slowly to herself. “You fucked up Adwyn.” A smile.
“You need to sleep, Mlaen. You’re repeating yourself.” He would smile in return, but he saved the dewing in his reserve of good humor.
“I can sleep with an empty desk.”
“Seems as though I was keeping you from that.”
At length, she replied, “I can’t sleep with matters undiscussed, either.”
Adwyn glanced around the room. “Why with me? Why only me?”
A startling scrape from behind him. The forgotten high secretary, by an now unlit lamp, glanced pointed at him, lips curling as he flinched slightly.
And the faer was speaking: “You’ve become my — third most trusted dragon. I’d like to temper my thoughts on you. Despite your fuckups, you can think.”
“I appreciate the measured compliment.”
Adwyn felt the lulling cadence of the conversation, and in his mind an abstract gaze unclouded, pointed at the future, at the pathless mystery thrust so suddenly into his awareness. To call the thieves, the smugglers, the humans and all a puzzle might betray to some an ignorance of scale; but Adwyn left no puzzle unresolved, whether it took days, cycles, or dances. And as it stood, it could not take longer than negotiating the sleeping faer into an canyon alliance.
But either goal remained pathless, and Adwyn clouded those abstract eyes. His tail wriggled a bit behind him, and he found claws slipping into the weave of the pycnofiber mat. It was vexing, to have a goal and yet be unable to pursue it.
Adwyn lighted his eyes on the red wiver, the last remaining beacon. He snaked his head closer. “Everything said, what has changed on a practical level? Do I have any new orders?” He smiled. “I suppose my mission to the Ulfame is off.”
“There’s nothing solid to suggest. Melt down exactly who the leak from your side to the thieves was. Investigate this talk of Aurisiuf. Keep an eye on Rhyfel,” she said. “I want this matter balanced as soon as possible. Settled at the head, if possible.”
She flicked a dismissive wing. “Oh, and be nicer to your assistants. A complaint has been filed.”
When Adwyn high walked back down the corridor, he curled his wings besides him. Frills pressed against his neck, and his tongue was sifting for something out of place.
He could smell the perfume that wafted around the male adviser, some tempting hot smell that could do with a more handsome harbinger. The female adviser had some noisome old eyepaint whose purple smell clung. It didn’t seem to have gone anywhere.
He smelt wet ink, as well.
Adwyn relaxed, his wings uncurled. Standing before the doorway, he breathed and stepped in.
There were three desks arranged like a triangle in the room. The male and female adviser had desks beside each other, and closest to the door sat Adwyn’s.
Both gazes darted to him as he came in and lay on his mat. But Adwyn didn’t look at them; instead, he peered breathing into his sister’s fire clay vase. The motions of meditation came easy; he was comfortable upon his rest of feathered cotton and obsidian, and soon, with a fountain pen and parchment, he began drafting a report.
“Sorry about earlier, Sofrani.”
Adwyn glanced at the male assistant, the other Dyfnderi adviser — who didn’t advise. He had a long snout and horns like spirals. Lips that were surely soft, and dark orange scales that almost shined. That slender neck led to a pleasantly muscled breast; Adwyn wouldn’t’ve thought he worked enough to gain one. Glance back up. The assistant’s wateryblue eyes would smile when he did smile, but right now he didn’t.
The male assistant had a simper cringe inflecting his face; and unlike with some, it was not tempered by being an act or mask. Frills squirmed and forefeet groped each other. His mouth opened to pile on more words —
Adwyn snapped a wing out. “Don’t apologize. I had a meeting with the faer. You interrupted nothing.”
“Finish your report.” Adwyn pressed his pen to the page, filled in the literal formalities.
Across the room, the female adviser scowled the distance. He didn’t need to see this, imagination and experience was enough.
His frills twisted as the male’s chair scuffed slowly around, and afterward ink softly splashed. It was breaths before Adwyn heard sleeves brushing pages from both desks, and the room was quietly working.
Silently, Adwyn sighed.
Dead weight. The scrawny pair of neophytes only succeeded in sloughing paperwork from his scales.
Assistants, or minders. Wholly unnecessary additions whom capitol had insisted attend Adwyn, the black ascendant. What horror might he inflict unsupervised! (As if his motive hadn’t already been grounded, as if there were anything to be gained this far from the throne.)
Did it ever gleam to the assistants that Mlaen apparently trusted he alone among them? Did their uselessness weigh on them as it weighed on him?
He heard a throat clear, and when she spoke, a tasteful lilt inflected her tone.
“So, Sofrani,” the female adviser started, “how went your inveiglement of Kinri?”
Adwyn stalled his clawing, and considered a trice the reflection on the vase, the wiver. She had simple gray eyes, and around them colorful eyepaint. Rough almost chitinous lipscales that suited her frown. Robes that hung on her wings instead of her back, like elytra. Orange scales darkened down her legs to near black, and she had a certain manner of hum high like a buzz.
The female stood taller, but he still saw her as some manner of eyeless scuttling bug. Beneath him.
The female assistant’s motivation always gleamed dim, dull. Advancement or status, mayhaps. But what source lit this question? Flattery, entertainment? Boredom, bright curiosity? A scheme? Yet she lacked the opportunity or desire to scheme anything relevant.
And irregardless, the assistants did have one other use, Adwyn emended: to act as a sort of sponge for his thoughts, to soak and retain.
“Strangely,” he answered. “The wiver is almost sympathetic, when she doesn’t want to kill you. And an admirable restraining influence on the alchemist’s daughter.” He licked a brille. “Most importantly she has, occluded somewhere, enough of a mind between her frills. It would be convenient if she didn’t turn out to be the traitor at the depth of all this.”
“How does she blend into your plans?” she asked.
Brilles cleared, and Adwyn’s head whirled around. His lips twitched; transparency was a virtue, yes, but among his minders it was an instinct. Dull of him to forget, but understandable: the responsibility so rarely flickered across their behavior.
“Minimally. The faer has some measure of interest in the wiver, as does the alchemist’s daughter. She may prove a valuable ally in the future.”
A pause, before some smile spread its buzzing wings. “You mentioned that she could kill.” It was so blandly dropped into the quiet, like some unimplicating observation.
Adwyn turned, the smooth balls of his rest gliding quietly on the floor. He look at the female, who’d already turned around, foreleg sliding her pen across the page.
When he had her gaze, he said, “No. She wanted to, but she’s simply too gentle and weak.”
That buzzing hum, that mantis-like smile. “One wonders what you have planned for her.”
The same thing I always have planned. The same thing you should have planned, but subtler than you can manage.
Wordlessly, the military adviser sighed, and whirled his rest back around.
Forever their suspicion clouded him, and forever his gutted reputation as the black ascendent grounded him. One would think, in their perspective, Adwyn couldn’t sip a glass of water but malignly, and could but menace as he whistled on his morning stroll. Every tryst a conspiracy, every joke a codeword.
The orange drake breathed, clouded the brilles of his soul. He would stand calm. There was no need for anger, nothing it could accomplish. He returned to his report.
Adwyn’s focus swiftly departed the report. He knew it would resolve nothing save Mlaen’s inveterate itch to have every last draught of air or tongueflick of her guards be documented and archived.
(The adviser had neat clawings, but some did not, and knowing the high secretary would check and transcribe every report, this was one of the few times some species of pity for the wiver gleamed in Adwyn.)
What the adviser wanted was another recognized accomplishment under his name, another unsightly criminal off the streets of Gwymr/Frina.
He wanted Wrang of Llosgi Hoddi.
Adwyn knew that blighter lay at the depth of it all. Leader of that Dychwelfa cult (sanctioned in three locations, while Gwymr had no church of Dyfns), liaison with the apes, and no doubt the one who’d sown chaos in Rhyfel-ann’s guard.
All he needed was the evidence, and they could make the arrest.
Wrang lived in the west end, in the new Llosgi Hoddi estate. In order to rise early with the first sun for his inscrutable strolls, the plain-dweller would be sleeping right now.
It would be half a ring or less; the black ascendant could fly west, enter the estate, and the problem could be — severed at the head.
Adwyn had taken a vow of pacifism.
Still, if he entered the estate without his engraved, elegantly curved aluminum blade (which still sharp in its dillerskin sheath at the depth of his travel chest) then Adwyn could talk to Wrang, and with words weaved, or rendered, or advanced with turn by turn deliberation, he could talk out a confession.
Without witness for it, when any slip up of Wrang would surely to be denied once brought in front of the faer.
No; for now, Adwyn would leave him to his slumber.
Gyras ago, Mlaen had known that some scarred, tailless plain-dweller, one Brigg of Aludu Dymestl, had stood hidden atop the empire of drugs that had rooted in the cliffs. Fruitless dances had flown by, and the problem had festered.
In the end, she never pinned evidence on Brigg. No, the inquirers had, and they acquired his confession.
The inquirers. They were… an option.
But how did one summon an inquirer? On occasion one saw them drift through the town hall, on very bad days one saw them menacing through the streets and whenever one visited Wydrllos there was one in action.
Adwyn presumed they answered to Mlaen. He ought to trust her to deploy them. But if he were the prime mover, the one alone who saved Gwymr/Frina, it could look quite bright under his name.
He could repair his reputation, little by little.
But first, he had to summon an inquirer.
There was no sound of footsteps padding up, no swish of robes, no huff of cyclic breath. And not even that ghostly nerval hum which haunted living things.
No, first Adwyn felt something was wrong, like lady death breathing down his neck. But his time was not now; if it were, it would already have been too late.
The balls of Adwyn’s rest slid quietly across the smooth floor. Now, though, the tiny scuffing squeak came like the scream of some fated prey.
Behind him stood a dragon. Gray nets hanging just out of the sleeves. Black robes resting still, stabs of red stalking up in very straight lines. A dark, dark snout extending from the cowl. Fangs dry of even saliva.
A voice like transpicuous glass, high and carrying, “Adwyn of Dyfns.”
The adviser dipped into his reserve of good humor. “So severe,” he said with a hisslaugh. “I glimpse that inquiry is dark work, but Dyfns’s breath, have a drop of sweetness. Are you this dour in the bedroom?” It was easy, to joke, to stoke the giddy flames in his soul. An inquirer. Was this luck? Dyfn’s plan? Had he caused this?
Across the room, the male assistant’s brilles had gone pale and bloodless, and there was venom spicing the air. Cowards. They were not the ones who should fear inquirers.
Like instinct, Adwyn glanced back. The snout had smiled. One smelt the drops of sweetness he’d asked for; and only one fang was bedewed.
That clear voice said, “Rhyfel-sofran sends a message.”
A foreleg was held out and the sleeves slid to reveal fernpaper tied close with a string of moss.
“What business merits an inquirer, yet isn’t committed to parchment?”
“Rhyfel required that none but your eyes see this note.”
Adwyn glanced at the male adviser, the female and back. He opened his mouth. He closed it. The note changed feet, and was unrolled. He read it with a glance.
> meet me at the river. big bridge
“Is this a joke?” He looked up.
The inquirer had soundlessly left.
No answers there. He looked back to the note.
Adwyn could refuse. He could finish the report that’d been interrupted enough. It wasn’t official business; the inquirers only took orders, and Adwyn answered to Mlaen alone. It was at best the request of a — friend. Adwyn could refuse, and get work done.
He wouldn’t, but he could.
Adwyn sighed and stood up. He thought quickly; meanwhile the assistants were still reacting to the inquirer.
The female was taking a long withheld breath. The male was licking fangs and glanced around. Their brilles grew very dark, as blood finally returned to them.
“Wow,” the male started, still looking where the inquirer had been. “Why can’t the Black Fang be that good?”
The female guard snapped her tongue. “Because we employ dragons, not unfeeling husks.”
“That sweetness smelt real,” said Adwyn with a smirk.
“I’ve never been fooled by a bdelli plant,” he said. “They call them wyvern traps.”
“It’s almost as though the term has come to mean something more.”
“What did the note say?”
Adwyn closed his mouth, and glanced at the male assistant and she did too. The sudden words had tripped them, and meaning came after the fall.
“Rhyfel wants to meet me.”
“Smells like we aren’t finishing this report tonight,” said the female.
Adwyn affixed her with a look that once could have plotted murder. Now, it whined like a defanged snake.
“I glimpse this will be important and confidential.”
“And the Dyfnderi put forth a united front,” the female said. She stood up and she rose taller than Adwyn on his rest.
“Many eyes see clearer,” added the male with a nod.
Adwyn stepped to the door alone. “Were this a matter for Dyfnderi, Rhyfel the younger could raise it through the official channels.” Adwyn paused at the threshold. “Why, it may not even be political, but personal.”
“What personal business would the high guard have with you?”
Adwyn left the room.
He moved like a draft down the hall, and reached the ramp hearing slight padding behind him. Voices were calling.
He pressed out the big doors in a run, and he leapt from the top of the town hall. Dark against a dark sky, he trusted the stealth. There were — permanent ways of dealing with nuisances like them, but he had sworn a vow.
The assistants stepped through doors, and leapt after his scent. They winged in his direction.
Once he banked and turned, though, they were starless.
The eastern side of town, withered or blighted, slouched beside the Berwem. The northern side grew wild and overlarge, and the west was vibrant and green, yet fruitless.
Here in the center, though, there fell a sort of stiffness or trimmedness. Guards patrolled the roofs on turtles, and Adwyn watched as the carried lamps traced a sort of mortal starfield to match the sky’s offering. It had more seeking stars, though.
Adwyn spent a glance up at the stars, and watched the true seeking stars, the meteors, as they slithered across the sky. One had grown very big and bright, and moved quickly earthward. Perhaps it would strike true.
Below, buildings blended and blurred as he flew on. Toward the big bridge. A thick, redundant construct, which felt the strides of the caterpillar cows who every day hauled in the sifts. The bridge split the slouching east side from the glass shops of the business district.
Sifters or glassworkers were alike in how little a difference the job made to them. So many prodding, breathless posters asking for more sifters, more blowers. To lift Gwymr/Frina out of the shadows, to polish it to a shine. The caterpillar cows came from far off in the plains, the glazeward from an obscure forest serum, the glassworking equipment (some of it) from Pteryxian design, of all things. Gwymr/Frina was reaching high and far, for — something. Adwyn wondered what, and why. He knew the literal answer; he did not know the meaning of it.
Adwyn had overshot the big bridge. But staring down at the ground, he caught a familiar glint of gemstones sown into a gaudy cloak.
Beside the sky-dweller slinked another dragon without anything so identifying. When they passed a lamp one also glimpsed the silhouette of a fluttering thing. The party aimed deeper into the east side.
Before the orange drake lighted down they had all disappeared into the night.
Meanwhile, another figure had emerged from the shadows on the east side, with that swinging confident step and that glowing smell like something overripe.
Were that all he saw, Adwyn might’ve lighted down right behind him as a surprise. When he looked back at the big bridge, though, he saw, coming toward the bridge, a figure measuring forth with all the severity of a Black Fang, and all the precision of an eternity clock.
He would have been worried if that wasn’t all it took to identify the figure.
Adwyn stole to the ground on the east side, behind a building which eagerly perched by the river. If a road didn’t wind right between them, one would think it would fall in. Almost like it didn’t want to be on the east side.
Adwyn didn’t either, and it only took these few thoughts before he had sight of the big bridge again, around a corner of that eager storefront, which let him peek unseen. He breathed deeper the farther he got from the filth.
Rightly, you’d guess that the figure’s precise strides overtook the sauntering of the Rhyfel the younger. They met on the near end of the bridge. The figure stopped still, his cloak swinging and flapping around him. One could see he wore something black beneath the cloak. He merely regarded the high guard, his expression for himself and whoever could parse the cowl’s shadows.
Rhyfel-ann waved slightly, the sort of wave given so many times the gesture resided half in memory. He still wore the schizon armor he’d had on the mission.
Here was the high guard and the last, closest friend of his traitor father; the heretic alchemist, the green devil. The forest-dweller who survived the Inquiry.
What matter would concern the two of them? What would they discuss in private? Adwyn knew eavesdropping.
Rhyfel-ann spoke first; a lesser drake would have trouble hearing a conversation across the street. Adwyn the black ascendant did not.
“You.” The high guard spoke the word like a curse.
“Do not act surprised, Rhyfel the younger. You invited me here.”
“It’s a greeting, Ushra-ychy.” The scarlet drake waved again, more dismissive. “At least you’ve completed the transmutation into a crotchety old drake. Was that one of your ambitions?”
“Do not waste my time, old friend. I have the most fruitful study of experimental olm blood mixtures to which I shall return.”
“Sounds mighty captivating.” Adwyn couldn’t hear him laugh, but knew he did.
The scarlet drake snaked his head around, looking over the street and the bridge. “Funny how just mentioning the pits is enough to lure you out of that estate. Should’ve thought of that all those evenings I was drinking alone.”
Ushra glanced behind him, waited, and asked, “Could you please tell me what you meant by the seal is loosening?”
“I will, we’re just waiting for the adviser. I invited him.” Rhyfel-ann looked down the big bridge again. “You ought to have met him this morning,” he added.
Ushra flicked his tongue, and moved his head; he glanced at the corner of the eager storefront.
Adwyn had slipped back when the gaze moved this way, but it nonetheless set his frills still, and his eyescales didn’t cloud for many breaths.
The legendary alchemist was speaking, “I did. He was tolerable, for one of Mlaen’s idiots.” His tone shifted lightly. “Somehow, I did not get the impression he is one to be late.”
That deep, calming growl of a voice: “Not at all, at all. I know he’s always complaining about his assistants crawling down his neck, they’re probably giving him trouble.”
Adwyn dared peek again, to see Rhyfel-ann doing another look around. “While he isn’t here, though, I could ask you something. Have you found out why, yet? It’s been dozens — no, hundreds of gyras. You’ve stopped sending me updates.”
Adwyn held his breath. Hundreds?
“I told you, you will be the first to know when I do. It is magic. Esoteric Pteryxian biological magic no living dragon has seen before. Short of returning to the pits again, we may never puzzle out why.” The alchemist flicked his tongue. “And yet, you say the seal is loosening. Pray tell what that means.”
Rhyfel-ann said, “We need those answers now. My strength is tied and Gwymr/Frina is in danger. I have to be there to protect it.”
“Whatever weakened you down there has been waning ever since Dwylla alighted. There have even been stabs of stillness — there was one earlier today, in fact. Did you feel that?”
“Of course I felt it. But it’s too — tempermental, too fluctuant. It’s worse than the weather. I need something I can depend on. Sure, it feels like it’s on the wane now, but who knows how long that’ll last?”
“Until I uncover its last mysteries, I can do nothing for you. You know this. I shouldn’t have to tell you again.”
“Ground me for thinking something might’ve changed these last few gyras.” Rhyfel-ann stepped back.
Beneath his cowl Ushra folded his frills. “My Enkelin occupies my time these days,” he said. “And unlike you — unlike most, I cannot pawn her off to compeers to free my time.”
The admission lured the high guard’s gaze back toward the alchemist. “Hinte. You know, last thing Ceian-ychy (rest his heart) was up to was itching for her.” Then he sighed. “I can almost forgive her for fighting my guards. You should have seen her when the thieves tried to burn a building down on us. I didn’t know fire could rot.”
Ushra was nodding. “She — worries me, sometimes. When I heard about that incident this morning, I was split. On one fork I could not dream any of that violence from the little fledgling, who would try to pick me fruits before they ripened. On the other it sounded just like the sort of strange turn her character has begun taking.”
The angle was just right to see Rhyfel’s fanged grin. “So that talk of experiments was dillershit, wasn’t it? Thought she wouldn’t be working down in Wydrllos just yet. Knew she wouldn’t end up like you.”
“I wonder like whom she will end up. She is — changing. She asked me for dragonfire, last night.”
“Dragonfire.” He smiled the syllables. “What fledgling doesn’t want to spit flames? I say give it to her. Maybe temper it till she quits picking fights, say.”
“Even were I to forget the dangerous, tongueless residua that dragonfire indisputably is, I don’t know what she intends to do with it. She’s changing, Rhyfel.”
A chuff of a laugh. “Of course she is. This isn’t your first hatch — couldn’t be. Why’re you acting like you don’t know what a rowdy fledgling is like?”
His voice wasn’t a murmur, but close: “Gronte had the first dozen hatches minded by servants. By the time Haune hatched, I had long left for the cliffs, keeping you in line, and trying to make a free thinker out of Dwylla.”
“Heh. Well, now you get to taste what it’s like having an egg grow up.”
“It is not just growing up. She knows things, brews mixtures that I know and have not taught her. Mixtures I do not know. Someone is teaching her, and I can think of a single dragon in the cliffs who knows more alchemy than I do.”
Rhyfel said, “Your teacher.” He stood a little straighter. “It’s true, then. He’s really back. I thought it was a bad joke.”
“I don’t think he ever left. He always had a way of hiding from every caution and sloughing even the most perfect death.” Ushra flicked his tongue. “Everything he does is measured. Ten gyras with him and I never learnt anything that could threaten him. As if he knew I wouldn’t side with him in the end.”
“Could that be why he wants your granddaughter? You were a touring professor when he found you. Your granddaughter is hardly even a wiver. Starting young.”
“Works well for the guard, doesn’t it?” Ushra shook his head. “That is his plan, it’s clear to see. But I’ll allow her. My Enkelin is stronger, cleverer than she seems. And if he trusts her more than he did I, the learning opportunity is immense.”
“Hope that doesn’t bite you latter.”
“I can handle it,” Ushra said. “Now, pray tell just what loosening the seal means, Rhyfel.”
“I ought not to tell you at all. Would it ground you to wait for my friend?” Friend?
“He’s already here.” Ushra looked over, and this time Adwyn didn’t hide. They met eyes.
Adwyn was high walking onto the road before Rhyfel followed Ushra’s gaze.
“Adwyn!” was his greeting. “You get enough trouble from those assistant?”
“Until I get back, only Dyfns can know. I slipped away. If they have any sense — they don’t — they’d stop looking for me.” He shook his head. “Good to see you, Rhyfel-ann.”
Rhyfel gave a laugh and grin. “Hopefully I’ll get two words out before they drag you away.”
Adwyn nodded and looked from the high guard. “Greetings, Ushra.”
The drake gave a slight courtesy, something hard and oily cracking on his schizon apron. Adwyn knew under the cloak and cowl was a drake time had been almost kind to. High cheekbones, a thin long snout. Sharp intelligent eyes. Lean but not muscled. He had the look of a scholar; not elegant, not grounded, but something like and unlike both. Far, far too old for Adwyn, though.
The legendary alchemist said to Rhyfel, “He’s shown himself. Let us get on with it, shall we?”
“After I get him up to height.” To Adwyn, he said, “You know the legends about the fires?”
Adwyn arched a frill, but shook his head. Before other drake continued, he asked, “What’s with this secret tryst? It sounds relevant to Mlaen-sofran.”
“Ah, that. There ain’t a whole lot of dragons I trust. Mlaen’s not with them. Too much squirreling around.”
“What do you need to trust us for?”
“You know the legends about the fires?”
“The demon? Or the monsters? Or the prison?”
Rhyfel tossed his head. “They’re all true fact. The demon’s sleeping. Those monsters are — were — the demon’s spawn. Down in the pits he’s sealed up tight, and that prison is sitting guard right over it.” Rhyfel spoke plainly and quickly, but gave Adwyn tongueful of questions.
He started with, “Sealed? With what?”
“Chwithach tells me it’s Ulfame demon-hunter magic. Ushra here tells me it it’s ancient Pteryxian tech. I don’t very much care.”
“Because you are not the only one who could repair it.”
“Either way,” the handsome scarlet drake started, looking back to Adwyn, “it’s something you can feel — I can feel — loosening up. And that’s just what I felt stepping near the fires.”
Adwyn asked, “Just what are you feeling?”
“Don’t worry over it.” The reply was snapped like a defense. Rhyfel followed with, “Call it a gift from the old Rhyfel.”
Adwyn gnawed on his answer for a breath. If he wouldn’t tell him…
He eventually let out, “If you’re being dim with the details, just what are you gathering us here for?”
He grinned, and shakiness limned it honest. “Timing is everything. The theft and the loosening happen in the same evening? It’s not chance, it’s design.”
Rhyfel spread his wings, pointed at both drakes. “I want us all in the same skein, and working together. Way I see it, Adwyn here can riddle out who the thieves are, what they’re about. Ushra can reason out how to ground the demon. I do everything in between.”
Ushra straightened his stance. “You forget to mention what our rewards would be.”
“To save Gwymr/Frina? To have done good? To win?” Rhyfel watched the alchemist not react. “What’s happened to you, old friend?”
Ushra tilted his frills, eyes clouded, a reply fermenting.
But Rhyfel said, “Don’t you hope to finally be free, Ushra?”
“I do not hope.”
“Then how about this: you help out, and I tell you just what Gronte was up to while you were out touring the plains.” Rhyfel had a certain high tone of voice that had Adwyn tightening his tail and digging into the gravel. He was grinning quite savagely.
“…Adequate,” was all the alchemist said, face still thoughtful under the cowl. “Silent nights, Rhyfel the younger. Adwyn.” He took now to be time to turn and measure his way back in the starry black of the night, farewells coming after him.
Moments like now, together with that scarlet drake under the bright skirmboard sky, whether upon the rooftops or streets, had always seemed to limn life with some private chroma. He had not reflected on it, yet all the same these instants had always felt quietly significant to him, as of some visual seed that a painter would grow into a piece to be remembered for a long time. Adwyn sighed.
Now he looked at that drake, with his faltering grin, as though through an obscure scrim. The moment was pale. Adwyn felt nothing.
“I’m sorry,” said Rhyfel, and it had the smell of those ambiguous responses he tended to at the oddest moments.
Adwyn asked, “Why did you come back from Dyfnder?”
Rhyfel never looked tired. But around the adviser, that showy grin was taken off — little details like that had kept Adwyn’s hope tucked away, instead of grounded. For worse or for better.
Even with a natural smile, his frills perked and attentive, and his legs slipping from a low stand to a high one, Rhyfel looked suddenly ancient, as if the wind had blown dust onto him, not off him. A cruel, helpful wind.
The first time Adwyn had seen this was the first time his hope truly faltered, but a small detail shouldn’t impinge upon a chimerical hope. This time when the adviser saw it, though, it was his trust that faltered.
“Cancel that question. When did you go to Dyfnder?”
For all that the scarlet drake looked ancient, it didn’t imply a lack of strength. Rather than a wearied old pillar or a crumbling monument, his age limned his features like a mountain that only grows taller and stronger.
At that particular question, with that particular emphasis, you could imagine an avalanche rolling down the mountain.
“You’ve riddled it out, then.”
“I’m not dim, Rhyfel.” He wasn’t, and neither was Rhyfel. Deception, riddling, was all a waste of time. Adwyn could at least trust Rhyfel to be straightforward. “Tell me: I no longer trust you; should Mlaen-sofran?”
Rhyfel paused, and Adwyn felt his fangs grow cold. But he did respond. “Yes. But I owe Mlaen something great, and she’s got something Dwylla lost. That’s why I came back, and why I’ll stay. Gwymr/Frina isn’t home, but it’s what I care about.”
Adwyn had a complex look on his face. “And yet, we cannot trust you?”
“No. Not me and not Ushra. We want to help and we will.”
Adwyn heard him trailing. “But?”
The high guard clouded his brilles, and his tongue wavered. “Deep, deep down in the pits, there’s a supposedly sealed door. You can find it by going the other way whenever any one way seems right. If it feels like you shouldn’t be there, keep going. After it feel like you right died, you’re close. If you go deep like that, you’ll find the sealed door.”
The high guard looked up high, brilles still clouded. “As long as that door stays all the way sealed, you can trust us.”
“It’s not like you to be this vague. What’s down there?”
“Deepest apologies, Adwyn, but I’ve already given you enough oil to light the town. Does the name Aurisiuf mean anything to you?”
Adwyn smirked at the legend. The drake’s tone should have tripped that up, but the adviser wasn’t scared of legends. “Not much.”
The scarlet drake shook his head. “If he were out of the picture, I could tell you what’s going on. But he’s the reason for the whole mess starting so long ago. And information always has a way of reaching him.”
Eyeless phobia. All of this blurry riddling, for what? Fear to catch the gaze of a moltling’s nightmare?
“I can’t hide this from Mlaen, you know that.”
“I thought so. You’re a good, loyal drake when it comes down to it.” The high guard muttered something, only caught for how stained were the orange drake’s frills. Something like, if only that were all it took.
Adwyn had puzzled out what he needed to puzzle out, and he would do his duty for the town. Now, perhaps, he could act for himself. Sate something kept occulted for very long.
“How old are you, Rhyfel?” Adwyn licked his fangs.
The scarlet drake revealed a grin. A real grin. “Three hundred ninety and four gyras young. I’m not really Rhyfel the younger — wouldn’t ever name a hatch after me. Don’t tell, though.”
Adwyn let out a sigh and wished he hadn’t; he felt empty now. “It wasn’t just Dwylla, then? Is it alchemy?” Adwyn stared as the drake shook his head. “Can’t tell?” Again. “Why not?”
“Even Gronte? I don’t recall her being in your little group.”
“Gronte is all alchemy, yeah. Ushra’s a mixed case. S’ppose I am too, now that we’re speaking friends again. But I reason they’d both be here with alchemy alone. Well, maybe me too. Ushra’s good like that.”
“I can’t recall alchemists — even forest alchemists living to almost four hundred, though. It’d be something to boast about.”
The scarlet drake’s grin was near savage, though the adviser felt a pang calling it that. “Ushra hasn’t been the forests’ golden egg since before Dwylla bought the Berwem outpost. He knows plenty they’re still slobbing over.”
“Then who taught him?”
Adwyn sat and his thoughts played out in twitches of his frills. Another dimension of Gwymr/Frina’s history had opened up, with as many answers as questions. But there was one mystery at the core of it all.
“Gronte, Ushra, you,” — his frills twitched and he seemed to glean from the drake’s word choice — “Aurisiuf. They’ve all be around since before the beginning, haven’t they?”
“And Dwylla, there was no reason he couldn’t have lived as long as you all, is there?”
The scarlet drake grimaced, but said, “He was in the same boat as us.”
“Then if it wasn’t old age that grounded him, despite what the histories say, what killed him?”
Adwyn left the scarlet drake without saying goodbye, fearing it would sound final.
The schizon-clad adviser didn’t leap off and fly to the town hall. He walked the streets westward, past the eager perching building, taking in the dim, lamp-lit sights and letting his thought reflect and refract inside his skull. Walking was easy, tireless, and it seemed the freedom and speed of flight came at the expense of freedom and speed of thought.
Adwyn had realized one last lead he could pursue, a ningling suspicion, that might unravel the puzzle of the day’s events. He just had to wonder at the consequence if he was right.
He walked quiet on, before coming to a knowing stop. The adviser had chosen his route with his feet, unthinking, so perhaps a hidden part of him had expected this.
Still, the adviser whirled around like a breeze, a foreleg already at his baton’s hilt. Metallic-red eyes settled on cowled face of the apronned figure, the untouchable alchemist. The foreleg fell.
“Do not act on what you have learnt here today, and do not inform the faer.” Gone was the almost wistful nostalgia of talking to the high guard. His voice was hard.
“Why not? If Gwymr/Frina is in danger, it is my duty to inform the faer.”
“The past stays in the past, Dwyn. We catalyzed this reaction. Let us bring it equilibrium.”
“Adwyn. There is a reason why I alone among our alchemists survived the Inquiry. Why no forest-dweller in the land of glass and secrets dares to look me in the eyes. Do not go sifting into this town’s past. You will regret it. I am not Rhyfel. You are not my friend.”
Orange wings touched the batonhilt only once. He didn’t stop for the vow; no, sense was sense, and Ushra was a very old, experienced alchemist. Adwyn peered, staring under the cowl where those pure black orbs must have been. They moved as the alchemist nodded.
The menace in his voice receded. “Perhaps I shall see you at breakfast some day soon. Silent nights, Adwyn.”
Ushra measured his way off, past Adwyn and down the street. Adwyn watched him walk away for a long time.
It was silly, but he waited until the cloaked figure was gone awhile before Adwyn smirked.
Ushra’s threat only clinched it: now Adwyn knew exactly whom to blame.
He crouched, and leapt, and flew off to the depths of the night.
Somewhere in the distant dark Adwyn heard an explosive smash. It would sound mighty were it near. Winging over the faintly scented air of the west side, it came anonymous, pathetic.
Adwyn knew the butte he winged toward, only because he saw the fledgling alchemist steal away to it rings earlier, before second dusk.
He knew it now because those two trees were still burning.
Thanks to the forest hope, there had been (and still were) enough green scaled refugees in the capitol, and thanks to them, Adwyn knew how forest-dwellers mourned.
The little wiver had acted stone when the guards refused her; but he had glimpsed from her twitching tail and restrained words that she raged at her inability to save them. The wiver acted callous over their alighting; but he knew hopeless emptiness in a tone, in a gaze.
It was those tells that reminded Adwyn he dealt with a dragon and not anything dangerous.
While those trees still burnt, the butte had become empty save a discarded skewer and a scent of grapes or glasscrabs.
Adwyn flew on. It wasn’t called the cliffs for having only one butte, and Adwyn was searching. For something, for someone. A dragon who couldn’t help but tell every time she thought of Hinte.
It made her behavior easy to guess, but the butte being already empty clouded that guess.
He still smelt the fledgling alchemist, but did that mean he came soon enough?
Ten houses passed below as thoughts reflected around in his skull.
He was too late.
But Dyfns shined upon him anyway: A different wiver was winging a bounding flight over the town, aimed toward the cliffs.
He trailed after her.
This wiver was a note of consonance. Rhyfel walked the night in his schizon armor. Adwyn wore his tight schizon suit. Ushra had crept out with a schizon apron and robes that had to be official (head alchemist garb, say) for it was woven in with the volcanic glass hairs Mlaen loved to flaunt.
Similarly, this wiver wore poisonous-smelling schizon robes. Black fibers danced with their bleached white brethren. Woven like that were little black and white pictures of birds, trees or eggs.
You couldn’t make all this out, of course. Adwyn had seen it before, this morning.
Following this wiver one noticed how she bounded or circled. It didn’t parse like she was going somewhere or even flew to enjoy the cool night air. Adwyn glimpsed she followed someone.
When she lighted down on someone’s high rooftop and watched a figure stalking down the street, he didn’t think aha!, he thought, of course. He did smirk at his luck, though.
Adwyn the black ascendant could land quietly. He did not.
From his scent the wiver might have guessed who. Still she jumped, and stiffened, and seemed to pause in her regarding the stalking figure.
Adwyn gazed at the stars while he hunted for the words.
The stalking figure was gone now, but the wiver remained.
Adwyn said, “I respected you, you know.”
He watched her. “You were like a legend, an immortal symbol of freedom. Where I studied, the prevailing belief is that you weren’t even a real dragon, but some personification of Dyfnder’s efforts to help the forest refugees. You’d saved so many dragons in those days.”
There was a certain incredulity in his gaze, and he added, “What changed? You had done so much good.”
Gronte curled her wings around herself. “Do you have a daughter, Adwyn?” She shook her head. “No, even if you did, you wouldn’t understand. Haune. She… she was Hinte’s mother, and it’s my fault. I didn’t know. Haune had had another child. And she had been so scared.”
“But why leave Dyfnder? You were doing so much good there.”
“Hadn’t I done enough? Hadn’t I earned the right to raise my daughter in peace, without my past weighing me down?” She shook her head. “Either way, Ushra wasn’t in Dyfnder. My husband was somewhere in the cliffs, living as some kind of noble bandit. The same trick he’d pulled when I had to raise my Haune alone. I wouldn’t raise Hinte alone.”
Adwyn said, “And of course the green devil wouldn’t brave to light anywhere in the canyons,” he said. “Was this about when Mlaen offered him his old position here?”
Gronte only nodded. “Ja. You’ve heard the whispers. Cults, demons, spiders, humans. The raw cliffs are no place to raise a daughter. I don’t know why Ushra wanted to come back here, of all places, but Gwymr/Frina was the cliff’s capitol — it had to be the safest. I knew it’s some design of Mlaen’s. Smite her. But I wanted somewhere safe to raise my daughter — granddaughter.”
“You’re skipping something, Gronte. You know what I really want to know.”
“Ja. I have a past here too. Dwylla. I had failed him. Ushra had gone to go find — something, out in the plains. Rhyfel had left for Dyfnder to fight the spiders. I was the one who remained, who should have remained, should have saved Dwylla from his madness.”
“You can’t save everyone, Gronte. At some point, it’s their own fault.”
“But it wasn’t Dwylla’s fault, it was Aurisiuf! I should have listened, I should have done everything he told me.” The wiver spun around and that frantic energy took moments to vitrify on her face. Gronte had calm, thoughtful green eyes. “But I can have a second chance, can’t I? That’s what Gwymr/Frina is all about, second chances.”
The Return of Dwylla.
Adwyn thought, we were both right, and wanted to laugh.
He took a step toward her. Foreleg at his baton hilt, he said, “Whom did you tell?”
“Wrang. Wrang of Llosgi Hoddi.” She looked down and something reflected in her eyes. “He’s been my liaison with Dychwelfa. They wouldn’t make me a full member — because of my scales, I suppose.”
Adwyn nodded once. “And the alchemy the thieves used, that was your work?”
“The Llygaid Crwydro sold me the supplies. You would be worried, to know what you can do to this town with just a pouch full of electrum.”
Adwyn didn’t smirk because he was standing before another traitor. But he said, “You would be surprised how few dragons can spare anything close to a pouch full of electrum. Or the ages you’ve had to learn alchemy.”
Over three hundred and a half gyras old, a traitor to both her old and new homes, drenched in the dimness of night, Gronte still managed a coy smile.
Adwyn snapped his tongue. “I’ve seen your confession. I will be taking you to Mlaen, now.”
Gronte’s smile faded yet remained, turning to something… not sad, but sorrowful all the same.
She said, “You could, and I wouldn’t resist. I cannot imagine it will bear fruit for you or mean very much to me.”
Adwyn drew his baton out of his sheath. Just a few toe lengths.
She snaked her dark-jade head forward. “You don’t think Ushra is loyal to Mlaen, or Gwymr/Frina, do you? Do you think he cares about them?”
“You are like Hinte. Untouchable because of one drake. Arrogant.”
Gronte looked over to where the Gären estate could just be seen. “He helped build this town. He fought Aurisiuf to a silence. He’s unraveled the chain of life.”
Her voice, a wisp. “He could bring the dead back to life.”
When she lowered her head, she was frowning and there was honest imploring in her eyes. “I think that deserves respect, don’t you?”
Adwyn sheathed the sliver of weapon. What good could it do?
He replied, “Law reigns above all. Should reign above all.”
“Said the murderer to the traitor.”
“I believe one can shine beyond their past. I think you should try.”
Gronte had no words to that. She merely looked up at the endless stars, as if their silence could give her words.
Adwyn had waited for something profound to light the silence.
What he got was a bonk. Upside his head. A rock cracked against the roof, and the orange drake looked up to see a purple parrot flutter down.
The blasphemous creature screeched.
Adwyn could do nothing but clutch and wriggle his frills while the noise lasted, which was till its handler leapt over and lifted the thing, petting it and whispering inappropriately sweet things.
“Why is that thing here?”
“Ima protect Wrinklyfrills. Toastyfeathers told me all about you! You’re a mean scheming drake and you’re making Wrinklyfrills all sour. Qyer!”
“Versta, please go back home and wait for me. This is an exceeding important conversation.”
“Neh! Ima protect.” Versta said chirping onto Gronte’s head. Wings flared.
The dark-jade wiver caught eye with Adwyn.
“Pray don’t mind him.”
Adwyn was glad to ignore the flying rat. “Tell me what you were out here doing?”
“Watching Hinte, making sure she’s safe. I think she’s going to where that meteors landed.”
A grandmother being a grandmother, then.
“So, Wrang. Tell me what he was doing in the lake last night.”
“I wouldn’t know. He hates to keep me informed of things. He had asked me about magical energy sources, not long before, so take your hint from that.”
“And the bodies? Was there design besides interrupting our plans?”
“Again, I wouldn’t know. Ask Wrang.”
“Oh, we will, shortly.”
Adwyn looked eastward, to the clouds darker than night that everlingered above the fires of the Berwem.
“You understand that this means conflict, correct? I don’t condone what you’re doing.”
In the moonlight Gronte’s grin had teeth and fangs.
“I know.” Like a final confession.
There was silence, and there was breathing.
* * *