Gazing II: Peer

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iiiiii

i.*

“C’mon, Kinri.  Let’s go.”  She meant to the Dadafodd; she’d said that’s where we’d find the drake.  “C’mon.  My leg is getting done with me standing on it.”
“Sit down, then.”
“I’m not going to sit down, I⁠ ⁠—⁠ we need to get to Dadafodd so I can get my shit bandaged up.”
“If you sit down, maybe your leg will feel a bit better when you start walking aga⁠ ⁠—”
“We should start walking now!  What the flames are we waiting for?”
“Um.”  My brilles clouded.  “Just…”
Staune piped up for me.  Head out poking out of my pocket, she echoed my sister, repeating, “Rhyfel is flying this way.
“I⁠ ⁠—⁠ yeah.  Uane said that.”
Mawla ripped a claw through the gravel, gouging.  “Fuck no,” said the sifter.  “We’re leaving.  Now.”
“Whyyy?” Staune asked with some high scratch of a voice.
“Not you too.”  Mawla scowled as Staune was bobbing her bird head up and down.  “What screaming reason could a bird have for wanting to see the high guard?”  Mawla still had a that artificial high accent to her voice, but on that last phrase it dropped, turned to something frayed and ripped, sounding something like the nadir who spent their lives smoking yakah roots.
“Feya.  Slicktongue gone out to meet Guiltygrin, yes, but Guiltygrin doesn’t know Slicktongue keeps secrets from me.  Him I can ask.”
Mawla smacked her face with a wing, and held it there, alula digging into her scales.  She let out a growl and spun away from me, looking out over the south side.
Winding through a gully to get here, the cobbled road that came up to the southern gate had an east side look to it.  You could drive a cart over it, but you didn’t really want to be in it when you did.
That gully⁠ ⁠—⁠ it wasn’t wide enough to be a ravine, too narrow a ditch⁠ ⁠—⁠ had walls.  Black bamboo holding up the sagging dirt banks, filled up with dustone like grout.  It flared massively at the end, and created this big landing area in front of the gate.  Mawla leant against the gully wall farthest from the gate, and I sat in the center.
Ffrom and the other guard were still here, unconscious on the ground by the gate.  They hadn’t stirred for quite a while.  What had Uane drugged them with?
“I don’t want to stay here.”
“Why not?”
“Doesn’t matter.  I won’t be here when Rhyfel lights down.  If you ain’t coming with me⁠ ⁠—⁠ I’ll have to leave by myself.”
“Aren’t we friends, Mawla?  Just tell me.”
“No.”  Mawla shifted her stance, put a wing down to act like a crutch.
I dashed over there, stood beside her.  “Please.  Why can’t you tell me?”
“Cuz you⁠ ⁠—⁠ you won’t want to sow time with me again.  You⁠ ⁠—⁠ shouldn’t.”
“And if I decide not to because you won’t tell me?”  I nudged her.  And then again, until she looked at me.  “There are too many people keeping secrets, Mawla.  Not enough being open with me.  I don’t want to have to suspect you too.”
She grit her teeth, and bit down on the things she could say.  Glanced to the side, and saw Staune busying pecking at Ffrom.  Looked up at the stars.  Met my eyes gain.  Said, “Fine.”
I waited.  Breaths came in and out.  Time passed.  “Fine you’ll tell me, or…”
Her brilles were clouded.  She looked down at the ground before they cleared.  “Yeah.”  She took a breath, her breast buffing up like with confidence, and she said, “Kinri, I’m⁠ ⁠—”
She met my eyes, head high, and her neck was tense like it was a hard thing to do.  “I’m a criminal.  A wanted criminal.”
I was looking into her eye.  My brows furrowed, a little, but I didn’t flinch.  I hoped that helped.
“What kind?”
“What kind⁠ ⁠—⁠ I, I don’t know.  I just, I saw it on the posts today.  The wanted lists.  I don’t know how I slipped up⁠ ⁠—⁠ but I must have.  They didn’t list a crime.  Just my name.  Just said I was need for questioning.  An inquiry.  With a dozen dozen aris reward, like a for murderer.”
“Mawla⁠ ⁠—”
“No, I get it if you don’t want to see me again.  It’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ it makes sense.  I’m not the type you want to associate with.”
“Mawla, no.  I⁠ ⁠—”
“You don’t have to say it.”  She was pulling away, doing that weird limp with wings as crutches.  “I get it.  I know.  You don’t have to say it.”
Mawla.  No.  You don’t get it.  You aren’t a criminal.  You aren’t wanted.  I know why you’re on the list, I’m why you’re on the list.”  She’d looked around⁠ ⁠—⁠ just with her head, snaking it⁠ ⁠—⁠ but I looked down, didn’t meet eye.  “It’s my fault.”
I could see the wing cover her face in my peripheral, though.
“Is this like before?  You making up reasons to spit on yourself?”
“No no no.  It’s like, I went to see the faer last night, remember?  I⁠ ⁠—⁠ she was just too perceptive!  I didn’t want to tell her.  I didn’t tell her.  She just, figured it out.  Read it off me.”
“Tell her what?  What you talking about?  Be slow.”
“The lake.  You were in the lake, trespassing.  The humans and everything.  She thinks you might have had something to do with it⁠ ⁠—⁠ I told her you didn’t, but she still wants to question you.”
Mawla paused.  Like frantic, bubbling glass that just hissed the air.  Like realizing you searched for rings to find the thing sitting obvious on the table.
She grinned.
Spinning around with new energy, the yellowbrown wiver lunged over to bop me on the nose, and drape a wing over me.  “Well then,” she said.  “Never the heck mind.  This is fine.  I’m fine.  Don’t worry about none of this.”
I could only say, “Huh?”
“You know anything about how the sleepy faer operates?  How she sends out Inquiries?”
“…No?”
She tossed her head.  “Mlaen likes to send Inquirers up in your business at the buttcrack of dawn, Inquirers who’re just scratching for an excuse to drag you to Wydrllos a⁠ ⁠—⁠ Point being, this was a trick of chance, and I probably only skirted the Inquirers by dumb stupid luck.  Spent the night at Lilian’s, got a day off work.  Dumb stupid luck.”
“…That’s a good thing?  I’m⁠ ⁠—⁠ confused.”
“It’s a good thing cuz there’s nothing to worry about now.  They’ve got nothing on me.  I know my rights, and know how to work around a confession.  Trust me to help myself, got it?  Trespassing in the fires with a bunch of invading monsters⁠ ⁠—⁠ it’s not even the tightest space I’ve flown in.”
I clouded and cleared my brilles, my face all scrunched up.  “You’re, uh, it’s like you’re in a whole different key⁠ ⁠—⁠ and I’m glad⁠ ⁠—⁠ but I don’t see how things have changed much?”
She waved a wing and only said, “Assumptions,” like it was the whole answer.  “A dozen dozen aris is like, high high high crime.  The kind of crime where only half of you goes to jail cuz the other half sticks around in gossiping mouths.  You wake up and see that under your name and you fly to the obvious conclusion.”
“You didn’t think it was weird that you had a high bounty when you hadn’t done anything?”
“Welll.”  She looked away.  “Flick.  Put it this way: a crowd and a half of people have reason and half to want me somewhere dark in Wydrllos.  I see my name on a bounty board like that, I don’t get surprised, I get thinking.”
I still frowned at her.
“Kinri-ann, I got this.  Trust me.  I’ve flown through worse than this.”
“Really?”
“Yep.”  She grinned.  “Don’t ask about the scramble with the leggy clams.”
I blew my tongue, and tried not to laugh.  That was⁠ ⁠—⁠ that.
“Okay.”  I looked around.  The guards were still out⁠ ⁠—⁠ I guessed they’d be for a while⁠ ⁠—⁠ and the bird was strutting around for some reason.  The stars still shone.  “So, you’ll wait with me?” I asked her.
Mawla scowled.  “I still don’t want to meet Rhyfel.”
“A high shame I gotta disappoint, then.”
Mawla had her back to the road into town, she couldn’t see him.  I could.
At his savage grin, I frowned. 

“I didn’t hear all of it, don’t you worry.  Whatever secret crime you to are up to’ll get dealt with just as soon as I’ve got less on my plate.”
I glanced over to the hooded wiver, frowning into Rhyfel the younger’s face.  I expected her to run, but she was staring him down, fangs out like she would spit on him.
Then she took a step back.  I jerked my head and saw why⁠ ⁠—⁠ the high guard hadn’t come alone.  From that same mouth of the gulley measured forth a lightscaled drake in a poisonous-smelling⁠ ⁠—⁠ schizon-smelling⁠ ⁠—⁠ apron, and glasswoven robes that called to mind the faer’s.  He flicked an agile tongue, and black eyes met mine with all the peering suspicion of an executioner.
Kinri.”  He inclined his head.  He didn’t look at Mawla.  When he glanced at the scarlet drake, and saw he was still engaged in a staredown with the yellowbrown wiver, he looked back to me and asked: “Where is Hinte?”
Like that, Rhyfel lost; the drake snapped his gaze back and popped his tongue.  “Ease into it, Ushra, ease into it.”  But he shook his head, and continued, “Or you know what, you be quiet and I’ll handle this.”  Black eyes⁠ ⁠—⁠ the same black as Ushra’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ watched silently as the high guard smiled and spoke gentle.
He said, “So.  You two knew I was heading this way, didn’t you?  And argued yourselves into waiting.  Can’t say I’m not curious what’s goin on.”  A single hisslaugh.  “If that don’t infringe on whatever secret youse keepin.”
“Um.”  I thought about it⁠ ⁠—⁠ Uane would never trust me again if I told her out again, immediately.  If I still wanted to be a Specter (did I want to be a Specter?), not answering that question would be my first step back in that direction.
But.  Uane could have killed these guards⁠ ⁠—⁠ she wanted to kill these guards.  I couldn’t let that happen.  Not again.  She was a danger and the administration surely had to know about it?  Rhyfel the younger wasn’t like Ffrom.  He was high up.  I could trust him.
But Mawla said Uane still cared about.  Could I really⁠ ⁠—
“Kinri’s got a wicked sister.  She got up in our business being murderous and mysterious.  Knocked out those guards over there.”
Rhyfel looked at me like it was my fault.  Flatly, he asked, “Are they dead.”
“No.”
“Good.  What does your sister want now?”
My brilles clouded again, and my mind flew back over the conversation, searching for hints or tells.
Mawla said, “She’s mad that Kinri didn’t kill Adwyn, obviously.”
Rhyfel nodded.  “And?”
I just looked at Mawla, waited for her to answer my question.
“Don’t know.  They were speaking skyspeak by the end, but there was a tone to it.  The kind of tone you take with your friend telling em you never want to see them again, secretly hoping they come to see you again.”
Ushra tossed his head, and cut in.  “And this sister knew we were coming?”
“Yep.  She knew all sorts of shit she shouldn’t.”
“Did she know where Hinte is?”
Ushra.”
“Oh, excuse me.  Are you done with this azymous smalltalk, or shall you continue easing in for the next half a ring?”
Rhyfel growled, just slightly in his throat, and for a breath his face hardened, but then it eased, he sighed, and gently he said, “Alright, fine.  She’s your granddaughter, I’ll let you handle this.”
A thin, thin smile.  He snaked his head in my direction.  “Now.  Where is Hinte?”
“…I don’t know?  She left me earlier telling me she was going to do something I wouldn’t like.”
“Do what?”
“I don’t know!”
“Do have you have any guesses?  What were you talking about before?”
“Prayer.  I was asking her what she was praying for… and I mentioned I prayed for the guards…”
I looked up at the stars, gazed deep at them, my mouth parting in surprise.  “Oh.  Oh no.  I know what she’s going to do.  No.  She’s going to ruin everything.”
“Where did she go, Kinri?”  It was Rhyfel talking now, but I hardly distinguished.
“I still don’t know!  But I think I know where she’s going.  The cliffs.”  I breathed deep, in and out twice.  I lowered my eyes.  Looked at the high guard, the high alchemist.
I said, “She’s going to hunt down the humans.”
Ushra flicked his tongue.  “For what purpose?”
It was Rhyfel who spoke up.  Not grinning, now.  “Revenge, of coursee.  The humans killed two guards.  She refused to save them.”  Smile.  “Maybe she’s had a change of heart.”
Ushra lowered his head.  Brilles clouded, you couldn’t see his thoughtful black orbs.  Tongue flicked, his mind played out only in the jerks and twists of his tongueforks.  Not a scale or wrinkle of his face indicated.
The light green drake was the older of the two, it was plain to see.  Time piled on top of them, but Ushra felt so much that the graveness of time lingered, seeping and seething.  It was the same graveness Rhyfel the younger somehow had, despite only being Mlaen’s age, but you could tell he was more than it.  No one believed that savage grin of his (I hoped), but he still reached for the levity and care.
Rhyfel had hope.  There was still the hard edge of anger in his voice for the alighted guards.  Ushra, obversely, hadn’t even flinched, hadn’t even spared a word or thought for them.
I clouded my own eyes before any judgment crept into them.  But I still had the image of Ushra thoughtfully, thoughtlessly considering.
This is the drake Hinte looks up to.
I didn’t know what to do with the thought or why I thought it.
I wanted to ask her.  But she wasn’t here.
“So, how are we going to find her?”
At that Ushra jerked from his thoughts, sliding his tongue in with a hiss.  “You will not.  We will,” he said, and turned around.  A subtle twitch of his wing for Rhyfel to follow, but instead the high guard spoke up.
“Fair question.  Where would Hinte go to kill these humans?”
The lightgreen drake had taken a step, but his strides paused.  Unlike him, Rhyfel was opening a conversation, not shutting one down.  They wouldn’t be leaving so soon.  I thought perhaps a light green frill curled in on itself.  He didn’t turn, not yet.
“Hm.  She’d go to the cliffs, wouldn’t she?”
“It’s a whole country out there past the east gate.  We ain’t going to find nobody with two rings’ head start.”
“And she wouldn’t find the humans, either.  They must be hiding.”
“‘Course.  So she’ll find some better way to hunt the humans.”
Ushra slowly spun around with the kind of twist in his face that judged sharply.  That said you were struggling to conclusions he’d tasted in a second.  That asked why he should suffer your input.  Then he looked to Rhyfel, who leaned comfortably against the wall and looked at me, and the ancient alchemist shook his head.
“There are two drakes in this town who know more about humans than either of us.”
Rhyfel frowned.  “There’s the librarian⁠ ⁠—⁠ who else?”
“Her Dozentin.”  Ushra’s tail disturbed the gravel behind him.  “The librarian and her teacher.  Two drakes who know enough about humans.  Neither of whom would help Hinte hunt them, but one of them is naïve enough for her to manipulate.”
“Hinte has a teacher?  Besides you?  She’d never said anything about that.”
But Rhyfel was nodding, and that was whom Ushra was looking at.
Ushra asked, “Is there a reason you wanted the exile to hear all that?”
“It’s her friend.  No harm in her knowing what we’re thinking and intending.”
“She is my granddaughter.”
“They aren’t exclusive.”
“And one takes precedence.”  Then the alchemist looked at me for the second time tonight.  He said, “Go home and sleep.  Do not get yourself into any more trouble.”
I replied, “Your advice is acknowledged.  And appreciated.”  I could have said something else.
He turned around.  “Do not appreciate it.  Just remember Hinte would not want you getting yourself hurt again.”  To Rhyfel, he said, “I am leaving.  You can guess where I’ll be.”
“Sure, I got some loose ends here.  See you in a quick.”
“Wait!  Before you go, Ushra, um.”  I thought back, considered my awful maneuvering⁠ ⁠—⁠ how had I forgotten?  I shouldn’t have been so rude.  Nothing for it.  I continued, “My friend here is uh, hurt.  Do you think you can⁠ ⁠—”
“My services are not free.”  No, then.
“But she’s⁠ ⁠—”
“Still alive.  In no obvious pain.  I do not see the necessity.”
Ushra took another step.
I felt a shift again, and I reached to pet Staune, but the lump on my back was just frabic holding a shape.  The bird was gone.
You’d think you saw a little form flicking through the shadows.  None of us were sure until a fluttering shadow reared up behind Ushra and lighted on his high alchemist robes.
“Hello again, Staune.  I told you not to follow me.”
Hinte’s voice.  “Alchemists save dragons.”  Staune was small and moved quick.  Her feathered form ducked into a pocket of the robe, and she came flapping away, a jar of wiggling green held in her bird feet.
She dropped it down on Mawla’s head with an “Ow” from the attacked party.
Ushra had turned around one final time to watch this unfold.  The angle was just right for the amber lantern light to illume his black orbs.
Then he turned around again.  Then he took off.  He was gone.
“What a spitting venthole with an venthole bird.”  She had picked from the cobblestone the glass jar of die Heylpflanze jelly (it takes more than that to crack Gwymr/Frina glass), and was aiming at the fluttering bird.
“Uh, Mawla?”
“Wha?”  She glanced over.
“Staune was trying to help.  That’s die Heylpflanze.  It’ll help your injuries.”
Mawla gave the glass a second glance.  Then she leaned over and popped it in my bag (“Hey!”), and replaced it with a rock.  She aimed true and wildly missed Staune.  The rock bounced off the cliff wall, landed crack on the ground.  Triumphantly, Staune lighted down on it.
The yellowbrown wiver blew tongue at her before she turned a scowl at the scarlet drake lingering, watching with a slight smile.
“So.  Why don’t you get lost too?  Your venthole buddy’s waiting for you.”
“That he is.  There’s just something I wanted to bring up with you two, p’raps you’ll find it of int’rest.”  From slight smile to savage grin.  “You see, there happens to be a warrant out for one Mawla ac Aludu Dymestl.  Whom I’m allowed to detain by force.”
She was very still.  I leaned a bit closer, and saw that she was still breathing.
“Three counts of petty theft, two assaults, six tresspasses⁠ ⁠—⁠ her record’s a mess.  The charge right now is high trespassing and high treason.  She’s been implicated in the Berwem mess.”
I looked, peered at Mawla, brilles pale.  She gave me a smile that grew very slowly, as if at each beat she decided whether to smile a little bit more.  I don’t know how my look changed in response, but the smile soon faltered, and she looked away.  Kicked a leg at Staune, watched her jump.
“This could turn real sour for her.”
I was looking between the high guard and the sifter.  But Rhyfel was looking at me.  Ignoring Mawla.
Then, he smiled.  “But Mlaen ain’t glassbrained.  She knows a lowlife sifter without ten aris to her name isn’t the mastermind we’re looking for.  It’s Wrang, without two doubts.”
At last, the high guard looked at the hooded wiver, her face still in shadow.  She was ten steps back from where she’d been.  “There,” he said.  “All my cards are on the slab.  Why don’t you do the same, Mawla?  All I gotta ask in three questions, then the investigation can all fall on Wrang where it belongs.”
Rhyfel took a step toward her.  “Or are you going to run away again?”
Mawla looked sky up, then left and right.  I saw the tension seethe out, and she slumped down.  And she looked at the high guared.
“Fine.  I’ll answer your questions.  Kinri can back me up.” 

ii.*

“C’mon, Kinri.”  Mawla’s leg wriggled beneath my slimy feet.  “I want to actually get somewhere before tomorrow.  I’m getting done waiting here with you.”
“I’m done waiting too!  I promise!”  I put my foot down⁠ ⁠—⁠ a mistake.  Now I had dirt stuck into the slime.  “I want to be sure you’ve got all your injuries wiped down.  Do you?”
“Twice.”  She pulled the leg away, shook it.  “My leg still doesn’t like it when I stand on it the wrong way.”
“But…”  I scratched the gravel a little bit.  Now the other foot was dirty, and I took to wiping them on each other.  I gave up, and looked back at Mawla, and looked away.  “Nevermind.  Um.”
“What?  Don’t nevermind me.”
“It’s just… I was wondering if it’s enough for you to come with me to the librarian’s house.”  I looked away.  “Or maybewalkhomeonyourown.”
“I obviously could just go my way alone.  I want you there with me.  You’re sweet.”
I lifted my head.  “So you’ll come with me?”
“Uh, why even are you going the librarian’s house?”
“To look for Hinte.”  I saw Mawla twitch at that, and watched her sigh silently.
She turned around, toward the gully wall.  “Leave her to lick whatever mess she’s stirred up.”
“She’s going to ruin everything I negotiated with the humans!”  I jerked upward just a bit saying this, and felt a stirring in my bag.  Staune chirped sleepily but did not rouse.
Shaking her head, advancing toward the wall, the sifter said, “I don’t want to even smell enough whiff of that high guard.  Smells like rotten tomatoes.  With rank Dyfnderi perfume on top.”
“Mawla, don’t you get that this is important?
“Yep.  That’s why we’re leaving it to the important dragons.”  She started climbing the wall, and like a mirror of yesterday night she said, “Let the glass fall on someone else’s head.”
“So you just want me to leave the humans to die?”
Mawla tossed her head.  “Why not?  They can take care of themselves.”
I open my mouth, and it stayed that way for a bit.  What did you say to that?  It wasn’t how a hero thought.
Mawla didn’t walk off.  She sat herself up there on the gully wall, looking down on me with a smug smile.
Eventually, I ventured, “Should I have heard you yelling, and thought Mawla can take care of herself?
Smile gone, she bit her lip.  Slowly she said “You know me.”  Wings drawing tight.  “I’m a friend, aren’t I?”
I jerked up again.  “You are, but⁠ ⁠—”
“I’m your friend.  I’m a dragon.  Why would you go out of your way to help those creatures?  Is an animal worth as much as a dragon?”
“Obviously,” she said.  No, but it was her voice.
I twisted my head around, and saw Staune poking her head out of my bag.
Mawla laughed, a little clicking chuckle.  “That parrot is something.”
“She has a point though.  Dragon-tongued parrots are like dragons.  Why can’t humans be too?”
She settled, and looked level at me again.  “Flick, Kinri.  It’s Ushra.  It’s Rhyfel.  It’s whoever else they want to call in.  I don’t want to sound tart, obviously, but be clear with me: what do you add to that?”
“I know Hinte?  She trusts me.”
“More than Ushra?”
“I negotiated with the humans.”
“Is there going to be time to talk between Hinte trying to kill them?”
“I can⁠ ⁠—”
“Kinri, I get you.  You want to look helpful.  I get it.  But no one watching, and better yet, no one asked.  They were standing right there airing all their problems and they didn’t even pause to think you might melt into their plans.  They don’t want you, Kinri.”
Mawla leapt from the top of the gully, splashed onto the gravel beside me, and nudged me shoulder to shoulder.  She said, “But I still need someone walking with me so I get to Dadafodd with all my coins in my pocket.  They sound sweet to you?”
Try to save the humans from Hinte, or escourt Mawla to the Dadafodd.
Help look for Hinte, or keep Mawla safe.
Hinte, or Mawla.
I didn’t like this choice.
But, remembering the darkgreen wiver arguing me away while she plotted secret murder, I realized Hinte had already made the choice for me, really.
She’d tell me tomorrow.  I could forgive her, and myself, tomorrow.
“Let’s go, Mawla.” 

Out of that gully, we walked side by side down into the thickening houses and rising buttes of the south side.  Here at the very edge of town hollows dotted the fringes, packed mounds of ash or dustone, maybe skeletoned with bamboo.  If you looked up, you’d see big holes dug into this or that butte, but you had to look to find them.  Sometimes out of them a dragon looked back at you.
Quick strides took us toward the thickly cobbled streets, where light fell out of lamps and left fewer shadows, fewer spots for strangers to hide in.  I was nudging Mawla toward them, and she was nudging me; we had had the same instincts.
Sometimes on restless nights, whether from the heat breathing down my neck or a sudden pang of something missing, I’d walk and wander the nighttime streets of Gwymr/Frina.  Meanwhile on the rooftops and the streets, guards would patrol with red lanterns and the promise of protection.
Like I would any other night, I looked all around here, and it was twenty six strides of this before I found, atop a tall, tall butte, a cleareyed guard staring down the neighborhood, seeming lonely and sleepy.
It didn’t put you at ease.  The presense just underscored an overall absence.
In the end I just tailgripped my new club tighter, and threw a wing over Mawla.  She wiggled a little closer, the smooth scales of her wingarm gracing my own.
We walked east.  Gwymr/Frina was a town that sprawled.  All the way on the other side, a canal cut off the verdant west end from the rest.  Even the north side had a sheer drop that kept the east side out.  But, between the south and east side, you slipped from one to the other without realizing.
The dustone hovels built like igloos was always a tell, or the dinder roots struggling to life in gardens, or the purple eye orbited by rainbow rays.  They were sparsed but still appeared, the south side reaching into the east side and holding it close.
Sprouting out from the street were little alleys, dark and gravid.  In each one you expected something, even if just an unwanted fern rising up, a tattered glider someone’d thrown out, or a darned wildcat jumping and yeowing.  The alleys were just the size for dragons to lurk in, and that kept you checking every one.
But never satisfying the suspicion, of course: the earlier crowd had all gone by now, and only little droplets of dragons trickled through.  Furtive and quick.  No real reason to linger in the south side at night.
Which made conspicuous the cloaked figure standing under a amber lamppost, lingering.
Mawla jerked to a stop.  I felt both of us breathing, both of us pulsing.
There were other roads.  We could slip into an alley.  We could turn around.
The head craned a bit.  Snaked forward.  Saw us.
“You can run if you want, Kinri.  I’ll eat my odds alone.”
“No.”
The figure had started striding toward us: slow, easeful steps.
Should we run?  Together?”
“Wouldn’t want to show fear.”  She flexed her wings beside me.  Was she trembling, or was that me trembling against her?  “Running wouldn’t do much for me anyways.  If they can fly they can find me.”
I looked back at them.  They’d been a stone throw away to begin with, and by now maybe twenty strides stood between us.
“If they can fly, then why are they walking?”
She peered hard, brow furrowing.  “Could be an act, stoke some fear.  Or maybe they want to see what we’ll do.”
“Or maybe we’re silly and they’re just out to walk?”
“That’s silly.  Now shush.”  Mawla tapped an alula against my lipscales, and the other wing came up beside her mouth.  She yelled, “Hey you!  What’s your deal here?”
Moments trudge by metered out by the rigid stride of the cloaked dragon.
High standing before us, they looked at me and not Mawla.  They said, “Omoù ptèromai, Kinri.  I see you have been busy.”
I took in their cloak, their accent, their golden eyes.  “…The miser?  Um, hi again.”
“Chwithach told me you’d been asking about me.  I appreciate the curiosity.”
Mawla was looking between us.  “You two friends?”
There was a noncommittal noise rising in my throat, but the miser interrupted whatever I would have said.
“We have mutual friends.  But we have met only today.”
“Gotcha,” said Mawla.  “But what you doin out here?  Obviously this isn’t chance.”
“Indeed.  I came to offer my congratulation on Kinri’s work in the market and the fires.”  To me, “You’ve done much to keep this town safe.  I appreciate that.”
“Were you spying on her?”
“News travels quickly for those who listen.”
“So you aren’t going to tell us, gotcha.”
A smirk rose to my lips, in memory of that extra cryst he’d tried and failed to hide from me in the shop.  I ask, “Why try to be so mysterious when you couldn’t even keep a lie straight?”
The shadows of his hood shifted, frills rising like a smile.  “It was no lie, fledgling.  It was part of a test.”
“Of what?”
Those frills curled back again.  “I shall tell you if you ever pass.”  He inclined his head.  “I hope this Dychwelfa attack has impressed upon you the need for secrecy and the preciousness of information.”
Mawla growled.  “Or, in plain y Draig, I won’t tell you because you’re not important enough to matter.  Spit off, you miserable miser.”
He nodded to Mawla and stepped back.  “I shall.  I merely came to present my congratulations for her accomplishments.  Regarding the humans⁠ ⁠—⁠ but also regarding her befriending of Adwyn.  Quite a valuable ally, he is.  Keep him safe, Kinri.”  He dropped to a murmur, “For you know who wishes him dead.”
The miser turned around, but looked back to say, “But more than all, do not forget the alchemist’s granddaughter, Kinri.  She is infinitely more valuable to you.”
A cloud passed before the moons and the miser was gone.
“What’s that venthole all about?”
“I don’t know.”
Mawla shook her head.  “Well, let’s keep walking.  Dadafodd ain’t far, now.”
It was a few steps before she nudged me.  The sifter said, “He’s a peg-leg, you know.”  She scrunched her face.  “Or a peg-legs.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’ve seen the gait,” she replied with a nod.  “Stiff, oddly balanced.  You notice something’s off but not everyone’ll pin it down.”  She saw me staring head tilted and tossed head, adding, “You see enough dragons losing shit to the fires.  Your leg slips too far into the maw, ain’t much the phys can do”⁠ ⁠—⁠ she gives a half-growl, half-laugh⁠ ⁠—⁠ “or can afford to do.”
Mawla leant forward and swings a foreleg at my own, toes splayed, and it hit firm.  “So they have to chop off your bits, and now you’ve obviously got to buy a peg-leg or teeter over.  And with shit like that, you adapt to it more than it adapts to you.”
The plain-dweller was nodding over to where the miser had stood.  “His bits were a bit more bendy though, so probably it’s just his feet or something.  He didn’t sound like a sifter.” 

Going even a bit further east, and you started passing more dragons.  Sometimes they met your eye, sometimes they turned down the next alley.  Sometimes they have a winghand over a long sharp thing strapped to their foreleg and they only turned away when they glanced at Mawla’s face and sparked recognition.
I started carrying the club conspicuously in my wing.
The absurdity of the situation really got to me.  “Stars, what is going on anymore.”
“What’s up?
“It’s just⁠ ⁠—⁠ one of those moments where you stop and wonder just what the heck is going on.  Yesterday and today have been such a mess.”
Mawla nodded.  When she looked down, she reached and fixed my grip on the club just a bit.  So on I walked, brandishing that club.
It didn’t help when a dragon sauntered out from an alley, waving at the sifter beside me.
“Yo Mawla!”
The sifter jerked a gaze over.  “Who is it?”
“It’s ya boy.”  He slinked over in a few hoppy steps, passing by a lamp on the way, and the sifter relaxed.  They spoke quiet: “Listen.  New supply is in.  You want some of this?”
Mawla’s voice become her deep growl.  “Didn’t Lili tell you I quit it?  Spit off.”
The dragon backed up before Mawla hissed harshly and they back up faster.
“What was that all about?”
“Some dealer.”
“Of what?”
A wing wavely vaguely.  “There was this cute powder that popped up a few cycles back.  It was fun for a while, but I know a drake who knew one of the suppliers⁠ ⁠—⁠ not that snek, obviously, a cooler one⁠ ⁠—⁠ and told me what it was made from.  I decided to quit, obviously.”
“Is it something nasty?”
“Not really, just those little bugs that cling to those glowing stones in the lake.  Give me the creeps.  Rumor’s they’re haunted by ghosts or demons or something.  Spooky stuff.”
I bit my lip.  “Uh.  Is there any harm in like, just eating the bugs?”
She hitched her wings.  “How’d I know?  I’m no mixer, obviously.”
“I guess.”
We walked on a few steps.  I was thinking of things to fill the silence, my mind pacing over everything that’d been said.  A memory hit me and I almost stopped.
“Hey, didn’t Rhyfel say Mawla ac Aludu Dymestl?  What’s up with that?”
“Hm? Oh yeah, I am scion of Aludu Dymestl.  But we’re nothing now, though⁠ ⁠—⁠ everyone is.”
“Wait, so you’re of the high houses?”
“Obviously.”
I sprung into an excited grin, but the sifter cut me off quick.
“But it’s a joke.  Maybe half the dragons in Gwymr/Frina could put themselves in two of the houses if they tried hard enough.”  She whisked her other wing.  “There were like fifty of them before Mlaen told ‘em to spit off.”
“So many dragons heirs to high houses.  You’re like the third or fourth I’ve met.”
She popped her tongue.  “No one cares or tracks it anymore.  Like, who’s going to stop you if decided to walk around saying Specter was secretly one of the founding families all along?  I mean, no one would believe you, but you get the idea.”
After that silence was rearing up again, but I liked the smalltalk.  “What was Aludu like?”
“Who knows.  Most of em were dead or exiled by the time I hatched.  My family’s just a bunch of symbols I can’t read.”
“So they didn’t leave you anything?”
“Who’d tell me if they did?”
“Still, I just can’t imagine having nothing of your family.”
“Eh, well, there’s this old wayhouse in the cliffs⁠ ⁠—⁠ real fancy, built like a warturt, right on top of one of these old volcanic vents.  Has a slick little sauna and pool there that just poisons you anymore.”
“You live there?”
“Haha, no.  Nobody lives there anymore.”
“What happened to it?”
“Lousy with big ol’ lava slugs since a bunch of gyras ago.  And after that, the ridges came in and pretty soon they bought the land it sat on.”  She flicked her tongue.  “I still drop by from time to time⁠ ⁠—⁠ but it’s trespassing now.”  She tossed her head.
I tapped my chin, running through other questions I could ask.  “Who owns it now?”
“Don’t know.  It prolly shuffled owners six times, and it’s properly none of my business anyways.  Maybe the faer owns it, or one of the sifting companies, or maybe those Dychwelfa ac Dwylla vents.”
​I nodded.
“Whoever got it obviously isn’t doing anything with it.  Maybe it’s the slugs or maybe it’s… I don’t know.”
I nodded.  There wasn’t much I could really add.  There was probabbly a better topic I could have picked.
“Point is, there’s a place I can lay myself if I want an itchy night’s sleep.”  Mawla scratched the ground.  “Want to talk about anything else?  I’ve got too many memories of the old house and I hate the place.”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know.  Whatever comes to mind?  There’s this one scar I got four times.  Wanna see?” 

iii.*

Dadafodd.
Carved inside the widest, tallest, biggest butte I had ever seen in Gwymr/Frina.  Opening from a front door wide like three dragons.  Made of natural rock blending with dustone and fire clay bricks, and black bamboo supports⁠ ⁠—⁠ which looked less a disparate hodgepodge than a uniting of different materials and constructions.  Peering out from glass slabs so thick you could see the light refract through them.
If I were a guard, Dadafodd was the kind of building that would make me nervous.  It wasn’t a fortress, though it might’ve been if that weren’t too overt.  But as a building it exuded a kind of private confidence.  You wondered what went on inside, and expected trouble if it didn’t want you to know.
The tavern Dadafodd towered beaconlike in this blended stretch between the south side and the east side.  It was not isolated.  Ropy catwalks or bridges carried dragons from atop other buttes or buildings, supporting them across with bamboo rods and hope.  Nighttime figures once or twice darted to or from the Dadafodd and the sundry buildings which lay here like saplings around a forest’s first tree.
The ones who didn’t dart⁠ ⁠—⁠ or saunter, or menace⁠ ⁠—⁠ stood around.  Leaning against storefronts and sitting on benches, you’d think here were all the dragons we didn’t see walking the way from the south gate.
As dark as it was, we could have walked right into the Dadafodd not even seeing him.  But his scent lighted on my tongue, and I couldn’t miss or mistake it: the burnt wood aroma of a certain warm gray drake.
Digrif was here.
Mawla felt me slow.  Her voice was still gentle.  “What is it now?”
“I smell a friend.  I don’t know why they’re here.”
“You never know who shows up to the Dadafodd.”
“But it’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ suspicious.  If he’s here, it could be to meet the thieves from the market.”
Blankly, Mawla said, “Ask him?”
Humming with thought, I took a step forward, tugging us into motion again.  The scent gradient led toward the entrance anyway; the warm gray drake sat beside it on a bench, twisting another dinder root.  The front door, a few strides away, opened beside him.
“Hey.”  He dropped the root.  “Kinri?”
“Y-yeah.  How’d you guess?”
“You err, you smell like crab blood.”
Beside me, a whisper of “So that’s what that was.
“It was for Hinte!”
“Of course it was.”  Mawla patted my back.  Then she twisted her head and snaked it toward the drake.  “So.  What brings you to the Dadafodd?”
Digrif looked between us.  Flicked his nervous tongue four times.  Finally said, “Well, nothing.  I’m here to meet a⁠ ⁠—⁠ friend, is all.”
Mawla grinned, and asked high, “Is that all?”
I threw a wing around Mawla, tugged her a little closer.  “Digrif, this is Mawla.  I⁠ ⁠—⁠ I trust her.  You can say the real reason.”
Mawla glance subtly at me.  “You… trust me?”
I grinned.  “Obviously.”
She didn’t say anything to that, just looked cloudily at the ground.
“Well…”  Head fallen, he started looking at the ground.  “You probably already guessed, then.”
“Trying to meet the thief?”
“I wasn’t going to betray you guys, I promise.  I just thought⁠ ⁠—⁠ Adwyn and all seemed to not know a lot about the thieves, so maybe I could find something out?”
“Good luck with that,” Mawla said.  “But we’ve gotta go.  Scream for help if you need it.”  She winked a frill.  “Worked for me.”
Digrif reached down to pick up the root.  Then jolted up, a wing waving out.  “Wait, wait!  Hinte’s not with you.  I thought you two were together.  Where’d she go?”
“Excuse me?”  It was Mawla answering, not me.  “Kinri has more than one friend.  Not everything she does melts back to Hinte.”
“Err, I⁠ ⁠—” I started.  But Mawla was yanking me away, and Digrif was already replying.
He (inadvertently) interrupted, “Sorry sorry.  It’s just, well, Hinte didn’t seem like she wanted to be alone when she left.”  He went back to twisting his root in his forefeet.
Mawla said, “Not leaving would have been the obvious way to do that.”
Digrif asked me.  “Is she alright?  Hinte, I mean.”
“She flew away to do⁠ ⁠—⁠ something.  Something I won’t like.  I don’t know what she’s trying to do, but my guesses are⁠ ⁠—⁠ bad.”
“Do you think she’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ you know?”
Do you think Hinte is the traitor.  Do you think she’s working against Gwymr/Frina.
I looked back as the wiver opened the stone door for me.
I said, “I⁠ ⁠—⁠ don’t know.”
Digrif was still twisting the root; it snapped it half. “Should we, should we stop her?”
I thought of blind Ffrom and the four guards.  “Could we stop her?”
“She would listen to us.”
Mawla was still holding open the door, and by now we were blocking people from going in or out.  I slipped away, sat on the bench.  With what we were discussing⁠ ⁠—⁠ we couldn’t let the wrong dragon hear us, couldn’t attract attention.
Like my silvery cloak sown with gemstones didn’t seal that deal.
“Kinri, we’re so close.  C’mon.”
Digrif was continuing.  “Or, or should we… help her?”
“If she’s doing what I think, I don’t want to help.  I’d have to stop her.”
Digrif tilted his head.
“Avenge Ceian and Ffrom.  Hunt down the humans we just made peace with.  I’d have to stop her.  It’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ it’s what a hero would do.  Save dragons, or humans.”
“I⁠ ⁠—⁠ I don’t know.  Those humans killed dragons.  We could have killed them, but we didn’t.  If we could spare them, they could have spared them.”
“Kinri if you don’t get up, I’m just gonna leave you here with your drakefriend.”
Squeak.  “My drakefriend?”  Blood rushed to my brilles.
“It’s okay, Kinri.  Go ahead.  I’ll keep waiting for the thief.”
Mawla pulled me and together we fell into the sultry pink light of Dadafodd. 

Mawla had said she knew a drake.  I decided I did too.
We’d climbed the stairwall in the middle of the Dadafodd; she assured me he was one floor up.
Here, pink light floated down from oil burning in tinted lamps, and with it came an aroma of roses and crisp tea leaves.  The babble and ruckus of half-drunk dragons came low, as if all held their voice to hear the music.
Over all, the singing of stirring, sinuous strings resounded from the head of the room, the sound rising from the body of twin crwths.  They could have been the violins or harps of the sky, between the steady bowing and the delicate fingerings, but the instrument had more of a buzz to it.  They played harmony for the stubborn low melody of a pibgorn⁠ ⁠—⁠ some fatmouthed flute.
That was the background, the atmosphere in which our journey founds its end.
Mawla had said she knew a drake, and now, after everything, it was time to meet him.  But first, we had to find him.
“Red scales,” was what she told me.  “Brownish red scales, glasses, honestly kinda lanky.  He’s got a posture like the world is some joke.”
She might as well had said his name.  If there were another drake like that in Gwymr/Frina, I wasn’t sure if I could stay here and sane.
“I know just who you mean.”
And she let out a great sigh at that.  We had just stepped off the stairwall⁠ ⁠—⁠ I’d half carried her⁠ ⁠—⁠ and she leaned to the wall where the stairs blent with it.
So I walked away like that.  The second floor was all sixsided slabs orbiting this stair wall which in the middle of it all rose up and up.  The burning pink lamps⁠ ⁠—⁠ bright but not bright⁠ ⁠—⁠ nourished a kind of the dim coziness I liked.  My dark scales blent with the dimness, and you could almost miss their hue.
I walked the tavern with new anonymity.  There were big watchful dragons at the corners, surveying, who gave me one glance and nothing more.  I slinked past one stumbling dragon who got a good look and, eyes unfocused, didn’t react except to yell me out of their way.
When you don’t flinch from the gaze of others, you can see the stuff you’ve been missing.  You can see the slabs next to each other whose conversation almost blend, edges lost like in a rendering, and you can see the harsh clashing slabs where the unlucky dragons would sit across the room if they could.
The web of glances and attention guided your eyes like a masterfully composed painting.  Dadafodd was a plain-dweller tavern, and you could see the tension around the slabs where the other races sat.  Made it easy to tell where any (brownish) red scaled dragon would sit.
My eyes settled on a slab everyone would notice, if they looked long enough.  Four dragons, a lithe plain-dweller, a big cliff-dweller, and two mountain-dwellers you’d mistake for one if there wasn’t two of them.  Scrolls piled up, one open before the plain-dweller.
None of them were him.  I could have, would have, left them alone.  I was doing something.
But I knew the big cliff-dweller.  A wiver.  Awld.  The other library volunteer.  One of my friends, and yet I’d lost touch with her.
Still, I could have, would have, left that thread loose.  Tie it up later, when I wasn’t doing something, for someone.
But like I said, tension was visible.  You could read context at the borders between slabs.  To their left was a half hooded figure, the hood pulled as high as it could go and leave the frills free.  They had a scroll too, an inked claw scratching, and I knew the jerky energy of shorthand.
Something was happening over there, and my feet were quietly carrying my curiosity before my mind had decided it really wanted to know.
Slabs tended thicker, more numerous, toward the walls, and those slabs had lit lamps.  My anonimity burnt away before the light.  Not just because of my scales⁠ ⁠—⁠ dragons weren’t even looking at them yet.
Even inactive, a Specter cloak catches eyes, and I’d hadn’t taken mine off.
What would you do when everyone could see there was something interesting about you, something that made you worth a second glance, worth a closer watch?  When you wanted to just sneak and eavesdrop, then return to your actual task?
I knew walking furtive and creeping, trying to hide from the gazes I’d already garnered, would just underscore suspicion.
So into it I leaned.  I lifted myself into a high stand and strood right up to the four dragon’s slab, let the murmurs and raised brows start in my wake.
Corner of my vision, there was the half hooded dragon, head raised.  I couldn’t tell but they had to be looking at me.  But I hadn’t noticed them, that was the lie I told with my posture.  Visibly, I had all my attention on those four random dragons.
My feet erased the distance quick enough.  I got there just in time to know whatever they were up to concerned me.
It was one of the mountain-dweller⁠ ⁠—⁠ twins, had to be twins.  One of them said, “—⁠ right to his house when all the action was happening!  A whole skien of guards!”
The other twin.  “And once they left, all day long there were two inquirers breathing outside.  Inquirers.
The plain-dweller responded.  He still hadn’t looked up from his scroll, and even speaking, his eyes didn’t stop scanning the page.  “Forget the superstitions.”  The voice managed dry and bitter even among hot and aromatic tavern air, even under the sweet music.  “Inquirers are just investigators.  Nothing magic about them.  Nothing mysterious.”
Awld now.  “Still, magic or not they cannot mean well for Chwithach-sofran.  They’s still there when I flew over here.  He couldn’t have come by his house all day.”
A head roll.  Still reading, they said, “You’ve got a brain, then.”
Where is he, Ehnym?” a twin asked.  “He’d tell you.  He tells you everything.”
Awld was looking at Ehnym, and so was the twin who’d spoken.  The other twin was staring down front of their mat, where they had a plate and a glass of something sitting on the floor.  As if they wouldn’t put it on the slab, for some reason.  Ehnym too glanced at a glass⁠ ⁠—⁠ of water?⁠ ⁠—⁠ in front of his mat.
Watching all this, I was standing⁠ ⁠—⁠ seemingly unnoticed⁠ ⁠—⁠ right in front of the table.
But I was reflected in Ehnym’s glass, and my stealth felt incomplete.
Ehnym answered the question, “Hiding out with a friend.  Someone who isn’t afraid of inquirers.”
I could think of no better way to break into the conversation: “What’s this about the librarian?”  I chose the title⁠ ⁠—⁠ just in case there were another Chwithach who’d had guards at his house.
Awld started a glance over, then started in recognition.  She remembered me.
One twin furrowed their brow, the other frowned.  One asked, “Who are you to Chwithach-sofran?”
I opened my mouth.  Unbidden, the traveler’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ Dieithr’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ words came to me, from what already felt like forever ago.
He speaks highly of you.  ‘Never seen one so quick with figures, or clawing so neat.’
Cycles in his tutorship, volunteering at the library, transcribing his thoughts when he needed to think aloud, being the only one whom he could speak to in the sea or mountain tongues⁠ ⁠—
But when it came to speak of me to others, I was quick figures and neat clawings.
It felt petty⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was a compliment, but⁠ ⁠—
A twin was speaking.  “I will hazard a guess and say you’re not a friend of his, then?”
I wasn’t controlling my face.  Oops.
“It’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ complicated.”
“How?”
“Um, like, I thought I was close with him, right?  But maybe I’m not because, um.”
“Because?”
“It’s going to sound silly if I say⁠ ⁠—”
“You’ll waste each of our evenings with this circling moil.”  The plain-dweller?  I couldn’t see his mouth.
“It’s just when he talking about me to others, he’s just like, he says I’m quick with figures and neat with clawings, but that’s⁠ ⁠—”
“A lie.”
“How do you even⁠ ⁠—”
“You’re Kinri.”
I took a step back.  “How did you know?”  The question became sound before I could even think.  Of course he’d know if he could read.  A instant glance at the scroll.  He could read.
Even though he was looking at someone for a change, his brilles were clouded.  He said, “Chwithach doesn’t talk about you like that at all, at all.”
I tilted my head.  “Dieithr said⁠ ⁠—”
“Chwithach says you are a neat dragon.  He’s enamored with you, for all that you don’t deserve it.”
“What?  I even donate every time⁠ ⁠—”
“Because you can buy affection, is that right?  You act⁠ ⁠—”
“Will you stop interrupting me?  What’s your name?  Who tried and failed to teach you manners?”
The plain-dweller whisked a greenishbrown wing.  “Manners are a waste of time that lets idiots protect their egos.  I know what you’re trying to say before you finish your first clause.  Why should I suffer to hear you prattle on?”
“Why should I suffer to hear you prattle on?”
“When I say something, it matters.”
“Whatever.  I just want to know if Chwithach⁠ ⁠—”
Another interruption.  This time by that high, strained voice.  “Dwylla’s limp dicks, Kinri, you can’t take twelve steps without getting sidetracked and distracted.  Dissidetrackted.”
I turned and she was grinning but limping.
“C’mon, I smelt him while you were lookin.”
Mawla was tugging at me again, but I looked back to the four dragons again.  Awld was giving me a sympathetic look, the twins had a furrowed suspicion on one side and a confusion on the other, and Ehnym had looked back to his scroll.
“Just so you know, you were being overheard and transcribed.”  The half hooded dragon was gone when I looked.
Ehnym shrugged.  “They already know.” 

“Yo, K,” Sinig said.  “I thought I told you not to lick after trouble.”  He raised a wing and languidly pointed an alula at Mawla.  “In case you don’t know, she is trouble.”
“You just told me to be careful.”
“If rumors are the judge, you’ve got one dangerous way of being careful.”
I tossed my head.  “It works,” I said.  “Anyway, uh, how’s your evening going?”
He had something of a bruise on one cheek, and a cut under one disbudded horn.
A wryness was tugging at his lips, but he did reply.  “Won some fights, had some drinks, nothing worth conversation about.”  He looked at me.  “You went to see Claff?”
I looked away from from Sinig.
On the second floor, at the fringes where the shadows had swallowed the walls, there were little curtained alcoves you wouldn’t have noticed without staring long.  Slipping into Sinig’s little alcove, you immediately felt something was different.
The patrons outside sat on mats.  Cotton mats.  In here you sat on leather.  Then you looked to Sinig.  His mat had a raised back rest, and the leather was sown with glass hairs.  It had a back rest.  He lay on his back, one foreleg resting atop of the rest, the other held up to gesture or scratch his chin.  He was careless relaxation.
On the slab before us lay his glasses, yet he regarded us confidently.  Or rather, regarded confidently the utterly blurry splotches of color; I’d once seen Sinig, no glasses, sidle over and strike up conversation with a flower pot.
On that same slab, three separate fires burned.  There was the sultry pink lamp light, a stick of incense burning down and crying ash into a tray, and the dying smolder of a roll of leaves wrapped in paper that left me feeling⁠ ⁠—⁠ odd, even scenting it.  Sinig had the manners to set it down when I walked in and hadn’t taken a puff since I sat.
Maybe it was the languid pace of all his actions, maybe it was the way he’d pick up, put down, or just gesture without deigning to look away, or maybe it was something subtler still, but there was something high in his mien.  It made all of this feel like Sinig holding court.
He wasn’t the first brownish red dragon who’d come off like this.  I wanted to walk him into a locked room with Mlaen and see what happened.
A poke.  “Wake up Kinri, he asked somethin.”
I jerked and cleared my eyes to take in the dragons in the room.  Sinig.  Mawla.  Two others, at Sinig’s left and right (even though it really didn’t suit either of them) were Arall and Mawrion.
Arall at least had the dignity to be checked out.  In front of her she had a little ferny scroll and scratched ink in it.  It wasn’t transcription.
Mawrion, though, you watched the rhythm and angle of his glances and you realized, on some level here, he deferred to Sinig.  Mawrion, owner of the Llygaid Crwydro, Mawrion, the boss of Sinig.  Deferred to him.
Sinig gave a smile and shook his head.  “No, I can tell by the look.  But I take it you’re getting impatient with all this smalltalk, M?”
“Yeah let’s cut to the tongue of the matter.  Bauume’s just as much trouble as you guessed.”
“I’m not often wrong, but I wish.”
Mawla continued, “He was muttering some nonsense like he knew about the market earlier.  You hear about that?”
“Course I did.  Everyone did.”  The brownishred drake looked back to me, with a small smile.  “Heard about what happened after the market, too.”  There was a note in his voice, and a hint on his fangs.  Pride.
I didn’t know what to do with the feeling bubbling in my gut.  I wanted to change the topic.  I blurted, “Mawla needs your help.”
Sinig raised his browscales.
Mawla rolled her head, said, “Yeah.  Bauume hit me hard in places.  Hurts to stand on the wrong leg.  Maybe you know what to do about it.”
He scratched his chin.  There was some twitch upward in his foot that might have been a checked instinct to adjust his glasses.
Insignificant as that was, it was at that I clouded my eyes and some edge left me.  As if seeing a nervous falter in his visage… grounded it.  Ground us.  This was still Sinig, my coworker, and not a regal changeling.
“M.  You think we can spare the expense?”
“Of course,” replied Mawrion.  “It is a matter of time, as it always is.”
“Then how far do you think it’d set us back?”
“Half a cycle.  A good half a cycle.”
Sinig nodded to the canyon-dweller counting money on his right side.  “I can swallow that.”
I cleared my eyes, and licked my fangs, feeling an utterly hypocritical impatience riding up on me.  “Are you going to help Mawla, or not?”
“I will, K, don’t bite me.”  His other foreleg finally lurched from its resting position, both of them coming up in a defense posture.  “After all, I promised I’d take care of her.”
Mawla gave him a smile.  “You’re a good drake, Sinig.  I like having you there for me.”  Her voice dropped like she only wanted me to hear, but she was too naturally loud and the room was too intimate for that to work at all, at all.  She was saying, “I don’t know how you manage it all the time, but I like it.”
“All about knowing the right dragons and making the right plays.  That’s all it is, M.”
Then, for the first time, Sinig glanced at the wiver on his side of the room, Arall still clawing her fernscroll.  “A, why don’t you take our friends to her unholiness.  Should still be in her room.” 

We slinked out Sinig’s alcove quick, Arall high walking like she didn’t care if we followed.  Mawla was treading up in front of me, strutting right beside the big plain-dweller wiver.  She was grinning, Mawla was.
“Say, Arall,” she started, “since you weren’t doing nothing useful up in that alcove, and since they got both crwth’s back for the first time in what, cycles, how about we go,”⁠ ⁠—⁠ she pointed at the moving throng before the musicians’ stage⁠ ⁠—⁠ “and dance like we used to?”
Arall was silent.  She felt beside her the yellowbrown wiver start to poke her and poke her.  She finally said, “No.”  Then, “Idiot.”
She didn’t stop grinning.  If anything it grew, in some way other than growing wider.  “Fine by me!  It’s not like I need you, obviously.”  She slacked her stride just a bit, fell back to where I was.  “What about you, Kinri?  How about, after I get this leg and everything fixed, we try to dance a little.”
It sounded nice.
I glanced to the the big wiver, who hadn’t looked back.  Instead she scanned the second flooring, pathing around the bustle of dragons.
I said, “Why am I the second dragon you ask?”
“I mean obviously I knew she’d say no.  She always does.  It’s a running joke at this point.”
Arall muttered, “I’m not laughing.”
We were halfway to the stairwall, we all kept walking.
Mawla was still talking.  “Well?  You didn’t answer.”
I could see the game she was playing.  I could still be mad; I could feel used.  Did she just want to dance with me, or was it for Arall?
I didn’t really want to, though.  It sounded nice.
I said, “Sure.”
So we walked in smiling silence⁠ ⁠—⁠ two of us⁠ ⁠—⁠ through the sultry pink light of the Dadafodd.  We made it to the stairwall.  Mawla was the first to climb down, some expression of her unswayed desire to finally, at last, get that help we’d been searching for the whole while.
You’d have guess Arall would be next.  I had.  But instead the big wiver turned and looked at me, in a clearbrilled assessing way she’d never done in the Llygaid Crwydro.
“Never thought I’d see you around these parts.”
“I’d say the same, but…”
“It wouldn’t be true.”
“Yeah.”
Silence for a bit, we were still looking at each other.  Interacting in a way⁠ ⁠—⁠ in an acknowledging way, in an equal way⁠ ⁠—⁠ for the first time.
It was long enough that Mawla called up to us.  Asking if she’d have to come up and throw us downstairs.
Arall flicked her tongue one last time, and licked her brilles.  And she finally said what she wanted.
“You don’t belong here, do you?”
She meant the Dadafodd.  She didn’t just mean the Dadafodd. 
* * *
Next

3 thoughts on “Gazing II: Peer”

  1. “Squeak. “My drakefriend?” Blood rushed to my brilles.”
    Yeah, she’s blushing ‘cuz she is so disgusted with the idea of Digrif x Kinri just like all of us.

    Also, twins? Dragon twins?? I had to look up if twins even CAN hatch from the same egg, and it looks like it does happen, but it seems EXTREMELY rare. In a sentient species with civilization, the sheer rarity of viable twins hatching seems like they might fall into mythological or religious events when they actually occur; I hope you go more into this because I have thought about this too much.

    Also, just like when Ultimate Spider-Man broke up Peter Parker and Mary Jane for a while and had Kitty Pryde enter the picture, maybe Mawla isn’t such a bad couple choice after all…

    Like

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