Chapter X: Covet

iiiiii

i.

I watched Ushra’s black eyes as he stepped in.  They were orbs almost sunken in a face hundreds of gyras old, and there were depths to those eyes.  Whatever sense of dragons I might have, I wouldn’t push it trying to read Ushra.
Those eyes were lingering on the orange drake high-walking in. The ancient alchemist was frowning.
Under that gaze, Adwyn entered. A red dress was flowing under him, swishing as he walked in, gleaming in the fain light of the loversuns.  His metallic-red eyes met mine as he entered, then he glanced around the room and his gaze settled on the dark-jade wiver.
“Ah, Gronte-gyfar. Greetings,” he said, and inclined his head with it. His brilles were clouding in a way which had them glinting slightly in the sunslight, and he may have missed the brief frown on the old wiver’s face.
Turning to our end of the slab, he added, “And hello, Specter-eti, Gären-eti. I was looking for you both, in fact.”
I saw Hinte lean forward, and I waved my tongue, murmuring, “What winds that we’re both here, then.”  Stabbing a bit of chicken and lifting it to my mouth I stared at him through a window’s reflection.  I wondered whether someone could have listened in on our conversation last night, and I chewed.
The military adviser looked to me, smirking. He said, “Not quite a coincidence, you see.”
I coughed a bit, the meat choking a little in my throat.
“I had come to meet you first, Kinri-cyf. But then I saw you flying and decided to follow you here.”  There was a careless toss of his head before he added, “You aren’t quite observant.”
“Come and sit, Adwyn-sofran,” Gronte said, waving at the two empty mats.
The orange drake lay down in the spot beside me. He did that on purpose, he had to.
“And now, we only need to wait for Digrif.”
I glanced up to the ceiling, some tile pattern looking even less colorful than the black and brown floor.  Up there were thirty-six hexagon tiles in a skirmboard pattern, dark gray on darker gray.
I tapped a thoughtful rhythm on my snout. Would it take long for Digrif to get here?
The warm-gray drake would show up to games long past the first act, sometimes past even the second act.  When he checked out scrolls from the library, he’d always turn them in late, at least back when I had been volunteering.  And while he often came by the Llygaid Crwydro putting in orders for tools or supplies, not once had he come by to pick them up.  Someone else always had.
Briefly, Digrif was terrible about showing up to anything on time. But he’d seemed excited about Hinte’s exploits last night.  Maybe he’d show up earlier because of that?
…After Hinte had finished her plate, after I had started my second chicken, after Staune had fully crunched Ushra’s proffered nut, after Gronte finally started eating her food, after Ushra had filled his leaf of fernpaper and then begun talking with Staune in whispered Drachenzunge, after so many well-measured moments, it really seemed I had been expecting too much.
After more conversation, after more impatient glances leveled at Hinte, there at last came that long-awaited knock⁠ ⁠—⁠ it could only be Digrif.  Ushra left again and you heard a quick exchange from the hall and then a slam of the door.
The light-green drake returned alone.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Some of those ashwitted Dychwelfa ac Dwylla dregs. Such a waste of time.” Then, almost under his breath, he added, “We never would have tolerated these orts back in the forests.”
“Why not?”
He whisked a wing.  “Religions and similar residua are banned in the forests.” He settled back on his mat, letting his parrot Staune nibble on his sweet root.
Gronte coughed, said, “Were banned. You know that’s not the case anymore.”
This time he whisked the wing at Gronte.  “Feh.  It is their own erosion.  The ashes are not the forests, and I shall not consider them so.  I’ve nothing to do with them.”
Dropped my chicken, peering at Ushra, I asked, “How is that even possible?”  My foot was still tapping on my snout.  “That’s like saying you’ve banned art or something.”
“Ah yes, we did try that once, but it… did not work so very well.  Easier to let dragons waste their and energy as is their wont.”
At that I widened my frills a bit, and saw the adviser do the same.  Gronte let her head rest on a foreleg, clouding her brilles.  Before I could ask what he meant, a purple parrot bounced back in through the doorway and fluttered onto the slab.
Ceya, I have returned!” said the bird. Wasn’t he checking on some Monsoon or something?
Gronte looked at the parrot, a glare angling into her frills. “I didn’t hear the hatch open, Versta.  When ask you to do something, I expect that you do it, not lie about it.”
“But⁠ ⁠—”
“Check on Monsun, Versta.”
The bird spread his wings and fell backward from the slab.  Landing on his feet he disappeared through the door once again.
“What is Monsoon?” I asked.
Gronte glanced at the dark-green wiver.  Tapping her locket, she said, “Another parrot of ours, one who is not in adequate health.”
“Why doesn’t Versta want to check on them?  Is it just him acting hatchy again?”
“It is… private.  I’d rather not discuss it with strangers.”
“Oh oops, I’m sorry.”
Adwyn was still looking at Ushra.  “Did the forests truly ban art?  It seems a little…  difficult to believe.”
“No,” started Gronte, “Ushra is just twisting history for a joke.  There was a time when the paints and parchments used by artists were scarce and restricted for us in war, but that was long before even the rule of clans, and it was hardly systemic.”
Beside me, Hinte clenched her feet together and looked at the orange drake.  She asked him, “Why were you looking for us.”
“Ah yes, that.  I⁠ ⁠—”
Another knock came from the door, just before the first long ring.  In reply a trill came up from the empty mat and Versta poked his head up, looking to Staune, who was perched over the nut I’d given her.
Ueh, Toastyfeathers! Wanna bet that’s not the one either? I’ll take yer nut.”
The old wiver stood up with a sharp glance at the purple parrot.  Her voice came slow and deliberate, sounding more dangerous than when she had seemed a pitch from shouting.  “Versta, what are you doing in here?”  I found myself almost dewing sorry for the little bird.
The purple parrot ducked back under the slab while the dark-jade wiver stalked around to him.  He darted out from the slab between me and Hinte, running then leaping for the doorway while we watched.  Gronte followed him out, slipping into muttered Drachenzunge that didn’t sound very nice at all, at all.
“Poor bird.” Hinte dipped her head. “What was he expecting?”
Adwyn had watched this happen out with that same disquieted look he had worn when he saw the humans.  “What is this all about?”
I glanced around the slab.  Gronte had left, and so had Ushra sometime while I hadn’t been looking.  “This is the third time Gronte-sofran asked him to go check on one of their other parrots, who’s sick.”
“Ah.”  Adwyn licked his eyes, and said, “It’s unsightly, you know.  Hearing an animal talk.  Is it a forest-dweller thing, or are Ushra’s magics stranger than I’ve heard?”
The red bird squawked at Adwyn and spread her wings, but Hinte stopped her with a tonguesnap.  “Come here, little hen,” the wiver said, and she held out her alula and the red parrot flew over to perch there.
Looking back to the drake, Hinte said, “No. Dragon-tongued parrots have been around for thousands of gyras.  Our histories speak of our parrots in the same breath as snakes or monitors.”
Staune cawed and added in Hinte’s voice, “And Ushra is an alchemist, not a magician.”
“You hardly have a head large enough to correct me, little hen.”
When Staune squawked and flew at him the dark-green wiver didn’t try to stop her —⁠ but Ushra stepped through the door just after the red bird took to the air.
“Staune,” was all he said.
The bird landed just so, and looked back at the old drake.  But her head lowered, and she scuffed her way back to Ushra’s filled fernpaper⁠ ⁠—⁠ not before kicking her foot out at the orange drake.
Behind Ushra, a familiar drake dragon trailed into the room.
“Wow Hinte!” was his greeting.  “I knew you were up to something awesome, but I didn’t expect you had been adventuring!”  His wings hitched up and down in excitement.  He vibrated.
Hinte groaned. “I was not adventuring.”
“She wasn’t,” I echoed in her defense.  “It really wasn’t that much of an adventure.”
“You traveled deep into unmapped parts of cliffs!  You fought monsters!  You two are totally adventurers,” he said as he stepped into the room, laying himself on the other side of Hinte.  Hecking Adwyn.  Why did I have to sit next a freaky canyon-dweller instead of Digrif?
“We didn’t do a whole lot, though,” I said.”
“The point is moot, perhaps,” said Adwyn.  “I glimpse Hinte is the hero of the day.”
Adwyn saw me frowning at him, and he returned a pale-eyed, lip-twitching glance.
I was a hero too, wasn’t I? I sighed, my frills drooping like the sad willows in the front yard.  I returned to staring at the tiles on the ceiling.
“Digrif-ychy has finally arrived,” started Gronte as she high-walked back into the room.  She continued, “So, now that we are all present,”⁠ ⁠—⁠ she tapped her locket, Hinte, can you tell us what did happen out in the lake last night?”

Hinte told her story, one foot held over the other.  Looking down at her feet, she started only at smelling the blood and sweat.
Gronte had stopped eating partway through, watching her granddaughter with worried looks and clutching her locket.  Ushra, on the other foot, seemed to continue eating his meal as he listened, moving his utensils, but on closer inspection, no part of his plate had grown smaller as the story went on.  Adwyn picked at his claws, looking around the slab at Ushra and me.  And on the last foot, Digrif hadn’t wavered a bit in his excitement.
When Hinte reached the point where the humans attacked, mentioning how it had been my plan that outsmarted both humans, Digrif glanced over at me, and my glumness fought giddy excitement for rights to my lips.  Adwyn glanced my way too, but I ignored him.
When you heard how heroic this story sounded from Hinte’s perspective… maybe you wouldn’t think I wasn’t a hero.  I had needed Hinte to save me from the olm, to convince me to fly toward danger instead of away, to finish off the humans.  I hid from Wrang when he took the weapon from the human, and had been no better than bait against the humans.
As Hinte reached the point where the rockwraiths had attacked, Digrif bounced on his mat.  The rockwraiths.  That was all me, the one point in this story where I might look middling heroic to anyone else.
“Hey,” I interrupted. Everyone turned to me, Hinte looking up and Adwyn glancing up from his claws.  “Can I tell this part of the story, Hinte?”
She inclined her head. A quiver of nervous anticipation flew through me, lighting as cloying chagrin on my fangs.
“Um,” I started.
Adwyn twitched his lips, and my frills flared in embarrassment.  This was such a mistake!  Why did I go through with this horrible idea?
Then Digrif shifted on his mat, facing me with an easy smile. I don’t know why, but knowing he was listen gave me the drove me to continue⁠ ⁠—⁠ instead of the opposite.
“So. I had been following behind Hinte. We were, uh, above the lake and it was pretty foggy and I could hardly see in front of me.  So I just followed after Hinte.  She had her, err, goggles, so that she could see a lot farther in the vog…”  A small smile lighted on Gronte’s face.
“But she couldn’t see the wraith when it shot out of the vog beside her — it plunged right into her side⁠ ⁠—⁠ and then another appeared right beside it about to take her head off!  But she dodges in time and it misses.  So they start fighting, but while that was happening I was attacked by two others.  I threw one off by distracting it with the human I was carrying, but the other would not stop chasing me!”  Digrif was shifting on his mat again, leaning about as far forward as he could without slipping.
“So I flew up and it followed me up and I grabbed it and slammed it into the lake.  But by now they were both attacking me at once and I couldn’t get a hit in edgewise… And I remembered something Hinte had told me earlier.  She was explaining how the first human had been half-eaten by rockwraiths and said, ’Kinri.  Skinhounds will eat you, and crabs will run away, but wraiths will only stop attacking when you stop moving…”  Hinte had an odd smile on her face⁠ ⁠— her lip was curled, but it wasn’t smirk.
“So I stopped moving. The wraiths stopped attacking me — but I could hear Hinte off in the distance and her fight wasn’t going well at all at all.  I had to get us out of here, but what could I do?  With four wraiths between the both of us, we couldn’t fight them off.  But I thought and thought…  All sorts of creatures around the lake sleep out the gray season.  But wraiths don’t⁠ ⁠—⁠ what do they eat?”  Staune hopped by Ushra’s side, eating a sliver of chicken meat.  I gave her a half-smile before continuing.
“Glasscrabs, it had to be.  So I took a glasscrab I had killed earlier and threw it⁠ ⁠—⁠ the wraiths took the bait and I ran to Hinte.  I told her my plan, to lure them away like that.  And it works!  They take the bait and fly away with my crabs.”
“And we won.” Hinte concluded.
I smiled with her, but I glanced at her wings when she looked away.  It is not defeat until you can no longer play, I heard vaguely echoed.
Adwyn murmured, “Impressive,” and I glanced sharply at him. Then I looked down, so no one would have to see my goofy smile.  What I did was impressive, wasn’t it?  At least someone admits that, even if it was Adwyn.
And — didn’t that make me a hero in your eyes? At least slightly?
Digrif was saying, “Ooh, is that why your face was all bloodied up when I found you last night?”
“Yeah,” I said, “It was uh, more red than blue.”
“I imagine it is a good look on you,” Adwyn said.
“Wha —” I said just as Ushra started laughing. Gronte gave a stormy look at Adwyn; but she thought better of it, and settled for glaring at Ushra.  Hinte lifted a wing to her mouth and Digrif looked around the slab, not really settling on anything and drawing his wings closer to himself.
“Is — heh — Is that the end of your story?” Ushra asked.
“Yes.  We just went to the town hall next and told the faer.  I would rather not tell a story about telling a story.  This is all very boring as it is.”
“Your story, perhaps,” Adwyn said.
I winced, but smiled despite myself; I tried to give a sympathetic look to Hinte.  I don’t think it worked.

Ushra looked to his neglected meal, and after a prodding by Staune, began to eat at last.  I looked back to my food.  Watching someone eat was impolite.  It’s intimate, something you only do with lovers or close family.  But eating with the Gärens didn’t make me feel any closer to them, just gave me a curling queasiness in my stomach.
Ushra looked up from his meal before his gaze drifted to the emptiness in front of Adwyn.
“Oh, I have forgotten to feed you, Sofrani, my apologies.”
“Please, my name is Adwyn.  No honorifics.  They make me ill.  Use Gyfari if you must.”
Ushra gave Adwyn a significant gaze, some twinkle is his eye. As if he had just met a kindred spirit.
Ushra left to make Adwyn’s plate. I looked up. But I had tired of tracing the tiles, so I lowered my gaze, and let it wander around the slab.  My gaze settled on Digrif.  Digrif, with warm gray scales, handsome hornscales that curled outward, and that excitable, bubbly smile.  Digrif, with a smell I’d never scented anywhere else⁠ ⁠—⁠ if there were a flower that smelt like fragrant, burnt wood, he would smell like it.  The scent tasted politely insistent and deliciously bitter.
“Hi Digrif,” I said.
He looked to me.  “Ohai… Kinri, was it?”  He remembered!  Granted, it had been said a couple of times at the slab today, but still, he remembered this time.  And he didn’t sound like mother!
“That’s me,” I said.  “So um.  What do you do?”
“Do you mean for work?”
I nodded.  My frills danced a little and I straightened them with a deliberate flex, to keep them still.
Digrif lifted his wing to his chin. “I help my dad, mostly. Construction stuff —⁠ right now he got a contract with one of the sifting businesses to put some beams up down in the pits.  It pays nicely.”
Ushra returned from the kitchen, setting a plate and mug down in front of the orange dragon.
“For you, Adwyn,” he said. I hadn’t known you could emphasize a silence, but Ushra pulled it off.
“Thank you,” he said, and began to eat his food. I averted my gaze.
After Ushra set another plate in front of the warm gray dragon, he returned to his mat.  With a grunt, he put his elbows on the slab, steepling his feet.  Is that…  okay, down here?  My nurse would have knocked me off of my mat if I had tried anything like that.
Staune fluttered in with a roll of blank leafpaper — when did she leave? I didn’t notice.  After setting them down in front of the light-green drake, she pecked at crumbs on his plate.
“Now, about battle with the humans,” Ushra said. “There were some… issues I have been wishing to air ever since I saw my granddaughter’s injuries.  It does not sit right with me.”
Hinte started, dropping her food. Her eyes cleared and her forefeet came to rest, one on top of the other.
“The details,” Gronte started, “just do not seem to add up. What we hear is that these are mere travelers exploring the cliffs?  But you said they attacked you on sight?”
“Yes,” Hinte said, looking down.
“I find that strange,” Ushra said.  “Dragons do not have very much contact with humans, but to them we are almost mythical⁠ ⁠—⁠ Even the humblest human peasant would recognize a dragon.”
“But,” Adwyn started, mouth full of chicken. He choked down his food and continued, “the smog in the Berwem is thick and reduces visibility.  We had concluded that the explorers must have mistaken Hinte for a beast of some form.  Perhaps a wildcat or a rockwraith.”
“Perhaps.  But the fighting techniques of these ‘explorers’ is suspicious.”
Adwyn looked up from his meal, giving Ushra one of those interested glances I had borne the brunt of until now.  “Go on.”
“Hinte said they stabbed her wing, and another hacked at the tendons of her hindleg.”
Hinte lowered her head, staring at her sparse plate.
“Well, I recognize these tactics.  They sound a lot like the work of men trained to fight dragons.”  Ushra broke his explanation to take a few more bites of his chicken, yanking one away from Staune.  Adwyn let him, his brows furrowed in thought.  Ushra finished, and continued, “But why would men trained to fight dragons be out exploring our cliffs, this close to Gwymr/Frina?  The town is on no human map.  It is as if they were expecting her to appear.”
“I am not so sure,” Adwyn said after some time, “Mlaen says that with our lax watch on the cliffs, explorers such as these could have been encroaching on our lands for years.  Between our sifters, and the hunting parties, I find it plausible that a lucky explorer may have spotted what looked like a dragon in the distance, and returned to his conspecifics to spread the tale.”
He sipped from his tea, and continued, in a story-telling tone. “But they were just rumors, tall tales, blindness⁠ ⁠—⁠ reasonable men remain unconvinced.  But eventually, perhaps, some old warriors with experience fighting dragons hear of it, and come in, hoping for more glory.”
“And what of their immediate response?” Gronte countered, but even I felt she was reaching.  “Mere wanderers could not have been expecting her,” Gronte said, “she doesn’t leave for the lake at set times or on set days.  And the lake is large.  I do not think they could track her within it.”
“Yes. But Hinte and Kinri were lured to the humans by their scent. Could that not have been a trap?  They needn’t know her exact whereabouts to draw her in.”
“To what end?” Gronte groused. “They are dead men. Let us assume Hinte’s appearance was an unforeseen complication, instead of taking them for fools.”
“No,” Ushra interrupted, tone slow and deliberate, “let us not assume. As I said, the town is on no human map.  Could it not be that the humans were pawns, perhaps, of another stronghold, one of the many that know of Gwymr/Frina?  They would point them right at the Berwem, and have no qualms about betraying the apes in the process of their plans.”
Gronte said suddenly, “That is paranoid, Ushra —”
“And yet,” Adwyn interrupted, “the cliffs are at peace with every stronghold.  No one has shown any grievance against the Gwymri —” he glanced at Gronte, then added, “yet.”
Gronte continued when the orange drake finished, now peering at the orange dragon, “It is simpler to just assume these humans were too lucky just before their luck suddenly reversed.  No plots, no schemes, just chance.”
“It is worth considering, is all,” Ushra said, “He works under the faer, he can decide that my hunches are worth investigating⁠ ⁠—”
“We are worried for our granddaughter… and her friend, is all, Sof⁠ ⁠—⁠ Adwyn.”
Adwyn rolled his head at Gronte’s almost-honorific. He lowered his head to his plate, but not before giving Hinte and me a clear-eyed look I didn’t miss.

ii.

The table wasn’t silent in the wake of the last conversation, but it had left a need to escape from the accusations and theories with smalltalk or actually eating the food in front of you.  I took that last route, and so did Adwyn, while Digrif chatted laughingly with Gronte and Hinte⁠ ⁠—⁠ and Staune, when the bird wasn’t whispering with Ushra or scratching inked talons on his sheet of leafpaper.
Then Adwyn finished his plate, pushing it forward before bringing his feet together and clasping them.  The orange drake looked right at Hinte.
“So tell me” — the military adviser brought a foreleg up to rest his head on and it was very much a gesture of relaxation and not a gesture of relaxation —⁠ “about your trip into the Berwem,” he said, his tone sounding like he nursed venom in his glands.
“There is not much to tell. I was sifting with Kinri,” she said, gripping one forefoot with another.
“Yes, I am sure. I will not ask for what, exactly, you two felt the need to slink out that late into the night.  I will, however, tell you that sifting the Berwem is not something you can do on whim.  You need a writ of permission, otherwise you will face a fine, and possible imprisonment,” he said, and let that hang in the air.  Point made, he continued, “And I checked the records⁠ ⁠— neither of you have such a permit.”
“Why check? She has done nothing wrong,” her grandfather said.
“It is the law.  For safety, for security.  Not only is the immense heat of the lake, even outside this season, dangerous, but the extra regulation keeps certain troublemakers from taking residence in the fires.”  Adwyn took another sip from his mug.  “Hinte is in no trouble, I assure you.  I merely wanted to smooth this out before it becomes an issue.  In fact, I brought the papers with me.  Consider it our thanks, perhaps,” he said, placing a small bundle of forms onto the slab, sliding it toward the dark-green fledgling.
Hinte looked them over, silent.
“And there is another matter, less serious but much harder to cullet.  The head guard Rhyfel received report late last night that two alchemists attacked the night watch at the Berwem gate.  They matched your descriptions, to a detail.”  The orange dark clouded his eyes, and waited.
The first reaction I saw was Ushra glancing at me.
The second was Gronte scowling at Hinte. “Enkelin.”
After Digrif turned his tongue-fluttering gaze to us, then we reacted: Hinte flexing her frills and gazing at Adwyn with that same defiant regard I’d seen after the rockwraiths fled, while I was looking down, frills, wings, tails all waning small.  It had felt good, was all I could think.
But the military adviser had only paused, and now he was continuing, “Rhyfel the younger sends his disappointment,”⁠ ⁠—⁠ Ushra flicked his tongue at the name⁠ ⁠— “he told me to tell you your fierceness is for our enemies, not our allies.  He’s decided you shall not go to Wydrllos, however —”
“It was self-defense.”
I didn’t know who had spoken until every head turned to me.
“Um.”
Adwyn’s voice was dust. “Pray enlighten us, Kinri-ychy.”
“Well.  One–one of the guards had a sword, they were about to attack us.”
Then Hinte spoke up, and I sighed relief. “We did nothing to harm them. It was an air-catalyzed reaction that overstimulates their photoreceptors.  They recovered in moments.”  Ushra gave Hinte a tight, easy-to-miss smile.
“All they really hurt from was wounded pride,” I added.
“Nevertheless, the guard is a distinguished position of authority.  If the guard was truly out of skein, it must be brought to our sight, and not handled on your own.  After all, the report did say that you antagonized them.”  Adwym gave Hinte a half-smirk.
Ushra waved a wing and caught Adwyn’s gaze. “Tell Rhyfel — the younger — that my Enkelin is within her rights.  Call it an experiment, just like old times.  He’ll understand.”  Ushra clouded his brilles, his head easing back.
I glanced around the slab and found Gronte staring at Ushra, her eyes clear and tongue held still in the air.  I couldn’t help imagining it meant this discussion would continue later.
There was a squawk from a corner of the table where no one was looking. Staune stood there, baring her wings.  “Why,” she warbled, “would a red-and-yellow have a sword?  All red-and-yellows I saw have clubs and sticks, yes.”
“Guards supply their own weapons —”
“Swords are expensive, no?  He’s up to something.”
Adwyn glared at the bird, and turned away with a jerk and a shake of his head. Looking at Hinte, he said, “There is another thing I wanted to mention.”  He arched a brow.  “More about your means of sifting the lake.  The heat of the lake can severely burn⁠ ⁠—⁠ there exist salves to diminish the danger of this, but you could not acquire them without a permit, for they are all regulated.  I take it you made it yourself?”
“Yes,” Ushra answered instead, “I showed her the recipe several dances ago.” It was a tone that dared challenge.
“Good. Tell me, how long does it take to cook up a batch of this salve? Enough for three, say?”
“If the ingredients are already prepared, only half day. I invented glazeward.”
“Perfect,” he said. “The faer has asked me to travel into the Berwem to take the bodies and place them further out in the cliffs.  Thus if the humans send search parties, they shall find that their conspecifics died of environment and the predators, rather the meddling of dragons, who assuredly do not live in these cliffs,” the orange drake finished with a frill-wink, while Ushra frowned.
Then he waved a wing in our direction, not looking at us. “Oh, and I will want Hinte and Kinri to accompany me, to take me to where the humans were found so we can eliminate traces of their camp.”
“Ooh!” Digrif said, “Can I come?”
Hinte covered her face with a wing.  “Why should you come?”
“Why not let him come?” I said, “I think it won’t hurt much, and having more bodies will help carting the bodies around.”  And between Adwyn and Hinte our group could use any and all cheer we could get.
“Oh well. Ushra, I suppose you should make the salve for four, in that case,” Adwyn said.  Hinte only huffed.  And still, Ushra frowned.
Gronte was glancing between Hinte and Adwyn, absently tapping her locket, and said, “You’re going back into the lake, dear?”
“Of course. I’m needed there.”
“Yes,” the orange drake added.  “We need someone who understands the limits of glazeward, and who knows how to navigate the lake.”
Gronte lowered her head, frowning to herself.
I looked away, and tilted my head at Adwyn.  I didn’t know all that much about glazeward, or the Berwem, but he didn’t know that.  He just assumed it.
I stared at him until a question came to my tongue. “Why not buy the salve yourself?” I asked.  “Then we don’t have to wait half a day to do the plan.”
“Fair question,” he murmured, swallowing his food. “Like most things related to sifting, glazeward is regulated for safety⁠ ⁠—⁠ improperly prepared salve could very well lead to a worker losing their leg.  It was reasonable to restrict the sale of glazeward when the faer instated the law restricting passage into the Berwem, given only sifters used it.”
The drake hummed. “And salve costs quite the sum these days. I don’t think Ushra will be quite so greedy with the price.”
Finally, the alchemist’s frown changed, turning to a smile without being all that different.  “Oh, but should I?  The way you frame it, you don’t have another choice.  And half a day could be called a rush.”
“It could,” Adwyn murmured, nodding. “But I do remember the faer pays you beautifully as her personal alchemist⁠ ⁠—⁠ Bariaeth never shuts up about it, you see.  With the safety of Gwymr/Frina in the balance, I do think this could be considered an extension of your duties as her personal alchemist.”
“It could be,” Ushra murmured. “But I find myself unconvinced of danger Gwymr/Frina is in, when the goal is to replace the bodies in the cliffs before… what, precisely?  If it’s a matter of the humans finding the bodies, a few days will make no difference.”  The alchemist was spinning a flourish with his pen just as he finished speaking.
I nudged the dark-green wiver beside me. “It’s like pointing two mirrors at each other,” I whispered.
My friend clicked her tongue softly.
Ushra produced another sheet of leaf paper, placing the last sheet amongst the emptiness at his corner of the table.  “That said, there happens to be a special specimen I’d like to retrieve from the pits, and I’d like unrestricted access to do so.  Thus far, Sofrani has denied me.  If you could broach the subject with the faer, I could show my appreciations.”
Adwyn smiled at the light-green drake. “It’s nothing.”
Ushra smiled back, and lifted his mug.  “More tea?”
Beside Hinte, I groaned, and whispered, “And now they’re acting like friends again.  Why do they have to be so indirect?”
Hinte tossed her head. “Opa has that effect on dragons.”
I wrinkled my frills and looked back at my plate.
Gronte started speaking again, this time her voice came level. She wasn’t touching her locket, and her tone hid a certain steeliness that I couldn’t place.
“So, this mission of yours. It’ll take you through the east market, won’t it?”
Adwyn nodded.  “It… will.  Why do you ask?”
Gronte jerked her head up. “Oh, the thought crossed my mind. The market is very crowdy when it first opens, and it may be difficult to get the bodies through it.”
Adwyn smirked. “You don’t stand where I do without being able to see things so basic.  Trust that I’ve considered it, Gronte-gyfar.”
My brow furrowed, and I stared at Adwyn again until I had another question. “Wait,” I started, “if passage into the Berwem is restricted and glazeward is also restricted… I mean, you need Hinte to make us the glazeward, but how are we getting into the lake?  Is that what the forms are for?”
This time he lifted his foreleg to his chin. Before he spoke, he tossed a glare at Hinte, before saying, “No.  The paperwork will take far too long to get through administration.  I do not want these corpses to turn to rot.  The plan had been for Hinte to escort us into the lake⁠ ⁠—⁠ after all, if she was there last night to find the bodies she must have had her writ.
“But it had seemed odd for one so young to be licensed — so I confirmed my suspicions earlier this morning.”  He takes a long drink of his mug, finishing the contents.  “The new plan had me battling with the faer to schedule a nondescript investigation into the cliffs around the Berwem today and for I to accompany the guards therewith.  A pain⁠ ⁠—⁠ but you have left us no choice.”
“Oh. Okay.” I lowered my head. Already, the thrill from telling my story had faded, and replacing it was the image of an evening that looked to be filed with Adwyn and the Berwem.  A pleasure.  Truly, a pleasure.

The conversation faded again to mixed smalltalk and silence, and those who hadn’t finished their food yet had another chance to⁠ ⁠—⁠ though not any more reason to.  Hinte still didn’t touch her greens, Digrif still ate slow so he could talk to Gronte and sometimes Hinte (he didn’t speak with his mouth full), and Ushra scribbled alone instead of eating.  Gronte, Adwyn and I had already finished our plates.  And that was everyone, wasn’t it?
The military adviser again broke the — well, it wasn’t silence — and this time he spoke looking at Gronte.  “Gronte, I had nearly forgotten.  I saw the goggles your granddaughter wore into the lake.  Those are your make, are they not?  I recognize the craft.”
Gronte curled her frills, but when she spoke her voice sounded all business. “I suppose you would like a pair?”  She watched the him nod.  “Ja, you never ask questions for conversation, do you?  The goggles were custom, I’m afraid.  But I have some similar pairs for sale.  You’ll need to pay for them, however.”
Adwyn reached into his dress, retrieving a small sack of coins. “How much will it be?”
“Fifty aris.”
Adwyn snapped his tongue, but groped in the bag, producing the requested amount.  Gronte waved her tongue at the bag, then the coins, and took the coins after a beat. Had she not expected him to pay that much?
“Just a moment.”  Gronte high-walked out of the room before returning with a pair of small, clear-lensed goggles set on a small stand.
Adwyn took it, saying, “I appreciate this, Gronte-gyfar.” After pushing his plate forward, he stood up.  “I think I have troubled you all enough for one morning.  You will see me leave.  And, perhaps, you will see me return some other day.  It looks like Ushra can cook something besides his potions.”
Gronte hissed a laugh, and Ushra gave a thin smile.
“Hinte, Kinri, meet me at the eastern market in, say, six rings?  Bring the forms, as well.”  He stepped away, and Ushra got up, intending to lead Adwyn to the door.  As he did, the orange dragon gave me a significant look, but left.
When Ushra returned, he looked to Hinte, saying, “Let us start on the salve. Come, Hinte.”
Hinte rose, spitting out a bone before leaving the three of us.
I looked around at the dwindling slab, only Gronte, Digrif and I remained.  “Thank you for hosting us, Gronte-sofran.”
“It was a pleasure, Kinri-ychy.  Pray come back some other time?”
“I will!”
I glanced at the window, seeing an orange drake walking away from the house.  My tongue tasted tart anticipation on my fangs, and I waited for the orange drake to leave the window’s view before I bowed to Gronte and left.  The canyon-dweller should have gone some ways back toward the hall, and I wouldn’t have to deal with him again for a while.
I stepped out of the dining room in time to see Hinte following Ushra into the dark brown door.  I turned, but glanced back when I noticed an absence on Ushra’s wing.  That red and blue parrot had been the one tolerable member of the pair.  But she had sort of faded away as the conversation piled on.  Where was she?
I looked down the corridor, but it would be tart to explore someone else’s house uninvited.  Instead, my head only peeked into the front room.  No blue and red conflagration stood out.  I held my breath for a beat.
“Oh well,” I murmured.
I low-walked toward the door, taking me past the dining room’s doorway one more time.  As I passed it, I heard, “Oh, Kinri! there was one thing⁠ ⁠—⁠ something my Enkelin wanted me to give to you.  Give me a few breaths to find it.”
I nodded as the dark-green wiver slinked past me, slipping into the other room.
Waiting by the doorway, I peered from the door’s long glass windows, watching a red and orange dot take air and circle around till I couldn’t see him anymore.  With a smile, I leant back from the door and twiddled my halluxes. It was moments more before I smelt Gronte returning.
“Thank you for waiting.”  The older wiver walked back with a black form held in her wings.  “This is the third book of nothing, a small collection of stories.  My Hinte wanted you to borrow this one in particular.” Tapping her chin, she said, “And I couldn’t ever imagine why,” with a smile and a wink of her frill.
I tilted my head.  “Huh?”
“Has she told you about, hmm,Light Most Piercing?” At my blankness, she added, “It is the story of Jammra and Wauchu.”
“Oh,” I said with the grace of a cold, tired salamander. “She uh, did.”
Her smile returned.  “Yes, it’s Hinte’s favorite story.  I read it to her at least once a cycle⁠ ⁠—⁠ or I had, when she was a fledgling.”  Gronte breathed a sigh, snaking an alula around her locket.
At that, I looked away, thinking of things to say and getting them as far as my tongue and no farther.
When I glanced up, Gronte had held out the book for me. She said, “Regardless, you may find some other story you like in here.  Might I recommend The Confusion of Underbrush?  It’s⁠ ⁠—⁠ worth your time.”
I reached for Gronte’s book. “Thank you.”
It was thick vellum pages bound in black leather with no title or any inscription.  Just a blank black cover.  Well, not blank⁠ ⁠—⁠ one side had a silver circle on it.  The front?  I flipped through it⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was the front⁠ ⁠— and my eyes flashed clear at its thin script.  “This is in Drachenzunge.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, no, I can read Drachenzunge, it’s just… been a while.”
“Forgive my asking, but why do you know our language?”
I looked up, curling my tongue as I pieced together the words.  “Well, you should know House Specter.  We’ve most of the Constellation’s diplomats.  We run negotiations for things like trade, criminals, information, and general meetings and stuff, to uphold the Severance.”  I scratched my headband as I drop my gaze to the floor.
I continued, “Once, I was heir of my House, so I was one day going to be lying in those meetings.  It⁠ ⁠—⁠ didn’t work out that way.”
Gronte nodded, and brushed a wing against my shoulder. “It’s okay, Kinri. I left something similar behind when I split with my clan.”  An alula on my chin lifted my gaze to hers.  She smiled gently, and we paused like that for a second.
She continued, “Back then, all those gyras ago, Dwylla promised me Gwymr/Frina would be a new beginning, a place where no one’s past has a hold on them.  An escape.”  Her eyes clouded, and her next words were small, as if they weren’t for me.  “It was what we needed then, and now.”  Eyes clearing, she gave my shoulder another nudge, and withdrew both aluae, folding her wings back around her.
I was nodding at her words, but then I jerked to a stop, clearing my eyes. “You knew Dwylla?”
“Of course. Ushra is my husband, did you think I would be so much younger?” Gronte shook her head, laughing a little.
“Well… I guess not.”
“Regardless, I’ve held you long enough.  Good day and vast silence to you, Kinri.”

iii.

I pulled the handle at the door’s base, and was onto the Gären’s porch.  By now the suns had emerged from behind the buttes, shining right into my face.  My frills folded over my eyes blocking the light.  Though I couldn’t see, an aroma of the nuts and feathers lighted on my tongue and wings were flapping.
Versta had gone past some hatch to see that Monsun, and, having sneaked away once, Gronte would have ensured it couldn’t happen again.  Would she?
“Staune?” I called.
The fluttering left.  When I cleared my eyes again, there was no red and blue bird.
“You sort of disappeared from the room and you weren’t with Ushra. Is something wrong?”
No response. As I rolled my head, I waved my tongue. “I’m a dragon, Staune. I can smell you.”  My head turned and my tongue waved until I lighted on a gradient of nuts and feathers.  I lifted myself into a high-walk as I tracked the parrot.
When I stepped from the porch, I crept along the trail. At the base of the tree the trail rose into the leaves of the willow.
The tree had grown thicker around its trunk than I had. I climbed onto the tree, testing my weight.  Then I gripped the bark harder.
Out of habit, I glanced back at the ground. But it sat solid and complete in every direction.  I loved climbing trees as a fledgling, but I had fallen from Tädet/Pimeys twice.  First the guards had caught me, and the second time the netting below had caught me.  Because of it, I’d hatched a healthy amount of caution.
I took beats to climb to the near-top of the tree, where a red and blue bird lay prone in a nest.  The nest sat on a branch above me, blocking the body of the bird, but her head peeked over the top.
“Hi, Staune.”
“Go away, Stargazer.”
“What’s wrong?” I climbed onto a branch and sat there, steadying myself with my forelegs.  When a wind blew, the branches swayed and my weight fell behind me.  I yelped and threw my weight to and fro until I settled again.
I looked back to the bird and smiled, but my expanded frills and half-spread wings gave me a wuthered look.
“Not a thing.”
“Okay,” I said.  She didn’t want to share her dewings.  I had dealt with this before, I’ll just have to be indirect.  “What are you doing up here, then?”
Staune spread her wings. “Sparrow couple once lived up here, yes, and they had this nest.”
I tilted my head. “Once?”
“A nasty wildcat ate them.”  Staune made a vicious snarling sound.
“Oh no.” I let my frills droop. “That drags.”
“Minnow grounded it.  Wouldn’t shut about it.  Demanded I call him Catkiller.”
Minnow?
Staune paused before saying, “Wrinklyfrills calls him Versta.  You do too.”
A giggle escaped my lips. I looked up. If I wanted Staune to open up, what else could I ask?  “So, what do you think of that Adwyn character?
“He is annoying, yes. Slicktongue spent a longer time thinking than Citrusface yet he didn’t even lick Slicktongue’s words.  So annoying.”
I mouthed ‘Citrusface.’ Citrus, what was a kind of fruit, right? Like lemons or orange.  Oh.  I strangled a giggle while I asked, “Why do you have so many names for everybody?”
“It is faster to say, yes.”
“Faster?”
“I don’t have to gather of all the little titles you dragons have and say them right.  Sofrani, Gyfari, Ychyr, brak brak brak.  Faster to say Citrusface or Minnow.”
I looked up, the shadows of leaves dancing about my face. “Well, I don’t see how Stargazer is any easier to remember than Kinri-sofran.”
“Tricky, ueh. My only Sofrani are Slicktongue and Wrinklyfrills,” she said, then added in Gronte’s voice, “Kinri-ychy.”
“Fine, fine. I still don’t see how it’s easier to say than just plain Kinri.”
“You look like someone scratched up your face with stars and also you look up at the sky whenever you don’t know what to say, yes.”
I looked back at the bird. “How did you even notice that?”
“I notice a whole flock of things.  Like how Nestling covers up one foot when she’s hiding something.  Or how Slicktongue uses big words when he’s upset.  Or how Wrinklyfrills touches her locket when she’s worried about Nestling.”
Some part of me whispered,She could be useful when dealing with the Frinan administration.  I scratched my headband, and looked away, not up.  “So um, what’s it like to know what everyone’s thinking?”
“It’s annoying. Citrusface is up to something, yes, and no one hears it, no.”
“Well, I don’t like Citri⁠ ⁠—⁠ Adwyn either.  He wants something from me, and I owe him.  It feels like…”
Staune cocked her head. “A stormy-cloud on the way?”
“Like a stomcloud, that’s it.”
Staune hopped out of the abandoned nest, and climbed on the trunk of the tree. A short trill escaped her beak, warbling up in pitch.  She repeated it before waving her wings at me.  “What do you owe Citrusface?” she said in a sharp, clipped voice.
I looked away. “The administration controls who gets to enter the town and how. Sky-dwellers”⁠ ⁠—⁠ I glanced at the bird and its head⁠ ⁠—⁠ “erm, dragons with blue scales, are kinda suspicious because we live in the sky and you only see a sky-dweller on the surface if they’ve been exiled.”
“They are blue,” the parrot said in Ushra’s voice, followed by his laugh.
“That was a little weird.”
“It was a joke, yes.”
“It didn’t sound like a joke.”
“That makes it better,” Staune said in a high voice, followed by a smart cluck. “Slicktongue makes the best jokes.”
“Was the interrogation a joke?”
Staune cocked her head.  “No no, Slicktongue had to ensure you were you.”
“What about your question? The one about angles and horizons.”
“I had to be sure you were you, too.  Nestling said you were obsessed with stars.”
“What?” My frills burst wide. “Astronomy is a perfectly acceptable hobby for a young wiver!”
Staune’s wings burst wide. “Perfectly acceptable hobby!”
I poked Staune with my alula.  Staune squawked and loosened her hold on the truck and fell to the branch I sat on.  I huffed and drew my wings back, looking away again.
As I was saying, sky-dwellers are suspicious because you had to do something to get exiled from the sky, maybe something illegal.”
“Did you do something illegal?” she asked, head cocked.
“No!”
“Perfectly acceptable!”
“What?”  I rolled my head.  “Anyway, I requested an audience to discuss my admission into Gwymr/Frina.  I… hadn’t made a very good impression.  But then Adwyn stepped up for me!  He convinced the faer to admit me.”
“Nmm,” the bird hummed. Her head cocked further.
“So now I owe him for letting me into town, and my six cycle examination is coming up.  I might end up owing him even more.”
Staune stepped toward me. “You could screech.”
“Screech?”
“Yes. Whenever someone is bothering me, I screech until they go away. It sounds like,” the parrot cut into an intense clicking, warbling sound that shredded my frills!  I yelled, and my wings and forelegs flew up to cover my frills.
Without my legs steadying me, I fell over and dropped through the trees, slamming against three branches.  They snapped and punctuated the hitches in my yelling.
My legs flailed with my wings. They caught on two branches. My fall slowed enough for me to pull myself up.  I wrapped my legs around a thick branch and lay on top of it.
My breath caught up with me. I sat there, breathing until a blue and red bird lighted down in front of my snout.
She touched her break to my muzzle, a light peck. “You fell.”
“You were so loud!  Please don’t do that again.”
“I will if Citrusface comes back.”
“Okay.”  I looked up at the sky.  A few pterosaurs and birds soared under clouds and skylands.  Below that, a few dragons flew about on their business.  Staune looked about too, and like a suggestion, the came a certain trill on the winds.  The fourth short ring.  “Oh!” I said.  “I need to go fly to work.”  I looked back to the bird.  She faced me, but turned again when I spoke.  “Bye Staune.  You’re pretty starly.  Better than Versta.”
Staune clucked and mimed, “You’re pretty starly.” Then she switched to her normal voice, “Better than that”⁠ ⁠—⁠ she shook, seeming to vibrate⁠ ⁠—⁠ “‘Wow!  Totally Adventurers’ drake.”
I drew in my wings.  “Digrif is alright.”
“I need to fly to work,” Staune echoed.
“Oh yeah!  Thanks.”
Staune trilled and shifted onto one talon, holding out her other talon to me.
I flicked my tongue.  But my eyes cleared after a beat, and I extended my pointer toe.  She wrapped her talon around it and shook it.
Then a flutter of purple and screeches interrupted us. It came up beside my face, talons scratching and scoring my face.  I yelped.  When I lost my balance, no branches broke my fall.  I landed hard on my back, sprawling on the soft dirt.  An up-jutting rock punched into my back, forcing a final yell from my throat.
Above me, I heard a tossering trill, following by the voice of Versta, “Was this wretched que-re-me minnow ruffling you, O Toastyfeathers?”
“You’re the ruffling minnow, ueh! Starsnout was just leaving, you tongueless quah!”  The larger parrot lunged, swiping the smaller with a talon.
Versta warbled. “Well, I helped her to the ground. She should show thanks.”
I stood up, saying, “Thank you, Versta.  Let me replay the favor.”  I grabbed the rock I fell on and yank it out of the ground.  It flew from my foot at the purple parrot.  He dropped from the branch just in time.  Oh well.
“Ground yourself, ueh!” Staune’s voice said.
I flicked my tongue, looking at the descending parrot, trilling, then back up to the red and blue parrot.  Her break was closed, and she lifted her head when I met her eye.
“Don’t do that!” I jabbed with my foreleg.
“What?” the smaller parrot asked.
“Mimic each other’s voices. It’s confusing!”
Versta clucked at me.
“You stinky little bird!” I leapt at Versta.
“Kinri!” a familiar growling voice called out.  Hinte was slinking out of the house, faltering on her injured hindlegs.
I stopped short of Versta, waiting for her to reach me by the tree.
She waved a faded blue bag, tied closed.  “Have this.  It is keimfrei dust. Sometimes used in perfumes.”
“Thank you,” I said. But I waved my tongue. “That’s not all it’s used for, is it?”
Hinte smiled. “Of course. Nothing has one use. It is also a coagulant for the descrying mixture, the very sensitive kind.  The forest had stargazers too, you know.”
“It’s a nice gift. Thank you, Hinte.”
“You already said that.”  But Hinte smiled very slightly, before turning and limping back to her house.
In the doorway of the Gären manor, Ushra stood and watched Hinte approach. I turned to leave again, but caught the ancient alchemist’s gaze as I did.  His impassive, disdainful look hadn’t changed.  Yet there was a twinkle of something in his eyes, just this once.  He licked his eyes and it was gone.
* * *

Interlude I: Smolder

iiiiii

i.*

“Silent winds, my friend,” said Hinte as she turned, waving her tail. While she appreciated Kinri’s help in the lake, she breathed relief at parting ways with her.  The exile had no appreciation of the thoughtful silence, always annoying her with unhatched questions.  But worse, she acted utterly apterous when she opted not to ask questions. As if her tongue were rubber and her frills were stone.
There were worse issues, however. Such as Hinte deciding to carry back all of those apes.  When she should have known the inquirers would return regardless, when she should have known the weight would have her helpless to fly. Or that it would put her at the mercy of thos rockwraiths Kinri had doubtless stirred up.  Hinte wasn’t helpless.
The apes had escaped because of her tonguelessness. If she had tied them down better, if she had ensured they held no surprises, if she had thought to remove their weapons, if she had brought more emergency mixtures, that incident could have been avoided.  She was better than this.  These were hatchling mistakes, and she did not have the exile’s excuse of being a hatchly sifter.  Her Dozent would be disappointed.
The dark-green wiver fell back on her hindlegs, crouched tensely, prepared to take off.  Then, she remembered.  Apterous rockwraiths.