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Chapter Ten: The Other City of Thieves
Eidolyn shrunk at every moan and scream. Each seemed to carry with it a personalized, wordless agony of its own, hundreds of voices heralding the horror of hundreds of possible ways to suffer, rushing through the branches and undergrowth in fleeting, disoriented patterns of panic. Some of the voices were distant and sounded as if they reverberated off of cold, dank stone walls. Others urgently yelped in her ear as they passed, sounding fresh and clear as if from a person standing directly next to her. The haunted voices of the Howling Woods seemed to sweep shadows into swirling, restless patterns and make light dim and shy away, and to make the moist earth and the living plants vibrate with their tangible pain.
She started as Shard grasped her hand. “It is but an unfortunate and fearsome, but harmless side effect of being where much of the negative energies from Analerna collect. Normally, these raw negative essences that are food for beasts like demons are impossible for normal people to sense, but if they’re thick enough, those with particularly sympathetic hearts may have the misfortune of being able to sense them. If you feel a sudden jolt of agony, do not fear. No matter how strong it may be, it is only a result of this invisible vapor, and you are in no real danger.”
That was easy enough to say. One could advise that if one sees a bull charging forward, not to flinch because it’s only an illusion, but primal fear is difficult to calm. Still, for the moment, Eidolyn did not seem to be assaulted by unexplained feelings of fear or suffering. “I suppose this would be an ideal place for demons to feed, wouldn’t it?”
“In theory. But demons prefer their suffering fresh from the victim, and in addition much of these are created by their fellows who are enslaved in Analerna, and so they avoid consuming them for nourishment on principle.”
“Oh. I see.” The sunlight was retreating below the eastern horizon, and between the Howling Woods and Analerna, they all decided that it would be best to, at least, spend a night in a city and sleep on beds.
“I’m so tired, those beds sound nice even to me!” Gryphon admitted. “Normally I never give pillows a second fought, but... oi. Shard. Someone's coming dis way!”
All of them froze, all at once as a familiar sound began to creep in behind them over the sound of the forest’s crying. Leisurely hoofbeats beating out a steady rhythm over a dirt path approached them, accompanied by the creaking of an old, flimsy wooden cart and the idle chatter of at least…
“From the sound of it, two men,” Shard reported, craning his butterfly-wing ears down the path where they’d come. “Both at the front of the cart. Two horses. If I'm right, both men are wearing light armor and…” Shard began to steer Mittens off the trail, into a thick patch of forest. “These aren’t average citizens, but men in the employ of Lord Pelgrin. They're talking about us.”
“Out here?” Eidolyn demanded. But they'd come so far! Had they bested the wilds of northern Jigsaw only to have their foes at their heels all the while? Surely they would have noticed being followed through the swamp, and she didn't see how even the most talented driver could get a cart pulled by horses through a place like that! “Are you certain?”
Shard slid from Mittens' back and led them into the shadowy cover of the brush, rationalizing briskly, “If they’re headed our way, and we have business in Analerna, it’s best to dispatch them quietly here so as not to make a fuss if we run into them there.”
Gryphon crouched next to Eidolyn protectively, his wings tucked in tight at his side. She could feel the tension in his hide as his hot pulse and heaving chest undulated under his shaggy fur. “I fink ‘e’s right, luv. If dey’re ‘ere, dey know we’re ‘ere. Dat’s trouble. His men could be everywhere.”
How infuriating! Eidolyn had been looking forward to seeing Analerna, and if their presence there had been anticipated...
“Perhaps not,” Shard purred thoughtfully, some distance to the right. His tail thumped agitatedly at the ground. His ears flared. “These are mercenaries. Freelancers, probably working temporarily under Lord Pelgrin, or answering to a high-paying job to retrieve a shadeling and girl. If that's true, they may never have even been to the peninsula. They could be locals...”
“Shard...” Eidolyn began. What could they possibly do to stop these men? If they'd been promised a lot of money, they wouldn't be deterred easily. He couldn't be suggesting that they fight these men? If they were indeed mercenaries, it was a hopeless wish that they were not armed to every last seam of their clothing.
But Mittens shot past in a darting blur of a hundred patterns, pausing for the blink of an eye, long enough for Shard to hop back aboard before it launched into the treetops with a modest whisper of rustling leaves.
“What if you get in trouble?” Eidolyn whispered harshly to the treetops.
Now, Shard’s returning voice was almost obscured by the rattling and squeaking of the approaching cart and the pounding hoofbeats that shook the Howling Woods around them. “Distract them. Make tea. Find the lost treasure of the ancient elves. On second thought, don't do that first one. Only come out if I’m in dire trouble, unlikely an eventuality as that may be.”
“Bloody daft peacock,” Gryphon grumped and drew even closer to Eidolyn. “Humph.” With an impressive fuzzy thump, he sank to his haunches, then rested his chin in the dirt. After a moment’s consideration, he loosed his wings about his side with a feathery flumph and Eidolyn attempted to sit back at ease, amidst the thundering carriage sounds and the swirling, ghostly moaning surrounding them.
She eased her arm through the cool shadows and stroked the crest of brown feathers crowning Gryphon’s head and as if by primal reflex, the beast lolled his head in her direction. “Dis is an exception.”
“Are you purring?” she chuckled as loudly as she dared.
“Maybe. Dun tell no one.”
Both left off their nervous jocularity as the cart passed their hiding spot and the gaps in the bushes afforded them a view of the back of the cart, which clunked impatiently at every bump in the dry dirt road. And the earthy cologne of dirt and leaves was interrupted by the unsettling scent of human perspiration and the musty animal smell of the two dark horses and the thin cloud of dust stamped up by their hooves.
He stood up. “Time to work my own kinda magic, luv. You sit tight ‘ere, whilst I distract ‘em.”
“Be careful; they are armed. I'm sure of it.”
“Dem pigstickers dun bovver me none.” Gryphon jeered before padding off stealthily though the brush, the light footfalls of paws and talons muffled by the ubiquitous long, sorrowful intonations that seemed to envelop the advancing carriage with wordless tales of despair. Here, a nearly silent whimper, there a pained scream followed by a lonely sobbing that trickled into their ears like a stream flowing through a dusky fog.
At this, the carriage’s driver and lone passenger drew together, sinking into their dusty, threadbare traveling clothes and mismatched armor.
“Don’t like this,” the man sitting behind the driver whispered. Without looking backward, he reached behind him, shakily groping and fumbling until he found his weapon, an Icylian scimitar with a fearsome serrated edge, and held it protectively before him, tip outward. It shook considerably in his grip. “They say demons cursed these woods. I hear some people come out a gibbering mess and can’t speak no more.”
“Bogwomble,” his partner scoffed. “Voices can’t hurt you.”
“Would ya say that to a banshee? Or a siren?”
The driver fell silent and gripped the reins tighter. Then, both men fell backward when both of the horses drawing the cart suddenly shied to the right, restlessly whinnying. The right horse snapped free of its harness and nearly overturned the carriage in its panic. In fact, for a good few seconds the left side of the carriage hung, wheels creaking through the air, above the road. The drivers, screaming, threw themselves to the airborne side of the cart and it slammed back onto the trail, no worse for wear.
Panting, the driver pried his hands from the snapped reins and wiped his dusty brow with a forced, uneasy smile. “Close one, that.”
“Y… yeah.” His partner nodded furiously, trying to shake off the remnants of his fear. He chuckled and jabbed his partner with his elbow after slackening his grip on his sword enough to feel his fingers again.
“Raaaauuuugh!”
Both men screamed again, stumbling dizzily to their feet, the younger of the two nearly falling backward into the cargo area in the back.
“It came from under the cart.”
“Well, you look and I’ll keep watch.”
“Bricklebrit. You do it!”
“You’re the bigger of us.”
“You’re older!”
“… how old do you think I am?”
“At least forty.”
The pained screech came again. “Raauuugghh!”
“I’m twenty-eight!”
“It’s the muttonchops.”
Eidolyn watched Gryphon twist his body under the carriage, groaning theatrically in great loud bursts of aquiline agony while attempting to give the impression of a broken hind leg. He was caught up for some time making his leg twitch and twist with what he must have thought to be a great amount of authenticity when he realized that his quarry did not seem to be giving him the attention he felt he'd earned. “Raaaaugh?”
“Right, it’s not stopping. Let’s both look.”
As the two men got down from the cart, Eidolyn resisted drawing herself up closer behind her cover for fear of making enough noise for a mercenary's trained senses. The carriage’s wooden groan was followed first by the sound of boots hitting the dusty road, then an exasperated groan from both men.
“Cor, we’ve hit a gryphon.”
“You hit a gryphon. I had nothing to do with it. I told you: you drive a cart like a lame goblin that's facing the wrong way.”
Sensing he wasn’t selling the act enough, Gryphon made a heartfelt attempt at appearing helpless, turning his shaggy belly to the sky and twitching as pitifully as a winged creature the size of a bull is able. “Augh… raaagh! Ow, me leg! I fink ya got my tail too. It’s crucial for balance, you know. Woe is me, I’m a grounded gryphon!”
Thankfully, the realization that their poor, wailing victim was close to the size of one of the horses that had supposedly trampled it appeared to escape the wiser annals of their minds unheeded. Rather, they regarded it pityingly.
“Poor majestic beast... Maybe we should put it out of its misery.”
“Yeah. Could be it'd rather die than never fly again. What a noble creature.”
Gryphon's next twitch was real. “Er… dat’s not necessary, really. I fink I feel the feeling coming back in my leg already.”
“Wait, wait.” The older of the two held up a hand as his mind raced. He did not live a life that demanded much in the way of recall and analysis, but more rationalization and assumption. And copious amounts of cheap beer. “Isn’t this gryphon that gryphon that hangs around with Shard? That Pelgrin mentioned? The one that talks?”
After quick reflection, Gryphon squeezed all sapience from his eyes and thumped his head down in the dust. “Squaaawk!”
Thud.
“All right, you two villains!” Shard stood over them from the back of the carriage, posing with a spell at the ready in his left hand. Furious red light pulsed restlessly through his fingers from within his palm. “Put down your weapons and step away from the gryphon!” he grinned. For good measure, as he hopped down from the driver’s seat, he added, “And get on your knees with your hands behind you. And let’s see some smiles; it’s a beautiful day for a hijacking!”
“Shard!” the older man snarled. “Where's the girl at?”
“Hmph!” Shard said. “You must have mistaken me for the type of creature that can never tell a lie. I'll dispatch the two of you neatly before you ever find out where she's hidden.”
Here, the older of the two mercenaries snapped his arm back toward Shard... the arm that had slowly been moving to a pouch hidden in an unlikely spot under his vestments. Curling his fingers around something small and round, the hand squeezed the object so that it emitted a puff of mist squarely, painfully into Shard's eyes.
“Ugh!” Shard only got in a small groan of pain until he flopped into the bed of the carriage like a wet towel from a clothes-line. His arms, lifted to wipe away the searing in his eyes, fell uselessly at his sides, one folded under his chest.
“Anti-magic. Works a treat doesn't it?” the older mercenary bragged. “Not easy to get. Product of an ancient dead people, that sort of thing. What I just sprayed you with could have bought a small country in some circles.”
“Gmrr... ffrr ghnn,” Shard observed, muffled both by numbness and his face being mostly pressed into the wood carriage bed.
Oh gods. Eidolyn steadied herself and tore up the grass under her hands in her distress. There was still Mittens to resolve the situation. And what could she reasonably expect to do to both of them that Shard couldn't?
Calmly, the man handed over the bladder to his younger colleague. “Now where’s the girl, shadeling?”
Shard made a valiant attempt at rolling his eyes. “Unn frmr ghhn.”
“No good. Pelgrin said he's gonna need... incentive. After a fashion.” He drew a small, practical knife from his belt. “Meaning we'll stop pummeling and removing bits of him from his person.”
“Oh yeah.” The younger mercenary threw his gloves down and began attempting to crack his knuckles, but only succeeding in hurting his own hands. “Ow.”
The prospect of Eidolyn remaining in hiding while all this went on was becoming more and more obscene.
“I almost hope it's as Pelgrin says and this won't be enough. Then we get to be creative.”
No more! She couldn't take it! Losing control of her own feet, Eidolyn shot up without willing it and surged out of the cover of the bushes, to give herself up for Shard's sake, or to rush the enemy, but more probably an awkward, panicked combination of the two.
It was thankful that Eidolyn did not travel with someone given to phrases like, “You're letting your emotions get the better of you, lass, why don't you stay put?” Rather, Gryphon squawked from the trees “Caw blimey!” as she hit the man standing directly over Shard with a sideways tackle. Shoulder draped in dirty, mud-crusted dress met reinforced leather armor and both went down onto the dusty road.
“Got her!” The struck man's younger colleague took up the bladder full of anti-magic mist confidently. Something in his eyes, past the brass misting tube Eidolyn stared, down saw “promotion, respect, money and wenches” in his future just before his elder threw Eidolyn from on top of him.
“Moron! He said not to hit the girl with it!”
That was when Gryphon dove at the two men, a bristle of beak, talons and claws and his hawklike scream just as sharp as any of them. All that could be imagined by the two mercenaries at the sight of that gaping beak was how little effort it must take for the creature to tear into anything that wasn't steel.
And the elder mercenary pointed to the encroaching beast. “Spray it! Spray it! Or give it to me! I'll do it!”
“Are gryphons magic?”
“I... can't remember!”
“I'll shoot it anyway!”
They almost didn't get the chance. The younger of the two fumbled, juggled and nearly dropped it before getting a sure grip on the bladder, then gave Gryphon a good misting with the stuff. Following a playful poof and an exudation of blue mist, Gryphon pounced and pinned the man, slightly dampened.
“Hmm. Refreshing!”
Poof poof poof poof poof.
In their shock, they were easily overwhelmed by Gryphon, who was not a magical creature at all, catching one under his massive paws and the other, in his beak, by the back of his shirt. “Wffr ffrrg, Shrrg?” Gryphon growled.
Shard was still incapacitated. Eidolyn replied, “We can't actually hurt them, can we?” She glared at the two trapped mercenaries. “Will Shard be all right?”
Their two prisoners grumbled. “It'll wear off,” the older one admitted. “He'll be woozy for a while.”
And indeed he was. Eidolyn and Gryphon would not leave the two mercenaries a moment before they were certain that Shard would be able to walk away from the attack. In a few minutes Shard was able to roll onto his back with a tired, humiliated groan, and in another minute, he managed to pull himself up to a seated position, the process resembling nothing so much as the work of an amateur puppeteer trying to manipulate a broken marionette. His extremities still hung limp at his sides and after a short session of stretching his jaw, he was able to speak.
“That was undignified and painful,” Shard grunted, shakily getting to his feet. He almost put too much weight into it and tumbled off the cart, but caught himself on the side rail with half-numb hands. “I don't think I'll hurt you, but I can at least humiliate you a bit.”
“Shard, you really mean to let them go free? They'll come back!”
“They shan’t,” Shard returned as he continued pulling himself up. It was a slow task, but thankfully he was light enough that he could easily use Eidolyn for support. “It will be no pedestrian bindings by which our treacherous friends will be enclosed. For that matter, we’ll be absconding with their carriage, and their weapons—save one.”
Figuring he meant to leave them a weapon with which to defend themselves before continuing on to Analerna, Eidolyn gathered up the pairs of halberds and swords, in addition discovering a pair of utility knives among their vestments. All were deposited on the road as Gryphon and Shard backed them against a tree.
“You’re going to strand me here? In the Howling Woods?” the older one whimpered, all venom drained from his tone. “Surely, the magnanimous Shard should not be so cruel.”
“Quiet, you,” Eidolyn snapped, fueled by hunger and exhaustion and frustration. They could have been in Analerna by now in clean clothes and with full stomachs.
“As she says,” Shard sneered. “I’ve had quite enough of your brazen hypocrisy.” He, with a worrying flourish, seized one of the captured swords and brandished it as one might to signal a challenge to battle. “Besides, they’re only voices. A fitting punishment, I say.”
Compared to what they’d been through on their journey, that was nothing indeed. “I’m going to turn this wagon's rigging into a harness so Mittens can pull the cart,” Eidolyn suggested. The escaping horses had broken the original one, and it looked more trouble to repair it than to improvise a new one from scratch.
Shard recited an incantation, and the sword in his hand lengthened and fell limp at his feet, now unmistakably ropelike in function but as Eidolyn beheld it, still bladelike in nature. Spells such as this one did not transform the object in the strictest sense, but rather transformed the way the universe perceived it. At its heart it was still a sword, but only in relation to itself. Thus, when the elongated gleaming steel touched itself, sharp metallic notes exalted themselves through the trees and down the hill toward the bay, and yet no matter how hard Shard gripped it as he used it to bind Pelgrin’s grimacing minions to the tree, it would not harm their hands.
So, following the construction of a harness for Mittens, they set off again toward Analerna, leaving the two men behind, unsure what to do as the groans of the suffering chased each other through the trees.
Driving the cart on an improvised harness wasn’t a simple task, but at least Mittens’ ability to understand speech meant that any straying off their course was quickly corrected, and Mittens grew more skilled at pulling the carriage evenly as they went on the forest began to thin and the land began a slow, uneven plunge downward toward the northern coast.
*
Awkwardly, the older minion shifted in his bizarre steel bindings and sneered up at his partner, “There’s some semblance of symbology in all this, but I’m not of mind to come to it now.”
“Symbolism.”
“Shut up!”
*
Clearing the Howling Woods was a relief, and as they made it into the golden light of dusk, they all decided to leave the cart behind at the side of the road. They wouldn't be needing it, and after all, it really wasn't theirs. Best not to fall into the habit of taking things, Eidolyn thought, just because it belonged to less than savory people.
Finally free of the agonizing voices whose creators Eidolyn was powerless to aid, she now wanted to run down the slope toward the city until they were far, far away and lost in the din of civilization. But somehow, she felt that, just perhaps, the ghosts of the suffering might have the ability to see her flee guiltily, and so instead she laid her hands across her lap and lowered her chin mournfully, taking a final look back.
But as she did, the shape of full bookshelves glinted back at her out of the verdant shadows. She never could have missed it; the Sylvan Tomes had appeared so suddenly that the sensation of presence was pressed into her back like a gale. Without any real idea what caused it, a paranoid chill shook her as she silently tried to ignore a second sighting of a phenomenon that people are considered to be blessed to see just once in their whole lifetime.
Were the Sylvan Tomes following them? How does one cope with being followed by a library?
But after all, the Tomes could not, as far as she knew, appear outside of a forested area, and so she kept silent as the sight of Analerna, sparkling and clean and white, billowed from the treetops as they crested the final hill. Even from that distance which afforded a view on both sides of the shore curving away into the early evening haze, a crisp twinkle danced through the bay like agile fairies teasing the clumsy, heavy cargo boats and ferries that toiled away there. Most of Analerna gleamed, but the reality was that the city was, on a much larger scale, the equivalent of a home whose occupants had grown very, very good at hiding the mess where guests stopping by on short notice wouldn’t notice it. Across a very apparent border, the east end of the city blackened both with filth and neglect as well as deepened shadows. Any building taller than one story seemed to sag over the street—not threateningly, but with an ashamed slouch. These buildings had aspired to more than what they’d been pressed into, and now in the face of depravity, they huddled amongst the husks of their fellows in twisted configurations.
“Analerna!” Shard spoke its name like it was that of a vengeful god he was hoping to appease. “Either you own it or it owns you, that’s what they say. It’s had a lot of time to build a culture of vice that can honestly mistake itself for righteousness and moral clarity.”
Government officials the world over subversively sailed to Analerna to study it at work. In alternate universes in which Analerna had never been founded, the idea of the corporation was delayed by a minimum of three hundred years.
To Eidolyn all the polished white looked up at her like the toothy grin of a conman, too good to be true and quick to make grand, superfluous promises. “We don’t have to go to that shadowy area, do we?”
“We do,” Shard nodded. “Well, close. The city police station straddles the line between eastern Analerna and the rest of the city.”
“Speak for yourself!” Gryphon huffed. “Dere are more than seven hundred fings gryphon parts are used for an’ less den ‘alf of ‘em work! I dun want my talons ground up for a defective ‘angover cure!”
Shard ambled down the hill ahead of them down a reluctant, winding dirt trail. Magical lands have a will of their own, and all roads to Analerna had once been straight but over centuries had wrinkled and curved and curled up on themselves like string, or an entity pulling uselessly at shackles bolted into a wall. Five hundred years ago Shard would have been walking through a patch of columbine plants whose stubborn descendants now were backed up against the woods half a mile away. Even the very city walls of Analerna, conflicted between the goals of keeping things in and keeping things out, was in constant need of upkeep and was the only place where the warping of solid granite could be observed without the aid of powerful geological forces or by feeding grain liquor to a golem.
The twisted road was coerced gradually toward the walls of the inner city. There was not much outside the city apart from, at its west end, a few small private farms and homes, most in disrepair, and a “last chance” inn at the westernmost limits of the city called Wondering Skull Corner. Ahead of them, the fresh grass turned flattened and browned from increased traffic and loitering by those waiting to get inside, and cobblestones seemed to gradually rise from the dirt road as if summoned forth from some sort of netherworld of paving implements, ending in a groaning, black iron gate flanked on either side by two bored guardsmen, each loosely holding a polearm, fidgeting with them like a tavern patron unsure to do with the unfinished beer they just bought after realizing how drunk they really were.
By now Eidolyn was getting used to shocked and confused reactions to their party by even the most hardened, world-weary traveler, and had entertained the idea that perhaps their passage had convinced a few that, yes, there was more out there to see. What she wasn’t expecting from the two Analerna city guardsmen, clad in tarnished, dented mail and studded leather were a matching, symmetrical pair of bemused smiles stretched over their dusty tanned cheeks. The pair of food vendors pulling their wheeled stall past the gates turned as they observed the guards’ faces and immediately launched into an exuberant assault of sales pitches.
“Fresh bread! Only five days old!”
“Pickles! Get-cher pickles! Pickles big as your foot, but smell better!”
“Dried fish, salt pork, cold chicken!”
“Peaches smooth as a fairy’s bottom!”
The guardsmen steeled their expressions as Shard approached, and they lowered their spears with a sense of tired routine.
“State your business,” the one on the left grumbled, shuffling in his dilapidated, stained boots.
“To make trouble,” Shard shot back crisply as he rocked back and forth on his feet. “We are up to no manner of good.”
“Of course.” The guard rolled his eyes at his fellow. “Just don’t get hurt, all right?”
“Oh, sure, sure,” Shard replied dismissively. Rather than focusing on the men with sharp weapons in front of him, his eyes were wandering over the city walls, and his feet were shifting restlessly in the dirt. It was apparent that he wanted to crane his head to look through the gate, but at the same time knew that whatever it was he was looking for, it was unlikely he’d see it from there. “Will… will that be all then, gentlemen?”
“Hold on there, handsome,” the right guard said. He was more heavy set than his partner, with wide, sturdy shoulders and an expansive torso. It was unclear if most of his bulk was muscle or fat, but he carried himself in a way that let people know that, if it came down to a fight with him, the difference wouldn’t matter much. “You all have to go through customs.”
“Customs!” Shard grinned mischievously. “I have quite a few customs of my own already. For example, strong mint tea before bed, which clears the sinuses and makes for a restful slumber, bringing in a vase of daisies every Satyrday during the summer, and for some reason whenever I get out a pot to cook something in it, I have to rap it lightly against the counter first.”
“You know what I mean, smartass! Now,” the right guard faced Shard squarely in a way that dared him to dared him to turn his back so that he could have the first interesting moment in his day. “Name?”
“Shard. Just Shard. And no filling out Shardjustshard as a joke. You won’t be the first.”
“Have it your way, glummy-gus,” the guard mumbled. “And you, gryphon?”
Sourly, Gryphon replied, “Juss Gryphon. Though,” he reflected, “Me dad called me: squawk-caw-screeeech!”
After taking his hands off his ears and retrieving his paper from the dirt, the guard turned to Eidolyn. She preemptively told them her name. “I… think I’ve always used it.”
The guards both shrugged off the odd answer in favor of turning to Mittens, only long enough to catch the gaze of its huge onyx button eyes before turning away again. “Moving right along…” The two sighed and exchanged knowing, exasperated glances.
The left held up a scroll with a sigh that begged for deliverance, unrolling it with the ceremony of one emptying a piss pot. “Are you, or have you ever been,” he grumbled, “a member of the Coalition of Evil Overlords, Poisonous Fungus Enthusiasts, Wicked Stepmothers Crochet Club, Cannibal Stepparents Anonymous, Young Usurpers Club, War Engine Machinists Auxiliary, Gorgon Sculptors Association, The Sunshine Brigade, Virulent Disease of the Month Club, or Vampire Fanciers?” The list came to a rumbling, awkward stop, each syllable gaining more weight than the last, until the final word landed like a sack of dead ducks. He furled the scroll with a disgusted flourish and put it away while the confused travelers tried to remember how to say ‘no.’
Instead of bothering to prod another confusing reply from the odd entourage, the guard who’d had the fortune of not executing the last part of the customs process smacked his hands together. “Right. Just a quick pat down and we’ll see you on your way.”
“A what?” Shard demanded.
“Just to make sure you aren’t carrying any contraband. You don’t even have to do anything but raise your arms.”
“What’s contraband in Analerna?” Gryphon snapped. “Soap?”
But this process was even more brief. The guards moved past Mittens, casting embarrassed glances at the other’s boots and ran their hands hastily through Gryphon’s fur, who reacted like an agitated, impatient show dog being inspected by a judge. When they moved on to Eidolyn, Gryphon rose from his shaggy haunches and padded over to her.
Eidolyn was shaking. No, this was a man of the law—in a place like Analerna, any agent of justice had to be under constant scrutiny. Still, the hands were so large, and by their appearance, their owner might have considered the hundreds of varieties of grime and filth one might encounter to be nature’s spice rack.
But as the guard raised his hands to Eidolyn’s waist, Gryphon chimed in, just as Eidlyn failed to contain a nervous squeak: “Human hands are ravver gamey but dey got real rich flavor. Kinna like a… like a…” He twiddled his paws in the air thoughtfully. “I dun suppose you’ve ever ‘ad minotaur jerky? Ya kinda need somefing to cleanse the pallet afterward.”
The guard, shuddering deeply, gingerly laid his hands on Eidolyn’s hips and, gulping down a lump of apprehension, gave them a single pat before moving on to Shard, who stood there, arms crossed.
Shard raised his arms and took in a stiff breath. “I don’t suppose you’ve got gloves you could put on?”
The guard sighed. “Never mind.” He picked up his polearm and waved it toward the gate. “Move along.”
Looking after Shard leading his companions into the city limits, the guard, still shaking, leaned into the perimeter wall. “That’s the second group of heroes today. I’m starting to miss the assassins and bandits.”
Wistfully, his partner nodded.
*
Inside the gates, the city blossomed in all directions, even upward, as many of the buildings were three or even four levels high, and many of these taller buildings had clothes drying on lines set up on their roofs rippling crisply in the wind, or rooftop patios set up on the only available flat space that wasn’t in the middle of the street. With the braughnauthene being slowly pulled into the murky shadows to the east, the busy streets were lit a cool, saturated orange. One main street was clogged by horses and horse-drawn carriages and carts, most of them on their way out of the city, the horses all shuffling lazily in a collective contemplation as to whether or not this was all natural. One clog in traffic seemed to converge on an ornate carriage being pulled by a centaur who’d stopped to use a nearby storefront window as a mirror to fix her make up in.
Above the shouting, Eidolyn leaned in to Shard and asked, “Where do we go?”
“The Mug Earth and Oak Inn,” Shard returned, loud enough to be heard over the commotion from the street and somehow not losing any of his usual refined calmness. “The finest accommodations in the city, save the duke’s manor itself. Safe, tasteful, clean. Allows pets.”
“Oy!” Gryphon interjected.
“It’s rather nicer than I imagined,” admitted Eidolyn.
“Of course, the central streets that see the most tourists are given the most attention and care to keep up appearances.” He shouted up to the roof. “Come along, Mittens! Mind the laundry!”
A blank grin was returned down to Shard from atop The Stranded Siren cafe and its two floors of homes that had been crammed on top of it. It shrugged a chemise off of its tail and waited as Shard, Gryphon and Eidolyn weaved through the early evening bustle toward a quieter street, past a wizard driving a wooden cart speaking into a crystal ball beside him and assuring it, “Of course, I can talk; I’m just driving.”
“Shard,” Eidolyn asked as they ducked onto Lilyglass Street, where the hanging ornaments of a glassblower's shop reflected quivering rainbows as they shuddered in the breeze, “Why did you tell those guards that we were here to cause trouble? Surely it wasn’t some sort of code, or that small crime is accepted enough that guards would accept visitors more if they were there to cause them grief?”
“It’s simpler than that,” Shard smirked as he silently waved off a vendor’s offer of a free sample of some sort of tiny flaky pastry on a greasy platter. “Really dangerous sorts will be surreptitious or in some manner of disguise. People who come in saying they’re looking for trouble are petty hooligans who end up going to a dingy pub to plan a robbery, getting drunk and passing out or getting into a fight with the one the guardsmen are really after.”
“Or they didn’t see much danger in a peacock wot smells like a stinky underarm fulla rose petals.”
Shard winced. “I am aware.”
Grinning toothlessly, Gryphon padded along behind him. “Dat means you need a baff.”
“Thank you, Gryphon.”
“I smell just as bad as Shard,” Eidolyn pointed out.
“Dat’s diff’rent. Iss okay, I’m sure no one notices. You’ll fit right in until we get to the rich folks’ neighbor’ood.”
That road curved off to Ravengap Street, somewhat uneasily as if being coaxed. As they continued northwest, the homes became more lavish and spaced closer together so that by the time they arrived in Upper Analerna, the residences looked like expensive manors that had been pressed together, growing thinner and taller with the walls of one always touching those of its neighbors. It was growing dark by the time they neared the Mug Earth and Oak, and city workers paced the streets lighting the magic torches in their iron brackets set high on spindly stands to deter vandals and blitsters, small snaky lizards that sap magic from objects.
The greater blitster, which can sap magic from people and creatures, was a real problem in the Kingdom of the Horn for a time, where they were introduced to deal with fire hawks, which seemed to prefer wheat fields for their courtship dances. Little did they know that the fire hawks were keeping the local population of bombardier pigeons in check.
“And that’s how bombardier pigeon became a delicacy in the Kingdom of the Horn,” Shard explained as they sneaked under the row of golden orbs. In the dark, the sounds of their footsteps seemed to be devoured eagerly by the shadows and the cool, blue grayness of the quiet evening sank into them soothingly.
At the end of the block, white pristine, almost sterile light spilled out onto the street with the mulled voices of discreet laughter and dignified conversation. The Mug Earth and Oak inn stood over them in a way that dared them, in their tattered clothes and impolite odor, to even consider approaching.
The long sign announcing with slick, oily pride the name of the establishment was crested by a black iron sign with “vacancy” spelled out in red glass and lit from behind by a magic torch. Eidolyn had never seen the varieties of flowers spilling over the sides of window boxes and half barrels in dormant brilliance, but she supposed that they were all very exotic and fashionable.
It’s a simple idea to struggle to make oneself heard over sounds, but Shard had, for the first time in his life, to make his voice heard over smells, which seemed to be fanned down the street in waves of cloves, rich jellies and various kinds of roasted animal, oozing around dishes with long names that were required to include the exotic fruit it was glazed with, what unconventional sauce it was swimming in or what flaky, buttery crust it was sizzling out of, spices it took thousands of blooms to produce one ounce of and wines whose tiny, hard berries produce one bottle per season per winery. Food tastes better when it’s exclusive, and the richest practice the bittersweet dignity of deliberately leaving most of it on the plate.
“The Mug Earth and Oak is renowned for its clientele,” Shard explained. “The best inns make you feel guilty for being pampered and to conveniently forget that you’re paying for the privilege.”
“Dunno 'bout this place, Shard.”
But his friend replied stridently, “No! Nonsense. We’ve had an arduous journey and I’m treating us to the best Analerna has to offer.”
“And dis is your idea of a good time? A stuffy place like dis! I’ll bet it looks like Pelgrin’s on the inside.”
This point visibly seemed to hit Shard between the eyes. Like a battering ram. “Surely, surely,” he hastily conceded, wiping his tangled locks, “but a tower without Pelgrin is just another home.”
“Sure!” Gryphon scoffed. “An’ a gingerbread house wivvout a witch is just anovver cookie.”
Nevertheless, Shard led them forward into the white light of the inn. “You must someday stop seeing demons under every mountain, old friend. It’s frightfully unhealthy.”
But as they approached, a previously-unseen shutter slid away from the “vacancy” sign above the door to reveal more red glass, now warmly informing them of a lack of vacant rooms therein, and the insistent sound of a small window slamming, and the pane of glass set into it rattling.
“Well! Of all the…” Eidolyn huffed. “How do you like that!” They couldn't have been that filthy, could they?
“The same way I like being slapped across the face with a fish,” Shard mused softly as he looked up and puzzled over the sign.
“You mean it doesn’t hurt as much, but it’s the principle of it?” guessed Eidolyn. “Perhaps we should just go somewhere else. If we’re not wanted we won’t have a pleasant stay even if we do get a room.”
“Oh, no. Not after being insulted like that! We’ve come all this way, and it is only in the interest of finding you the opulent accommodations you deserve!” came the innocence slathered reply like a child’s “I don't know who drew on the wall,” “I don’t know why I drew on the wall,” and “so can I have a cookie?” all rolled into one. With a grin, he motioned them all just next to the awning, climbing onto Mittens’ back. As Eidolyn joined them, he gave a loud, dramatic sigh, motioning for silence. “Oh well. Shame we’ve arrived too late to get a room for the night! And I was looking forward to staying here! Well, let’s go! We won’t find a room just standing here!”
As they huddled under the window and customers inside either pretended not to notice them or deliberately noticed them so they could act unimpressed, the window above the door whispered open and the shutter over “no” clanked welcomingly aside again.
Shard looked back mirthfully at Eidolyn. For a moment, she mistook the reflections of flame in his eyes from the torchlight as coming from within him, and once it was clear what Shard was plotting, she simultaneously rolled her eyes and twinkled them back. Shard patted Mittens’ head and they were immediately boosted up under the nose of the man hanging out the window fastening the sign’s shutter open with a little iron catch. His face and slicked hair looked like it was carved from pale wood and given black marbles for eyes, but upon being startled by the group, the wood carving of his face warped into a grotesque gargoyle grimace for but a moment before settling back into its customary sneer.
“Good evening,” Shard’s greeting flowed like thick cream.
“Hullo,” Gryphon chimed in.
“Hello!” Eidolyn called up.
A muttered curse concisely summed up the man’s current feelings on the situation, his career, most of the world and, tangentially, onions. “Yes,” he spoke without a hint of interrogative curiosity.
“We were just noticing that you appear to have rooms available after all!” Shard smirked as he leaned forward onto the iron railing that skirted the building’s facade. The man behind the sign leered at the spot the interloper touched the building, as if it were an extension of his own body. “Beastly lucky we happened to look back to see the sign change again. Must be broken, and here’s poor you having to come out and set it right again.”
The man hanging out the window blinked. The gesture carried with it as much meaning as hand gestures used by the uncouth to other uncouth people who’ve cut ahead of them in line at the market. “As you say. Broken.” The words had difficulty bubbling out of his wood-carved grimace.
“So I thought, so I thought,” Shard said, heedless of the starched fury bearing silently down on him. Eidolyn believed in good faith that Shard wouldn’t be fazed by anything short of a crossbow bolt to the nose and even then he’d have managed to talk the shooter into inviting them in for a drink afterward. “Novel thing, this signage, but it would be a dreadful thing if its malfunction would leave someone to believe that you’re screening your customers. Common folk do jump to conclusions so.”
“There’s a merchants’ convention this weekend,” the man said hastily, “and the atmosphere is rather stuffy and overimportant.”
“I’m sure the merchants don’t mind.”
“We’ve run out of dinner. Even some of those with reservations are going without tonight.”
“We’ll have what they’re having.”
“We cannot refund the portion of your bill which includes meals.”
“Pray don’t lose sleep over it.” Shard leaned onto the sill in front of him. Like an opposite magnet, the man leaned back inside the window.
The man in the window looked skyward and seemed to start a prayer to a god of hotels but get stuck on the first syllable, wondering if such a god exists. “How do I make you go away?”
It was as if Shard had already imagined and rehearsed it: “Say that you're a stuffy starched puffin and that you should like to take tea with all the beggars of Analerna whilst they tie ribbons into your hair.”
The rage that welled up within the man was the sort of rage that caused wars, set battleships asail and whose preferred instruments were fire, steel and passive-aggressive trade embargoes. He wrung his fists around two imaginary necks. “I am a stuffy starched puffin. And I should like to take tea with all the beggars of Analerna whilst they tie ribbons into my hair.”
“Well said, my good lad. And I am certain that some of the little sweets you put on the pillows will not go amiss.”
The man made a mad little squeak like a leaking balloon. “A moment,” he managed, and momentarily vanished.
“They what?” a voice asked.
The first man could barely be heard, through gritted teeth like steam escaping from a pressurized caldera. “Grumble mumble.”
“They want what?”
“How many?”
The caldera blew. “Just give them to me!”
Shard looked back at Eidolyn and shared guilty giggles. Finally the man returned from the golden light of the inn, dyed ghost white by the light of the braughnauthene. In rapid succession both hands reeled outward and ricocheted two fistfuls of hard candy off Shard, Mittens and the cobblestones in a jolly polyphony of clicker-clacks.
Just then, something tickled up Eidolyn’s spine, and she didn’t know what it was until it made her blurt out sweetly, “And a smile?”
The request of the sweet girl in the braids over each shoulder tore out the tattered remnants of his dignity, and he squealed through gritted teeth in what, from the proper angle might look like a grin and slammed the window.
And they were alone in the quiet, golden night of Analerna once again. Shard picked a paper-wrapped sweet out of his shirt and proffered it to Eidolyn. “Well, that was fun.”
“I’ve never done anything like that before!” she said briskly. “But where do we go now? It’s getting awfully late, and I’m starved.”
Shard was already steering Mittens back down the street. “Oh, we’ll find something. This is a port town. There’s bound to be something down by the docks.”
“Oy,” Gryphon spoke up, “I don’t suppose any of them sweets are rabbit flavor?”
Recap: After a fearsome battle in the swamp, Shard and Eidolyn pass through South Sable on their way to Analerna.
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January 28, 2015
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