The people of Analena generally like their home. A town like Analerna works its way into you—under your fingernails, in your nostrils, through your hair. The cultural barriers separating the various neighborhoods are more potent than the most ancient geological or political border, and a map of the many factions within the city and their alliances and feuds with each other would look like a hundred-armed god doing a cat’s cradle, and getting it wrong. Imaginations paint, out of any combination of fear, excitement and sensationalism, all shadows in Analerna a bit darker than they tend to be, except for those in eastern Analerna, which is out of ignorance perceived as lighter than it really is.
Even the patrons of the most wicked institutions of that district—assassins, slave masters, crime lords, manufacturers of bootleg toys—see that darkness as a pit they dared not estimate where the bottom might be, for fear there might not be one. That reverent horror gives the impression of a self-sufficient engine of evil, but that turns out to be a convenient fabrication. There is never an entity of inscrutable power pulling the strings of the people of Analerna to some incomprehensible end, not the duke of Prill, not the guards at the gates, not the slaves working the docks, and certainly not Dorla and Coletta.
Dorla and Coletta had been the owners of the Salty Chafe Inn for only five years but had attacked the business venture with energy no one in Analerna was used to. Native to Analerna though they were, something had interposed itself between the city and the part of the brain that tells its owner not to stick its head out too far for fear of its sudden separation from its life support. In other words, they had no sense of survival about them. They did, however, have kindness, resourcefulness and the best oyster stew along the northern coast. Stuck stubbornly at the edge of the docks, it was always surrounded by briny sea air, the sound of lapping waves, boots thumping on wood planks and shouting workers and the constant in-and-out tide of travelers and merchants.
And seagulls. The seagulls’ cries, their nests, their droppings—the things, in general, seemed determined to make their presence as ubiquitous and undeniable as possible and it tended to work.
While approaching the Salty Chafe at well past midnight, the lapping waves seemed to lull and soothe Eidolyn. The docks were quiet and dark now, and the only ambient sound apart from the wet slaps of water against the docks was the hollow clunking of moored boats. Out on the docks, there were a scant few lights from a few of the boats where their crew stayed on board for the night. These lights shimmered, painting lines of orange and gold across the bay as they bobbed lazily in the blackened bay. The docks of Analerna, despite their ill repute, still were Jigsaw’s main connection by way of the sea to many other countries, and as such the port stretched into the distance on both sides, and reached quite far out over the water in some places with wave-battered, sun-baked fingers of stout planks. One lonely, distant dock was still lit by hazy red torchlight. Instructions between workers loading boxes and sacks of cargo, the occasional laugh and a low, trudging song with incomprehensible words filtered through the fog, a distant mutter. Apparently, some things could not wait until morning.
Further down, they found the Salty Chafe, a sizable building that looked as if it had been cobbled together some time ago out of the rocks that made up the stubborn cliffs of Analerna’s beaches. In spots, it appeared to have been patched up with newer, incongruous building materials. Clay, brick and even driftwood held the structure together, making a desperate, united stand against time and the elements. However, the windows were immaculate, radiating a soft green light from side. It was as if the soft sylvan glow of the forest back home had been somehow imported into this little seaside inn. The black iron sign that hung over the door proclaimed the establishment’s odd name proudly. It did not have the feel of a place locals frequented, but rather a place for tourists and those passing through on business. Eidolyn would later discover that many establishments in Analerna had crude names meant to romanticize and, thus, cash in on the city’s dark reputation. These were more popular with tourists.
They entered, leaving Mittens to bound onto the top of the building. They weren’t sure the owners would care much for that, but it was a favorable alternative to trying to get it inside. The basket retracted its legs and allowed Eidolyn to carry it inside with them. Inside, the Salty Chafe was rustic and neat, meticulously pulled together from what was available at the time. Mismatched tables were spotless and polished, mismatched floorboards were godly.
“Clean enough to eat off of!” Eidolyn marveled.
“Not hard to achieve,” Shard shrugged.
“Soup?” she elaborated.
The decor was erratic, but managed to pull itself together into the decided theme of “green,” matching the viridian glow of the magic torches. Green carpets and curtains, all of different shades with some plaid and tartan, utensils with wooden green-painted handles, and a jade statue of a packah with gold leaf tacking over the mantel. Even the two human women staffing the front desk were bedecked in several shades of green. Overall, the effect was pleasant.
“Oh, Dorla, look,” one of the women cooed. She was pretty, but plain, much like herself, Eidolyn thought indulgently. Her hair was in a simple loose ponytail adorned with a green ribbon and there was a small scar over the right of her brown eyes. At present, she had been engaged in dusting the chipped frame around a landscape that Eidolyn would later recognize as a beautiful if impressionistic view of the Silver Mountains, with Sela crammed in against itself at their foot and an expanse of farmland in the foreground.
This woman’s companion with neat, short blonde hair and a face covered with splotchy pink blemishes looked up from a large book laid over the front desk. Her small green eyes glittered like fire gleaming through emerald-colored stained glass. “Oh! Coletta!” she sighed at the visitors.
The Salty Chafe was not presently very busy, at least in the lobby. An older man read from a small book in the shelter of his battered pointed hat, cloak and coat where he sat by the fire, joined very quickly by Gryphon who trotted to the old cobbled fireplace and curled up in front of it. The old man raised an eyebrow, smiled faintly and went back to his book, chuckling privately. Three sailors huddled over a table, playing cards and mumbling conspiratorially about the reputation of the captain of the ship carrying the next morning's shipment.
“Welcome!” Coletta said. She laid aside her dusting cloth and joined Dorla at the front desk. “Oh- are you tourists? Passing through?”
“No, we’ve come to Analerna specifically, believe it or not,” Shard answered as he nudged the door closed.
The green torchlight felt simultaneously warm and calming, like a sunlit meadow on a breezy day, and likewise soothing. They were, Eidolyn realized, enchanted to have this exact effect, though she couldn’t begin to guess how she came to that revelation. It simply settled over her, as one might notice the weather, the color of a flower or the texture of a bit of fabric upon touching it. However, at the time, it did not concern her; the torches had her feeling utterly at peace with everything, even the shadlings and Pelgrin.
“I see you like our magic torches,” Dorla smiled over, startling Eidolyn out of her pacified daze. “People use negative energies as weapons, the kind distilled by demons for nourishment, so why not use the positive ones as refined by angels? I’ll tell you what—since we installed them, there hasn’t been a single fight in here.”
Positive energies exuded by people are food for angels, and only they and certain other creatures of a naturally benevolent nature can turn them into a corporeal, gaseous form that can have an effect on people, like these torches. While Eidolyn did wonder how one went about getting such a thing, she supposed it was easier than getting negative energies from demons.
Actually, demons sell them, thanks to a tourism industry built on the tenuous ground that demons have no rights within the civilization they prey on, and people can take what they want from them, given sufficient force (quite a lot). Both parties seem to agree that putting aside racial hatred for the duration of an exchange of goods is easily favorable to a violent alternative. Rather than money, demons prefer to be paid in goods, such as livestock, certain crops, leather, wool and spices—usually things harder to come by in their small settlements that are easily beset upon by mobs wielding torches and pitchforks.
As for angels, being creatures more ethically concerned with the motive behind potential buyers of their product, tend to be more hesitant to relinquish it for any price. In addition, angels’ view of the final, gaseous product of the product that makes energies digestible to them as a bodily excretion, the request that they sell it is considered to be vaguely but undeniably vulgar.
Demons sell things much more vulgar than their energies, to the right buyer.
“Ooh!” Coletta cooed at Gryphon, who immediately looked up from his sleepy daze by the fire, looking put off by any reaction to his presence other than awe and respect. “What a darling pet you’ve got!”
His tawny feathered crest raising, Gryphon opened his mouth to protest.
But he stopped as Dorla asked, “Does ‘ums want a little bit of sausage?”
And in a wink, Grypon got up, trotted over to the desk, the sapient sarcasm in his eyes replaced with blank, bestial greed. He looked up plaintively and let out a pathetic peep that sounded equally like the cry of a baby bird and that of a kitten.
As the two women behind the desk tittered and brought out a scrap of leftovers from long for Gryphon, Shard ruffled his mane with a chuckle. “Shameless,” he laughed. Then, to Coletta and Dorla, “We are in want of a room for the night, and possibly for the next.”
“Of course. There’s always plenty of room,” Dorla nodded. “Of course, not because we don't get enough business—don’t, for a moment, think that! But there is always plenty of room. Now, let’s see…” She consulted the floor plan, laid out on a sheet of canvas hanging over the wall behind the desk. The inn was of fair size and contained perhaps forty rooms. Very likely, it had been built ambitiously when Analerna still enjoyed a favorable reputation and was sold cheaply when public opinion of the city plummeted. Circular markers were stuck over just a few of the rooms, presumably meaning that they were occupied. “Oh,” Dorla observed in a deliberate, hopeul manner. “Why, it seems that our popular ‘Happy Ending’ suite is available tonight! I should mention that it has its own magically-heated bath, big enough for two.”
“Got one of those,” Shard said, his voice cracking at the, admittedly, forward assumption.
Not in the slightest disarmed, Dorla turned away from the chart to smile at them directly. “And a full length mirror on the ceiling?”
“And don’t even mention mirrors,” Eidolyn spoke, eliciting a giggle from Shard as they both blushed when they realized that the mirror was for.
“Here for a little peace and quiet, then?” Dorla hopefully pitched. “How about our super-luxurious Spindle Room? You’ll feel like you slept a hundred years!”
After a polite refusal, it only took a moment to get a room—a perfectly ordinary one, located directly above the lobby. By this time, Eidolyn realized how much they’d been though in order to take them that far. Her nap in the Swamp of Dire Poets had replenished a small bit of energy, but a lot had happened since then. As Dorla handed Shard the key to their room (none of the keys in the drawer looked like any of the others), she felt suddenly that just the prospect of walking up stairs might cause her to collapse. A mountain would be just as daunting. Couldn’t she just fall asleep on one of the plusher of the chairs out in the lobby, by the fire?
Shard put an empathetic arm around her shoulder as he felt her knees buckle for must a moment. “You’ve done very well. That isn’t meant to sound condescending; so have I, I think. We came a long way to get here, and we bested many frightful obstacles. We’ve earned this respite. Now let’s enjoy our restful slumber, and approach our predicament tomorrow with refreshed minds and bodies.”
“You’re on a journey, are you?” Coletta asked as they retreated across the lobby to the uneven, patched up stairs in the corner. “You ought to tell us all about it—tomorrow. Faelauuveherafarren can cook you a nice big breakfast while you tell us all about your adventures.”
Too tired to protest, ask who the person with the long confusing name was, or what might be for breakfast, Shard nodded with a tired bow. “Thank you. Have a pleasant evening.”
The room, much to their chagrin, had just one bed, though it was a large one.
“I suppose they still assume we are together,” Eidolyn murmured. She shooed fanciful thoughts out of her mind, but they merely scurried to the back in order to crop up later.
“I shall sleep on the floor. I don’t mind,” Shard shrugged. “I can bring Mittens in and use it as a bed… or use Gryphon as a pillow.”
“Like bloody ‘ell you will,” Gryphon interjected.
Shard shrugged. “It’s for the best. I’d probably get fleas.”
“No,” Eidolyn said softly. “There’s no call for that! We have lived together for several nights. I see no problem with sharing a bed. We are both adults here, and we’ve been through things much more shocking than sleeping in close proximity to one another. It seems silly to make you uncomfortable for my sake, and I know you’d never let me give you the bed.”
“Of course not!” Shard agreed. “Very well. But as my sensibilities yet attempt to interject, I will sleep above the covers, with my head at the foot of the bed.”
She was sure Shard wasn’t doing so out of any distaste. He was just being polite, she told herself. “All right. We have a compromise.”
It did seem to be the most civilized, balanced scenario they could come up with. Neither of them had any nightclothes, and what they wore was still dirty from their journey. They were at least able to remedy this fact by use of the cleaning wand they’d gotten from Pelgrin. Now that Eidolyn saw it working, she realized that it was exactly as Shard said: it functioned by removing whatever wasn’t part of the garment’s original construction. Remarkably, this meant that not only were dirt, sweat and blood removed, but the patch on Eidolyn’s dress was changed, completely seamlessly, into the part of the fabric that had been torn for two years as torn and dirtied fabric cascaded into nearly good as new condition at the touch of the wand.
“Shard,” she spoke, guiltily, as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“I… I’ve been seeing magic lately. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I think it has something to do with the day you tried to teach me! I think that, even though I saw all of those horrible things, it worked.”
Shocked, Shard abruptly looked over from where he stood by the mirror hanging over a simple, wobbly table against the wall, removing his shirt and folding it gently. “Hmm.”
“That is… when I see magic, lately, I seem to be able to understand it without effort. That happened when I saw the magic torches in this place.”
“Should… I be worried?”
Shard left his trousers on as he crossed the room to the bed. Eidolyn tried, very hard and in utter vain, to stop her heart pounding and her cheeks turning red. It would be a chore just getting to sleep. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so. The lesson seems to have worked, though not in exactly the way it was intended. If anything I think it is a good sign. At first, I was worried about…” He was now on the opposite side of the bed. He stopped himself, midphrase, sitting down and moving one old lumpy pillow to the other end of the bed. “Well, that I had made a terrible mistake. However, all seems to be well. Individual humans, and other creatures that are not magical in nature can be magically inclined in terms of their own aptitude for learning.”
Shyly, Eidolyn blushed. Shard’s comment had been spoken with a sense of wonder and curiosity matched by his big, bright eyes, not at all condescending or consolatory. “Perhaps I could learn some magic, after all.” Her visions had given her such a terrible and primal fright that she, at first, felt that she would not be ready to begin learning spells for some time, but that seemed far behind her now.
Shard paused, and without the ability to see him on the other side of the bed, she waited nervously for his reply. “Perhaps, perhaps. I think we should get a ferry back to the peninsula. Maybe en route back to Asher, I could try to teach you something. For now, we had best get to sleep. You look like you’re about to collapse, and I feel much the same.”
She nodded. “Good night, Shard.”
No. Even as Shard got into bed, she wasn't ready for it yet. Tell herself as much as she might, she could not just share a bed with Shard like it didn't mean anything. She shifted from one foot to another, mulling about her frantic thoughts for a moment before victoriously discovering what it was she needed: a distraction. She reached to the basket where it had deposited itself in the ray of moonlight beneath the window sill and withdrew The Arduous Journey of Innocence Reclaimed: A Preening Peacock's Guide to Not Being a Thieving Little Twit. It was time to do what she had not yet had time for.
She opened the book.
The first several pages were white. Not quite blank, though. For some reason even though there was nothing on the page, the pure, uncontaminated white that filled them were tangible. It carried as much meaning as the next pages, which exploded in verdant greens, whorls of sky blue and cloudy white. Pinks, oranges and purples swirled and sank into glittering indigo, and she immediately became quite homesick indeed. What was this? A story in colors? Desperate to see more but craving the exhilaration of every hue, she patiently examined each page as a blossom of rosy pink appeared on the pages. It swelled as the book progressed, and Eidolyn found that her blushing embarrassment from earlier was not abated in the least by this.
But the warm, sensuous pinks gave way to sickly yellows, dull crimsons and browns and sullen gray, and Eidolyn became quite convinced that these pages held a clue to the things Shard had been so cagey about. Thankfully, rich and bright color returned in the subsequent pages, as did the blossoming pink, but the joy of this was mixed, as the lingering unpleasant shades made each splash of color after that a little less bright.
She had lost herself in the strange book for some minutes, but eventually she arrived at a page that was nowhere near the end, but at which she felt compelled to stop “reading.” She wasn't meant to. Or, perhaps, no precise cosmic law forbid her from doing so but it would yet be to her benefit to resist looking ahead.
Bracing herself, she turned the page, just a little. And when nothing exploded, fell away into infinite blackness or appeared to scold her for meddling with unfathomable cosmic mechanisms, she was able to take note of the pink blossom on a white page, meandering. Of course, it didn't move across the page. No matter how moving and enthralling the colors on the page, and how vividly they evoked emotions, they were still just splashes of color on paper. But it had come from a magical library, after all...
The pink blossom winked back at her from the far edge of the left page. It had a long way to go.
And feeling as if she'd come a long way herself, but also that she'd intruded on something very private, she finally willed herself to join Shard in bed. She pulled the old blanket, a stiff wool covering dyed pale green, over her and did her best to settle into the left side of the bed as Shard, with a number of discreet, abashed utterances, made himself comfortable over the right above the covers. By now, bidding Shard good-night had become routine, but this particular occasion had Eidolyn's heart struggling to stay in her chest.
Despite momentarily distracting herself by tucking the poor living basket into the padded chair under the window, eventually she had to return to the arduous task of getting into the same bed as Shard. And just the feeling of Shard’s body next to her, even through the blanket, had her heart racing for several minutes. Every movement stirred her. Finally, breathing hotly into her pillow, she managed to let her mind wander to peaceful thoughts of sailing across the bay, of attending the Asher harvest festival and seeing Byrri again, and meeting her new beau. She wondered what sort of costume she ought to wear…
Shard rolled out of bed not much later. Good, Eidolyn was asleep, evidenced by the slow rise and fall of the Eidolyn-shaped lump under the blanket. He caught himself just before he thumped onto the floor by wrapping his hand around the bedpost in the dark. Nevertheless, Gryphon appeared to have heard him; from where he was curled up next to Eidolyn’s side of the bed, he raised his head curiously, his eyes glowing in the cool white-blue moonlight coming in through the window.
There was no time to pay attention to his friend’s curiosity. He felt it coming. He wasn’t sure what brought it on this time, though on hasty reflection he thought it may be second thoughts about Eidolyn’s newly-discovered ability. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He had to hurry. Crawling over the floor, taking care to not make too much noise while proceeding across it as fast as he dared, feeling his skin rippling, his eyes bulging and his movements becoming sluggish and lopsided, he managed to let out a panicked groan that shook Gryphon fully awake.
With the beast inside him as unwilling as ever to wait for a more opportune time to reveal itself, Shard finally managed to pull himself across the floor to the door. Masses of sickly black scales bulged wherever they could. Great heaves of steaming breath and hot sweats made a man's journey across the floor into an epic struggle. Moonlight through the window turned his bare back into a white arch. Now heedless of how much noise he made so close to his goal, he threw himself against the door. He briefly panicked in his struggle to open it even as he pinned it closed. All too calmly, Gryphon padded over to him as the sound of Shard’s body slamming against the door elicited a light, sleepy sigh from Eidolyn.
“Shard…” Gryphon whispered, just as mortified as his friend.
“Guh... h... help me!” Shard rasped as his clammy hands finally got the door open.
Gryphon sighed and watched as his friend yanked the door open. All the lights downstairs were out, so no light streamed in from the lobby downstairs. Victorious, Shard threw himself over the threshold, only to be stuck at the last moment when his body finally bulged outward in a mountainous mass of warty scales. The door frame groaned as the monster pressing it on both sides flailed its malformed legs desperately to pull itself the remainder of the way through. It failed. Thankfully for Shard, Eidolyn did not wake up as he struggled haplessly, torn between his need to free himself before he was discovered and being sure not to make so much noise that he was discovered anyway. As he grappled with this dichotomy, a broad grimace carved across his snout, and Gryphon ducked under his squirming, scaly body to the other side of the door so that he could face him directly.
“Well!” Gryphon grumped. “I dun s'pose you plan on learning anyfing from this? ‘ow long d'you plan on keeping this up?”
“Until Lord Pelgrin is defeated, and then she will never have to see me again.” Of course, this is what Shard thought, but not what he said. After all, when we are not ourselves, what we would like to say and what we actually say are often very different: “Brooooonk.”
In the dark, Gryphon rolled his eyes and stamped a front paw. “Aw, common. Don’t gimme that. You’d talk if you were bovvered to try instead of grunting like a cow! But no, apparently self pity’s far more attractive. If you weren’t so busy wallowing in it, ya might realize that you drag ovvers down wif you!”
Shard gave a melancholy sigh. It was the hollow baritone groan of a cold gale gusting through a dying forest. Barely able to bring himself to, he turned his beady eyes up at his friend glowering down at him.
Behind them, Eidolyn began to stir.
Gryphon sighed piteously. He hung his head down between his shaggy shoulders, looking Shard in the eye with resignation. “Awright, ya big peacock.” He crept under Shard’s sagging, scaly belly and the ragged, matted silvery beard that jutted out from it, braced his talons and claws against the floor and shoved outward, and Shard tumbled over Gyphon’s wings out of the room, into the hallway with a great thud that shook the upper floor. Immediately, Eidolyn shot upright in the bed with a startled, wary gasp. Gryphon could only see her outline as she scanned the room. He unfurled his wings, obscuring the view on the other side of the door as Shard scraped himself away from the doorway. Barely supporting his weight, the walkway and its supporting beams complained loudly.
“Gryphon?” Eidolyn whispered. “Where’s Shard gone?”
“Ah. Li’l shadelings' room.”
“Gryphon!” Eidolyn intoned impatiently. She pulled the covers up around her and crossed her bare arms over them as Gryphon stared haplessly into the room, his silhouette framed a tawny gray by a dim light radiating up from downstairs in the foyer. “Honestly, I have had enough of your antics. Both you and Shard’s. Where’s he really gone off to?”
Gryphon’s shoulders sagged. “No, really, love! He’s gone to the toilet. I… I fink maybe all our troubles lately got you in a panic over nuffin.”
“But I could have sworn…” she pressed, at the risk of sounding obstinate. Let her sound obstinate if that was what it took to get some answers from friends who ought to trust her perfectly well!
“Sworn wot, luv?”
At that moment, Shard returned. She could barely see the figure in the darkness, but she could sense that it was him. Without willing it, she was able to sense magic radiating off of him in a way that felt familiar, like the texture of a familiar dress or the scent of one’s home. That, and his horn glowed just enough to see that his trousers were torn, hanging in stringy fragments around his legs as if they’d been torn from the inside. It took her a moment to notice because he’d been hiding it with his nonchalant swagger, but he was also holding them up because, due to a burst waistline they would no longer stay up on their own.
“Had some difficulty?”
Apparently unaware of the excuse Gryphon had crafted in his absence, Shard sheepishly shrugged. “Badger. I couldn’t rightly let it wander about, but I couldn’t bring myself to harm the poor thing, either. Turns out gourmet toffee makes poor badger bait. In fact, I think it may have in some way enraged the beast. Hence the unfortunate, irreparable damage to my poor, innocent trousers.”
“While you were doing what?” Eidolyn prompted.
“Baffroom,” Gryphon reaffirmed, at the same time that Shard answered,
Eidolyn sighed heavily. Was this a silly game to the two of them? As far as she was aware, they did not make a habit of getting into wardrobe-damaging tussles in the middle of the night. “Never mind,” she said. “Just, let’s get back to…”
The whole inn shook again, this time with repeated stomps that grew closer as their creator approached, coming up the creaky steps. Miraculously, they held, and a tall elven woman soon stood behind Shard, glowering down at them in her nightgown like a statue of some sleepy goddess of retribution. Her short hair was swept up over one brow, covering her right eye. The other eye was made of glass.
The woman, larger in height and body mass than Shard, uttered in a mordacious hiss, “CURFEW.”
Then, she seized Shard around the waist, one hand on each hip as one might lift a small child, and hefted him back across the room to the bed. Before he could voice protest more verbose than “I say!” she’d whumped him down onto the bed beside Eidolyn, then wrestled Gryphon off the floor and laid him over Eidolyn and Shard. And the entire time, the floor boards and bed begged for deliverance.
“Have a pleasant evening.”
The woman whirled around and stomped out a path back whence she’d come, slamming the door behind her. The only sound in the room now, as Shard, Eidolyn and Gryphon lay in a pile on the bed was that of the walking basket clicking timorously from its hiding spot under the bed.
Surely the elf made more noise than they’d been making!
“I think we may have just met the surliest elf in the world,” Shard rasped. They were at least laying parallel, but with both of them now laying with their heads and feet together so that Shard’s voice rang in Eidolyn’s ear. Discreetly, Shard lifted his rag-adorned leg from over Eidolyn’s, having to lift Gryphon a few inches to do so.
“Do you think the inn was named after her?” Eidolyn posited.
“Shh! I bet she can hear us!” Gryphon shuddered. He dug his claws and talons into the blanket, eliciting a yelp from the bed’s other two occupants. “Sorry.”
They lay in silence for a couple of minutes, becoming increasingly of the opinion that having a gryphon in bed was an effective way to promote chastity.
“Shard?” Eidolyn whispered after a few minutes of silence.
“Do you think she even works here?”
The three gigged themselves to sleep.
Chapter Eleven: Which Explores Alternative Uses for Lemon Curd
“Morning briefing, if you would, Deness.”
Windemir watched the lieutenant, slumped over his coffee as if offering a prayer to it. Taking a few seconds to react at the instruction, which was given to him promptly at nine o’clock precisely every morning, Deness fumbled at the stack of parchment before him, leaving an ominous brown ring where his cup had been sitting.
Windemir frowned. Long report today. The morally-bereft of Analerna did not waste time getting to their own vile brand of business on the best of days, but this was exceptional. And his experience suggested that the high volume of crime must have a reason behind it. He kept an ear open to any unusual listings as Deness read them off wearily, but on this morning he found his gaze wandering around the station, pulling his consciousness along with it.
The Analerna guard was actually very efficient. Mainly at getting drunk and extorting money from the public, but when times called for it, they could get things done at a good clip. The mayor was no fool, and those positions he appointed personally were well assigned. Of course, Windemir would never boast that his skill, tempered by the need to work with irresponsible men who were little better than criminals with badges themselves, made him more than qualified for knighthood, were he to pursue it. But the room was a mess of legendary proportions. He simply could not afford to keep the station presentable, busy as he was. Thank Legna his men respected him enough to stay in line. Just the idle whisperings of some of them made him shudder to think of what might be unleashed if Windemir’al-nog Faylelen, their captain, failed to maintain the lie that hid a dark, unthinkable secret. To say that Windemir was jaded and gritty would be an understatement; in millennia of beard-free elven history, he was the first to ever manage to grow a five o’clock shadow.
He scanned the scattered papers and the walls pocked with holes and prickling with darts wherever they had missed hitting portraits of the mayor of Analerna, the duke of Prill, and Legna, god of justice and righteous smiting. He glanced over the array of coffee mugs, some of which having gone untouched for weeks, some of them smelling of liquor and others of mold, used as a sort of roulette game for new recruits. He turned his eyes down to the braided rug, now so stained with substances the tamest of which was blood that its original colors were no longer discernible. It was so threadbare and decrepit that Windemir suspected the stains were somehow holding it together in some sort of sick symbiosis of filth and decay.
He sighed. At least Asher's breed of lazy guardsmen knew how to clean up for themselves.
“Seven missing persons,” Deness continued, “thirteen missing property, two murders, one custard drowning, one kitten in a tree, one dog barking up the wrong tree, three kidnappings, one rampaging dragon (now fled), six ruined buildings, one necromancer disturbing the peace, five reanimated sheep, one confused butcher, and one escaped slave.”
“East end of town, sir. Where else?”
“I see.” That would explain the explosion on the east side, an echoing, resounding thud followed by a sharp, cacophonous screeching, like nails being dragged across iron. There’d also been a wave of destructive energy, most likely the culprit behind the outbreak of criminal activity. It would take the full force to deal with all of this chaos already japing about the city as well as whatever would crop up during the course of the day.
He couldn't wait to have the demon's erstwhile owner heavily fined on behalf of the city for the incident, especially since that person was already probably beside themselves over the loss. Magical creatures really were operatic in their ways. All the better reason to put an end to this slavery business. Demons are wretched creatures, yes, but enslaving a creature that could produce waves of wrath in cloud form was all too easily likened to shackling a force of nature. Windemir didn’t like the idea of that; far too messy when things went wrong, and whose shoulders did it fall upon when they, all too often, did? No, there would be simply no room for interruption or extra jobs today.
“I saw it,” Windemir muttered grittily as he swigged his coffee, then spat it out. Wrong one. He couldn’t tell if it was liquor or mold; he felt sick either way. “The black cloud spread rapidly outward from the city, as if fleeing, but its fury whipped up the local currents of magical energy, and now the air has a vaguely purple tinge. That means just one thing.”
Deness rolled his eyes at his superior’s theatrical monologue. “A magic storm?”
“No,” he corrected, crossing his arms over his perfectly-starched and creased jacket. “A loooong day. And yes, a magical storm as well. I want all of my men briefed immediately. By lunch, at the latest.”
“Absurd,” Deness spat, grabbing Windemir’s coffee mug, which he’d subversively commandeered from his boss. As he sipped the tepid coffee, he grimaced. What was this, vanilla maple? Damned elves. “It’s hard enough getting the force together for the annual picnic. Forget getting them all contacted over the course of one morning.”
Excuses! They buzzed about Windemir like so many stinging flies, their high-pitched whine just out of reach of the swatting palm of justice. But not today. “I won’t hear it, Deness.” Windemir could feel his authority slipping. Like a bar of soap in a dungeon washroom. Thoughts of transferring to Asher bubbled up on their own, in a sudden manner that struck Windemir as most vulgar. “And if I catch any of the force slacking, I shall do to them what I did to that blind, crippled dwarf who spilled my drink last week—except this time, the shoe horn will have been heated on the fireplace.” Blatant lies, but such language seemed to be the only way to get any respect out of his men.
Deness grinned. “Consider it done, captain!”
Inwardly, Windemir sighed and watched purple clouds roiling over the bay, forming out of the disrupted magical field with a sapient eagerness. It was going to be a long day, indeed.
Eidolyn, Shard and Gryphon had nearly left the Salty Chafe in haste that morning, intending to skip breakfast, but Dorla and Coletta wouldn’t permit them to depart without it, and once they’d had toast, eggs and porridge set before them, they instantly realized how famished they were.
“I must apologize for Faelauuveherafarren’s behavior last night,” Dorla spoke as she offered them some slices of canterloupe drizzled with honey and nutmeg. “Faelauuveherafarren does fuss so about the curfew.”
“Fee… fay… luv…” Shard stumbled haplessly over the name. When Dorla had pronounced it, it had seemed to whiz fleetingly by. “Fee fi foe...”
“She is the first elf,” Coletta whispered conspiratorially as she handed a plate of still-sizzling bacon to the old man sitting by the hearth, “in three centuries to be stricken with the severest of punishments in elven society: to be not allowed to use punctuation in her name. It is not only a stigma on one’s character, but makes an elven name very hard to read.”
Eidolyn took a slice of fruit as Gryphon began to turn down a bowl of scraps delivered by Faelauuveherafarren, but then dug in with a sense of duty when she glowered admonishingly. “Not a common practice, then?” Of course, she wondered what Faelauuveherafarren had done, but didn’t dare ask. Elves had not occupied an independent nation for several centuries, having merged their cultures with that of humans long ago. Even the royal family is elven, and has been since the monarchy’s founding nearly five hundred years ago. To think that the elves would exact a traditional punishment from ancient times was a startling thought.
“Treason,” Faelauuveherafarren said. When she turned, it was noticeable that she was wearing a prideful smile over her tanned face, in her apron and dress that hung in awkward, tight bunches around her muscular curves. “I stole the coronation cup of the old elven kingdom. It’s not as if they’re using it anymore! I use it to measure egg whites.”
“A fellow thief, then,” Shard concluded, meekly, as Faelauuveherafarren presented him with a plate of cucumber and a bowl containing a dab of lemon curd. Noticing what he’d been brought, he raised his eyebrows. “Ah! How did you know?” Shard dragged his index and middle fingers though the lemon curd and gingerly began applying it around his eyes. “Very kind of you. I fear the arduous nature of our journey is not good at all for my complexion. Eidolyn, you are welcome to partake.”
Faelauuveherafarren stared, affronted, as Shard placed a slice of cucumber over each eye. The reactions of the other occupants of the lobby did not deviate much from the elf’s. “What manner of madness is this?” she demanded.
Everyone was recoiling, perhaps waiting for Faelauuveherafarren to spring upon Shard in deep offense, but the shadeling frankly answered, “It’s simply fantastic for the skin,” while she stared, awestruck, at the bowl.
“I see!” she murmured.
“Shard, we have to be on our way,” Eidolyn pointed out.
“Of course,” he relented. Blinking the cucumber off his face into his palm, he asked Coletta, “Would you know where the garrison’s station is, milady?”
Unsurprised at their destination, Coletta looked over from checking in a young couple with their infant child. “Walk along the seafront, heading east. When it starts to look shadowy and sinister, you’ll know you’re almost there. (Welcome to the Salty Chafe. Your room is number fourteen, down the hall there) If you see Jasper’s Secondhand Dagger Shoppe, you’ve gone too far. It’s a red brick building past Rainem Manor, on the corner of Hopspice and Pnaler.”
“Thank you,” Shard nodded, pausing to look deliberately around the dining room and lobby, gradually filling with guests milling about as they emerged from their rooms for breakfast. “You know,” he said as he got to his feet, “It is remarkable that you can keep the place so clean, just the three of you.”
“It is a challenge,” Dorla admitted. Colette and even Faelauuveherafarren momentarily ceased their duties to murmur their agreement.
Shard unshouldered his pack with his usual flourish. “Then it’s settled.”
Eidolyn suspected what he was up to, and turned out to be correct: he withdrew Pelgrin’s cleaning wand and proffered it, over the front counter, to Dorla. When she returned the gesture with a puzzled expression, Shard went on:
“It is a fair gift in exchange for hospitality of an admirable caliber. Yes. Yes, I do believe it is. Pray do not refuse it, as it would be an injurious offense indeed.”
“It is also a cleaning wand,” Eidolyn explained quickly, turning a small smirk to Shard.
Shard smiled sheepishly. “That too. It ought to make chores mirthfully brief, and its simplicity is unmatched. Just point and command.” Here, Shard actually turned the tapered, gnarled end of the wand at his own face. “Clean!” With no puff or smoke or glimmer of raw magic, the lemon curd he’d smeared under his eyes seemed to dissipate into the air. Struck with another idea, he thumped his pack beside him while those observing were still marveling at his previous feat. He withdrew the ruined trousers from the previous night. He tapped the streamers of fabric, which Eidolyn decided looked torn, not shredded at all, and spoke, “Mend!”
The other customers at the inn were already getting quite a show, with this tailed, horned fairy man smearing himself with the breakfast and making inquiries about police, but now they craned their heads, no longer pretending not to notice as the fabric of his trousers pulled itself together, the snapped and frayed threads fusing together. The sound of high-quality apparel once wrought asunder become whole again manifested itself without a sound and without any additional display. Eidolyn supposed that if one used the wand a lot, such a thing would just become ostentatious and tiring with repeated uses.
His demonstration concluded, Shard handed the wand over to Dorla. “It does heat up, so give it a rest every fifteen minutes or so. There’s lots of charge in it left, and when it starts to wear down, simply take it to an enchanter. An honest enchanter will be able to fill it up with magic again for a minimal price—a couple copper pieces, I’d say, since the enchantment is already there.”
“Th- thank you!” Dorla looked at a loss for words.
Filling in for her, Faelauuveherafarren squeezed Shard’s shoulder. “An impressive boon, shadeling. It will not go forgotten: take that promise as the vow of both an elf and an honorable thief.”
“Duly noted,” Shard nodded, flinching at the vice which had suddenly got hold of his shoulder. “No repayment is required. However, the typical narrative suggests that it finds a way to happen nonetheless. Now, we really must be on our way. We shall return this evening.”
The three strange characters left, leaving the inn only slightly less energetic than it had been. In their wake, customers went about their business, which generally entailed the consumption of their breakfast. Dorla and Coletta puzzled over the magic wand as Faelauuveherafarren reflectively stared down at the bowl of lemon curd. Her face softened reflectively as she ran two fingers over her cheek.