The seafront at midmorning was undulating with passengers and cargo, the unfurling and waving of sails and the passing of dock hands and slaves, who comprised much of the manual labor for the Analerna harbor. The harbor stretched on for some distance, occupying most of Analerna’s northernmost spots, so as they walked on, the sound of crying gulls, orders being barked, dark waves playfully lapping at the shadows under the docks or at the sides of the vessels waiting beside the, pulleys whining or boxes and bags slamming against the planks of the harbor was always present to their left. It was invigorating, though Eidolyn didn’t much like the fact that the first demons she’d ever encountered were slaves. It seemed both sad and a relief that they had at least the facade of being resigned to their task, and constantly joked and jabbered amongst themselves in the common language (they were allowed to speak to each other so long as their keepers could understand what they were saying), even singing the occasional song, punctuated by wry chuckles. Behind them, the purple clouds were now swelling, bloated with magical power and seeming to expand endlessly outward from every point, like a balloon being inflated. Eventually, as a cool gale overtook the seafront and sent tarpaulins and sails pulling against their moorings, Eidolyn noticed that the purple clouds were advancing on all sides of the city, looking to close up at a point some distance ahead of them. She’d seen magical storms before, but this one looked to be a severe one. And Eidolyn had never before been able to look into clouds swollen with magic and sense how saturated they were. But at the moment, it came naturally to her. It also occurred to her, as simply as surmising that gravity pulls a ball down a slope, that the local magic field was momentarily pushed outward at such a rapid rate that it compressed in a circle around the city and was presently in the state of sloshing back to its normal state, but doing so at such a turbulent, tumultuous rate that a storm had been triggered. The storm was imminent, perhaps beginning not much longer than a half hour from then. She turned out to be frighteningly correct about all of this.
In the midst of the charged air, a handful of slightly familiar cries rang out from above, at some distance. At this, Gryphon looked about them alertly, his crest of feathers becoming erect against his mane and his tail lashing.
“Oi,” he said. “I ‘ear ovver gryphons.”
They stopped walking, next to a stand selling fried seafood which was currently boarded up in anticipation of the storm. Looking around them, Gryphon was naturally the first to spot his fellow gryphons, nested snug among the twin towers of the great cathedral, which stood behind them toward the center of the city. It was hard to point them out from so far away, but Gryphon apparently had no reservations about their identity. Eidolyn, for her part, could only faintly see movement in the shadows that accompanied the aquiline screeches, which carried excellently in the salty air over the city, and even then she may have imagined she saw them, conjured their sight from her imagination and their chilling, intimidating cries.
“Go on,” Shard said. “Go to them if you like. You can catch up later. I’m sure it’s been some time since you’ve been with other gryphons.”
“Are they calling you specifically?” Eidolyn asked him.
“Yeh,” Gryphon nodded. He looked vigilantly at her, his beak and beady eyes set firmly as if warning off any potential attackers that might take advantage of his absence. “Awright,” he shrugged. “If they didn’t want me around, they wouldn’t be calling me over, right?”
Until that moment, no one seemed to be paying much attention to the gryphon in their midst, but the modest to-and-fro traffic of the seafront immediately bowed outward in a startled wave as Gryphon took to the sky with a great whumph of his wings. His body was so stocky and powerful, Eidolyn reflected, and it must take an awful lot of strength to propel it up into the sky without having to build up speed or take off from a glide.
Thankfully, the people of Analerna are used to the idea that one avoids getting hurt by not calling attention to themselves or by acknowledging any but the strangest and most alarming of anomalies, and so commuters, shoppers, tourists and the odd ne’er-do-well turned a brief glance skyward as Gryphon maneuvered over the rooftops toward the cathedral, then went about whatever it was they were doing with fine-tuned deliberation, allowing Shard and Eidolyn to continue their journey eastward through the city with Mittens, who Shard had long since given up on hiding since most people actually were not alarmed by it anyway. Occasionally someone asked about it, and Shard’s reactions were varied, though all of them obscured the truth as to its origins to some extent. Once he even pretended that he had only just noticed it following them when a passerby pointed it out to him.
As Dorla had warned, the further they went, the more outwardly threatening and forlorn the city became. The state of disrepair that some buildings were in matched the attitudes of the area’s citizens, both tending to look bowed over and hunched into themselves protectively. The shadows seemed a bit darker, and perhaps a bit longer, and negativity seemed to ooze from every surface, all the more apparent for its invisibility. The closer they grew to the infamous east side of Analerna, the more everything they cared to look at seemed to glare back at them in aggression, fear and shame. Even the sky seemed to be the top of an oily bubble through which the churning purple clouds seemed very, very far away. It was no spell or curse that had rendered this part of the city this way, but centuries of wickedness that had, like a bullied child, convinced the land and everything built on it that it was just its lot in life to play host to all the worst aspects of humankind, and that it deserved and could aspire to nothing better.
Shard, having left his usual discreet politeness behind, grasped Eidolyn’s hand tightly. Mittens kept close beside them, constantly looking far ahead of them from the elevated vantage point its height granted it.
The voice had come from the docks, calling up amidst a small explosion of encouraging laughs. Gleeful sniggers managed to make it up to where they were walking past a group of demon slaves moving large crates from a boat to a roped off section of the harbor. The boxes were large and cumbersome enough that it took two to carry each box. Most of them had dark skin in tones of mocha and copper, but one had bluish-green flesh, and another was pale with a gray tinge. The only thing they all had in common were sharp teeth, catlike eyes in varying colors like green, gold, red and purple, and long, pointed ears. Two of them sported a pair of horns. They all wore simple, mismatched garments. Their clothing may very well have been thrown together from a misplaced shipment of work clothes that no longer had a destination to go to.
“Don’t acknowledge them,” Shard muttered.
It was agonizing. Eidolyn kept glancing out of the corner of her eye at the demons, her gaze jerked aggressively away from anything else she may try to concentrate on. Partly she couldn’t keep from looking out of curiosity, but she was put on edge by their proximity, even though logic told her that they must be well under control. “Keep walking.”
“Heeey!” The fiendish creatures kept jeering up at them, goaded on by the sweet tang of Shard and Eidolyn’s annoyance, which most of them believed complemented very nicely the savory nature of their guilt over the demons’ captivity but inability to do anything about it. Conflicting feelings are a demonic delicacy. As such, the demons continued their assault.
“You! Pretty girl with the braids!” one of the muscular demons called up. His hair, shorn short, was a deep grayish-green, his eyes periwinkle. “How about you come down here with us? It’ll be fun!”
A second, this one with black horns that curled around his ears on either side of acid green eyes, added, “We promise we won’t go all at once!”
“Hmph!” Just when she was feeling sorry for them, too!
“Don’t mind them,” Shard spoke with soft, metered decorum. His grasp on Eidolyn’s had had remained assiduous and steadfast. “Poor beasts; it’s in their nature, really. I’ll handle this.” Shard turned calmly to ameliorate the situation, presumably through understanding and diplomacy, appealing to the demons’ cultural norms. “You! Leave the girl alone, won’t you!” he called down.
“So you come down instead!” replied a third demon, with pink eyes and white hair, who stood a good head taller than his fellows.
“Perhaps I will!”
At this, all the nearby demons who had been listening burst into mirthful laughter, those who weren’t carrying loads doubling over.
Blushing at the realization of what he’d said, Shard added, “But only in order to give you all a good seeing to!”
Over the strident cackles from below, Shard haplessly returned, “That didn’t come out the way I meant!”
At that moment, two of the demons’ keepers found their way over to the ruckus and began prodding them with clubs—enough to hurt, but not enough to make it harder for them to do their work. From the keepers’ exasperated, dismissive attitude toward disciplining the demons, this clearly was not an uncommon occurrence.
“All right, come on, then. Enough horseplay.”
“Back to work, we’re behind schedule as it is!”
“You’ve had your fun, let’s go…”
“Come on, Eidolyn.” Shard sighed and resolutely dragged her away from the still-chuckling demons.
At this point, they decided to board Mittens and ride him the rest of the way to the garrison’s station, deciding that they would feel safer and more able to flee quickly, should something threaten them suddenly. The ever stoic basket sat in its usual spot, behind them clinging to Mittens' flank. They were not yet properly on the east side, where slaves were subjected to far worse than unpaid hard labor, but they had made their way to Pnaler Street, which was a broad thoroughfare, one of the streets that stretched from one side of the city to the other, curving only slightly at the center of Analerna to accommodate the duke’s mansion. There was a lot of wheeled and hoofed traffic on the noisy, bustling street, but despite pedestrian shouting, shoving and shuffling being prevalent it was their best bet for an uneventful remainder of their journey, due in part to the gregarious, pulsating crowd and the open spaces which constantly shifted as people moved purposely from one point to another, those heading eastward doing so with significantly more wariness. It was slow going down Pnaler Street aboard Mittens with the crowd so full of street performers, vendors ingratiating themselves to unsatisfied customers and people darting back and forth between the buildings. And so they abandoned the idea of riding Mittens and let it hop building roofs like skipping stones.
Most of the buildings on Pnaler Street were shops selling necessities and basic sundries, only a few of them catering to tourists in search of novelties or souvenirs. There were a few cafes, pubs and restaurants, but they were spaced well apart. There was also the occasional store that specialized in magical paraphernalia, easily identified by Eidolyn from the outside by a faint purple glow from within. Though Shard had reassured her that all was well and at the risk of seeming importunate, she did want to express her continued apprehensiveness over this newfound gift. While it was an interesting distraction that she couldn’t deny might prove useful, something about it troubled her. And, she supposed, in the middle of a crowded noisy street was probably not the most opportune moment to do so. Still, if she worked up the courage now but backed down, she might not be able to again… And what about the book? The sense that, upon reading the book of colors from the previous night, she had been interloping in something very private, penetrated down to her heart, and that by admitting to what she'd seen it would be tantamount to saying that she had been reading his nonexistent private diary.
“Shard?” she called over the deafening strati of everyday life.
“Yes?” Even though she had expected nothing less, Shard prompting her to speak her piece gave her tingling chills down her spine.
“I…” How did she go about saying this? He'd already assured her that she was safe, but she wasn't utterly confident that if she was not safe, Shard would let her know about it. It felt like a shape was looming over her, threatening her from afar. The sense of loneliness and impending doom that she felt during her vision returned, and at that moment, she felt as if she stood on the edge of a precipice with no bottom. She couldn’t possibly form words that accurately expressed her nervousness. But she would try anyway.
But as she opened her mouth, Shard yanked her to one side, against the front window of the Wobbly Gnome Cobbler Shop. No one seemed to pay any mind apart from the woman they’d stepped in front of, who sneered, muttered something under her breath and brushed past Shard’s shoulder. But Eidolyn didn’t watch her regain her balance, correct her path and move on. Her eyes were up the road, at the figure Shard had been intent on avoiding.
Lord Pelgrin, wearing much more lavish fineries than his usual robes, was stomping down the other side of the road as if he meant to break it, coming from the direction they were going to, with a broad grimace on his face. At the moment, he didn't seem to have spotted them.
“What? What’s he doing here?” Eidolyn demanded.
“I don’t know!” Shard whispered. “He’s supposed to be in the Inter-City! What in the gods’ name is he doing…”
“He looks angry, that’s for certain,” she observed. He was positively fuming, shoving past those who were in his way with indecorous scorn.
And then, he was looking at them.
He grimaced, as if this was just another event to provoke his fury that day. Eidolyn supposed he was just as shocked at seeing them there as they were to see him. However, as incited to silent rage as he looked, he kept on walking, making no move to confront them directly. Those walking past him did not fare so well; they were shoved, sworn at and glared a glare saturated both with solar heat and heart-stopping cold until Lord Pelgrin’s face was a raw, trembling red.
“Likely,” Shard whispered as softly as he could above the din, “He’d come to the east end for some manner of forbidden or taboo supplies for his wicked pursuits, and the merchant he’d meant to be dealing with cheated him somehow— I don’t see him carrying anything. He may have had to leave empty handed after coming all this way.”
“Good,” Eidolyn pouted. Still, seeing him in that violent state stabbed deep down into the animal part of her mind. Even though he was not coming for her, she wanted to run the other way in a panic.
Thankfully, Hopspice bisected Pnaler not much farther up, marked by a red brick building which seemed to glare down on both streets with quiet watchfulness. Far from the pleasant provincial look of Asher’s police station, this building stood proud either despite of or owing to a great amount of wear and vandalism, in itself a symbol of authority that was both a reassurance to the innocent and a warning to the wicked. At least, that’s how Eidolyn saw it. Then she remembered what they’d come to do.
“Couldn’t we just ask them to help us? I’m sure that if…”
“No, Eidolyn. I highly doubt there’s anyone in here who is hung up on justice enough to rationalize the expense and danger that would come with sending their force into the next duchy for the sake of one evil wizard.”
“But surely just asking can’t hurt us!”
As they stood there deliberating, Gryphon rejoined them, looking sullen and drawn shamefully in upon himself.
“Gryphon! Did your reunion not go as well as you’d hoped?”
“Bloody fancy gryphons, their manes all done up, staring down their beaks at me! They dun like me,” Gryphon moped. He raised his front paw, and his rear talon. “Say I’m a messed up gryphon! They’re in the middle o’ their courtship, and they said if they see any other freaks o’ nature they’d send ‘em my way—then they freatened to peck out me windpipe if I din’t leave. And they called me scruffy an' smelly!”
“Ah,” Shard breathed soberly. “Sorry, old friend.”
“Well,” Eidoyn spoke indignantly. “You’re a wonderful gryphon, and if they can’t see that, then they’re not worth hanging around with, if you ask me!”
“O’ course you’re right,” Gryphon nodded. Eidolyn had never seen him so emasculated. “Just a bunch o' posh fancy gryphons wiv no culture. But it dun make me feel no better right now.”
Eidolyn supposed it wouldn’t.
“Listen, Gryphon…” Shard whispered as he stroked his mane. “Lord Pelgrin’s in the city, gods know why. He didn’t make a move to confront us, but we must be wary in the meantime. I intend to finish our business and catch the next ferry back to Asher. If we can beat him home, it’ll be to our advantage.”
“Wot! Cor, I fought ‘e was meant to be…”
“I know. Well, let’s not linger around here, now we know our old friends skulking about somewhere. Assuming the police chief is in, and he should be, it will be slightly harder for me to learn anything about him surreptitiously, but nothing I can’t handle. I recommend that all of you remain nearby, out in the open where you’ll be safe from…”
Shard cut himself off as the dark and heavy door of the garrison’s station opened. The door itself looked as if age had hardened it into a substance and resolute as hard as stone and that the iron bindings around it had become redundant. Windemir's uniform was pristine as ever, his boots polished, and his stern frown set so firmly that it may as well have been carved there. His soft bue-green eyes never stopped moving, appearing to always be on the lookout for some misdoing.
“There's our man,” Shard muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “Looks like he’s just leaving. Look, he’s locking up. There may not be anyone else in there, for now. We'll be undisturbed. Eidolyn, how about you and Gryphon head over there and fetch us some lunch. Here’s some money.” Saying the word “money” as if he had to forcefully push it from his lips, he tossed Eidolyn a silver coin and pointed her in the direction of a long stretch of food vendors, from which steam, savory and stinging smoke mingled with the sputtering of boiling oil, the jingling of coins and the barking of orders. “Anything that isn’t on a stick will do.”
“Right-o!” Gryphon winked. “C’mon, luv, let’s find the shortest line and see what’s at the end of it!”
“All right,” Eidolyn agreed, and then added softly. “But Shard, you must be careful with Pelgrin about.”
Shard gave Eidolyn a wink and scampered around the side of the police station, presumably to find a less conspicuous way inside. As he did, Eidolyn patted the back of Gryphon’s head. “Shard, master of equivocation. Can’t imagine how he manages it!”
“Well, dun worry; I know I can tell when ‘e’s at the fibbing. Cuz I known ‘im so long. Any rate, let’s be on our way. If there’s actually anyfing good over there, I bet it’s being snatched up while we talk.”
Shard couldn't, before recently, picture himself willingly entering a jail. Yet there he was, letting himself in the front door, meekly as you please! At least, unlike in Asher, the police station and the jailhouse were separate buildings. They rather had to be. At one time, when Analerna was maturing from a town of honorable thieves into a paranoid den full of murderous crooks with no time to admire their spoils for all their jealous posturing, the modest jailhouse had to be expanded somewhere on the order of once a month. Now, once a small ramshackle affair on the other end of town, it had expanded out like the regrowing arms of a starfish as unruly prisoners were simply placed where they wouldn't cause any more trouble and new branches of the Analerna jail system were simply built around them. In the middle of it all, Windemir's police station stood like an aging hound in the middle of an encroaching pack of wolves.
But inside, it was peaceful. The top priority of Analerna's government was to assure all that everything was fine and nothing bad would ever happen, at least not to anyone who wasn't believed to deserve it anyway. Knowing better, Shard couldn't help but feel ill at ease, despite the decadent scent of imported coffee brewing away diligently on a tiny sooty stove in the corner.
All manner of litter was everywhere, and it smelled of mildew and old sweat. At least, Shard huffily consoled himself, his own detritus-filled home smelled pleasant. Indeed, not only were the furnishings of the office in terrible disrepair, but the walls containing them were, as well, spotted with creeping gray rot, especially where they were falling apart. Shard hadn’t been aware until now that mentions of the decayed state of the judicial system in the city of Analerna had been anything more than an evocative way to describe it. At least the desk of the police chief seemed to be in good order. In fact, it was the only thing that was in the whole room. It was old and battered, but polished and organized. The stopper on the ink well had been replaced, all utensils were neatly lined up along the side, and any papers had been sorted into piles. He spotted the morning report in the center of the desk, with a few other pieces of parchment stacked up neatly with their edges perfectly parallel and perpendicular to the edges of the desk.
It had to be done. It was for Eidolyn.
Gryphon fluttered over the crowd, reading the faded and chipped menu down to Eidolyn as the end of the line inched its way forward toward the counter and its greasy, sputtering contents behind it. “Awright, we got… veal, cheese an' onion, spiced beef, sweet potato, minotaur, pork, chicken, cockatrice, venison, turnip, apple, cheese an' gravy…”
“Wait…” Eidolyn interrupted. Gryphon looked like he meant to go on for some time. “What are all these dishes?”
“Stuffed pastries. It’s the fing ‘ere. Stop me if ya ‘ear somefing you like.”
At that rate they’d be there all day.
“Cor, they do soup in a pastry too! Is there anyfing these rugged, roguish Analernans can’t do!”
They certainly smelled nice, but each one being carried away by any of the multitude of mostly satisfied customers looked mostly alike, apart from natural variations in the shape of the pastry and the impressions left by the fork tines that sealed the pastry shut. Just to be on the safe side, perhaps she had at least order something without any meat. Apple ought to be perfectly safe. She was about to turn around to the nearest customers to ask their opinion when she found herself at the front of the line.
“All right, all right, don’t be a soggy-oggy. What’ll you have?” The man behind the counter was spotty, messy and beaming with genuine glee. Both his thinning hair and cap were set at a charmingly agley angle from the rest of his head and, indeed, all of reality. He looked as if tucking gravy and drippy fillings into greasy pastry was all he’d dreamed of since he was five years old, and as if he’d wave off any offer of a higher calling, after giving the one delivering it a lively sales pitch.
“Ask if they’ve got rabbit!” Gryphon called down.
The moment she hesitated, the line that had accumulated behind her began their protest.
“Oi! What is this?”
“Buy something, will ya!”
“I haven’t got all day!”
“Go back home and gnaw on a table leg if you can't pick!”
Gryphon turned around midair to threaten to serve them their own teeth with a savory garlic sauce, but Eidolyn managed to beat him to it. “Excuse me! I really don’t think that waiting a few extra moments will threaten the quality of your day, and I am presently at the front of this line! The last I checked my surroundings, we are ordering lunch, not running from a rampaging ogre!” Honestly! As if there wasn’t enough to deal with!
Amazingly everyone backed down from the girl with the braids as the vendor behind the counter nodded admiringly, though a few of his customers walked off in a mixture of shame and disgust while the rest, chastised, read the menu for the sixth time or appeared to find something more fascinating in the familiarity of their own feet. Hastily, Eidolyn quickly ordered three pastries and paid with a silver coin that, by the expression on the cook’s face, was a good amount more than he’d been expecting for pay.
“Keep it,” Eidolyn shrugged. “I have, after all, lectured away a few of your customers. It’s the least I can do. Is it like this every day?”
“Oh no,” the vendor cheerily denied as he turned his back and began slopping filling into waiting pastry shells. “Today’s just a little rougher and meaner than most. It happens. It’s the flow of things. One guy gets angry, it gets in the wind, in the air, and we all feel it. In a way, it’s empathy made manifest, isn’t it? That’s why it don’t bother me none. Be just a couple minutes, milady. You can’t rush perfection.”
Plumes of rich, fat-laden smells came wafting from the stall, and the angry, stewing crowd behind Eidolyn began to calm down, as if ensorcelled by the scent of the cooking food. Come to think of it, perhaps the humble cook was, in some way, able to fold magic into his food along with the toppings of choice. Eidolyn, at that moment, was suddenly aware that while casting magic was a precise science, particularly spiritual people had a way of invoking it, often without realizing it. Indeed, the very faint lavender tingle of magic seemed to be exuding from the pots and utensils!
She was so lost in this observation that it seemed just a few moments later that she was handed three steaming, searing-hot pastries wrapped in paper. “There you are, fair lady! Be sure to enjoy those. Enjoy your time in our city, too. Rough around the edges, sure, but I like to think that all of us can make it a little brighter from day to day, and it adds up. As such, be sure to walk around as you enjoy the pastries. Spread the happiness!—and send people my way,” he winked with a true, genuine smile given with unshaven cheeks and crooked teeth.
Eidolyn nodded blankly, accepting the food. “Thank you. I’m sure I will.”
Gryphon fluttered down behind her as she retreated from the line. It seemed they’d gotten to the stall just in time. She now saw that the line was much longer than it had been when she’d first joined it. “C’mon luv, gimme mine. Which one did you get me?”
“We’d better get back to Shard,” Eidolyn said, handing over the pastry she was reasonably sure was the one she’d bought for Gryphon. He flew above and behind her, holding his lunch with surprising deftness in one talon. “I don’t trust him to hold off finding trouble until we get back.”
“Well said,” Gryphon agreed.
Eidolyn looked thoughtfully at her own lunch. With delicate disfavor, she took a cautious bite of the pastry and found it much nicer than she’d expected! She tasted the apple, cinnamon and noticed, with surprised satisfaction, the almond-like hint of serviceberry. “We’ll see how Shard has fared,” she said. “Blast his secrecy; we're going in there whether he cares for it or not.”
“That's the spirit!” Gryphon agreed.
Granted, Eidolyn felt like she had much more energy with which to rebel against Shard's wishes now that she'd eaten. Keeping a keen eye out for Lord Pelgrin and finding that he no longer seemed to be in the area, they marched back to the police station. The sight of his glare lingered in her mind, though.
“Well, looks peaceful enough from out 'ere,” Gryphon shrugged. He nipped the last of his pastry from out of the crumpled, greasy paper, gulped it down like an owl swallowing a mouse, and padded to the front window.
As he did, three uniformed men approached him in varying states of dishevelment and drunkenness. And at lunchtime, too! Eidolyn thought scornfully. As the three approached the station, its front door, already appearing to be a long suffering fixture as simple pieces of wood mounted on hinges went, was suddenly assaulted by a flurry of knocks from the three men, all three of them beating out a different rhythm in counterpoint to their raucous chortles.
“Hey, Chief Windy!” one of them slurred. “You were supposed to mead us at the Sodden… Sod… Sod Sod!”
A second officer jabbed his companion. “Sodden Sorcerer. We just got done, but I suppose we could go back.”
“Didn’t pay, of course. S’prising how few people realize how quickly the threat of arson will bring one’s tab down!”
“So true, so true... oy! Windy! Get out...”
The old wooden door, somehow having the appearance of only becoming sturdier and denser over time, was yanked open from inside. Windemir's lips were curved into a sharp arch of derisive disapproval that elves are so famous for. He sighed. “You invited me. That did not secure my attendance. And you are supposed to be patrolling the Woolhedge District.”
The three men leaned in over the threshold, but collectively lost their balance and caught themselves on the door frame and adjoining railing instead. “You going soft, Windy? Cummon. We’re gonna stomp around the slums, throw stones at slaves, lift a few skirts. Let the city take care of itself.”
“Oh, no, gentleman,” Windemir muttered dourly. He was a terrible liar, muttering and stammering as he said, “I have already, er… uh, made plans to set rats loose in the—you know, the Cheese Sculpture Museum.”
“On the day before the unveiling of the life-size Munster Dragon of Dewydell? You diabolical fiend!” one of his men grinned enviously. His fellows were forced to agree humbly.
“Er, yes. Quite. Later I thought I might chase that escaped slave. Say there’s a reward on him.”
Eidolyn crouched beside Gryphon to the side of the police station, out of sight. She did hope that Gryphon's rather strong scent of dirty fur wouldn't give them away. “Are elves so terrible at lying?” she whispered.
“Blast if I know,” came the reply, a surprisingly quiet one from such a large and imposing beak. “I 'aven't met every elf.”
Now, the less savory of the police officers had had their curiosity piqued at the mention of a reward for capturing a single demon who was probably still inside the city. Windemir began giving false directions to distract his men and keep them out of trouble for a while.
“I recommend the East End,” he said.
“Wot-- where it escaped from?”
“Precisely. He thinks no one would bother looking for him in the place he'd run away from.”
A series of slow nods with smirks pasted to them followed. “Ah. Ahh. Clever beast. Come on, lads, it'll be like a treasure hunt!”
“Ya think Shard’s still in there?” Gryphon asked.
“I can’t tell…” Eidolyn wondered if, since Shard was a magical creature, she would be able to sense if he was still inside the building, but as she faced the chipped bricks of the building she was only be able to see a faint lavender haze. That wasn’t much help, and now she suddenly felt a cold stinging in the back of her head, like she was being poked with an icicle. At the realization that the cold prickling was trying to dissuade her from this activity, she shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Windemir, having finally shooed his men off into what would, at the very least, be a fruitless chase that would keep them out of trouble as well as his business, retreated back into the station. It was getting more difficult to keep up the uncomfortable facade of being just as corrupt as them in order to trick them into doing their jobs. Luckily, the people of Analerna didn’t believe for a second the reports of him absconding with infants’ sweets, packah-tipping or getting drunk and saying to two dwarves, “Hey Jingletoes, can I hire you two to stand on my shelf and hold my books upright?”, and his men were firmly of the delusion that tales of his generosity and pleasant demeanor were, themselves, the result of an elegant and elaborate ruse.
If only he could inspire in them the fiery passion for justice—real justice, the lamented silently as he tromped over the threshold. Then he wouldn't actually get more done without them. Regarding the portrait of Legna, he offered this as a desperate prayer to his patron god.
In response, the portrait of the deity whose voluminous golden hair, broad nose and mouth and piercing eyes gave him, Windemir thought, a vaguely lion-like appearance, remained silent as it had always been, staring into the distance through Windemir, through the walls and sky, through all material existence, with regal inscrutability. It wasn’t as if gods never make contact with mortals, but many of them do have standards, so unless forcefully summoned they prefer to send a messenger or a cryptic sign instead, and it was clear to Windemir that not just any institution of justice would do for Legna.
Suddenly feeling very old indeed for an elf of only two hundred ninety, he staggered over to the desk, picking up filthy coffee cups on the way. It would spoil his officers’ roulette game, but they would have to deal with that. Once the clatter of the iron and ceramic had ceased, he stopped himself next to the record book where it sat closed on the old desk. Closed, when he had left it open. Someone was in there with him. Not without difficulty, he resisted reaching for his club or sword, instead analyzing the situation as the silence afforded him. The intruder was experienced, and probably not human. As they slunk about, only the faintest whisper of material tickled the periphery of Windemir’s hearing. This was no everyday hooligan come to vandalize and plunder; higher objectives were on the line. He peered back at the front door, where he’d come in. No sign of the intruder. Back toward the desk, and the kitchen and wash sink, and the back door and jail beyond it, where he’d heard the noise so faint it could have been imagined, where nothing stirred. Allowing a gruff, inquisitive growl to escape around his lips, he went around the desk, where the intruder brashly failed to manifest. Against all wisdom, he exuded a loud sigh.
“Coffee?” a clear voice full of life asked.
Windemir whirled around to see the strange silver-haired young man from earlier, attending to a pot of coffee on the stove. “Shard. I prefer tea, but if the blend is choice, I don’t mind it for a change. What in the gods' name are you doing here? You've come about Lord Pelgrin, haven't you?” Windemir asked guiltily.
“Ah. Well,” Shard said, paying attention to the state of the brewing coffee a little too closely. How had the got the coffee on the boil so fast? Must have been magic, but he’d gotten out the pot, filled it with water and began preparing the coffee, reciting any required incantation almost silently! “Yes.”
“I'm beginning to think that this is a fate I'm somehow predestined to.” Withholding a weary sigh, Windemir regarded his personal portrait of Legna, the god of justice and smiting things, that he kept directly over his desk in the hopes of it not being vandalized with darts, spit and worse. Thus far, that hope had been in vain and his deity of choice now glowered out at the filthy police station from behind a patina of coffee and condiment stains.
“I don’t know about that!” Shard chuckled. The laugh brought to mind the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings. “I personally have a lot invested in the idea of free will. But yes, your help is yet needed, and more direly than ever.”
Conflict. He was being tested, surely. Legends of the gods testing the moral mettle of mere mortals were almost as common as the ones which dealt with the gods’ own imperfections. Somehow, wherever contact with the gods could be made, they tended to be very coy about whether or not those legends are actually true, especially where those legends entailed divine beings taking on bizarre forms to have carnal relations with mortals, or babies springing from strange parts of the anatomy. There were six popular stories regarding Legna’s origins, all of them suggesting that he is in some way the progeny of Belphiel, a more supreme goddess of justice who was turned into a star in the Sofiides constellation. The most favored version of this asserts that Legna was formed from Belphiel’s menstrual blood and fertilized by Gidlan, the neighboring god embodying the spirit of adventure. How it’s possible for stars to do this is not thought to be important. Since the gods’ power and existence depends on mortal belief, it is thus surmised that the most popular stories about them must also be true and as such most of these stories are vulgar, sensationalistic or both.
Reflecting on all of this as he stared at steam rising from the stovetop, he said, “But I can’t leave Analerna,” he sighed with genuine regret, especially as he cast his gaze about the dirty, sullen state of the police station. “I am needed here, and I face the duke's wrath-- and demotion, should I leave. Surely there is someone better equipped to the task.” He still was not sure of Shard's own moral character, but there was the girl, Eidolyn, to think of. “Of course, if arrangements could, by the gods' will, be made…”
“You've seen evidence of Lord Pelgrin's wicked deeds-- enough of them, at any rate. And time grows short. Lives are at stake.” Shard gingerly poured coffee into two fresh cups. The station was equipped with more coffee cups than pairs of manacles. While Shard poured, the steaming, black brew split, of its own accord, into the two cups simultaneously, each serving having its own playfully-curling pillar of steam. “Good, eh? My record is seven at once, though once I do that for practice, I’ve got six extra cups of tea with no one to drink them. Anyway,” he said, handing over a cup to Windemir, “I’m sure that it would be inconvenient indeed if someone—your officers, namely—were to find out about your shining, sparkling character.” Shard, to Windemir’s dismay, held up the notes that he kept hidden in his desk drawer, on top the thank you card from the nice old lady who lived in the gingerbread house, thanking him for repairing her oven. He knew he should have taken them home, but the dratted things usually got sent to the station!
Windemir tried to protest. “But if that happens I’ll never be able to—I can barely control them as it is. Only a handful of my officers wouldn’t dream of drop-kicking a faerie for the sake of a laugh!” Though he held it squarely with both hands, Windemir found himself ignoring the coffee, even though it smelled heavenly and exotic. Had Shard done something to it?
“It would be a shame, as I said,” Shard mused, helping himself to a plate of biscuits which had been sitting under its glass dome on the shelf. Windemir winced; he knew they were stale and Shard’s grimace upon trying one affirmed his memory of how long they’d been there. “Conversely,” he choked as he batted crumbs from his pristine white shirt, “if you brought your men to Prill to battle this troublesome wizard, they may find the spirit of justice ignited in them, were they to find themselves pitted against a true villain of uncommon depravity.” Shard scoffed. “At any rate, I daresay Analerna will actually be more peaceful in their absence.”
It humiliated Windemir to admit how accurate that statement was, and Shard did travel far in order to find him, willingly entering into an abode of the law to see that justice was served, after all. “I’ll do it,” he said devoutly. Perhaps, should all go well, his ignoring the duke's orders would be overlooked.
That was the moment at which Eidolyn and Gryphon barged in the door, ready to either fly into action, create a distraction and flee or perform an unprecedented act of verbal acrobatics in order to save Shard from the horrors of a dirty cell. The next moment was occupied by blaring silence echoing between both parties as they processed what had just happened and reevaluated their next course of action.
“Well. You may wish to sit down,” Shard sighed in a way that Windemir thought was almost human. “I think I had better, too.”
“What a place!” Jasker gasped. “I wonder how big these get?”
“That’s what she said!” Piebalm closed his book with a sense of accomplishment.
“You’ve done that one already. And I don’t think you’re using it right. The humor of humans is surprisingly nuanced, you know.”
“Quiet!” Elder Feinlore demanded. “The only reason I let you keep that book is because it may help us communicate with the non-neutrals.”
Analerna is a large city by normal standards, but not even close to being the largest, and anyway, measuring a city by the space it takes up is as useful as equating the power of a spell to the volume its caster recites the incantation at. But the shadelings could not know this. Compared to the village which, before the past few days they had been almost exclusively acquainted with, Analerna was like a vast country, bloated with a confusing variety of peoples, and as far as they knew they were the first intrepid but reluctant pilgrims into this cluttered land of boats, towering buildings and bustling people.
And it had been hard, tracking Shard from Sable to Analerna. Only scrying magic had provided the answer to their navigational woes, and any shadeling other than the Right Honourable Chancellor must have permission to use it, and for that they had to send one of them all the way back to the village, and so even though they were able to transform and fly across they bay, they were only just now making it into the city to actually search for Shard there! Troublesome, yes, but the elder had no doubts that there was nothing that was worth bending the rules for.
At present, they were in the fashionable north-west portion of the city. Expensive cafes and fashionable dimly-lit coffee shops were as numerous as the upscale homes, and everything was well-maintained, in a meticulous, obsessive and paranoid way, as if there existed the belief that if a blemish or crack were to appear anywhere, giant man-eating leeches might spring from it. It was the sort of perfect cleanliness that was uncomfortable to exist in and made any strangers with normal things like yellowed shirts, split ends and scuffed shoes feel unwelcome. The people in this part of the city were fascinated by things they weren’t used to, yet unwilling to accept them as anything more than a temporary part of their community, like a drop of oil on the surface of a pool of water.
Ironically, this sort of passive xenophobia did not register with the shadelings. They continued on down the streets until they found a curious sight: an angel sipping coffee at an ornate iron table set outside one of the many coffee shops, his wings tucked close around his back against the black iron chair and the tiny down feathers covering his ears ruffling luxuriantly in the breeze frolicking in from the bay. Despite his perfect, rigid posture, he looked immensely relaxed.
The shadelings and the angel seemed to spot each other at the same time, and to take interest in the curiosity of the other party’s presence. But the angel spoke first, radiating warm, gentle goodness in his smile.
“My. Shadelings! What a treat! I have never had the curious pleasure of meeting a shadeling before, and certainly never expected to have my first encounter in a place such as this. Do sit down. I shall order you something.”
Elder Feinlore spoke up before his underlings could. “We are in a hurry.”
The angel’s smile glowed from the shade of the coffee shop’s awning. “Are you quite certain?” he asked playfully.
Even though shadelings, viewing themselves as being outside the normal flow of things, still were aware of the idea that angels’ longevity and isolated culture made them see the world in a manner that caused them to behave in a way that others would view as imperious. The shadelings were also vaguely aware that this bestowed a sort of kinship between the two races.
So, tentatively, Elder Feinlore leaned over the table and explained, “Quite. We must bring back a renegade of our race. He has already impacted the balance greatly, and does not aim to cease this madness anytime soon. We have pursued him for some distance.”
“I see!” The angel nodded patronizingly and took a long, noisome draw from his coffee, punctuating the action with a content sigh. For all his cascades of silvery-blond hair, it was difficult to see the angel's smile until he looked up at the shadelings directly. It glowed serenely. “I assume that this renegade does not wish to accompany you back to your settlement.”
“For reasons beyond our comprehension, yes,” the elder admitted.
“Then that is kidnapping. Most would feel that this is a wicked action. Hardly neutral, if I am permitted to point out.″
Here, Piebalm felt the need to speak up. He puffed out his ample chest, which was very well built by the usual twig-like proportions of shadeling standards and did his best to copy Elder Feinlore’s lofty downward leer, but found it difficult to practice it on the angel despite the fact that the angel was sitting and looking up at him. “But… but it is to protect the balance!”
“Ah! Protecting the balance, that highest of objectives!” the angel said with lofty adoration and an outswept arm as a sudden breeze fluttered the down covering his ears. Angels, like any creature of inherent good or evil, were not protectors of the balance but a force of nature which, in fulfilling their own goals, commit acts that contribute to the balance. “Thus, protecting the world from destruction. Most would feel that that is a very, very noble and good thing to do. Hardly neutral, if you'll forgive my insolence.” He looked, expectantly, at the shadelings.
The shadelings were not shocked by this, but they were mildly puzzled. As one body, all three sat down at the table, opposite the angel, who smiled in the serene, self-affirming way that tended to really rub humans the wrong way.
“Now! What would you three like?”