“She did what?!?” I don’t think I’d seen Syrixia that angry since hearing the news that Ryell’s remains had been eaten. But at least she was speaking Silva this time.
“She claims to be the Queen among dracora. Are you saying she’s going off-script? Or did she lie about that? If so, how does she know enough to say that in the first place?”
“Her claim is true, but her goals are false,” the tractumil spat. “That was never the plan!”
“It seems it was her plan…”
Syrixia shook her head. “She has made a new plan. She must think that, with the Mistress dead, that her oaths no longer bind her.” She frowned and her golden eyes hardened, and it actually looked right. Even though her body had recently grown less human-like, her expressions were starting to look more correct, more real.
It was becoming harder to think of her as something alien, something other than a person.
I didn’t want to lose that, so I antagonized her. “What’s wrong? Never had someone ruin your plan before? Happens all the time to me; you just have to adapt, learn to think on the fly. That’s what we normal people do, who have no delusions of seeing the future.”
She turned a withering look on me. “How do we adapt to this? This destroys the entire plan!”
“Does it? If Fiona’s plan succeeds, it ends up with no more invaders here, killing people, which is what you want, and me going home, which is what I want.”
She wasn’t buying it, or calming down in the slightest. “What I want is not for them to return home alive!” she fumed. In all this, she never actually raised her voice; her anger showed in her tone, though, and the cold fury behind her inhuman eyes.
“Will killing them bring her back?” I asked.
Syrixia stiffened, looking at me strangely. “What?”
“I understand you’re angry about the death of Ryell, and how it makes you feel like you’ve lost your purpose in life, with no Mistress to serve anymore. But killing these people won’t bring her back. What it will do is put a stop to all the chaos, and put them in a place where society is able to deal with people like them effectively, as even Ryell was unable to.”
She gave me an incredulous look. “Did you not also say that they needed to die?”
“Based on news of a certain incident that I’ve had reason to rethink lately.”
She gritted her teeth in frustration. “You have spent too much time in their company. You are becoming our enemy!”
“There is no ‘us’. I’ve always been your enemy, remember? Having no choice but to work together doesn’t change that.”
That didn’t go over well. “I will put a stop to this,” she said, raising one hand. I felt my skin begin to tingle. “I will destroy their speaking machine.” (Silva had no word for “radio,” so that’s what we called it.)
I grabbed her wrist to lock down her magic. “I command you not to.”
Syrixia tensed briefly, then yanked her arm away, out of my grasp. “As you command, Master,” she said with an air of very deliberate mildness. “This is a mistake, though, one that you will regret.”
“Their communication with the other groups is the only hold we have over them. Do we really want to give them yet another reason to act out of fear?” This was really bizarre behavior from her, come to think of it. “Isn’t that what dragons do, try and keep order? Why are you suddenly trying to destabilize everything?”
“There is a greater order to be kept!” she sulked.
“Yeah, the one with dragons on top and everyone else too scared to dare mess with them. Forgive me if, as a member of the ‘everyone else,’ I don’t show as much loyalty to that order as you would like!”
“You know much less than you think you know, and it will be your downfall.”
Sarah sees that I see much less than I see. And just like that, with her choice of words, my concentration was completely ruined. I think part of it was that I had kinda stopped caring, to be honest. No more long travels. No more walking or riding. A few weeks of well-deserved rest, and then I was going to go home!
No more having to care about dragons or kingdoms, no more wizards wanting to kill me, no more mediocre food and clothing, no more sleeping in tents or inn rooms when I travel and having to worry about bugs. No more having to put up with temperamental horses. No more backwards civilization that has no idea what electronics are. No more having to deal with Syrixia or any of her ilk, thinking they had some right to control my life. Let them be someone else’s problem. I’d be free. I’d be home.
No more being Anthony Stark, helping to bring this kingdom into the Industrial Age. No more being Peter Parker, entertaining crowded taverns and hanging out with my friends from the Bards’ College. No more bringing down corrupt nobles, evil wizards, and malicious fake princesses. No more being a man of influence and renown. No more expected life span measured in centuries. No more pristine world, untouched by the ravages of industrial pollution, and no more chance to help a world get it right where my own had failed so abjectly. No more Gerald. No more Sarah. No more Aylwyn. They were whose problem Syrixia would end up being, as likely as not, because I’d be gone. I’d be home.
No more Aylwyn.
You should not go, but if you do, you should return!
“…and are you even listening to what I say?” Syrixia’s harsh voice brought me back to the present. I realized I’d been tuning her out. Or maybe just zoning out. A little of both, most likely.
“Have you said anything worthy of listening to?” I sniped at her.
“You listen well to this: you will remember this day as the day you made your most painful mistake.”
I just rolled my eyes. More prophecies. I’d had quite enough of her for one day, so I grabbed my lute and turned to leave. “You stay here.”
John was standing outside the tent when I stepped out. He raised an eyebrow. “I may not know the words, but I know tones. Do we have anything to worry about?”
I shook my head, slowly walking away from the tent where it wouldn’t be so simple for Syrixia to overhear. “She’s just a bit obsessive about the original plan. Ranting about how Lady Khal isn’t to be trusted. Something crazy about killing us all.” I held a finger up to my temple and spun it in circles.
“That’s not very reassuring,” he pointed out a bit nervously.
“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, this time at least,” I said. I made my way towards the tree my horse was tied to. “I think I’m going to go into town for a while. Find a tavern and earn a bit of extra money, and see if I can pick up any useful rumors. We don’t want to slack off just because we’re almost done…”
He frowned just a little. “You’re going alone?”
“You OK with that?”
He paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Just watch your back. I know you know your way around these parts better than we do, but this is still a hostile place.”
I gave him a nod as I secured my lute, then saddled up the horse. “I’ll be careful. Wouldn’t want to slack off just because we’re almost done, afterall.”
* * *
Riding in to town was a bit of an odd experience, and not just because I was on my own for the first time in weeks. I kept getting little shivery itches, like I feel when someone’s using magic around me, but I looked around a few times and didn’t notice anyone. After a while I just shrugged it off, figuring maybe I was simply a bit on edge and jumpy after fighting with Syrixia.
I had more important things to think about, like mentally composing a letter to Sarah. There were a few things I needed to set in order before I left, and for all her less endearing personality quirks, she was still a good friend and I knew that I could trust her implicitly for a task like this.
I reached the city limits and started to make my way toward a tavern run by a Bards’ College contact, but before I’d made it two blocks I felt someone using magic, very close by this time. I turned and looked and saw catgirl!Sarah standing a ways off.
Speak of the devil.
She was looking my way, and when she saw that I had seen her, she waved. I dismounted and led the horse to meet up with her. “That magic was what, Sarah?”
“Someone was following you, one of the invaders. I used a spell to distract him, to lead him away.”
“He was following me?”
She nodded. “And he was trying very something to remain hidden.”
“That word is what?” I repeated it back to her.
She chewed on her lip momentarily, thinking how to express it. “It was without any something.” She saw that I still didn’t understand and frowned a little. “It was… as a young child walks, who still does not know how to walk, always bumping into things and falling down.”
Clumsy, awkward. I think. “I understand. Why was his magic clumsy?”
Sarah made a disgusted face. “It… shouted. To any with the sense for it, it was as if he were shouting ‘nobody notice me!’ How could I not notice?” She hissed in a feline expression of disapproval.
One of the men was following me, and trying to use magic to hide himself? Why would he do that? Had John told him to? Did he suspect something? If it wasn’t for the fact that she hated them even more than me, I might think Syrixia had sold me out, but that would be too far out of character, even for her!
Sarah followed me as I made my way through town to the tavern, and waited around while I stabled my horse. When I emerged with the lute, she gave me a quizzical look. “You came to play, with everything that is happening?”
I gave her a quick overview of finding the èla, and of Fiona’s offer. She listened, looking worried.
“I came to tell you to be careful. The tractumil are changing.”
I nodded. “Syrixia is growing wings and a tail. She says she doesn’t know what’s happening.”
Sarah frowned. “Some have horns. Other, claws, or their feet change, or their face. Kayora’s skin is slowly turning to scales. Each one is becoming a little bit like a dragon, each differently.”
“He is still the only one awake?”
“They are all awake; they’re just not something, except Kayora. That hasn’t changed.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant. Syrixia also seems to be growing less…” how do I say stable? “Erm… more angry.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think it’s anger.”
“You mean what?”
“Kayora seems… something.” She noticed that I didn’t look like I understood the word, and tried three or four others that I didn’t know either, before I caught “worried.”
“You think he is… afraid, for the future?” I asked.
Sarah nodded. “And it wouldn’t surprise me if Syrixia was the same, but acting angry to cover it.”
The more she said, the less sense any of it made. “They fear what?”
“I wish I knew.”
So did I! And even more to the point, I wished I knew if she was right about that!
* * *
Sarah hadn’t brought an instrument with her, and she said she didn’t feel like singing that night, so she just stayed in the audience while I performed. I drew a decent crowd, and for a while I was a bit nervous about maybe seeing Fiona Khal in the audience, but everything went smoothly.
Sarah, of course, tossed me a coin partway through and called out a request for The Lay of Paul Twister. It was a strange experience, performing a song I helped write, in a language very different than the one I was speaking when I wrote it. Thankfully, Patrick had included it in the repertoire of songs he had taught me how to sing in Silva.
After a few hours, I’d collected a decent amount of tips, so I wound things down and ordered some stew from the innkeeper, then made my way around the room to talk with the patrons, making small talk about whatever they had on their minds and getting a sense of the crowd. I picked my aimless, random course carefully so I ended up making a more or less complete circuit of the room before reaching the table where Sarah was sitting.
Sarah giggled as I sat down. “That looked very unplanned,” she teased. But she looked happy to have me sitting with her.
“I actually came to this inn to write a letter to you,” I said.
She grinned. “I’m here, so you can just tell me. What was it?”
I could, but I hesitated. “It’s about me leaving,” I finally admitted after she cocked her head to the side and was about to ask why I wasn’t saying anything.
Her face fell. “You truly are leaving, with them.”
“Sarah… it’s my home.”
She shook her head. “You told Mom how it’s not her home anymore, because time has passed and things have changed. How do you know that things haven’t changed in the time that passed since you were gone?”
That’s not what I had said to April. Not quite, and certainly not in that context! “Sarah…”
She shook her head. “No. You need to be careful. Something very strange is happening. I think Syrixia is going to something you, or even kill you.”
“That word is what?” Ugh, that phrase was getting old. Why does my vocabulary still suck so bad?
“To… harm one who trusts you?”
I chuckled as the meaning became clear. “I’ve been expecting her to betray me from the very start. You believe me, I’m being careful.”
She shook her head. “No, there is more than that.”
“I heard Kayora speaking with my parents. Only a part of it, but he said…” she looked around, then lowered her voice and leaned in. “‘Paul will not return to his old life on the Drift.’ And they seemed to accept that! But what could they do to stop you? That is why I think you’re in danger!”
I nodded slowly. “I don’t think I’m in danger. The men trust me and not her, and they could harm her much more easily than she could harm me. If I hadn’t convinced them not to, they would have killed her already. Twice.”
Sarah sighed. “You need to be more careful still!” she insisted. Then, as if that were all there was to say about that, she changed the subject completely. “You wanted to tell me what, in your letter?”
“I’m leaving, but I don’t want to leave everything behind.”
She caught on right away. “You want to bring your treasure?”
“Most of it is in letters of credit against the Royal Treasury. Those letters are worthless in my home, but actual gold or gems wouldn’t be.”
Sarah frowned slightly. “And you’re stuck here, so you want me to something them for you and bring it to you?”
“I do, if you could?”
A scowl darkened her face, and again she let out a little hiss of displeasure. “I don’t even want you to leave, and you want me to help you to go in something and wealth?”
“It’s your own choice to stay behind. You can still change that. Bring your own treasure too.” I leaned forward a little. “You would be able to buy your own horseless carriage, even better and faster than mine was!”
I wasn’t sure what reaction to expect, but her face going all anguished and her eyes tearing up certainly wasn’t it! “You lie to me and hurt me why? There is nothing I would like more, but you know I could never live in your world. Not when any morning I can wake as half-troll or half-dragon or any number of other things that your world does not have! I would be seen as a something, feared by everyone.”
Well she’d be a huge hit with the cosplayers at Comic-Con, I thought immediately. Yeah, I’m horrible sometimes. The fact was, she was probably right, and it sucked.
“Your mother was able to seal that away. You couldn’t do the same?”
She shook her head. “I’ve already checked. It would take more power than I have to cast the spell, and even if I could, it would also seal away my magic, and then the spell would something, like it did when her power was stolen, because without my magic I couldn’t something the spell.”
I sighed, shoulders slumping a little. “I don’t know what to say, then. I wish I could do something, but… it’s my home, something that this land, for all of its wonders, never really has been.”
Sarah blinked a few times, and a tear slowly started to trickle its way down her cheek. She wiped it away, looking at her finger and scowling. “I will, for you, but it will take time,” she said, her tone almost defiant. “How long will this magic take to craft?”
“I’m not certain, but I believe it will be a couple weeks.”
“I don’t know if that will be long enough. It takes time to get real money for that much in letters. But I’ll do what I can.” She looked into my eyes. “I promise.”
I smiled, trying not to make it too sad of a smile as I looked back at her across the table. “Thank you, Sarah.”
She had to blink back another tear. “I’ll do what I can, for you,” she repeated sadly. “I always do.”
I really didn’t know what to say to that.