The votes are in and the winner of the next scene of the month is Dragon Stones! It’s been a while since Dragon Stones won.
Ponn and T’Sian had walked from the wash where they’d spent the night, following a dusty path that ran alongside the region of valleys and ravines. Little more than a donkey trail, lined with saw grass and thistle and burst milkweed, it eventually joined with a much larger road that led to the gates of the city. They stood open wide, letting through traffic that consisted largely of farmers’ carts bearing the fruits of a late-season harvest.
They stopped inside the gates, in a wide dirt area that apparently served as a temporary market. Many of the wagons that entered pulled off to the side and stopped, the drivers opening them to display their crops. Bored-looking guards oversaw the activity. Ponn noticed T’Sian eyeing them; he moved away from the area, hoping she would follow before taking some sort of action against them. She had decided Varmot must be her enemy, and might decide to try to throttle information out of those who served him. To his relief, she came with him, moving farther into the town, but she continued to cast dark glances at the guards until they were out of sight.
“So who do you know in this town, Pyodor Ponn?”
“No one. I rarely come farther north than Dyvversant.”
“I’m too conspicuous. Dyvversant is full of Enshenneans, but Astilan is lily-white. When business needs to be done here, Parillon handles it. Handled, I mean.”
“Who did Parillon know here, then?”
“No. His contacts here were his own. I am a stranger to this city.”
“Then it does not matter where we stay.” She pointed at a nearby inn. “We will go there.”
As T’Sian marched off to the place she had chosen, Ponn eyed the surroundings. In his haste to get her away from the market, he had led her into an area of low, dirty houses, ramshackle buildings, shabby parlors. T’Sian’s destination looked like a flophouse, the sort of place he would never stay were he traveling alone; the money that he carried in his pockets would probably be sufficient for a year’s lodging there, if not to buy the place outright.
It would also be sufficient to get his throat cut if he was not careful, if T’Sian made a thoughtless comment to the wrong person. He hurried after her, suddenly conscious of the sound that the coins made as they clinked in his pockets. He thrust his hands into them, muffling the sound.
By the time Ponn reached the front step, the dragon had already gone inside. He paused a moment to look at the faded sign, which depicted a gaudily-dressed man carrying a sack over his shoulder. It bulged open at the top, revealing a number of ugly little monsters with pointed ears, black eyes, sharp teeth. The name of the inn, painted beneath the picture, was The Man with a Sack of Sorrows.
Yes, Ponn thought, that was him, except that he didn’t have a sack in which to carry his sorrows.
He proceeded inside, and found T’Sian waiting for him near the door. She had already attracted the attention of the breakfasting patrons, who were favoring her with oblique glances as Ponn entered. They turned their gazes away as he moved to stand beside her; having a companion made her less vulnerable, less a target for mischief. They could not know, of course, what would happen if they accosted her; the sack-bound troubles of the man on the sign would be rich rewards in comparison to what they would reap.
“What now, Pyodor Ponn?” the dragon said.
“We eat.” Having had little to eat in the last several days, Ponn knew he was in no state to judge; but still, the room smelled marvelous: Frying bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, strong coffee. He wondered what T’Sian smelled. She would probably complain that the place reeked of body odor and stale drink.
“You may eat. I fed last night.”
He didn’t ask what she had fed on, certain that he didn’t want to know. Instead he guided T’Sian to a table near the hearth and sat. She remained standing for a moment, then settled onto a sturdy chair, gingerly, as if afraid it might collapse beneath her. He wondered how much she weighed. “Perhaps we should get you a hooded cloak so you can conceal yourself a bit,” Ponn said. “Everyone is staring at you.”
She leaned forward and said, softly, “They would stare even more if I assumed my true form and began leveling this city block by block.”
“Yes, I suppose they would.”
“Why do you fret so?” T’Sian said. “Do you suppose these villeins will scurry off to your King Varmot and tell him a strange woman is sitting by the fire?”
“He’s not my king. And I doubt the people who come here are likely to scurry off and tell Varmot anything.” He smiled. “More likely they would scurry away from him, back into the shadows where they hide.”
“Then stop worrying.”
“I’ve done nothing but worry these past few days.” He held his hands out toward the fireplace. “I should get some heavier clothes myself. What I have on is too thin for these northern chills. Perhaps we can do that after I eat?”
She grunted in what he took to be consent, then said: “How will they know what to bring you?”
“Someone will come to the table and ask.”
T’Sian made a great show of looking around the room. Aside from the other diners, the room was deserted; no serving staff circulated among the columns of dark wood, no host monitored the needs of the guests. Turning back to Ponn, she said: “I am not convinced you really know how these places work.”
“At my own inn, we are more attentive than this. I suppose we’ll have to call for service.”
“Very well.” She turned her head and bellowed: “Service!” Her voice approached the level of a roar; Ponn was quite sure she had rattled the shutters. The other patrons had begun to stare quite openly, but dropped their gazes when T’Sian gave them a toothy smile. When she turned it on Ponn, he understood why; it was an unhinged sort of grin, as one might see on a madman or a fiend in the night.
A side door opened and a thin, white-haired woman peered out, spotted them, withdrew. A moment later a younger woman emerged and came to their table. “What will you have?” she said, looking bored and sounding irritated.
“Food,” Ponn said. “Whatever you have ready in the kitchen. And a room for the night.” She gave him a price, one no doubt higher than what they charged regular patrons. He paid her with a fraction of the coins he carried, and tipped her generously, resulting in a noticeable improvement in her demeanor. On her way back to the kitchen, she visited the other tables and collected more money, joking with the patrons. After she returned to the kitchen, the other breakfasters began to disperse, some leaving the inn, others going up the stairs to the rooms on the floor above.
As the room slowly emptied, T’Sian said: “So, Pyodor Ponn, tell me what you know about this so-called king. Why would he send men to the islands? What would he want with my crystals?”
“We still don’t know for sure that Gelt works for Varmot.”
“Why would he betray you to the tax collectors otherwise?“
“I don’t know,” Ponn said. “Perhaps it amused him. I think there’s a reward, too, for turning in smugglers and tax cheats.”
“A reward? You think he did it for money?”
“He is a mercenary.”
The kitchen door opened again and the wench came out, carrying a tray with Ponn’s meal. She brought it over and set it down on the table. Ponn slipped her another coin, which she put into a pouch about her waist. “If you need anything else, just ask,” she said, her tone of voice leaving Ponn little doubt that she did not just mean food and drink.
After the woman had gone, Ponn poked at his meal with his knife, inspecting the sausage, the ham, the eggs. The meat was left over from earlier, he decided, judging by the way the fat had congealed around it and the slightly tough texture, and the bread was not at all fresh. Well, he had asked for whatever they had ready, and he was hungry enough to eat anything they put in front of him.
“What are you doing?” T’Sian said.
“Checking the food.”
“Why? Do you think they would poison you?”
“No, I’m just making sure it’s cooked through.”
“Oh.” She showed him that grin again. “If that is your concern, I could make doubly sure of it for you.”
“Cooked,” he said. “Not incinerated.” He cut off a piece of sausage, speared it with the knife, tucked it into his mouth. “Anyway, it’s fine.”
T’Sian watched him eat for a little while, then pointed at his plate and said, “What is that?”
“Sausage,” he said. “That’s meat in a casing. And this is ham, which is pig. Eggs. Potatoes.”
“May I try it?”
Surprised, Ponn said: “Yes, of course.” He cut off a bit of sausage and held it out to her; she carelessly plucked it off his knife and put it into her mouth. She didn’t appear to chew, but merely swallowed. “I didn’t know you could eat human food. While you look like that, I mean.“
“I can,” she said. “I hardly make a practice of it.”
“How do you like it?”
“It lacks a certain freshness.“
“Freshly killed meat seared in my own flames,“ she said. “That is what I eat. This food of yours is stale and long dead.“
“That’s the way we like it,” he said. “We don’t want our food to be squirming while we eat it.” Then, because she seemed to be feeling talkative, he asked: “So how many dragons are there, all together?“
“What makes you think I know?“ she said. “Do you know how many humans there are, all together?“
“No, but there are so many more of my kind than there are of yours.“ He took a sip of water. “Where I come from, there are tales that the islands used to swarm with dragons. On a clear day, they say, you could see the great beasts wheeling in the sky like flocks of sea birds. But that was long ago, and the dragons do not come in such numbers anymore. I thought you might know why.”
“It is true that when I go to the islands, there are fewer dragons than there once were. Often I am the only one there. The same is true when I go to the north, to replenish the blue stones.” She frowned. “I thought perhaps the others had found some other source of crystals.”
T’Sian regarded him for a moment, then said, “I will tell you a secret, man. We require two different kinds of crystals to make our fire: Red ones, which come from the islands near your home, and blue ones, which are found in the ice sheets far beyond the great lake.”
“The great lake?” He thought a moment. “You mean Lake Achenar? You’re talking about going north of Yttribia, then?”
“Yes, I believe that is the name of the human country.”
“I imagine you dislike the cold.”
“Yes. That is why I hoard the blue crystals as much as I can.” Her eyes narrowed; she scraped curls of wood off the tabletop with an iron-hard nail. “But my supply was stolen. I must ration my fire until I get my crystals back from Gelt.”
“Gelt couldn’t have raided your lair,” Ponn said. “He was busy making me take him to the islands. There must have been a second team working in the mountains.”
She inclined her head slightly. “We will find that out when we catch him and make him tell us what he knows.”
“Have you considered going to the north now, to get more of the blue crystals, so that you don’t run out of fire at an inopportune moment?”
“It is too far. Besides, you would never survive the trip. You are already complaining about being cold now; there, you would freeze to death.”
He blinked at her. “You would expect me to accompany you?”
“What else would I do? Leave you here?”
“Must I go everywhere with you?” He set down his knife, having reduced the meal to a fond memory. “You do intend to let me go home eventually?”
“Once we have finished our business with Gelt and his master.” She eyed his empty plate. “Are you ready to start looking for him?”
“First, warmer clothes,” he said. “Then we can ask questions. But we have to be discreet.”
“I know,” she said. “So you do not get your throat cut.”
“Exactly,” he said.
The poll has been reset and voting is open for the next scene of the month!