Embers

Chapter 1

Two pairs of boots tramped on the hard ground. The soil here was dusty and crumbly, and in some places greyish bare rock showed through rust brown. That was fine, though. Mountains had to have poor soil, otherwise they wouldn't be home to poor and simple yet oddly clean folk ready to dispense their earthy wisdom to passers-by.

Such earthy wisdom mostly consisted of "bugger off", a phrase Tyrus had steadily grown used to over the past few weeks.

"Saresan?"

The taller of the two men paused briefly as if considering what to say next, then shrugged. "What?"

"This isn't going to turn out like your great idea of being travelling chocolate salesmen, is it?"

"How was I to know that the cooling spells on those crates were going to break down on the road?"

"You could have at least not bought them from someone called Honest Dave," the shorter man said. "I mean, it's not exactly theoretical alchemy. Anyone could have figured out that if someone was desperate enough to want to advertise his or her honesty in a potentially suspect deal--"

Saresan laid a hand on Tyrus' shoulder. "Now, now, my dear Tyrus. The problem with you is that you're simply too pessimistic. We did manage to cover our losses, didn't we? After we handed out free samples on toothpicks, they were willing to buy even the molten ones. Now that's good salesmanship."

"Yes, but we're stuck up here in the mountains." A chill wind blew downhill, and Tyrus shivered inside his coat. It wasn't that mountains weren't important. They probably served some important purpose like keeping invading barbarians out or something, but he just didn't like them. Tyrus had grown up on the narrow strip of flatlands sandwiched between the sea and the base of these mountains, and he'd learned to appreciate a solid footing. Last night, he and Saresan had had dinner at one of the few guesthouses in this forsaken land. The vegetable stew they'd served had been fine, a mash of tomatoes, tubers and some other greens he hadn't been able to identify, but it'd kept on creeping towards the edge of his plate.

You just couldn't trust ground that tried to spill your stew in your lap.

"It's cold up here. It shouldn't be so cold when it's late summer. Just isn't right."

"And how would you know that, considering that you've never been all the way in the Terrano before?"

Tyrus had no answer for that, so he trudged along in silence for a little while longer. "So, we're going to catch a phoenix with our bare hands and stuff it into our broken-down wagon?"

"Damnit, weren't you listening? We don't have to catch a phoenix; it's a bird. All we have to do is find it, spook it a little, and watch as it takes off in a flurry of feathers like all birds do. We get those feathers, bring them back down these mountains, and make a killing on them. Come on, you saw that feather the guesthouse keeper had in a jar. Don't tell me no rich bastard would want that."

"Who would want a stupid feather anyway? I can get the same effect with a glowbug in a jar, and at a much lower price."

"The same people who pay young, nubile women to wear see-through clothes while said young ladies wash their wagons. Or how about those who pay a small farm just for a few random splotches of colour on a canvas that somehow is supposed to amount to art? Oh, and have you heard about the property market? Sorcerers and sorceresses fresh out of the education system and already paying up to five times the standard market rate just to have a white tower instead of a dull grey one of ordinary, boring stone. Or maybe--"

Tyrus threw both his hands up. "All right, all right. You win."

A smirk. "So long as there are rich bastards, they'll always want a way to tell the world they're richer and more of a bastard than the next one by buying the most expensive and useless crap possible. Those, my friend, are called 'ostentatious goods', and the more absurdly expensive the price, the more people want them. Come on now, we've some of our own to procure this very fine day."

Tyrus didn't want to procure these so-called ostentatious goods, or if he absolutely had to, would rather have done it somewhere warm. Moving salt inland from the ports in his cart had been a good enough living, especially in the poorer villages where people still couldn't afford chill spells and still salted their food so it'd keep. Then Saresan had come into his life along with his ideas for making lots of money in exceedingly short periods of time, and here he was, hating the hard ground, his aching feet, the thin, cold air and almost every aspect of the bloody Terrano Range.

People had to be insane in order to want to live up here. Then again, it might explain why they ate funny vegetables and drank so much. Some vegetables did things to people.

"You know, this reminds me of the time Rogado and I went and tried to sell tea to the horse-riders of the Thirteen Steppes." Saresan said, grinning. "Did I tell you about that? Turned out that they had this really neat yellow-spotted mushroom that made you see and hear the strangest things--"

Inane stories, Tyrus reflected. Another thing to hate.

"--The physicians were so interested they got an artist in to make a sketch and psiprint of poor Rogado's wounds; they'd never seen lash marks over lash marks over even more lash marks, which goes to show how great the horse-people are with a whip."

"I hate this place," Tyrus mumbled, and shivered again as a gust of wind found its way into his coat. "And I hate birds."

"Be that way, then. See if I care."

Saresan hadn't said it. He hadn't said it. Which left the phoenix perched on a pine branch not more than ten arm-lengths away from them, partly hidden by the thick clusters of needles on the branches.

Tyrus stared at the phoenix, wondering why he hadn't seen it before; it was big enough that the branch it was perched on should have snapped under its weight. Sensing Tyrus' gaze on it, the phoenix roused itself and stared back at him.

"Tweet tweet," it said in a very human voice, and when Tyrus didn't look away, it looked almost embarrassed inasmuch as a man-sized bird with red, gold and blue flames for feathers could appear embarrassed. "Um, chirp chirp. Hoot hoot. Damnit."

"Saresan," Tyrus whispered as he tugged on his friend's coat sleeve. "Look."

"Come on," Saresan replied without turning around. "We're looking for a phoenix, not some robin or whatever mountain bird they have up here. You'd expect a phoenix to have a more impressive call--"

"It didn't chirp. It said 'chirp'. And 'damnit'. I'm not a wizard, but I know birds don't usually say 'damnit'." Without waiting another moment, Tyrus tugged hard, brought Saresan's thin, wiry frame around to face him and pointed at the phoenix, still perched on the branch. "Look."

"Tweet tweet tweet," the phoenix said again. "Warble warble."

Tyrus could almost believe the phoenix was making those sounds instead of saying them; heck, he half-wanted to believe that the phoenix was chirping and warbling or else he'd end up like those crazy people without mental powers who still persisted in believing they could talk to horses and unicorns.

His problem, as his grandmother had told him, was that he heard and saw things that were really there, which tended to be more of a problem than seeing and hearing things that weren't really there.

"All right, this is going to be easy," Saresan said, cutting into his thoughts. "I'll jump out at the phoenix, you whack it with the stick over there by those roots and with enough luck it'll leave a few feathers behind when it flaps off. Used to do this often enough to ducks, so I should know. Are you ready?"

Tyrus shrugged and eyed the phoenix again. It hadn't moved, and instead was studying them with its black, beady eyes. He had to admit the glow about it was quite calming and he wouldn't have minded having one of its feathers as a keepsake, but he'd be damned if he ended up being the kind of man who spent his life savings on a stupid piece of fluff with questionable value.

"Are you ready?"

"I suppose--"

Twigs snapped and leaves flew in all directions as Saresan leapt out of the undergrowth like an insane coiled spring, making the stupidest and most annoying noise Tyrus had ever heard, one that could only be approximated as "hyawblblblblblbl!" It was effective, if nothing else; birds and small furry creatures dove for cover as pine needles fell to the undergrowth.

The phoenix stood motionless for a few seconds, then slowly and deliberately stood on one sharp-clawed foot and twisted its head so that it was looking at them upside down.

You idiots, its expression seemed to say. I'd never sink to such depths as to do something as humiliating as that. With that, it set down its foot, spread its wings and soared away, leaving not so much as a single feather behind.

They watched it recede into the grey, cloudy sky.

"Well, Mr. Entrepreneur of the Future?" Tyrus said. "Now can we go someplace warm?"

#

"I don't see why you should be catching feather lice, Lenka. Missus Toryll tells me that those aren't the same as the kind that live on people, and that they only live on birds. Why you're still getting them after I stopped sending you to feed the chickens out back, I have no idea--Miss Toryll tells me you shouldn't be getting them at all."

"Just get them off me, Ma." The young woman sitting on the stool held out a fine-toothed comb and turned her black eyes on her mother. "Please. It itches, and I'm not going to be of much use to Mr. Aug if I have to stop every two moments to scratch my head."

"No."

"No?!"

"No. I'll send word down to Mr. Aug, tell him you're feeling poorly and can't be hammering iron, smelting ore, refitting cartwheels or whatever it is you do all day down there. You go straight down to Missus Toryll, get one of her mixtures and go soak your head for the rest of the morning." The older woman's middle-aged features set themselves into stiff, straight lines--much like the woman herself, Lenka thought. "A guesthouse doesn't do good business if word gets around that the owner's daughter has lice, no?"

"No, it doesn't," she admitted at last.

"I'm sure Mr. Aug can do without you for one day. No one likes lice of any sort, and I don't want the guests giving their pillows funny looks." With that, Lenka's mother eased her daughter off the stool and tucked it away in a corner of the washroom, then took the comb from her hands. "You know, you'd probably catch them less often if you'd make less of a fuss about trimming your hair."

"I've already told you, Ma, it doesn't feel right, like it reaches deeper than just my skin--"

"Get going, girl. The sooner you get there, the sooner you can be done with this nonsense and be at the smithy. You want that, don't you?"

There was logic to that, Lenka admitted to herself sourly. Getting to her feet and pulling up her leather work pants and gloves, she retrieved her coat from a hook by the doorframe and stepped out into the guesthouse courtyard. The guesthouse itself was on the edge of town--most travellers liked to be able to come and go quickly--and was reasonably well-done up, thanks to an agreement her father had with the coachmen that ran the mountain roads.

Still, clean as it was, as Lenka passed through the courtyard it didn't stop her from thinking how much better it looked from above than below. Most things did. Most people ignored her as she followed the road away from the town where cobblestones gave way to dirt tracks, and before long she'd made her way to the very edges where road ended and trail began and stopped at the door of a shack.

Most people started off building houses and ended up with shacks. This one looked as if the person had taken one look at the blueprints, given up and jumped straight to the shack stage complete with planks carefully rotted for the appearance of depilation, yet strong enough to hold up a roof. If not for the newer privy to one side of the shack, she'd have guessed it was deserted with the owner long dead, considering how a large clump of bracket fungus had found its place on a wall.

She scratched her head, and not just because of the lice. There were certain protocols that had to be observed when one sought out people like Missus Toryll, and people like Missus Toryll were very particular about them. When the itch had finally abated somewhat, she cupped her hands to her mouth and called out.

"Missus Toryll? Are you still alive?"

"I'm not dead, Lenka. You can come in."

The first time she'd entered Missus Toryll's shack as a girl, she'd thought it mystical and appealing. Now, it was just a mess of bottles, preserves and papers; a mystical mess, perhaps, but still a mess, the centre of which held a small clear spot for Missus Toryll and her chair.

"Feather lice again, girl?" the herbwoman said with a sigh. "Just what are you doing to get them onto you? At least it's not so bad now--I remember when you were coming to me every month to have your hair washed out."

"I don't go out and try to catch lice on purpose," Lenka replied. "They just come, and I get rid of them."

Missus Toryll shrugged, then reached into a cardboard box with a heavily tattooed hand. A few clinks came from within as she rummaged about in it, and after a while she drew out a small vial of sickly green liquid. "Still, it'd make me feel a lot better if you were getting this to put on your mother's chickens instead of on yourself. Now, girl--"

"--Dilute this in twenty portions or more of water according to desired strength, and soak to scalp for one hour. Yes, ma'am, I do know."

The herbwoman huffed. "Well, if you're sure you don't need to hear it again. Payment, please. Herbs don't grow on--well, some of them do, but it's a whole lot of effort to go properly collecting and preparing them. Bloody modern pharmacists trying to get rid of our traditional excuse to have a day off. 'No, overpicking of traditional herbal medicines is driving them to extinction in the wild.' 'Be environmentally-conscious and only use cultivated herbs.' Druids are helping them push their stupid campaign, bunch of tree-huggers they are. Pfah."

"Your payment, Missus Toryll," Lenka said, trying very hard not to show her teeth. When the herbwoman's ranting continued, she bit her lips, pressed three copper coins onto the nearest available flat surface, and left by the same door through which she'd entered the shack.

#

It was a little while before Missus Toryll realised she was alone. With a sad sigh, she got to her feet, crossed over to the shack's single window and threw it open.

A large bird whirled in the distance, although she couldn't tell exactly what it was, especially with her eyes not what they used to be. Odd, though; the bird was carrying what appeared to be a large bundle in its talons.

"Birds," she muttered to herself and set the kettle over the stove before struggling in her stained apron for her matchbox. "Crazy things."

Embers

Chapter 2

By and large, Tyrus reflected, Saresan wasn't a bad man. His mind might have been considered by normal people to be broken, but it still worked, inasmuch as a cart with only one hubcap on each of its wheels worked. You didn't want to trust it, but it got one down the road in the end and in a fascinating and slightly embarrassing way that drew the stares of the people around you to boot.

It also tended to make you somewhat more prone to sudden and unpleasant death, but people like Saresan probably viewed such happenstances as minor annoyances.

"All right, so maybe that didn't work," he said to Tyrus over another plate of thick, starchy vegetable stew. "But that's no reason to give up, otherwise where would merchants like us be?"

"Hauling about sensible things like salt, iron and machine parts?" Tyrus cleaned his plate and methodically set his fork and spoon by its side. "I don't want to dampen your enthusiasm, but I'm going to check on the cart later today, and there's got to be something in this place we can buy to take home. And no, before you ask, I am going to hold on to the money we made off that chocolate, so that we can at least spend it on something sensible instead of mountain wildflowers or some such."

"What do you know about phoenixes in particular, Tyrus? Can't say I know really much about them myself."

"How should I know anything about birds?"

"Well, I was just wondering if you did. You'd be surprised at what some people know, if only you bothered to ask. My old man used to have a songbird of some sort, and when he had to move it around he'd cover the cage with a cloth to stop it from getting startled. I hear the same goes with hawks and hoods. That phoenix looked a little like one, didn't it?"

"Oh no. You aren't thinking of doing something stupid again. You aren't--" Tyrus looked at Saresan's face, and knew he was. Well, what else should he have expected? People bought things from Saresan just to make him go away; that was how they'd ended up shifting a bunch of snow globes and plush pigs onto some small village they'd passed on the way here, the kind where people grew dirt because they were too poor to afford seeds of any sort. That dirt had ended up as quality topsoil for some rich aristocrat's flowerbeds, and in the end they'd made half as much as the chocolate had brought in; you knew you were living in a period of prosperity when people bought dirt just because it had a funny name and came from far away. "I don't care what you intend to do, just don't get either of us killed or lose all of our money, all right?"

Saresan huffed and managed to look somewhat indignant. "When have I ever got anyone into trouble?"

"Well, you're always telling me about your buddy Rogado--"

"That's different." Saresan waved his spoon about in the air. "He got himself into trouble without needing me to help."

"And you were always there to see it happen."

"Your point being?"

"Never mind. Look, I mean, did it ever cross your mind to even ask the guesthouse owner how he managed to get his feather? No, don't tell me, I can read it off your face. And there I was, thinking that at least you might have had some sort of plan that might have actually worked." Tyrus pushed his plate away from him with a sigh. "I'll be back by early afternoon. If you're still going to go after the phoenix, I'll hear you out then, and not a moment sooner."

#

The phoenix circled in the sky. When she was sure there wasn't anyone watching from the ground, it dove towards the trees below, bundle still clutched in her talons, and dropped it into the undergrowth just before she landed.

Several moments and a muffled curse later, Lenka stumbled from the undergrowth, still adjusting her coat and fumbling with the buttons. It was a good coat, with long sleeves that were easily tied together and thick leather padding on the outside. To prevent injuries while working, she always told anyone who asked, and they would see the numerous scratches and marks on the coat before agreeing that the king's new Occupational Health and Safety Act was the greatest thing ever since someone thought of adding leeks to the local vegetable stew.

It wasn't right to be so pressed for time. Feet took a while to remember they weren't talons and the same went with arms realising they weren't wings, so even walking when she'd just Changed back meant making a conscious effort to put one foot in front of the other. Still, there wasn't anyone else around to help Mr. Aug, and she'd be damned if she was going to let the day be wasted just like that.

At least the vial hadn't broken. To her credit, Missus Toryll wasn't the kind of herbwoman who spent all day concocting potions just to have them wasted by a careless brush of a hand.

"Back so early?" her mother said as she crossed the courtyard. A small line of coaches were already at the gates, their forcestone motors humming and drivers already looking bored.

"I got it, Ma," Lenka replied and unclenched her long-fingered hand to show the vial of disgusting-looking liquid. "Does it really matter how quickly I got back?"

"No, I suppose it doesn't. You'll be wanting me to send word to Mr. Aug saying you'll be in for the afternoon?"

"Please, Ma."

The older woman's expression softened slightly. "Oh, if that's what you want. Never heard of anyone in their right mind wanting to work over a free day, but there's always a first for everything. I'll tell the guests not to use the rightmost bathroom."

The guesthouse's bathrooms were a cluster of wooden stalls off to one side of the main building, with a single larger one for guests who were willing to pay a little extra to have the luxury to have their water heated. According to Mr. Aug, bathing hadn't really caught on in this region until the Green Death had come in her great-grandfather's time, and Lenka shuddered at that thought as she worked the well crank and drew up a full water bucket. The thought of not being able to bathe was…well, nasty, for lack of a better word. She unstoppered the vial, poured its contents into the bucket, then lugged it all the way into the bathroom and poured it into a waiting basin.

"You in there, girl?" he mother's voice cut from across the courtyard. "Don't take any longer than you need to."

Lenka's feet itched. They wanted to grip something, and soon at that. "Yes, Ma." She shut the door, hummed to herself as she swirled the liquid in the basin to mix it, then arranged a row of stools by the basin. They didn't look very comfortable, but she laid down on them anyway and tried not to think about how much softer her bed was.

Most young women had their tides when they came of age. This, Missus Toryll had told her, was perfectly fine, and usually the worst thing that could happen was that said young women had to change their sheets or burn them if the spots refused to come out. Lenka had ended up burning the sheets, part of the mattress, and indeed, much of the bed. It'd been half a year before she'd gained some semblance of control when she turned into a bird and stopped igniting things by accident. She'd wondered if her parents were really related to her by blood, considering how they didn't turn into big, burning birds at will, but her mother had described her birth in such excruciating detail that she'd felt she'd been better off not asking.

Seven years later, she'd still yet to leak blood from her naughty bits, although there was the occasional craving for pigeons and mice. Apparently, this was great cause for concern.

Something scratched at the bathroom's door. Lenka tried to ignore it, but the scratching sound came again and again until she got to her feet, hurriedly wrung the worst of the water from her hair and threw open the door, half expecting her mother to be waiting for her. Instead, there was a pheasant at the door, and a male one at that, judging by the colourful red and gold plumage about its breast. It bobbed its head up and down, then looked up at her and cooed.

The bird in Lenka cried out for blood and an easy meal.

"Go away," she said, a frown on her face. "You don't want to be here."

The pheasant just continued staring at her stupidly, and the itch in Lenka's feet grew; they wanted to be talons, and very badly at that. Thank goodness for Ma and her chickens, she thought. Self-restraint lessons every day.

"I mean it. Do I look even remotely like a pheasant hen to you? Go away before you regret it."

The pheasant bobbed its head again. Lenka felt the back of her clothing steadily dampening, and it made her very, very annoyed.

"I'm going to close the door. I'm going to close the door, you hear me, and when I'm done soaking my head I don't want to see you around, because if I do, bad things are going to happen." With that, she slammed the door so hard the basin's contents sloshed, laid herself back down with her hair in the basin, and tried to think happy thoughts that didn't involve fresh, glistening gobbets of pheasant flesh.

#

The general idea of being a merchant wasn't too hard, at least on the conceptual level. The way Tyrus saw it, there were people in the rural areas who wanted consumer goods and the like that were made in the factories and mills of the cities, and the people in the cities wanted the uncut forcestones, metals, food, and other goods that came from the hinterlands--and the further away it came from, the better, since something that came all the way from some unknown locale with an unpronounceable name had to be good to warrant it travelling all the way here.

That was where people like him and even Saresan stepped in, bringing goods from point A to point B and making a living off the proceeds. The way to think about it, as Saresan would have said, was to do so positively; they weren't ripping people off but rather bringing to them what they needed or wanted.

Then again, it was rather hard to stay positive when confronted with the fact that this place appeared to have nothing they wanted to sell. There were plenty of openings he could see for someone wanting to bring them things--they probably could use some proper bone-and-earth-crystal fertiliser, and there'd been the chocolate--but taking goods away was another matter altogether. Yes, they were only here because their cart had broken down on the road, but an empty trip meant a loss, and a loss, no matter how small, was a Bad Thing.

"No, I can't sell you our spare ingots, because we don't have any to spare," the redhead at the workbench said, a scowl on her face. Tyrus was certain there was some breach of etiquette in scowling at a customer, but the potential alienation of a customer didn't bother the redhead any more than her uncomfortable-looking hairnet did. "Even if we did, you'd have to talk to Mast--I mean, Mister Aug."

"And where is he?"

"He's out."

"This is a smithy, isn't it? I mean, looking at all those assistants running around shovelling coal into the furnaces, you'd imagine production to be rather robust. I heard this is where almost all the hematite in the region goes--"

The redhead cut him off with a hawkish glare. "And I'm telling you as Mr. Aug's head apprentice we need our stock for backlogged orders. Mr. Aug is famous in the region for what he does, so we have no end of people wanting their harvester's blades sharpened, thank you very much. Although he tells me it wasn't so long ago that people were still bringing in scythes and whatnot."

"Isn't there anything you could sell? Or buy? Or anything?"

"We've got our own supply chain for raw materials," the redhead said after a moment's thought, then frowned as she watched Tyrus whip out his notebook and pencil that down. "If there's nothing else, I've got to finish the grooves on these hubcaps so I can fit them onto your cart, thank you very much, then there's the motor that needs looking at. Honestly, what were you doing to it?"

"Driving?" His gaze met the redhead's, and while she probably worked metal with the heat of her gaze he hadn't spent years as a merchant to learn nothing about maintaining a firm eye and steady hand.

"Well, it's not just the hubcaps. The cooling system that you so happily tacked onto the back was horribly inefficient--you came all the way from the coast, you say? I'm amazed the forcestone held out as long as it did, what with the system draining all its power. Well, my Ma says you reap what you sow, and in this case you've sown the need for a completely new forcestone. There's no spell that's jump-starting the one you have."

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. All this was going to cost money, and he was going to have a small talk with Saresan when he got back to the guesthouse. The bastard had better have a whole handful of feathers ready. "All right, let's say you fixed everything that's wrong with my cart. How much is the job going to cost, and how long?"

The redhead counted on the her fingers and quoted a figure that made Tyrus wince. "That much, and at least a week. You're not in a hurry to go anywhere, are you?"

Tyrus sank his hands into his trouser pockets. "No, I guess not." Then again, if the cooling system was going to work properly, maybe they could haul back some authentic mountain wildflowers and cuisine. He'd once seen a restaurant charge double for what they claimed to be prime aged beef all the way from some foreign country or the other, although after he'd tasted some he suspected they'd been serving up old boots instead.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"Well are you going to pay up, or not? Half up front, and half when the job's done." One look at the redhead's face vanquished Tyrus' hopes of haggling the price, and with great reluctance he opened his coin pouch and let an assortment of coins from different currency systems fall out. He looked at them and blinked. Had he really been to that many places?

The redhead picked the shiniest, most suspect one, held it momentarily in the palm of her open-fingered glove and then tested it between her thumb and first two fingers. It was insulting, that's what it was, but Tyrus let it slide. There were deals in which a customer just couldn't say no, and this was one of them.

Besides, the fact that the coin had bent ever so slightly made him less inclined to argue.

"This'll do," the redhead said before snatching up a few of the coins and pushing the rest back to Tyrus. "Come back in a few days if you want, and I'll give you a status update on your cart."

"What's your name?"

Another scowl, worse than the first. "I don't do names."

"I've got to have something to write down in my ledger. You too, I believe. I'm Tyrus."

"Lenka, and that will be all. Good day, sir."

Embers

Chapter 3

"You know, my buddy Rogado once tried his hand at falconry," Saresan said, a gleam in his eye. "He'd seen what falconers could do with their birds, and really wanted to try one out for himself. Only he didn't make his glove thick enough; I told him a rolled-up tablecloth wasn't going to cut it but he didn't have the money for all that cowhide and snuck into the eyrie anyways--"

Tyrus chanced another look at the feather in a jar that hung over the guesthouse's main desk. Most of it burned with a reddish-golden glow, save for the feather tip, which was a brilliant blue of the sort one usually found in alchemist's laboratories. Phoenixes didn't make much sense to him, but then again, neither did many animals, even the small yappy dog his sister owned.

"--And the crushed bones in his arm aside, those birds had gone and clawed his chest so he'd to get them wrapped up in bandages for the next two seasons. The falconers later told me they used those birds to hunt wolves. Can you imagine that? And why do they call them falconers when some of them have hawks anyways? Shouldn't we be calling them hawkers instead?"

"Saresan?"

"Yes?"

"Can this wait? I'm feeling a bit out of sorts right now."

"Okay." It was so infuriating. Tyrus wouldn't have minded it so much if Saresan had complained a bit at being asked to shut up like a normal human being would have, but the sheer easy and childish acceptance with which he said it annoyed him more than any denial could have managed.

It was a done deal. That redhead's sour attitude had rubbed off on him like the Green Death. He closed his eyes, took a deep draught of water from the mug in front of him and tried to calm himself as he felt the cool liquid run along his insides. "I went and checked up on our cart," he said. "They'll fix everything on it--for a price, of course. That's it for me; I suppose you spent your morning productively, or do you even know what that word means?"

"I spoke with the guesthouse owner about the feather."

"And?"

"He just found it lying in his courtyard one night; apparently, the local people think the phoenix is some sort of good-luck bird or the other and like having it around. I wouldn't have believed him, but then again things do fall off the back of carts and people have found buried treasure, so who's to say it couldn't happen?" Saresan lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Come to think of it, it reminds me of the time Rogado and I--"

Tyrus cut off his partner with a wave of a hand. "So, your plan is to stay in this little mountain town until one fine day, you wander out of your little hovel all aged and bent and find a feather on your doorstep? Now see here; the people at the smithy said they could overwrite those cooling spells on the container for us with better ones, and that's going to open new possibilities for us. There're at least eight different mining camps on the road back, and I'll wager that none of them have had anything to eat in ages save hardtack and jerky--"

But Saresan wasn't listening, or at least, by all appearances he wasn't. "You know, it's about this time of year that birds start to moult, and I was thinking we could try and find that bird, see where it nests, then it'll all be ours for the taking. Maybe we could even get the bird itself, if we could get a strong enough cage."

"Saresan, what is it with you and that stupid bird?"

"Haven't you ever wondered, Tyrus? Wondered what it would be like if you managed to dig up buried treasure out of nowhere, or managed to sneak off the choicest pickings from a dragon's hoard? Don't tell me you've never daydreamed of being so stinking rich that you get to drink wine that has to be sniffed and swirled before most of it is thrown away?"

"Uh, no."

"Oh." Saresan's face fell, then brightened up again almost immediately. "Well, why don't you start now?"

Because I had it beaten into me since I was a boy that wealth only came from hard work and not lucky strikes. Because I was taught and damn well believe, that money earned without proper thought as to where it came from or plans for investment isn't your money for very long, Tyrus thought, then considered the sheer eagerness oozing from Saresan's pores and thought again. They were a very long distance away from home, and were stuck in this small mountain town with nothing to do for at least a week and a half. Oh, there were things he could do, like arrange with the outlying farms for a little of the surplus harvest to go their way for redistribution a little further down the line, but that would only take up so much time and vegetables didn't stay really fresh for very long, so he'd want them as close to their leaving as possible…

What would it cost him to indulge Saresan? Crazy as he was, he did have a good idea every now and then, which was why he was still around.

Maybe an eye. Or a leg. That phoenix's beak was wickedly curved and about half the size of his head, and although he'd no idea how strong it was he didn't want to find out firsthand.

"We'll need a better plan than that," he said. "And I don't mean better as in different, I mean better as in more detailed. Sure, I'd like to have money, but at the end of the day I've got to have my arms and legs to make spending it worthwhile , thank you very much."

Saresan broke into a wide grin. "I knew you'd be up for it."

#

He met her when her shift was over.

"Greet them with a smile, Lenka. Greet the customers with a smile, and maybe they'll want to buy something else."

"Sir." For all of Lenka's intents and purposes, Mr. Aug began from the neck down. Not just because he was so tall, but it was better to think of him that way. She knew he was a nice man, for a reasonable definition of 'nice', but his face wasn't.

"You're a good worker, Lenka. Never complained once about the heat or smoke, best quality handcrafted goods, and no burn scars. When I was your age I'd already gotten three of them. Of course, things were harder then."

"Yes sir. You had to wheel the slag cart uphill both ways, sir. I've heard it all before."

"It's not just about the business. It's about…well, you. And people, of course. It wouldn't hurt to smile a little more, that's what I'm saying."

Of course it wouldn't. Mr. Aug was only trying to be nice and concerned for her, and the same went for her mother. That didn't stop the bird from wanting to peck their eyes out while the human ran circles in her mind trying to calm it down. She didn't want to lose her job at the smithy either, where it was nice and hot with plenty of fire around her and Mr. Aug was usually more than happy to let her be about her own business so long as the ledger was in the black at the end of the day.

Despite the whole turning-into-a-large-burning-bird business, she'd managed to make something of herself. She was a Useful Member of Society, which meant people left her well alone, and the thought of losing that was enough to control the phoenix most of the time.

The sound of fire against metal helped, too.

"I'll do my best, sir."

Mr. Aug smiled--or at least, she could only assume that. "That'll have to do, I guess." He reached out with a hand as if to stroke her hair, now free of the hairnet, but thought better of it at the last moment. "Something wrong with your hair, girl?"

"Lice." It was better not to elaborate.

"Ah. Sometimes I wonder what really goes into Missus Toryll's elixirs. Not all herbs are what you'd think they'd be. I'll see you tomorrow, then. Carry my regards to your Pa." Mr Aug stopped, bit his scarred, crooked lips and looked at something behind her. "What's that bird doing there?"

"Bird? What bird? I--uh--oh."

Against all odds, the pheasant had managed to stroll unhindered and unharmed through the whole smithy, and was now acting much like it had been when she'd first seen it--staring up at her stupidly like a brightly-coloured statue.

"Is this your bird, Lenka?"

"It's not my bird, sir. It just…well, it started following me around yesterday, and I've tried to chase it off, but if this goes on I won't mind having it for dinner." Just a little more time, she told herself. Just a little more time to leave the place and find somewhere where no one was watching, and both human and phoenix could be satisfied.

"Well, if you do, I wouldn't mind turning up for dinner," Mr. Aug said. "I've shot my share of the buggers, and that one looks like it's got quite a bit of meat on it. Wouldn't taste bad in mushroom and garlic sauce."

The pheasant cooed again, sending the phoenix raging in her mind. "Sir? I really need to be going now. There's…something important I have to take care of." Without another word, Lenka grabbed the struggling pheasant in both hands and ran for the nearest door just as her skin started to feel very, very downy.

#

It wasn't her fault, Lenka reasoned to herself as she hurriedly cleaned off the worst of the blood from her beak on a nearby tree trunk. The phoenix made the human in her do things, and fortunately for her it worked the other way around too. Besides, the pheasant had been stupid enough to go around looking for trouble, and it'd deserved what had come to it.

Even if that meant butchering and devouring the stupid thing, during which the human had closed her eyes and held her nose while the bird set to work. At least she'd managed to clean off her beak pretty well.

That left the downy, glimmering plumes that trailed from her head that burned with gold and blue fire soaked in blood and gore, which meant bathing. And preening. And getting dry. All of which took time, time in which the human side of her might be missed by other humans.

Lenka bent her head downwards and raised a foot to scratch it--more and more of her feathers were coming loose of late--and she saw the man. At least this time he was without his short, sad-looking companion--which made both phoenix and human distrust him all the more. The man was like a number of springs welded together and given a slight push--unable to keep completely still, and that stupid smile on his face made it even worse.

He probably wouldn't have made a good hunter.

Still, the phoenix knew better than to kill him out of mere annoyance. Killing humans caused other humans to start asking inconvenient questions, which would pose a problem for both of them. Maybe a nip or two would teach him to leave her alone…

The human in her mind beat hurriedly at the phoenix, and the latter grudgingly acquiesced. She turned and began preening the worst of the loose feathers in the flaming mane that ran down her back, pretending not to notice the man as he approached her through the undergrowth.

"Aren't you a pretty one?" he said.

That did it. She fluffed her feathers, spread her wings and turned to face the annoying little spring-man. "Yes, I am a 'pretty one', so to speak. Now stop being so bloody patronising and get lost; it's terribly rude to interrupt other people's dinners." There was a little more screeching in there than she'd have liked, but then again her vocal chords weren't exactly made with human speech in mind.

The spring-man winced. The bit of Lenka that was still human winced. It was like kicking an eager puppy in the middle of a spreading damp spot on the rug, necessary to preserve one's sanity but still thoroughly unpleasant to do. She pressed her wings close to her body and let go, just enough for her feathers to go from glimmer to true fire and the ground beneath her talons start to smoulder, the undergrowth blackening and curling beneath her as she walked a little clumsily towards the annoying little man.

"Do you really want to end up like the pheasant?"

That did the trick. The man was gone within moments, but she didn't return to the half-eaten carcass until she'd looked over the area a few times and was satisfied he wasn't going to spring out at her while she was eating.

Really. Some visitors did show an interest in her, but this was outright stalking.

#

"All right, so let's see…" Tyrus scribbled down a column of numbers in his ledger with a stump of pencil and added them up with lightning speed. "Are we agreed on five sacks of fresh onions--and when I say fresh, I mean dug up from the ground that morning--at say, twelve coppers a sack? Very reasonable price, I should say."

"Oh, come on," the farmer groaned from the other side of the fence. "Can't you spare a bit more? My wife's always going on about how them folks next door have got the latest laundry machine or some such hauled all the way here from the city, and the nagging's driving me out of my mind, especially since I spent all of last year's surplus--"

"According to some people, Mr. Gibbs, you were unable to get rid of last year's crop and it's still stewing away in your silo. If not for modern technology, you'd have thrown it out long ago. So much for catering to city folk, eh? Twelve coppers a sack isn't a bad price, really. That's all I'm asking, to bring the wonderful gift of your onions to people who'll actually appreciate them. No one likes a dried-up, sprouted onion, do they?"

"Come on, where's your compassion?"

"I left it in the trunk of my cart." Tyrus pulled a dry smile, then slammed his ledger shut and tucked it away into his coat. "I'll be seeing you then, Mr. Gibbs. Now then--" he felt a tap on his shoulder, and half-turned-- "Saresan, would you mind waiting for me to finish this transaction, and dare I ask where you got that stupid, floppy hat from?"

"It's an authentic handcrafted vintage mountain tyrean. Got it off one of the small shops on the main street, and I think we could bring a few back with us; they don't weigh much and look quite good." His grin grew wider. "But that's not the important thing. I have a plan, and I think you'll approve of it."

Embers

Chapter 4

Tyrus looked sadly at the sheet of paper before him that had until very recently been part of his ledger. If the mess of circles, arrows and hastily scribbled notes was supposed to be a map of anything, the only possible landscape that might have remotely fit it would have been the inside of Saresan's head.

A mug of light beer passed back and forth between the two men; quite different from the dark, gritty brew Tyrus had been expecting. Tyrus wasn't particularly worried about catching something from his friend--chances were he'd spent long enough in Saresan's presence to develop an immunity to stupidity. When he'd left the coast, more and more people had been taking out insurance against various incidents such as fires, coastal floods and burglary.

What he needed was Saresan insurance. Not that any reputable company would want to insure anyone against him; the bastards who ran the insurance companies would probably chalk down someone like Saresan to an act of the gods and thus absolutely uninsurable.

"And that's about it," Saresan said as he finished up his last circle and jabbed at the paper with his pencil. "We know where the phoenix lives. Well, not exactly, since that's what we're going to find out--but I'm sure we can find it if we need to. Gentlemen--" he scrunched up the paper, and for a moment Tyrus was worried he was going to eat it-- "by this time the day after tomorrow, we are going to be very rich."

"Or very dead. You'd do it even if there wasn't any money involved," Tyrus remarked dryly. "I know you. You'd do it just to see if you could."

"Well, yes. But that's not the point of the issue. This is even better than convincing some poor schlobb that the lump of sticky brown stuff that looks just like mud isn't just a delicious confection, but they actually want as much of it as they can afford to pay for. It's invigorating. It'll be the biggest rush I'll ever have."

"And the closest I'll ever come to having chest pains this young." Tyrus took another sip of beer. It wasn't so bad, really; perhaps he'd finally found something worth taking back to the coast. He'd have to ask the owner where the brew came from. "To be honest with you, I don't think the phoenix will be found if it doesn't want to be found, and I think you're dismissing too easily the fact that you're suggesting doing all that to an intelligent creature capable of speech. Besides, I get the feeling that it's been toying with us."

"Well then, let it toy away, because--"

"You've been asking a lot of questions about a particular phoenix, haven't you?"

Tyrus turned. Outlined against the light in the guesthouse's common room was the redhead, looking every bit as cross as she'd been in the smithy. She'd let her hair down, and it fell to her hips in what Tyrus'd heard described as "enough body to lie full, but straight enough to work with", whatever that meant.

Perhaps it might have been a trick of the light, but Tyrus thought it might have glimmered for just a few seconds as she approached them.

"Oh hello, miss," he said. "Lenka, was it? From the smithy?"

She nodded, her lips still a straight, thin line. "Yes. I'd appreciate it if you'd stop bothering people about the phoenix."

"Don't mean to be rude, but what's it to you, miss?" Saresan said and finished off the last of the beer. Tyrus cast a glance at his friend, but saw nothing but simple curiosity and eagerness written all over Saresan's face.

"What's it to me? My father--yes, he runs this place--tells me you've been bothering him all day about the feather hanging in the jar, so much so that he wasn't able to concentrate on his work that morning. Other people tell me you've been pestering them, too; I mean, it's not as if we have anything to hide, but when someone's told you for the third time they've told you everything they know about the matter, it's generally polite to leave them alone."

Tyrus groaned and rubbed his face with the palms of both hands. No one else in the common room appeared to be watching them, but a natural impulse had him eyeing the nearest possible exit if things went pear-shaped all of a sudden. "What have you done this time, Saresan?"

"Only ask some questions."

"Or more correctly, ask the same questions over and over again and make a general nuisance of himself," Lenka corrected him. "This town likes the phoenix; ever since she appeared we've…we've thought of her as a good luck charm of sorts, especially since she looks pretty and doesn't bother us much, and strangers who come asking pointed questions about where she lives with a clear intent to cause her harm aren't appreciated around here."

Saresan winced. "Hey, wait here. I wasn't meaning to hurt her, I just wanted some of those feath--"

"If I give you this, will you leave her alone?" Lenka reached into her coat and drew out a feather by its shaft. Unlike the one hanging over the guesthouse's main counter, this one was as long as Tyrus' forearm, and looked considerably stiffer. He reached out for it, hesitated, then picked it from Lenka's hands before Saresan could get his mouth closed and his brain working.

"What is it?" The feather felt warm to the touch, like a pebble that'd lain in the sun for an afternoon, and glimmered various shades of red and gold along its length until it ended in a tip of blue fire. Tyrus scanned the common room again, but apparently whatever view others might have had of the feather were blocked by Lenka. Such a slim young woman shouldn't have been able to cast such a large shadow, but he supposed it was another trick of the light, like her hair.

"One of her flight feathers."

"And you're giving this to us? You seemed so sour when we met in the smithy."

She shrugged. "In exchange for your word that you won't bother the phoenix. I'm just a messenger, a go-between for her; she's moulting, which is where the feather came from, and as a result highly irritable right now. You'll only have yourself to blame if you bother her and get ripped to shreds."

"And how do you know all this?"

"She told me, of course." Lenka folded her arms and stared at both men, as if challenging them to defy her. Maybe, Tyrus thought, phoenixes fluttering down and talking to random people was a common occurrence up here in the mountains. It would explain some things. "You'd imagine how friendly people can be if you'd only start thinking of them as people and not as…well, animals."

Tyrus turned to Saresan. "Well, it looks and feels real enough to me. What do you think? Do we take it?"

Saresan didn't respond immediately. Instead, he took the feather from Tyrus and ran his fingers along its edge, mumbling some nonsense to himself. Eventually he looked up, took a deep breath and returned the feather to Lenka with a trembling hand.

"I'm sorry. I'll agree to stop pestering everyone in town--I've asked enough questions, anyway--but I want to meet the phoenix again and have a proper conversation with her."

Tyrus gaped. If Lenka had been sour before, she looked fit to explode right now, or at least spontaneously combust like some of the street entertainers' tricks he'd once seen in the capital on business. Eventually, she worked her features into a scowl, then tucked the feather away into her coat. "Wasn't this what you were looking for?"

"Well…" Saresan looked a little embarrassed. "When I get back, I want to be able to tell other people I've actually had a conversation with a phoenix, you know? Maybe when I'm old and stuck in a rocking chair my old scars'll tingle and I'll have fond memories of how it--"

"She," Lenka corrected firmly.

"--Sorry, she ripped my back apart while we were having tea or whatever it is they do to entertain visitors. If I make it to old age, I'll want to be able to say truthfully I've ridden unicorns and had tea with black dragons."

"But why? Why do something so ridiculously stupid?"

"Because I can try. Because there are people who didn't, for one reason or the other. Because I don't want to be left wondering for the rest of my life whether I could have done it." Saresan pushed his empty mug away from him. "I'm sorry."

Lenka cast a despairing look at Tyrus, who shrugged. "Hey, you're speaking to a man who tried his hand at shark-hunting for their meat, skin and teeth. Once he's gotten something in his mind, I don't think I can dissuade him from it. Not from lack of trying, of course."

"And you? Did you go shark hunting?"

"No, I stayed on the shore while he dumped cheap fish guts into the ocean. At least most sharks don't come up and chase you around the beach." He gave her a small smile. "I'm really sorry as well, miss. Sometimes it's better to indulge Saresan than go against him; each of his ventures is a learning experience, to look on the positive side."

Lenka stared, then shook her head and let her shoulders slump. "All right. Don't say you haven't been warned."

They watched her leave. At length, Saresan called over a serving girl making her rounds, and ordered another mug of light beer.

"She's the owner's daughter?"

Tyrus nodded and took the now-full mug. "Odd, though. I was under the impression that most children in rural areas took their trade from their parents. Then again, this is the start of a new century and era in his bloody history of this kingdom, as all the bloody government ministries seem to be fond of telling us."

"I'm not surprised, frankly. People like her wouldn't do well in a service industry--they're just not positive enough for that line of work."

#

Lenka skulked.

Kill kill kill kill, the phoenix demanded. They defied you, you who are so much better, so much more perfect than them. They deserve it.

To the best of her memory, Lenka had never let the phoenix completely free rein over herself. Oh, there'd been times in the first days when she'd blacked out and come to a short while later, but those incidents didn't count. She didn't remember. The phoenix did.

And it was going to be remembering this insult for a long time, flapping and screeching inside her and doing its best to get her to Change. Lenka took a deep breath, forced down the sensations that were welling up in her and soothed the phoenix, the equivalent of gently rubbing a bird's belly. Whether the phoenix had been some latent part of her mind or something that didn't belong, she wasn't sure; what she was sure of was that she was stuck with it for the rest of her life and that she'd be lying if she'd said she didn't enjoy it every now and then. Some philosopher or the other had once said minds changed to suit the body, and she didn't see why the reverse couldn't apply, either.

"Damn them," she said as she carefully shut the door to her room and re-locked it behind her. "Idiots."

It wasn't a large room. Yes, her family was considered well-to-do by the local standards, but the local standards had most mountain folk sleeping on mats on the dirt or wooden floors of their cabins. There was a slightly scorched bed, a dresser, a small self-recharging light-ball lamp--her father had taken out the oil lamp the next day after she'd burnt her bedsheets--and a small sack under the bed. She dragged it out, untied the neck and dropped the feather into it. The feathers and down in the sack would probably have been worth a fortune and she'd have happily given it all to those two men if it'd meant they'd stop bothering her, but after the exchange they'd just had she didn't see that happening. Well, she'd have to bury them tomorrow. There were only so many of them one could leave in the wild before people like those two came here feather-hunting…or worse.

Or maybe not like those two. The thin one, Saresan, wasn't here for money--which again was stupid, since they were merchants. They were supposed to think about money; it was what kept them fed and warm and overcharging their customers. This just didn't make sense. Fire made sense. Metal made sense. Preening, hunting and killing made sense. Merchants who did their job for the thrill of it made as much sense as bounty hunters who did the same thing.

She had to fly. She always felt better after flying. The phoenix chirped in agreement, and she went to her window and pushed the wooden shutters open.

Night. The common room was still brightly lit, but most of the guest rooms had gone dark and all the coaches had been stabled, leaving the courtyard empty. The phoenix chirped again, tugging at her insides, and Lenka stripped hurriedly, pausing only to fold her clothes and place them neatly on the dresser.

One last glance around the courtyard to make sure no one was watching, and she poised, one foot on the windowsill, her toes already starting to lengthen and harden.

She leapt.

The feather-flames were quick to burn, but the phoenix doused them until they were but glimmers against the night sky. She didn't want to be bothered. Not now. One circle, two circles, three--and she took wing, looking down haughtily at all the tiny, ground-bound creatures beneath her.

Something else watched her rise and disappear into the star-lit night.

Embers

Chapter 5

"There she is," Saresan said, pointing out of a window at the night sky. "Can't you see her?"

Tyrus looked out of the window and squinted in the direction Saresan was pointing in. There was nothing against the clear, inky-black mountain night save for the stars, and a few constellations--

--Wait. Constellations weren't actual pictures made up by the stars, but rather pictures made up by people playing connect-the-dots with them. What was known here as the Crippled Bear was known as the Not-Quite-Big Scoop in far-off Tsvala, or so he'd heard. Something to do with how people looked at things and saw what they'd expected to see.

What he saw reminded him of that. People looked up at the night and saw stars, because that was what they'd expected to see. He, on the other hand, saw the phoenix circling over the town, its--no, her--wings dulled and seeming a little longer than he'd remembered, but nevertheless, still circling the town as if trying to find something on the ground. As for Saresan--well, he'd been expecting to see a phoenix, so it wasn't a great surprise that he'd seen her.

"What's she doing?"

"Flying for the fun of it, apparently," Saresan replied, and yawned. Most of the guests in the common room had emptied by now and the tables had been cleared; even the owner had spread a cloth over the counter and retired for the night. "That's the third time I've seen her in the skies above this place. It makes you wonder why no one has bothered to try and call her down for some birdseed or something."

"Maybe they just don't see her the way you do. You're a very special individual, to put it lightly."

Saresan beamed.

"Or maybe there are some people closer to her than others, like the unicorn whisperers who claim to be able to meet and talk with those horned horses."

"You mean those unicorn whisperers? I'm only asking because there was this time Rogado and I tried our hand at riding some unicorns we found in a meadow and to our surprise they let us on their backs and were quite tame, really, but a bunch of people wearing really big leaves came and yelled at us for being cruel oppressors of the equine species--"

"Can this wait, Saresan?"

Saresan's features rearranged themselves into his usual eager smile. "Sure."

"I'm thinking if we had the time and you're serious about doing this, we could watch that redhead a little closer. I mean, we wouldn't be watching closely enough to be mistaken for stalkers, but I've a bad feeling about her and it's not about the fact that the local people say she's frigid behind her back…" Tyrus shook his head. "No, there's no point. I've already convinced myself to go through with your plan; might as well get it over with quickly so the wounds can heal."

"You're being negative again, Tyrus," Saresan said, wagging a finger at him.

"Damn right I am." Tyrus yawned and stretched. Listening to Saresan for any length of time took its toll. "Didn't the great philosopher-mystic Zorhau say that all forces must be balanced to achieve harmony or some other crap on those lines? Considering you haven't caused these mountains to implode yet, I'd like to think we're pretty balanced, eh?"

"Oh, quiet you."

Tyrus stood and snorted. "Of course."

#

The flying was the best. To be in the air, feeling the wind against feathers and free of the human shell that kept her small, unimportant, and worst of all, on the ground. Here she was so much bigger, so more important, so very free.

The human steered the phoenix, one half riding the other like a jockey in the saddle. It was so much less tiring to let the phoenix do the work and it gave both of them so much more freedom to take joy in the sheer act of being in the air, although she wondered sometimes--she was Lenka, and the phoenix was Lenka, and…well, most people had their identity crises when they were twice her age, and that wouldn't do.

They were Lenka, and that would suffice.

The phoenix clicked her beak in satisfaction, tilted her body and caught an updraft, allowing her feathers to burn a little brighter than her human half would have liked, but then again she was so high up that it shouldn't have mattered.

But it did.

#

"All right, I don't remember you having that when we came here," Tyrus said, pointing at the double crossbow Saresan had in his hand. "What's wrong with the one that's rotting in our trunk--well, not exactly rotting, but you know what I mean--and more importantly, just how much did that cost, bolts, bowstring and all?"

"The local equivalent of fifty-seven and a half royals, and the crossbow alone sells for about three hundred and fifty down at the coast. Got it when I went to check up on the cart."

"Why so much? I mean, this place is big for a mountain town, all right, but you'd think the craftsmanship in the really big cities would be--"

"Handcrafted, my dear friend. There's something about handcrafted weapons that machine-assembled weapons don't have. You show up at a semi-formal hunt with an assembly line model, and you might as well have been wearing rags, sticking a banana in your ear and singing the middle verses of 'Three jolly men'. It's all about--" he paused for effect-- "appearances and ostentatious goods. Didn't you read Bows and Arrows as a kid?"

"No, because I was learning the stability and profitability of the green onion, different grades of steel, ultrapurified water and various alchemical reagents. Are you seriously planning to use those tiny little bolts on a bird that big?"

Saresan set down the crossbow and did up his boots. "Only if necessary. When it comes to these things, the first time it's used depreciates the value by quite a bit. Like virgins, if you think about it."

"And so he evades my question again," Tyrus said with a sigh. "Was that comparison really necessary?"

"No, but I made it anyway," Saresan replied cheerfully. "A simple sleep spell on the bolt-tip and that should buy us enough time to run away if she decides, as that redhead warned us. I thought you'd be approving and all, seeing as how you like to err on the side of caution. Smithy here should be trustworthy."

Tyrus eyed the bundle of bolts. They did bear a proper-looking seal on the tape that held them together, but still, it was hard to imagine those tiny, almost needle-like heads being effective against anything near the size of the phoenix.

"Don't worry," Saresan said. "The guy who sold me them said one of them'll knock out a rhinoceros. Two should be plenty if we get into trouble."

"And what would a rhinoceros be?"

"Some sort of bear, I think." Saresan pushed open the door to their room, letting in the cold night air, and Tyrus' nose began complaining almost immediately. Oh, Saresan had explained at length why they'd to do this in the middle of the night--a big burning bird being visible against the night sky being the main reason--but his nose seemed to have a mind of its own. It was telling his brain that he should have been under a layer or two of warm covers instead of tromping after Saresan on a deserted mountain trail, and by the time they'd reached the edge of the woods it'd shut down completely and he would to breathe through his mouth.

Now his teeth were complaining, too.

"The mirror, please," Saresan said, gesturing with his free hand. He'd slung the small crossbow over his back, and his other hand held a small oil lantern. "Do you still see the phoenix in the air?"

Tyrus looked up through the pine branches. "Yes."

"What's she doing?"

"Just…just being there, I suppose. Flying around. How would I know? I'm not a phoenix." He shivered, and passed a small mirror the size of his hand to a kneeling Saresan. The mirror had belonged on their cart until very recently; he hoped the smithy wouldn't notice it missing and charge extra to replace it. "Sure wouldn't mind being one right now, though. There's a certain appeal to being a big burning bird on a night like this."

"And there's a certain appeal to meeting one. Really, I don't get why birds have to be so ornery all the time. All I wanted to do was chat, maybe ask how it's like to be a phoenix for when I write my best-selling autobiography, but she just told me to get lost." Saresan adjusted the mirrored shutters on the lantern to produce a thin, straight beam of light, then set the mirror at an angle so that the light pierced through the branches and out into the starry night. "That should do it. Most birds are curious, and if she says we're annoying her we'll remind her that she was the one that came to us and not the other way around--"

The phoenix screamed, a far-too-human scream that echoed off the distant mountains and came to the ears of both men, who dropped what they were doing and turned their gazes skyward. As they looked on, the phoenix spiraled out of the sky, her feathers now blazing with the intensity of a forge and leaving a golden-blue trail in her wake as she hurtled towards the ground not too far from where the two men stood.

Branches snapped, leaves rustled, and all was still once more.

"Don't look at me like that," Saresan whispered when he could speak again, his face as pale as Tyrus'. "I didn't do that. It wasn't in the plan."

Tyrus clenched his teeth and picked up both lantern and mirror. "We should go investigate. Isn't that what you wanted? To meet the phoenix? Now we don't have to count on her behaving like a jackdaw to do so."

"Yes, but not under such circumstances--" Saresan took one look at Tyrus' face and stopped. "This is going to be like the time you just had to wade into that twenty-cart pile-up, isn't it?"

"Yes. A story that thankfully has got absolutely nothing to do with Rogado." Tyrus gestured with the lantern and stepped over a tree root. "Let's go."

It didn't take them long to find the phoenix; the glow was faint once more, but still more than enough to guide them towards the spot where she'd fallen. She lay on her back, wings spread out on the ground and talons in the air and clenched, vaguely reminding Tyrus of a stylized picture of cooked poultry. Even in this state, she looked beautiful; it was…it was almost a pity, Tyrus thought.

A heavyset bolt protruded from the phoenix's breast, and her blood hissed and steamed where it met the ground.

"I didn't do it," Saresan stammered, his teeth chattering. "I didn't do it. Look at that bolt; it's not one of mine. We didn't shoot--"

"She's still alive." Carefully, Tyrus inched his way towards the phoenix, his eyes trained on her gently rising and falling breast. Though he'd heard tales of people bleeding to death after bolts and arrows had been pulled --or even worse, ripped--out of their flesh, he still closed his fingers around the bolt and tugged it gently. To his surprise, it budged, and quickly came loose with a sickening, wet sound.

"The bolt…"

"It's smooth, like the ones you bought. Whoever took a shot at her was aiming to bring her down, but not kill." Tyrus set the bolt down and eyed the long, thin wound it'd made. "Saresan, the gauze please."

"Tyrus--"

"The gauze, please. This isn't the time for another Rogado story."

"No, look."

Tyrus looked, and saw. The phoenix's feathers had taken on a golden tinge, and as they looked on legs lengthened, feathers melted away into the golden glow and wings narrowed and splayed out into hands. Downy plumes melted away and flattened, coarsening, reforming themselves into a head of hair that fanned out under the now-humanoid figure like the phoenix's wings had.

The Change was over as quickly as it'd begun, and when the glow had finally faded Lenka lay on her back before him, the ugly puncture wound still there between her shoulders and left breast.

Tyrus' first thought was: there's a naked young woman in front of me, followed shortly by a naked young woman who until very recently was a phoenix, with we're in real trouble now, aren't we? bringing up the rear.

"Well, that explains some things," he said. "The gauze, please. At least I won't have to use it on you this time."

"You can't be serious. You're going to touch a naked--"

"The gauze, please. If you think I'm acting out of turn, please be reminded that this whole business is out of turn."

"Naked."

Really. Why wasn't he surprised Saresan was behaving like an overgrown child? "And I'll touch a few more before I die, you idiot; it's either that or let her bleed out. I'm not the best at this, but at least I can stop a wound. If you don't want to see this, then you can turn around and keep a look out."

Saresan turned away, and he focused his attention on Lenka.

She looked so thin. So fragile. Pinched, perhaps, and her light breathing only served to reinforce the impression. Didn't birds have hollow bones that made them easily broken? At least her wound looked simple and straightforward to treat, and Tyrus quickly cleaned it as best as he could before he wrapped it in layers of gauze and tied the bindings tight. He was no physician and it probably wasn't the best way to staunch the bleeding, but it worked and the gauze didn't catch fire as her blood seeped into it. One had to be able to deal with emergencies while on the road, especially when one was a small-timer without the protection of a caravan.

It's like one of the stories from the other side of these mountains, he thought sourly as he did up the last knots. Some idiot woodsman or fisherman binds up a heron's leg by the water's edge, and next thing he knows there's a mute young lady at his doorstep waiting to cook and clean for him. How stupid.

Besides, Lenka would probably just peck his eyes out, sour bird that she was.

"Tyrus," Saresan whispered. "Someone's coming."

"What?"

"You can hear them, can't you? The footsteps?"

Tyrus couldn't, but he wasn't about to doubt Saresan, or at least not when his friend didn't have that stupid smile on his face. A clump of bushes lay nearby in the undergrowth, thin and as bare as the mountain soil allowed, but he couldn't see a better place to hide Lenka. It didn't matter who was coming; being caught out in the wilds with a naked young woman could only lead to tragedy.

"Hurry," he said, sliding his arms under Lenka and lifting her in a fireman's lift. "Help me hide her."

"The phoenix, or the redhead?"

"This is no time to joke, Saresan! Both!"

They'd barely tucked the bloodied bolt and last bit of red hair out of sight when the footsteps drew close enough for Tyrus to hear them through the fuzz that lined his head. A silhouette detached itself from the pine trees and came towards them.

It had a hood. Tyrus wished he had a hood; at the very least it'd keep his face warm. He picked up the lantern, raised it so that the newcomer was caught in the light and tried to will his thumping heart into being still.

A middle aged woman looked back at him. She looked…well, not as terrifying as one would expect of someone wearing a hood, and even less so when she threw it back and revealed her face; it was completely and utterly boring, the sort you definitely didn't remember because it looked just like any other you'd ever seen. "Good evening, gentlemen."

"Good evening, ma'am," Saresan replied. His face had snapped back like an elastic band to his old, easygoing countenance, and Tyrus found himself wondering if he should be doing the talking instead. "Can we help you?"

"Yes. I'm sorry to disturb your hunt, but I'm looking for a phoenix."

"We're looking for a phoenix too," Sarsan replied, to Tyrus' horror. "Been buggering around here all night trying to get a decent angle for a psiprint, maybe a bunch of feathers if we're lucky. You haven't happened to see it around, have you?"

"No," the woman replied. She sniffed the air, and half-turned until Tyrus could make out the heavy crossbow across her back, all levers and bowstrings. "I was thinking of taking a closer look--"

"Sure, lady. You know what this reminds me of? The time me and one of my buddies went to some famous waterfall or the other to escort some snobby noble to the edge so's he could paint a picture of the mist rainbow. We were there, you see, and then there were those cat-people, or maybe they were people-cats, it's really hard to decide which was which--"

"Or on second thought, maybe it landed on the other side of the hill," the woman replied hurriedly, and pulled up her hood again. "I should really have a look over there. Good evening, gentlemen."

There was a faint rustling of leather against pine needles, and then she was gone. Tyrus stared at the space where the woman had been for a good ten seconds, then looked up into Saresan's smiling face, his smile even wider than before.

"Told you," he said.

Embers

Chapter 6

Lenka coughed and groaned. Most of her limbs hurt and there was a dull throbbing between her chest and left shoulder blade, but worst of all was the phoenix chattering away in her mind. She couldn't decide whether she wanted to be angry that someone had actually dared to hurt her, or to be frightened of the fact that someone had actually managed to hurt her. It wasn't…wasn't right.

Wasn't right how? a small voice in her asked, more human than phoenix. She ignored it, took a deep breath and coughed at the pain that came with it. All right. She was slumped against a tree trunk, and someone had taken the trouble to bind her wound. A man's voice was engaged in a song about root vegetables and their various uses, which meant…which meant…

Oh, damn.

Did it matter? If whoever had helped her had taken the trouble to do so, there wasn't much point in covering herself up now; they'd probably seen all they'd wanted to see. By extent, they probably didn't have malicious intentions towards her. What was important was whether they knew her secret or not.

Still, habits were hard to break, and a hotness crept into her chest, both embarrassed and angry.

"You all right there, miss?"

Lenka risked opening her eyes, and beheld the same stupid smile that had accosted her in the common room the previous night. The young man behind it radiated confidence and eagerness like heat from a lit forge.

She tried to push herself up and winced at the pain that flared up in her left shoulder. Oh well, she could remain slumped a little while longer, the phoenix's pride notwithstanding. "Uh, thanks for helping."

"Yep. I'm a good helper. Tyrus always pulls a long face at me when I try to help other people, but I know deep down he appreciates me for what I do. Like keeping watch while he takes a nap; he's all worn out from patching you up. You feel better now?"

"I--I think I'll be able to stand after a little while," she replied hurriedly. "Look, I have to get back, or I'll be missed."

"Calm down, miss. You're as flighty as a bird if you're thinking about going into town without your clothes."

"I--uh--ah--" The phoenix was amused despite her pain, she knew it; she could hear her chirping and peeping away in the back of her head at the ridiculous rules that humans lived by. But the man was right. She wasn't going to go out in public without something on and she wasn't going to Change, not with these bandages wrapped about her chest. Besides, people would start asking inconvenient questions if they saw a phoenix flying into her room. "Oh, all right. I suppose I can stay while we work something out."

"Good thinking, miss. I'm Saresan, in case you forgot me from last night, and my friend over there's Tyrus. You're not cold or anything, especially this early in the morning? I can lend you my coat, if you want."

"I--I don't feel the cold," she said, and remembered her nakedness. Maybe the phoenix didn't feel shame, but it damn well had a sense of propriety she could appeal to. "On second thought, I'll have it."

"Great choice. It's a good coat my buddy Rogado picked out for me; he sure knows how to choose a good, warm coat. Why, I reckon it's as warm as a phoenix's feather--" he stopped when he realized Lenka was wincing even as she draped on the coat and tightened its bindings. "Oops."

Lenka shrank in on herself under Saresan's coat. "You know, don't you?"

"Don't worry, it isn't anything bad to be. I wouldn't mind being a big burning bird some nights myself, and Tyrus and I won't tell anyone if that's what you want. We'll just wait for our cart to be repaired and go right out of town."

"What happened to me, anyway?"

"You don't remember?"

"No, I don't quite remember, and neither does the phoenix." Which was true. She'd remembered flying, and then there'd been a sudden, sharp pain followed by feeling quite sleepy and falling despite her best efforts. There was a crossbow slung across Saresan's back. Had he…no. If he'd been the one who'd brought her down, the both of them wouldn't have stuck around to watch her come to. "Yes, I don't quite remember."

Saresan's brows furrowed in exaggerated concentration. "Well, it's sort of a long story, sort of like the ones I have about the horse people I once visited, but we went looking for the phoenix--I mean, you--and we'd just set up the lantern when you got shot out of the air and came down by us, only to have us hide you when some lady came around asking if we'd seen the phoenix. I'm not very good at these things, so I'll wake Tyrus up and get him to explain it to you. He's better at ledger-talk. Is there anything at all I can get you while I go wake him up?"

Damnit, he was so eager to please that refusing him would really have been akin to kicking a puppy, especially one with floppy ears and a brown spot about one eye. Besides, Lenka reasoned to herself, her mouth was a bit dry. "Water, if you have any. Please."

Saresan thrust a canteen in her direction and hurried off to the other side of the small camp. She'd tasted better water, but then again, she'd tasted worse. The phoenix clicked her beak distastefully and complained about why she wasn't getting anything to drink, and Lenka had to fight the impulse to Change.

She wanted to be back in her room. She wanted to feel the heat of Mr. Aug's furnaces and forges. She wanted to be anywhere but here, naked and drinking cold water, with bits of leaves and pine needles in her hair.

Most of all, she wanted a nice, fat pigeon, preferably still warm and bloody, and salivated at the thought.

#

High above the three of them, another bird circled. This one was built like a hunter, shaped like a smooth arrowhead with long wings, yet was too far colourful for any attempt at concealment--splashes of gold adorned its flight feathers against the baser green that covered the rest of its body. Maybe it knew things others didn't, or maybe it was just so quick it didn't care if its prey saw it coming.

But it'd been cheated of its prey this time, and was angry. There it lay on the ground below, and the huge bird had to make a conscious effort to hold back from pulling in its pointed wings and making a dive. There would be another opportunity to strike; the prey would fly again and the bird hunted far better in the air than on the ground. Since a ground approach had failed to produce results, albeit through simple bad luck, it would try the air.

Sunlight glinted off the gold in the bird's feathers, and it opened its curved beak.

"Eshentobon!" it screeched, a sound beyond human hearing that leapt through the air and echoed off the far mountains. "Master Eshentobon!"

Something deep beneath the surface of the earth heard its call and answered.

#

"And that's the long and short of it," Tyrus said and broke the sandwich he held in half. The half with the lettuce he kept for himself while the other half went to Lenka, who stuffed the whole thing into her mouth in one go. Saresan snored softly as he slumped against a large pine; like it or not, Tyrus had to admit he'd earned a reprieve. "We know you're the phoenix; we saw you change. Even if we hadn't, it wouldn't have taken long before we'd put two and two together; in fact, I should have realized it when you came to us last night. How's it that you managed to keep your secret so long?"

Lenka scowled, but just a little. "People see what they expect to see. It helps if they've known you since you were a baby and didn't turn into a phoenix chick back then, plus the fact that they're more comfortable thinking of a phoenix as an enigmatic, mystical force and not a nineteen-year-old who you see every day."

"Mm-hmm." Tyrus tapped the side of his head and took a bite of his half of the sandwich. "My grandmother always said I saw things that were there, not things that weren't there."

"That can't be good."

"Oh, there are times it's come in useful, especially for a small-time merchant like myself. Which reminds me." He drew out the long, smooth bolt from his coat pocket. The blood on it had dried, staining the head and wood a deep rust-brown--or at least, those parts that hadn't been charred black. "You work at the smithy, don't you? Can you tell me anything about this? It's the bolt that brought you down."

He looked intently at her face as she took the stake-like bolt from him and examined it, mumbling to herself. Anger? Disgust? Concentration? A faint glow enveloped Lenka's fingertips--simple tradesman's magic of the sort an everyday merchant or craftsman might employ--and she rubbed them up and down the wood and fletching.

"It's not one of ours, that's for sure," she said at last. "Or any from the Terrano. Even if there wasn't any manufacturer's stamp or seal, I'd have recognized it at once. This one…" she made a small, chirping sound in the back of her throat. "Yes. Either it wasn't made here and lugged all the way from somewhere else, or it was handcrafted, which is unlikely since modern fletching tools don't exactly grow on trees. As for the spells…standard ones. Sleep, trueflight to reduce falloff, rot resistance…whoever who had these spends a lot of time outdoors, perhaps?" Lenka shivered. "Whatever the case, this bolt isn't made to kill, or at least not something the size of a man or phoenix. That woman wanted to take me alive."

"Why?"

Lenka pocketed the crossbow bolt. "How should I know? Maybe for the same reason the two of you have been bothering me ever since you came to town?"

"Hey, we didn't shoot you down."

Now she scowled in earnest. "All right. But still, I've no idea why anyone would have a grudge against me, or at least as a human. That woman was aiming for the phoenix."

I'm sure plenty of people would have reason to hold grudges against you, the way you behave, Tyrus thought, then felt slightly ashamed for thinking that way. "Unicorns are now farmed for their horns. And ribs. And other assorted bits which fetch a decent price, last time I checked them. For some reason, their ulcers are highly prized. No one goes out and hunts the wild ones anymore. Ditto manticore venom, or a number of other products."

"Haven't heard of phoenixes being bred in captivity, though. But…"

"Phoenix feathers, Wing, talon and head trophies, whole stuffed phoenixes if you don't burn the stuffing or something, down for clothing, and I'm sure if someone's crazy enough to eat tiger penis, there's someone crazy enough to try a bit of phoenix."

Lenka stared at him, her mouth slightly open, her eyes wide and all black pupil. Sensing her discomfiture, Tyrus gave her a small smile and shrugged. "I'm a merchant. Looking for business opportunities is what I do for a living. I see them well enough, but whether to act on them or not is a matter for my morals."

"I…"

"People cage up young dragons until they're too big to be confined; it always ends in tragedy for the idiot who does it, but that doesn't stop it from happening. Heck, people cage up people. You can't tell me that you imagine the majority of folks actually care about things like the ethicality of caging up another sentient being against their will. It's sad, but true."

Lenka just pulled Saresan's coat tighter about herself and fiddled with a few strands of her hair. "The people I know would."

"That's a bonus for you, then." Sitting down on a nearby tree root, Tyrus sipped the last of the water in his canteen. "You'll be giving me an invoice for replacement of one faith in mankind?"

"You're not funny, you know."

"I wasn't trying to be."

They watched the sun climb a little further over the mountains in the distance, the silence punctuated by the rustle of a breeze through the pine branches and Saresan's snoring.

"So, what are you going to do now?"

"What?" Lenka replied. "I've got to get back to town. I should have been up at least two hours ago, and my Ma and Pa will be wondering why I'm not answering the door or why it's locked in the first place. Then there's the coal delivery today, have to help shift that in, and there're the gears to be case-hardened." She looked down at Saresan's coat, still tightly wrapped about herself and half-stood. "Might get a few odd looks going home, but I'll return the coat as soon as I wash it. Don't worry about me; the wound looks fine and I should be all right with a little topical antiseptic."

"You're just going to go home?"

Lenka frowned. "What do you mean? What else can I do?"

"What I meant was that there's someone specifically out there hunting phoenixes, and well, you ought to take care of yourself, although if no one else knows your secret you should be safe. Just…be careful, all right?"

"I will. The phoenix can't imagine not being able to fly, but I'll manage." She bit her lips and tried to comb out the worst of the debris from her hair with her fingers. "I don't want to sound like an ungrateful bitch, but can we get moving? The later I am, the more imaginative the tale I'll have to cook up to explain where I was."

Tyrus stood and nodded. "I'll go wake Saresan."

Embers

Chapter 7

"Well, this is where we say goodbye," Tyrus said as the three of them came to the wood's edge. Even from here, he could see the road and guesthouse a little way away. "We'll just stay here while you go. Might as well avoid inconvenient questions."

"Which reminds me," Lenka said. "Do you remember what that woman looked like?"

Tyrus thought back. "I…well, she was middle aged, and…"

"And?"

"And I can't quite recall. There was something about her face…it was…well, you know the average person in the street? She looked just like that. Can you remember anything else, Saresan?"

Saresan grinned. "She had a good coat. And good boots. If I'd a pair of boots like that, I'd be able to walk all the way from the coast to here without any problems. Wonder where they make such boots; Rogado always said you could tell a lot about someone from their boots."

Lenka sighed. "You two are usel--" She caught herself. "Sorry. You did save me. I suppose I should be grateful and live every day in fear of a mysterious woman who looks just like everyone on the street, only everyone on the street doesn't look exactly like each other."

Saresan's grin widened. "Hey, I live for the excitement of living."

"Is he like this all the time, Tyrus?"

"Pretty much. You have to build up a resistance to him like a cold or hard beer. Still, don't you have somewhere else to be? Remember to change the dressing to a dry one once you get back; a soaked bandage is never good for a wound, even if it doesn't hurt anymore. Iknow if I were hit by a crossbow bolt I still wouldn't be fine the next morning, but then again I'm not the one who turns into a big burning bird."

"All right." Taking a deep breath, Lenka alternated her gaze between the pine woods and her home. "Good day, gentlemen. Expect to get your coat back quite soon." With that, she snuck out of the trees and towards the side of the guesthouse, her bare feet kicking up the dust on the road.

They watched her leave.

"Well," Tyrus said at last. "That's that. Now we can concentrate on proper things like onions and root vegetables."

"Tyrus! Remember the time we went chasing a phoenix's embers, only to have her turn out to be a young lady and we rescued her from an evil poacher of some sort? It really brought a whole new meaning to the word 'bird', didn't it? That was really awesome, even better than how I thought it was going to happen! I can't wait to get back and tell Rogado about this; he's probably so bored in that charity hospital!"

He would not kick Saresan. He would not shout at Saresan. Doing so would be akin to blaming pigeons for being annoying; that was the way his friend was made.

Then again, he was only human. "Saresan, would you kindly shut up for once when I'm trying to think?"

"Okay."

#

The green-and-gold bird soared, scanning the distant ground below for a comfortable landing spot. Catching a rising thermal with a wingspan a little more than twice a man's height, it circled the crater below once more, trying to find a spot that wasn't already occupied by sharp, jagged rock or bones of some sort.

And there were a lot of them. Bones of every single imaginable size and stage of decay littered the floor of the crater, each and every one of them from a flying creature of some sort. There were enough dragon bones for the place to be easily mistaken for one of their fabled graveyards, but there were also remains from smaller creatures; bats, mountain condors, various migratory birds, even raptors like the green-and-gold bird was. Small, scraggly plants grew in what space there was to be had between the remains, and it was on one of these the bird landed on, a young tree growing out from the eye socket of a dragon's skull.

It was a small blessing that the crater walls were far too high and steep for any sane man to want to climb them, otherwise the place would've been picked clean long ago by looters. Chippering angrily at the thought, the bird hopped down onto the bleached white bone of the skull and nipped off a strange satchel at its waist before it took a few moments to preen itself.

Then the bird changed. Feathers retracted into skin, tapered wings spread out and formed themselves into hands and arms, and the hooked, toothed beak flattened into a pair of lips. When it was over, a middle-aged woman stood on the dragon's skull. She wasn't old, but neither could she be mistaken for a maiden, either--her body had accumulated enough flaws from age and constant use to be past the threshold of youthful attractiveness. One might have imagined those dull, grey eyes had seen quite a few things in their time, and they had.

"Bugger," she said as she unblocked the satchel and pulled out a small pile of clothing. "Where's he? Eshentobon? Eshentobon! We agreed to meet here!"

There was no reply, not even her own voice which had been eaten up by the crater walls. The woman sighed and pulled on her clothing hurriedly, even though there was nothing around. She'd seen her share of corpses and carcasses as both a garuda and a human, and knew graveyards like this one teemed with life. Carrion feeders. Maggots. Crows. Beetles. Mushrooms. Other things that helped the dead rot and nourish the soil. There was none of that here; the bones lay untouched and unmoving. Yellowed with age, perhaps, but there was no flesh on any of them even when there was nothing to pick them clean.

The woman didn't know enough to presume if something was natural or not, for a given definition of natural, but this mass graveyard came as close to unnatural as she'd ever seen. This was a place of cold and death, and she shivered despite her thick clothes and hooded coat.

"Master Eshentobon!" she yelled at the top of her voice. "Where the heck are you?"

The bones moved. Animated by some invisible force, several ribs flew into the air, quickly followed by bits and pieces from all over the crater. Most of them were dragon bones, but there were smaller pieces from bats and birds and winged serpents and other things she didn't quite recognise. They rose, swirled in a small hurricane of dust and bones and assembled themselves in mid-air like a do-it-yourself bookcase, some of the pieces lingering for a second or so before being discarded and thrown lifelessly against the rocky ground.

The skull she was standing on heaved, and she grabbed her satchel and was off just as it rose from the ground, tearing up the young, scraggly tree and letting it fall through the skull's slack jaws. As she watched, the horned skull fitted itself onto the end of what could be generously called a spine, and with one final click it the assorted bones moved as one. Bluish-purple light flared from within the ribs where the heart would have been, if such a patchwork creature could even have a proper place for its heart.

Unfazed, the woman looked up into the dragon's now-burning eye sockets and folded her arms. "You're late."

"I know," Eshentobon replied, and let out a pained sigh. "I know."

#

"Someone pulled a prank on me, Ma. Either that, or it was a mistake--by the time I'd managed to get the bathroom door open my clothes were gone. Luckily there was this nice man who was willing to lend me his coat to cover myself so I could slip in the side entrance."

Lenka's mother scrutinised her daughter through the steam that rose over the cauldron of broth, then handed the stirring ladle to a nearby kitchen hand before she crossed the fire to her daughter. "I suppose." She lowered her voice. "If I weren't your mother, I'd have thought you were with a man and something untoward happened."

Lenka bit her lips and hugged herself a little more tightly. If she'd been her mother, she'd have thought the same thing. "Ma."

"It's just not nice, hearing everyone say your only child and daughter is frigid because she's never had her tides. I know you can't help it, just as you can't help but get feather lice from the chickens, but it still hurts a little." Lenka's mother sniffed and squared her shoulders. "Well, you'd better go up and get dressed. You're already late, so I'm sure you can be a little more so and stay for some of the broth. Mr. Aug is a nice man; I'm sure he'll understand, especially coming from a hard worker like you."

"Thanks, Ma."

"And make sure to return that coat to whoever who lent it to you. I'm not having any of my family indebted to anyone. It's not good for one's luck."

"Yes, Ma." The common room was packed with travellers having their lunch before they left for the road, and Lenka skirted through the kitchens and up the back stairs to her room. A small, hidden nook in the wooden wall held a spare key--most people in these parts had the habit of keeping their spare keys on a hook in the privy or somewhere equally hidden--and before long she was back in the privacy of her own room and pulling on her work clothes, with Saresan's coat folded on the dresser. Gingerly, she touched her wound. The phoenix fidgeted in annoyance, but at least the pain let her know she was still alive. Still, she probed at the wound's torn edges through the dressing, and asked the phoenix to help check if there was something that shouldn't have been there.

There was nothing out of place, and Lenka sat on her bed with a sigh of relief. Which only left the question: who had shot he--no, that woman hadn't shot her, but rather, the phoenix. The phoenix was the quarry, not Lenka, but did that matter when they were one and the same?

The phoenix screeched angrily and stated in no uncertain terms she would never hide or feel ashamed for what it was. Lenka hurriedly sent it soothing thoughts, but it was a while before she felt confident in standing up without falling over. The phoenix was proud. The phoenix was also strong. Lenka was tempted to relinquish control and let her other half sort matters out, but wasn't sure if she'd emerge as the victor, especially when she wasn't certain just who or what she was going to face.

One thing she did know, though. She had to fly. It was in her essence, her very being; the phoenix had to fly, or she would die.

#

"It's a good onion," Saresan said between bites. "I don't see what's wrong with sampling wares we intend to buy, especially when dealing with perishable goods."

Tyrus glanced to either side of the road. Fenced-off fields of ripening hill rice grew in shallow terraces, peppered with the occasional herb or vegetable garden by their respective homesteads. Maybe they shouldn't have strayed so far from the town proper, even for a good business deal; the sun was already far too low on the horizon for his liking and a nighttime chill had already crept into the air. "Because you're eating a raw onion, even if you've peeled off the skin and chopped off the roots. That's just…wrong."

"What is?"

"Do you have any taste buds at all, Saresan?" Tyrus rolled his eyes, then shook his head. "No, don't answer that. Your mouth'll just make my head hurt even more than it is already, and I want to be able to sleep well tonight. I ought to be grateful you didn't eat raw garlic instead."

Saresan brightened. "Hey, that reminds me. They're having garlic sausage on the menu tonight; I'm sure you'd like to try some as well."

"We'll have to pick up the pace if we're going to reach the guesthouse while they're still serving dinner," Tyrus said, and shivered as he looked up at the sky. No divine signs, no red stars of prophecy, and absolutely no phoenixes of any shape or sort whatsoever; just boring old clouds, heavy and purple with the coming night and equally boring stars like those that made up the Deformed Bear and Evil Duck.

Tyrus liked boring. It meant that you lived in relative comfort to see another day; boring was safe. The hats, onions and rice that were going to make up the bulk of their cargo was hardly worth a fortune, but they didn't track in unwanted things like deadly curses from their former owners. Even the authentic mountain hats which Saresan so adored probably weren't going to bite anyone's head off or cause them to break out in spots.

Several sacks of authentic raw hill rice at a weight each, followed by an equal amount of onions would fill up the cooling unit. Then there were Saresan's hats, and maybe just some space left over for some more odds and ends which might prove to be profitable…he was sure he could do the numbers if he wasn't being constantly interrupted.

"Do you still remember when we convinced the mountain folk to try their first bite of chocolate?" Saresan's voice was a reedy drone on the edge of Tyrus' consciousness. "When they thought we were selling some sort of unguent or something, and then I had to explain to them that pharmacists bloody well knew people expected their potions to look like potions and damn well wouldn't make them smell of sugar, children's medicines excluded--"

The last of the sun dipped below the mountains, and Tyrus knelt, fumbling to light his lantern. At least the match caught on the first try, and when he stood again Saresan was quiet.

"Well," Tyrus said, "at least you've decided to shut up for once--"

A screech rang through the air, and Tyrus whipped his head in the direction it'd come from. The phoenix burned high in the night sky, yes, but there was another huge bird of some sort attacking it, glints of green and gold reaching his eyes against the burning blues and reds of the ph--no, Lenka.

They seemed evenly matched, although he couldn't tell how long that'd last. He couldn't see much, especially since the other bird was mostly a silhouette against the night sky, lit by Lenka's own fire. Bits of burning feathers fell from the battle, visible even at this distance, and were carried away by the wind.

"Come on, Tyrus," Saresan said as he shouldered his crossbow. The smile had disappeared from his face. "We've got to help her."

"How good of a shot are you to be loosing bolts into that fray? You don't want to hit Lenka by mistake."

"Good enough to save Rogado when that cat-centaur wouldn't let go of his arm that time we were hanging over Deathsdoor Falls." Breaking into a jog, Saresan paused and turned when he realised Tyrus wasn't at his side. "Come on. You can't just stand there and do nothing when a friend's in trouble. It's not right."

Against all common sense, Saresan had a point. Tightening his grip on the lantern, Tyrus hurried after his friend into the undergrowth.

Embers

Chapter 8

It happened so fast.

A shadow, a flicker of colour, and pain exploded in her breast as her old wound tore anew. Blood--her blood--glistened in the light of her own fires, glistened on claws that weren't hers.

It made her so angry. The human chattered endlessly, telling her to do this, to do that, to direct the anger and blood that bubbled in her breast as the both of them plummeted through the air, thrown off course by the intruder's collision.

How dare she? How dare she?

But the other bird had dared, and was now grappling for purchase on her body, her beautiful, perfect body with those ugly claws. And that beak, it looked strong enough to snap bones and necks--perhaps even her own--

The phoenix screamed, a half-bird, half-human noise, and the flames on her body flared until she herself was blinded by their brilliance, Now it was the intruder's turn to scream, a strange, squawking noise emerging from her beak as the sheer heat from the phoenix seared through whatever defences she'd put up and reduced green and gold feathers to ash.

My home, the phoenix screeched as she felt the intruder's talons leave her for just a moment. It wasn't long--merely a matter of seconds--but it was enough for her to turn the tables on her opponent. It wasn't easy keeping ahold of the green-and-gold bird, not when the wretch was stronger and larger than her, but they were going down anyway and that was the direction in which she intended to take them.

Pain and anger melded together into a bloody haze, crimson like the trail of embers the phoenix left in her wake.

Kill kill kill, the phoenix raged, and the human clawed at her mind with its fleshy, stubby talons. She would kill them all, the human said, the intruder, herself, and the human as well. She had to stop, to let go. The intruder would die from the fall and she could recover, turn her plunge into a glide or at least not end up broken and bloody on the ground.

Never, the phoenix thought, and tightened her talons. Death to those who enter my territory and attack me. Death to those who would dare stop me from flying.

Then pain. The human. The human was trying to wrest control of the body from her, had given up being a passenger and now wanted to be a driver even while they flew. It was always the human who had wanted this, wanted that, denied this, denied that according to her rules and the rules of fellow humans, which were always illogical and arbitrary to her. She would not--

--Think any more, for the intruder's beak had found its way to her neck, that sharp tip jabbing the air until it'd found purchase. See what your weakness has done to us, the phoenix thought back in rage and despair. We may all die, but I will suffer the indignity of being ended by such an insignificant and ugly creature like that golden-green chicken.

Then the beak twisted and the intruder was torn from her, leaving shreds of warm, bloody flesh trailing from her talons. Large and tapered as they were, wings were useless when they had two crossbow bolts sticking straight through them, and the intruder wheeled away into the darkness below.

Mine! the phoenix screeched, forgetting how close she'd been to death mere moments ago. The human contrived to feel sheepish, but what was done was done. Besides, humans had their uses; pigeons, warm fires, comfortable beds and medicines that made the little irritations go away…

Why was her mind wandering? She turned her suspicions to the human, but she was equally confused. Yes, she felt…cold. Cold. A strange term that had come from the human. Was this what being cold felt like? It was…it was strangely relaxing, and now that her enemy had been defeated she didn't see why she couldn't perch somewhere convenient and take a moment's rest…

No, the human screamed as it hammered against her mind. It was trying to take control again, and this time the phoenix was so tired, she was half in the mind to let the human have it so she could rest. You have to fly. I can help, but you have to be the one to fly, or else the both of us will die.

Was the ground supposed to be so close? She didn't remember it being that near to her, even when she was fighting the intruder. There were the two men, the stumpy one like a fat prey bird and the tall, thin spring-man, and the latter one had a weapon in his hand. She had never asked them for their help.

There wasn't time to think, because there wasn't any more now to think in as she hit the ground.

#

Not too far away, a small patch of ground began to shift. Small bones--mostly those of field mice devoured over the years--unearthed themselves from the ground, taking a few moments to assemble into a semi-useful form. More and more joined the mix until something vaguely rodent-like emerged from the chaos, and it took three tries before the skull snapped into place.

Blue fire flared from within the skeleton.

Eshentobon didn't like using rodent bones, even those that'd lain underground for months, if not years. There was something derogatory about them. Still, this was an emergency and it was the only body he could take that would get him where he needed to be in time. It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for; the garuda's enormous wingspan was easy to spot amidst the broken branches and crushed undergrowth.

He scampered over as fast as his body would allow and climbed onto the garuda's feathered breast. At least she was still breathing. Eshentobon could not grant life; that would have been against his very being, but he could stretch thin what threads of life there were, stretch them to cover the patch so the whole cloth would not fray and unravel until it had rallied and recovered.

Besides, he wasn't sure he could take it if another died in his service, willingly or not. The flames were already painful enough. After some careful consideration, Eshentobon directed his body to the broken wing and pulled out the thin crossbow bolts that had pierced it through. Satisfied that only flesh and blood and bone remained in the garuda, he stood on the body's hind legs and looked down sadly.

"Valise, what have you gotten yourself into?"

Flashes of blue lightning arced from Eshentobon's fire and leapt into the garuda's body. She twitched, jerked as he dug into her life and memories--

She would not be afraid. She would not be afraid. Not when she'd come so far to get the answers that might finally put her mind at rest. Was she not from the Garuda clan?

Despite all her reassurances, Valise couldn't help but suppress a shiver as she approached the patchwork creature of old bones in the small cave.

"Are you the Tormented One?"

"Is that what they are calling me now?" came the reply in a stifled scream. "I had a name, and I still do. Is it better to be forgotten by the world, or only be remembered in myths that have nothing to do with the truth? What do you want of me?"

Valise steadied her voice, yet refused to command this spectre. It looked too…pitiful, for want of a better word to describe it. Or was it a trap intended to disguise what danger it might have held? "I want to know the answers to the questions of life and death."

"Why?"

"Because…" she forced out the words. "I want to. Lightning struck our nest, I mean, our home, and my husband and brood died in the fire. I want to know why this senseless thing happened, and if they are happy where they are."

"If it is solace or closure you want--" the spectre said-- "one can visit any number of charlatans who claim to be able to see into the spirit world." Was it coughing?

"I don't want to be comforted. I want the truth. Local legend says that one trapped as you are knows the truth, because you have been there."

The spectre studied her, and its gaze grew uncomfortable as more and more purple crept into the fire in its eyes. Amazingly, it slumped its shoulders, a very human gesture. "You will not like what you hear."

"I still want to know."

"Very well. The answer is that there are no answers."

Valise drew a breath, her mouth half-open. Was this thing playing with her? Yet when she looked up again into the spectre's eyes, the pained expression reminding her of those last moments when Helfor had been a mess of seared skin and feathers as his body desperately tried to find a shape that would resist the fires, she knew the spectre truly had no answer to give.

"Why do senseless evils happen to people who clearly do not deserve them?" the spectre continued. "There is no answer, they just do. What lies beyond death? There is no answer, for each one makes of it as they will. What is our purpose in life? There is no answer either, for one has to find one's purpose; it is not given to them. Anyone could tell you this, but apparently people refuse to believe it unless some otherworldly spirit says so."

"As I suspected."

The spectre shrugged. "You have what you came for. Please leave me."

Valise took a step forward. "Why do they call you the Tormented One?"

A scream, and she took a hurried step back, her skin prickling. "The flames! Can't you see them? The flames when they sacrificed me to give mind to a force of nature!" The spectre lost all semblance of control and beat madly at invisible fires, and Valise felt her stomach tighten. "I've said too much. Go away. Please."

"What is your name?"

"No one has asked that for a very, very long time."

"Then all the more you should tell me."

"Eshentobon. I…I still remember. My name is Eshentobon."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Can you really?" She would never forget that haunting look, even though he would never look at her that way again. "I want to die."

--and breathed a little steadier when he was done. Fainter, perhaps, but at least Eshentobon now had confidence that Valise would not die. Not while on his watch.

"I won't burn," Valise muttered. "I won't let it take me like it did Helfor. I don't have time to burn."

#

"I don't want to say it, miss, but you have to stop ending up naked in front of us. Folks like Tyrus and I, we're nice people, but it's all too easy for someone else to get the wrong impressions about your intentions."

Lenka opened her eyes. Saresan stood over her, an unloaded crossbow in hand and a friendly smile on his face. Of course he meant what he said; it was impossible to see that smile and imagine some insidious dual meaning hiding beneath his words, waiting to leap out and catch her unawares.

Or was she even thinking right? She'd beaten that other bird, hadn't she? Well, the phoenix had, and looking at Saresan…all right, maybe she hadn't done too much, but she'd directed the phoenix's rage where it needed to be and as for Saresan, well, she'd never asked for his help.

"My head hurts," she said at last.

"You haven't been sleeping well, and on hard ground to boot. It's not a surprise your head hurts."

He wasn't joking, which made her all the more annoyed with him. Now she knew how Tyrus must feel all the time.

Lenka tried to sit up, then bit her tongue at the stiffness in her chest. Straight lines of scabs ran over so much of her stomach she wondered why they weren't burning with pain even when she was still, but as Missus Toryll had said, it usually wasn't wise to question one's blessings.

Tyrus came over and offered her his canteen--it was as if she was reliving yesterday's events. Lenka peered into the water, decided she wasn't thirsty and poured some over her scabs. It stung like salt in a wound, but at least the pain reaffirmed that she was alive.

"Thank you."

Tyrus nodded and took the canteen from Lenka's hands. "We won't have to lend you another coat, will we? Because mine's not exactly--"

Lenka fixed him with a hawkish glare. "I planned ahead."

"Ah. All right. What even Saresan doesn't understand, though, is why you went out again when you knew that someone was hunting you. That's called taking an unnecessary risk, and it doesn't make sense."

It didn't make sense? Of course it didn't make sense to him. He couldn't possibly know, and Lenka searched for the right words to explain what the phoenix felt. "I know someone was after me, and the safest thing would have been to stay home. But we, I mean, the phoenix--I have to fly, or else I'll die."

Tyrus frowned. "Come again, miss?"

"I…I have to fly. It's what the phoenix does; she can't deny it any more than water can flow uphill."

"Actually," Saresan said, "there's a place Rogado and I visited where there's a waterfall that flows upward every now and then. The winds funnelled down the valley lift the foam and spray--"

"Shut up," Lenka and Tyrus said in unison.

"Okay."

Tyrus turned back to Lenka. "You were saying something about having to fly or you'd die?"

Lenka shivered. "Have you ever seen lights in the night sky? Not the stars, but the coloured glows that you sometimes see this far north in the Terrano. I don't know if you can see them where you come from, but the wizards and travelling teachers say there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for them--although I forget what it was. I'm sure some of them are natural, but sometimes when we--I--am flying and I look back at the streaks and flashes I leave behind, I can't help but wonder if somewhere in those colours there're other phoenixes, too."

"I still don't quite follow."

"The phoenix isn't just a bird," Lenka said, ignoring the chippering of the phoenix at the back of her mind saying she was telling these strangers too much. "She's more than that. Me, for instance." She shivered again. "I knew the moment I realised her. I just know have to fly often, or I'll die. You have to trust me on this."

Tyrus shook his head and Lenka saw in his eyes that he hadn't quite accepted her explanation, but he didn't press the matter any further. "That bird who attacked you--do you think she was the woman who shot at you last night? I've never seen such a huge bird before. I went to look for its body where it landed while Saresan stayed with you, but when I got there there wasn't anything but broken branches and crushed roots."

"Does it matter?"

"It might be the only way we're getting some answers."

Embers

Chapter 9

Eshentobon remembered.

When he had still been alive, the main purpose of learning how to do magic was so that one didn't use it. Many things could be done with magic that couldn't be done with one's own hands and a bit of intelligence, and even those tasks that could be performed mundanely were usually made far easier with a bit of a push in the right place. Magic was simple and convenient enough to be used by the lowest peasant--that was the big secret behind all those dress codes and fanciful rituals; that they were merely mock-ups to give the whole matter an air of mystery and keep the common man from forming an interest in the subject.

But there had been the price, which was why people in those days had worked with their hands. There was always a price, and more often than not the price was horribly disproportionate considering the methods used. Anyone who knew the trick could light a fire with a snap of his or her fingers, could pull bread, water or even a roast swan from thin air, could, given the proper alchemical ingredients, enrich soil to triple crop yields or poison it so everything withered. The price varied; reagents ranging from rare herbs to strange crystals, blood, one's own life force, sacrifices of animals or even people, oaths of fealty to other people or creatures--even the most mundane lifetime of study dedicated to those so-called arcane arts was daunting to most people.

Then one day the price was dropped. Not gone, but dropped enough to allow even the lowest of the low to light their fires without matches and drive locusts away from their crops.

The world changed that day.

Suddenly, everyone was using magic in some manner or form. Chaos ruled for a short while as the populace tested their newfound powers, but soon settled when people realised slinging a fireball or casting a hex was now the equivalent of a punch; power was only power if the other sap didn't have it as well. There wasn't much point in a hex if one's target could sniff it out and wash off the effects as easily as it'd been placed, or at the very least pay a pittance for someone who could do it for them. A silver coin used to be a month's wages, be it minted near the coast, up in the Terrano or in some far-off land. Now it was a week's.

But other effects lingered. Automated machinery, driven by forcestone motors. Increasing crop yields from the fast-growing field of so-called life magic. Horses were now ridden for pleasure rather than out of necessity; no sensible man would bother with adding extra weight with feed and water when a simple motor could do so much more. People's lives becoming longer, cleaner and more comfortable, and Eshentobon had watched as they began to demand--with actual success--a greater degree of freedom from the aristocrats who had ruled them.

The group of young magicians who'd made the revolutionary breakthrough were honoured in a ceremony sponsored by the king himself, although there'd been one uninvited visitor, a skeletal crow perched in a high window, blue fire burning in its empty eyes.

Each and every one of them had died within the year, seemingly of natural causes in their beds. Some people said it was because they'd finished their life's work bringing a golden age to the world, and they'd felt could die in peace. Eshentobon knew better, but it did little to lessen the agony the fires brought him.

It was one of the basic rules of not just magic, but of the world at large. For every action, a reaction. For every boon, a price. Even the discovery that had lowered that price and changed the world had a cost in itself.

Him.

#

"Miss? Are you decent?"

"I am," Lenka replied. "You two can turn around now."

"You don't have to feel ashamed, miss," Saresan said happily. "It's not as if there's anything to see."

Tyrus winced. "Saresan!"

Lenka pulled on her work gloves and flexed her fingers. They felt good, and were a constant reminder to her hands that they should stay that way. Gloves weren't made to fit on wings. "No, it's all right. He's only relating the world as he sees it, and to be honest it's not too far from the truth. I'm not exactly one of the full-bodied, silken-haired mountain maidens the local tourist agencies put on billboards to visit the wonderful mountains in search of beautiful scenery, wonderful cheese and wine and absolutely nothing to do with those oversexed idiots splashed all over paper."

"Can we pick some apples while we're here? Please? I know they're still small and sort of sour, but we're not going to be here again for some time and I'm sure the apples'll ripen on our way back, even if they won't be as good as mountain apples are supposed to be--"

Tyrus sighed. Lenka stared. They shared a Look.

"Whatever makes you happy," Tyrus called out, but Saresan was already halfway up a nearby tree and inspecting the half-ripened fruit with all the excitement of a magpie eyeing a particularly shiny bead.

Lenka looked on and thinned her lips. "He thinks the world's a game."

"But it is a game. It's just that the stakes are all too often a little higher than what we're willing to risk. I won't deny that Saresan's had a few good ideas in his time, but he plays for the enjoyment of it. The stakes just add to that enjoyment, and if they don't, he forgets about them." Tyrus shook his head. "But that's enough about us. You're sure you can walk?"

"You saw that wound from yesterday. Just a scar left, and even that's disappearing. Trust me on this, I'm sure I can take a few steps across uneven ground without collapsing. I guess I'll be going on home. Again."

"I guess. It must be nice to be able to shrug off wounds like that."

"What about you?"

"Me?"

"Yes, you. We're nearly done with your cart. If you wanted to, you could come in this afternoon and take it out."

"Well, we'll be moving on in a few days, once our business here is concluded. We'll leave it with you--and before you ask, yes, we're willing to pay a little more for the service."

"Well…"

Tyrus frowned. "Is something the matter?"

"Just…come again, will you?" Lenka turned away from Tyrus, and he noticed it took a little while for her hair to catch up with the rest of her body. "Maybe we'll have filled our orders in say, by early winter, and…um…well, there'll be enough spares to maybe justify selling a few extras to small-time businessmen. I'm sure Mr. Aug won't mind. Then also, people around these parts do want goods from the coast, too." She folded her arms. "I just want to express my gratitude somehow."

"Oh, I intend to come back soon," Tyrus said, ignoring the small voice in the back of his mind reminding him it was cold and he was dealing with the equivalent of an awkward customer. "The chocolate was one of Saresan's best ideas. People in these parts are getting richer, and they want to have something to buy with their money."

Lenka felt a twinge of pain somewhere inside her stomach, probably from the tears and gashes healing. Still, that didn't explain the burning in her chest, and she knew, damn it, she just knew the phoenix was laughing at her in the back of her mind. "Bring him if you must, I suppose. But…well, I wouldn't mind it if you did come back."

Saresan chose that moment to reappear with an armful of green apples. "Sorry to keep you folks waiting," he said. "Hope it wasn't too long for you, but I got these lovely green apples that promise to get all nice and ripe if I pack them together in wax with some of those redder ones--"

"No, you didn't make us wait. We were just…talking." Lenka turned back to the two men, then glanced in the direction of the road. "Not to ruin your excitement over some apples, but we really should be going."

#

I won't burn. I don't have enough time left to burn. I don't have enough life left to burn.

She still remembered that night as if it'd only been yesterday; all that had been left of her home had been the ashes and embers. She'd chased the embers as they'd been scattered by the winds, hoping--what had she been hoping for, when she'd known everything was gone? She'd asked the clan for permission to leave, then chased the embers all the way across the land and found Eshentobon.

Valise tried to beat her wings, half-remembering that she was supposed to be falling with the phoenix. She couldn't feel her talons any more; either they'd been scorched clean off or…or…

A bitter scent came to her nose, and her eyes snapped open. Eshentobon held up one bony finger to his jawbone, and she sank back onto the bed she was on. He'd managed to procure a human skeleton--goodness knew how many of those lay beneath most settlements--and as she watched, wrung a towel in a basin of antiseptic-smelling water and daubed at her burnt skin with the dampened cloth.

How did he do it? How did he exude such calmness, such precision even when he was being burnt alive every single moment of his cursed existence? If it were her in his place, she'd have gone mad with the pain a long time ago. Added to the fact he had no body save what he could borrow from the dead--no, she didn't want to think about it.

"Where are we?" Valise whispered. Something weighed on her body, and she realised there was a heavy blanket on her. A blanket above her, and a bed below--not so hard as to be uncomfortable, yet not so soft she sank into it.

"An inn--or as they prefer in these parts, guesthouse--not too far from where I found you. The people here are kind and overlooked a simple illusion, in addition to believing my story without too many inconvenient questions." He rinsed the cloth in the basin and started on her injured arm; Valise gritted her teeth and bore the pain. She'd have to ask Eshentobon exactly what story he'd told the locals. "You were burning up, within and without. I've had the local herb woman see to you. She prescribed a topical salve and a tonic; I hope you don't mind me paying with your money."

"I'm still alive."

"Only because I stretched thin the threads of your life so they wouldn't break. You'll feel weak for the next few days until they reassert themselves." A bitter laugh. "Chances are the phoenix will have made a near-complete recovery by now; after all, she is a symbol of life and rebirth. Ironic that I should have to find life in order to die, don't you think?"

"The bitch. I'll gut her the next time we meet; I was so close. Twice, in fact."

"I wouldn't be so quick to judge her. No one wants to die."

"You do."

"I'm a special case." Eshentobon's form shimmered, and in the place of the aged skeleton stood a tall, gaunt man. Valise could see the bones in places where the illusion wasn't so perfect, but only because she knew what Eshentobon was and looking for it. Most normal people wouldn't notice a thing. Wringing the towel dry one last time, Eshentobon hummed something under his breath before he spread the towel across Valise's forehead and lifted the basin onto a nearby dresser. "Rest awhile; I'll make sure all's safe. Do you think you can stomach something?"

Valise didn't think she could, but she'd have felt guilty at refusing such a kind gesture. "A little, perhaps." A thought hit her. "The phoenix--she must live close by."

Eshentobon paused at the door, and the fire in his eye sockets flared. "Well, of course. What else would you expect?"

"I--well--" she closed her eyes. Garuda and human had melded into one mind some time ago, but Valise remembered her years as a young girl, more than content to hitch a ride and leave the flying and hunting to the garuda. "She didn't seem built for long flights, and she's definitely not a soarer. This is the only major town for some distance, and I can't see a phoenix eking out a dirty living in a mining or logging camp. They have too much pride for that, even if both her minds are still separate so early. She'll be somewhere here."

"Well," Eshentobon said with a nod, "that only makes our work easier. Don't worry about matters; just try to get some rest and heal well." He opened the door, stepped through, and shut it behind him, leaving Valise alone to huddle under her blanket and sweat into her pillow.

She had to get better. She would get better. Someone like Eshentobon didn't deserve to have something like this happen to him, and even if she couldn't have the answers to the questions of life and death, she could stick her thumb at their emptiness and try to make the world a different place from the one who had taken Helfor and her brood from her.

Embers

Chapter 10

"I am going to be so upset when we finally have to leave this place. I mean, we've just been here a little over a week, and all sorts of amazing stuff happened to us! Who can say they've managed to rescue a phoenix who can turn into a girl, wait no, or was it the other way around, not once, but twice? Even that time Rogado and I were trapped on a glacier with only a rope and a pair of snowshoes--"

"Honestly, Saresan," Tyrus said. "Take a breath before you pass out on the floor in front of all these people."

"Yes, but you know what I'm saying. Nothing like this ever happens to us down on the coast, it's all about boring prices of smoked and salted fish, and whose new tower is that not too far from town and whether the bugger would be interested in some quality mandrake root. I don't see what's the point--they're not even calling themselves wizards anymore, but magical engineers. I mean, that's not fun anymore."

If Saresan's definition of fun was biting into one of the unripe apples he'd picked earlier on, Tyrus didn't want any part of it. He'd tried one of them earlier on and found them eye-crossingly sour. That didn't seem to bother Saresan, though; he was enjoying one of his ill-gotten gains at the very moment.

"There was that kraken down by the coast a year or two back," Tyrus said. "They closed one or two ports for a week or so while they called in the reserves to deal with it."

"That's not an 'oh-my-goodness' story," Saresan replied between bites. "That's more of a 'make-you-think' story. Never knew the docks were so fragile until I saw the wreck for myself."

"That's it. I've had enough; your mouth makes my head hurt." With a sigh, Tyrus pushed himself off the bench he'd been sitting on and wandered across the crowded common room to the bar. A drink would help put the numbers he'd been working on in perspective, and maybe--just maybe--wash Saresan's endless nattering from his ears.

Was it dinnertime already? He hadn't sat down there working out sums for that long, had he? Still, an enticing aroma wafted out from the curtains behind the bar, and Tyrus sniffed the air, filling his lungs with the smell. Let Saresan have his damned apples, he'd--

"I do beg your pardon."

Tyrus turned and stared into two bluish flames set into a yellowed skull, and felt his jaws stiffen. No one around him appeared to notice a walking skeleton had just spoken to him, and he swallowed. "Can I help you?"

"The proprietors--they are serving chicken broth to the guests tonight, are they not? I am afraid I can't quite see the menu from this distance."

A skeleton. A damned walking skeleton had came up to him and asked him what they were serving for dinner. Tyrus glanced at Saresan, who looked up and gave him a cheery wave. Maybe he had died and been transported to some twisted alternate reality; those damned wizards were always talking about them in the newsprints. Still, Tyrus rubbed his eyes, then his face before he dared to look up again.

The skeleton was still there. "I hope you are not feeling unwell, sir?" There was a strange accent to its speech, one that Tyrus found vaguely familiar but couldn't quite place.

"Uh, no. I just…" had the world gone mad? Or were walking, talking skeletons a common happenstance in this part of the world? He could understand people's nonchalance towards the phoenix--no, Lenka. After all, they saw her on a regular basis, if what she'd said about needing to fly was true. But this? Tyrus took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, or at least, tried to. "They're indeed serving chicken broth, as far as I can tell. I wouldn't ask them to add the herbs, though, given what they do to the vegetable stew."

"Ah." Was it his imagination, or did the skeleton manage to look annoyed? Maybe he was imagining things. Or maybe he wasn't. When they'd first met, Saresan had complained that he hadn't been using his imagination enough. The skeleton glared at him, as if it knew that he knew. "I never liked herbs myself, anyway. They could be anything from a pinch of basil to something you'd rather not put in your mouth. Good day, sir." With that, it turned and stalked away, reminding Tyrus of some sort of ancient predator risen from the dead.

It was several moments before Tyrus remembered where he was supposed to be and tottered back to Saresan, his need for a drink completely forgotten.

"Did you see that?" he managed to stammer as he plopped on the bench.

"See what? You haven't got the shakes, have you? Only because you've been complaining of the cold, and I know if you stay out in the cold for too long you get the shakes--"

"No. I don't have the shakes. But did you see that thing I was talking to?"

"You mean that rather thin gentleman? He looked all right to me. Could use a little more eating on his part, if you ask me, but that's those professional-types for you."

Tyrus drew a sharp breath through his teeth. "He wasn't a person, damn it! He was a walking skeleton!"

"Was he making woo-woo noises too, like they do in the puppet shows? Do you know how to make a ghost puppet out of an old sock? What you do is get a pair of scissors and--"

"I'm being serious here, Saresan. That…man is…"

"It's all right. I know you're feeling a little down that we only had such a great and wonderful adventure because I was the one who decided to look for the phoenix, but we did it together. You don't have to go about seeing strange things around every corner just so we can have another exciting time." He winked. "I'm sure we'll have enough of those before we're done with this partnership."

"I…I…" He needed to be calm. Rational. Raving like a madman would only lower him to Saresan's level, and the world didn't need any more stupid in it.

Tyrus' throat suddenly felt very, very dry once again. He took in the bar again, now more crowded than ever, but there was no sign of the skeleton and something in his chest unwound.

"All right," he said. "How about you go to the bar and order a drink for the both of us? Heck no, make that three, because if I'm not wrong that's Lenka coming over with your coat."

"You're going to buy a phoenix a drink?"

"Alcohol burns, doesn't it?"

#

Eshentobon carefully climbed the stairs, doing his best not to spill the bowl of steaming broth. The corridor along the guest rooms was deserted thanks to most of the guesthouse's clientele being downstairs in the common room, and he unlocked the door to their room and pushed it open.

Eshentobon wished he could still smell. The broth looked appetizing enough, herbs or no herbs, and it brought back vague yearnings from a time long ago. He still remembered the last thing he'd eaten; he'd been in the break room having his lunch of fried, breaded fish and half a cap of heavily watered wine when his fellow lab techs had crept in and thrown a sack over his head and a rope around his neck.

The rest, as they said, had been history.

"Valise?" he whispered. There was no reply, so he crept over and rolled back the heavy blanket with bony fingers. Valise the woman wasn't there, but nestled in her now-unbuttoned clothes was a garuda on her back, ruffled and ragged but still clinging on to a sliver of her former dignity. She must have changed in her sleep.

Well, he'd let her rest. Eshentobon set down the tray by her bed; with any luck, the wholesome scent would wake her soon enough. He, on the other hand, had work to do. That man had seen him, he was sure of it; the unguarded surprise in his expression was nothing short of a dead giveaway. That shouldn't have been the case, only people who knew what they were looking for--like Valise--or those who had a touch of true sight should have been able to see through it.

Statistically, the latter was more likely; a sizable proportion of the population had some sort of resistance to basic illusion and glamour, ranging from those with a bit of the right blood to people with no imagination at all, so they saw what was there instead of what their minds told them was there. What he was worried about, though, was the former.

If that man had been looking for him and knew who or what he was…

It wasn't very likely, but it'd happened before. Flat-out crazy people seeking out the so-called Tormented One believing he could grant them wishes or give them power, and some even wanted to worship him as a god of some sort. Eshentobon wanted none of that and while he could dispose of any annoyances without too much trouble, he didn't want to startle the phoenix any further.

It wouldn't hurt to investigate while Valise recovered.

There were bones in the back yard of the guesthouse where the baths were located. Mostly chicken near the old bloodied tree stump in one corner, but other creatures had died there as well. Small birds, rats, even part of a horse--he didn't need a complete skeleton, but it was nice to have one as the bones worked better together. They remembered, after all. Eshentobon laid his borrowed body in a corner; he'd be needing it later.

--Pain--

--The smoke, the smoke, he was going to suffocate, it burned his lungs--

--They burned his face first, forced his head in the brazier and he could feel his skin peel and blacken--

--Binding a mind to a force of undeath to learn what caused that lingering, yearning perpetuity and how it worked--

It was a magic so old it wasn't rightly a magic. Magic was defined by men so they could understand the way the world worked. This reached deeper than that. Get a fingernail, a locket of hair, a tooth, and one had a link, no matter how tenuous, to the one it'd come from. The bones were more than that. Even long dead as they were, they still remembered what they had been, and Eshentobon had to do was to awaken that remembrance and ride it.

One could say they knew in their bones.

Dirt scattered off tiny bones as they rose and assembled themselves into a small, ghoulish bird of indeterminate species. Blue fire flared in its eyes, and it flew off into the night.

#

"Here. Your coat." Lenka held it out to Saresan, and to Tyrus' mild surprise it'd been well-cleaned and even starched, although he wasn't sure the latter had been necessary. "Be grateful. I spent the good part of an hour getting the bloodstains out."

Saresan threw it over his back, and Tyrus thought it looked comfortable enough. "You managed to get the blood out, but there's still mud on the lapel?"

"Blood comes out. The mud we get up here doesn't. I should know; I've eaten many a pigeon and rabbit in my time." She looked at Saresan and Tyrus, then shrugged. "Birds taste better. I appreciate you buying me a drink from my family's own establishment, but you should really try the chicken broth while you're here. We have the best chickens around, cooked or raw."

"I ate a bird once," Saresan said happily. "Rogado wanted to try eating a pheasant he'd caught in his very first hunting trap but didn't know how to pluck and gut it properly, so he roasted the thing whole, feathers and all, and we--"

Lenka didn't seem to mind this story, and Tyrus supposed if she could stand Saresan, so could he. Still, he couldn't help but let his attention wander, and the common room looked mundane enough now. Had that man really been a figment of his imagination? If no one but you saw something, was it real enough to be considered a worry?

Something on the edge of his vision caught Tyrus' eye, but when he turned towards the offending window whatever it was that'd been there on the windowsill was gone. He did this several times, and each time whatever it was that was there reappeared, only to hide instantly the moment he looked directly at it.

He turned back and found Lenka staring at him.

"What's the matter?" she asked, just a hint of annoyance in her voice.

"I…well…this is probably going to sound stupid, but did you see a skeletal bird on the windowsill?"

"There's nothing there," Lenka replied. She turned back to Tyrus, a frown on her face. "Are you sure you weren't mistaken?"

"Of course there's nothing there now. It kept vanishing when I looked directly at it."

"You know, just now Tyrus mistook a perfectly nice gentleman for a walking skeleton. All right, so he was a little on the thin side, but he wasn't really that bony. I daresay if that chicken broth tastes as good as it smells, he'll be a little less thinner tonight. I say it's the nerves getting to old Tyrus, what with our recent adventure with you and all."

Lenka took a swig of strong-smelling brew from the mug in front of her and nodded. "I hate to agree with Saresan, but we don't really have tales of skeletons here. Things living at the bottom of mountain lakes, yes, earth people and dragons in the bones of the mountains, yes, and of course phoenixes, but not much in the way of the walking dead. Maybe it is just nerves. You'll be a little better after a lie-down." She wiped the foam from her lips. "And to think I'm the one giving you this advice when people were trying to kill me."

"And you're not worried?"

Lenka smirked. "It'll be a while before that bird can fly again. If it still can fly, that is." For a moment, Tyrus thought he saw a flash of fire in Lenka's eyes, proud and predatory--and then the human was back in control. "Go on. It's for your own good."

He didn't have to deal with this. He didn't have to deal with this one moment longer. Mumbling to himself as he grabbed his ledger and cut across the common room in large, purposeful strides, Tyrus climbed the stairs to the guest rooms and threw one last glance at Saresan and Lenka. They weren't even looking at him, perhaps secure in the knowledge that someone as unimaginative and dependable as him could take care of himself, or maybe they didn't care. He didn't care to think which one it might have been.

The--well, he couldn't but think of that one as a skeleton--had certainly passed through here; the savoury smell of chicken broth still lingered in the poorly-ventilated corridor. Try as he might, Tyrus couldn't help but wonder where he'd gone and after a cursory glance down both hallways sniffed the air. He couldn't be sure, but the smell seemed to be strongest outside one particular room, and the handle beckoned to him.

Well, Saresan's wrong about me having no sense of adventure. I'll show him.

He grasped the handle with both hands and turned slowly. Locked, as he'd expected. As repugnant as the idea was, maybe Saresan was right, maybe it was just nerves--

A glimmer of light came to Tyrus through the keyhole, and an idea formed in his mind, barging and butting its way through his other thoughts. Those were old lock mechanisms, weren't they? The sort that still dealt with tumblers and springs in a straight line instead of--

He bent, peered through the keyhole, and sucked in a breath.

Embers

Chapter 11

"You saw what?"

Tyrus lowered his voice. "That bird that attacked you. The huge one, with the tooth-tipped beak and the green-and-gold feathers. It was there in the middle of the room by the bed, drinking chicken broth out of a bowl."

"Drinking…chicken broth out of a bowl?" Lenka frowned. "Well, I suppose it could be done, although I'd find it quite frustrating. Are you sure you weren't mistaken?"

"It's hard to mistake a bird the size of a man and a wingspan twice as long for anything else," Tyrus protested. "Look, you were perfectly willing to entertain Saresan and his inane stories about how he did all sorts of stupid and improbable things--"

"That was because it didn't require anything of me besides listen to him. You're lucky he had to retire early."

Tyrus ignored her. "--But apparently something which you should be concerned about is out of the question. Look, I'm only trying to help. It's your life, and if you want to be that cavalier about it despite our efforts I'm not going to stop you. Well, actually, I'd try, but it wouldn't make much difference, would it?"

"Who am I to you, anyway?"

"Because it'd be the right thing to do?"

Lenka's features softened, and she mumbled something under her breath as she turned away from Tyrus. Perhaps it was his imagination, but he thought--no, it hadn't been his imagination. Her fingers had grown slightly more pointed.

At last, she turned back to him. "Pa and Ma always told me not to bother the guests; they beat it into me when I was a little girl. Still…" She stood, flexed her fingers and made for the staircase, Tyrus in tow. "The phoenix can't stand the idea of an enemy in her territory, and I'm not spending the whole of tonight having her scream into my head. Let's see what this is all about."

"Not to be getting ahead of myself, but if we do find something…"

Lenka paused on the first step and looked over her shoulder at him. "There's a master key that opens the door to every room." She sighed. "Inavael is a good place, whatever you may think of it. The regular travellers know Pa, and he's never had to evict a guest in over fifteen years. One way or another, he won't have to."

"Excuse me?"

Lenka showed her teeth. "If it's really that bitch, I'm going to shred her. No pets allowed in the rooms, and she's not really human right now, is she? The phoenix doesn't forget, and I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for her to forgive, either."

A chill ran down Tyrus' spine.

Taking the steps two at a time, Lenka bounded up the stairway and down the corridor along the guest rooms. "Which one?"

Tyrus pointed it out.

"Hmm." She leaned over and peered through the keyhole. "You're right. Good thing Pa never bothered to change the locks." Smiling, Lenka shrugged off her coat, fished out a key from one of its front pockets and left him holding it. "Get ready."

"Shouldn't we be keeping it down?"

"Oh, the phoenix wants her to know what's coming to her. Leave everything to me."

"I'm still not quite sure--" Tyrus began, but Lenka already had the key in the lock and had turned the handle. There was little left to do but to follow her into the room--keeping a safe distance, of course--and follow this to its bitter conclusion.

The enormous bird looked up at them, and spread its wings in a half-hearted effort to make itself look bigger than it already was. It alternated its gaze between Tyrus and Lenka, as if trying to decide which was the bigger threat. Now that he could see it clearly in the light, the bird would have been beautiful, perhaps almost as much as Lenka was, if not for its rather pathetic and downtrodden appearance.

Lenka took a step forward. It took a step back, albeit awkwardly. Odd, Tyrus thought, how its features seemed to be shifting slightly, as if it was trying to Change but couldn't for some reason.

"How did you know--" it began, and twisted its head. It was still strange, hearing a human voice coming from a beak. "It doesn't matter, does it?"

"You're right," Lenka replied, her voice strangely calm. "It doesn't matter. How dare you attack me in my territory." Her hair seemed to be growing, growing to cover her body and changing in the process. "How dare you!"

And then she changed.

One moment Lenka was there, the next she wasn't, the phoenix standing in the charred and torn remains of her clothing. A lesser enemy might have been cowed, but apparently this was nothing to the other bird, which stood there at the ready, eyeing Lenka's every movement.

Then she stepped forward and in one smooth, deliberate movement upended the bowl of chicken broth all over the floor.

The other bird screamed and lunged.

These were birds, Tyrus realised as he hastily retreated out into the corridor. They were creatures of the air, made to hunt while flying, not fight in enclosed spaces. That didn't stop them from trying to kill each other, though, and although it was no surprise, the other bird was clearly losing, retreating under Lenka's furious onslaught of burning talons. The guest rooms weren't very large; it seemed the fight would be over soon.

"Don't kill it!" Tyrus called out, but Lenka didn't seem to hear his words as he made to grab her opponent while dodging that sharp-tipped beak. "We won't get any answers if you kill it!"

Lenka ignored him and screamed, her wings half-spread, the feathers on her back and downy plumes erupting into fire of all colours, blue, violet and crimson, green, orange and gold. Summoning his courage, Tyrus approached her, but she tore the air just in front of his face with a swipe of her talons and he fell to the floorboards. That wasn't Lenka in there any more; it was the phoenix, and she was very, very angry.

"What is she to you?"

Tyrus looked down where the voice had come from. The skeletal crow he'd seen earlier at the window stood there on the floorboards, studying him with the exact same burning blue eyes he'd seen in the human skeleton that'd asked him for the menu.

It was so absurd, he didn't know whether to laugh like a madman or break down sobbing. "Birds," he muttered, more to himself than as a reply. "Crazy things."

"You are clearly confused, so I shall explain. You are not related to her. You have nothing of substance to gain from helping her. Any emotional connection you have for the phoenix, if any, is tenuous at best. What is she to you that you help her?"

Well, he'd answer. He'd answer honestly, because there was no chance he'd be believed. "Because--" Saresan's words came to his mind-- "it's the right thing to do." Even he himself only half-believed what he'd just said.

"Regrettable. I had hoped to harm as few bystanders as possible, and there is still time for you and your associate to reconsider. You have been warned, merchant. The next time we meet shall be our last."

And then there was just a pile of lifeless bones on the floor, with nothing remaining to suggest they'd ever moved. Tyrus rubbed his head, then looked up into Saresan's worried face.

"You all right?"

"Help me up." Saresan did so, and Tyrus dusted himself off. Every single door along the hallway had been thrown wide open, and now that he didn't have a bony crow to hold his attention he saw that heads peered out from each doorway, too afraid to even ask what was going on. Tyrus didn't blame them; he'd have felt the same way had he been in their position.

But he wasn't.

"Saresan, do you have your crossbow? We might need it."

"Got it right here," Saresan replied, and held it up. "Loaded, wound up and everything."

"Our feathered friend from two nights ago showed up here; turned out she was staying in one of the guest rooms. Lenka decided to pick a fight with her."

Comprehension dawned. "If she was staying here, then--"

"Yes. She's like Lenka."

"Is that why I smell smoke?"

Smoke? Tyrus sniffed the air, then chanced a look into the room where the fight was still going on. Both the rug and bed had been set ablaze; with Lenka as furious as she was, it was a small wonder the room hadn't turned into a conflagration already. Still, he hoped the fight would end soon, or the fire would only spread until it was uncontrollable.

Saresan raised his crossbow, but Tyrus gently pushed it down. "She's winning. The other bird never stood much of a chance; we shouldn't kill her." He turned to the rest of the guests. "Get out! They're not interested in you, but the fire doesn't care who it takes! Get out while you can!"

The guests didn't need telling twice; they rushed out of their rooms in a maddened stampede, a mess of boots, nightclothes and hastily-clutched valuables. It was all Saresan and Tyrus could do to press against the wall in order to avoid being swept away by the human tide.

"Wait till I tell Rogado about this," Saresan said, his face completely straight. "He'll never believe me."

A screech, the sound of wood splintering, and when Tyrus dared to look into the burning room there was a vaguely bird-shaped hole in the side of the room facing the courtyard. Remains of the wooden wall and window shutters lay strewn about the hole, and as he watched Lenka swirled once, twice, the colours she left in her wake twisting and blending--and the fires died, leaving blackened splinters and ash behind.

She strutted to the window and looked down disdainfully at the once green-and-gold bird, its feathers now stained with blood, dirt and mud as it limped towards the centre of the courtyard.

At last it changed, and when the light had faded the same middle-aged woman was there, struggling to her feet in the filth and dirt. Her muscles stood out against her blood-streaked skin, but even as she limped away from Lenka there was something proud about the woman, something that could never be taken away no matter how much dirt and blood were added.

Lenka fluttered down to the courtyard, her feathers ablaze. "You dared."

"It was for a good cause," the woman gasped. "I…I have no regrets."

"Then I will have none when I kill you."

There were people now, not just people who'd been in the guesthouse, but people streaming in from the streets out of sheer curiosity and ringing one side of the courtyard, although they kept a healthy distance from--Tyrus wasn't sure how much of Lenka was in the phoenix right now.

Who wouldn't want to see a big, burning bird just for its own sake? Well, he wouldn't, but that thought was rather pointless now, wasn't it?

The guesthouse owner came running up to Tyrus, still greasy from the kitchen. "The guests told me you were the first to raise the alarm. What's going on? What happened to my establishment? And why are you still up here? It's dangerous!"

"We have a better view from here," Saresan replied, and for once Tyrus was glad to let him speak while he studied the scene. Lenka was still down in the courtyard, advancing slowly on the woman, and Tyrus realised she was stretching it out, making her opponent suffer as much as possible.

Enough bird to lose the social niceties of humanity, but just enough human for that added touch of malice.

"Why?" the woman said, barely loud enough for Tyrus to hear her from where he stood. "Are you afraid? I don't know why that man keeps shielding you, but he was right. You'll never get any answers if you kill me, and you'll die not knowing what you are--"

Lenka screamed, and her gleaming, burning talons thrust forward, ready to rip flesh from bone. Instead of cutting through flesh first, her talons met bone, snapping rotting, dirt-covered bones like a child snapping sticks. Yet more and more of them came from all directions to join the grisly barrier that was forming between bird and woman, erupting from the soil of the courtyard and the cobblestones of the streets, from pig bins and unwashed dinner plates, from seemingly nowhere at all--a ghoulish mess held together by blue and purple fire.

It spoke, although it had no mouth to speak with.

"Run, Valise!"

Deprived of her quarry, Lenka screamed again and lashed out. More broken bone chips flew, and the crowd retreated a little further.

"Eshentobon…"

"I said run!"

Seeing her chance, the woman shimmered, changed and limped unsteadily into the air, her right wing bent at a clearly wrong angle.

Saresan's voice cut into Tyrus' thoughts, and he noticed that both Saresan and the guesthouse owner were standing to either side of him, still transfixed on the scene. "Shouldn't we be doing something?" he said. "Everyone's just staring and letting her get away!"

"Saresan," Tyrus replied, his voice trembling, "do you really think that at this point, anyone but Lenka can do anything about that damn--" he pointed at the wall of bones-- "thing? Do you think your crossbow can hurt it?"

"What about the bird?"

"She's out of range. Your bolt would probably fall and hit someone in that crowd, and I don't think even you could live with that. Saresan, I know it's not in you to wait and watch what happens, but I don't see what choice we have."

Below them, Lenka eyed her new foe, the lights in her feathers dancing. "Get…lost."

"Valise was not a evil or cruel person," the wall of bones replied, its voice perfectly calm and unfazed by Lenka's rage. "Nor did she lie; it was for a good cause. She attacked you only because I asked her to. I am the one you want."

"I…will…kill…you…" Each word that came from Lenka's beak sounded strained, as if she was fighting to get the words out--or perhaps, keep them from being spoken. She screeched, raising her wings, and a circle of golden fire erupted at her feet. "I will kill you!"

"Please…if you can, kill me. I want to die."

That stunned Lenka. She flapped and fluttered for the whole of two seconds before she tore into the bones and fire that held them together, tore and tore until there was nothing left but blackened bone chips and embers lying in a heap in the middle of the courtyard. It was terrifying and beautiful at the same time, and for the briefest of moments Tyrus thought he might just have understood why Saresan risked his neck living the way he did.

The embers glowed. Mist-like blue fire rose from the charred heap and said something to Lenka that Tyrus couldn't quite make out before it rose and dissipated into thin air, leaving her all alone on the baked, cooling earth. A glimmer, a flash, and Lenka was there kneeling on the cobblestones, very firmly and undeniably human.

She sobbed.

Embers

Chapter 12

Lenka felt for the phoenix, but her rage had abated and she was more than content to let the human sort out the situation the bird had gotten both of them into. The phoenix had always been there when she'd been human, tugging on her thoughts and emotions the way she tugged on the phoenix when she allowed it some more control. But what was it the other bird had said to her, just before she'd limped away?

"You're making a mistake," she'd said. "Even when the two of you are eventually one, the bird will only do what she will let you, or what she's agreed to do. You were trying to control her, tell her what she could and couldn't do--I can see it--and look at where it's brought you. It would be a pity if you were to destroy yourself without any good coming out of it."

Could it be true? She'd always tried to hold the phoenix in, tell her what to do. But to see what she could do when given free rein…she wasn't sure if she truly dared to let go.

There were people around her, Lenka knew, closing in now that everything was over. Their voices and silhouettes came to her through the dirt and tears on her face, whispering, pointing. Someone called for the watch, a voice she barely heard. She'd never really felt naked before, even when she'd been naked, but here and now with the phoenix resting and what must have been at least half the people of Inavael taking in the embers and ashes of the destruction the phoenix--no, it hadn't been the phoenix's fault, it was her fault as well--had caused…

She felt very, very small. Where was the phoenix and her pride? Her confidence? Her self-assuredness?

Had she come to rely on them too much?

And those words.

"I'm sorry," the spirit had said. "I really am. But there is no other way; you must die."

She shouldn't have cried. It wasn't in her, like her to have cried. She did so anyway.

A familiar voice rang out across the courtyard. "Lenka Pelakova!"

Lenka looked up, and did her best to push away the hair and tears from her eyes. "Stay away, Ma," she said, her voice cracked and broken. Sweat plastered her hair to her back. "Please…stay away. You saw what I did; I'm a monster."

"Don't be silly, girl. I'm your mother." With that, she grabbed Lenka by the arm and helped her to her feet. "What're the rest of you looking at?" she shouted at the crowd. "Show's over, unless you take pleasure in a young woman's misery!"

One by one, the crowd began to depart, and Lenka's mother tugged her across the courtyard and towards the guesthouse. "I'm not sure how I should tell you this, Lenka, but I'm not surprised."

"You knew?"

"Let's just say I had my suspicions; your mother isn't completely blind. One doesn't find a charred bed sheet half-buried in the herb garden without thinking about how it got there."

"Oh."

"Or the fact that you've been getting feather lice every so often for the last seven years."

"Oh." Lenka blinked, and when she focused her eyes again her mother was holding up a handkerchief to her face.

"Blow."

She did. "This is going to hurt Pa's business, isn't it?"

"Child, you do the most amazing things before the sun's up, and all you can think about is whether your father's business is going to suffer? Let's get you in, cleaned up and dressed, and maybe we'll see if we still have the time to talk about that. Goodness, you're reminding me of when you were a baby. Your father's not going to wait forever, you know. The guests have to be settled."

"The guests have to be settled. Right." Lenka reached for the phoenix again and the bird flapped and fluttered in her mind, rousing itself to shake off her recent exertions. Well, it would have to do. The crowd was mostly gone now, people she'd known all her life, but a few still lingered and although they turned away when she looked at them, Lenka knew they'd been staring at her.

Well, that was enough feeling sorry for herself. She might have been her greatest concern, but she wasn't the world's greatest concern, and at the very least she could feel the phoenix again. She wasn't alone. It was a lie, but as lies went it was a reasonably good one. Even she believed herself until she passed through the guesthouse's main door and took in the mess the fleeing guests had made of the common room. They'd been running from her. Her.

"Lenka--"

"Quiet, old man," her mother snapped. "She's got to be decent before she'll be in the mind to do any talking." Her mother dragged her up the stairs without another word, and both Tyrus and Saresan were waiting at the top landing. The latter even looked upset.

"Now," her mother began, "I don't know who the heck you think you are to my daughter, but--"

"Leave it, Ma. If it wasn't for them, I'd be dead."

"Look," Tyrus began, "we saw everything, and I'm sorry."

"No, you did nothing wrong." Lenka blew her nose noisily on the handkerchief, and the phoenix ruffled her feathers in disgust. "Those two were planning to kill me. I don't know why they'd want to do that, but if you hadn't dragged me up there I might very well have been dead before morning. Who knows what they were up to."

"They weren't after you," Tyrus replied. "They were after the phoenix."

Lenka sniffled and scrunched up her handkerchief. There. She…she was in control. No, they were in control. For now. "Is there even a difference? I am the phoenix. But you know what was the most terrifying thing about that bone creature? It apologised, Tyrus. It apologised and it sounded like it actually meant it. I…I can't get it out of my mind. Something like that shouldn't sound so…sad."

"That doesn't mean anything. I'm a merchant, and I should know. At least half the people who do the whole look-you-in-the-eye and give-you-a-firm-handshake sideshow are faking it. Whatever its reasons, it still tried to kill you."

"You're right." Feeling a tug on her arm from her mother, Lenka nodded. "I'll talk to the two of you downstairs after I've gotten cleaned up. My father will want to hear everything you have to say. You will come, won't you?"

"Of course."

#

Eshentobon liked wearing dragon bones. He'd been a no-name lab technician whose only even vaguely remarkable trait had been a fondness for salads and soups, and that was why those four had banked on him not being missed by anyone if he disappeared.

They'd been largely right.

But even after so long, something still lurked in the ancient bones, a fragment of the power and majesty of the creature that'd once inhabited them. Even now, riding the memories the bones had retained, he couldn't help but share in the echoes of strength they'd once held. At the very least, it made him feel marginally better about himself and his lot, which was more than could be said about most things.

He coughed.

"The smoke?" Valise said. She'd spent most of the morning bathing in a nearby mountain stream and preening her feathers into some semblance of order, and she now looked a lot better than when she'd fled from the phoenix. It would be a while, though, before her rugged coat of feathers would even came close to its former green-and-gold glory.

"I…the pain dulled after a few decades. There's nothing to worry about. I can hold on a little longer. Always a little longer."

Valise looked oddly at him, then went back to preening herself. When she was done, she settled in the sun on the rocks by the stream, and they shared a moment of silence.

"You didn't kill her," she said at last.

"I was hoping I wouldn't have to. Really, I was hoping so hard."

"You didn't even try. You just stood there while she took you to pieces."

"I thought that if she tore me apart like that, with all her energies…" Bones creaked and clattered as Eshentobon made his borrowed body stand. "I was wrong. It's sad, but as far as I can see the only way left to release those energies is to kill her."

"And…"

"And they'll merge with those that keep me here, and I won't exist any more. What remains of me will go back to being a natural force. There will probably be another phoenix or maybe a whole hidden tribe or village of them, if what you tell me of your clan applies to her as well, but there will not be another me." Blue fire flowed between joints as he stepped towards Valise and spread the skeletal remains of the dragon's wings. "Valise, I'm grateful for all you've done, but please…go home."

"What? After all I've done, you'd throw me away like--"

"You came to me looking for answers to the questions of life and death, answers that anyone could have given you. Instead, you did what no one else had ever considered doing--tried to free the so-called Tormented One. You've done more than anyone else has ever done for me and…well, I'm not so important you have to die for me, like you nearly did in that town."

"In Inavael, you mean."

"Inavael. Yes. Go back to your clan, Valise. They probably think you still out there looking for answers that don't exist; they'll be happy to have you back and alive. One way or another, this isn't going to be pleasant, and I'll bring the matter to its bitter end alone."

Valise didn't say anything, instead hopping onto one of the lower rocks so she could drink from the river. Eshentobon wondered how the water must have felt. Had it really been so long that he'd forgotten what it was like to drink cool, clear water? Had the fires taken even that from him? He tried to remember, tried, but couldn't conjure the memory. He was slipping, slowly but surely, and while Eshentobon couldn't tell the difference between one slip and another he was certain the day would come when he'd have forgotten he'd ever been human.

That terrified him more than anything else.

Now he wanted to die more than ever. No, he couldn't die. He wanted an ending.

"You're unhappy," Valise said.

"Why, does it show on the bones?"

Valise ruffled her feathers and laid down on her belly again. "There's more to it than that. Don't play the hero with me; I've raised more than one child and know when someone doesn't want to admit he needs help. I'm staying."

"Oh, I'm more than willing to admit I need help. I just don't want anyone to die because I was too willing to accept it."

More silence. Valise entered the shallows by the riverbank and bathed herself again. By the time she'd finished and was rousing on the rocks to dry herself, the sun had climbed a little higher in the sky.

"The phoenix," Eshentobon said. "She won't stay in Inavael for long. She knows we know where she lives."

"The phoenix has a name, you know."

"If I used her name, I might not have the will to kill her. Best to think of the animal half than the human."

"Weakling."

Bones clicked, and rock crumbled under Eshentobon's foreclaws. "I'm not weak. It's not just the smoke and fire. Every day…I'm forgetting what it was to be alive. What it meant to be human. And if I throw that away…I might as well not try to end myself. Do you understand?"

"I understand you're being very philosophical today," Valise replied as she preened herself once more. Just how much did a bird need to preen itself? "So, we move as well? She'll be on her guard now."

"I don't see what choice we have. She's the only phoenix we've found."

#

"You know, there was this time Rogado and I were watching this phoenix fight a huge wall of bones held together by some blue fire spirit, and the phoenix was really tearing in and giving it a good beating--oh, wait. That was with you, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was, Saresan. Honestly, I think you make up at least half of these stories." It was quite chilly outside now that the fires had died down, enough for the cold to seep through Tyrus' tunic and soles of his boots. How Saresan managed to survive in his nightshirt was a mystery to him. Of course, he didn't blame the guesthouse keeper for not wanting to light any fires, especially in the common room. Several of the guests had wanted to leave immediately, but the coaches wouldn't be leaving until the sun was up.

"Oh, I don't make up half of them," Saresan said happily. "Only about one in five."

Tyrus opened his mouth, but Lenka was already down the stairs and striding towards their table in a businesslike manner, her mother trailing behind her. With a quick nod to Tyrus and Saresan, she seated herself across from both of them.

"Do forgive my father, but he's trying to deal with the watch and the guests at the same time." She fidgeted uncomfortably. "You're leaving tomorrow?"

"I don't see why we should stay any longer," Tyrus replied. "We'll be collecting our cart from the smithy tomorrow, get the last of the wares we've arranged to buy, and be out of Inavael by late afternoon before heading towards the coast."

Lenka and her mother exchanged a slightly worried look, then the former nodded at the latter reassuringly. "I'll be fine, Ma. I am nineteen, after all. Let me do the talking." She turned to Tyrus. "Do you mind if I come with you?"

"I'm sure we can--mmph mmph mmmpppphhh--"

"Ignore dear old Saresan," Tyrus said, still keeping his hand over Saresan's mouth. "He speaks before he thinks. Me, I'd like to hear why you want to come along with a couple of no-name merchants."

"Because I don't think those things are going to stop at what happened last night. I'm going to be a danger to people if I stay here, and I'm not going to find anything on…them if I stay here. They say all the great academies and guildhalls are down by the coast."

"And how will you get into one of them?"

"I'll let the phoenix deal with that, if need be. Whatever it is…I can't stay in Inavael any more. Not until this is over. And since you already know who--what I am and helped me before and the fewer people who know of the phoenix the better, not that it really means much now."

Tyrus shrugged. "All right, you've made your point. What can you do for us? You're going to have to pull your own weight."

Saresan finally wrenched himself free of Tyrus' grasp. "You can't mean what you're saying, Tyrus! She needs our help, and you're still treating this like a business deal? You're--you're--"

"Practical. Like it or not, we aren't going to be able to help Lenka if we're penniless, and I don't think the phoenix is going to appreciate us plucking her feathers. If we're going to be running from a bone monster and a great big bird that turns into a woman and back, I damn well don't want to be poor in the bargain."

"He's right, Saresan," Lenka said with a small sigh. "Well, if it does come down to this, if you give me the right equipment I could fix your cart or cooling unit if it broke down on the way, maybe stop by a forge or something and do a little freelance repair work in some of the places we're going to be passing through, sharpen a dozen blades and fix a few engines for what it'll bring us. At the very least--" she thinned her lips-- "I can stop you from buying a half-broken cooler from someone named 'Honest Dave'."

A hint of a smile touched Tyrus' lips. "She's right, Saresan. Maybe I should dump you and take her on instead. You can read and write?"

"Not well, but enough to do Mr. Aug's ledger work."

"That's enough for me." Tyrus rubbed his hands for warmth, but Lenka didn't complain about his clammy skin when she took his hand. "I'll see where we can fit you on the cart. Hopefully it won't be in the cooler itself."

Embers

Chapter 13

She would miss it.

She would miss it all, the warmth that flowed from the never-ending coal fires, the satisfaction that came from seeing the latest batch of case-hardened nuts and bolts and secretly juggling them in her palms while they were still yellow-hot, the flames that reached up through the grates and grills to lick at her fingers. Even though she'd told Tyrus she'd do her best to help on the road, Lenka wasn't sure smith-mechanics in other places would be as nice as Mr. Aug was and let wandering tinkers use their tools, even for a cut of the takings. It would be letting someone violate your personal space.

But she had to leave. She couldn't bear to think of that bone spirit…thing near the furnaces and crucibles, all cold, blue fire and pointed bone. She'd settle matters, come back and learn enough under Mr. Aug to go off and set up shop somewhere where she wouldn't be competing with him. Maybe she could use this opportunity with the two merchants to scrape up some capital towards that end.

Easier said than done, of course. The first step was leaving, and she was already having trouble with that.

"I was looking for you, Lenka Pelakova."

Lenka whirled and there was Mr. Aug, his emotions hidden under the scars that adorned his face. Oddly enough, he'd donned a traditional leather blacksmith's apron, the sort that Lenka had only seen in the books Mr. Aug had lent her when she'd been starting out; the only safety clothing she'd known was all spelled fire-resistant fabric, not that she'd ever needed it.

"Sir," she muttered, not daring to meet Mr. Aug's eyes. "I was just clearing out my workbench."

"You're leaving."

Why did he have to drag this out? Didn't he understand the longer the farewells took, the harder it would be on them both? "Yes. I was thinking maybe I'd bring along the few tools I own." She pointed at the half-filled toolbox on the workbench. "Sir, I'd rather not drag this out any longer--"

Mr. Aug didn't seem to hear her. "Now I know why you wouldn't smile, even for the customers."

It was crushing her, crushing her so badly, and even the phoenix was startled from her rest and rose, ready to kill. Lenka hurriedly sent the phoenix soothing thoughts and the downy sensation on her skin died, although the phoenix remained poised, ready to spring if need be. "Sir, if you'd follow me?"

"Of course."

They passed through the smithy, past the machine shop and garage where customers' carts were being serviced, and to the blast furnaces. People scurried to get out of their way as they passed, and Lenka's heart clenched. No one ran away from Mr. Aug, no matter how horrendous he was to look at. At last, they reached the sand trays where ingots of raw pig iron were being cast, and approached one of the junior apprentices pouring molten iron into the moulds.

"Excuse me."

The apprentice took one look at her and Mr. Aug, and fled. Struggling to keep a straight face, Lenka stepped up and turned on the crucible spigot, letting molten iron flow through her fingers and into the mould.

She looked up at Mr. Aug's face, indecipherable as always. "Do I scare you?"

"No," and after a moment's thought, "because you are Lenka and I know you. You worked your way to becoming my head apprentice. Why should I be frightened?"

"It doesn't disturb you that I can do this? Or that I could jump into the furnace this moment and come out unharmed? It doesn't?"

Time at the furnaces had stopped. She could hear the other apprentices working as slowly as possible, trying to overhear their conversation. She didn't care. Slowly, Mr. Aug reached out with one gloved hand, turned off the spigot and coaxed the trembling apprentice back to his spot.

"No."

Tears sprang to Lenka's eyes. The phoenix was at the fore of her mind again, chiding her for her weakness and stupidity in showing such weakness in front of a dominant person, but Lenka wasn't just a bird. She was human, too.

"I told you one should smile more often," Mr. Aug said as he led her away from the furnaces with a firm hand. "You look much better when you smile. So you never liked talking to anyone because you were afraid they'd find out?"

Lenka nodded. "It got so lonely at times, but I was always worried the phoenix would make me…do things; it's happened before. Maybe she was right about trying to control the phoenix. I'm so tired of being lonely."

"Who was right?"

"Never mind."

They passed back through the garages and out into the adjoining courtyard, currently deserted save for a few carts under sheets and in various stages of repair. "Going on a trip with two men you met merely days before isn't quite going to cure your loneliness."

"I think I can trust them. And if it turns out I can't…" Lenka removed her hairnet, shook her head and felt her hair come loose and fall. "I can trust the phoenix to look out for herself. I'll have my answers, and then I'll come back."

"You can stay out a little longer." Mr. Aug fished about in an apron pocket, and pulled out a small envelope and a heavy pouch. "Your mother told me you were going down to the coast, and so here's this month's wages; you'll need them. And as for the letter, if you ever make it to the smith-machinists' central guildhouse in New Kerdia, show it to them and ask them to give you an education. I still have an account in good standing with them."

"I…I don't know how I can repay you."

"There is one thing you can do for me." Mr Aug hesitated. "I want to see you as a phoenix, this time from up close."

Even the phoenix agreed. Why not, when Mr. Aug had done so much for her? Trembling, Lenka pocketed the letter and pouch before she began unbuttoning her coat. "Turn around, sir. Count slowly to ten, and turn back then."

Mr Aug complied, and when he'd turned back Lenka's clothes were in a neat pile by the enormous, fiery bird that stood to one side, half hiding her head under her wing. Slowly, he stepped up, stroked the downy, reddish-gold feathers on Lenka's belly and closed his eyes.

"Years ago," he said, "I was a small-timer, working out of a simple coal forge, a pair of hand-pump bellows and a shoddy anvil. And sometimes, when I was alone during the cold nights with the metal ringing in my ears, I'd look into the fire and glimpse the shadow something beautiful, something formless, something that danced in the embers of my pitiful fire. I didn't know what it was, but although times were so bad I considered just giving up the trade altogether, I wanted to see the apparition so badly I'd fire up the coals just for the chance I'd see it.

"Now I know what it is, and it's more beautiful that I could ever have imagined."

Birds couldn't weep, but Lenka wept anyway.

#

"Help me load these onions into the cooler, Saresan," Tyrus said, a bulging sack already over his shoulder and halfway onto the cart bed. "And try not to squash any of them this time. The mining camps aren't too far out, but we want them as firm and fresh as possible."

"Mm'kay." For all that he looked thin and underfed, Saresan didn't seem to tire at all, hefting sack after sack of packed produce up to Tyrus' waiting arms and into the magical cooler on the back of their cart. He was like a spring; the more the sacks weighed him down, the more energy he seemed to possess. Half-hidden by the guesthouse's main doorway, Lenka looked on and wondered what would happen if Saresan were to bear the proverbial weight of the world on his shoulders. It would probably involve the rewriting of several natural laws of mass and energy.

"Having doubts about going off with two strange men, dear?"

"We've already spoken about this, Ma," Lenka replied without turning around. The courtyard was practically packed with coaches and carts; it seemed that people couldn't be in more of a hurry to leave. She didn't blame the guests; if she'd witnessed two enormous birds trying to kill each other, she'd have wanted to do the same. "I'll only be a danger to everyone if I stay. Besides, if a big fiery bird can't take care of herself, I'm not sure anyone can." She fidgeted, feeling for the reassuring weight of her toolbox in her coat. It wasn't large or comprehensive, but it'd probably let her function in her role as a travelling tinker. "Where's Da? I don't see him anywhere."

"The last two days have been hard on him," her mother replied. "He was going to say goodbye, but he fell asleep after finally coming to an agreement with the masons on how much the repairs were going to cost, and I didn't have the heart to wake him up."

Lenka turned her eyes to the ground. "Maybe it's better that way."

"Maybe. Your Da was never very good at goodbyes, even when he was young and courting me."

"Ma…"

"What is it, dear?"

"I really don't understand it. Why is it that you and Da happen to be perfectly ordinary people, while I'm…what I am? I'm not a foundling or adopted, am I?"

"I've told you already, Lenka. No."

"Mysterious happenings going on when I was born? Bright stars in the sky? Red comets? Unknown apparitions haunting the birthing bed? Geese flying backwards? Rains of frogs or bedsteads? Anything at all?"

A sigh. "No, Lenka. I couldn't really see what was going on, but the midwife told me there was quite a bit of blood and my womb was probably ruined by your birth, but that's it. We were travelling back from your grandfather's place at the time and your father wanted the coachman to stop for me to have you, but we had to be clear of that smoking mountain. That's probably what made the birth so difficult--all that moving around."

"Then why?"

"Isn't that what you're travelling with those men for? To find the answers to your questions? Why would you need to go off if you already knew them?"

Lenka's cheeks burned, and the phoenix laughed. "Of course, Ma. You're right."

Lenka's mother ran her fingers through her daughter's hair, as if to comb out tangles that didn't exist. "I don't know about you, but my ma told me about those who, out of sheer circumstance, were born with…powers. She never liked those stories; always said those people never worked to be able to do all the special things they did, and hence didn't deserve anything."

"And?"

"And I wouldn't put a shred of belief in them. We'd get nowhere if we went around believing stories just because they came from the mouth of someone who didn't even have the wits to wipe her mouth after she'd finished eating. Old storytellers having the keys to the past only happen in stories. No, whatever it is you need to find, you'll find by the coast. Maybe you'll take Mr. Aug's advice and stay down there for a few years."

Lenka looked away from her mother and out at the courtyard. Tyrus and Saresan had finished loading up their cart, and were waving at her to come. "I'll return someday. I promise."

"Of course you will, dear."

#

The garuda soared, her green-and-gold feathers glinting in the cloudless sky. Perhaps not as brightly as they might have done a week ago, and her wing still felt a bit stiff despite whatever strange, cold magic Eshentobon had worked to help patch it together. Once one had gotten the hang of bones, he'd explained, sinews and muscle were easy by comparison, especially those that were still living. She didn't understand much of what he'd said, and honestly didn't want to know.

But it had let her stay aloft, and she was much more comfortable up here than down by the thickly wooded mountain stream. Trees irked her--the phoenix looked like the kind who would have liked woodlands, what with her long tail and short, rounded wings, but the garuda hated them. Most of her people did, too.

Still, she had to eat, and that meant she had to hunt. Eshentobon could live on his bitterness alone, but she couldn't. She had to have meat, and fresh, bloody meat at that. Meat which reminded her of her recently punctured wing…

Frustration welled up in the garuda, and she circled aimlessly in the sky while the human-thoughts sorted themselves out with the bird-thoughts. Yes, she'd thought to kill the phoenix with a simple dive and snap of the neck--simple, efficient and painless, the way Eshentobon would have wanted it. Unfortunately, that'd led to her underestimating her quarry, and she'd paid for it.

Besides, the phoenix hadn't shown her anything in the way of mercy. No, she'd been as cruel as she was beautiful, and had wanted her to suffer as much as possible. The next time they met, she would see how the phoenix's fire matched up against winds and lightning.

Poor girl. The more she struggled against the phoenix, the closer she came to destroying herself.

But why did she care, really?

Why did she care?

Far below her, a pigeon fluttered. It was barely a mouthful or two to the garuda, but she needed to vent her pent-up aggression on something, anything, and she dove, hitting the hapless pigeon straight on.

Blood smeared the garuda's feathers and talons, and the half of the carcass that wasn't in her talons spiralled down to the ground. She'd land, Change back and cook whatever remaining edible meat she could find--the human would find the meal far more filling than the bird--and after that, see what could be done.

But first…

Deep, heavy clouds were rolling in over the horizon from the coast. They promised rain. Heavy rain.

The garuda's feathers tingled all the way into her flesh, and she opened her beak and screamed to welcome the storm.

Embers

Chapter 14

A cart rattled down a bumpy mountain road.

Contrary to all expectations, Tyrus found that having a phoenix perched on the back of one's cart wasn't so bad. He'd worried about the engine being overstressed but Lenka the phoenix didn't seem to weigh anything at all, she kept the cold away, and she lit the road at night better than a lantern hanging from the cart's lantern-hook would have. That, Tyrus thought, was reason enough for her to linger a little longer, even if it meant watching her preen all day long.

"We're nearing one of the mining camps," he said. "I know it's night, but you might want to go back to being a woman again soon before people start asking inconvenient questions."

Lenka twisted her head upside down--she'd done that the first time they'd met, hadn't she?--chirruped, and went back to preening her tail feathers. Maybe she didn't think they were close enough, or maybe she just didn't care. Tyrus couldn't tell; Lenka's hooked beak and beady, black eyes were harder to read than a salt miner's handshake.

"Ooh, I've got an interesting story about mining camps," Saresan said between bites of small, sour apple. "There was this one time Rogado and I stopped by a mining camp, they were digging for gold or tin or something, and there was this shaft that no one could quite remember what it'd been sunk down for, so I got this rope and Rogado went down it looking for all sorts of interesting stuff, but when he didn't jerk it like he said to pull him up I figured something was wrong--"

"Thank you for your very enlightening discourse, Saresan," Tyrus said, and tightened his grip on the cart's steering wheel ever so slightly. "You're not worried about those two…things finding you?"

"I'm not worried about them finding me," Lenka replied. "We'll meet them again; they struck me as the kind to not give up just because I nearly tore them to death. Well, actually not, that second one, the bone creature…"

The cart continued down the mountain road, throwing the occasional pebble out of its way. The trees that lined both sides of the road were mostly-pines, but here and there were a few broad-leaved specimens, their green-gold leaves turning even more so by the light of Lenka's feathers.

"I've already told you; I wouldn't think too hard about it if I were you," Tyrus said. "Being a merchant has taught me not to give people the benefit of the doubt."

Lenka fluttered and sent a shower of embers trailing in the wake of the cart. "Maybe. But it'd be nice if we had something we could use--"

"Like this?" Saresan fished about in a pants pocket and pulled out something stiff, green, and tinted with gold. Lenka spread her wings and leapt, knocking Saresan off the cart and onto the dusty ground. Before Tyrus could stop the cart or even speak, she'd Saresan and the broken half of a feather pinned under her talons, her beak dangerously close to his face.

She screeched.

"You--you--that feather--how dare--no, she's not here, she's not here, she's not here, I don't have to kill anything--" a gurgling noise erupted from Lenka's throat, and she staggered off Saresan, her feathers wild, all the work of her preening undone. "Hurry, Saresan, put it away before I--I--"

"Miss?"

By now, Tyrus had stopped the cart a little way ahead and rushed over to Saresan, keeping an eye on the tottering and flapping Lenka. Bits of glowing, downy fluff fell to the ground from under her wings and belly, and she appeared to be struggling with something.

"You all right there?"

"I'm fine," Saresan said, and dusted his pants as he got off the ground and picked up the feather, putting it back into his pocket. "Winded, but fine." He looked at Lenka, a worried expression on his face. "I can't say the same for her, though. Once, there was--"

"This isn't the time for stories, Saresan. We've got to do something. Sooner or later she'll get tired of stripping the bark off that tree and go after us."

"You think so? You really think so?" Saresan folded his arms, and for the first time Tyrus could remember, Saresan actually looked offended. "Did you take leave of your senses or something, to have said such a thing? I don't know about you, but after all we've done, I think that's just cruel."

Perhaps Saresan had a point, Tyrus thought. Already, Lenka's twitching was abating, although she still had a certain jerkiness in her gait, and her wingtips and tail were trailing on the ground. Tyrus was quite sure phoenixes weren't supposed to try and walk like humans did. Maybe they weren't even made for walking very far.

"Saresan, you're fine, aren't you?" Lenka said. Her voice was hoarse and cracked, as if it might burst into a scream at any moment. "Please, never do something like that again. This…this is the sort of thing I'd have done when I was thirteen."

"Mm'kay." Saresan said, a smile on his face as if he'd completely forgotten that Lenka had attacked him moments ago. "I'll remember that."

Lenka turned away from both men so that she only showed them her side, and shivered. A breeze had picked up from the direction of the peaks, bringing with it memories of cold fire. "That's what I don't understand," she said. "That bird-woman said I was killing myself by trying to control the phoenix, yet this is the first thing that happens when I don't do my best to keep her in check." She cocked her head in Tyrus' direction. "Save the trouble of getting a perch for me on the cart; I think I'll spend a little more time as a human from now on. I just don't know what to do."

Tyrus shrugged. "You could fly. Now's as good a time as any other, and it'll give us both a bit of breathing space. Besides, anyone living around these parts'll be grateful for the show."

"And you're not going to try and make any more distance tonight? What about the cost of time lost?"

"Now you're just looking for an excuse to punish yourself. We'd have to stop sooner or later, and frankly, I don't think any one of us is up to navigating these roads right now. You go fly, and we'll break out the mess tins and stove and cook up some soup. Maybe we'll leave some for you when you return."

"But…"

Tyrus waved a hand at her. "Go on. You said you'd die if you didn't fly, right?"

Lenka bobbed her head at the both of them, then took wing through the trees and into the sky, her flames leaving a dull red trail behind her as she soared into the starry sky.

"Come on," Tyrus said, punching Saresan lightly on the shoulder. "Let's get back to the cart."

They spent the night in silence, breaking out one of the sacks of onions to make soup. It turned out watery and largely tasteless despite the salt and dried vegetables Saresan had added, but it was better than being forced to eat the emergency stash of hardtack and jerky Tyrus kept in the back of the cart. Tyrus kept watch first, staying well in the small circle of light from the cart's lantern.

Every now and then Lenka would scream in the sky, loud enough for Saresan to stir in his sleep, and each time Tyrus pressed a little closer to the fire until he felt safer. Hours passed, and Tyrus woke Saresan to keep watch while he laid back on the cart bed and tried to get some rest himself.

When he awoke at dawn, there was an odd weight against his side that hadn't been there the night before. Lenka lay against the intercooler, still asleep. Huddled in her coat, perhaps, with her arms folded tightly about herself and hair slightly unkempt, but still very much there.

So he'd been worrying for nothing, after all.

#

Lenka looked around her with interest. She'd heard of the mining camps where all the ores that went into Mr. Aug's blast furnaces had come from and had seen them from the air, small pinpricks of light amongst the trees and rocky scrub, but she'd never really had the reason to go to one--the miners were more than happy to bring their wares to Mr. Aug.

"I don't suppose you'll mind staying with the cart, miss?" Saresan said as he opened the intercooler's lid, streams of mist flowing from the open chest. "Tyrus and I used to take turns doing it, but two are better than one at making deals. Peer pressure, so he says, and I'm sure we can send people down to you for work--"

Lenka held out a hand palm-out towards Saresan. "Enough."

"Well, if you say so, miss. Don't suppose you'd mind helping us unload the sacks?"

She looked askance at the ground. "Saresan, you really don't mind that I went and--"

"If you listen to Tyrus say it, I don't mind anything. I do mind the onions, though--they're not going to be lifting themselves out of the intercooler."

It was work, the kind that reminded her or her first days in the smithy hauling crates and coal, and it took her mind off what she'd done. By the time Saresan had left in the direction of the wooden shacks that were presumably the miners' houses, her shoulders were aching slightly. Too many hours at the workbench doing fine work, Mr. Aug would have said.

But the mining camp looked like a reasonable place to live in considering the means the people had, and Lenka walked a little distance away from the cart to get a closer look. A generator stood humming away in the middle of the camp, ringed by wooden shacks, and carts loaded with ore lay under tarpaulins, ready to be shipped out. A water purifier stood by the well, filaments connecting it to the generator, and although most of the people were men, Lenka spotted the occasional woman or boy, as dirt-smeared as everyone else was.

Safe and smug in the back of her mind, the phoenix made a rude gesture at those low life forms, clumsy and ugly in their wretchedness. What was worse was that Lenka found herself half-agreeing with the phoenix, until she realised what was going through her mind. These people didn't have lives as good as those who could afford to live near Inavael, but they were doing their best.

The phoenix clicked her beak and raked her talons against the insides of Lenka's head at that thought, making her wince.

"Miss?"

Lenka turned, missed her next step and something crunched under her boot. Upon lifting it, a dirty chicken bone lay in the mud, snapped cleanly in two under her weight.

"Are you all right, miss? You looked pale there for a moment."

"I…" Lenka thumped her chest and coughed. "I almost slipped over there. That's all." She turned and eyed the man who'd come up to her, covered from head to toe in a fine coating of gritty dust. "Can I help you?"

"Well, yes. You see, it was some time ago that I was cooking some porridge, and…"

A sigh. She really didn't have time for niceties. "You have a hole in your pot and want me to fix it."

"Those two merchants said a tinker was travelling with them," the man mumbled. "I'd do it myself, but…"

"Oh, give it here; let's not waste time. It's quite simple, really." Without waiting for the man's reply, Lenka strode forward and pulled the offending pot from his hands, then sat down cross-legged opened her toolbox and began work. Perhaps, Lenka mused as she heated the solder to putty between her fingers, she'd need to pick up some extra solder and tinplate if she was going to be doing this often, but Tyrus could probably work out a better deal for them than she could.

"There," she muttered after fifteen minutes. "I won't lie and say it's as good as new, but it'll hold so long as you don't do anything stupid with it."

"Thank you."

"You can thank me by paying." She quoted a price Mr. Aug would have found reasonable. "I'm sure that's within your means."

When Tyrus and Saresan returned some time later, there was a long line of people waiting by the cart. As they approached Lenka, she acknowledged them with a nod and gave them a small, crooked smile.

"Make a new set of entries in your ledger, Tyrus," she said. "Why don't you call them 'Lenka's business takings.'"

Embers

Chapter 15

Eshentobon stared at Valise, his borrowed body completely still. After a few moments, Valise looked up from the freshly-killed mountain goat she'd been pecking at, matched his gaze and with slow deliberation coughed up a small, fist-sized pellet of matted fur and bones.

"She what?" he said when he finally found his voice again. "I know you wouldn't lie to me, but you'll excuse me if I find this quite hard to believe."

"You're excused. She flew," Valise replied. "Not just flew, but displayed all her colours in the night sky and screamed loud enough to wake the dead, excuse the pun. Anyone in the general vicinity of these mountains could have looked up and seen her in all her bloody flaming glory. I'll bet her little display was visible all the way down by the coast."

Eshentobon's voice sank to a low growl to match the dragon bones he wore. "The phoenix's mocking us. She's clearly not afraid of us knowing where she is. The pride of it all. The sheer arrogance."

"Or maybe she's just tearing herself apart. Every now and then, there'd be a bloody eyass who treated his or her bird wrong. They'd start out like that, and usually ended up taking wing and disappearing around half a year or so afterwards. Sometimes, we'd find their remains. Sometimes not." She roused herself and carefully set both feet down on the icy ground. "Quite tragic, when you really think about it. By the way, do you know that your average large eagle can crush a man's skull as easily as, say, a man could crush an egg in his hand?"

"You're not very good at subtly changing the subject are you, Valise?"

"No." She tore off another strip of flesh from the fresh carcass with her beak, tossed her head back and swallowed. "But like it or not, it's a possibility that can't be discounted. You know, there was a time when young people didn't believe that they were invulnerable."

"And now they have the luxury of choosing to feel that way."

"Thanks to your efforts, mostly."

"Yes. Thanks to my efforts. Not that much of my head was involved, or at least, the way I'd have liked it to be." Eshentobon settled on the frost-slick stone, his body's claws scratching at the veneer of ice that covered everything so high up. It was cold, he knew. It was supposed to be cold, cold enough that Valise had fluffed up the downy underneath of her feathers against it, cold enough that she'd been pecking at the carcass all morning and had yet to see a single fly.

The fires still burned.

The mountain vista that stretched before them was beautiful, or at least, Eshentobon knew it was beautiful. Valise adored such places, or at least the snowy peaks and the scrub-covered slopes that ringed them, low plants, lichens and mosses, far too cold for even mountain pines to grow. She liked them, flat, open spaces as much as she liked open, cloudless skies. Quite the opposite of the phoenix, actually. That one preferred her woods, which he supposed were equally impressive in their own way.

But he couldn't quite remember why such a sight was supposed to be breathtaking. He must have experienced these sensations at some point before all this had started, not just because he knew it was that way, but also because of the dim memories that were coming back to him now. Once, perhaps on a fieldwork assignment or something, he'd stood on the lip of a waterfall and peered into the rainbow beneath, and back then he'd felt…

…Something…

Eshentobon grunted. It wasn't going to do him any good if he brooded on these matters. At best, it was hopeful, wasted thinking, dreaming of things he couldn't have any more. At worst, it would drive him closer to the madness he'd struggled to stave off for so long.

He turned to Valise. "Not that I'm complaining, but it seems to me that every time I see you, you're eating."

"Flying and healing is hard work. I have to keep my strength up." Valise worried the carcass half-heartedly, then set it aside with more than a little reluctance and cleaned her bloodied beak on the snow, staining it rust-red. "You had something else on your mind?"

"If I didn't hear you wrongly just now…the phoenix might kill herself?"

"Not so much in the way you might think, as in someone slitting their wrists or taking poison, but more of the bird making its point known to her. It can't be controlled long without…repercussions. If she's anything like those of my clan, she'll have to learn to deal with it until they gradually merge, upon which it won't really matter anymore."

"And if she doesn't?"

"Well, as I told her, she gets torn apart from within. Not a pretty sight. Might sound a little stupid to you, but you'd better start praying to whatever gods you used to worship back then that the phoenix stays healthy until we catch up to her."

"I stopped believing in gods long ago." The sun hung in the sky, steadily working its way to noon, and Eshentobon directed the dragon's skull and gazed out at the view from the mountaintop once more, a pathetic attempt to regain something he'd lost. "To look at the world the way it is now, I've given it everything I have. Is it so much to ask for a little in return?"

A chill wind blew down from the mountaintop, and Valise shook snow off her feathers. "Apparently, that answer to that question is 'yes'."

#

These people were ugly, and to add insult to injury, disgusting. She'd never let her feathers or even her hair get so…so…wild. Well-kept feathers meant easy flying and movement; perhaps that also explained why these people seemed to plod everywhere they went, their dirty feathers weighing them down. Perhaps it meant they were sick as well, if they didn't preen, and she didn't want to catch anything from such people--

By now, Lenka was finding it easier to let the phoenix rail away while she worked at the requests the miners were bringing her. Some ranged from the mundane such as pots and pans to the more odd; a team of four men had lugged a motor array all the way to her cart to take a look at it. She'd opened it up with her screwdriver and wrench, taken one look at dirt matted between the sliding arrays and declared it too far gone to be saved.

When were they going to leave? She couldn't stand another moment of this place, and the sharp-tipped tree trunks the humans ringed their settlement with only saddened her. She supposed it was a reasonable attempt at building a big nest of sorts, if only they weren't saddled with those fleshy, clumsy talons.

Why was she thinking this way? Had those two done something to her? The phoenix had never been a nice--well, Lenka supposed she could call her a person, but she'd never been this nasty, spiteful or vain. Maybe…maybe it was just everything that'd happened in the past week piling up on her, and she hadn't the strength to hold it back--

She pushed harder on the phoenix, letting her concentration on the pewter mug she was working on slip for just a moment. When she looked back, the mug's lip had bent a little further under her fingers than she'd expected.

"Watch it," the mug's owner, a woman with muscle-bound arms said, a scowl on her face. "That there thing's valuable to me. My grandmother got it as a wedding gift."

"I--I'm sorry," Lenka said, and hurriedly twisted the hot metal back into place like a child moulding clay. Thankfully it wasn't too much of a slip up. Too hot, and the metal would probably need to be cold worked anew. "You can pay two coppers less than what we agreed on."

Why was she apologising? She needed no apologies, and would give none! Especially not to someone who was scarcely as beautiful, as elegant, as--

Why was this happening to her now, when she'd held the phoenix in check for over six years?

Unaware of what was going inside Lenka, the woman scowled and but nodded. "I'm not sure which one I trust more, the tinkers of old who worked with firepots, hammers and shears, or the ones these days who work with little more than their fingers and magic. At least one doesn't need to understand geometry and complex fractions to know how a firepot works."

Lenka sucked in a breath through her teeth and bent her attention to the deformed mug. It seemed to take forever, but at last she had work she was reasonably certain Mr. Aug would have approved of. "There you go," she said, handing back the mug to the woman with one hand and collecting her pay with the other. "As for everyone else, I'm sorry. I…I'm tired out. Maybe if I'm staying another day…" Her insides twisted, and even the phoenix was startled at that, flapping and fluttering even as Lenka sought to calm her.

"Miss? You all right?"

Lenka looked up into Saresan's face, and gripped the lanky man's arms so tightly he cried out. "We're got to get out of here. I mean, somewhere private, where…where I can…"

"Whoa, miss. Don't you think that's a little too fast?"

"Saresan." Her hands twisted inside her gloves, trying to become wingtips. "Help. Now. Otherwise bad things will happen. I don't know why, but they're going to happen anyway."

"I--" Saresan glanced at the line of people departing from their cart, and nodded before he took Lenka by the hand. "All right, miss. Tyrus should be here in a minute, so there'll be someone to watch the cart. Let's go."

They were barely out of the gates and into the full glare of the evening when the first feathers erupted from Lenka's skin and her voice began to change. "Hurry," she groaned. "Get me out of here. I can't hold it back for long."

"Miss, I don't think we're far enough to be safe--"

"Turn!"

He did.

Streams of bronze and copper speckled with silver flowed from her pockets as she threw off her coat and pants, and she'd barely enough time to undress before the Change came, fire pouring through her veins.

The glow faded, and Lenka cheeped and chirped distressfully in a circle of strewn clothes and coins, even as the phoenix scolded her for showing weakness in front of a human. She should have been proud of what she was, had the overwhelming sensation that that should have been the case, but--

--For a moment there, she'd been the phoenix and the phoenix her. She hadn't been riding the phoenix as she usually had, but rather been her for those few moments before the world had righted itself--

There had been nothing to push or pull on, nothing to gain some semblance of control with. She'd been trying to control the phoenix too much, or so that bird-woman had said, but how was one not to rein in someone who was as vain, conceited and cruel as she was beautiful, and keep her from hurting others?

Did that mean she would have to live like a hermit? Turn into a mad old woman like Missus Toryll, only sought out when someone wanted something of her?

Lenka was tired of being alone. It was so…lonely.

Or would it better to give herself over and lose her mind to the whims of a psychotic bird?

"Why?" Lenka cried, but it came out of her beak as a shrill, rasping screech. "Why is this happening to me?"

#

Tyrus didn't mind spending the night by the mining camp. The people here had fresh water and the means to heat it, and they'd made enough money off the onions to justify a hot bath and more than enough leftover water to wash their clothes in, Lenka's included.

"Seyton Harl is the greatest man ever," Saresan said while up to his elbows in the large washtub they'd borrowed from one of the miners. They didn't have any soap with them, but it was better than nothing. "I haven't heard of a better trader than him. But there was this time Rogado and I were out in the Forelands, and we were stuck out in the open during a gale and our last match had broken. So he got the idea that we should find some flint and strike it with our knives to make sparks like Sayton Harl and the other merchants used to do, only the rocks he found weren't flint, they were--"

Tyrus ignored him and pulled out his ledger and a stub of pencil. The warm water had been pleasant against his skin, and he wasn't about to let Saresan spoil his mood right now.

"--And it turned out the caravan had come for us because they'd seen the charred crater smack dab in the middle where our campfire was supposed to have been. Rogado told them we got hit by lightning." He looked up from the washtub. "Hey, Tyrus, you aren't listening, but you didn't tell me to stop, either."

Tyrus waved a hand in Saresan's general direction. "No offence there. I was just trying to figure out how much Lenka brought us today. She's surprisingly efficient."

"Hey now, that's not nice."

Tyrus frowned, genuinely puzzled. "What's not nice?"

"How you've been treating Lenka like an investment. People aren't supposed to be treated that way, y'know; they're more than numbers to be tallied on your ledger. Do you think of me as an investment, too?"

"Now look here. I haven't--"

"I know, but when I told you what'd happened to her at sundown you looked the way you always do when you're considering what I'm telling you. Like--like the way you did when I suggested we bring all that chocolate up here."

"I wasn't thinking of that. I was thinking of how we might best cope with the…problems Lenka is going to pose to us due to what she is. There's going to be danger before all of this is over, a lot of it, and it can't hurt to plan ahead, can it?" Tyrus stared into Saresan's sullen face. "You know how in all fairy-tales there's a bloody happy ending? Well, there won't be one for us if we don't live to see it."

"Hrm." Saresan stared into the washtub for a few seconds, then smiled and shrugged before fishing out a soggy mass of clothes and emptying the wash water some distance away from their small camp.

Tyrus took this as his cue to continue. "Look. We've worked together for over a year, and while we've disagreed on some matters, we've mostly gotten what we want out of this partnership. Let's not allow someone new to get between the two of us, all right?"

"Y'know, I've never washed a lady's undergarments before," Saresan said, any trace of his previous train of thought gone. "I mean, when I was a kid, I always wondered how they felt and if they were any different from what we men wore, as in the texture, but my mom chased me away from the washtub the one or two times I tried to find out and gave me a smacking--"

Tyrus sighed and turned back to his ledger, adding up Lenka's takings for the day and putting them together with what they'd made from the onions. Saresan had made sense--Tyrus was even inclined to agree with him, that perhaps his actions could have been interpreted that way--but those brief flashes of lucidity were altogether painfully short.

Then again, what had he expected from someone who thought putting unripe, sour apples anywhere near his mouth was a good idea?

Embers

Chapter 16

"Had a fun time?"

Lenka looked at Tyrus askance, then buttoned up her coat a little tighter than was necessary before she climbed into the cart. She seemed to be doing that a lot; Tyrus couldn't decide whether it was the phoenix expressing itself through her subconsciously or just a personal quirk. "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"I tried following the bird-woman's advice and didn't even bother riding the phoenix's mind while she flew. I…well, slept and let the phoenix do as she wished. At the very least, it was nice not to have to try and keep her in check for once."

"You took the advice of someone who was trying to kill you?"

Lenka looked away and pretended to be engrossed in smoothing out the tangles in her hair. "It's not as if you or Saresan have a better suggestion at hand, do you? Besides, the phoenix didn't set whole villages or huge swathes of woodland on fire, did she?" She looked a little worried. "Or did I?"

"You didn't, or at least I didn't see any raging fires on the horizon. No, I don't think even the phoenix is as thoughtless as that."

"It's hard to tell. The things she tells me sometimes--"

Tyrus gave her an encouraging smile. "Well, you're back and that's what matters. I got the note you left in the cart; yes, I think I do know where to get some more tinplate and solder once we're out of the Terrano. And before I forget…" he dipped into his pockets and drew out a small, heavy pouch. "Saresan was kind enough to do the washing-up yesterday. I made sure he didn't wash your money as well."

Lenka eyed him carefully. "Aren't you going to demand a share or cut or commission or something?"

"Sort of." Tyrus shrugged. "You'll be expected to chip in if we do have a big purchase to make, or if we're going to take a big risk; it's only polite, since you'll be benefiting from what we do make. Still, I suppose you have more of a head for money than Saresan and you'll be able to watch your own finances and not do stupid things like buy something just because it came from somewhere far away. My ledger's filling up fast enough as it is; I don't want to have to buy another one so soon."

Lenka said nothing for a little while as she turned the coin-pouch over and over in her hands. At last, she nodded, pocketed it and climbed aboard the cart, taking up the spot by the intercooler she'd claimed as her own. Tyrus allowed himself a glance at her before he settled himself by Saresan; she looked a little scared, and he could guess why. There wasn't much he could do about it, though.

"So, where're we setting sail for, cap'n?" Saresan said, a big grin on his face.

"Down. That should be easy enough for you. Not up, not around, not sideways, but down. Down to the foothills, and maybe we'll stop at Alveona on the way, see whether we can push off any of those 'genuine authentic mountain hats' you insisted on getting."

"Hey, they look neat," Saresan replied, and started the motor. It hummed faintly, there was a slightly acrid smell of magic being worked, and the cart pushed off along the mountain road, wheels creaking. At the very least, Tyrus supposed, the road wasn't as bumpy and rocky as it'd been higher up. Perhaps one day someone would invent a better wheel that granted poor sods like him a smoother ride. Heck, maybe he'd figure it out himself.

"You all right back there?" he called out to Lenka.

"Alveona's quite a big place, isn't it? I heard about it from Mr Aug and the people who passed through, but never had reason to visit the place. Like everywhere else, really."

"Well, it's about twice to thrice as big as Inavael is, if that's any help to you."

"It isn't. I--"

"You're worried about losing control over when and how you Change, aren't you? Saresan was quite descriptive about what happened."

Lenka's eyes flicked this way and that, and she licked her lips nervously before giving Tyrus a nod. "There'll be people around, but it's not the sheer amount of people that concerns me; the phoenix thinks of people as being well, lower than she is. What I'm worried about is suddenly losing control in the middle of a crowded marketplace and--and doing something I'll regret later on, or attracting unwanted attention. The fewer people around, the less trouble the phoenix can potentially cause and the fewer people around to see me mess up."

"Well, if it's any comfort, those two probably won't attack you in the middle of a large city."

Lenka's expression hardened, and she turned away from him and stared at the road trailing from under the cart, her arms wrapped around her knees and hair swaying with the cart's rocking motion as it trundled on its way. Realising his mistake, Tyrus shut his mouth and turned his attention back to the road; knowing her, an apology wouldn't do any good now.

It hadn't been that long since he'd been Lenka's age, had he?

#

The phoenix slept.

Lenka felt the phoenix in the back of her mind, a warm bundle of fire and feathers nestled on her belly, clearly tired out from whatever she'd been doing last night. Maybe she'd been bringing spring to the land like some of the old stories had suggested phoenixes were supposed to do, although she doubted that, given that the trees on the lower slopes were just beginning to shed their leaves.

Still, if she could ignore the occasional murmur and rustle, Lenka was alone with her thoughts, and she didn't want to think about Tyrus. How could he have been so thoughtless? But the words had been said, and she supposed being alone with Saresan for any period of time did things to people, but even so…

She shook her head. What had she hoped to gain by travelling all the way to the lowlands? For all she knew, they might have had people who turned into gulls or fish or something else down by the coast, or they might not even have heard of people like her. She'd removed the danger from the people she knew and cared for; that had to count for something, didn't it?

If it were up to her, Lenka would probably have gone and asked the other bird-woman for help, but there was the small matter of that same person trying to kill Lenka. Besides, the phoenix would never agree and instead influence--no, influence was too weak a word, even for the insidious way the phoenix acted, force--her actions the way it'd done that night.

It was all so frustrating.

Which led to the next question: what was she going to do about herself? As far as she could see it, there were two ways to proceed. Struggling with the phoenix was leading to poorer and poorer results, and she didn't trust the phoenix to behave herself.

What then?

Saresan was humming a tune of some sort as he steered the cart downhill; one she didn't recognise and judging by the smooth, low-toned rhythm, didn't come from these parts at all. He, Lenka thought sourly, probably wouldn't have any problems changing into a big burning bird every now and then; if anything, he'd probably make a game out of it.

Here and now, though, there was nothing left to do but wait, and maybe that was the worst thing about it all, knowing something was wrong and being unable to do anything about it. A childhood spent around Mr. Aug's forges and furnaces had seen to that; there had been always some way a bad situation could be made better, a problem rectified. But this…

Maybe it'd all become clearer if she waited a little while longer. Just a little while longer; maybe by the time they reached Alveona. Then she could decide better what she had to do.

Lenka laid her head against the cooler and stared up at the bright, cloudless sky. Perhaps it was her own imagination, but for a fraction of a second she thought she'd seen a speck of green glinting up in the bright blue expanse.

#

Like almost everything else, it could be boiled down to a matter of timing. When to fold one's wings and fall at the prey. When to strike when it would be most distracted. When to soar, and when to stay hidden. When to mantle over one's kill and make a stand, and when to give up and make a run for it.

Eshentobon had a terrible sense of timing, Valise thought, but perhaps he couldn't be blamed for that. He had never been one of her people, to whom timing in the air and even on the ground had been almost everything. But here and now, the cart far below her posed a tempting target--just the phoenix and her self-appointed guardians on a long, lonely stretch of mountain road, the sort where at best they might meet two groups coming the other way in the course of a day. It would have been perfect for the sort of ambush Eshentobon would have liked, with no bystanders to pose additional resistance or collateral damage, but he wasn't here and Valise didn't want to attack alone. Not after the last time. The phoenix alone she could deal with if she used her winds and lightning, but she was flesh and blood, easily holed by crossbow bolts, while the phoenix was so much fire and hot air. More of the latter than the former, really, which would explain her attitude towards everything.

"Sluggard," she spat and wheeled in the sky, her eyes not daring to leave the cart. So Eshentobon didn't have the energy to manifest himself all the time, but the explanation only compounded her frustration. That had, after all, been a matter of timing as well, and could have been avoided if he hadn't gone about and exerted himself. If only he'd listened to her…

But he hadn't, and now she needed to buy time. The more, the better.

Fire forced its way. What it couldn't consume, it scorched out of sheer spite. But she was different. She didn't have to force anything, her powers merely hastened the inevitable. Although the monsoon was already over, there was still a wind blowing in from the coast, carrying clouds that would pour down on one side of the Terrano and leave the other dry. There always was. Valise urged them onward to where she waited.

Winds and lightning. Winds and lightning. That was the inheritance of every member of the garuda clan, from the down-covered eyasses who spent all their time piping for food to the sparse-feathered, red-eyed elders, and she'd hoped to avoid having to use them on the phoenix. A quick snap of the neck with her beak would have been far more humane.

A pity, really.

Clouds rolled in, thick, dark and heavy with rain, and Valise felt the wind pick up through her flight and tail feathers, stream across the leather straps that held her pouch tight against her back. This was what she was made for. This was why she flew. This was why she lived.

Now it was Valise's turn to scream. Once, she told herself, just once, for she couldn't resist the temptation to challenge the phoenix, and while she alone didn't have the power to direct where the lightning fell, it still came close enough to the tiny cart below her for it to veer off the road. Blinding rain--or at least, it would have been blinding had she been human at the time--poured around her, the damp seeping through her feathers, but she made out a blasted, charred stump where the lightning had struck, still smoking despite the downpour.

Did phoenixes feel fear, or did that redhead really think herself immortal? Valise half-expected to see a streak of fire rise up to her through the rain, up and away from her friends where Valise could pick her off alone, but the cart merely pulled off the side of the road and sought shelter amongst the dense pines to the side. She tried to picture the phoenix in her mind--huddled, cold and sopping wet, her feathers a mess, desperately trying to put them back into order in an unabashed display of her vanity--and the more human part of her smirked at the thought. A small victory, perhaps, but it was better than nothing.

The most laughable thing was that had those fools on the ground bothered to move a little, press on through the torrential wind and rain, they'd have been able to escape the storm, but they hadn't. They hadn't bothered to look up, to take into account the pathetically small column of wind and rain a lone garuda had been able to create, and had missed the world for the trees. Well, it was their loss.

"You'd better appreciate this, Eshentobon. You'd better," she said and winged away. Once, Valise the girl had ridden the mind of Valise the garuda, and the reverse had happened when she traded her wings for hands, but things were different now.

It certainly put a new perspective on matters.

Embers

Chapter 17

"I hope this rain doesn't turn the road to muck," Tyrus said despairingly. The small box of matches he'd in one hand was thoroughly soaked, as was much of his clothing. He sneezed, gave up trying to light a fire, and pocketed the matches. "Or even worse, wash it out. There was this time I was in the cabbage fields near Norad and some cart had gotten its wheels stuck in the mud, holding up everyone behind. The iron ended up three days late, and the buggers were going to get me under the King's Laws for breach of contract--"

"Hey now," Saresan said. "Don't take my job. Things are already bad enough as they are, what with the hats being soaked and with us losing half of the apples."

"I don't remember you being appointed official storyteller of our little band," Tyrus replied, shivering as he rubbed his face. He turned to Lenka. "Does this sort of rain happen often up here?"

Lenka didn't reply immediately, instead looking slightly thoughtful as she edged further into what little shelter the cart's awning offered. That space, Tyrus thought with his lips twisted, had been small enough with him and Saresan fighting over what dry ground that wasn't already taken up by whatever they'd been hauling at the time, and matters were only worse now, with the rain coming at them almost horizontally. It was a wonder their awning hadn't been torn off its latches and blown away already.

"Well?"

"We have the summer monsoon, which brings in rain from the coast," Lenka replied. Although she was just as soaked as Tyrus and Saresan, she didn't seem to mind the cold which had Tyrus shaking to his bones. "There's also the Vahal, which blows in from the peaks in the winter and is supposed to drive people mad--"

"I know I'm going to go mad if this rain keeps on," Saresan muttered.

"--But this isn't right. Rain still comes in from the coast all year round, but it shouldn't be this heavy now, or at least, it hasn't been as far back as I can remember."

"Which is?"

Lenka brushed hair away from her eyes where the damp had stuck it in a mess. Tyrus didn't understand why she didn't just cut it and not have to bother with hairnets, but knowing her, it probably had something to do with the phoenix. "Fourteen years." She risked a glance out of the awning, and came back with her head and shoulders soaked. "This isn't natural. I'm quite sure of it."

"What do you mean by 'isn't natural'? Someone or something sent it after us?"

"I'm not a wizard. All I know is that we shouldn't be having a wet version of the bloody Vahal in early autumn." She sighed and rubbed her temples. "The phoenix agrees."

"And the phoenix? Can't she come out and warm us a little? These matches might claim to be waterproof, but there's no lighting a fire now."

"She doesn't want to," Lenka replied. "She says she'll get wet and dirty."

A sullen silence fell over the three of them as Tyrus and Saresan took that in. Lenka didn't look very pleased, either, but at least she seemed to be taking it in stride.

"Well," Tyrus said, "there's little we can do but wait out the storm. Hope everyone doesn't mind eating from the emergency food tonight, because with the way things are going--" he looked out at whole branches being tossed about like matchsticks in the gale-- "we'll be here for a little while."

#

They were, so it turned out, there for a long while. The wind and rain showed no sign of abating, and if anything, they seemed to be growing stronger by the hour. Awning or no, there was scarcely a dry spot left on the cart bed, and it was clear that if Saresan was going to sell any of his authentic floppy mountain hats he'd have to give them a good drying-out in the sun. That was, if the fabric didn't go mouldy first. Lenka eyed Tyrus and Saresan, both of them having wrapped old sackcloth about their clothes for what little warmth they could afford, and wondered what it was like to be wet and cold instead of just wet.

"Eat up," Tyrus said as he handed her a small, tightly-wrapped package of waxed paper. His brows were furrowed, and his mouth a thin, straight line. "It's all we're going to have tonight; my fabled emergency food, star of Saresan's legends."

"I haven't heard him tell any stories about it."

"Perhaps not, but I pity his next business partner, assuming he survives long enough to have another one."

Lenka untied the package, and a strong, chemical, and above all salty smell stung her nose. In the folds of the waxed paper lay three strips of jerky with the consistency of boot leather, a handful of large, smoked nuts, and some strange fish she didn't quite recognise, each one no bigger than her thumb and dried until the flesh was yellow and the eyes and backbone blackened. She picked up one of them between thumb and forefinger, and it snapped like a biscuit.

The phoenix told Lenka in no uncertain terms what she thought of the humans' offering, and what she would do with this junk if she could be bothered to come out into this rain.

"Not hungry?"

Lenka raised her head to meet the ever-so-slightly upturned corners of Tyrus' mouth, and back down at the disgusting-looking meal. "The phoenix and I were having an argument."

"Ah." Tyrus popped a smoked nut into his mouth and chewed, evidently with some difficulty. "This is what small-timers like me who couldn't afford to join a caravan used to eat, so I'm told. Back when magic wasn't that widespread, I mean--I bought these in the case everything failed and we were stranded in the wilderness. Don't you think it says something that these've stayed edible all the way from the coast?"

"Mr. Aug told me about seafood; he said he'd had some when he was serving his apprenticeship down by the coast. About lobsters and prawns and shellfish so large you'd to cut them in half to even fit the meat into your mouth. Not dried fish with the consistency of biscuits."

"They're dried anchovies," Tyrus replied. The name meant nothing to Lenka or the phoenix, but they agreed that they hated anchovies. "And well, they're cheap and they keep, although you're right about them being vile--where I come from, most of the lot are ground up and used for soup stock."

Usually, it was Lenka who closed her eyes and held her nose while the phoenix tore gleefully into a warm, bloody kill. She couldn't rightfully say she was tearing into the jerky with glee, or if the jerky could be torn at all, but at least now it was the phoenix doing the gagging and looking away while she stuffed her face with smoked nuts, which at least tasted slightly more palatable. A pleading look in Saresan's direction had convinced him to give up some of his nuts in exchange for those disgusting anchovies; his loss, her gain.

"Best to get what sleep we can," Tyrus said when they'd finished and put away the waxed paper. "We've got to make some distance tomorrow, and I don't think anything's going to want to cause trouble in this downpour."

Maybe it was the wet, or the fact that the jerky sat heavily on her stomach. Maybe it was the way her clothes clung to her skin and bothered both her and the phoenix, who wanted desperately to preen but didn't dare risk the damp. Maybe it was the sight of Tyrus and Saresan, huddled back to back under the sackcloths, or the feeling that this storm wasn't quite right for the time of year.

Whatever it was, Lenka couldn't sleep, and neither could the phoenix. The raindrops seemed to be falling through the awning and drumming against her skull; drumming until she thought her head would explode. It wasn't because the phoenix needed to fly, either, she was as subdued as Lenka had remembered her ever being--

"Lenka?" Saresan murmured, and shifted in his sleep.

"I can't sleep. The rain's getting to me," she replied. "Get some rest, I'll keep watch."

"What is the world coming to? It's a sad day when you can't even trust a spin-hoop to not try and kill you. Had so much fun with those as a kid, and now they've gone bad."

"What a crazy world we live in." Perhaps it wasn't the best answer she could have given, but Lenka couldn't think a better one, not with the damp hanging on her head like a stack of sand moulds. There was something else, too; perhaps it was just nerves on her part, but Lenka couldn't help but feel that there was something out there in the rain, watching and waiting. She reached out to the phoenix for her opinion, but the bird remained sullen and silent, glowering in the fore of her mind but doing little else.

So be it. Lenka picked her way out of the small circle of light afforded by the cart's lantern, taking care not to disturb Tyrus or Saresan, who were filling the cart with their quiet snores. The edge of the cart was slick and water ran off its sides in small streams, but she stuck her head out of the awning and into the rain and darkness, her eyes scanning the darkened silhouettes nearby for anything out of the ordinary.

There was nothing, no movement save what could be explained away by the downpour. Ever the critic, the phoenix told her that she was stupid for getting wet and wasting her time when she could have been comfortable by the sacks and if not dry, at least not quite dripping wet.

"What did you expect?" Lenka muttered to herself as she shrank back under the cart's awning. "What did you expect?"

But she couldn't shake off the feeling. It was a feeling, something arbitrary and quite possibly untrue, as she'd learned the first time she'd had a feeling about how long to leave the gears in before they were case-hardened. Lenka briefly considered leaving the cart to take a closer look at the trees, but the phoenix balked and threatened to claw her if she brought both of them out into the rain.

Why not? This is what keeping watch is about.

I won't. My feathers and plumage will be ruined.

Can you possibly be any more selfish?

I can. A pause. Fine. Bring yourself if you must, but I will not cast light for you; you getting wet and miserable is disgrace enough for the both of us. Take their lantern.

But they might need it--

If something is out there and decides they are worthy prey, then they will scarcely have a chance with or without their pathetic little light. You shall not venture too far, either. Wandering off alone makes you easy prey.

Lenka searched in her belongings for her hairnet, and gave up after a few moments of trying. It just wasn't worth the effort. And you think I need reminding?

Humans are stupid, the phoenix replied, and refused to say anything else. Lenka hesitated before she picked up the cart's lantern, carefully watching Tyrus and Saresan for any untoward movement, then slipped out of the cart and landed on the ground with a squelch.

The feeling was stronger now, a growing discomfort in her chest that made her heart race. It couldn't be just nerves. There had to be something out there, something…perhaps comprised of old, yellowed bones…

Lenka's boots splashed and squelched in the rain, but she hadn't paid good coin for nothing; her feet stayed dry, if not warm. The lantern's mirrors threw off a thin, narrow beam of light, and as she cast it on the trees, the feeling of wrongness within her grew until it pained her--

Pain.

It was only when the phoenix screamed in a mix of rage and terror that Lenka realised why she hadn't seen anything. The feeling of wrongness hadn't come from without, but rather, within, and her insides twisted and knifed against her heart, sending her onto the muddy ground gasping for breath.

"What? How--" she managed to gasp before the next spasms hit her and she writhed on the ground, cold, clayey mud plastering her skin, clothes and hair. The phoenix was truly terrified now, not angered but terrified, and was beating so hard behind her eyes that all she could see was fire.

Lenka's guts twisted again and she screamed in earnest, screamed at the Change that wasn't the Change she had known for the past six years, it had always been smooth and painless but now she could hear her own bones grinding and snapping as they fought to remember what they were supposed to be, bird or human. Muffled shouts came from within the cart, barely ten paces from where she lay in the mud, and perhaps they could get to her before--

--Before what? What could they do about what was happening to her? Even the phoenix had passed out from the pain, flat on her back and wings crumpled like dried leaves.

Panicking, Lenka tried to cry out, but her mouth was now a beak, even though she still knew her face was human, and the glowing down covered her skin in irregular patches and tufts, and it was all she could do to writhe around like some gigantic slug in a body that couldn't quite decide whether it wanted to be human or bird, trapped in clothes that suddenly were too big for her in some places and horribly tight in others, her hands shifting from fingers to wings to talons and into some hideous, feathered stubs while the world struggled to order itself--

Madness reigned, and the phoenix wasn't helping either, screeching, flapping and tearing at the insides of her mind in a bid to escape, to Change, to do anything that might conceivably make the pain stop. Lenka could hear shouting now, shouting and boots against mud on the edges of her consciousness. Perhaps they could help; nothing worked now, she couldn't even control the spasms that threw her this way and that on the ground, let alone her arms and legs--if that was what they still were.

Talons raked the ground before Lenka's eyes, and with a monumental effort she raised her head to take in the green-and-gold bird, completely unbothered by the wind and rain that swirled about them.

"You did this, didn't you?" she said, although the words came out all wrong and scratchy. At least even the phoenix could speak passable human. "Kill me if you must. Just make it quick."

The enormous bird looked slightly confused and hurt at first, cocked her head to one side. Then she reached down with that huge tooth-tipped beak of hers and clamped down hard on Lenka's neck.

Darkness fell.

Embers

Chapter 18

She wasn't dead.

If she were dead, she probably wouldn't have been able to feel the heavy, dull aching in her arms and legs, made worse by the hard ground underneath her back. That was strange. Mud wasn't supposed to be hard, and where was the wet and rain? Fuzzy thoughts punctuated with spots of coloured fire flashed behind her eyes, and she felt the phoenix pull her ruined, scraggly coat of feathers together and peer around.

No, she wasn't dead. The phoenix wouldn't have been with her then. Which left the one question:

Where was she?

Lenka tried to open her eyes, but they'd crusted over with what felt like a mixture of mud, sleep and blood, and her ribs hurt if she breathed too deeply. What had happened? There had been the rain, pain--yes, pain, so much of it, her insides stretched and crushed at the same time--and the memory of that beak against her neck, poised to snap it in two like a branch underfoot. No, it hadn't been a dream, her neck was still tender. Which meant--

One thing at a time, Mr. Aug had said. One thing at a time. All right, her arms were working. That was a good start. Her legs, too; they seemed to be working fine, and perhaps she could sit up and figure out what had happened.

Rubbing her eyes despite the aching in her shoulders, Lenka sat up and bumped her forehead against the thick metal bars of the cage she was in.

A large birdcage. Lenka didn't know if she should laugh or weep, or if she could even do so without feeling terrible, terrible pain. She looked around, wiping the last of the dirt from her eyes, vaguely expecting to see a perch and birdseed.

"You've come to."

The woman sat on the floor by the cage, a mug of dark brown liquid cupped in her hands. Lenka realised what Saresan had meant by perfectly ordinary--the woman's features were what she might have seen walking down the streets of Inavael or across the main counter at the foundry, completely unassuming and equally forgettable, just like the wooden walls of the bare room she was in. Just looking at them made the mind wander, as if she couldn't quite concentrate. Even the phoenix was too tired or confused to complain.

"I'm afraid I'm not very good at this pine needle and bark tea thing. I always managed to ruin the simplest alchemical processes, even boiling an egg, otherwise I'd offer you some. Then again, boiling eggs is somewhat distasteful, I'm sure you'd agree." She pointed at her dark green hooded poncho, tied tightly around her neck and draped about her body. "Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Valise, and you would be Lenka, or so I gathered during my time at the guesthouse. Do you want something warm to wear? You can't be comfortable in those charred rags of yours."

Lenka glowered at her. Valise merely scratched her head, shrugged and rose to her feet, stomping dust and crusted mud off her boots. There was something predatory about the way she moved, in the deliberateness of her actions, almost akin to the way Lenka did when the phoenix started influencing her more than what was strictly necessary. "Well, keep quiet if that's the way you want it. I just wanted to make some civil conversation with a girl still in her juvenile plumage, and all I get is this."

"You were the bird, weren't you?"

A frown. "The proper term is 'garuda'. My people come from a rather large plateau in the north of the Terrano, although we've never paid taxes to Norad. Mostly because the tax collectors can't be bothered to climb the sheer cliffs to get at us."

"That doesn't matter now, does it?"

"It does. I'm not a murderer, I'm not a criminal, and I don't intend to be one."

"So says the one who invaded my territory and attacked me unprovoked."

"It's one of the two reasons you're still alive right now. I was hoping you'd choose to understand why we have no other choice but to kill you."

Lenka scowled. "You intend to kill me. What else is there to understand?"

"That's what you get for being nice. That's what you get for trying to apologise for or explain why the more…ugly tasks are necessary. You want to think you died a senseless death? So be it. I have my tea for company, and we can wait till Eshentobon can be arsed to arrive." She turned to go, but Lenka silenced the phoenix, swallowed her pride and let out a quiet, birdlike peep.

"I'm sorry. I was just rather overwhelmed from waking up in a cage. You'll tell me?"

"Not any more than I'd intended to. I'm not stupid. But yes, I will, since I'm not doing this out of malice on my part. As I said, it would be nice if you'd just listen."

Lenka could have laughed at those words if her sides hadn't been aching so badly. No malice? After all that'd happened? Unthinkable; she had to be lying.

Still, she still had to work the soreness out of her limbs if she was going to escape from this cage; it looked solid enough and this Valise had certainly given some thought as to her abilities. High-carbon steel was usually far harder to melt than simple cold worked iron, but she wasn't going to be testing her prison while she was being watched.

There was another question, though: how had that woman gotten her hands on such a cage? It didn't look like the sort of thing to be lugged around easily.

"Go on."

"Have you heard of the Tormented One?"

Lenka shook her head. Best to keep this one talking while she continued to study her prison. "No."

"You haven't heard of him? I mean, I could understand if you were from another country or even from the coast, but it's barely a few days' flight from where I was to where you were! You're still in the Terrano!"

"Where the peaks are high and places often isolated because no one wanted to see what was on the other side of that crevasse that ran just outside town?" Lenka's mouth was running on automatic now as she tried to study the bars discreetly. The cage had obviously been here some time; there was a thin layer of dust on the upper and lower extremities of the bars. There were hairline cracks, too, signs of shoddy workmanship she could exploit if she were given the chance. Perhaps--

"You're right. But my point still stands. We have to kill you because he wants to die."

With that, Valise launched into some kind of history lesson. Lenka had never liked history; before she was apprenticed to Mr. Aug, she'd spent all her eggs' and bread loaves' worth of education on more practical subjects, and here and now neither she nor the phoenix cared about how much someone named Eshentobon had been wronged in his life and deserved to rest in peace. All that mattered was that she apparently had to be sacrificed or something in order for that to happen.

She didn't want to die, especially not for something so stupid and pointless, and the phoenix agreed most empathically.

"So," she said as nonchalantly as possible, "I'm to be sacrificed in some ghastly ritual to appease some ugly spirit of undeath. Is that it? Is that what this is all about?"

"Weren't you listening at all? It's not a sacrifice. A good, clean kill like what I ought to have done that night would have been sufficient, only those two bastards just had to get involved. And he's not a ghastly spirit of undeath. It's not Eshentobon's fault what happened to him all those decades ago."

"Sounds like a sacrifice to me," Lenka replied, keeping her voice as level. The phoenix whispered nasty things into the back of her mind, and she had this overwhelming itch to grin gleefully and fire at Valise everything the phoenix had told her, or even turn her mouth over to the phoenix. "Just like one of those barbaric things in those picture books, where they have a young lass over the pyre and there's a lot of bearded old men chanting to superstitious spirits and whatnot."

A tic had developed over Valise's left eye, and the thin lines on her face had deepened. The phoenix tapped Lenka with her beak and pointed that out. Perhaps if she pushed hard enough…

"Believe what you want," Valise spat, her poncho billowing as she stormed around the cage in circles. "Who was the one who tried everything before resigning himself to having to take the life of someone who was unwilling to give it up? Who was the one worrying about hurting bystanders even when a huge bird was ripping him into bits? Who was the one who suffered for so long before coming around to realising he needed to do what needed to be done? It wasn't you, that's for sure. I don't know whether it's you or the phoenix, but you're the most cruel, conceited brat I've ever come across--"

The phoenix was bored. She wanted to rip something apart, preferably this loud, annoying woman, and Lenka hushed her, patting her feathers and murmuring soothing nonsense words.

"--Tell me honestly, what do you think your life is worth to his, to whom the world owes its prosperity? You were going to die anyway out in the rain, refusing to see your bird as an equal and instead controlling her like…like some ingrate. Seeing her as a burden or something to be used. Some good might as well come out of your death, rather than ending up caught halfway."

Lenka paused. Caught halfway? Was that what had happened to her? Then there had to be a way to get past all this, perhaps ask her what "controlling" meant, but she probably wasn't going to get any useful answers, not when she'd burned this bridge.

Oh well. Time to commit herself. "So what?"

Silence. Valise stared at her incredulously, and then the mug she'd been holding shattered in her hands. Seemingly oblivious to the pain, she looked down sadly at her bleeding fingers, then up at Lenka. "Spoilt girl." For a moment Lenka was worried Valise would kill her there and then, but she turned and stormed over the broken shards towards a door set in one wall. "I don't have to put up with this. I don't have to sit here and listen to you put down someone far better than you will ever be." With that, she opened it, flung herself through, and slammed it so hard it rattled in its hinges.

It'd worked.

After a few moments' waiting to make sure she was really alone, Lenka removed her gloves, warmed her palms and started work on the cage's bars.

#

Valise thought her heart might burst.

She paced around the old trapper's cabin in circles, her boots kicking up dust and gravel until she'd left a small series of indentations on the rocky ground the cabin stood on. Her hands stung, but the cuts were nothing. They'd heal.

It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. This wasn't the way the world was supposed to be, with an arrogant brat she couldn't even stand to be near completely hale and healthy while someone like Eshentobon suffered. Not that he was perfect--no one was--but he tried, he tried so hard like Helfor had--

"Look at you," she muttered to herself. "Almost thirty-three and still complaining that life isn't fair like a girl half your age. By all rights you should be a cynical old woman by now."

A cynical old widow, that was what she was supposed to be. Roosting on her porch in a haggard coat of neglected feathers, breathing the cold mountain air that came down from the peaks, and screaming abuse at those in their Passage, swooping down in the glory of their juvenile colours.

Valise allowed herself a bitter smile. For better or worse, those young ones wouldn't be her own. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be, but wasn't that why she was doing this in the first place, to even out the scores a little? Another deep breath, and the urge to break something's neck with her beak slowly faded.

She couldn't let that slip of a phoenix get to her, otherwise the brat would've have won. Besides, it'd been stupid of her to leave the girl to her own devices. She'd go back and let the spoilt brat make all the scathing comments she wanted; nothing was going to change the truth. She'd--

Valise opened the door to the old cabin, and came face-to-face with a wild-eyed, grinning Lenka. Several of the cage bars had been pushed aside, and they still glowed various colours from white to yellow to red. Molten remains lay cooling on the metal cage's floor, and the brat held a lump of half-molten metal in her hands, squashing it over and over like a child playing with clay.

"Surprise," she said, and hurled the metal straight at Valise. Valise ducked, and it hit the wooden wall of the cabin, which erupted into flame.

It was burning. It was burning, and rapidly filling the one-room cabin with thick, choking smoke. Fog clouded Valise's mind, and she couldn't quite think straight--her children! Her children were still inside the nest, and so was Helfor, sleeping up by the perch, she could hear them through the smoke and fire, Helfor telling the children not to be afraid, but her children were too young to fly and there was no way through the flames that separated them. Why wasn't anyone helping? Why wasn't anyone helping? There should have been a bucket chain by now, while the others changed and summoned a storm, but no one was coming--

--The stench of burned feathers and fat--

The phoenix crowed triumphantly, and in the inferno Valise saw the phoenix dancing in the fires, inhumanly beautiful and cruel, laughing at her tears as her fires ate Valise's home.

She knew it was irrational, that she hadn't even known of the phoenix then, but in that moment Valise hated the phoenix more than anything else.

The door slammed. The door slammed? No, she wasn't back on the plateau. No, she wasn't watching her house burn to nothing. She was--she was--

Valise coughed, blinking back tears from the smoke, and stumbled over to the door before she threw it open. She coughed and spluttered and her throat felt tight, but was rewarded with fresh air--and the sight of the phoenix darting for the cover of the nearest trees.

She hated trees. It wasn't fair. But it had never been fair, or else why would she have gone seeking the answers to the questions of life and death?

The cabin's timbers were old and rotting, as they should have been--her granduncle had built it for when he wanted to be away from the clan for awhile. Valise shivered despite the inferno behind her, turned away from where the phoenix had been and watched another fragment of her past collapse into ashes.

Embers

Chapter 19

"She's gone," Tyrus said, looking down at the mess of mud and yellowed grass, churned together into a soggy, slippery paste. The lantern hissed and sputtered in the drizzle that made up the last vestiges of the storm, causing the beam of light it cast to flicker dangerously. "There was a struggle right by the cart, and we didn't even hear it until it was too late."

"You can't blame yourself like that," Saresan replied as he knelt over the mess and picked out pieces of down and feathers out of the mud. "At least we know who it was that took Lenka."

"Isn't going to do us much good unless we've a way of tracking her down."

"And she was the one who left the cart without telling us. No matter how seriously you take this whole matter or how hard you try to watch out for Lenka, it isn't going to help if she does stupid things like this."

"Oh, that's easy for you to say. You're not the one feeling guilty over--"

"--What I couldn't control?" Saresan sighed, stood up, and examined the mud-smeared remains. Some of them had bits of charred rags stuck to them, and smelled of ashes, even after having been through the rain. "Y'know, I'm not saying I don't feel bad or I don't care about her. It's just that she did something even I wouldn't have done, and I thought you'd be complaining, seeing as how you're always asking the reasons behind why I do things."

It was true. Ever since he'd gotten to know Lenka as a person, not a phoenix, he'd been acting strangely. Heck, even Saresan had been acting strangely, when he thought back on it. One way or the other, a third partner in an established business relationship tended to change the dynamics already present, and he wasn't sure if pretending it didn't exist was the best course of action.

Oh, damn it.

"It's just odd that you should be lecturing me on this," Tyrus said when he finally found his voice again. "But you're right. We should be thinking of a way to find Lenka instead of arguing like this."

"Just one thing, though. Is it supposed to be dawn yet?"

Tyrus frowned. "What? Why? I'd guess dawn's at least two hours away, if not more. Besides, I don't think we'd be able to see the sun through these clouds."

"Because if it's not the sun, what the heck is that?"

Tyrus felt Lenka's presence long before he turned and saw her brilliance; the sheer heat emanating from her body drying out his throat and turning the raindrops to steam before they even had the chance to reach her feathers. Small jets of fire erupted from her nostrils and crept from her beak, and the mud under her dried and cracked as she landed.

Then she stared at them with her black, beady eyes. Tyrus stood his ground, closed his eyes against the brilliance and lifted his chin.

"I see you're back safe, if not quite healthy," he said. "While I'm glad you're here, and I'm sure Saresan is too, you have quite a bit of explaining to do."

The phoenix peered down at him, her breast heaving in and out as it danced with all the colours of fire. Tyrus sensed the words without her needing to speak them, simply by the way she glared at him and carried herself:

How dare you? I do what I please and answer to no one, let alone a small, insignificant creature like you! I--I--I--

The phoenix's fires died a little, and the shape beneath the golden glow began to twist and change. By the time the glow faded, most of the phoenix was gone, leaving Lenka in its wake. A few feathers still sprouted from her flesh and her toes were still talons, but at least Tyrus could see that it was Lenka behind those eyes and not the phoenix.

"Excuse me," Lenka groaned, breathing heavily. She winced, and the flaming feathers vanished and her toes were back to normal. "I'm sorry. The phoenix…I had to loose her to escape Valise. She didn't hurt you, did she?"

"Valise?"

"The garuda."

"Garuda?"

Lenka stepped forward and staggered. "That woman. The bird, the one who's been troubling us. I--I'll explain later. It's a long story. I'd like something to drink, please. I'm terribly thirsty. And some clothes. And…ugh." She clutched at her head with bony fingers. "A lie-down would be nice."

"You'll have to devise clothes that slip off when you Change instead of ripping apart. If you go through your wardrobe any faster…"

"Valise had that, I think. Some dark green poncho thing she wore over her other clothes. I'll figure it out sometime, but for now I want my gloves. I feel naked without my gloves."

"You are naked."

Lenka shook her head as she took a fresh pair of open-fingered gloves from Saresan and pulled them over her hands. "Not for long now. Are you ever going to get over that?"

"It's…unsettling. Then again, women who turn into birds aren't exactly a daily occurrence."

Lenka sighed and shook her head again. Tyrus saw the chance, and turned to the cart. When he turned back, he had Lenka's boots in his hands, and she took them from him.

"At least I still have my boots." A grim smile on her lips, Lenka juggled her mud-spattered boots in her hands. "Taken by a crazed bitch to be sacrificed to some maddened spirit I don't even know, losing my mind and body to the phoenix, and trying to figure out the answers to questions I don't even understand--but at least I have my boots." She sniffled, and although all three of them were wet from the drizzle, Tyrus saw the fresh redness in Lenka's eyes. "I've got my boots. You know where you stand in the world when you've got your boots."

"They were stuck in the mud," Tyrus replied matter-of-factly. "Saresan and I spent the better part of an hour digging them out--we were hoping to find clues--"

"There's no need for that any more. But--but--" for the first time since she'd returned, Lenka smiled, but Tyrus wasn't sure if she meant it or if she was even right in the mind-- "thank you."

"And the explanation?"

"Over a drink," Lenka replied as she fastened her coat. "Over a drink. My throat's burning up, no pun intended."

#

Valise didn't dare land.

She caught the gusts and updrafts in her wide wings, soaring high above the clouds, high enough for the air to turn bitterly cold and thin, even for her. Although it was none of her doing, thick grey clouds gathered under her, heavy with rain and hail and shielding her from the world below.

She was alone.

It would be so easy for her to stay up here forever, barely spending any strength in riding the winds, riding them until either her mind or body failed and she fell from the sky.

It would be better than facing Eshentobon and having to explain what she'd allowed to happen. How would she even begin? He would forgive her for failing, would understand and although he might not sympathise, he'd empathise. That, perhaps, was the worst part of it all.

She flew not knowing where she was going or even in which direction she was flying in, but that didn't matter. What mattered that she was flying.

Something else flew, too.

"You're running from something," a voice said by her head. Valise eyed the direction in which it'd come from, and Eshentobon was there. He wore the bones of some small bird or the other--perhaps a sparrow or some such, definitely far too small to be even a mouthful for her.

She couldn't lie. Not because she physically couldn't, but because he didn't deserve to be lied to.

"I am."

"Me?"

"Yes."

The skeletal bird flapped and fluttered, although it had no feathers or flesh. Frost dripped from the hollows in its bones, and Eshentobon studied her, blue fire burning in his borrowed body's eye sockets. "May I perch on your back for a while?"

"I…I don't see why not."

His feet were like ice, even through the thickness of her feathers. Valise shuddered at his touch, but kept flying.

"You called me over. I came, but you were not there. I know what happened," Eshentobon was silent for a few moments. "Even without the ashes helping, it wouldn't have been a feat to figure out what took place."

"Ashes?"

"Ashes, the death of embers. Why are the oldest houses often the most restless? Why are sensible people loathe to buy a murderer's weapon? Why do people feel a chill when they walk by an old battlefield, made green and lush by spilt blood? Ashes do not rise again like bones, but they still hold memories, good or bad. Memories that yearn not to be forgotten."

Valise felt ill, as if she'd eaten something bad and it was weighing heavy on her crop. "My memories."

"And those of others who lived there before you did. But enough on that. Don't be too hard on yourself. The phoenix saw a weakness and exploited it."

"That doesn't mean I shouldn't have covered my back. It doesn't mean I should have given in."

"You couldn't help otherwise, given who you are."

Valise clicked her beak and screamed, her voice disappearing into the clouds. "That's what makes me feel terrible! I failed, but why won't you get angry with me? Why won't you just get angry with me! Even Helfor and I screamed at each other from time to time! Why must you be so…so…placid…"

"Because, to put it in your own words, you don't deserve to be treated that way. You don't have to run; not from yourself, and most certainly not from me. You can land now, Change back, and we'll discuss where to take matters from here instead of pretending the problems don't exist."

"I…"

"Valise."

Valise looked below her. The clouds had mostly parted, but from this high up the ground looked flat and featureless, blobs of flat colour spread out as if they were on a canvas.

"I'm not sure how to say this. I've never been very good those kinds of words."

Valise laughed. "Look at you, Helfor. All flustered like a child."

"Valise, I…I'll build us a house. One just like that cabin of your granduncle's that you so love, only bigger. Better. You used to run through your granduncle's cabin as a girl; our children shall share in that.

"It'll be near a cliff and have two stories, with a sun-hatch so we can dive off the cliffs every morning. The rest of the clan might mock us for going against our natures and wanting such a large nest, but if that's what you desire…"

"A nice dream. We'll build that house of yours together, fly nails and timber up to the plateau. You could breed goats, tend the garden; I'd bake bread, salt meat. The rest of the clan wouldn't like our home at first, they'd say our ancestors nested on the bare cliffsides and we don't need such things, but they'd find it a good place to gather and eventually overlook, maybe accept it."

"We'd hunt together."

"Of course. It wouldn't be the same otherwise without you."

"Maybe go down every now and then and call a storm for others in exchange for whatever we needed. Maybe a goat or even a sheep for some pots and shears."

"We'd age with dignity, let our eyes go red and our feathers worn but never unkempt. When I itch, you'll preen my head for me, that spot I can never reach well. Then we'll Change back and I'll play the flute and make you forget those aching old bones of yours."

"Valise…"

"Quiet, Helfor. Just dream a while."

"I will."

Eshentobon stirred, and Valise was suddenly reminded of what he was. A creature of undeath. Of persistence. Of memories. Hadn't she heard somewhere that a person never truly died so long as he or she was remembered by someone, no matter how faintly?

Something pecked lightly at her head. "Valise. Those memories are supposed to be happy. I can feel them. They are not."

That was the problem with the phoenix; was why she was better than that brat. The phoenix could not accept nor be grateful for any sort of love.

"Give me a moment to collect myself, Eshentobon. Just one more moment. Then I'll land and we can talk about what needs to be done next."

#

"This is absolutely the greatest adventure ever!" Saresan explained the moment Lenka had finished speaking. "I mean, it's more heart-stopping than when Rogado and I went swimming with those werewolves, more dangerous than exploring that old mine shaft with him, and it's got all the good elements that could be spun into an amazing story Rogado will definitely want to hear! I mean, who isn't a sucker for spirits trying to steal the lives of--"

"For goodness' sake, Saresan, take a breath before you pass out," Lenka said. She'd her money out and was counting it carefully even as the piles shook precariously with the rocking of the cart. At least it looked more proper than the soaked clothing hung to dry on the cooler. "And it's hardly as amazing as you might think if you're the one being hunted down. Fun to read about and tell over a fire? Perhaps. Fun to live through? I'd beg to differ, thank you very much."

"Uh, sorry, miss." Despite his words, Saresan didn't look sorry to Lenka. It was that grin that did it. "It'll all turn out all right in the end. These things always do. Like the time Rogado went too close to one of those alligator things they kept in the royal zoological gardens and got his nose nearly bit off by them. He still had it on by a strip of skin and they had to sew it back on without using ether or a spell and--"

"Saresan? Is now really the best time?"

"Quiet down, you two," Tyrus said and waved them down with a hand, the other still tightly fixed to the cart's steering mechanism. "Unless you want to drive through tonight. Barring any further delays, we'll be in Alveona by tomorrow and should start seeing the coming crowd from morning onwards. We'll do some business, maybe pick up something, then move on out of the foothills and down to the coast proper." He nodded at Lenka. "Things can be a little unsettling if you've never been around that many people before. I know Inavael isn't small and you're not unaccustomed to strangers, but…"

"Oh, please," Lenka said, then blinked and shook her head. "Sorry. That was more the phoenix speaking than it was me, I know you meant well. Frankly, I'm more worried about them fearing me rather than the other way around."

"You don't think you can control yourself?" Tyrus asked.

She looked away. "I can. I must. I can't stay alone forever."

Embers

Chapter 20

The first thing that struck Lenka about Alveona was that it was clean. Clean was hard to do, she knew; she'd gotten used to the stench of sweat, coal dust and machine oil that pervaded most of Mr. Aug's establishment. Even before that, as a girl her chores had involved scrubbing the tables when they day was done, and no matter how hard she'd put rag to wood they'd end up stained and smelling of old alcohol by the next day. As her father used to say, people passed through and left their garbage behind.

Of course, the city wasn't as clean as she was after she was done bathing and preening, but it still warranted merit for effort. Lenka wasn't anywhere near being a qualified stonemason, but even she could tell the walls in the distance were still relatively new, as if they'd been recently rebuilt to accommodate the city's growing size. But she'd noticed the outskirts as they'd passed through them, and even the people who negotiated the passage of goods into the city proper had wide, tree-lined avenues, plenty of open space between the now-fallow fields and properly paved roads instead of the dirt tracks she'd gotten used to back at home. Yes, the people here were richer than those further up in the mountains, but still…

If anything, the landscape demonstrated the wonders of proper town planning and zoning laws.

"Feeling a little awed, perhaps?" Tyrus said, a corner of his mouth turned slightly upwards. "It's about as good as it gets here--far enough from the coast to not stink of fish, but rich enough to afford this sort of care."

Lenka rolled her eyes. "Rustic young person from some bones-of-the-earth village is taken by helpful strangers to see his or her first big city, turns slightly crazy due to the sheer strangeness of it all, misunderstands the dangers of the big ugly city and gets into trouble. That's a story Saresan might not mind living out for himself, but I damn well do, considering I think myself more sensible than him."

"You have to admit it's a pretty nice place compared to some other townships."

"Oh, it's nice. Very nice, especially their candied apples. There's a reason they call candied apples 'the king of foods' you know. Sitting high on its throne, passing royal edicts down upon the lesser folk like sprouts and shrimp and peppers. Especially peppers."

Tyrus muttered something under his breath that Lenka didn't quite catch. "They don't call candied apples the king of foods, Saresan."

Saresan made a rude noise in the back of his throat. "Well, they should. Candied apples taste good enough to deserve the title, I say."

Lenka left them to their arguing and consulted the phoenix on what she thought of the place, but the bird didn't seem to want to answer, instead refusing to look at her directly and remaining aloof. So be it. They crossed a small stream on a bridge, its posts adorned with carvings of small dragons, and Lenka noticed a faint mist rising from the water's surface and that the grass about its banks was still green, even dotted with a few wildflowers that were coloured in shades of red and yellow.

"The water's quite warm," Tyrus said after noticing her questioning stare. "Comes from a spring somewhere higher up in the mountains. Too mineral-hard to drink, but it keeps things growing even during winter, and you can be jailed if you're caught dumping anything into it at all. There's a field of flowers that bloom year-round at the lake where it drains into; the city's pretty proud of it. We should see it before we go."

"And you know so much about it because…"

Tyrus shrugged. "Can't do business somewhere if you don't know the place and people." He jerked his thumb at Saresan. "Charisma and enthusiasm can only get you so far if you don't know where in the world they like all seven of their names said, whose palms to grease and the like."

"The reverse isn't quite right, either," Saresan said happily.

"Extremes rarely are." Tyrus coughed, then pulled the cart into a line of similar ones that snaked all the way to the city gates. "Is the phoenix feeling fine? Settled? You can keep her under control, can't you? Burning down cities is bad for business."

"I…I think so." The bird felt relatively calm in her mind, but knowing the phoenix, it was anyone's guess whether she would stay that way. "She says she's comfortable enough for now." Lenka shook her head, and sighed. "It's not the phoenix's fault that…whatever happened to me did. She was just as terrified as I was. There's something more to it."

"Something more?"

"I don't know. And I can hardly ask that Valise woman, can I? If she didn't want to kill me before, I'd wager she damn well wants to after I burnt down her house and nearly herself in the bargain. I'll just have to figure it out myself. Well, with the phoenix helping, I suppose, but I don't think she's going to be of much use."

The phoenix scratched at the inside of Lenka's head, reminding her she was still there and listening.

#

"What's that?"

"It's a bit of phoenix down in a jar, along with a shed feather." Saresan winked at the man peering at the goods he'd spread out on a cloth on the cart. A potential customer if he ever saw one, judging by the number of rings on the man's fingers. The sights and sounds of Alveona's trade quarter passed him by, but here and now there was just him, his cart and the sale. Well, there was Lenka too on the other side of the cart plying her trade, but she didn't seem to be doing too well. "Moulted recently, you know. Completely cruelty-free; they get rid of their old feathers in late summer when the feeding is good. I've got more in the back of my cart."

"And is there something special about this--" the man coughed-- "phoenix down that I should have one? An important and much sought-after alchemical reagent, perhaps?"

"No."

"Well then, how about a spell component? Some important fuel for a generator or a battery for a wand?"

"Nope."

"Brings back the dead? Bestows superhuman abilities? Causes orgasms if you brush it against your skin?"

"Well, it's warm to the touch, and it tingles a bit as well. But no, it's mostly there to sit there in the jar, glow a bit and look pretty. You interested in it, sir?"

"Tell me, my good man, why should I be interested in something that can be as easily replicated by a simple light spell on a pigeon feather and serves no practical purpose, except maybe as a night-light?"

"Because," Saresan replied, "you can tell all your associates that you have a phoenix feather and they don't; all they can have are boring old gemstones and gold trinkets and stinking stuffed trophies that anyone can get if they pay enough money. They can build huge mansions, have lakes and gardens and trees and whatnot, but they'll never have something like what you have, or at most, a poor imitation. Not unless they go out, find a phoenix and pull one of its feathers." His grin widened. "So, how about it?"

There was that maddening thrill of the moment again, the heart-thumping pause in which Saresan could read every twitch and detail in the man's face. He wasn't selling wyvern oil; people who peddled that had to lie about what they were selling. He, on the other hand, made sure that the customers knew exactly how useful or useless whatever he was selling was.

It was scarcely as exciting as running away from the horse-people with Rogado, but it'd have to do in a pinch.

Several moments later, Saresan was counting the small pile of money in his hands and poured the small silver waterfall into one of the empty jars before pulling a tarpaulin back over the goods. Tyrus would sort the money out for him, as always. "Good sale, eh, Lenka?"

"I don't know," she replied, still sitting on the cobbles and not looking up from her toolbox. "It feels…vulgar to hear someone selling bits of you. Like braids of your hair, nail clippings or loose teeth. Not something you'd expect to be done in broad daylight and definitely not in a marketplace."

"And what does the phoenix think?"

"Oh, she's glad that something as low-born and unworthy as a human can appreciate how splendid she is." Lenka scowled. "Business isn't good here. Not much I can do with my fingers and shears, when you're talking about going against people with a proper forge and drills."

"It's hard to compete with established businesses. Tyrus won't fault you; just do what you can."

"Not when what I can do is nothing compared to what they can do." She jerked a thumb in the direction of the rest of the trade quarter. Sturdy-looking brick houses were crammed against each other, forming natural borders about the squares in which most of the people were going about their business. Most of the carts and makeshift stalls ringed the square, a mass of preserved wood and colourful awnings, and the rest were gathered about the huge, bare-branched trees that grew in circles of open grass and soil. Saresan had always thought they looked far too healthy to be really real.

"Does that really matter if you make enough to get by?"

Lenka turned and spat. "I…I…what…" she closed her eyes and shook her head. "I know it shouldn't, that there's no call for that sort of thing, but I can't shake off this feeling that it shouldn't be enough for me to succeed, that other people have to fail too."

"The phoenix?"

"I don't think it's coming from her. To be honest, I have this ugly feeling it's coming from me."

They shared a moment of silence. "Well," Saresan said at last, "I'm sure Tyrus will be back soon, and we can--"

"Excuse me," a voice said from behind Saresan. There was the clink of metal on metal, and a large, ominous shadow fell over Lenka. Saresan turned, and standing behind him was one of the city guards in full regalia, one gauntleted hand on the pommel of his sword. The guard's helmet visor swivelled down and fixed itself onto Lenka. "You spat on the ground, did you, girl?"

"I did. What of it?"

"According to section three, lines seven to twenty-four of the Alveona Public Health and Decency Act, spitting or otherwise improperly discharging bodily fluids in a public place, especially in a perverse and indecent manner, is punishable by a fine of the observing officer's discretion not exceeding ten coppers. You have just confessed guilt to the charges, there are witnesses to the crime, and the statute is available for public viewing on the front of Town Hall. Do you have anything else to say for yourself?"

A tic crept onto Lenka's face, and Saresan's heart skipped a beat. "You can't be…you are serious, aren't you?"

"It's very formal, very official, and very lawful, especially after the alchemists discovered rats and flies spread the Green Death; the experiments were performed with condemned criminals, of course. You should see what we do to people who dump garbage in the street, clog up the gutters and sewers, piss in the river, or breed pests in their home. There's a reason why Alveona is such a fine city." The guard chuckled at his joke. "On a more serious note, it's up to you if you'd rather spend a night in a cell than pay up."

Lenka looked around her and winced, as if she was arguing with herself. He should have told her earlier, Saresan chastised himself, or perhaps Tyrus should have done it, but Lenka wasn't the kind to spit, and…oh, he was making excuses, wasn't he? It'd just stupidly slipped his mind, and here Lenka was, paying the price for him.

"Excuse me," he said to the guard. "She's with me, and I'll pay the fine for her. It's her first time in Alveona, and it just didn't occur to me to--"

The guard regarded him stiffly. "Ignorance is no excuse. Us freeing the gates means visitors are expected to know local laws. Do you know how much the city council spends hiring gardeners, street sweepers and people to cart the garbage out of the city every day? No? I don't either, but it's a lot. Now pay up."

The coins clinked as Saresan fished them out of his coin-pouch and dropped them into the guard's gauntleted hand. The guard counted them one by one, and apparently satisfied, tipped his helmet at Saresan.

"I hope I've suitably impressed upon the girl what we do here. Don't let me catch you doing it again."

"Yessir."

The guard spun and clanked away, and seeing the show was over, the few townspeople still watching began to disperse. Saresan turned towards Lenka, who'd seated herself cross-legged on the cart, eyes bulging and her arms wrapped around her shoulders.

"You all right there?" he said.

"Do you know what the phoenix said to me? I mean, just now when I was speaking to the guard?" Lenka trembled, and her hair seemed to glimmer a little more than necessary, even when dirty and tied up in her hairnet. "She told me that the guard had encased himself in metal. Very useful thing, that, especially when molten and sticking to your skin."

"You sure you're feeling all right, Miss? Tyrus said to keep you out of trouble, and I don't want to cause a scene with all these people around--"

"No, no," Lenka said hurriedly. "I'm in control of myself. There was just that thought, and it startled me--"

Without waiting for another word, Saresan grabbed Lenka firmly by the hand and led her around to the front of the cart. With practiced efficiency, he began tying down the sacks and boxes as Lenka stared at him.

"What are you doing?"

"We aren't going to get much business anymore, and we've already had enough takings for today. I'm going to pull up the cart, get Tyrus back from his wheat or rice or whatever boring stuff he's looking at, and we're going to see some flowers." He gave Lenka an encouraging smile. "They have a very soothing scent, I can tell you that."

"Oh. Good." Maybe it was just the wind picking up through the square, but Saresan didn't like Lenka huddling like that. "I need soothing."

Embers

Chapter 21

"I can't believe you let her incur a fine from the city guard. Of all the stupid, thoughtless ways one could have gotten into trouble--"

"It's not her fault, Tyrus. It's not as if you bothered to tell her not to spit or sneeze while in the city, instead of telling her all about bridges and flowers."

Tyrus bit his lips and twisted the steering wheel, making the cart bank sharply to the side of the road. "Which we're going to see now, at the cost of time, time which we could have spent making more money, and I could have used that money to pay for another charge to re-spell the cart's motor, even if Lenka did it, then we wouldn't have to dip into the petty cash--"

"We're going to see flowers now, Tyrus. Flowers. That means thinking happy thoughts and putting those regrets and could-have-beens out of your mind. Flowers, they're colourful and smell good and usually won't kill you even if you pull off their petals. Flowers, Tyrus. Not money. Money can't buy you flowers like these."

"But the flowers bring in much money to Alveona, you have to admit--"

Lenka left them to their arguing and stared sullenly into the distance. Their cart was now on a well-travelled road paved with crushed gravel, and even now in the heat of midday there were people travelling alongside. There were peasants from the surrounding lands dressed in what passed for their best; blue dye might have been cheap, but it was better than what their grandparents or even parents had. Then there were people from the city, and people who'd come from afar in carts and gilded stagecoaches that plied up and down the road by the stream, and even people on small rafts and barges the stream was barely wide enough to accommodate.

Lenka took a deep breath, held it, and understood why there were so many people flocking to see a bunch of flowers.

Eventually, Saresan's voice caught her attention. "I told you it'd be soothing."

"Mm." She took another breath, exhaled slowly and laid back against the intercooler. This was…this was like striking hot steel back at the forges, feeling each wave of heat wash over her skin…only not as good. Good, but she'd known better. Still, even the phoenix felt comfortable enough to turn a little drowsy, and Lenka hoped she'd stay that way.

This sort of sweetness…it was wrong, unnatural, and very much so if Saresan was right and they bloomed all year round thanks to the stream's water. But she didn't care. It felt good, and she let out a small trembling sigh.

"It gets better," Saresan said.

"Oh, I can believe that. Why's Tyrus so glum? How can he be so glum when faced with something so wonderful?"

"You want to hear a secret?" Saresan leaned over a sack of hats and whispered into Lenka's ear. "He doesn't like flowers, especially when he's lost money. Having flowers around and losing money together, though--that just annoys him. Like really bad."

"I heard that," Tyrus grunted. He shook his head and muttered something vulgar-sounding under his breath, and turned back to the road. The stream widened a little, as did the road, and the mass of people thinned just a little. Lenka looked ahead, saw the fields of blue, violet and white ahead of her, a vast expanse of flowers dotted with people, paths--

--Signs? She craned her head over the cart's side for a closer look at one of them as it passed. The sign was worn and evidently had been there for some time, but the words etched in the wood were still legible:

"No unauthorised picking, stepping on, or otherwise vandalising the flowers. This place is has been declared a national treasure and is under protection of Royal Authority. All found guilty will be severely punished according to poaching law. Permits for regulated or one-time collection may be applied for at Town Hall." Lenka tried to fight the sick, twisted feeling welling up inside her. "Poaching for flowers?Do they have a law for everything in this place? No dumping garbage in the street, or even spitting, I can understand. But no picking flowers--"

"Oh, there wasn't a law for that," Tyrus said drolly, and pulled the cart into line with a few dozen others in a small, roped-off patch of grass. A goodly number of guards much like the one who'd accosted Lenka patrolled the place, obviously alert for trouble. "That was, until the people had picked the flowers almost out of existence. All right, I'm staying here with the cart. Why don't the two of you go off and enjoy yourself?"

Lenka frowned. "And you? You aren't coming with us?"

"I told you, he doesn't like flowers," Saresan said, and took her by the hand. "Come on, let's go. I've been itching to visit this place again ever since we passed it on the way up."

And so would she, Lenka realised after a few steps on the flower-lined path. It wasn't autumn here about the lake, but rather, spring, even if she could see the reddish-golden trees beyond the flower fields on the other side of the lake. More importantly, the warmth that emanated from the lake's cloudy waters seemed to seep through her skin and into her bones, even right through to the phoenix, who was sleeping soundly on her belly. Even if she didn't get to pick the flowers, all of them in various stages of blossom, she could still see and smell them, so beautiful, so wonderful, the scent in the air changing subtly with the blooms, now holding a hint of spiciness…

…So pretty…

Pretty?

That hadn't been one of her thoughts. Or had it?

The phoenix was awake now, barely so but still peering out through Lenka's eyes with a mixture of interest and anger. She felt the phoenix flutter, rouse, and Lenka breathed in deeply of the light, sweet scent, of the colours that ringed the lakeshore, of the happy voices that came to her, blended together by distance into an indistinct, comforting sound. That was one of the few things the phoenix had never been good at--smelling things.

What? You suggest that I'm somehow less than perfect?

Calm, calm, calm, she was in control here, there were people here, children; this was a place of peace, of sanctuary, of wonder, she would not do this, it would be sacrilege. For a moment, Lenka opened her eyes and took in the sights before her with the phoenix's vision--the colours were still there, yes, and there was a falconer flying his birds for the amusement of the humans, but they were so small and insignificant compared to her glory, and she could shred them if she could be bothered to. Then there were more people, and water, strange-looking water that probably tasted bitter and not fit for bathing in, for it would ruin her feathers, and more of those annoying metal humans watching over the flowers, how stupid was that, watching over something so valueless like flowers, in their blues and violets and now reds, swaying in a light breeze like her feathers…

They were so beautiful, the way their petals curled and folded in colour, against the golden-red leaves of the trees further from the lake, life in the midst of death. They were taunting her, the green stuff only fit to burn and build a nest from.

--No, no, you cannot do this, Lenka cried, there are people here, this is wrong! They will die, the world will be less without these flowers--

What are they to me, girl? Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?

This is not right. I will stop you.

Can you? You judge me as a human, but I am not human. These green stuff dared to challenge my beauty. The phoenix shrieked madly, clawing furiously at the insides of her skull. I am the most beautiful thing that has ever lived! How dare these humans worship these…these green stuff, these plants, when they should have been worshipping…worshipping…ME!

Saresan was shouting at her, shaking her by the shoulders, saying something, anything, urgently. She was seeing through the phoenix's eyes, feeling comforting warmth turn to maddened blaze, being the phoenix--

I am the most beautiful creature that has ever lived! the phoenix screamed again and again, as if saying it would make it true. I am the most wonderful, awe-inspiring, graceful--

Was there no end to the phoenix's vanity? Had Valise really been right, and this was part of her? Saresan was holding her by the shoulders, supporting her, and she grabbed the collar of his tunic with a frenzied urgency.

"Get out of here," she gasped, a sensation that could only be described as bloody heat welling up in her stomach and chest. "Leave me and tell everyone to get out now. I'll hold her for as long as I can."

"Miss!"

"Go!" To Lenka's own surprise, she shoved him so hard he stumbled onto the ground. "Don't ask, just go!"

Then she burst into flames.

#

Valise saw the smoke before the fire came into view. It hadn't dissipated even at this height, a thick, dark, choking column that only became more so closer to the ground, turning the evening sunlight into the glow of a huge fire.

Eshentobon's frost-rimed talons gripped her back ever so slightly tighter, and although no words passed between them, much had been said.

"She couldn't have," Valise said at last as she spiralled downwards. "No matter how depraved the girl was, she couldn't have. It'd be inhuman to burn down the flower fields of Alveona."

"I don't know of this place," Eshentobon replied, "but clearly it has some special meaning to you."

"I was mated--or married, if you will--there to Helfor," Valise said quietly. "Many people do, even us; there's something about this place that makes you calm. Hopeful. They travel--or in our case, flew--from the whole length of the Terrano to the everlasting blossoms, sometimes even consummated their vows in the more secluded spots. It's supposed to be--" she forced out the word-- "auspicious. The place is--was--blessed. How could she?"

Eshentobon said nothing.

"It's almost as if she knows. She's searching out my memories one by one and putting them to the fire." The ground drew closer and closer, an ugly mess of black and brown. "Say something, will you?"

"What would you have me say?"

"I don't know. Something. Anything. Just to break this silence. It's horrible, and wherever that passage of a girl goes, fire seems to follow. If it weren't for--" Valise peered down, and plummeted for a moment before she turned it into a dive, slowly evening out with the ground. "Is it just me, or are there things moving down there?"

"There are."

"Perhaps they're people who managed to escape the fire? The guard looking for survivors?"

A pause. "I am afraid, Valise, that I do not hold high hopes for this eventuality."

Desolation rose up to meet them as they touched ground by the lakeside. What Valise remembered of the fields' sweet scent had been replaced with an acrid, charnel stench that grated at her mind even as she changed and put on her clothes. A few fires still burned in the distance, but even then, what could she do? The strongest storm a lone garuda could summon would be hardly sufficient to douse one of them…

…So why was she here? To see the extent of the phoenix's depravity? To affirm to herself that she was doing the right thing?

Valise took a step back, and bumped against something warm and hard. She wasn't sure why she hadn't seen it coming--perhaps it was all these thoughts fogging up her mind--but she bumped into a thing of blackened bone, missing its lower jaw and stinking of rancid, burnt flesh.

If it wasn't for her time around Eshentobon, she'd have changed and flew, or more realistically considering her state of mind, run.

"I'm sorry," the apparition said, or rather, Valise's mind registered as it having spoken despite the fact that her ears had heard nothing. "But I'm so busy."

Valise swallowed and took a deep breath. "You are…busy…"

"I've to pick flowers for my beloved. We're to be married in a few hours." The apparition thrust out a bundle of blackened, wilted stalks, the skeletal hand holding it missing two fingers and plastered with blackened skin. "Don't you think the bouquet I've picked out is marvellous? It took me so long to get Town Hall to approve my permit. He'll be so happy. I know he'll make me happy, too."

"And…you don't know you're dead?"

"Why would you say that? I feel as wonderful as I woke this morning, if a little warm…but that's the lake." The apparition wavered a little, as if it was having trouble holding itself together. "Don't jinx my wedding, you silly old woman! I've worked and waited too long to make this come true!"

Something clenched Valise's shoulder, and she saw that Eshentobon had perched himself on her shoulder. "Valise, back away slowly. Now."

Valise obeyed, and to her relief the apparition lost all interest in her, turning back to picking up burnt stalks off the ground. But now that she was looking, there were so many of them all around her; there was a falconer, flesh peeling off him in strips, his birds flying despite missing half their bodies. Bloated, boiled fish still swam in the lake's waters thick with soot and scum, and there was the remains of someone's picnic, the bottles and mugs molten down to glassy puddles in the ashes. There were children with their parents, misshapen metal sculptures that must have been the city guard on detail in the flower fields, the ruined remains of fences and benches and kites and so much more…

If she closed her eyes, she could still hear the laughter of those who had been here.

"Memories," Eshentobon said softly. "They're reliving the last moments of their lives over and over again, until the strength of those memories runs out. It's a good thing they were good ones." The bird's skeleton he was wearing cocked its head to take in the lake. "So many happy memories, in the soil, in the bones, in the ashes. It will take some time for the apparitions to cease completely, maybe months or years."

Valise felt her throat tighten. "How? How could she do this? How could anyone with a shred of morality or conscience burn it all down?"

"I don't know." There was another uneasy silence. "Maybe we should leave."

"One more thing. I have to see one more thing before I go." Her boots crunching against the soil and other more unsavoury things, Valise strode across the empty fields until the ground began to slope upwards. She hadn't lied to Eshentobon--she had to see this, or else part of her would feel incomplete for a long, long time.

The cliff was a caricature of the memory she'd treasured ever--no, especially since Helfor's death, the burnt stems and charred petals growing ever thicker as she approached the edge. The slight breeze off the cliff picked up as she hurried onward, and yes, there were the remains of the path, and a small clearing in the flowers for people to stand, and a body, the clothes on it still recognisable as once having been a blue-and-white furred coat, the one grooms traditionally dressed up in on the day, and so had Helfor…

But most importantly, there was a pile of ashes right on the edge. Well, not so much a pile as a crater of sorts, a ring with a bowl-shaped hollow in the middle, made from ashes, burnt flower stems and branches, whole logs even--it might have been her imagination, but Valise thought she saw one or two bones lodged in the mess.

She couldn't take it any more, and screamed.

The winds whipped themselves into a frenzy, scattering ashes, branches, dust, sending them off the edge and careening into the abyss below. It wasn't long before Valise was out of breath, but winds still continued, sweeping the horrors off the cliff and out of sight.

The coat flew off the corpse, swirled in the air for a moment and fell. Valise sagged, and her eyes followed the coat at it fell, fell and vanished from sight.

"Of all the things she could have done. Of all the ways to add insult to injury…" she paused to catch her breath, and shook her head. "She built a nest. She took the bloody time, took the remains of these people's happiness, and built a bloody fucking nest out of them, here, now, in this spot where hundreds of couples prepared to spend their lives together, where Helfor and I did the same, and she…she…" Valise gasped, and swallowed the bile that'd risen in her throat. "It makes me sick to even think about it. This isn't just about me or you anymore. It's about doing the world a service.

"It's about killing something that doesn't deserve to live. Eshentobon?"

She looked down, and found him pushing away the ashes from a small spot. Bending over to take a closer look, she found a small sliver of green against brown and black--merely a shoot with two tiny leaves, but that would have to be enough.

"Let's go," Eshentobon said at last, tearing himself from the spot. "We will gain nothing from lingering where we're not needed."

Embers

Chapter 22

Getting away had been the easy part. There had been hundreds of people screaming and pushing their way towards their coaches and carts, legs pumping, eyes trained on the horizon. Where they'd been heading hadn't mattered, so long as it was away from the fire. Even the city guard, well trained as they were, hadn't been able to stem the tide of people washing over them, and it'd been a simple matter for Saresan to nip over to the cart and take the wheel from a sleepy and dazed Tyrus and drive away in the chaos and confusion.

The problem was what to do with Lenka. They'd found her by the side of the road a little way away from the fields, huddled against a tree and clutching her slightly singed clothing in her arms like a girl with her prized doll. Saresan had stopped the cart, lifted Lenka onto it by her arms and draped a few cut-out old sacks about her shoulders. There she'd stayed, not moving, not speaking, not even acknowledging either merchant's presence--she just sat there, the occasional whimper or bubbling sound escaping her lips.

"That can't be healthy," Saresan said after evening fell. It seemed a little brighter than usual, but that was probably the fires still burning in the distance. "She can't just keep on staring into space, not eating, not drinking. It's not right."

Tyrus shrugged. "I think if you'd seen what she's seen you wouldn't be quite right in the head either. Not that you usually are. I still cannot believe we managed to get out of there with our limbs intact; they're saying that dry lightning set the fire."

There was a moment's ominous silence.

"You know, there was this time I was travelling through these grasslands with Rogado, and the grass came up to our waists and was all yellow and dry. One night, there was this flash of dry lightning and the place was on fire, and I'd never seen a fire spread so fast, and that's what happened to the flowers, only it shouldn't have cause they wasn't as dry as tinder like the grass had been--"

"Saresan, is now the best time?" Tyrus said, and glanced back at Lenka. "Actually, go on. Maybe if you talk to her enough, she'll snap out of it."

Lenka mewled and shook under the sackcloth.

"--And anyways, Rogado and I were running for our lives from the fire, but it was catching up to us real fast like, so much so that the wind--yeah, it was driving the fire towards us--was throwing the embers ahead, and it was like we were chasing the embers instead of the other way round, if you get what I'm saying." Saresan paused for breath and scratched his head. "I don't know, I'm not sounding like I'm making much sense, but there it is." He peered at Lenka, her face in in the light of the cart's lantern as it rocked to and fro. Her eyes were no less glassy than when they'd picked her up, her hair matted, strewn all about the sackcloth with a few strands hung over her eyes. "Tyrus, I don't think she's hearing anything I'm saying."

"Do you have a better idea, then?"

"Uh…we should get her to stand and walk a bit soon. Sitting like that for hours can't be good for the circulation."

"We'll see what we can do when we make camp. You can have the honours. And keep talking. Here's your chance to rehearse those life stories of yours, before you go ahead and write your gripping autobiography or become an old storyteller or something."

Saresan cleared his throat. "Hey, Lenka. There was this time, you know, when Rogado wanted to get some flowers from Alveona, you know, like where we just went to, only he couldn't get a permit from Town Hall to get some because he was a filthy foreigner and that meant he was supposed to buy some from the locals at the horrendous prices they charge for them. That would eat into our earnings and he didn't like that, so what old Rogado did was get these two pots together--have you ever seen pots as wide as the cast-iron skillets they use near where you live? Yeah, he got two of those--"

Trees and milestones alike passed in the gloom.

"--And it turned out we were lost, so Rogado figured he'd make a flare or fire or something. Hold on, I'm getting a bit thirsty from all this talking." He picked up a nearby water bottle, uncapped it and took a swig from its contents before setting it back on the cart. "Now where was I? Oh, he was going to make a flare to signal the caravan where we were, but he didn't know anything about alchemy and that sort of stuff. Still, we had a little blasting powder--don't ask me why he had it, maybe he was looking to do a little prospecting later on--and the oil in our lamps, so old Rogado mixed them up. I told him that was stupid, but he put a match to them like this--" he fished out a box of matches and struck one, the head flaring to life with a small, flickering flame.

Lenka screamed and snatched it from him before Saresan could even blink.

"What the--" Saresan said, but Lenka was already mashing the match between her palms, grinding and snapping the offending wooden stick until all that remained was a mess of black-smeared splinters that she flung over the side of the cart.

"Fire," she mumbled as she shrank back under the sackcloth, tears in her eyes. "Put it out. Put it out. So much fire."

"She speaks," Tyrus said. "That's an improvement."

"Damn it, Tyrus, how can you be so bloody calm when she's like this?"

Tyrus shrugged again. "At this point, what would be the point in panicking? Would it change anything in our favour?"

"No, but maybe you could show a little concern for Lenka?"

"And such an outward show of concern would accomplish? If there's nothing else, I have a cart to steer."

Saresan made a frustrated sound, but turned back to Lenka as the cart rattled on. "Come on. You're in there, aren't you? There's got to be at least someone in there, it can't be all the phoenix, can it? Lenka? Can you hear me? Say something if you can. You can do that, can't you?"

Lenka tightened her arms around her knees and bowed her head. Perhaps, Saresan thought, Tyrus was right and they'd done all they could for Lenka right now, maybe give her some time alone to sort things out in her mind before trying again.

But that would be defeatist thinking. How else were you supposed to have an adventure if you were too cautious to take the leap in the first place?

"Fire," he said.

Lenka mewled and hid her face in the sackcloth. "Stop it. Please. Stop. No more fire. Please."

"You don't seem very well."

The words came pouring out like a dam breached. "I feel wrong. Unclean. It's not supposed to be this way. It's not supposed to be this way," she mumbled. "Flying is supposed to be wonderful. I have to fly or else I'll die. I always managed to guide the phoenix away from the wrong choice. But she made me do things. Why did she make me do them?"

"You did fight her every step of the way." It was what Tyrus would have called whitewashing away guilt, but Saresan didn't care; Lenka was clearly aware of the enormity of what she'd done and didn't need it rubbed into her any more. "Right?"

"I don't want to live alone. Alone with no one around, keeping other people away with a front. But I have to, so I can't hurt them. Not the phoenix, but me. You know what I saw? Everything the phoenix saw. That bird-woman was right. There's no phoenix or girl. In the end, there'll just Lenka." She dropped her clothes, and they came tumbling out of the coarse, scratchy sackcloth, heavy, rumpled, and smelling of ashes and old sweat. "I don't like the new Lenka Pelakova."

Saresan wasn't sure what to say. There were at least twenty different things he could have said, but none of them seemed quite appropriate. At last, he picked up the water bottle again, uncapped it and wordlessly handed it to Lenka, who accepted it and sipped at its contents.

It wasn't perfect, but it was a start.

#

"Why does she run? Does she think she can hide when she leaves behind a trail of ashes and embers for us to follow, as clear as day? Does she actually imagine that we'll get bored and give up?"

"Judging from what you have told me of the phoenix," Eshentobon replied, "perhaps she sees it as a game. A completely immoral and distasteful game, but a game nevertheless. The sort of game befitting people like her. I should know."

Valise cast a glance at Eshentobon. He wore dragon bones once again--seemed to be doing that a lot, to the point she thought of that as his natural form--sailing through the clouds as effortlessly as she was. "Completely capable of razing flowers and people helpless to fight back, but removing herself from those who can actually hurt her? Maybe this is more than a game." She clicked her beak. "How about cowardice?"

"That, too, might suffice for an alternative explanation." Why did the wings need to beat? There was hardly any wing-leather between the old, yellowed bones now, but they still moved because that was what they remembered they should be doing in flight. Memories. Persistence. A mind tacked onto a force of nature.

Sometimes it was so easy to forget who he was. What he was.

Where he would eventually go once they'd succeeded in ridding the world of a monster.

"We will catch up to her and…do what needs doing, no matter how distasteful. It's only a matter of time."

"A matter of time," Valise agreed. "One can only hope there's time enough."

#

"More water?" Saresan poured a little of the boiling liquid from the pot into a tin mug, and nudged it in Lenka's direction. She murmured to herself as she accepted the mug and sipped at the steaming liquid, then groaned softly as she shivered under the sackcloth. Tyrus stood to one side of their small campsite by their cart, well away from the fire, eyes trained on the trees around them and crossbow in hand.

"Careful," Saresan said. "It's hot."

For a moment Lenka looked as if she couldn't make up her mind whether to laugh or cry at him, then her face crumpled up into the same morose, glassy-eyed expression she'd worn ever since they'd found her. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

She turned her gaze back to the small fire, still a good two arms' length away from her. "I'm not sure if I should impose upon the two of you anymore."

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Clearly, I can't keep my promises. I told both of you I could keep my changes in control, and yet I couldn't. I don't think you'll be doing business in Alveona for a while. And sooner or later, people are going to notice the two of you, and me…" she took another sip of water and rubbed at her flushed, damp face. "I don't know what to do. I can feel her now, Saresan. She's screaming at me, do this, do that…and I can't ride her mind the way I used to, not anymore. Instead, I am her." Lenka shuddered. "Maybe it'd be better if I spent the rest of my life as a bird, forget that I'd ever been human. Live in the woods, eat what I catch--"

"--Turn into a filthy, snarling wild thing when you need to be human again, undignified in every sense of the word--"

"You're not helping," Lenka said, and looked away. "At the very least, it'd mean I won't be burning down any wonders. It'd mean I won't be cremating anyone and using their remains to build a--" she coughed and gurgled-- "build a--"

"It'd mean you'd be giving up, losing your humanity," Saresan replied quickly. "Can you imagine the phoenix loose without you to hold onto her? Of the things she might do--I don't know, out of sheer spite perhaps? Do you really think she'd be content to stay in one place?"

"I can imagine," Lenka replied, still not looking Saresan in the eye.

"If you do decide to go in that direction, all I can say is that it'd be little better than giving yourself to that bird-woman and bone…thing. Is that something that you really want? Giving up? Letting the phoenix do as she wishes? Would that be something you would do?"

Lenka sighed. "That's a lot of philosophy coming out from the mouth of someone who thinks that eating sour crab apples straight off the tree is a good idea." Saresan opened his mouth to speak, but she waved him off. "Enough for tonight. I want to sleep, if that's still even possible." She huddled on the ground, sackcloth draped over her body, one arm pillowing her head. "Don't bother staring. I won't do something stupid. I think."

"Won't you be uncomfort--" Saresan began, and thought better of it. He left Lenka and tromped over to where Tyrus stood watch, and slumped.

"How's she?" Tyrus said.

"Better than before."

"It'll have to do. Go and get some rest, you look worn out yourself. I'll wake you up when it's your turn to keep watch. Tomorrow I'll give Lenka some of that old vodka that's in the cooler, see if that helps. Never thought I'd be saying this, but…feel free to have some yourself."

"Thanks."

"Just don't hog the bedroll."

When the time did come and Tyrus shook him awake, Saresan noticed that Lenka had changed in her sleep; what he'd first assumed to be the fire's dying embers the glow of her feathers shining dully through the sackcloth. Tyrus would have said it was stupidly and pointlessly dangerous, but he went over and pushed against the phoenix until she rolled onto her belly, her feathers warm and soothing to the touch. Lenka chirped softly and twitched, and Saresan decided that at least she looked more comfortable now.

The phoenix didn't have to be evil, no matter what Lenka said of herself. If nothing else, this was proof of it.

Embers

Chapter 23

It was another day before the wagon entered the foothills proper. The intercooler was mostly empty now; they'd sold off the last of the onions at a out-of-the-way camp and Tyrus had deemed it worth hauling some of the crushed copper ore downhill, a sentiment Lenka agreed with.

"Seems like it took us forever to get out of the mountains," she mumbled, her eyes fixed on the grassy sides of the road as the cart trundled past.

"That's the coast for you," Tyrus replied. "A thin strip of land between the mountains and the sea. If you joined the major settlements up with a straight line, you'd get a straight line."

"How exciting." Lenka laid back against the cooler and stared up into the empty blue expanse of the sky, clear save a few clouds rolling in from what she supposed was the direction of the coast. She couldn't quite explain why, but she didn't like it, and apparently neither did the phoenix. It made her feel…exposed, to put it into human words. There wasn't anything to hide behind or in, and that felt wrong.

At the very least, she thought grimly, even the phoenix couldn't burn the sky to ashes.

I could if I tried hard enough. I'm sure I could. Would you like me to try? The sky would look so pretty afire. Not as pretty as me, though.

"You don't need to look so glum," Saresan said. "I mean, you did help all those people back there fix their pots and pans, didn't you? And there was that guy who needed that knife blade reforged, and they wanted you to look at their drilling equipment. It's not that bad. You're not that bad. Even Tyrus has to admit that we're taking in more money than before."

Before she knew what she was doing, Lenka had sat up and turned on him with a scowl. "And that's somehow supposed to make up for what I did? Don't you even stop to think for a moment that I--I--" She closed her eyes and shook her head, and the scowl faded. "Look, I know you're trying to help and I can appreciate that, but please leave me alone for now. I've got my hands full with a voice in my head trying to make me do things, and I don't need a voice outside my head doing the same."

"Sorry, Miss."

She waved him off. "Don't apologize. But I'll speak when I want to be spoken to. I'm just…frustrated." A human with more than a bit of bird in her. A bird, already fickle and temperamental, made even worse by the increased capacity for malice and violence that was so very human.

She'd be lying if she didn't admit the thought made her feel at least a little warm inside, as if her feathers had grown inward. Best not to think about it for now. Rolling up the sleeves of her coat, Lenka picked her way across the cart until she was beside Tyrus. "Just a question. How many days more till we reach the coast?"

"A day through the foothills, give or take; they aren't that thick. Then, well, say another day or two before we reach the first major settlement. And to think my father used to tell me this journey used to take weeks before we didn't have to tether oxen to the carts any more."

"Hmm."

"Did you have a specific destination in mind?"

"Well…" she fished out Mr. Aug's recommendation letter from her toolbox and waved it in Tyrus' face. "I wouldn't mind starting where I at least know there'll be people kindly disposed to me. On the strength of a name, perhaps, but a lot can be done with names."

"Hmm. New Kerdia. A reasonable choice, and I know people there." Tyrus took another glance at the letter, then flipped open his ledger with one hand while keeping the cart on the road with the other. They passed a small patrol of soldiers on foot, and Saresan gave them a friendly wave. "Just to remind myself…main exports: cabbages…various manufactured goods…mm…imports…hmm. Doesn't seem too bad an idea, and with a place that large even the outskirts will want for something we're carrying. Heck, I hear that cities this large have their poor cramped in the centre while wealthier folk move outwards where the scenery is nice, they can magic their rubbish away without worrying, and it doesn't smell of fish when the wind blows the wrong way."

"That makes sense. In an odd fashion, but it still does." Lenka's head itched and she scratched, wondering if she'd caught another bout of feather-lice. She was miles away from Missus Toryll now if anything, and other people might ask inconvenient questions if she walked into an apothecary and asked for a formula to get rid of them. "Well, I came to the coast in search of answers, and here we are. I can only hope they're there and I have a lead to track them down with."

"If you're speaking of the academies, how are you going to convince people to speak to you?"

"Oh, I'll convince them all right. One way or the other." Lenka thinned her lips. "It's the only way to find out what's happening to me, and I'm not leaving without putting an end to this nonsense. If they won't speak to me, maybe they'll speak to the phoenix. She can be very persuasive when she wants to."

#

"Food, food, food," the chicks cheeped plaintively. The human in Valise didn't hear anything besides a horrible screeching noise for which she'd have gladly tied her own children's beaks shut, but the bird in her understood them perfectly and what they wanted; a pity if it always happened to be the same thing. "Hungry, Mama. Food."

Carefully, she reached into the wooden cot that held all three chicks with a hand and felt for their crops. Empty. As far as she knew, a real bird might not eat itself sick, but a young garuda, especially a changed one, might. Besides, there was no point in taking chances. Caring for a chick was supposedly easier than caring for a baby, but her joints still ached at the end of the day.

"Hungry, Mama. Food." The biggest and boldest of Valise's children, already showing hints of green and gold amongst white down, clung to the cot's side and searched Valise's hand with her beak. "No food?"

"Hush, Salendre. Your Papa's coming back with food." Gently, Valise picked her daughter off the side of the cot and set her down with her siblings. "Just wait a little longer."

"Food."

Valise petted her daughter's fuzzy head. "Yes, food."

There was a knock at the door and Helfor appeared, a large dish full of brownish-red lumps carefully balanced on one hand. Freshly-killed pigeon, mostly--Valise had helped him with the shredding that morning--and a little chicken, alongside with a few broken feathers.

"They've coughed up the pellets from yesterday, haven't they?"

"They have." Valise cast a glance at the pebble-lined cot. Salendre had busied herself pecking at her brother's head, while her sister huddled in a corner away from the fray despite the chill air. Odd, she thought, that the runt of the brood, or at least while a garuda chick and not a baby, was a girl."We've got to make sure they share their food. Yesterday I saw Salendre bullying the other two for what scraps she could steal from them. I don't want her growing up fussy. Yesterday, she wanted me to feed her directly into the mouth even when she's clearly too old for that."

"On that note, are you sure it's healthy for them to stay changed so often? I know, I know, but I'm already doing the cleaning up after them. No other brood has stayed this way so often, and Mother says that you should be a little more worried for her grandchildren. If we were truly birds, there wouldn't even be a village. Well, not unless we were one of those odd hawks that hunt in packs, and we aren't."

"If I have anything to say about your mother," Valise replied, not even looking up from tearing off warm, bloody gobbets from the dish and letting the children squabble over them, "it would be that she was altogether too fond of giving suck, for what that's worth."

"Oh, and you don't?"

Valise flushed, and she dropped the meat she'd been holding into the cot. The chicks immediately swarmed over the morsel, ripping it to tiny pieces as they fought for it.

"Helfor, not in the same room as the children!" she said, but couldn't help a small smile, which he returned with a grin.

"Food! Food! Food!" the chicks chorused, their eyes trained on the dish, necks and beaks reaching out for it in the hopes of more. "Mama! Papa! Hungry!"

"It's all right. They can only think of one thing now." Helfor looked out of the window and smiled. "Let's go flying later. It's a lovely day for it, and I'm sure we can bring down something for dinner. My parents will mind the children."

"Wake up, Valise," another voice said, although it wasn't Helfor's. "Wake up and smell the ashes."

Valise groaned, sat up, and shook the back of her hooded poncho to get rid of the dirt and bark bits that'd gotten stuck to it overnight. "I had a dream, Eshentobon. It was so vivid. So real. Almost as if I was back there again, almost as if I was living through it a second time and I could do things right this time…" She rubbed the last bits of sleep from her eyes and stood. "But this is here and now."

Claws drummed on cool rock. "Memories are like a--ha-hrm--thicket of wild roses. Nice to have and admire from time to time, but another matter when let yourself get caught in one. Or many, for that matter. Excuse me, but are you feeling fine?"

"I…" for a moment, Valise was tempted to say no, to lie down and go back to sleep, but that'd mean the phoenix would get further away. Finding that girl when she was hiding was enough of a problem already; she didn't need matters complicating themselves. "I'm all right now. Was just a little dazed just now. It seemed all so real."

"A mirage seems very real, too, but it isn't."

Valise had no answer for that. "She's heading for the coast. Plenty of towns and places to hide in, and people will notice two huge birds trying to kill each other, to say the least."

"And it would not be prudent by far to wait until one or two villages vanish before we find her trail again."

"No," Valise agreed as she packed her poncho into her pouch and changed. "It wouldn't."

#

There hadn't been many countryside marketplaces around Inavael. It wasn't because the soil was terribly poor--generations of terracing had flattened the ground a little--but more because aside from cultivated land, there wasn't much in terms of flat ground that high in the Terrano.

Even this one wasn't that impressive. She'd heard about whole cities of tents that stretched from one end of a meadow to another, attracting people from all over. This was a patch of dry, dusty ground, farmers displaying their produce, and the wholesalers who'd buy it and bring it to the people. Lenka had seen a greater assortment of people pass through her father's establishment most nights.

"It's really not that complicated to making a living as a merchant," Tyrus told Lenka as he inspected a stand full of hothouse-grown tomatoes. "Most of what's essential can be boiled down to a few points such as 'buy low, sell high', 'don't let that sap know how much you're willing to pay for or accept for something', and 'rip off the sod and make him or her think you're the one on the losing end and the sale was their idea in the first place.' That sort of thing. Even Saresan can understand them."

"And how, exactly, does one go about doing those?"

"I said it wasn't complicated. I didn't say it was easy." Tyrus gave the tomatoes one last look-over, sniffed at the stallholder and left with Lenka in tow. "Some people are inevitably going to look down on you because you supposedly produce nothing and make a living from ripping holes in peoples' coin-purses, but what the heck. I never cared for strangers liking me anyway, and these principles are ones you can apply even if you're not a small-time merchant. Still interested in learning the trade?"

"Hmm."

"This is more my kind of place, though. Practical things, which is why Saresan's the one staying with the cart now. Pity I'm not a wizard, or else I'd have charged them for me to do a growth spell or two."

They wandered around--or at least, Lenka couldn't see any concrete direction to Tyrus' meanderings--the marketplace for a little longer, and Tyrus bought both of them a honeyed bun. Oddly enough, the phoenix liked it even more than she did.

"So," Tyrus said at last, "do you remember what you actually did back there in Alveona?"

The honey suddenly turned bitter in her mouth. "I…"

Tyrus lowered his voice. Not that it was really needed, Lenka thought; the noise of people haggling for this and that effectively drowned out their words. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I just want to try and ascertain how much trouble we might be in if I bring you somewhere where there're a lot of people." He winced. "I won't deny it--just after what you did there, I was thinking that you were more trouble than you were worth. Well?"

"Before this happened…I…I didn't really remember much about what the phoenix did when I let her to her own devices. What was me, I suppose, rode on the phoenix's mind, and I usually went to sleep as I couldn't care what she did." She shivered. "Missus Toryll said you can't have an animal in a human's body, or the other way round."

"Who's that?"

"Someone I used to know back in Inavael."

"Oh. Then what about--"

"I'm not quite a phoenix, yet not quite human, or at least, not anymore. It's something else altogether, and that's what's eating me. I remember…more of what I did back there. Sharper than I remember. In more detail. It…" the honeyed bun didn't seem to be sitting too well in her stomach. "It hurts, and to make matters worse, the only person whom I know can tell me anything wants to kill me."

"She lived through it. You can too."

"At what price?" Lenka closed her eyes, and opened them slowly. "All right. All right. I think I remember what happened back there. You won't like me very much after hearing it."

"Try me. I already know you burnt it all down. What could be worse than that?"

Lenka told him, and to her relief, he didn't loathe her any more than he already must have had, or at least didn't show it on his face.

Embers

Chapter 24

"I see her," Valise said simply. She was perched on a bare chalk cliff that overlooked the coastal road, a few nesting gulls in the distance. The sight of them made her hungry, but as she'd once said to her children, civilisation was based on controlling and harnessing one's instincts.

Chalk. Made up of the bones of dead sea creatures, or so she'd heard, although she couldn't quite remember where she'd heard it. Still, that was beside the point. Bones were everywhere, if you cared to look closely enough. Wasn't where the expression "bones of the earth" came from?

"I don't," Eshentobon replied.

"Well, I do. You want to know why we didn't see her for the whole of yesterday? We were ahead of them." Valise made a few adjustments of her wing feathers; they'd be seeing a lot of use soon. "She must have hidden in that gathering, that country-market we passed over yesterday morning." She peered down the road that lay between them and the sea, her body bowed and tail feathers spread. "Trust me on this. It's a good, open place with not much to hide under or behind, perfect for our purposes and no one around to interfere. Given at the rate they're moving, they'll be underneath us in about two hours. Plenty of time to prepare."

"Is that why those heavy clouds are rolling in from the sea?"

Valise clicked her beak and cleaned it on the rocks. "I told you, I can't force anything. I'm not a phoenix; I don't work that way. However, I'm given to understand that a little evening shower isn't too out of place here, hmm?"

"Hmm."

"Prepare yourself. I'll be busy maintaining the storm until it becomes self-sustaining. You'll be on your own down there for a while."

"Yes." Eshentobon hadn't budged an inch, the hollow eye sockets of the dragon's skull trained on the old road. A bridge might have been better, but the old, cracked paving stones that made up the road and the scrub on the cliff side would have to do. "I will prepare."

#

"Seems like we've got rain incoming," Saresan said as he looked up at the deep red evening sky, his eyes shaded with one hand. "Plenty of it, in fact. You have to wonder how's it that you can get really bad storms out on plains; I mean, it makes sense to have storms where there's plenty of water around, like here, but it sort of puzzles me when you get wind without a whole lot of water--"

"They're moving really fast," Lenka noted, a frown on her face. "The wind's pushing them…straight towards us, it would seem. Hard to believe the weather can change this fast."

Tyrus said nothing, sucked on his teeth and coaxed the cart's engine from its usual gentle rumble to a loud whirring. It all seemed to happen so fast, Lenka noted--one moment the sun was still shining, the next it'd been completely covered by the heavy, deep grey clouds that stretched towards the ocean as far as she could see. They didn't look natural, but then again, what did she know of what was natural outside of the Terrano?

"Tyrus?" she said.

"Those cliffs up ahead look like good shelter," Tyrus replied matter-of-factly. "We might as well catch up to them before the storm catches up to us--I'm not having all that rice we bought back there getting moist and useless."

"Rice." Saresan said. "Now who's not right in the head, with all sorts of delicious country produce to ship, and instead he buys plain, boring old rice."

"Which along with potatoes, feeds everyone down by the coast. If there's something people will buy no matter who they are, it's rice. That, however, is not going to be a question if we don't find some sort of shelter before the rain comes."

"Can't you make this thing go any faster?" Lenka said, and sighed. "That was a stupid question to ask. I know it can't go any faster." She tightened the strings of her coat and flexed her itching, burning fingers. Oh, the phoenix didn't like the rain, especially something that promised to be comparable to the worst the Vahal brought, but there was something in the air that made her want to fight. Not the phoenix, but her.

"Make yourself useful and help Saresan get up the awning, for what it's worth. That overhang looks good enough as shelter--I'll steer us under it."

They managed to get under the overhang just as the first drops of rain fell, or at least they had to be, since they were technically moving from the sky to the ground. It seemed to Lenka, though, that the raindrops were more horizontal than anything else; large as the overhang was, it seemed to be doing nothing. The winds tore at her coat and hair, carrying fat raindrops with them that pelted her face and soaked her clothes. Tyrus and Saresan looked equally miserable, the former having produced a small tinderbox from the cart and attempting to light its contents. He looked so engrossed, Lenka didn't have the heart to ask what he'd burn if he ever got the tinder to ignite.

"This rain doesn't seem like it'll ever stop." Saresan said, and sneezed. "Can't see or hear anything outside."

Tyrus looked up from his now-soggy tinder. "Just don't wander off, no matter what you see. I don't want to have to go out searching for either of you."

Lenka searched for the phoenix; the bird was truly miserable now, and she wanted to Change badly so she could do something about her feathers, which by now no doubt would be soaked. It couldn't have been that long since the rain had started, but it was as dark as midnight beyond the pathetic shelter the overhang afforded--not as if she could even see very much beyond the curtain of white that kept them hemmed into this place. Strange, though, she'd never heard of rain so strong it gave rise to mists at the same time--

Thump.

Crunch.

A few pebbles fell from the overhang, one of them hitting Lenka squarely on the head. She looked up just as the whole overhang shuddered once, twice, then shook perilously something large and heavy leapt off it and onto the ground. The cart's lantern swayed wildly on its hook, so much that for a brief moment Lenka was worried it would fall and smash--

--Which was exceedingly stupid, considering what was emerging from the mists. White fog turned to blue fire, and water dripped off old bones as the skeletal dragon--there could be no other way to describe what she was seeing--stepped into the light.

Tyrus dropped his matches. Even Saresan gaped. "Do arrows even do anything to that thing?"

As Lenka's mother might have said, there was a misery in her bones. Still, she drew herself straight and glared at the thing, feeling the old spark of the phoenix's maddened rage kindle in her gut. "You are too big to be a lizard. Just get lost."

The skeletal dragon took a step closer, bones held together by blue fire. "You have made Valise sad."

"She tried to kill me."

"And rightfully so." Those burning, empty eye sockets swivelled towards Tyurs and Saresan. "Merchants, I still have no quarrel with you. You have been acting in good faith until now, but this is your last warning. If you continue to aid and abet the phoenix, I will have no choice. For your own sakes, please make the correct decision."

"Saresan--"

"Hey, you're crazy if you think I'm going to miss this for anything. This is the best day of my life!"

"Getting torn to pieces is your idea of the best day of your life? I don't see what we can do here; nothing we have is going to hurt that thing, maybe we should clear the area and not get in her way so she doesn't have to worry about us." Before Saresan could reply, Tyrus already had an arm around the thinner man's neck and was dragging him away around a small rock outcropping. The skeletal dragon must have been satisfied with that, for it turned back to Lenka and took yet another step forward.

"Lenka Pelakova of Inavael, you have been charged with mass murder, voluntarily causing hurt, criminal vandalism, wantonly destroying a cultural and natural treasure, and many, many more. There is no formal court in the world that would bring you to justice, but both you and I know deep down that no judge, no matter how twisted or crooked, would spare you the gallows for your atrocities.

"Do you have anything to say in your defence?"

"It wasn't me," Lenka said, taking a step back, her skin itching more furiously than she'd ever remembered. "It was the phoenix."

"Valise tells me that the distinction is immaterial. You are the phoenix; the phoenix is you. You are culpable for anything the phoenix does, and the reverse is true. A phoenix is representative of not just fire, but of life and rebirth. You have made a mockery of all that is good about the phoenix, and as judge and executioner I sentence you to death. Maybe some good can come of your passing."

It leapt.

Bony wings spread, body arched in a catlike poise and those old, broken talons reaching for Lenka, and she reached inside where the phoenix waited, miserable, wet and frustrated, ready to take it out on anything that moved. In that second, her insides boiled, burned--

--And she changed, her clothes carefully loosened so they fell off as feathers sprouted from her skin and madness, madness entered her mind as the glow faded--

She burst into flame just before the skeletal dragon crashed into her, raindrops hissing into steam as they hit her feathers, her beauty, the shimmering glow of her feathers, against this ugly, base thing of ancient bone held together by magical fire that had neither warmth nor life, but that she had. It wasn't like the wall of bones she'd faced before; now this thing was trying to kill her, and she had to admit that it was terribly, terribly strong. This wasn't a flesh-and-blood animal where she could grab it by the head in her talons and let it tear itself to bits and bleed out.

She hated that.

She ducked, and claws scratched gravel from solid rock just above where her head had been, sending out a small cloud of dust that was quickly whipped into the storm and lost. The skeletal dragon turned, clattered, and lunged again.

Lenka screamed, and fire rose to meet her opponent, gouts of red, gold and blue whirling from her feathers and searing the ancient bones, yet it still came, flames and embers pouring off its back and through the huge ribs.

"Die, damn it! Why won't you just die? Look, here's a fire, just die in it already!"

The skeletal dragon went still, then spoke slowly, its jawbones grinding together so hard Lenka heard it even above the storm.

"I have considered that question many times. The consensus appears to be that one must have some form of life in order to be able to die. Perhaps now you see why you come into this equation."

Lenka paused. Was it trying to lure her into talking so she'd let her guard down? "Your friend told me. But I don't agree with how."

"There is no other way."

"And I don't believe one word of it."

"It does not matter. You end here now."

She tore and fought, crushed the bones in her feet, huge, solid bones that must have lain buried for who knew how long--but there were always more to replace what was lost, bones from the earth, tearing out from the chalk cliffs and joining the thing, which looked less and less like a dragon and more like some sort of mashed-up monster. Bones too large for their sockets were nevertheless jammed and forced to move, and she could feel herself tire.

Fly? Where to, in this storm? Could she even fly straight in this wind? Besides, her pride would never let her run, a phoenix did not run, it fought until it won or burned itself to ashes to be reborn anew in the fires, in the body of--

"Yeeeeeah! Die!"

There was Saresan--she must have forgotten about them while she was busy, they were so small it was funny to her--but he had the cart, and it was ploughing over gravel and through fire. Its crystal array engine must have been overloaded, light violet sparks shot out from underneath the cart's bed, and Saresan must have hit a hump or something, for the cart flew. For a moment, it flew, blurred and beautiful like a phoenix as it sailed right into the thing's skull.

Fragments exploded in all directions, pelting Lenka's feather with sharp, hard bone chips. The cart landed with a thud heavy enough to shake the ground, and Saresan shakily got to his feet and stood on the cart's back. Blood welled up in the cuts that ran across his face, and mixed with tears before dripping off his chin.

"You know how I was saying just now that this was the best day of my life? Well, I wasn't right in the head when I said that." A maddened grin appeared on his face, so wide it threatened to split his face in two. "No, now I can say this is the best day of my life!"

He'd come…he'd come…and well…Lenka pretended to be immensely interested in the now-motionless bones that littered the rocky ground, the blue fire that'd animated them now gone. She'd needed help, whether part of her that thought of herself as the phoenix wanted to admit it or not, and, well…helped. That, at the very least, deserved her thanks.

"Thank you."

"No," Saresan replied. "Thank you. If you hadn't come along, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to have what's now the best day of my life. Well, until there's another best day, but for now, it'll do." He stepped over bone fragments, boots crunching on wet gravel, and picked up the dragon skull. "You've got to wonder how much some chap would pay to have this hung up as an antique or trophy, let alone some crazy wizard. Worth so much more than some dumb old sacks of rice."

She couldn't help herself anymore; it was so ridiculous. Here she had been, damp, ragged and fighting for her life, and Saresan was gushing over the skull of the thing that'd tried to kill her like some gewgaw displayed in a marketplace. It was just so stupid.

Lenka laughed.

She laughed and laughed and laughed, a strange chirping sound that faded to more human laughter as she changed back and Tyrus came over and helped her to her feet. She was still laughing even as the rain lashed against her skin and doused the few fires that still burned, laughed as she stepped over blackened bone and rock alike to where her singed clothing had fallen.

Maybe it would all make sense when the rain stopped and she'd had some time to figure matters out. Chances were, though, it wouldn't.

Embers

Chapter 25

The sun rose on the overhang.

"I'm sorry," Lenka said, her feet sticking out from under the cart. "I don't know what came over me, but I just had to laugh, get it out. Saresan…jumping the cart through the flames like that and smashing straight into…" she coughed. "When you look back at it, the whole matter was just hilarious, but in a twisted way. I was so worried the two of you had abandoned me, and there you were. That part…was just unbelievable."

"Was that the part where he did something so unbelievably stupid, or the part where it actually worked?"

"Both, probably." Lenka slid out from under the cart, stood, and tapped the cart's singed wood before she began to pack in her toolbox. "I've done all I can for this poor thing. It'll go, but until we get to civilisation and get our hands on a proper gear chain and some other replacement bits, it won't move at anything more than a crawl. I'm sorry you lost most of the rice, even if most of the other stuff survived."

Tyrus shrugged and scuffed his boots on the still-damp ground. Water had formed small pools in the depressions, and the storm last night had washed down enough soil from the cliffs to start a brickmaking business. "It wouldn't have survived that sort of rain, anyway, and besides, you've already done more than I could. At this point, I'd have to abandon the cargo and leg it to the nearest city. I still can't believe that worked when a giant burning bird tearing that bone thing to bits wasn't enough to bring it down."

"I agree. It's just…" She raised a grime-smeared hand to her face and stifled a giggle. "There's no reason he should have been able to get away with that. He shouldn't have been able to escape still standing, not after doing that, but he did. It's just hilarious. A normal person would probably have the cart upturn on them and get crushed to a pulp or something equally sensible on those lines."

"You know, until I saw some of the things Saresan gets away with, I used to believe that Rogado was just a figment of his imagination created to fill the emptier spots in his head." He stared at the ground and sighed. "With any luck, the unpaved sections of the road won't have turned into mud; getting to New Kerdia along the coastal road is hard enough as it is. How's the phoenix?"

"Wonderful. It's nice to be in agreement with that bird for once, instead of having to fight her every step of the way." She took off her coat and gave it a good shake, sending a small shower of wet sand to the ground, then tried to tidy herself. The phoenix balked, complaining that it was far too long that she'd warm, bloody meat, not the disgusting hard stuff that tasted odd, even if it was hot, and when was she going to get a bath to wash off the dirt and bloodstains? "I don't know, but back there trying to rip that thing to pieces, I felt…good. Like…like…" she scratched her frazzled hair. "Like there weren't the two of us, and there was just me, only not in the way I was when I was stuck."

"What? Stuck?"

Lenka winced and sighed. "Never mind. I still can't keep thinking. Everything that the bone thing said to me back there was true. No matter how you put it, I did burn down the flower fields, or at the very least, I allowed it to happen while the phoenix did it, and even I'm not sure of that anymore. There isn't a fair-minded judge in the world who'd spare me the gallows."

Tyrus opened his mouth, but before he could speak Saresan appeared, his arms full of yellowed bones.

"Can you believe it?" he said, the pile in his arms teetering precariously with each step he took. "There aren't many dragons left in civilised lands, and I'm damn sure the bones get more valuable the older they are. Lenka! Just guess how much this stuff I'm holding is worth, will you? I hear they're great substitute materials for the usual stuff used to build the whatchamacallits in generators. You know, those bits that go round and round and generate the magical impulses? Those thingies? "

"I'm a bit busy now--"

Saresan stuck out his tongue, apparently oblivious to the numerous scabs on his face that moved as he did. "Oh, come on! Where's your sense of fun? Just a guess will do; it's not as if I'm asking you to assay them and write huge lines of stuffy numbers down. Well? Well?"

"Uh, um…" Lenka cast a glance at Tyrus, but he had turned away from her and had busied himself with emptying a packet of porridge powder into a mess tin of boiling water. "I don't know, I'd say about seventy silvers a weight?"

"More than that, definitely more than that!" Shaking with glee, Saresan dumped the old dragon bones onto the cart. "Sod boring old rice, this is going to make us rich, and I don't even have to convince people to buy them from me! It's…it's better than chocolate, if that's ever possible!"

"Chocolate? I think I remember something…wasn't that the confection you'd hauled all the way up into the mountains?"

"We'll be able to get ourselves whole boxes of the stuff if this lot makes it all the way to New Kerdia! Just think of it! As much chocolate as you could possibly want or even imagine!" He bent over and patted the cart's side, then kissed the old, charred wood. "You are the most amazing thing I've ever had the satisfaction of driving. Thank you. Oh, and I love you."

Even the phoenix was laughing now, having moved past incredulity to sheer hilarity at how stupidly this thin, featherless human was behaving.

Saresan looked at Lenka, dusted off his hands and raised an eyebrow. "Hey, there isn't anything wrong with giving positive reinforcement, is there? Think we should eat up and be going; it's not nice to stay where we're not needed."

"Porridge. Yes, porridge." Tearing her gaze away from the horned dragon's skull, Lenka tried to focus her eyes on the mess tin Tyrus was tending to, now bubbling thickly over the fire. Porridge. Food. Hot. It would be thick and probably salty, and…

Lenka shook her head, and the thoughts vanished.

Tyrus tapped the side of the mess tin with a spoon. "You going to eat or not?"

"I…yes." Lenka shook her head again, and the flames at the edges of her vision receded. "I'm just a bit tired after what happened; my mind's wandering all over the place."

"I see."

"Oh, and is there a stream or lake or something on our way to this New Kerdia place? The phoenix really wants a bath."

#

It took some effort, but they did manage to find a small stream a little way away from the road where they could park the cart. The water was murkier than what Lenka would have liked and neither Tyrus nor Saresan stopped to fill their water bottles, but she Changed anyways and waded into the shallows, splashing about in the slightly brownish water while Tyrus and Saresan sat on a couple of boulders by the lakeside and watched.

"You know," Tyrus said, pointing at the dragon's skull, "that thing disturbs me."

"And you're capable of feeling that way?"

"Don't joke." He reached out and tapped cracked, yellowed bone. "It's not a laughing matter."

"Then what you do see, mister? A spirit waiting inside, ready to lunge out at us while we're asleep?"

"No. There's absolutely nothing, and that's what worries me. You know how old bones have this strange eerie feeling when you get too near them? That sort of feeling that's more than just you being afraid of being near something that died? Some wizard or the other once explained it to me, something to do with accumulated residues or some such. But that isn't the point. It looks like it's been sucked dry, for want of a better way to describe it."

"Are you sure you're not imagining this?"

"Who's the one who said I didn't have enough imagination to see things that weren't there?" Tyrus scratched his chin. "Well, in this case it'd be more of not seeing things that were there, but it's the same thing, really."

"You know, this reminds me of the time Rogado and I stopped by the invisible crystal grove while we were in Kasmir. There was this ranger and everything, and we didn't see any invisible crystals even within the fenced-off area, so we asked the ranger lady-person where they were, and she said that of course we couldn't see them, they were invisible, so I said that if they were invisible and all that, what was the point of--" Saresan stopped, frowned, and turned to see Lenka rouse herself to shake off the water. "Y'know, I wonder why the water isn't boiling. Like that time last night where the water steamed when it hit her, but it's just fine now."

"How would I know anything?" Tyrus replied, and poked at the ground with a stick. "I mean, where do the bloody feathers go when she's not a bloody bird? Or that extra mass? How should I know? Why should I care? What I'm worried about is keeping her--and us, of course--out of trouble. Thinking back on it, this whole matter's rather dumb. A couple of men taking a young woman they'd only met a few days ago out of the mountains? One whom they know turns into a big burning bird on occasion and causes all sorts of trouble? You'd imagine they were thinking with their other head instead of the one on their shoulders."

"Yeah, but that was the right thing to do."

Lenka moved over to her cart, still damp and swollen like a damp, feathery ball. With what sounded like a cross between a chirp and contented sigh, she laid herself on the bone pile, belly-down and wings spread out in the early afternoon sun. "We may start going now. Might as well not waste any more time than we've already."

"And you're not particularly worried about someone seeing you like that?"

"No," came the reply as Lenka nestled on the pile. "The sun is too warm today to pass up, and I'm sure that any passers-by will be grateful to be able to see me in all of my glory." She clicked her beak, reached down and put a stray feather back in place. "Let's get moving."

#

The sandy space under the overhang was quiet. Too quiet, as if something had startled the local creatures into silence--the sort of situation that Valise had usually never bothered with, since most of her prey had either been in open skies or ground. Still, she landed, took in the sight of what scattered bones had remained and took a careful step forward.

There'd been a fight here, that much she could tell. Scorch marks and deep, parallel grooves adorned the whitish chalk face, and since the phoenix and her self-appointed protectors weren't here and the bones were…

Another step forward. Then another and another, until she was close enough to peck at the few dragon bones that remained. Well, what had she expected? They were dull and lifeless, without any glimmer of blue about them, but she nudged the bones about anyway, hoping for…no. That would be selfish and cruel. That was what made her different from the phoenix, who did what she wanted without sparing a thought for others. Eshentobon had spent all his unlife trying to gain peace, and for her to wish that he was still around just to keep her company was stupid. There was still the clan. She still had family; her mother and siblings. She could go back and pick up where her life had left off.

Even if it meant letting the phoenix get away with what she'd done. Years ago, Valise had heard a strange concept from some wandering missionaries who'd stopped in the Terrano; it basically stated that the morality of one's actions determined how nice fortune was to you. Now, as then, she had her doubts about it. The world wasn't going to go out of its way to punish the phoenix.

There would be time enough for philosophizing later. Here and now, though…slowly, Valise gathered together what bones remained and heaped them into a small pile. Eshentobon deserved a memory, no matter now small--

"Ouch. That hurt."

Valise hopped back, fluttering her wings to steady herself. "What? I--" before her astonished eyes, the bones flared a brilliant blue and tried a few arrangements before settling on a vaguely beetle-like shape. "--I wasn't quite expecting that. It hurts?"

"It hurts! It hurts!" The small bone effigy danced on the ground, the collection of vertebrae, claws and other tiny bones twisting and turning about itself. "I felt something other than the fires, Valise! I had the phoenix's blood on my--no, my body's claws, and I remember how it is to hurt! To feel! To know pain is to know you're alive!"

Valise clicked her beak. "Wait a moment, you're losing me."

"O-of course. I'm sorry, I'm just so excited. But the point stands! I remembered, not just the pain, but so much more! Of the things I used to do, the places I liked to eat at, even if I couldn't afford them very much on my lab tech's salary, and then there was…the point is, I felt almost alive then, and if I was alive, then I can be killed! Don't you see? We're doing the right thing by hunting the phoenix!"

"Not that we already weren't." The road leading away from the overhang stretched into the distance, a goodly long way. Too long, Valise thought. Too long. "They took the bones."

"Oh, pish, let those merchants have all they can haul. There's plenty more where those came from, and the bones will only slow them down." The bone effigy trembled and collapsed, and the blue fires crept, rose and coalesced into a crisp outline of a rather thin and pointed man. Valise blinked. Was that how he'd really looked when alive? The most she'd ever seen his boneless form as was a rather fuzzy silhouette, like the first time they'd met… "I'm sorry for behaving like a little boy, but…it's been so long since I've remembered how to be excited. Goodness, do I actually feel giddy?"

"I'll continue tracking them. You go and rest for a while, find yourself a new body, calm yourself down. It's quite obvious they're heading for New Kerdia; it's where I would be heading myself if I were her."

"I never thought I'd actually be thanking a cart for crashing straight into me," Eshentobon said, then began fading into nothingness. "Ha! I remember! I hurt! I live! Take that, you ugly burning bird!"

Valise pecked at the bones until she was sure he'd gone, then found a nearby lake and had a nice, long bath.

Embers

Chapter 26

"Here we are," Tyrus said above the groaning of the cart's wheels. "New Kerdia, home to the sea trade of this bloody country and about a thousand dead fish and other rotting things. It's not the capital, but it certainly comes close."

Lenka leaned over the side of the cart and took a deep whiff of the air blowing in from the coast. Even at this distance, it reminded her of the large bags of salt her parents would buy from the carters at this time of year, and they'd get down to salting and pickling almost everything from cuts to meat to sweetbreads to vegetables, and at the end of the day she'd end up sticky and her skin dry to the arms.

Ugh, the phoenix thought, and she echoed the bird's sentiments.

"It tends to be warmer here," Tyrus said as the city gates drew into sight. "Something to do with the sea currents."

"Is it?"

Tyrus shook his head. "You never noticed? In any case, you don't need to tighten your coat that much till you look like you mean to choke yourself. The smell from the docks will do that just fine."

"I like my coat."

"How many of them have you gone through, anyway? Three? Four? I remember you bought another one at that country market back there."

"Three--" Lenka said, and thinned her lips before looking away. "I don't think it's any of your concern, so long as it's money I earned myself, is it?"

"It is my problem if the reason you're ruining these coats is that you can't control your changes and trying to burn down everything in sight. Not to mention that you're going to be trailing that bird-woman in here with you, at the very least."

"For a loaf of bread, one of those travelling teachers taught me that all the great wizards lived down by the coast. Them, and the majority of the troops, to protect the shipping lanes and roads leading away from the major trading centres. Unless a certain poor little red-haired girl had been cheated out of her loaf of thick-crusted bread, I think they can bloody well do their job and protect the city."

"From you?"

"If need be." She balled her hands into fists. "If I can't even keep myself from doing something horrible in the midst of so many people, I don't deserve to live."

"And what do you plan to do?"

Silence. A few more milestones rolled by, punctuated by the occasional cart clearly heading towards or away from the city. Lenka spotted several huts and small farmsteads along the sides of the road, increasing in number as they drew nearer to the city's outskirts. It felt a little odd to be passing through farmland that stretched as far as the eye could see, even if most of it was fallow save a few winter crops--there wasn't enough consistently flat ground back home for that, and anyone trying to grow anything outdoors in the cold months was an idiot.

Home…those huge pines which hid the phoenix while she dulled the glow of her feathers and waited to drop in on her prey from above and behind.

The phoenix that was Lenka shivered.

"Well?" Tyrus said. "Thought long enough? What Saresan and I are going to do are to go down to the docks and see what they've brought in. Well, he is, while I look into my usual business contacts, then maybe visit his folks, get a free meal out of them. We'll be staying there while we're here, anyway."

"Saresan has family?"

"Hey, you didn't think I came from nowhere, did you?" Saresan said with a grin, then turned back to going through the pile of dragon bones. "What, you thought I crawled out of a vat or something?"

Lenka ignored him. "I said it before, and I'll say it again. I'll go to the machine-smiths guild, see what they have to say about my recommendation, and then find whoever who runs the biggest collection of knowledge around and start asking my questions, no matter how many feathers it takes. I'd rather have gapped wings than be dead."

"That would be the Academy, yes."

"Then that's where I'm going. They've got to have something on what a garuda is. I mean, that Valise woman mentioned that the cabin was her uncle's, and it was on a cliff edge, meaning that whoever built it had to be able to fly. If there's a whole clan of these garuda like she said, then I'm sure that someone will have made notes, and if this Academy's so great that people from where I live save up their whole lives to send their children off there…they'll know something."

The city gates were in view now, carts rolling under the portcullis with sequestered efficiency. Several enterprising merchants drove small pushcarts through the waiting lines of carts, horses and people, selling hot food and drinks to the people waiting for their turn at dealing with the gate guards.

"Which gets me thinking," Tyrus said as he pulled the cart into place behind a particularly large cart stacked high with crates. "I know this question might be a little hard on you, Lenka, but…do you think you might be the only phoenix around?"

Lenka felt every muscle in her neck tense. "What?"

"I'm not good with words, so I'll just give it straight to you. Everyone has family that's well…like them. Even that Valise, so you say, has a family of bird-people like her, and maybe even a whole village if there's a clan of them. You, on the other hand…" he coughed, waiting for Lenka, but she'd turned her back on him.

"Go on," she said.

"I mean, you don't even know why you're a phoenix and your parents are perfectly ordinary people and you weren't left on the doorstep as a baby like what I suspect happened to Saresan…I mean, I'm not saying that you definitely arethe only phoenix-person in existence and the birds exist, otherwise we wouldn't know what they are, but…it's best to be prepared for that possibility." He cleared his throat a little too loudly. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologise for something that's not your fault," Lenka snapped, but there was a tremor in her voice. "You're right. It is a possibility I need to consider…but…I should have thought about it before. Why didn't I?"

Tyrus reached out with a hand and patted her on the shoulder. "My grandmother did use to say that I saw what was there, because I didn't have the imagination to see things that weren't."

They waited a little longer until they were up against the gate. Tyrus pulled up against a small booth set into the city wall, slapped a coin into the waiting guard's palm, who nodded and waved then through.

Saresan peered into a vendor's open pushcart, a sad-looking affair of metal with wooden wheels tacked on and a burner fitted into its belly. "Cold rice and beans, boiled fish, biscuits….this is all hungry food. Where can a true adventurer find something to eat around here?"

"What's wrong with rice and beans?" Lenka said.

"It's hungry food. What you eat when you're hungry, or what people in the slums eat 'cause they can't afford anything else. Heck, they can't even pay to have their rubbish magiced away. I--" he fiddled with a largish wing bone-- "am an adventurer of leisure."

"So he claims," Tyrus said as he paid the vendor and received something large and fragrant--why, yes, Lenka realised, the rice was wrapped in a large leaf the likes of which she'd never seen before. "I don't think you have this up in the mountains," Tyrus said, thrusting the still-steaming package at Lenka. "Want to try some?"

"It's boring," Saresan said.

"It keeps at least two-thirds of the people along the coast fed."

"It's still boring."

"I'll have one," Lenka said, but she wasn't looking at the vendor. Instead, her eyes were trained on the spires and towers that loomed over much of the brick-and-mortar city, and the phoenix--no, she--was wondering just how she might look if she perched on one of those, yes, perhaps the very tallest one that looked just right for her feet, and let the humans below bask in her glory. Some humans near the coast put up fires in high places, and that was very smart of them to know the beauty it afforded, yet quite pitiful, for no matter how they tried they could never match her glory with their mirrors and oils and magical crystals--

--With the towers alight, fire leaping up from their heights and spilling down to the cobbles below, rushing down streets and alleys like a tide of molten steel, people's screams cut off short as the waves of red and gold washed over them, reducing even bones to ashes, a new city reborn from the remains of the old--

Lenka focused her eyes again, and in the distance--perhaps near the centre of town--was the same crest that'd hung over the doorway of Mr. Aug's smithy-cum-machine shop-cum-foundry ever since she'd first laid eyes on it. There were other towers and flagpoles with crests on them, yes, but this was the only one that mattered now.

Would she ever see that doorway again? No, that was a stupid question. She would.

"Lenka?"

"Mm?"

Tyrus handed her a spoon. "Your rice and beans. It's to us what…hmm…wheat porridge might be to people who live in drier areas. You might as well have some; it'll take us some time to reach Saresan's place in these crowded streets and I don't think they'll be expecting us. I took the liberty of asking the vendor for fried beans; they taste better."

Carefully, Lenka raised the package to her nose and sniffed again, then unwrapped the leaf in her lap. Small golden-brown chunks sat on top of white, fluffy rice with just a tinge of green to it, and she could see in the chunks where the large, broad beans had been pressed together into a cake.

It's rotting, the phoenix said, and pecked at the inside of her skull to get her attention. It'll make you sick. I know better than to eat rotting meat; it is for the lowest of the low, those who cannot hunt for themselves. Those who wait and steal from others or even worse, for something to die on its own.

You don't mind alcohol that much, Lenka replied. You loved that vodka they practically forced down my throat.

That's different.

What isn't to you? She tried one of the small cubes, and had to admit the phoenix wasn't too far off; the beans were crumbly, with a gooey texture holding the pieces of cake together, and oddly enough, it didn't taste of very much. Perhaps a slightly sweet texture on the beans themselves, and the rice was almost as bland as she'd expected it to be with the fragrance more smell than taste. The phoenix still scoffed at her for lowering herself to such levels, but at least she was nice about it. The bird Lenka remembered would have screeched and tore and tried to get her way at all costs, even on something as small as this.

Maybe she couldn't control the phoenix for the time being, but she could influence her. Until…well, until whatever was going to happen happened; she would deal with that when it came.

Tyrus pulled the cart off the main street and into a side one, eliciting a loud creak from the cart's wheels. "Well? How's the coast so far?"

Lenka finished the last of the rice and scrunched up the leaf. "Flat."

He let out a small laugh. "I suppose. The only thing I could think of when I went up to Inavael was how there didn't seem to be any ground that you couldn't put a ball down on without it rolling away." He waved his free hand at the street they were trundling down, two lines of reasonably clean-looking brick homes sandwiching the cobblestones, some of them even large enough to sport a small garden.

It was strange; all the books Lenka had of the large coastal cities had described them as cramped and filthy, usually with the waterways and sewers clogged with trash, and people usually had barely any space to turn around, let alone live in. Then again, she could see some of the buildings in the distance were clearly older than those on the street they were on, and after Alveona, she really shouldn't have been surprised.

They stopped against a gate.

"We're there, and good thing too. This poor thing is going to break down on us any second."

"It needs to go to a machinist's at once. Since I'm headed to the guild at the first opportunity…"

"Oh, I'm sure you can humour him a bit," Tyrus said, pointing at Saresan, who'd fallen asleep against the dragon skull. "Meet his folks, that sort of thing. We're going to be staying here anyway, and you don't know your way about the city."

"I could if I flew."

"Are you serious? This isn't the mountains. People are going to notice a big burning bird in the sky, and they will do something about it, if even that something is merely telling the city watch." He shook his head before mumbling a short phrase under his breath, and the cart's engine died so quickly Lenka could almost see it sagging in relief. "I know you're in a hurry, but I'm sure you can take some time and have a look around."

The phoenix fluffed her feathers at the thought of going along with what a mere human wanted her to do, but Lenka had to admit Tyrus had a point and soothed the phoenix with comforting thoughts. "I suppose."

Embers

Chapter 27

Meeting Saresan's parents hadn't been too much of a shock to Lenka. After all, people here grew old, same as those back home. What had she expected? Mealtimes, though, were another matter, such as the one that came the following morning.

"--And there Lenka was as a phoenix, fighting for her life against this huge collection of dragon bones. Only they weren't dragon bones by now, they'd been replaced by bits and pieces pulled out from under the earth, and goodness knows where those had come from, I mean, who knows how long bones last after we've put people into their graves--"

Saresan's mother, a small, unassuming woman with silver in her hair, looked at Lenka over the broiled shrimp and gave her an apologetic smile.

"--So I was trying to figure out what I could do to help, only I wanted to make sure I was helping, because there've been times when I tried and only made things worse and it didn't seem like Lenka could handle worse. Then I thought that maybe if hurting it in bits wasn't working, hurting it all at once would, like that great philosopher said something about massive physical trauma--"

Lenka smiled sweetly. "Saresan, please take a breath before you implode."

"Well," Saresan's father said after some consideration, "it's…interesting to know that at least part of what our son gets up to isn't made up. I had a hard time swallowing that story about the talking fish. Are your business partners going to be staying with us long? I wouldn't complain, but neither of us are as young as we used to be."

"We'll stay as long as what's strictly necessary," Lenka said, and looked across the table at Tyrus. "Isn't that right?"

Tyrus nodded and speared a small broiled fish on his fork. "Mm. It'll take a while to shift these dragon bones, maybe have them properly assayed before we find buyers. I don't usually trade in these, and it'd be nice to know I'm not being cheated."

"Mm." Lenka stared at the spread before her, a sour sensation spreading in the pit of her stomach not unlike the way her guts had twisted that stormy night when she'd lost control over her Changes. Fish were all right, she supposed, as were other things like shrimp and shellfish; they were plentiful in some of the mountain streams near Inavael and she'd caught some for the guests when she'd been a girl.

She just hadn't expected there to be so many of them. As far as Lenka knew, the phoenix had never touched so much as a single fish--she'd gone after mostly large birds and the odd four-legged prey every so often, but not fish. It just wasn't in her. Looking at yet Saresan carefully break open a large lobster and drizzle it with dark sauce before setting it onto her plate, she felt her stomach complain again.

The phoenix--no, she felt sick. Perhaps she should have felt shame at showing weakness in front of humans, but the spinning sensation in her head demanded her immediate attention, and it was hard not to obey.

Lenka pushed back her chair and stood a little shakily. "Excuse me, but…I have a lot to do today…get the cart to the machinists'…then show them my letter. I…" She couldn't take it any more; this wasn't like how she felt when regurgitating pellets from her crop…wait, what? How had that thought slipped through? No, there wasn't time to think, she had to get to the cart where no one could see her and lie down…

There were voices behind her, a blend of Saresan's and Tyrus, but she didn't care anymore as she pushed away towards the door and stepped into the welcome morning sun.

#

Valise knelt on the rocks. Face towards the sun, her clothes and pouch in a neat stack nearby, hands on knees and feet folded under her, she felt the cliff winds blow out her hair and touch her skin, and inhaled deeply.

It reminded her of home. Not exactly, for the rain the Terrano's peaks wrought from the clouds was as pure as any water in the world. Here, the salt tang to the air ruined that, but it was close enough. One side of the cliff held the sea, far, far below her, and the other offered a sprawling view of New Kerdia and its surrounding villages along the river delta.

Now she could think.

As she'd expected, the phoenix had gone into hiding like a bird in the woods. It would take time, knowledge and patience to flush her out before the crazed bird got it into her mind to burn the whole city to the ground, and Valise had none of these. A garuda hunted in the sky and cliffs, not in the woods, and she couldn't count on Eshentobon being around to help; he would take at least a few days to put together a new body, days that would be taken from what little time she had left.

Besides, she didn't have much. Moving about anywhere populated would require her to remain in her human guise, and that would be a problem; all she had with her were her clothes, a few coins that she'd hung on all the way from where they'd first spotted the phoenix, the crossbow…at least there was no shortage of gulls in the sky above, and the sea cliffs would suffice for a place to rest.

This wasn't like the stories. In the stories, the monster stayed in one place and waited for the hero or heroine to come and slay it. Here, the monster ran, leaving ashes in her wake, and the lives of tens of thousands--perhaps even more--lay in the heroine's hands.

Valise had to do it; the alternative was unthinkable. She'd seen what'd happened to Alveona. Then when this was all over…she'd go home. Yes. Home. She had the answers to the questions of life and death, and once the phoenix was…pacified, her duty would be done with.

Yes, home.

"Who are you?"

Valise opened her eyes, and met those of a rather scrawny girl of about twelve, peering at her from the cliff's edge. "Who do you think I am?"

"I don't know." The girl moved a little closer in a strange, birdlike gait, and Valise saw that she carried a basket with on her arms, half-full of gull eggs. "I haven't seen anyone else up here before. You look like my aunt. Or my mother. Or Missus Werna who gathers up the fish traps from the shallows every day. You look like everyone."

"That's what some people say."

"What are you doing here? And how can you stare into the sky like that without hurting your eyes?"

"I'm meditating." A small frown appeared on Valise's features. "Didn't your parents tell you never to talk to strangers? It's not safe."

A shrug. "That's true, but my mother keeps on telling my father she should have married a better man and keeps on threatening to leave us but never gets around to going out the front door, and my father keeps on telling me we should be content with our lot but I see how he looks at our neighbours just because they can afford a slate roof instead of thatch. I mean, if adults don't even know what they want, how can they know what I want or even what's really good for me?"

"You're smart. That's a lot for someone your age to say."

"I hold onto things tighter than grown-ups expect me to. Why aren't you wearing your clothes? I get into trouble if I don't wear my clothes."

"You just said that nobody comes up here."

"Except me," the girl replied. "They don't hold onto things tightly enough, so they slip and fall. The gulls know that, so they build their nests up here where people don't want to come up, but I never let go of anything I grab." She showed Valise her hands, worn and grown thick with calluses. "See? I tickle fish better than anyone else I know, too."

On closer inspection, Valise realised the calluses weren't actually calluses; they looked more like horny growths that lay in bands circling the girl's fingers, making them look less like human hands and more like bird's feet. Her nails, too; those were far thicker than should have been right. Talons, perhaps?

Once, the garuda were ordinary humans, Valise remembered. But they were close to places and powers. That alone was not enough, but through their way of life they changed, and gained the Blessing of the Change in their blood, which could never be watered down. Or at least, that was how her father told it to her, short and simple. These cliffs could very possibly be such a place of power, they felt like it and sang to her blood, although in a different way than the plateau back home did. Maybe if the girl climbed enough…

No, that was stupid. It would take generations, if the stories were to be believed. But then again, how long had this girl's people been living here along the coast and cliffs where the gulls and ospreys nested? How long had they lived in their packed little villages of planks and sun-dried driftwood, huddled for protection against the elements, eating gull eggs and fish, scouring the sea with their nets and lines for its bounty? This particular girl reminded her of the few who had tried to control the bird while they were in their Passage and gotten trapped in their Change, only the child didn't seem to be in any pain.

Valise looked at the girl again, and fought back a sudden urge to scream and attack. Even if her suspicions were right, this child wasn't a real osprey, and this wasn't her territory anyway.

"Missus?"

"I'm sorry. I got caught in a thought there." Valise took in another deep breath of salt spray. "You…remind me of someone. Well, not really of someone, but someone who might have been if she hadn't died in a fire. It's a very sad story."

The girl pouted. "You're starting to sound like my mother, always saying she's regretting something. And you still haven't answered my question."

"Pardon?"

"Why you aren't wearing your clothes?"

"Oh." The wind from the sea picked up again and it whipped through Valise's golden hair, making it fan out across her shoulders. She took a deep breath and prepared to reply.

"Because, my dear child," Valise said as the golden glow faded and she spread wings of green and gold against the clear sky, her shadow falling over the girl, "I don't need them most of the time."

The girl looked up at Valise, then clapped her misshapen hands and laughed. "I know what you mean."

#

The way Lenka saw it, Tyrus would have felt completely at home in the machine-smith's guildhall. Save for the crest above every doorway and on every tower, the whole building was comprised of various shades of grey, from the walls to the window frames. Most of the other guilds had the luxury of having a garden, complete with bushes trimmed into humorous shapes. This one didn't.

Very businesslike. Very practical. Tyrus would have approved. Lenka groaned softly, one hand on her stomach and the other steering the cart. With what strength she had to spare, the phoenix scoffed at her for eating strange food instead of something sensible, like warm, bloody chicken.

She steered the cart into the main courtyard, which seemed to be the correct place to go; the edges of the open space were lined with all manners of carts, the less mechanically-inclined watching impatiently as young men and women dressed in the red and grey of the guild's crest worked at servicing their vehicles.

It was hard for Lenka not to start drooling at the sight of proper work tools after weeks of working with fire from her hands and what her toolbox could hold. A proper power drill--goodness, she'd missed her workbench back at Mr. Aug's, but she'd never truly known how much until now--

"Can I help you?"

Lenka turned to find a young man, perhaps a year or two younger than she was, standing by the cart. Dressed in the same gloves, goggles and thick apron of spelled fabric, he didn't look too different than any of the other apprentices in the courtyard.

"Yes," Lenka said as she turned off the engine with a muttered phrase and hopped off the cart. "General massive physical trauma to all components, wheels are probably too far gone and need to be realigned, gear chain needs to be replaced. I wouldn't mind it if you re-spelled the motor. The whole job shouldn't take more than two days and in the area of seven silvers."

The apprentice scowled. "You think you know a lot, don't you?"

"I've been trained."

"Then why don't you do it yourself?"

"Because I don't have a gear chain and other bits I need. Oh, and this isn't the only reason I'm here. Otherwise I would have just bought the parts and oil and done if myself." It was a lie; she'd wanted to hear the ring of so much metal against metal again, but the words had been said and she couldn't take them back. She reached into her coat and pulled out the letter. "Do you know who I should see about this?"

He peered at it. "If that's what I think it is, you're far too late--or too early. Enrolment doesn't start until spring, even if you've got an established guildie backing you, and as I understand things they don't do that very much nowadays. No one wants his or her neck and reputation out on the line." He hesitated a moment, as if trying to recall something particularly important. "Learning has to be--uh--structured. Yes, that's how the masters put it. Structured, like machines."

"But isn't there anyone I could speak in the meantime, maybe learn what to expect?"

"Let's get your cart settled down in one of the repair bays, and I'll see if I can go in and get Master Malachir. He's in charge of admissions; he'll know what to do with you and your letter. I'll need to borrow it to show him--"

Lenka thinned her lips. "No, it stays here with me. I'm not going to let it out of my sight, let alone hand it to anyone. I'm sure you can understand."

The apprentice's face soured and Lenka thought he might put up a fuss, but he nodded reluctantly and pointed at the ground. "Stay here." He disappeared into a door adjoining the courtyard, and it wasn't long before he returned. "He'll see you. Says at least a letter of recommendation will break the tedium."

"So I'm supposed to go in?"

"What, you want him to come out to you?"

Of course, it's only befitting, Lenka was about to say, then remembered where she was. "I was under the impression that one wasn't supposed to waltz into the guild hall as they liked."

"Not without a suitable escort," the apprentice replied, and pushed open the door he'd come from to reveal a brightly-lit hallway. "Well? Are you coming?"

Lenka hurried into the doorway and heard the door click behind her.

Embers

Chapter 28

What Lenka first noticed about the machine-smith's guild wasn't so much the sights, as the smells. No doubt the actual forges, foundries and engineers' workbenches were far away from where the public would ever go, but even from this distance her nose picked up scents that made the phoenix chatter in annoyance and demand to have them interpreted for her.

The bird never had a good sense of smell.

Ashes. Dust. Burning coal. Charcoal. Steel, hot as it was being run through the mills. A warm, earthy smell of various ores. The faint, yet sharp and unmistakable tang of spells wrought to sift aluminium from bauxite, and she knew one tube would be emptied of air before it was collected and processed, and the other would fill with powdered debris--

--Working on the road was all well and fine, but how much had she forgotten in between leaving Mr. Aug and now? Patching a broken pot hadn't exactly tested the limits of her skills.

"You don't have to look so worried," the apprentice who'd been leading her said. "It'll be just fine. We're not wizards, we don't kill people because we put on our socks inside-out when we got out of bed or something stupid like that."

"Who said I was worried?" Lenka snapped.

"Everyone's at least a little worried when they first meet a master machine-smith. I mean, we're the ones who build all the machines that--"

"I know that. I've done it before."

"Sour, aren't you?"

Lenka sighed. "Not so much sour as annoyed that her line of thought's been interrupted and she can't get it back." She looked around her and took in the grey, narrow hallway, almost identical to the one near the entrance save that numerous doors were set into both walls. "Where are we?"

"Where we need to be." The apprentice removed his goggles, wiped the sweat and dust from his face and hammered on one of the solid-looking doors with a fist. "Sir!"

There was a muffled thud behind the door, and after a few seconds it opened soundlessly and a rather large, bespectacled man peered out from between door and frame. "You again?"

"I've brought her, sir. The one who had the letter."

"Yes, yes, I can see that for myself." He opened the door a little wider, and with a nod sent the apprentice scurrying down the hallway before he turned to Lenka. "Well, don't just stand there, young woman. Come in, and we'll have a look at that letter."

Lenka followed him into what must have been his office, although it looked more like a scribe's or accountant's workroom than a machine-smith's. Master Malachir stepped over to a window behind his desk and latched the shutters with a click, throwing the room into near-darkness, tiny beams of light filtering into the room through cracks between wood and stone.

"Does it have to be so dark?" she asked.

"Yes. Do take a seat," he said, pointing to a chair on the other side of his desk. Lenka obeyed. "Places in our…establishment are highly coveted. Before I even ask your name, I must ask if you do know the consequences if that letter of yours is found to be forged."

"No."

"Traditionally, we poured hot lead into the culprit's ears, until the King of that time made an edict specifically prohibiting that. We're more civilised nowadays, so we send the poor sod packing. Society does the rest for us."

Lenka scanned the master's face for any hint of what he might have been thinking, but it remained as blank and expressionless as a sandpapered tablet. "I understand."

"Very well. Name?"

"Lenka Pelakova."

"And you may call me Master Malachir. That name isn't a lowland one--your hometown?"

"Inavael, the eastern border Terrano."

"Hmm." Something clicked in the darkness and a small lamp on Malachir's desk flickered to life, casting a strange blue-green light on the desk's surface. "Name of sponsor?"

"Mr. Aug."

"Not Tharel 'Scars' Aug? Him?"

"Is there a problem, sir?"

"I just…well, we thought he was slightly crazy to go up all the way there, but he's done well enough for himself with a captive market. Relation?"

"I was under him for seven years and worked my way up to being his head apprentice. He said he had an account with the guild and--"

"So you say." Malachir held out his hand right in the middle of the pool of light on his desk. "Your letter, please. I need to verify its authenticity."

The phoenix complained that this blocky, misshapen human was demanding too much than was right, but Lenka hushed her and hesitated a moment before she reached into her coat pocket and brought out the letter. Master Malachir hummed to himself, took the sheet of paper with Mr. Aug's neat handwriting all over it and held the guild seal at the letter's bottom to the light.

As soon as the seal met light, faint golden tendrils of vapour wafted up from the paper's surface, then were gone as Malachir pulled the letter out from under the light.

"So, Scars finally bothered to use his guild account to finance something. To date no one's managed to forge our seal, and frankly we're more concerned about new admissions cheating on the entrance exams." He folded his hands together, palms and wrists covered by those familiar open-fingered work gloves, and peered at Lenka over the top of his glasses with a small smile. "You'll still have to wait till the spring to take them, of course, if you're to enter the journeyman's accreditation course. And there are the details to be worked out, as well as getting back to Scars--and would you believe I have a lot to ask him. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll be in New Kerdia, or maybe you can come down again when--"

"If you'll excuse me, sir, what's this?" Lenka said, pointing to a lather large sheet of squared paper on one side of the desk. Half of it was unrolled, and a number of drawings had been carefully outlined and annotated, and underneath everything were the words not drawn to scale in big block letters.

Malachir frowned. "That's what I'm working on at the moment, a reactor vessel for the Academy; I may be in charge of admissions, but that still doesn't excuse me from other duties. Gone are the days of cauldrons and old soup-pots, young woman, of half-understandings and doing things just because. Properly calibrated for various inputs through the valves in addition to a wide range of temperatures, pressures and other specific conditions, a stimulant potion that took all day and immense amounts of wasted components to brew can be mass-produced easily through a completely automated process with minimal monitoring required. Isn't that amazing?"

"Uh…my training was more on carts and automated looms."

A shrug. "Oh well, Scars always liked working from the ground up. Even used an old-fashioned forge for some time."

An idea wormed its way into Lenka's mind. "You were talking about working for the Academy?"

"I suppose so. Our establishments have been closely related for some time--they figure out how things work, and we put their theories into practice. Not to say we don't have our own competencies in their areas of knowledge and the reverse, but yes, it's a largely co-dependent relationship." He looked straight at her. "Any reason?"

"Do they allow the public into their libraries? I'm looking for information for a particular project of mine." No hesitations, no untoward pauses. Not with this man. "On a few rather rare species of birds, in particular."

Master Malachir didn't say anything at first. Instead, he got up from his chair and threw open the window, letting light flood into his cluttered office. At length, he sat down and tore a scrap of paper from his notebook, scribbled a few words on one side, then turned it over before he reached for a heavy-looking seal to one side and pressed it hard on the paper.

"I should've expected Scars to pass down his pet project of making a purely mundane flying machine to his apprentice. I won't stop your efforts, although I don't see the need when we have perfectly good magical ones, even if the technology is a bit out of reach of the layman at the moment." He handed the paper to Lenka. "Here."

Lenka had no idea what the master was talking about. Had Mr. Aug really planned to build a flying machine? He'd never mentioned it even to her; maybe it was something he'd planned to do, but forgotten about when more practical matters swamped him.

Or maybe the master was flat-out lying. Why, she had no idea, but it was a possibility. She looked at the words on the paper. They were innocous enough; a request to allow the bearer into certain shelf sections. She didn't have much of a choice if she wanted to find out what a garuda was, did she?

Besides, the phoenix said in the back of her mind, what does it matter so long as you can go where you want to?

"Are the Academy's libraries open to the public?"

"I'd say about half of the collection is available. The rest are either off-limits, or not exactly containing forbidden knowledge--" he chuckled-- "but rather so in demand they've been reserved for use by students. I know stray vibrations are steadily becoming a nuisance in many new designs, and this will get you to the books you need."

Something sank in Lenka's chest. Had she wasted her time here? No, that was stupid. There had to be something for her to do once all this nonsense was over, and following in Mr. Aug's footsteps would suit her. "Oh. Thank you."

"None needed. I'll see you back here three days after spring officially begins. If you're going to go back to see Scars, send him my regards."

#

Lenka flew. She hadn't truly flown for a while, and now was as good a time as any other. The air here was different, heavier, and she wanted to test it for herself.

It was a new feeling. Common sense dictated a young woman couldn't fit into a phoenix's body, and by extension, a phoenix couldn't fit into a young woman's body. A young woman with more than a bit of phoenix in her could fit into either.

Was this what that garuda woman had spoken about? She no longer rode the phoenix's mind as she flew as she had back at home, but was the phoenix, and it stayed with her even when she was Lenka-Lenka, not Phoenix-Lenka--

She did another turn in the star-studded sky, the lights of the city below her. The humans' nests were tiny specks on the ground, while she painted the sky with red and gold and violet; no doubt they would be looking up at her handiwork, hers, and wondering at what they, with all their magic and power, could never hope to achieve. This was how one should display one's glory; even the lighthouses were pitiful by comparison. She--

--Had to concentrate on what the human part of her wanted, what had Valise--yes, that strange-hooked-beak intruder was named Valise, that was something she remembered--meant by controlling her bird, stifling it, but she'd lived through that, hadn't she? Now, what was she to do, to kill kill kill that ugly creature, even if she was far away from her nest and in strange lands and skies, to burn her enemies to ashes on the wind.

It felt strange. Strange to be working the familiar flap-flap-glide that she knew so well, strange to be behind the eyes instead of merely watching through them, but the part of her that was phoenix guided her through the dives and rises, the spins and aerial cartwheels.

She had to fly in order to bring warmth and life to the land. She had to fly, or she would die. Now that she was flying, how had she managed to forget that? It was the human's fault, no, she was the human, she had to remember that, they were becoming one now and both woman and bird were worried about what that might bring.

But this new thing that was her…

A deep, mournful cry rose from the sea cliffs in the distance, and it was not a gull, but something else, a deep and throaty sound that carried out on the air until it hit her like a sudden gale against her breast and feathers.

She knew that voice.

A challenge. Not now, perhaps, but soon, and from its very tone Lenka knew the owner of that voice would follow her to the ends of the earth if need be to exact it from her. So be it, then. She had beaten her enemies before, and would do so again. The fires of Lenka's feathers flared and she answered the challenge with a scream, lighting the night sky with a golden aura.

Here I am, you bitch, she thought, both woman and bird as one. Come and fight me if you ever work up the courage.

She lingered a little longer in the air, waiting to see if another cry came or if her foe would come diving at her out of the night sky, but all was silent.

#

"It's a sack of gold," Saresan said in a hushed voice.

"Well, yes, I insisted on cash." Tyrus replied. "It's the safest way to be paid--I'm not trusting a letter of credit, even here, and withdrawal letters can be iffy, even those with the royal bank's watermark. This, though--" he tapped the sack, which went clink-- "might be a tad old-fashioned, but--"

"Who cares?" Saresan said, and ran up to wrap his arms around the sack like a giant bolster. "It's a sack of money! The only way this could be better is if we put the lot in a gold-bound chest and scrawled runes into the lid! And we haven't sold half of the bones yet!"

Lenka appeared in the house's main doorway, yawning and pausing for a moment to take in both the cart and money in it. "Oh," she said at last. "That's why he's so excited."

Saresan waved his arms up and down, as if he was a bird flapping its wings. "A sack of money!"

"You look tired. Didn't get much sleep last night?"

"I…" she looked at Tyrus. Why the hesitation, when they'd been together all this while? He would never be like her, but he was the closest thing to it she would ever have. "No, it's hard to explain. In the past, I used to rest while the phoenix went about her business, and…went away when I'd had enough of riding her mind. Now I remember most of what happened, but don't feel as tired as I might've been if I truly stayed awake." She shook her head. "It's like sleeping with one eye open."

Tyrus patted her through the thick leather of her coat. "Well, I'm sure you'll work it out. Where are we--I mean, you--going today?"

"The library at the Academy," Lenka replied, and yawned again. "I…I have a note."

"She has a note." Tyrus thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, the place has a tradesman's entrance. I'm sure they have their own suppliers of such components, but it can't hurt to make an introduction, see if there's an opportunity. Besides, it's not as if dear Saresan is going to get over that--" he jerked a thumb at the clinking sack, still firmly in Saresan's clutches-- "anytime soon."

Embers

Chapter 29

"No taxes?"

"No tariffs, no taxes, or at least, not for cargo loaded or unloaded and goods traded," Tyrus explained as they strolled down the docks together. "It's how they bring in business; then they collect revenue in other ways. Rather than squeeze every merchant that comes into New Kerdia, we just get bled a little, and it all adds up." He shrugged. "It might sound strange, but this 'free port' thing's worked so far and no one wants to fix a wheel that isn't broken."

Lenka didn't like the sea. Not because it was so big; there were lakes formed by centuries of rain on the upper slopes of the Terrano that sustained multitudes of villages along their shores, but because it was so open and the waves were so rough, even in the supposedly sheltered bay. They threw themselves against the wooden and poured-stone docks, battering away ceaselessly at both the land and the insides of Lenka's head.

She tightened the laces of her coat and hurried after Tyrus. There were other people on the dock, labourers, guards in spelled armour patrolling the area, people sitting in the big cranes overlooking the wharves and waiting to unload the ships, but she glanced at them once and decided they could be safely ignored.

"Do you want me to meet you later on, or will you be able to make your way back to Saresan's place yourself? I'm still a little worried that you might lose your way." He hugged the dragon bone wrapped in tough brown paper against him. "The same might apply to their libraries. I've heard tales about how big the places are."

"All the better chance of finding what I'm looking for, then."

"And that would be?"

"What a garuda is, for one, and how to kill it most effectively. Same goes for reanimated bones. Maybe I'll look up phoenixes, find out something about myself I've never known, and laugh at all the things which I know to be wrong. Whether there've been any records of people turning into birds and back again for no apparent reason--that would be worth something looking into. And maybe--" her voice faltered, then steadied itself-- "maybe if I'm to be the only one of my kind in existence."

"Lenka, it was just a thought."

"And as you said, one that can't be dismissed. Let's just say I don't know how long I might be in there, so don't wait for me. I'll be back by evening; if not…look for me." She clenched her fingers and looked away. "Can we talk about something else before we do get to this Academy place?"

"Well, what do you want to talk about?"

"The two of you do plan to make more trips into the Terrano, don't you?"

"I suppose so. The current trend is that raw materials and other oddities come down from there, and we bring up manufactured goods. And chocolate, of course." The two of them left the docks and turned onto a wide cobbled street, which in turn led to a square milling with people, framed against a number of important-looking buildings. "Is there any particular reason why you ask?"

"I'll probably want to go back home sometime. Maybe not now or even when the spring comes, but it's a matter of when, not if. I could fly, but there'll be things that need carrying." Lenka gave Tyrus a small smile. "You know. Luggage."

"Luggage."

"Yes."

"Well, we'll deal with that when the time comes. Not that I wouldn't plan for it, but circumstances do change without warning."

Tyrus spoke some more about the average selling price per weight of dragon bone and some of the potential industrial and research applications that were driving prices up, but Lenka wasn't listening, instead simply hearing the sound of his voice. He was talking to her as if she was…well…normal, for a given definition of the word, and not some monster packed into a young woman's body, ready to burst out at the slightest offence taken and lay waste to everything around her. Another person would have been worried that she'd burn down the library or something equally terrible, taking with the fire centuries' worth of accumulated knowledge--

What was she thinking? He'd spoken to her like this ever since they'd met.

"--And I'll be surprised if that skull of his doesn't fetch at least five thousand royals; it's in pristine condition as far as I can tell. Unless, that is, Saresan decides to keep it for himself, something which I damn well can see happening. Lenka?"

"Hmm?"

He thrust a still-steaming bun in her direction, a half-eaten one in his other hand. "Have some before you go in, I know you'll forget to eat. It's steamed chicken."

"Not pigeon, but close enough." She took a bite of the soft, floury bun and sighed inwardly as steam filled her mouth. This, unlike the sea, was something she could get used to. "That's odd. We've walked all this distance, and I haven't seen much of this so-called Academy. Why do they call it the Academy anyway? That's horribly unimaginative."

"One theory I've heard was that when the buggers came down from Norad to found the place, they wanted it to be the Academy instead of an academy. Then when people think of an academy, they think of the Academy." Tyrus rubbed his forehead. "I know it's confusing, but there we have it."

"Well, we should have been there by now."

"We are there."

Lenka frowned and took another bite of the bun. "What? I don't see--"

"There aren't any walls, and the place grew too big for one building to house right now. If you think about it, considering all the people who live and work there apart from the bloody wizards and their students, from the people who do the washing-up and cooking to the people who set up their stalls in Academy Square, it's not surprising some people consider it a part of the city on its own."

"You said there was a tradesman's entrance."

"We just came in from the docks, didn't we? In all seriousness, though, it makes sense for the Academy to be near the docks. Makes it easier to ship people and goods in and out. As to where the library is…well, I'm sure there's a map or something."

Lenka swallowed and licked her fingers. Yes, it wasn't raw pigeon, but it was close enough. Humans did have some good ideas every now and then. "Well. That's absolutely wonderful."

#

A small grey rat scampered along the wharves, keeping to the corners and shadows. Its feet weren't aligned with the ground and the steps it took were strangely jerky, but no one paid too much attention to just another rat, even when small specks of light yellow began to show through the rat's fur. Somewhere in between the warehouses, it disappeared and was replaced by a small bird, which took to the sky above the rooftops, not stopping until it reached a particular windowsill and pecked at the shutters.

Valise drew back the shutters and let Eshentobon in. Once they were safely closed again, the illusion surrounding the bird fell, revealing a small skeletal bird.

"Anything of note?"

"I tailed the phoenix ever since she entered the docks. She's headed towards the Academy's library--either trying to find out something about herself, or more likely, us."

"Why do you say so?"

"Can you think of something else she'd be more interested in? A girl from the mountains, coming all the way down here? Maybe she's interested in the latest metallurgic advancements? I think not."

Valise pulled a chair across the small inn room to the windowsill and sat down, watching Eshentobon's borrowed body flap around. "It's your memories she's after this time, isn't it?"

"I don't know. Not that I care much for the academia themselves, but the accumulated knowledge in there, especially last half-century's worth, is priceless. Not to mention that if the phoenix did something terrible in there…well, Norad would never rest until she'd been hunted down and her head presented to the king, and that'd mean we'd never get to her first."

"But the way they treated you--"

"That's past. The people involved are dead, and I'm not here to judge them; the living will do that. We go after the phoenix because there is no court in the world to try her for her crimes. It will be hard, but I do wish to avoid any damage to the Academy if we are faced to confront her there."

Valise slumped. "I wish I was as forgiving as you."

Eshentobon fluttered his wings in what might have been a bird trying to shrug. "These things happen when you have years to think. Are your accommodations comfortable?"

"I'd still have preferred the sea cliffs, but if you insist."

"We need to be in New Kerdia itself, should anything happen. Besides, working these bones can be…tiring, especially if they need getting used to."

"Maybe you're right. I'm tired of waiting for her to make a move. I'm tired of watching her burn down other people's memories. I'm tired of feeling that we could have changed something, had we moved just a little more quickly to stop her." She leaned forward, elbows propped on the windowsill. "I just want to break her neck and be done with it."

"At what point is collateral damage unacceptable? If we disregard the lives of bystanders in our efforts to claim the phoenix, we will be no better than her."

Valise was silent for a few moments, then reached out with a finger and rubbed the rough bones in the bird skeleton's neck, blue fire wrapping about her skin and leaving it unscathed. It was hard to remember Eshentobon didn't feel very much of anything anymore--except maybe smoke and fire--but he didn't flinch at her touch, so she continued stroking. "You can be an idiot, you know. Too righteous for your own good." She sighed and stared at the window's closed shutters. "But…I know where you're coming from. Besides, I've already challenged her, and she's answered. If we're going to do things your way, we need a better plan. Two huge birds trying to kill each other--some houses are going to get flattened, to say the least."

"So long as it doesn't blind us to unexpected opportunities."

"Of course."

#

Lenka winced.

If what she wanted to know was written down somewhere, she would find it here, here in the bloody ceiling-high stacks of New Kerdia's Academy. The problem was…well, finding what she needed. Well, she might as well pluck herself featherless if she was going to give up right now; she hadn't come all the way down from the mountains just to be stopped by a few--all right, many overgrown bookcases.

It was a bit of a pity, really. The towering shelves offered so many opportunities for her to hide and drop down on the unsuspecting--wait, there wasn't any prey here, so why should she be thinking that? But the smell of people and old books hung heavy in the air; even the huge ventilation tubes humming and sucking away in the ceiling weren't enough to disperse the musty smell.

Mumbling nonsense to herself, Lenka shook her head and approached the library's front counter. There were a few others in sight browsing the stacks, mostly young people like herself and the rather old; perhaps the latter would be easier prey--

"Excuse me, this is the non-fiction section, isn't it? Or at least, the bit where I can find material on animals? Because I'd like to know where might I find--"

The librarian behind the counter glared at Lenka and raised a finger to her lips. "Shush."

"I'm sure I was being rather quiet. Now, if I may, where might--"

"Shush. You're not being conducive to an appropriate atmosphere for research and learning."

"Oh, shush yourself. I have a note." Lenka dug around in her coat's pockets and fished out Master Malachir's note, slightly crumpled from its time in there. She passed it to the librarian, who studied the writing and the seal before handing it back to her. "See?"

The librarian fiddled with her name tag and looked Lenka in the eye. "Well, why didn't you say so at first? What are you looking for?"

"I…I'm looking for, well…something on large birds. Something on phoenixes. And a garuda, if you know what that is, because I'm not too sure myself. And any others, really. This is my first time here, and I'm not sure where to start searching."

"Hmm. Follow me." The librarian gestured at one of her fellows to take her place, then got up from behind the counter and headed into the stacks, passing a small circle of comfortable-looking chairs. "So you're looking for large birds in general, is that it?"

"Well, yes. My master's always had this dream of building a flying machine that ran on as little magic as possible, and I'd like to see if there's anything that can be learnt from the larger birds we have in the natural world." It was surprising how easily the lie flew from her lips, although when she got back, she would have to ask Mr. Aug if he'd really planned to build it.

"Hmm."

The shelves twisted and turned as they went deeper into the library, their monotony broken every now and then by a few chairs or perhaps a couch placed in what she could only think of as small clearings, alongside large signs with maps of the library's interior printed on them. One glance convinced Lenka she didn't want to get lost in here, if she could.

Actually, it wasn't too different from the pine forests back home. Lenka's skin itched and she felt her toes curl of their own accord in her boots, but she took a deep breath and the feeling passed.

"Here," the librarian announced as she pushed open a door and led Lenka in. There were a few students sitting by machines lined up against the walls, their eyes glued to the machines' interiors.

"What's this?"

"Our new archival system. We've always been rather worried about fire--it's hard to enchant a whole library and keep it running perfectly--so we're making copies on crystals. One facet can hold a large number of images--"

Lenka held up a hand. "I'm sure you're eager to justify your funding to me, but I'm a little pressed for time now. If you'd be so kind as to show me how these work, I'll shush myself and won't trouble you any further."

The librarian scowled, but nodded and reached up onto a high shelf and brought down a crystal the size of Lenka's fingertip, the facets cut into it so small and minute that even to the phoenix's eyes, they all seemed to blend into each other. "Here, you can use this unit," she said as she set the crystal into a socket on the side of one of the machines. "Large birds in general, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

"Then this should do just fine." The librarian pushed a button on the side of the machine, and a brilliant beam of light jumped from a lens into the crystal and onto a screen on the wall direct in front of it. A blink of an eye later, words took form on the screen, and the librarian smiled. "Have fun."

Embers

Chapter 30

Three hours later, Lenka was hungry and bored. Her crop--or rather, her stomach, felt horribly empty, although when she thought about it, the sensation wasn't too different from an empty crop. How anyone could sit down and read, let alone write, pages upon pages on the details of the tawny mountain roc's digestive system and feeding habits was beyond her, and her skin and toes itched.

She should Change. This library--in fact, the whole Academy--was useless, a collection of mouldy paper and equally foul academics, and she was wasting her time fiddling with machines and hurting her eyes. I would be better off burning it down, seeking out that ugly creature's challenge and tearing her to bits for good.

It was the phoenix thinking, Lenka realised, then stopped. No, the voice in the back of her mind hadn't been the phoenix's, it'd been her own. But that'd mean that she'd been influencing herself, and that made even less sense…

Her head hurt.

Slowly, Lenka forced her trembling fingers to the buttons she'd been pushing away at for the last few hours, and pressed. There was a faint whirring noise from the archival machine, the crystal rotated ever so slightly in its socket, and the image on the screen flickered and changed.

It was a phoenix, or at least, she supposed the picture was of one, since the artist had apparently taken extreme creative liberties with the figure she'd admired so often in the clear mountain lakes back home. Here the picture looked like a chicken. A bit flashier, but still humans thought of her kind as chickens, stupid ugly things that scratched at the ground and ate worms. Well, she'd…she'd…

Lenka brushed her arms, and the down that'd begun to sprout on her skin receded. "I'm just hungry," she muttered to herself quietly. If any of the students in the room heard her, they were too absorbed in what they were reading to bother with her. "I'm just hungry, and tired, and my back aches from sitting like that too long."

She tightened her coat anyway.

The next few pages were either uninteresting, something she knew already, or just plain flat-out wrong, or at the very least, she didn't remember building nests, setting them on fire and dying in the flames to make the eggs hatch. She'd definitely have remembered the dying part. Or the eggs. Besides, one needed two birds to get a nest full of eggs, and as far as she knew, she was the only phoenix in existence.

Even the last few lines didn't make any sense to Lenka: --And through the fire's embers the phoenix is reborn to rise from the ashes. It would probably have, if she'd thought about it a little more, but right now her insides were complaining vigorously, as if the chicken she'd eaten earlier wasn't sitting well inside her.

Lenka summoned all the strength she could spare and pushed the button again. Come to think of it, she'd left the wheeled-moving-thing with Saresan's parents, and she should go to their nest…to be with it…

What had she been thinking? Lenka shook her head, tried to recollect what

The garuda--

--Would have to wait, for the familiar, sickening twisting within her, although it was far less painful this time than it had been that night in the rain and mud, although there was that same damnable inevitability about it. How could those humans write such stupid untruths about her, no…it wasn't personally her, and she had to forgive them their mistakes, for they were flawed unlike her, and it would be proper of a phoenix to be magnanimous.

She was better than mere humans, who were stuck on the ground and had to create fire with spells and sticks…

She was better…

She remembered how to fly, even in the strongest winds, how to drop and create that maddened burst of speed on unsuspecting prey below, how to dance in the sky and bring light and warmth and life to the land, for she had to fly or she would die…

Lenka forced the sensation down into the pit of her belly and ran, the machine still humming behind her, her boots clomping on the library's polished floor. People stared at her as she hurtled through the stacks, past the counter, between the spelled barriers and out into the snow and sunshine, but she didn't care. She couldn't dare, for both their sake and hers.

The sickening feeling grew, knotted in her belly, and Lenka tripped on the cobbles. She pushed herself up amidst curious onlookers, set her legs into motion and promptly fell again, for her legs couldn't quite remember how to run as humans did. A couple of watchmen eyed her suspiciously, but relaxed when it became apparent that no one was chasing her. One of them even offered her a gauntleted hand to help her up--

--How dare it think her needful of its help--

--She had to--

--No--

Lenka trembled and gently pushed the watchman away before taking off down the street. It had been following the docks, hadn't it? It had to be, there was nowhere to hide, and she couldn't hold back the Change any longer, it was a tightness in her guts, a thin, discordant note stretched across her mind--

She recognised the gate of the nest from afar, but it was too late, too late, and her gloves burst apart at their bindings and fell to the ground, followed shortly by her coat and boots, until the rest was lying in tatters and ashes between her feathers and she had to lift a golden-red wing to hide her face from the humans' curious stares.

"Go away!" she screamed at the humans, stumbling on the words, whether it was because they were coming from beak instead of lips, or because of her fear, she didn't know. "Run! Run now! I'm dangerous! I--"

She couldn't be around these people; the phoenix would make--no, she would do terrible things to them, and the only way to do that was to fly away. If she wasn't near people, then she couldn't hurt them, and she couldn't hurt them hurt them hurt them--

Lenka stretched her burning wings, their fires now a far deeper golden-red than she remembered, and took off into the sky with a maddened scream.

#

Tyrus' heart froze when he heard the scream, and for a split second he wondered if bringing Lenka into New Kerdia had been a good idea. He'd hoped, taken a risk against better judgement, and he'd made a mistake…

Or maybe he hadn't. There weren't any more screams, just Lenka's, and as he threw open the front door Saresan was already closing the gate and fumbling with the lock until it shut with a click.

The two men shared a Look.

"Did you see anything?" Tyrus said, his voice hushed.

"Just the commotion. There were these people, and then Lenka burst out from amongst them, screaming…or crying, if you heard it like I did. She didn't do anything more than maybe disturbing the public peace, I swear. The Watch is here, but I managed to get her coat while they were dealing with." He held it up. "We've got to find her."

"How? Why?"

Wordlessly, Saresan pointed to the deep golden trail that stretched all the way across the rooftops and out of sight. Tyrus rolled his shoulders with a sigh and started in the direction of the cart, his boots clomping against the ground.

"Get in," he grunted above the engine's motor rumbling to life. "We're leaving through the back."

"Even if she hadn't left a trail behind her, I'd still have known where she'd have gone. There's only one patch of woodland for miles around. She'll have gone there. We can be there in an hour or so."

"You say that as if you know her very well."

Saresan's small smile dissolved into a frown. "Why? Don't we? She's trusted us with her greatest secret--don't you think that counts for anything, or is that another note on the bottom of your ledger?"

Tyrus sighed again. "Never mind, I misspoke. Let's find her before she does something stupid to someone else, or even worse, herself."

"You know, this is like that time Rogado and I tried to follow a yellow brick road, and we were told there was this great place at the end of it all where you could buy emeralds really cheaply, but when we got there we realised we were scammed and all there was at the end was--"

The cart rolled out onto the cobbles. "What did the two of you find?"

"Nothing." Saresan lowered his eyes. "That's right, the road just ended in dirt. Maybe there was once a city there, but we didn't see anything but dirt and grass. We followed the yellow brick road and found nothing that time."

"Well, this is the golden feathered road," Tyrus replied as they sped towards the city gates. "We'll find something at the end all right, but I'm not sure if it's something I want to find."

#

It was dark.

She remembered that they'd looked like stars, only they weren't--the pinpricks of red and gold moved erratically in the distance, streams of light trailing out from behind them as they danced against the inky blackness of the sky. Three or four of them, dancing like she did, tugging at something deep and raw inside her bones and feathered breast, and a strange yearning rose up inside her.

She called out to them, her scream ringing across the air.

They heard her.

They actually heard her and called back, their cries eerily like her very own. She screamed again, louder this time, and against all hope they turned in the air, acknowledging her presence, but did not come any closer.

Then she knew it was her task to find her way to them. She spread her wings and flew, but had scarcely covered half the distance when the lines appeared in the air, thin, gossamer-like strands of green and gold. They clung to her wings and feet, dragged her down, and they were everywhere, stretched between invisible anchors like a spider's web, only she couldn't move any more and was falling, falling while the others called out to her to join them--

Lenka woke with a gasp, shivering from head to toe. There had been others like her. Like her. They had been so close, until she had been able to make out the individual feathers on their bodies, but that was gone now, a dream, a hallucination, a fragment lodged in her mind's eye that refused to budge no matter how much she tried to push it away.

Odd, though, that the ground beneath her should be so soft and downy. Just what has she been sleeping on?

She looked down at the branches and feathers she was sitting on, realised what instinct had driven her to build, and began to cry softly.

#

It took some searching, but they found her in a clearing. Several young saplings had been bent and bound together by thick branches to form a large, vaguely bowl-shaped structure with the saplings as legs, much like the crucibles Tyrus had seen alchemists use while assaying the samples he brought them from time to time. Feathers and down--unmistakably Lenka's--lined much of the structure, but they were different. These feathers were glossier, richer, shinier than how he'd remembered Lenka's colours as being, the deep, burning red blending in perfectly with the burnished gold that he was sure people would pay absurd amounts to have this thing displayed in their homes. Come to think of it, it looked…

…It looked like a nest. Judging by the awed look on Saresan's face, Tyrus was sure he'd come to the same conclusion.

He took a step towards Lenka, no more an enormous, burning bird but a terrified young woman, and she shied away as he approached, retreating further into the nest.

"Go away," she sobbed, two damp, clean lines on her dirty face glimmering in the light of his lantern. "Please. Go away. I can't live like this any more."

Tyrus said nothing for a while, then raised the lantern higher and took another step forward. "Then face me, Lenka Pelakova. Look me in the eye and say those words to my face. Show me that this is what you truly want, and I will go."

Silence. Then, from the midst of the knitted branches and feathers, a quiet sniffling. "No," Lenka said, the words choking in her throat. "I don't want it. But I don't see any other way; too proud to die, too wretched to live amongst others. Do you know what I wanted to do? Not the phoenix, but me? I wanted to burn it to the ground, almost changed right there and then, because…because I thought the place a waste of my time. Can you believe it? Just…just because…"

"Was it?"

Lenka peered over the rim of the nest at Tyrus and Saresan. "I don't know. I really don't know. Take this nest for example--they claim that I'm supposed to lay my eggs in it and then set the nest and myself on fire, and--and--and then I'm supposed to die, only to come back to life again in the fires." Her gaze softened. "That doesn't make any sense. You know what doesn't, either? That I'm not supposed to be building this nest; don't ask me how I know that, I just do. And…and a male's supposed to build the nest and present it to me, and I'm supposed to see if it's too my liking, and I looked down and wondered why I was the one building it only to remember that…remember that…" she sucked in a breath, coughed, and was silent.

"I have your coat," Saresan called out as he held up the thick leather garment. "You want it?"

Lenka didn't reply. Saresan looked at Tyrus, and thrust the coat at him. "You go up to her."

"Why me?"

Saresan gave him a big grin, although it was hardly as enthusiastic as the others. "Because I'm the one who has crawled down old tunnels, made camp out on huge prairies on fire and ate a crocodile. Not alone, but you get the point--it's your turn. Go on."

Tyrus stood very still for a few seconds, then nodded and threw the coat over his shoulder before he handed the lantern to Saresan and began to climb up to the nest. The saplings bent dangerously under his weight, but didn't snap, and with one final pull of his arms hauled himself onto the knitted twigs and faintly glowing down.

Lenka looked at him sadly, her hair messed and with bits of leaves stuck in it. "I thought I told you to go away. I'm a monster."

"You're not. A monster doesn't have a conscience."

Lenka sniffed. "Does it matter? Those people in the street…they saw me Change. They must be terrified of me, and rightly so; I was on the verge of burning down one of the greatest centre of learning in the kingdom. I've made promises I can't keep, and I can't even decide when and where to Change."

"You almost did. You didn't." After a moment's hesitation, Tyrus draped the coat over Lenka's filthy shoulders. "I don't have enough imagination to see things that aren't there, Lenka. While I'm not sure what I see when I look at you, it's not a monster."

"Why?"

"Why else would I have taken you back even after you burnt down all of Alveona's flower fields?"

"Because…" Lenka's shoulders sagged. She stared hard at Tyrus as if trying to decide whether to eat him, and then her eyes softened abruptly. "Because." She shivered. "That's why. Because."

Carefully, Tyrus took Lenka by the hand, feeling the roughness of her fingers, the calluses on her palms, the warmth of her skin. He tugged gently, and to his relief Lenka shambled to her feet, her coat hanging from her back like a tattered cloak. Saresan was waiting for them at the bottom with a big smile, and helped both of them down.

"I've been acting like a child, haven't I?" Lenka murmured as her feet touched the ground, her head hung heavy. "It must seem that way to you."

"I may not wholly endorse your actions, but I can understand why you've done what you've done." Lantern in one hand, Lenka's grasp in the other, Tyrus nodded at Saresan and took a deep breath. "The cart's waiting at the edge of the woods. Shall we go home?"

Lenka looked back at the down-lined nest, still glimmering in the darkness, then forced her head forward stiffly. "I think so--no, not that. Yes, I want to go home."

Embers

Chapter 31

"Her trail was easy enough to follow," Eshentobon said as he landed with a dull clacking of bones. "I was there. I saw what happened. I heard what they said."

"It's still hard to believe. I wouldn't trust that slip of a bird to tell the truth, let alone show remorse. Call me paranoid if you will, but I'll maintain that her self-appointed protectors are being played by her for fools, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that, knowing how she is."

"Or maybe you loathe the phoenix so much that you can't believe that she could show the tiniest shred of remorse for what she has done." Clawed feet scrabbled on the windowsill, and Eshentobon flapped his borrowed body to his makeshift perch on the ceiling lamp. "Do not frown at me that way, Valise. I have only told you things as I have seen them; as for judgement, that is why I discuss these things with you, is it not?"

Valise sighed, stood up and paced circles around the small inn room. "Well, does this change anything? Are we going to give up our hunt for the phoenix and forget everything that she's done? Do we have the right to forgive her on behalf of all the people she's harmed?"

"No."

"Then why all the fuss?"

"Because there is a small but important difference between someone driven by anger and someone driven by the need to see justice served." The blue fires that surrounded the bird bones seethed. "When it comes down to the roots of the matter, that tiny change in one's attitude can be the difference in the whole world."

Valise stopped mid-pace. He was right; even her conscience knew he was right, but how she, for that moment, hated that fact. The burnt-out shell of her uncle's cabin, looking just like the burnt-out shell of the one she and Helfor had built together. Ashes upon ashes and a blue cloak, all that remained of hundreds of people and their happiness. Helfor sheltering the crying chicks under his wings, telling them not to look, not to weep, even as she'd smelled the stench of scorched flesh and feathers.

How she hated them all.

"Well," she said after a moment's consideration, "if the phoenix's truly gained her adult plumage, then by all rights she and her bird should be as together as they will ever be. At the very least, we don't have to worry about her tearing herself apart before we get to her."

"There is a small but appreciable fraction of New Kerdia's populace which saw the phoenix flee the city. Since she did not hurt anyone in her flight, the people talk about her in kindlier tones than I would have expected--they say she is…beautiful." He ruffled bony wings. "If not for my personal experiences with her, I would have agreed."

"Which means you're still not quite dead, or at least, less than before. You experience. You have a conscience. You remember. There is still a chance, one you deliberately missed when she fled from the city and you chose not kill her.

"She was alone. She was shaken. There was no one around that might have been caught up in any struggle, and still you let her go. When's all said and done, it boils down to this, Eshentobon: do you want to die, or not?" Valise sat down on the room's plain wooden bed with a sigh and folded her hands on her lap. "This is the first phoenix you've ever found, and perhaps the last you'll ever find. Don't tell me you're getting soft-hearted now."

"Maybe."

"The problem with you," Valise spat, "is that you're too nice. Which, by the way, is just another way of saying 'indecisive'."

#

Lenka knelt in the ashes and embers, legs tucked underneath her, hands on her knees. It was the only way she'd managed to fit into the fireplace alongside all the logs, but the pose made her feel better, if but marginally.

The flames licked at her body, burning off dirt and debris and sending them off with the smoke. It was like being back in Mr. Aug's forges and foundries, the heat on her skin, the vaguely aromatic wood smoke in her lungs. She was warm, clean, and most of all, at peace.

Maybe that book had been right after all. Maybe a phoenix would return from the dead if he or she were cast to the flames, but it wasn't something she'd risk her life trying to confirm. But here and now she was comfortable, and she wanted to stay in the flames and not move from this spot.

Forever.

"More wood, Miss? You feel better now?"

"Yes, please, and I do," Lenka replied, and coughed to clear the last traces of her tears from her throat. "Thank you."

"It's no problem, Miss. Y'know, it's strange that it used to be the poor who burned wood in their fireplaces, and the rich burned coal. Then the poor got coal for their new boilers, and the rich got magical steam heating, and now it's the poor who got magical steam heating and only the rich can afford to burn all sorts of fancy kinds of wood in their fireplaces. It reminds me of a story when Rogado and I…"

Lenka opened her mouth, then reconsidered her words at the last moment. "What happened, Saresan?"

"Well, the two of us were stuck out in the wilderness. I'm not even sure where we were, because we must've taken a wrong turn at the last crossroads--"

Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. Someone who was speaking to her, not screaming, not pointing, not fearful or curious, but just a normal conversation, or at least as normal as talking to Saresan would ever get.

"--And so we finally figured that we just weren't doing anything waiting around, so we packed up and left. Figures, we'd been blaming the ferryman for not being around when there was a bridge just over the next hill. It's odd that way when you think about it, but I guess we still made it to Arqual in the end, even if it was on foot."

"It's not that I don't want to do anything," Lenka said softly as she reached out for a log and fed the fires that licked at her legs and stomach. "I want to do something, but I don't know what. Which is why I came all the way down here in the first place, to find out what, but it doesn't seem to be helping. Everything I do seems to go wrong; it's like taking a match into a room filled with coal dust and I end up in tears and looking stupid…" she sighed. "I'm sorry. It's not right for me to tell you what you already know."

"Hey, I don't mind."

"Your parents must have been wondering when you and Tyrus dragged me through the front door."

"Nah, they're used to me dragging all sorts of strange things into the house. A sniffling redhead isn't much compared to the preserved hydra I was bringing to some professor at the Academy. They can sleep well at night because I wouldn't do anything bad." With a nod, Saresan stood, dusted specks of ash off his trousers, and shifted the few remaining logs within Lenka's reach. "Try not to stay up too late. Maybe you can think about what you're going to do now, since you've got some time. Me, I'm going to bed."

"One question, Saresan."

He turned. "Yes?"

"Why'd you take me back after all that I've done? I've asked Tyrus, but I didn't find his answer really convincing."

Saresan gave her one of his big, open smiles. "If not us, who else? Someone had to, and it might as well be the two of us."

"I mean, before the two of you came to Inavael, I hadn't given much thought to the whole matter of the phoenix and who she--and I--was. Not even my family knew what I was, and I'd thought to keep the secret forever, and the two of you forced it out and people weren't that terrified, even if I thought should have been so much that I tried to keep others at arm's length by being cold toward them." She paused for breath and the words resumed pouring out of her like water from a spilled dam. "What I'm getting at is that--that, well, I'm glad I met both of you. I just can't see myself telling Tyrus this, not because I don't trust him or anything, but I think I can talk to you without worrying that--oh, just…thank you. I mean it."

"Yep. I'm a good helper." With that, Saresan strode down the hallway and turned out of sight, leaving Lenka alone to stare at his disappearing back.

Was that it? Was that all he was going to say? But what had she been expecting?

In. Out. In. Out. Lenka closed her eyes, saw the brilliance of the fires through her eyelids, and slowly opened them again. One last breath of smoke and embers, and she stepped out of the fireplace, dousing the fire with a thought.

Lenka stretched, and had to resist a sudden, overwhelming impulse to Change and fly off into the night. The worries still weighed on her mind, but not crushingly so, and fingers came up to still-hot strands of hair away from her brow.

Something flickered behind Lenka's eyes, and consciousness came rushing in even as it spun out of her, sights, sounds, smells alike funnelling through her thoughts, then lost as quickly and abruptly as they had come. For a moment, she felt as if all the air had been sucked from her lungs; she gasped--and the world faded to normalcy. It was different, a small part of her said, different, but the rest of her claimed that this was how it had always been.

The phoenix did not speak, or more correctly, she spoke.

I…I feel…alive.

Now she was ready to face the world.

#

Breakfast was rice and beans on those same broad leaves, with a daub of salty fish sauce on top to give it flavour. They sat--or in Lenka's case, perched--in a high-walled part of the garden, next to the cart where no one could see them from outside the gates.

"Did you get the feeling you were being watched last night?" Tyrus said between mouthfuls. "All the way from the moment we left the city gates till we returned, I just couldn't shake off the feeling that someone had his eyes trained on the back of my neck. Probably just nerves."

Lenka pecked at the caked beans and fluffed up her glimmering feathers against the wind. "Are you sure?"

"It's the simplest explanation I can come up with, barring any evidence."

"Wonder what'll happen to that nest I built, though."

"Can't say for sure," Saresan replied. "But I can damn well tell people that I've seen a phoenix's nest, and is it beautiful. Never thought I'd be able to say this, but you look finer than you used to. What made your feathers change like that?"

Lenka nudged away her rice and beans with her beak. "I--I don't know. I don't know so much about myself, that's what frustrates me so much. That other bird and the bone thing--they told me the phoenix and I would be one, and that's happened. Why am I a phoenix? The bone thing said I'd made a mockery of everything I was supposed to represent, but I don't even know what or how that is." She jabbed savagely at her food. "I wish I could ask them--I haven't been able to prove they've ever lied to me--but considering they want me dead more than ever, that's not going to happen any time soon."

"And yesterday?"

"I was onto something when the…urges came upon me. I'd go, but there're people out there talking about a phoenix." She shook her head, the human gesture strange on a bird. "It's really telling when people can treat a happenstance like this as a curiosity, rather than a danger."

Tyrus cleared his throat. "They're talking about a phoenix, not a young woman. So they saw you, but they remember the phoenix, not the human. I'd bet my share of the money on it. Believe me; I was in a restaurant once and one guy walked in the door, stabbed a patron eating at her table and stepped out, calm as anything. When the watch came, everyone was certain that an assassin had done it, but no one remembered what he'd looked like--except me. Besides, they're not looking for a young woman accompanied by her cousin. Your note's still in your coat."

Lenka fixed dark, beady eyes on Tyrus. "With her cousin?"

"Well, would you rather spend the better part of an hour explaining the truth to people?"

"I suppose not."

"We can leave Saresan to oversee the few remaining dragon bones. He might not get his dream of having enough money to swim in, but perhaps he'll have to hire two people to hold his pants up when we're through with all of the bones. Why don't you Change back, and I'll show you the rest of the--" Suddenly, Tyrus frowned and whirled at an empty section of the wall. "Did you see anything?"

"Like what?"

"Like--like a bird, or at least, I'm sure it was a bird's silhouette, maybe about the size of a large raven or small gull." He squinted at the spot. "It moved so quickly, I barely noticed it. No ordinary bird should be able to move like that."

"Maybe you--"

"No, Lenka. I don't have the imagination to see things that aren't there, remember?" He set down his spoon and rubbed his face with his hands. "We'll still go back to the Academy; I'll just have to keep an eye out for…odd things. Why don't we meet at the gate while Saresan does the washing up?"

Half an hour later, a very human Lenka came into Tyrus' view, gathering up her hair and tying it into something more manageable. "I had to borrow a piece or two of Saresan's mother's clothes. Really, I've got to stop burning my clothes to ashes."

Tyrus pushed open the gate and they stepped out into the street. "Well, at least your coat's survived quite a bit. What do you need?"

"You know. Things. Padded gloves, boots, maybe a work shirt or two like those women in the factories wear while at the machinery--that sort of thing. Don't worry too much about it. If New Kerdia is such a great port city as its inhabitants claim, I'm sure I won't have trouble finding what I need."

"We'll pass through the trade quarter on our way there, then."

The ice-slick streets were alive with people even this early in the day, and they had to pick their way past people, people which didn't even give her a second look, let alone point and run away screaming. They'd barely gone down two streets, though, when Tyrus began fidgeting again, glancing at walls and rooftops with that same, keen-eyed gaze he'd used on the garden wall earlier.

"What's the matter?"

"It's that feeling again. Like we're being watched."

Lenka twisted her lips. "We're in the middle of a busy street. Of course someone's looking at us. What did you expect, everyone to be blind?"

"No. Look--" he lowered his voice to a whisper-- "there. On the bench by the fountain. Do you see it?"

"It's just a gull. I've heard they live near water, especially this great 'sea' thing everyone keeps telling me about."

"No, it isn't. Look."

Lenka looked a little harder, and the bird stopped looking like a bird and more like something that was trying to be one, its feathers fuzzy about the edges, its wings misaligned, ever so slightly but enough that it shouldn't have been able to fly very well, if at all--

"That's not a bird," she whispered back, and felt a surge of heat knife its way through her chest. "I don't know what it is, but it damn well isn't a bird."

The not-a-gull looked straight at them for a second before it darted into the air, Tyrus and Lenka chasing after it through the streets.

Embers

Chapter 32

Eshentobon landed on the highest tower he could find and peered down at the city below through burning eye sockets. No point maintaining the illusion where no one could see him…

…But they had. That short, stocky man saw through everything, and it was irritating, to say the least. True, it wasn't an uncommon thing for someone to have a tinge of ability or the other--he vaguely remembered once hearing one of the professors claim at least two-thirds of all people did tiny spells reflexively--

--Wait, he remembered that?

How long had it been? Decades? A whole century? How had he managed to remember that tiny shred of information when until so recently he'd forgotten even how it felt to stand in Kerdia Bay and watch the sun rise, something he'd done every day when he was still alive?

It must have been the phoenix. There was no other reason he could think of. Ever since he'd torn into her, his memories had come trickling back. Maybe Valise was right. He didn't want to lose what remained of his humanity, but the more he remembered, the more excuses he began to find for putting off finishing the phoenix for once and for all--and if he let the opportunity slip by, he'd forget everything all over again, the fires prying loose the memories from his consciousness. Once had been painful enough. Twice would be unimaginable.

Well, they had seen him. So be it--Valise had already challenged the phoenix, so it wasn't as if the phoenix didn't know she was being hunted. Maybe now they could fear a little--and he, or at least the bones, could rest.

Now where was he?

The old brick tower stretched down, down all the way to the streets below, and above him cumulated in a lightning rod that had obviously been in use for a while, judging by the tarnish on it. A lightning rod…a tall tower…some of the buildings looked vaguely familiar, and--

--This was the old research institute. They'd barely finished it when he'd…expired, and it'd looked new then. No wonder he hadn't recognised it, and the fact that he'd never seen the Academy from top-down hadn't helped, either. Vines and lichens covered sections of the tower; had it been that long? Could so much time have passed?

But even when he'd trailed the phoenix all the way into the Academy, he hadn't recognised the buildings at first. The streets, no doubt torn up and laid down again many times. There had been bushes, trees, open ground, all of which had been a rarity in his time. This Academy was not the Academy he had known so long ago.

He had memories, but the memories no longer had an anchor in physical reality, except maybe the now-old research institute. Eshentobon remembered being excited; there had been little for a mere lab tech to be excited about. Yes, he still would have been preparing reagents, grading students' laboratory reports and maintaining research equipment, but at least he'd have done all that in a new environment--

Why had he enjoyed being a laboratory technician? Why had those memories meant so much to him then, as opposed to now, when they'd come back to him? He'd been underpaid with little chance of promotion, so poor he slept in the break room at night and was ignored by everyone to the point that his disappearance had been barely noted, the culprits unpunished by the law.

If not for the constant pain and forgetting, he might have been better off now than he ever had been when he was alive. He had powers, albeit rather grim ones. Valise cared about him, enough that she'd gotten upset when she'd thought he was making a bad decision. Most of all, he now had a purpose to his existence, to rid the world of the monster that was the phoenix.

Why? In the ways that truly mattered, how had his life been better than his existence now?

Maybe it had been the expiring that did it. Maybe it had been the smoke and fire, maybe it had been meeting Valise, or maybe it had been hunting down the phoenix and all that had happened since. Maybe it was seeing the Academy again, and realising that all that bound him to the place were memories that didn't matter to anyone but him.

But try as he might, Eshentobon couldn't remember.

#

"We lost it," Tyrus said as he came to a stop along the street. "Damn."

"Well, what did you expect?" Lenka said, barely breathing hard. "We're on the ground, it was in the air. Pushing through streets full of people isn't easy, either."

Tyrus spat into a nearby gutter and lowered his voice. "It went towards the docks. Damn it, I knew we were being watched. We--we're wasting time. There's no way we're going to trace it all the way back to wherever it is they've been hiding--that thing might have just turned around and gone the other way after having led us on a false trail."

"So what do you think we should do?"

"Let's get back to the library and to those archives you mentioned. The only way to put an end to all of this nonsense is to deal with that garuda-woman-thing for once and for all. The next chance you have, kill her."

"Kill her."

"And that bone thing too, if we can figure out how to do it." Tyrus looked down at Lenka's worried face and thinned his lips. "Do you see another way?"

Lenka took a deep breath and shook her head. "No. No, I don't. Now I understand what she meant by having no other choice. Let's go, then."

They strode through a square, and perhaps it was her imagination, but the people around her seemed to be giving her a wide berth, leaving a small circular pocket of empty space about her. Considering who she was, she didn't blame them. A ring of stout wooden stands on wheels stood centred about an enormous fountain in the shape of what could have been a large bird if one applied enough imagination, and Tyrus gave her a nod as they drew close.

"Get what you need. I'll wait for you here and keep watch."

"I thought you were coming with me. There're people, more than I ever thought possible in one place."

He gave her a sad smile. "You do want to feel comfortable around others, don't you? I can't be around all the time, especially after all this is over. If you're going to come back to New Kerdia for your certification under the machine-smith's guild, you might as well start getting used to the place now, and that means getting used to so many people around. Not everyone is watching you, you know."

"Yes, but…" she'd gone off on her own yesterday, and look at what had almost happened…

"No better place to get started than the Trade Quarter, then, and a tiny section if it at that." He gave her an encouraging smile. "Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on you--" the smile vanished-- "amongst other things."

Lenka glanced at the stands. Most of what was for sale appeared to be durable work clothing--of course it would be, those catering to the upper classes would at least be able to afford a permanent establishment--at half the prices she'd have to pay back in Inavael. Wasn't that how the cities made their money, taking in raw materials from the countryside and selling back manufactured goods?

Perhaps this wouldn't be too terrible; she could pick out what she needed from the piles of cloth and rugged leather and be done with it. Gloves, thick leather pants, and overcoats, even hairnets and tinted goggles, although those probably weren't certified safe in any way--all these and more filled the stands, and unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of customers. Back in Mr. Aug's forges and foundries, another layer of leather on your hands could mean the difference between a minor burn and one that, if you were lucky, left you unable to work for weeks. There were a few slightly fancier outfits amongst the drab, utilitarian ones, and there was even a blue, fur-lined men's coat, complete with a cape of a deeper shade--

--She'd done it, the memories flooding back from the other half of her mind. Blood, first crimson, then burnt to black. She'd snapped off the man's head with her beak, held him down with her talons while she did so, and that coat, that wonderful wedding coat lying amongst the burning flowers--

--Then she'd swallowed, liked the taste, and had gone for more even as the fires raged about her--

There were people watching her, there were people watching her. Lenka swallowed hard, looked up and tried not to tremble. No, it wasn't even a wedding coat, it was just an ordinary one, just a shade of blue that wasn't even close to the one she'd remembered, and the fur was only there to keep the wearer warm, yes, to keep the wearer warm and nothing else, nothing else at all. What she'd thought was a cape was only a sheet of fabric, a sample perhaps…

It was just a coat, an ordinary coat, no more, no less. She couldn't change what she'd done in the past, but she could change what she would do in the future. There was only one Lenka now; she could work towards that.

If only that tiny, recriminating part of her would just shut up and accept that fact.

"I'm all right," Lenka said to the world in general, and waved off the helping hands that a few passers-by had extended to her. "I…I choked, but I'm better now." She thumped her chest. "Really. I'm all right. You don't have to worry about me."

"Do I?"

Lenka turned to find Tyrus studying her, as if she was a particularly interesting column of numbers in his ledger. She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth and let out the breath she'd been holding. "No. You're right. Flattered as I am at the thought, I can't have anyone constantly worried for me, it wouldn't be right. Besides, I have my pride to consider." She gave the passers-by a half-twisted smile. "Thank you for your concern, but I think there's nothing left to see, don't you think?"

Almost immediately, the small circle of empty space reformed itself, and Lenka smiled at Tyrus, the tightness in her throat gone. "I'll be fine," she said softly. "Don't worry."

"But I was worried when you just froze up like that--I was worried that you'd lost control of yourself again."

"Damn it, I'm not going to give anyone a reason for regretting anything today, and that includes you. Now get back there and sit down like a--" Lenka looked down and rubbed her temples. "Look, that was uncalled for on my part, but…please. Let's get this over with and we can head on to the library, and we're standing in the middle of the road. Besides, it was just a coat."

"What coat?"

"See what I mean? Look, I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I'l never get better if I have you looking over my shoulder all the time. I'll be back in a few moments, why don't you go and look for birds?"

"Because there's already one in front of me?"

Lenka sighed, rolled her eyes and smiled. "You've actually gained something approaching a sense of humour. Wait till Saresan hears about this; he'll never let it go."

"I thought you'd mentioned that already."

"Yes, but with you, it's worth saying again."

#

Strange lights sighted in northern sky, weather wizards claim natural phenomenon of light interacting with minute traces of magic in water droplets in clouds.

Phoenix sighted on streets of New Kerdia, witnesses unsure of what they saw.

Natural treasure of Alveona burnt in wildfire, thousands mourn loss of a wonderland, recovery expected to take decades.

Phoenixes took my baby!

Tyrus lifted his finger from the news clippings on the notice board and jabbed it squarely at the last article. "And this is why some people will never take the press seriously, Lenka. Anyone with a printing press and a bit of paper can stamp out any old rubbish, and people will not just read that nonsense, but believe it as well. Everyone knows phoenixes haven't been sighted in civilised lands for years."

Lenka looked away. "Of course."

"Why the long face?"

"I know I shouldn't obsess over it, that I should make the most of what I have while I can and that moping isn't going to do me any good, but I just want to see another phoenix that isn't a reflection in the water or a picture in a book or psiprint." She gave an exasperated sigh. "Come on, let's finish what we came here for."

The librarian must have recognised her, for she gave Lenka a curt nod as she passed the counter and headed into the stacks, Tyrus in tow. If Tyrus felt any wonder at the mountains of old, dusty books that were probably arranged to give just that effect, he kept a straight face about it. It wasn't long before Lenka found the room again, and spotting an empty projecting machine, strode over, picked up the crystal she remembered from the cabinet and slammed it into the socket.

"There," Lenka said as the words on the screen flickered to life. "That's where I stopped before…the urges came."

"Hmm."

The garuda is a species of large bird native to many highlands, its most striking feature its gold and green plumage. Given its considerable flight distance, its range lies in virtually all lands, but like other large birds such as the phoenix and roc, it tends to stay away from civilisation…

"Useless," Lenka muttered. "Much like everything they had on the phoenix."

"Keep going. It's not over until we've turned the last page."

An astute flyer, it uses prevailing winds to its advantage, and is known to be able to generate minor winds to help it get to its destination. Such effects, however, are highly localised and have negligible effects on local weather patterns…

"Useless, useless, useless. Tell me something which I can use to kill one. Oh wait, that didn't happen with their entry on phoenixes, so I should be glad, shouldn't I?"

Apart from winds, they have also been known to summon down lighting and rain, often seemingly for no reason; cultures that have developed near their prime nesting areas show a certain reverence for the birds…they hunt much like falcons do, spotting prey in the air and diving towards it, knocking their prey out of the air in the ensuing collision and breaking the prey's neck with its beak. This style suggests there is at least a distant relation, as well as providing an excuse for its colourful plumage--a garuda moves too fast during a dive to be more than a blur, if it is visible at all…

"That," Lenka said, "is something that might pay off the time I spent here. What do you think?"

"I'd tell you not to stop now," Tyrus replied. "And when you're done, I'd like to have a look at the entries on phoenixes myself."

Embers

Chapter 33

The tapping of bone against wood was nearly indistinguishable from the raindrops, sleet and hail that smacked against the shutters, but Valise heard it anyway and lifting her head, unhooked the latch with her beak. Several moments later, Eshentobon hopped in, water dripping from bird bones and forming a small puddle under his borrowed body's feet, and Valise shut the window again.

Head bowed, Valise glared at Eshentobon and spread her tail of green and gold. "Where have you been? I was about to fly out in search of you!"

Maybe it was her own imagination, but Eshentobon seemed to suck up her anger like a sponge; unflinching, unfazed, the bony bird turned burning eye sockets to the window and the downpour beyond.

"There's a terrible storm outside, Valise. A terrible storm, so bad I hear the authorities have closed the port, not that anyone wants to put to sea in this weather. You didn't have a hand in this, did you?"

"Winter storms are nothing out of the ordinary, especially at night. Although, I'll admit that I might have made what was already there a little stronger; it's not as if I can fly above a city in broad daylight if I were to be out there looking for you. Now it's your turn to answer my question. You were supposed to be back hours ago! Have you any idea how worried I was?"

"I was at the Academy. To be exact, perched on the roof of the old research institute."

"They were there for so long? What were they doing?"

"No, it's not that. I was thinking."

Valise nearly gagged on the contents of her crop. "Thinking? For hours?"

"I was there when the old research institute was new. I remember the gleaming, white stone the tower was built from, each block laboriously imported from far away--where, I don't know; I was just a no-name laboratory technician at the time and no one told me more than they thought I needed to know." Eshentobon still hadn't moved, instead watching the wind and rain hurl themselves against the rattling shutters. "Then I looked further and saw how the place had changed in the decades of my absence, and I began wondering about my memories."

"What has that got to do with--"

"This has nothing to do with the phoenix, Valise," Eshentobon replied, just the barest hint of an edge in his voice. "She needs to die, that has not changed, and never will. What this is about is you. It's about me. It's about memories. I still remember the first time you came to me and asked for the answers to the questions of life and death."

"The answer is that there are no answers. You told me that."

"Yes. But you also mentioned your husband, your mate, whatever your people call it, and since then, you've brought up the matter on occasion. Valise…forget the phoenix for a moment. Just for a while. I know this might be painful for you, but tell me about him."

Valise froze. "What? Why?"

"Please. I wish to hear about this man who inspired you to do all this. To help others where you could have walked away without shame. To go through all this and even risk your own life, even when there was no need for you to. At the very least, he seems a far more impressive person than I could ever have hoped to be. We have some time; tell me his story."

Valise shifted her weight from foot to foot and roused herself. "Well, the thing is…I…" She looked up at Eshentobon, his questioning gaze still upon her. "Give me some time to gather myself."

"Do you want to Change back? Maybe you'd feel more comfortable if you were human."

"No, no. I just need some time to…" she made a show of preening a few feathers on her wings, then let her whole body sag.

Always regretting everything, the osprey-child had told her. Always regretting everything.

"I'm not going to be able to escape it, am I? All right, you wanted to hear it, so I'll tell you."

And she did. To her own surprise, she told him everything, from the moment she'd met Helfor as a young bird in her Passage; he'd been from a smallholding on the mountainside below the plateau. Garudas needed their space; distances became much, much shorter when one could fly, and there hadn't been too many people in the plateau village proper.

"He was never the best-looking Tiercel around, his feathers the wrong shade of green, the gold the dull, burnished colour of old metal instead of the blazing colours some of the others had. He never had the sharpest beak or was the best hunter, but that never mattered, to him or to me. I don't know whether it was because I took pity on him, but he tried so hard at everything he deemed worth doing that when you looked at him, it was impossible, impossible to not try and match his enthusiasm without your conscience scolding you every beat of your wings." She paused for breath and looked askance. "Making me happy was one of them, and…and…that day we flew down to Alveona without any of the elders knowing, just him with his cloak and me with my dress, and there was no one else, no witnesses, no guests, no one to officiate it, just us and the flowers and the winds, and now all it's all gone…

"I'm a hopeless romantic, aren't I?"

The winds were so fierce now, howling until the shutters strained madly at their latch. Even the wooden walls that partitioned the inn rooms groaned in time with the gusts, but Eshentobon remained perfectly calm and still. "Do go on. Slowly, now."

"I'd never thought he'd meant it when he said we would build a huge cabin all the way up on the plateau. Considering how we garuda lived, two stories was huge to us, but one day he came up with some beams and nails and began marking out the foundations. I didn't know anything about building nests, at least, not large ones, but there was no question about it. If he believed in it, I had to try; it's not that he had some sort of mind-meld on me, but I wanted to help of my own accord. Strange, isn't it, when you consider how most people think these days? Do they really think like that young slip of a phoenix does? Me, me, me?

"We worked so hard to get everything we needed; we made rain with our Gifts until our heads hurt and bones ached just for that bit of money that would buy that next box of nails which we would then have to fly up, all the way up, and it was only then the hard work started. It was a game to us…"

She should have stopped. She was probably saying too much, telling Eshentobon things that he shouldn't be burdened with, but one word followed the next and the next and the next until they were tossed in a frenzied whirlwind, left to the storm to decide where they would land.

"…I'd always known that we would die someday, that one of us would have to live without the other; no one survives forever. But not like this. Not in this senseless manner. I suppose I'd always known…always known the answers to the questions of life and death, but there and then, with not just Helfor gone but the children too, I didn't want to believe it. Back then, I felt so empty I wanted to end it all, but he wouldn't have done it, and so neither could I. Now everything I do, I have to ask: could I have done it better? Could I have tried harder? Could I have lived with the same enthusiasm Helfor did right up to the end? He was so happy no matter what, it spread to everyone around him, but all that're left are the memories, and those have gone too…"

Lightning flashed in the distance, and there Valise stood in the middle of the floor, the windows long since thrown open by the sheer force of the storm, rain and sleet forming puddles about her feet and soaking deep into her feathers. Shouts came from some of the other rooms, but Valise ignored them, standing in silence until she made up her mind and headed for the windowsill. Eshentobon stepped aside wordlessly, and she launched herself into the eye of the storm, the gold in her feathers flashing the exact same colour as the lightning that lanced down from the heavens.

#

A bolt of lightning flashed down from the clouds and struck the lightning rod on the top of the old research institute. Blinding light came to Lenka's eyes as the entire tower burned an eerie green-gold for a split moment, and the light faded as quickly as it'd burst into existence.

Lenka's toes clenched in her boots. Stupid storm! The hail against her skin would have been bad enough, but her feathers and hair would get all terribly wet, and her newly-bought plumage would get damp and start to smell before she'd even had the chance to don them even once. The sky was all right, she supposed, but there were times she wished she could set the whole thing ablaze.

"Terrible weather, this," Tyrus said, his voice barely audible above the screeching wind. "I've visited Saresan's more than a few times, and while storms are a fact of life living on the coast I've never seen one this strong."

"Hrmph."

"Saresan once told me the average storm has thousands upon thousands of mana particles, all of them lying untapped. Even the best lightning rods are horribly inefficient, he said." Tyrus shielded his eyes against the freezing rain and hail and looked up. "Looking at this, I can believe him."

The wet was everywhere; Lenka rubbed a sheen of water off her brow and tried to wring it out of her hair, but the rain soaked it again almost immediately. The clouds above were black, heavy, menacing, and she strained her eyes, trying to see what had bothered her about them--

--Was that a silhouette of a bird she'd seen? The wind in her ears had sounded like a cry she knew too well--

No. Even if that was the garuda, she couldn't fight now, not when the winds would toss her about like a kite torn from its string. Meeting the garuda's challenge would be asking to lose, and while she was willing to accept setbacks, she would never lose. She was a phoenix, and that meant something.

Another bolt of lightning flashed down, struck a tree in the Academy's gardens, and cleaved it in two. Lenka winced.

"Lenka?"

She blinked. "Hmm?"

"Maybe we should go back inside where it's a little warmer and drier."

"I don't think the librarians would let us in," she replied. "We'd get the floor all wet. Or make the books damp. Or something; they'd find a reason to ask us to leave. The entrance isn't that well sheltered and we're getting damp all over, but at least we're alone and no one's going to yell or frown at us."

"Alone."

"Yes."

Tyrus walked over to a marble column and leaned against it. "Lenka?"

"Yes?"

"Do you remember when we were talking about you possibly being the only phoenix-person in existence? This is probably going to sound horrendous to you, but…maybe you don't need to find another phoenix."

Lenka rounded on Tyrus, her mouth twisted in a scowl he hadn't seen for a long, long time. "What do you mean?"

"What I mean is that, well, sometimes if you breed two closely related creatures together, sometimes you can still…uh…get viable offspring. Mules, for example. Maybe there isn't another phoenix in the whole world, but we know there're other bird-people, and at the very least you could try seeking them out and learn something from them, maybe more."

She stared at him.

"I'm serious," Tyrus said. "At the very least, they're birds, too. You'd gain more from them than from trying to gain the acceptance of normal people, and they'd have some experience of what you've gone through. Besides, you'd have a better chance of success if you didn't just look for another phoenix."

Silence. Lenka's lips moved wordlessly, and then she laughed and laughed and laughed, until the tears rolling down her face mixed with the rain and seeped into her coat and undershirt. "I know they're there," she choked, her voice thick with spit. "I look at the night sky above my home, see the colours, and know there're others out there." Tyrus opened his mouth to speak, but Lenka lashed out so fast her hand was a blur and clamped her palm over his mouth. "Yes. I know I have no proof. I know it's stupid and illogical and I'm probably wasting my time and life dreaming up all this nonsense. There's something to what you've said, but it's my time and life, and I'll spend it chasing an empty, hopeless dream if I want to. Children or phoenix chicks or whatever I'd have should it happen? The very idea terrifies me. Raising them without more phoenix-people around? Looking back on it, I had it easy. I had my mother and Mr. Aug and the forges, and still I wouldn't want to live through all that again. How could I expect to put someone else through that and keep my conscience clear?"

Plumes of fiery colour trailing through the darkness, calling out to her. But every time she tried to get close, she would falter and plummet down, down, away from the others…

"Mm mmph," Tyrus said, and Lenka let her hand fall before she let out the breath she'd been holding.

"I'm sorry. That was uncalled for. But it's hard to accept, don't you think?" she ran her fingers along her forehead, and held up a single long, wavy hair, burning faint with its own light in the darkness of the storm. "Look," Lenka said, and let out a bitter laugh before she tossed it to the winds. "A phoenix feather. That's what started it all. You're not wrong, Tyrus. If I do meet other bird-people, they might be able to get me started, give me clues as to where to look, but they're not…me. But so long as there's a possibility there are any other phoenixes in the world, I won't rest until I do chase down those colours in the sky."

"Well, I have my doubts, but if that's what you wish…"

"It is. And…" she leant forward and wrapped her hands about Tyrus in an enormous hug, coat, rain, damp and all. "Thank you. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I am a phoenix, at least in part, and even if other phoenixes forget their friends, I won't."

Embers

Chapter 34

Eshentobon felt the eyes of the dead on him.

Perhaps it was strange for the embodiment of undeath to feel awkward in the presence of mere paintings of people who had come before him, but he'd fought so hard to keep the shreds of his humanity intact that if this was the price he had to pay, so be it.

In a way, the paintings were still alive. Why should they not be, when people walked this gallery every day, viewing the portraits of past big-shot wizards and department heads? Nothing died completely so long as it was remembered, and these people were still very much alive in the minds of the living.

Some of the paintings were huge, taller than a man, some of them more modestly-sized. The larger ones hung near the end of the gallery, and Eshenobon forced his latest body forward, a slightly haphazard assortment of bones from the local cemetery. It wouldn't do to enter this place as a bird, there was something wrong with that. It would be irreverent.

A flash of lightning crept in through the gallery's windows of painted glass, and the bricks in the walls trembled at the thunder that followed. He would join Valise soon, but there was something he had to do first. The place had been locked, the curators long gone due to the storm, but locks were no problem for him.

Four portraits hung at the end of the gallery, arranged in a neat line so that one passing through the place would be able to see them from afar. Above the wizards of history and legend, above the Academy Grandmasters, and definitely above a mere laboratory technician like he'd been. Even after so long, Eshentobon remembered their faces perfectly. Underneath the portraits, a plaque in gold:

Remember those who brought about prosperity and progress.

He was the one that had done it. He was the one who had been sacrificed in the pursuit of knowledge. He had been bound to this force of nature, made to answer questions, and then thrown away and forgotten once he was no longer useful, left to suffer for eternity.

Generations later, how were they remembered? Those four were hailed as saviours of the world, paragons of diligence and morality, while of the few who still knew him, only one didn't think him a monster.

That was why people had been asking the questions of life and death since the dawn of time.

"This isn't about petty revenge," Eshentobon told himself. "I've already had that. It's about the truth, before I leave. Even if no one chooses to believe it, it has to be told."

The spells that protected the portraits crumbled at his touch, the permanence to be found in memories free once again. As Eshentobon watched, frames and canvas began to crack and decay, paints fade and wither, until all that was left was a small heap of blackish-grey dust. One bony hand reached down and scooped up a handful of dust, and once he was done smearing the fingers of one hand with the contents of the other, he faced the empty spot where the portraits had hung and began to write.

Maybe it was a futile gesture. Maybe the official version of the story was too deeply ingrained in the minds of people all around, that even the truth could never unseat it. But at the very least, people would at least have the chance to know how things really happened, and if things went well, it would be the last thing he would ever do.

#

"The storm isn't going to let up, and my feet are getting soaked," Tyrus said, and shivered despite having taken cover from the wind behind a column. "I'm not saying that we should run straight out into Academy Square, but I'm sure there's a more sheltered path we can take. I could use a warm fire about now."

"I could Change," Lenka said morosely. "Plenty of fire that way."

Lenka hadn't thought it possible, but the wind was stronger than before, some of the gusts blowing the rain and sleet straight into their faces. More than once she'd spotted someone peering hopefully out of the library's main entrance, only to quickly retreat and slam the heavy doors behind them.

"Please don't joke," Tyrus said, and sneezed. His clothes were soaked through--both of theirs were--and Lenka thought he looked positively miserable. "Not now, at least."

"Well, I could hug you again and set myself on fire this time…" Lenka suddenly stopped and peered into the rain. There was a shape coming towards them from across the square, and Lenka's skin itched. No, she told herself. It wasn't a bird, and no bird would walk like that. It almost seemed like…like…

…A man? There could only be one man insane enough to come out in this weather. Yes, it was him, and Lenka held back a sigh as Saresan strode towards them, his boots sloshing in the ankle-high water.

"Hey," Saresan said, and even under the hood of his oilskin raincoat Lenka saw him grin and point at the bundle under his arm. "I thought you might be needing a raincoat."

"Too late," Tyrus muttered, and sneezed again. "What are you doing out here?"

"Getting you folks some raincoats. Oh, and I figured since I was coming out to you guys, I might as well walk in the rain. Heck, we could all walk in the rain. Are you ready?"

"Are you mad?"

Saresan's grin grew even wider. "Oh, come on, Miss. There hasn't been a storm like this since--since--well, I don't know when! That makes it even better! It's like the end of one of those action dramas at the theatre, the ones where they set the mood with sprinklers from the top of the stage and people rolling large balls over sheet metal to make thunder!" He raised his arms, looked up and laughed. "Don't you think this is awesome? Doesn't it just say that this is where destiny meets funtime?"

"Where destiny…meets funtime. All right. If you aren't terrified of being picked up by the winds and carried a mile or so, I am," Lenka said as she took a raincoat from Saresan and shrugged it on. "This isn't a game, Saresan, and I'd appreciate it if you'd get us under shelter as soon as possible. This storm--"

A brilliant burst of lightning struck the ground to Lenka's side, throwing bits of cobblestones into the air. For a split second, Lenka realised she couldn't feel her feet, then the tingling rushed up through her ankles and into her calves just as brilliant spots began to swim before her eyes.

Saresan coughed. "That isn't right--" he looked up, and Lenka saw his eyes grow wide. "Wow. Oh crap. Duck!"

Another bolt of lightning lanced down to the earth, and illuminated in that flash was a dark silhouette against the pouring rain, wings and feet tucked in close to its body--

--And the wind shrieked and tore at Lenka even as she Changed, her clothes falling to the ground as the golden glow faded. It was only then that she realised it hadn't been the wind that had torn at her, although it'd certainly felt like it--the green-and-gold bird had her feathers and flesh clutched in those ugly talons of hers, her blood and feathers and flesh and pride. A flick of the bird's feet, and the soggy, bloody mess lay in the street, mixing in with the dirt and rain.

It made her so angry, to think that she could fall for a…a…trick

The green-and-gold bird glided, her body barely above the ground, and rose into the winds with little effort before she screamed her challenge above the rain. There were no words, but none were needed.

I have come for you.

It was madness to fight her opponent here in the open square in front of the library without anywhere to hide and ambush the green-and-gold bird from, but she didn't see any choice. Maybe the human had been right, stupid and inane as he usually was.

Maybe here in the wind and rain, this was where destiny met…what it had to meet.

Flight was almost impossible; the moment she spread her wings, the storm grabbed her and threw her here and there and it was all she could do to barely stay aloft, flapping her wings frantically against the wind.

But she had to fly. She had to fly, or she would die; another bolt of lightning lit the square and remembering what she'd read, Lenka careened to one side, barely dodging the terrible, toothed beak that clamped down on the spot her neck had been a moment ago. The green-and-gold bird swerved, rose and screamed a challenge once more.

The memories of those who have suffered demand justice.

I will kill you.

I WILL KILL YOU!

Maybe she deserved to die, a small voice in the back of Lenka's mind said. The bird was right; she was a monster and the world would be better off without her--

--But no, to lose to that ugly thing would be too much of an affront to her dignity, and she was already better--

--How could she know she was better at guiding her impulses when she didn't even trust herself?

Nowhere to hide. Nowhere where the winds were calmer, and at least didn't change a dozen different ways every second. She hadn't been in the air long, but she knew she was tiring, and the bird must have known that, too, for the dark shape against the storm folded its wings and prepared to make another pass straight for her.

The other human had told her to kill her opponent. So be it.

Another turn, another dive--this time straight at her, as if the bird intended to gore her right through--and with her last burst of strength she turned on her side, wings drawn back, tail spread, and reached up.

The jolt of the impact shook her down to the last tail-feather, but it was sweet, so sweet, to hear the green-and-gold bird scream in surprise and pain as she impaled her breast right on Lenka's talons, and the blood ran freely as she screamed and screamed--

--And tore at Lenka with her feet, not as strong as Lenka's but still terribly so, and Lenka dug her talons into the bird's flesh and reached step by step for the head, even as the screams continued and strips of flesh were torn away--

They were falling, falling, reminding her of that first blooding in the pine forests near her home.

"Give up," Lenka begged, the rain hissing as it struck her feathers. The bird writhed in her grasp, slashed at her in a desperate attempt to get her to loosen the grip she had on the bird's back and head. "Please, give up. I don't want to have to kill you."

The green-and-gold bird writhed in her grasp, and she had never seen so much hatred in one place. "Tell that to all those people you killed out of sheer spite. This isn't…how it's supposed to end. The monster dies at the end of the story. Everyone…knows that.

"My only regret…is I'll never be…be buried by Helfor in Ayers Valley…"

The bird screamed one last time, and the sound echoed in the wind and the sky, a sound of thunder and lightning, lightning that came in the form of a thin, jagged green-and-gold thread that fell from the heavens and speared both of them right through.

It hurt. Then she couldn't feel her wings, she couldn't feel her legs; it was as if her body wasn't hers anymore. Green and gold, green and gold everywhere, from the light that seared her eyes, to the threads that swam in her vision and refused to leave, to the red-stained feathers that battered against her feet.

"I won't let you harm any more people," came the bird's voice, strangely clear in the midst of the brilliant fury. "I'll take you with me…Eshentobon will come and finish you off."

The struggling weakened and ceased, but they were still falling, falling until the rooftops of the city below them came into view, and then it was the cobblestones, and then there was a wet, dull smack and the snapping of bones. Lenka tried to move off the body, but all she managed to do was to send herself into a fit of violent shaking that lasted for a good while.

Her humans were coming, probably to clean things up. They were good at cleaning up the messes she left behind. But as she tried to focus her eyes on something, anything--a faint golden glow came from within the bird's carcass, enveloping it.

When it faded, all there was left was a woman's body, blood still running from her wounds and into the gutters with the rain.

#

I'm too late.

I'm too late.

And he was, even after having borrowed dragon bones to get there as fast as he could. Academy Square was in ruins, pockmarked with scorched holes which could only have come from the lightning he'd seen from a distance. There, in the midst of everything, Valise lay, still and very, very much dead.

Or almost, if he tried hard enough. There was still a tiny spark left, and perhaps he could draw that thin, if only for a moment, a moment far too short…

But if he truly felt it was worth doing, he had to try. After all, nothing ever truly died until it was forgotten. What was a line but a point stretched out? Ancient claws pressed against Valise's chest, and she coughed. Stirred. Weakly, and Eshentobon knew even that wouldn't last. She didn't even have the strength to open her eyes.

But it would have to be enough.

"Hurry," Valise whispered. "Don't make me have thrown my life away for nothing. She can barely stand; find the phoenix, end her and free yourself."

There was no question about it. "I will."

"She and her protectors made for the docks." She coughed, and Eshentobon heard blood gurgling in her lungs. "Hurry, go."

"I will."

"But one more thing."

Eshentobon paused mid-stride. "Yes?"

"I…once thought I could love you. But that's not possible; I was fortunate enough to have loved Helfor, and nothing can replace him. Even so, you've been a true friend." Her voice was fading, and fast. "Thank you."

The last spark of life winked out and Eshentobon had no heart to rekindle it, even if he could. One step back, two steps back from the body, and he broke into a run for the docks, dragon bones moving catlike against the wind and rain, claws scrabbling on the street.

Cities had memories. They had bones, formed as buildings were built upon buildings and generations of people lived in them.

Now the very bones of the city trembled and shook as Eshentobon tapped into the memories in the dragon bones, memories of hunting, killing and fresh-spilt lifeblood.

Embers

Chapter 35

"Come on," Tyrus said, his hands buried deeply in Lenka's ragged, soaked feather. Why his fingers hadn't already burned to blackened stubs when Lenka was leaving a trail of steam behind her he wasn't sure; as far as he knew, the burning feathers only felt comfortably warm to his touch. "You've got to make it. At least, go back to being a human so we can carry you. Please."

"This isn't right," Saresan said as he caught one of Lenka's flailing wings. Lenka swerved, stumbled and nearly crushed Saresan under her side. "It's just not right for someone this dignified to be reduced to…this."

The rain and sleet continued to pour down upon man and phoenix alike, waves crashing against what was left of the docks. Several of the piers had collapsed under the sheer brunt of the storm, and more than once both Tyrus and Saresan had to guide Lenka to the slightly drier waterfront streets, away from swathes of floating wreckage.

"What if she stays like this forever?" Saresan asked. "I've never known anyone who was struck head-on by lightning and lived. Heck, even Rogado never managed to catch ahold of anyone like that. What're we going to do?"

"Don't think about it," Tyrus replied through gritted teeth. "Don't even think about it. Let's get her somewhere safe first."

Lenka made a gurgling noise in the back of her throat, a thick, vile sound that should never have come from a bird, and her eyes snapped into angry focus. "Don't…talk about me like I'm not here, I tell you." Another shaking fit ran through her, and Saresan and Tyrus stood back until she'd recovered and could speak again. "I…I feel cold. But I've never felt…cold before…or at least, not when I wasn't…how do I know how what it is to be cold? Or what it was, when I felt it the first time? I…I can't feel…"

A shriek, and she slipped and fell onto her belly, the dirt and debris of the docks seeping into her plumage. There she lay twitching, wings and tail spread, one eye staring emptily into the heavy, overcast sky.

Tyrus swore and pushed his weight against Lenka's side, muddied water streaming off his raincoat. "This is not happening! Come on, get up! We're not going to leave you behind, but you have to get up!"

"I'm cold…find me a fire…"

"We'll get you someplace warm and find you a fire, but we have to move!"

Another pained gurgle erupted from Lenka's beak and she convulsed again, wings beating at the ground, talons scrabbling against empty air.

"This isn't good," Saresan said.

"I can see that for myself! Maybe you should--" Tyrus began, but Saresan merely shook his head and pointed down the docks.

"That."

Barely, just barely through the white veil of pouring rain, a faint outline of an enormous dragon's skull could be seen. Tyrus' heart froze for a second, and then he splashed over to Lenka and tugged at her side, pulling away fistfuls of loose feathers in the process.

"Get up! Get up, damn it, that bone thing's here for you! You didn't live through everything just to die like this now! Why won't you just get up, Lenka? Why?" Rain streamed in through the open hood of his raincoat and ran down his face, or perhaps it wasn't rain.

And she tried to. He saw her shake, struggle, even lift her breast halfway off the ground, but then her muscles would spasm uncontrollably and send her back to the ground, again and again and again until she was too exhausted to even raise her head or cry out, and the two men pushed and shoved with all their might but it was hardly enough to move her--

The assembly of dragon bones was so close they felt the pounding of its feet through their boots, heard the cobblestones rattle and the dull crackle of blue fire burning brightly despite the downpour.

Tyrus looked down at his chafed hands. "What do we do now?"

"What do you mean, what do we do? We make a stand."

"Against a collection of ancient dragon bones held together by who knows what, with little more than a big bird who's about as useful now as a large sack of rubber and our bare hands. We're supposed to make a stand with these?" His breath whistling through his teeth, Tyrus pulled down the hood of his raincoat and placed himself directly between Lenka and the bone creature running on all fours towards them. He looked back at the still-twitching Lenka, down at the ground and then straight ahead into the rain before balling his fists. "Well, if something's worth doing I might as well do it right, eh?"

"I thought you'd say that." Saresan grinned. "I don't know yet if this is the best day of my life, but it most certainly is the most…something day. I'll find a word for it later."

They stood their ground and watched it approach, clacking and creaking. There were several things Tyrus could have said. "You shall not pass!" would have been traditional, if a little overused. Perhaps "stop!" might have been a better choice, or even "come no closer!"

But instead he said nothing, for there were things that did not need to be said.

"Maybe you have been misled," the bone creature said, its ancient jaws hanging open, the rushing vortex within more than a little disquieting. "Maybe the phoenix has tricked you, maybe the two of you have deluded yourselves, but there can only be one outcome: the phoenix must pay for her crimes. You have one last chance."

"She knows what she's done and regrets it," Tyrus replied. "That's why I took her back."

"It is not enough. The damage has been done. The people will not live again. The memories will not return." Yellowed teeth clacked together. "One more chance."

"Let him have…what he wants, Tyrus," Lenka gasped from behind him. "I'm cold. I'm already dying, and you…you can't lie to me about that. Let some good come from my death."

"So noble. So sacrificing. Would you have done the same were you were not already half-dead, phoenix? Would you have done the same had Valise not given herself to bring you down?"

Silence.

"I thought not. You heard her, tradesman. Why do you still persist?"

Tyrus ignored her and glared straight up into the burning eye sockets. "I still cannot let you pass, and neither will my friend."

"Then I will remove both of you."

Tyrus had been expecting the bone creature to do something, but not this--it simply reached out with a foreclaw and swept both of them away like crumbs off a table, simply and efficiently. A blow, and Tyrus heard a sharp exhalation as Saresan's breath was knocked from him, followed shortly by his own. Stars swam in his vision and the rain flew into his eyes, and Tyrus scrambled to his feet, ready to fling himself at the bone creature for all the good that would do, but it had already reached Lenka and was poised to pounce--

--And it did, its front half pinning her down, jaws seeking out neck and biting down hard--

Lenka screamed.

If not for the fact that Lenka was dying, Tyrus might have said it was the most beautiful sight he'd ever come across, surpassing even Lenka in full flight. In that one moment, every single feather on her body burned brilliantly, far more so than he'd ever seen before, and both golden and blue flames spiralled, swirled and snaked about each other before they merged and vanished.

Saresan stared. "Wow."

A deep, thrumming groan that seemed to reach all the way into the bones of the earth, and the blue fire that encased the dragon bones flickered and dissipated. The bones trembled, shook, and then fell and clattered on the ground, whatever spirit that had been animating them gone. Even with the wind and rain howling about them and battering against their raincoats, Tyrus couldn't help but feel a strange sense of peace, an aura of serenity that hung over the vacant bones.

Just what had the bone creature been? Why had it been so driven to kill Lenka? To die, perhaps, but why had it been so keen on that? He would never know, and maybe it was better that way. People used magic every day, and tended to forget that it wasn't perfect. They didn't need reminding of that, at least for now.

Slowly, a faint golden light emerged from Lenka's charred-black corpse, still flickering with the light of a few embers, and when it'd faded the phoenix had been replaced with a young woman.

Saresan knelt by her side and touched a trembling finger to her neck. "She's dead, Tyrus. She's dead."

Tyrus sucked in a breath, the image of Lenka's burnt-out body far too fresh in his mind, charred black but still glimmering with a few embers. It'd reminded him of…of how a bird might have looked if its nest had burned down about it. What had she told him that night?

"Take this nest for example," she'd said. "They claim that I'm supposed to lay my eggs in it and then set the nest and myself on fire, and--and--and then I'm supposed to die, only to come back to life again in the fires. That doesn't make any sense."

No, it hadn't made any sense back then, but there wasn't anything left to lose now.

"I'm cold…find me a fire…"

He had to try. Carefully, Tyrus knelt down and lifted Lenka's cooling body in both his arms, trying to ignore the ugly tooth marks that went deep into her flesh. "I have to try."

"Try what?"

But Tyrus was already marching down the street against the full force of the storm, stepping over scattered bones and splashing through red-stained puddles still steaming with the heat of Lenka's blood.

#

"Tyrus, are you sure that--"

"I'm sure of one thing," Tyrus snapped. "If we don't at least give it a go, Lenka is going to stay dead. I'd rather have a chance of this working rather than feel bloody guilty for the rest of my life. Besides, aren't you the one inclined to take risks?"

"Yes, but not with people's lives, only my own." Saresan paused to catch his breath, then drew a thin smile across his lips. "Well, if this works, I'll have to say this was the best day of my life."

"Damn right."

The courtyard of the machine-smith's guild was flooded, the tarpaulins sheltering the carts being serviced long since blown away to who knew where. Lenka's body still in his arms, he splashed through the ankle-high water to the main entrance and hammered on the thick wooden door with all his might.

"Open up! Lives are at stake here!"

"We're not open for business," a voice came from the other side of the door. "Besides, you're at the wrong--"

Tyrus struck the door again, and to his own surprise it shook under his fist. "What part of there are lives at stake here do you not understand? Or maybe the whole 'dedication to health and safety' thing I've been hearing guild representatives speak to the public about was just a bunch of nonsense designed to appease the masses?"

Silence. There was a scuffling behind the door, some hushed conversation, and after a short while a pair of heavy footsteps drew close. The door creaked, rattled and swung open to reveal a largish man in a leather work outfit.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said. "I'm assistant foreman Verdon. All the masters are occupied with restarting the systems, so you may direct your enquiries to me. Just what is it you want?"

"We need a fire," Tyrus said. "The hottest one you have."

Verdon looked down at Lenka's body and frowned. "The guild's workshops are not a crematorium, sir, and I must say men turning up with young women's bodies asking for them to be burned is quite suspect--"

"Do you think these wounds were caused by any human weapon? Look…just trust us on this. We'll stay here, and if the Watch has any questions to ask we'll answer them. Post a guard or something to make sure we don't get away." Tyrus paused for breath, then glanced at Saresan, who nodded. "We can also pay you a lot of money."

"I…see…"

"What's going on here?"

Verdon turned to the newcomer. "Master Malachir, these two men have come with a rather unusual request, and I'm not sure how to deal with this. Guild policy has never stated--"

"We need a fire," Saresan said. "You know, probably like one of those towering pillars of flame they say lie out in the desert beyond the northern Terrano, that sort of thing. Only we make these ones, and not from vents in the earth."

"That's enough, Saresan," Tyrus said, and turned to Malachir. "She needs a fire; her life is at stake. Will you help or not?"

Malachir looked down at Lenka's body, then pressed his lips into a thin line. "That's Scars' apprentice, isn't it?"

"I don't know who Scars is, but Lenka came to the Guild a few days ago," Tyrus replied.

"Yes, I remember her now. I even gave her a note for the Academy's archives and told her to come back for enrolment when the seasons turned…you say she needs a fire? Why?"

"It's…complicated," Saresan said. "But she needs a fire, or she'll die."

"She looks pretty much dead to me," Verdon said, but Malachir held up a hand and nodded at Tyrus and Saresan.

"We're firing up the plant systems anyway, they claim they have money, and if something untoward happens, I believe we can prevent them from making a getaway. Not to say we're in the red, if the memos are anything to be believed, but a little extra revenue is always welcome. Besides, one way or the other, I'm rather interested to see what might happen." He turned back to Tyrus and Saresan. "I'm afraid we haven't got most of the machinery started, but the coking ovens are warmed up. Will they do?"

Tyrus looked down at Lenka's body and for the first time realised how tired his arms were. "It's better than a bonfire, at any rate."

"Excellent. Do come in out of the rain and follow me."

Malachir led them down the hallways, although Tyrus thought the machine-smith did so a little hesitantly, as if he still wasn't convinced what he was doing was a good idea. It didn't matter, so long as he got them a fire. Lenka's body was cold against his skin, somehow colder than ice even though his arms weren't freezing. It was almost as if…as if…

…She was trying to draw in all the warmth about her…

Tyrus swallowed the lump in his throat and hurried after Malachir.

The hallways branched and twisted, and eventually opened into a cavernous room lined with pipes, valves and ducts. Huge, funnel-shaped furnaces sat in the middle of the room, apprentices in the guild's colours scurrying back and forth between the walls, exits and furnaces.

Malachir nodded and pointed at the furnaces. "Put her in one of them. We'll see if the coking ovens are hot enough."

"Which one?"

"So long as it's open and not in use. They're all made to the exact same specifications."

Saresan winced. "Tyrus…"

"Yes?"

"This reminds me of the time Rogado and I got caught between a rock and a hard place. It was raining and that crack was filling up fast, but there was this herd of wyverns playing outside in the rain and--"

"I understand," Tyrus said. "I think I'll take my chances with the wyverns." Stiffly, he walked over to the nearest vacant furnace and gently laid Lenka's body in the centre of the grate that floored its insides, carefully tucking her hair about her neck so she looked a least a little dignified, naked as she was. Clenching his fists so tightly his knuckles turned white, Tyrus stepped out of the furnace and faced Malachir. "What do we do now?"

Wordlessly, Malachir waved at the apprentices by the furnace controls. When they looked back at him worriedly, he gave them a reassuring nod, and they hurried to shut and bar the furnace door.

"What's the worst that could happen?" Saresan said.

Tyrus thinned his lips. "She gets a decent burial and we waste a lot of money. Let's not jinx it, shall we?"

Gears ground, machinery hummed, and a dull roaring came from within the furnace's insides as small streams of smoke emerged from the furnace to be immediately sucked up by the enormous ventilation vents in the ceiling. High above them, a turbine groaned, flashes of magical energy visible within its clear exterior.

It was half a minute until Tyrus remembered to breathe again.

One of the apprentices at the controls signalled to Malachir, and the master machine-smith hurried over. "What's the matter?"

"It's the readings, Master. It's almost as if the fire hasn't been lit, but it has! We had ignition a whole five minutes ago, and the automated bellows are working just fine."

"So everything's safe?"

"According to the readings, everything's working, Master. It's just that…there's no heat. We've turned everything to the high end of safe operating limits, and there's still nothing."

The furnace door began to rattle.

Tyrus shared a glance with Saresan and both men stared intently at the furnace door, as if they could make their unspoken desire happen through sheer force of will. As if responding to their thoughts, the door began to shake harder, and there was an unmistakable pounding from within.

"Open the furnace door!" Tyrus roared. "Open it!"

"We can't just open the door, there are standard shutdown procedures to be followed, even in an emergency--" Malachir began, but Tyrus glared at him with such fury he took a step back.

"Do what you must, but please open it!"

Malachir nodded at the apprentices, and they hurried at the controls. Several of them at the other furnaces had stopped their work to watch what was going on, and a minute later two heavily-clad apprentices came over to the furnace door and removed the heavy steel bars with long poles.

Something emerged.

It was brilliant. It was beautiful. It burned with the glory of the sun, felt as warm as the coming of spring, reminded Tyrus of candle flames and raging wildfires and comfortable hearths, for it was all those at once.

Tyrus felt his eyes moisten, and Saresan was weeping openly. "This is the best day of my life."

Tyrus wasn't about to argue.

The flames subsided a little, and yes, it was Lenka, embers falling from her wings like stars in the sky as she rose gracefully to the room's cavernous ceiling, her wings stretched wide. Some of the apprentices had fallen to their knees in wonder as she spiralled higher, plumes of colour trailing in her wake.

She didn't speak, but everyone in the room heard her words.

I…feel…ALIVE.

Embers

Epilogue

The plateau sat on one side of the windswept valley. Much of its lower slopes had been terraced and were covered with sprouting winter-sown hill wheat, but apart from that much of its sides was at best covered in scrub, and the rocky earth protruded from the cover of vegetation in places.

Unsurprising, considering how strong the winds were. More than once Lenka found herself thrown off course, and the valley itself offered little shelter--its shape somehow funnelled the winds into an unstoppable torrent of air that rushed from one end of the valley to the other.

The only way to approach the plateau was from high up, and she supposed that was what they wanted. A rasping birdcall rang out the moment she passed over the first of the terraced fields, and echoed down, down the steep-sided valley to the plateau.

And then they came.

Green and gold against the noonday sun, five enormous garuda took off from the plateau, calling out to each other. Surrounding Lenka with practiced ease, they chippered and screeched angrily, although none of them actually attacked.

"Stop," Lenka said. "I don't want trouble. I just want to talk."

That was apparently new to them. The garuda called out to each other again, although Lenka wasn't sure what they were discussing, and at last one of them dove and flew close to her.

"You have a Gift," he said.

"If you call it that. I still don't know if it's a gift or a burden."

"Elder Lianne says it is what you make of it." The garuda thought for a moment. "You wish to speak with us?"

"Yes."

"Then you will speak. It is not good to turn away someone with a Gift when they have shown us no offence; we will take you to Elder Lianne. Follow us; she will know what to do with you." A click of his beak. "We will be watching you. You have been warned."

"But of course."

There was no cause for anger. She was in their territory, in their lands by their leave; a little humility was far from out of place. The garuda herded her to one end of the plateau and circled her; it was clear they wanted her to land, and she did.

What had she expected? The village wasn't too different from the sort that might have been found anywhere else in the Terrano, with perhaps a few differences. Most of the huts were stone instead of wood, but she supposed they had to be in order to take the battering the constant winds gave them. A large well stood in the centre of the village; three chicks covered in greyish-white down the colour of rain clouds chased each other round and round it, but scattered and fled when Lenka approached with her escort.

Even other birds are terrified of me, was Lenka's first thought, but was quickly followed by they're probably just afraid of strangers. Not many must come up here. She was aware of peering eyes on her from within the huts, both human and avian, both terrified and curious, and was suddenly grateful for the ring her escort had formed about her. They led her to one of the huts, slightly longer than the others, and the garuda who'd spoken to her roused his feathers.

"Wait here," he said. "I will tell Elder Lianne you wish us no harm, and ask if she will speak with you."

Goats in small, fenced-off pens. Scraggly vegetables that scraped out a meagre existence in the poor, windblown soil. Terraces upon terraces of hill wheat and vegetables, fed by mountain streams that ran down the sides of the plateau. Lenka didn't care for them, but she could see why the garuda would endure cold, hunger and isolation just to live here, here on this plateau that dwarfed all the others, here on the roof of the world, or at least, this part of it.

A shuffling from the hut's doorway and a garuda emerged, her feathers a little more unkempt than the others, and there were gaps in her wings as if her yearly moulting hadn't been enough to replace all of her flight feathers. But what was most striking about her was that both her eyes were a pure blood-red. Slowly, the aged garuda moved over to Lenka and tapped her once on the head with her beak, then dismissed the escort with a nod.

"Welcome to our village. We do not get many visitors, for obvious reasons." She looked down at Lenka and clicked her beak. "Come, child. There is little cause for fear. What is your name?"

"I am Lenka Pelakova."

"And I am Lianne. No, no surname. I am what passes for a headwoman around here, I suppose…" she ruffled her feathers and roused herself. "Lenka. Lenka. You are not from this part of the mountains?"

"I lived in Inavael."

"I thought as much. Your name does not sound local. Well then, Lenka. Why have you come to us?"

Lenka knew what she should say; she'd prepared herself for this question, rehearsing her answer over and over again. Yet when she said it, the words came out all wrong, and she had to stop and try again. "I have a Gift, is that what your people call it? But…but I don't know what I'm supposed to do with this so-called Gift. I was hoping that…that you'd know what to do. How to use it and find your place amongst others. Your people have lived with this Gift for longer than I have, they've had time to work things out. That is why I've come. To know."

"And how did you know where to find us?"

"Valise told me where to find this place, near Ayers Valley." Lenka stopped and studied the elder's face, but it might as well have been an immovable stone wall. "Is something the matter?"

"Valise was my daughter, but we shall speak of her later. For now…" Lianne began a slow walk. "Let us address your problem. You have a Gift. I have a Gift. They are similar but not identical, and I fear that I would do more harm than good by giving you advice meant for another.

"There is something I can tell you, though. Long ago, there were some people. The other local clans had pushed them out of better lands, and so they had to live where others would not--in places where the mountains forced rain from the clouds rolling in from the sea, where the wind stripped the land down to bare rock. Like all people, they had children, and unknown to them, they had been born in a place of power. Can you not feel it in your bones, in your soul?"

Lenka concentrated. "Yes, I can feel it. But it's…closed off to me. I know it's there, but I can't touch it."

"That would probably be because our Gifts are not the same. But being born in such a place was not enough to change these people. It was only when they lived in certain ways, did certain deeds that the transformation was complete and they received their Gift to run in their blood forevermore. Do you remember the first time you realised your Gift, child? Was there something that happened?"

"Mother said I was born when she and Father were travelling. As for that…" She'd first Changed seven years ago, when she'd been twelve. Twelve. What had happened then? Well, she'd been growing, and had wanted to be apprenticed to Mr. Aug, who'd just set up in Inavael a year ago. She'd worked with the constant heat and fire and at times almost fainted because it had been so hot

Of course. That had been it. "I understand now."

"And so one question is resolved. As for the others, I think you will have to find the answers yourself." Lianne had stopped in front of a large, empty patch of ground covered in sparse vegetation. "Come. There is something here I wish to show you."

"I don't see anything."

"And that is exactly what I wanted you to see." Lianna looked askance at the ground. "Valise and her mate built a huge house on this very spot, a solid affair of stone and the best wood they could fly in from the lowlands. People complained at first, but they were so happy that after a while no one had the heart to rebuke them for breaking tradition."

"What happened?"

"It burned down to the very last stone. Her mate and three branchers perished; she was the only survivor."

Lenka's insides twisted.

"She was more than a little grief-stricken, and left us after a while; I don't blame her. You say she told you how to find us? Was she well?"

Lenka was tempted to lie, to tell a half-truth and make it all better, but she'd been lying for so long, not just to herself but to others, too.

No. No more lies, however painful the truth might be. "I…I had to kill her. She believed me a monster, and fought me to the death." Lenka took a step back, ready to take flight if the garuda elder threw herself at her. "She was not completely wrong."

"Excuse me. I…I…no, I'm fine. It's sad, to make an understatement…but…I'm fine. I can't fault you for wanting to stay alive."

Judging by how Lianne looked, she was anything but fine, but Lenka wasn't about to press the point. "If it's anything, she fought well."

"She would have," Lianne agreed, and spread her tail feathers stiffly. "There will be time for remembrance later. For now…what will you do, Lenka Pelakova?"

"I want to find others of my kind. I believe they're out there."

"Immediately?"

"Well, not exactly. There are other things I have to do; I have to see to Father and Mother, then perhaps work with Mr. Aug for the rest of the winter, then I have to go down to the coast, meet up with Tyrus and Saresan and get myself certified as a journeyman smith-mechanic--"

Lianne clicked her beak and regarded Lenka with her blood-red eyes. "All those mean nothing to me, and even if they did, it wouldn't change anything. How much do you want to find others with your Gift? Whether you find the eye of a storm depends only on how badly you want it."

"Pardon?"

"A local expression." With that, Lianne turned her back on Lenka and hobbled away. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to be alone for a while. Your escort will see you from the village."

#

Lenka flew.

Waves of gold, red and blue trailed out from behind her, painting the night sky awash with fire. This was who she was. What she was made for, one of the reasons why she existed. Spring would come, and with it, warmth over the land.

There were other lights in the distance too, smears of brilliance against the inky, star-studded sky. Perhaps it was her imagination, but Lenka thought her eyes picked out tiny specks of light in the miasma of colour, moving, flying…

Lianne might have been right. Whether she found another phoenix or not would depend on how hard she searched, but it wasn't worth dropping her entire life right now just to look. She had some time, she had friends, she had her life.

She could find her own way.

For tomorrow would be the dawning of another day.

The End.