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Who Killed Billy SweetSongs?



Sildinis strode through the row of wagons and tents in the small-hours light. The caravan had been set up in the Court of Winds for almost a week. The City of Thieves usually teemed with people, busy, hurrying. She had to watch for the pickpockets all day, and protect the talent from the bullies and extortionists by night. The small hours though, those were quiet and empty, she relished them. The city was all hers and the eyes were no longer watching.

The Court centerpiece was a wide grassy plain large enough to hold the entire caravan. This was surrounded on four sides by brick buildings, four stories tall, shops on the ground level and apartments above, all freshly painted with bright and varied colors. Well manicured gardens at the front of each building provided fruits and foods of various types, freely provided to any artist as long as they pulled it out of the ground themselves. Alleys and walkways snaked between the buildings and at the corners of the square court, dark and shadowy most of the day and pitch black at night. It all seemed like a paradise but Sil could not shake the feeling it was a prison.

The moon was full and bright massive in the night sky, illuminating the main paths making the alleys seem even darker. The night's chill brought the fog seeping up from the sewer grates that dotted both the stone paths and the grassy areas. Moonlight diffused through the fog making it even brighter, too bright to forage, everyone was alert here.

She passed the workmen's wagon, the men inside snoring in their hammocks, and weaved through the stacks of barrels and scrap wood and bolts of many-colored cloths. OldBerry's Trinkets was next, and the two children were asleep beneath the wagon, between the wheels, as gnomes prefer. Sildinis stooped to check on the children. Concentrating on the roots and seeds hidden in the grassy lawn, she filled them with the magical energy flowing all around and they stretched quickly over the ground, seeds sprouting and stalks stretching impossibly fast. Her magic creeped through the ground, and the living roots and vines burrowed and grew spreading over the young gnomes brittle but warm.

"Sweet Sil, mothering the children?" A melodic baritone voice said from behind her.

"Hush for quiet, Billy" Sil turned and said to the tall good looking young man.

"Lest they wake?" Billy said back quieter, approaching.

"Don't bother your charms on me, SweetSongs." Sil said as she walked past Billy.

"I wouldn't dare." Billy said as he fell in step behind her.

"You can't help it." Sil's voice was now more sultry, her walk more sensual.

"Not with you, Lady Sil." Billy smiled, watching Sil sway in front of him.

"Bored with Nee'ateh already?" Sil leaned her head back as she spoke, smiling back.

"That's just business Sil, with you it's my pleasure." Billy's voice was low and earnest.

Sil curtsied mockingly and spoke in a lowborn accent, "Well lah-tee, my wee head is spinning with hope, dear Billy."

"You're a low mean soul, Sil." Billy laughed along with Sil as they continued through the caravan side by side.

"Race you to the wheel!" Billy said and took off running.

Off like a bolt, they both sprang down the alleyway. Sil leaped atop a barrel then to a stack of crates and on towards the rooftops. It wasn't necessary to be efficient, Billy couldn't match her fleetness in a straight-out run. Through a crowd he could beat her every time, but without people in the way, he was no match for her. Sil flew from one roof to another over a thin alley, like many that criss-crossed in every district of the City of Thieves. Between the Court of Winds and the Court of Dragons, where the wheel was installed, the alley was wide but serpentine with stacks of crates and barrels making shadowy hidden spaces all along the way interspersed with a myriad of tiny winding alleys leading off sometimes to dead ends, other times to places worse. Sil ran a mostly straight line to the wheel. Billy wound his way through the alley moving his feet as fast as he could without tumbling weaving between the crates and barrels stashed along the way. When she reached the last roof opening up on the Court of Dragons, a grand Gnomish carnival before her, with the enormous wheel seven stories high, and the spinning machines and the other contraptions displayed before her, Sil paused, and peeked down into the alley waiting for Billy to catch up.

The eastern sky turned grey, the stars struggling against the failing night. Sil heard Billy's footsteps and panting, then shifted her gaze out across the Gnomish engines. Each one was unique, the wheels vertical and horizontal, one that spins slow and one that spins fast, a giant magic bag of air that lifted one high into the air, a wooden firedrake that loped in a circle as if taking off. During the day they all spun and twisted and bounced full of tourists and children, now though all silent and still. Even now they sang when the wind came, creaking and popping snapping and cracking, issuing from each one. Sil soaked it all in, a symphony in whispered sounds. She had studied each engine in turn, learning each lurching and sway, trying to understand how each piece moved and why. It was a trick, really, made to look unstable, but really strong, impossibly strong. The individual pieces moved and the slack that made it seem unsafe absorbed the energy so wood did not crack and metal did not split.

Billy ran, nearly stumbling with each footstep, recklessly through the way. Sil waited and watched until Billy ran out of the alley into the Court proper, then launched out and down, tucked and twisted and when she hit the ground, rolled and came up running. Billy reached the wheel first and grabbed the nearest crossbar and drew himself up. Sil hit the wheel and went swiftly up the side, knowing where each support would shift, and where not. While Billy grabbed a piece and waited for it to shift, Sil grabbed where the connection was strong, moving up the wheel along the axis of strength. Billy grabbed a beam and the whole wheel shifted. The lurching racked the wooden structure and Billy's skeleton, but Sil could feel the shift and knew how the engine would compensate. She leaped upward, airborne for the split second when the structure repositioned, by the time she reached the zenith of her leap, the wave of moving wood had passed and she kept moving towards the top without a pause.

By the time Billy pulled himself onto the last rung, Sil was already there watching the eastern sky lighten. She did not turn, but kept her gaze east as Billy inched close and wrapped his cloak and arms around her warmly. Sil relaxed into his arms and let his warmth cover her never straying her eyes from the eastern view. The sun broke through, just a sliver in the sky, burning the grey away to blue. White clouds, small cottony puffs floating lazily here and there, had bottoms flashed to orange, to grey, then back to white as the widening rays of the sun sliced through the morning sky. In mere minutes the entire globe of fire was above the distant horizon, and only the tallest buildings of the Swans were obstructing it's light. How tall were those buildings? Sil asked silently in her head. She had seen the great Temple of Xi, with its muscular bulbous spire that reached up for what seemed like miles. But it was thin for most of its height, like a thick paste had been dropped by the gods and frozen quick. The great buildings of the Swans were different, square and bulky all the way up, and maybe even taller, great gleaming mirrored glass and steel and rich dark woods of impossible strength.

"SilverSwan Tower is fifteen stories tall, and the BlackSwan is even taller." Billy said finally.

"Are those Tesswood beams?" Sil asked.

"I guess, can't even be scratched with normal steel. Oily too, hard to climb." Billy said while scanning the streets of the Swan District.

"I can't even imagine the wealth required to get beams of Tesswood." Sil said.

Billy shifted his weight uncomfortable. The Wheel heaved and shifted likewise, one loud chunk after another following the wheel struts counterclockwise until the shifting came around to them again like an ocean wave. Sil rode the moving beam easily, but Billy had to grab on both hands tight to steady himself.

"I hate climbing this thing, for the life of me, how it still stands is a miracle." Billy said holding Sil close again.

"It's the way Gnomish things are. They're strong though, the movement uses up the energy, keeps the engine from breaking." Sil continued silently in her head, OldBerry's often spoken words, that which bends will then not break..

"Energy like magic?" Billy said.

"No." Sil said definitively, then her expression softened, "Well, yes, sort of."

"You always do that." Billy said.

"What?" Sil replied.

"You say one thing, then immediately say the opposite thing." Billy said.

"No I don't." Sil paused, then smiled broadly and continued, "Yes, I do." Her smile broke into a laugh, "I only do that when I'm with you."

"Contrary." Billy said laughing quietly and shaking his head.

"Not contrary." Sil replied laughing.

"Well, Sun's up time to get to work, come with me to the Swans?" Billy said smiling sweetly.

"I can't go to the Swans, they would never let me in." Sil answered.

"I know a secret way. It'll be fun." Billy said.

"Tempting, but not right now. Mother Leaflan needs me soon. Catch up later?" Sil said as she slipped over the edge and down the Wheel, falling swiftly.

Every once in a bit, Sil would reach a hand or foot out and brush a piece of the Wheel to slow her progress until she landed softly at the base. There, a very gruff and angry-looking gnome stared at her sidewise before returning to his duties oiling the pivots. Sil looked up at Billy slowly making his way down, the Wheel screaming a racket of wooden creaks and squeaks with each hand and foot hold. Sil didn't wait, but started walking back towards the Court of Winds and home. More gnomes appeared and went about their chores, mostly ignoring the interlopers, but keeping a healthy distance from Sil, always. The alley was wider than most, perhaps meant to be a thoroughfare between the Courts, but its usefulness was hampered by stacks of wooden crates all along its way, along with barrels of various sizes and manufactures, some looked foreign or had strange markings. Sil silently said to herself, how are these things not stolen?

Sil entered the Court of the Winds, already busy with caravan workers and performers milling about, preparing their tricks, games, shows and scams. There were a few of the more respectable visitors walking along the row looking for their favorites. OldBerry was walking to his door carrying a pail of fresh water from the well as Sil passed his trinkets wagon, now with one wall lifted up as an awning and a myriad of small toys and engines hanging and spinning and hooting. OldBerry's daughters ran about quickly hanging tiny wooden birds that flapped their wings, and setting upright toy soldiers that saluted all on their own, and a menagerie of tiny metal and wood animals of all sizes, types and abilities.

"Hey Sil, thanks for the night cover." Haile said bouncing down from the stool on which she had been standing.

"Anytime, sweetling." Sil smiled and hugged Haile who quickly bounded off on more chores.

"They say it could rain later." Triste was a small copy of her sister, except with red curls instead of black.

"Ah, Triste, They always say its going to rain...it never rains." Sil said.

"Well if it does, can we practice LeafShy?" Triste said hopefully.

"Sure, if your mother says fine." Sil roughed up Triste's hair as she spoke.

OldBerry opened the small door and waved Sil inside. Not much taller and definitely slighter than most gnomes, Sil was one of the few that did not have to stoop in the OldBerry's cabin. The tiny space was strewn about with tools and bits and pieces of wood and metal. A workbench was beside OldBerry, a nearly completed wooden scorpion languidly hobbling in a circle atop it, and on the other side of OldBerry, as he sank into his chair, was the open counter. Beyond was the outside and his busy children prancing and laughing. Kicking a stool with his foot as he sat down, OldBerry picked up his pipe and began to smoke without bothering to light it. The bowl of the pipe heated bright orange anyway and thin trails of white and grey escaped into the air. Sil took the stool and sat opposite him, watching as the smoke rose into the air with each puff, long thin wispy streams of grey followed by thicker clouds of cottony whites. OldBerry passed the pipe to Sil who took in a long draught and held, then slowly let out smoke in small bursts. Stern-faced, OldBerry sat back thick-eyed and watched Sil's willowy streams follow his own. The smoke swirled unnaturally and formed into small dragons and birds and tiny faceless men who lept and threw smoke spears. Her face serene in concentration, Sil moved the air in tiny battles and dances, shifting the air with her AirShy, and kept her concentration firm as she passed the pipe back. OldBerry smiled and chuckled, intently watching Sil's stories play out in the air as he took the pipe back and puffed again.

The pipe flowed back and forth between Sil and OldBerry, the small cabin space filled with more smoke wrapping around the tiny half-made marvels on OldBerry's workbench. Tendrils spinning white and grey crept up the walls covered in intricate carvings, undulating over each detail like a strange wispy creek flowing over sunken logs. Castles and strong walls in grey swirled into beings made of smoke, along with tiny spearmen waving excitedly on the walls, and a great circling dragon sweeping down with Culhue DragonBorn on his back fierce and finely detailed before spreading out and becoming smoke once more.

"Your WindShy is without measure." OldBerry said as he watched the smokey air, "and TreeShy, well so strong there too, rare to have both, but IronShy? No one can move metal, as far as I ever heard."

Sil fired the pipe again, and without flame it fired orange anyway once more, inhaled deeply and let the smoke trickle out slowly. This time the smoke wound itself into a long thin snake, which writhed and struck then melted down into a perfect likeness of the Great Temple, and again quickly morphing into the faces of the OldBerry family. Sil chuckled and coughed.

"Have you always been able to do that?" OldBerry asked.

"Yeah, I guess." Sil responded distracted by the portraits that still hung in the air.

"A treasure, where every lock is made of metal, specifically because no magic can move it... a treasure." OldBerry loaded the pipe as he spoke.

"And a curse, Red Paper for sure if anyone finds out." Sil said as she lifted her index finger to her lips.

"Right, secrets and silence." OldBerry said.

Both were startled by a quick rush of cool air through the cabin. The door had opened quickly and without warning.

"It's slow now, practice?" Triste said bounding through the door, and the smoke blew away. "Sorry Sil, I didn't mean-"

"It's fine WeeShy, let's practice." Sil said, got up from the stool and winked to OldBerry, then back to Triste, "Hey, where's your mother?"

"She went shopping." Triste said as the pair left the cabin.

"She should have waited for me to go with." Sil said worried.

"She said you'd say that and to tell you she is a big girl." Triste giggled.

"Alright, alright..." Sil looked off into the darkening sky, "...if she's not back by the time it starts to rain though, I'm going to go after her."

"I thought it never really rains." giggled Triste.

"Well almost never. Now, let's begin then...quiet your mind...and..." Sil said jovially, but looked to the north again with trepidation.

"and reach out..." Triste replied quietly with her eyes closed, now cross-legged on the low grass.

"feel the magic like life-blood flowing through the ground." Sil continued, her own eyes closed, "Roots and seeds and buried things, shining with power each one...do you see them? the lines?"

"I see them...there...and there..." Triste pointed towards the ground with her eyes still closed, squinting hard, wrinkles appearing at the corner of her eyes and furrowed brow, "some others...but feint."

"Yes, I can see dozens, here..." Sil had her eyes open, and standing behind Triste motioned with her hand, "do you see that one?"

"Yes, but it's very weak." Triste had not opened her eyes but could tell which one Sil pointed out to her.

"It's strong, stronger than the rest...but deep. Can you see?" Sil continued.

"I can! I didn't realize...it's a different shade. Are all those deep ones?" Triste opened her eyes and looked back at Sil.

"Maybe. It's slightly different for each TreeShy, some see different colors, some different shades of the same color, it's personal to each of us. With practice you should always be able to tell the difference between strong and weak, shallow and deep, and even what kind of root it is. For me, True Tesswood is bright burning blue, nothing shines the same." Sil said.

"Is that what this is? True Tesswood?" Triste closed her eyes and concentrated again on the root.

"No, that is False Tesswood, not nearly as strong, but still very hard to grow." Sil continued, "Focus on that one root, and try and make it grow brighter, see if you can get it to grow for you."

"It's not...it's too faint." Triste said through clenched teeth, her eyes still squeezed shut.

"Keep at it, and don't stop until you can get it to grow." Sildinis looked upwind towards Mother Leaflan's tent as she spoke, "Mother Leaflan needs me, WeeShy, you keep at it and I'll check back in a bit."

2

A cold breeze brushed Sil's face as she looked up at the increasingly cloudy sky. Moving towards Mother Leaflan's wagon, she passed the Elfling acrobats Seelae Ree and her brother Laene, arguing as usual. They fiddled with their gear as they yelled at each other, tightening the highwire and moving on to the swinging bars. Hoping to avoid getting embroiled in whatever was the problem this time, Sil walked quickly past. Ducking to avoid a rolled up carpet carried by some workmen, she came upon a particularly large tent behind a sign announcing the HorrorOrc tent. The sign was beautifully rendered on a noticeably nicer wood than most of the other carnival's sign, and listed the times the HorrorOrc could be viewed. Sil always stopped to admire the graceful sweeping lines of the text describing the HorrorOrc as an Orc of Yourn, with the yourn so fancifully done it could barely be read. Sil turned the corner to the back of the tent and there was a large Orc sitting on a small but very sturdy looking stool reading a book that was normal sized but looked comically small in his hands.

"Hey HorrorOrc." Sil smiled as she greeted her friend.

"Lady Sildinis, and how are you today?" the massive Orc looked up from his book as he returned Sil's greeting, pushing a small pair of round glasses farther up his nose.

"Same as always, you know." Sil said.

"How about we do the bit today where you use the whip and swing the chair at me while I rage and shake my fists?" he twisted his bulk on the stool and it creaked in response.

"I'd like to, but Mother Leaflan needs me soon." Sil said as she reached her magic out along a deep root she had been SlowShying since the caravan arrived. The root led up into Leaflan's wagon and sprouted strange dark leaves like a vine where it rose out of the ground. The vine produced a violet flower once inside the wagon, a flower Sil could use to read the interior from afar. She couldn't tell what was said, or who was there, but tension and temperature and shouting were all scryable through it. Sil continued talking to the huge Orc "She's seeing the SongMasters."

"I understand" the Orc spoke with clear disappointment in his voice.

"Maybe tomorrow Mel, so what you reading?" Sil said.

"A new book I got off a vendor in the Golds, something about marksism." Mel the HorrorOrc said.

"What's that about?" Sil said.

"I am not sure, just started it, bows and arrows?" Mel said.

"Hmmm." Sil pursed her lips sideways as she spoke.

"We had a trick arrow shooter once..." Mel looked up as he searched his memories.

"It was me." Sil said quietly.

"Oh... right... the incident. Sorry, forgot." Mel said.

"Forgot? You must be getting into OldBerry's pipeweed cabinet." Sil laughed.

"Anyway, it worked out for the best. You know the saying, every time they shut the door on you..." Mel paused for Sil to join.

"look for a-" Mel and Sil spoke in unison smiling.

Then their jinxspeak stopped and Sil said "another door", and Mel said "window".

"No, a window, 'if they shut the door look for a window', that is the saying." Mel argued his point.

"Really?, I haven't heard that saying. I would definitely look for another door first. Windows can be tricky even for someone my size." Sil smiled as she spoke.

"Well, it's just a saying." Mel said disheartened.

"What about checking that first door again, maybe they didn't lock it?" Sil continued helpfully.

"That isn't the point, the saying is just a... a memory trick so you remember something important in danger, or illustrates something, you know... about the world." Mel said.

"For what?" Sil said.

"Huh?" Mel said.

"I mean what situation would call for looking for a window after a door is shut?" Sil said.

"I don't know, maybe he went to the window and saw an enemies army coming over the horizon. Can't do that from a door." Mel said cheerfully.

"Not a solid door no. Seems really specific, an army? So I should remember that phrase in case there is an army coming over the horizon at me?" Sil said laughing.

"Well when you say it like that it sounds silly." Mel said as he joined in Sil's laughter. "And it all started with this random book I'm reading."

"Started with a book and ended with armies storming the walls." Sil said, still laughing.

"And that's why I love talking with you Sil, never boring." Mel's great bulk still jiggled from the laughter as he continued.

"Don't say that, you know!" Sil said.

The pairs laughter died down and they shared a moment of silence before Sil gave Mel a friendly pat and started to walk away.

"Time to make my entrance for Mother Leaflan, things are getting tense with the SongMasters. I'll catch you later." Sil said as she hurried towards Leaflan's wagon. The vine inside was shaking with the emotional tension in the room. better be quick just in case.



Sil made her way quickly to the back of Leaflan's tent-covered wagon. Mother Leaflan preferred not to have a ground tent, but had a canvas roof over her wagon, with a raised quickpole in the center. Avoiding the front entrance, Sil found a section with a gap in the canvas, and slinked into the wagon unseen. Mother Leaflan sat on a pile of pillows with three grey-robed SongMasters standing, facing her, faces stern. No one was speaking as Sil moved into the shadows around the edge of the room, tension hung in the air like swamp heat. The SongMasters were tall Xo'Ehn in long grey robes and a deep cowled hood so their faces were mostly hidden at all times. They stooped slightly and uncomfortably under the tented ceiling. The walls of the room were covered with colorful cloths and tapestries illuminated by the flickering candle atop a small low table that separated Leaflan from the SongMasters. A beam of light shone through the entrance flap landing against an orange tapestry adorned with a needlepoint history of the War of the Heroes. Sil passed through the light beam as she crossed the room and the SongMasters shifted their gaze towards her, then back to Mother Leaflan.

"I'll have the full payment ready for you when the alloted time is over, you can be sure of that sirs." Mother Leaflan said in her sweet mother's voice. Mother Leaflan was mostly Gnomish, but had the aquiline features that betrayed an Elfling ancestor. She sat legs folded and held in one hand a small flower she brought near her nose and sniffed.

"That is not how it's done, we require half now, half then. The rules must be obeyed." The center SongMaster said in their odd monotone.

"I'm sorry but I don't have it, all we had was spent just to keep everyone in milk. You've seen the MochShee wolf? You can see how much he must eat? and never mind a HorrorOrc." Mother Leaflan pleaded and continued smelling the flower.

"Your avoidance tactics won't work on us." The left SongMaster interjected and continued, "nor will your assassin intimidate us." The SongMaster motioned towards Sil as he spoke.

"I take offense gentlepeps, Lady Sildinis is our security chief." Mother Leaflan put the flower into her lap as she spoke.

"I'm a confirmed pacifist." Sil said lowly from the shadows.

Others found her presence merely disquieting usually, out in the sun in the open with people around to comfort them; but in the dark, in tight spaces and alone, that turned to fear, as if something primal was lurking in the deep shadowy recesses of their minds whispering dire warnings about her, and they didn't know why. Sil knew why.

"Gentlepeps." Sil continued after a long pause.

The SongMasters stood for a second immobile and then turned to leave. The last to turn and go, paused, and pointed at Mother Leaflan.

"We will have our fee." The SongMaster hissed venomously as he turned and followed his comrades.

The wagon swayed as they left from the weight of the three moving to and fro in the small space. Sil came around the room and sat next to Mother Leaflan, crossing legs underneath gnome style. After the last SongMaster had left and the entrance flap stopped swaying, Mother Leaflan began cackling lowly.

"So they tell 'not afraid of you' then run away straightways." Mother Leaflan held her hand covering her mouth as she quacked and cackled her words out. "and that one actually hissed at me like a wyrmcat or such."

"I think that is a City thing. I've seen a lot of the locals do it, it's a curse or a threat or something." Sil said smiling, then looking down at the flower in Mother Leaflan's lap and continued "Gnomes are immune to DeathSpore Lilys but I'm not, could you...?"

"Of course, honey... sorry." Leaflan picked up a small decorative box and placed the lily inside and closed it with a quiet slumpf. "You got here timelyfine, they won't try and roughstuff with you around."

"They have StrongSongs if they need them, their magic armor would be a problem for me." Sil said standing and walking towards the entrance flap. Mother Leaflan stood and joined her as Sil continued, "Let's not poke the awlboar awake, you know?"

"Quiet is nice, and silence as twice." Mother Leaflan said in a sing-song lilt as the pair left the wagon.



The SongMasters marched single file weaving through the busy carnivaneers holding their hands clasped in front of them which kept their voluminous sleeves in just the right position on their wrists. Once they were out of the Court of Winds and out of the range of hearing of any carnivaneers they moved into an enclave along a wall in the walkway. The three huddled up close with their still-clasped hands almost touching and began to hum. The center grey SongMaster reached down into the ground and found a LayLine full of magic like a river of pulsating energy. Pulling the energy up through the ground, shining pearl bluish-white, the SongMaster drew it into his mind, a wispy tendril, and used it to MindShy his two comrades, connecting their minds together all three, allowing them to communicate through thought alone.

Did you see her eyes?

Didn't have to

She is thick with the smell of death

And her threats.

What do you mean?

Not what she said exactly but there was something of the serpent in how she said it.

It's best we get these mongrels out of here

We'll have our minions harass them, convince them to leave

Consensus

The grey-robed figures turned and continued down the main alley single file as before, never having dropped or raised their hands still clasped.



Mother Leaflan exited the tent into the outside brightness and blinked then held her hand up to ward off the haze-shrouded sun. Sil was already down the steps and held the gnome's hand as she lightly bounced down. Mother looked after the SongMasters leaving and held Sil's hand watching them until they disappeared into the shadows of the main alley. Then, turning to Sil, released her hand held a bit too tight, and wrapped her arms around her shoulders and hugged her.

"Thanks Sil" Mother Leaflan stepped back from the hug as she spoke and brushed some imaginary dust off Sil's shoulders and continued, "We will have to pay though. They weren't hanging hay in a moonbeam."

"We'll get it in time. Triste told me True's out foraging now." Sil said cheerily and continued, "And the second week is always much better, the word of mouth and rumour will bring the rooks to us."

"As long as it doesn't rain." Mother Leaflan said.

A huge dire wolf came around the corner of Mother Leaflan's wagon, followed by his MochShee rider, both limping. The wolf was five feet at the shoulders even hunched over and with one paw missing and had a thick mane of fur around its neck streaked with greys and rich browns. Stout and strong even in his old age, if angered the wolf was more than a match for most living things still. The wolfrider strode beside him, one hand petting his side the other holding a spear used as a cane. He was identical in size to Sildinis, and in complexion nearly as pale, but with sinewy tight limbs and long since healed scars stretching along both arms.

"Hey SharpTooth." Sil said through a smile as she ran to the wolf and hugged him around his mane. She stuck her face deep into the fluffy fur and made a screeching sound that made the wolf whimper happily.

"Sweet Hobble." Mother Leaflan said to the wolf as she patted his head and kissed his snout.

"You always call him SharpTooth, Sil, reminds him of the good ole days you know!" Maccon the WolfRider said smiling and leaning on his spear.

"I'm sorry SharpTooth, SharpTooth it is from now." Mother Leaflan said as she continued petting the wolf.

"Forgive me Mother, I didn't mean it that way-" Maccon stuttered.

"No, no, Maccon, it's... I Know." Mother Leaflan said as she walked over and hugged the wolfrider quickly then patted him on the back. "We're easy good now."

"Alright then, come on now Hobble time to head back, got a show soon..." Maccon said patting the wolf on the side and moving along.

SharpTooth and Maccon both limped away towards their stage area where young visitors could pet a fearsome MochShee wolf. Each time the huge wolf's sole front foot hit the ground a small tremor moved through the ground Sil could feel through the roots underneath, a dull powerful thud for the wolf, then the sharp tap of Maccon's spear as he hobbled along beside.

"He only limps when he's near Hobble." Mother Leaflan said after a moment.

"They have a strong bond." Sil said as Mother Leaflan leaned against her and held her hand.

"Such bond is both a strength and a weakness." Mother Leaflan said lowly.

"A bit dark there Mother?" Sil said smiling.

Mother Leaflan cackled and said, "Rightways, I guess the SongMasters have me edged, I'll be glad when we are on the move again."

The sky had grown darker and the air was moist and thick. A cool breeze blew along the paths kicking up dust. Sil and Mother Leaflan, hand in hand, sauntered slowly through the rows watching the talent perform for the crowds. The carnival was in full swing now, workers rushed around with a pail here or a roll of paper there, or some other whatnot. Tourists roamed and skipped and sometimes pushed through the lanes to get to their favorite stage. A HorrorOrc roared and a dozen children screamed in happy terror. A crowd of whooes floated on the air as, somewhere, Seelae Ree faked a fall off the high wire. Hawkers shouted selling food and trinkets while pickpockets moved along plying their trade, some were with the carnival and some weren't. Eventually they came to the front of the caravan and a haphazard paddock set up using a mixture of unwheeled wagons and rough wooden logs wherein the grazing genae puller-cows slowly meandered about. The genae moved slow and sure, never really stopping, marching in place or moving forward, always eating if anything green was under snout. These southern breed had wide snouts, while the northern had a sharp face, both had dull flat brown teeth that ground and ground, any vegetation it could fit into its mouth was crushed and consumed. Large barrel bodies covered with thick needle-like fur ended in a short thick tail. Puller-cows of the breed had been magicked so large bones stuck out on both shoulders that were used for the harness and to be mild and friendly. The puller-cows looked up as Mother Leaflan and Sil approached and started slowly gathering in their direction.

"There is a patch Triste OldBerry was working on growing. See it there?" as she spoke, Mother Leaflan pointed to a small spot where the grass was noticeably taller.

"Nice, she's coming along rightquick." Sil marveled.

Sil reached out and down underground. A thick LayLine flowed just below the paddock and she mindtouched the bright white flowing energy and basked in its luxurious power. Magic everywhere pulled at her always, a little bit from each LayLine and from the free magic all around. And now she communed with that energy, magick, feeling it's seemingly limitless power and slowly, easily, languidly flowing it up towards the grassy floor of the paddock. The energy flow split into a million snakes, which split into a million more each, and every one weaved up through the ground slow, but bright. Finally meeting the roots of the grasses and weeds entering into the plants and giving them sustenance. The grass and weeds grew a foot in a moment and the puller-cows bleated in happiness. Weeds shot up and thickened their woody stems and seedpods sprang quickly from their topstalks ripening in seconds and popping out onto the ground.

"That is so cool." Mother Leaflan whispered low marveling at the magic tendrils.

"She'll be a full TreeShy in no time." Sil said looking at Leaflan.

"Triste could never replace you Sil, so... stay." Mother Leaflan clutched Sils arm as she spoke, and the pair continued to walk along the paddock fence.

"Won't get rid of me that easy, this is the only real home I ever had, nice home anyway" Sil said.

"Where ever we are parked is home." Mother Leaflan recited the sing-song saying she often said.

The pair stopped and watched the puller-cows hop up and down as they rooted around for the best seeds. A small crowd of children led by a Xo'Ehn minder ran up and joined them watching. Some tossed poppedseed into the pasture but they all marveled at the large animals, pointing and talking excitedly to each other and sometimes themselves. Sil monitored as the minder pulled magic from the same LayLine, not interfering, but taking note of how much she could move. No vegetation was moving except a few feeble attempts from some of the children, so the minder was a MindShy. Probably corralling the children with some calming thoughts.

"Getting late now, I need to make sure True is fine." Sil said to Leaflan, who turned and nodded back.

Sil walked off towards the Court of Cards, and Mother Leaflan turned to the children and said in an exceedingly cheerful voice, "Hello childpeps, who wants to pet a genae first?"

A dozen hands went up along with a cacophony of wild screams and yeahs.

3

The walkway that connected the Court of Winds with the Court of Cards was short and straight, not the serpentine alley that led to the Court of Dragons, more like a narrow plaza, with large masonry planters, each with a tree from a different part of the world. There were several small buildings that lined the way, and as was common in the City, businesses on the bottom and several stories of apartments above. Opening onto the Court of Cards, Sil turned south and scanned the crowd for traces of True. This Court was oval shaped with similar buildings but in arcs separated by plaza-like walkways. The center was cobbled with no grass or vegetation, and not nearly as voluminous as the Court of Winds. Here small tables, some with tented covers, some just bare tables and stools, adorned the entire area in a haphazard fashion. Most tables were surrounded by gamblers looking nervous or happy, or both at the same time. Some tables held lonely looking dealers sitting by themselves and casting about for suckers. Sil passed by a fancy tent-enclosed table with high-backed thickly padded chairs with fancy well-to-do's seated around acting fine and playing a rousing game of hafbok. Right next to it was a table that appeared to be a freshly broken door pitched on top of some crates with players sitting on the ground all around it, pitching cards in for three-penny-six-kings. On she walked past various tables fitted for games of shiffbones and three-bones-three-rocks; hafbok, though was the rage this season, every third table sported the complicated game.

The roots and weeds and unsprouted seeds beneath and between the cobbles remembered the sense and smell of True OldBerry as she passed, but only for a short time, and it was easily drowned out by some other magic or creature. Sil found no fresh trace of True, it had been too long and there were by far too many others milling about the Court. Her only chance was to get lucky and catch a fresh track, or even luckier to catch her in person. Seemingly a needle in a haystack, this task was aided by gnomes being fairly rare in the City, still Sil failed to get even a whiff of her friend as she wasted away the afternoon.

Too-heavy footsteps from behind was the first clue. So Sil weaved a strange way around and back, and those footsteps followed the same strange course. At least three. There was a dead-end alleyway in the Cards. She had earlier spent an afternoon growing a false Tesswood root at the cul-de-sac in the end. Wound up and ready, waiting for Sil to come back and free it for purposes violent and horrible. Sil walked a circular course to the entrance of that alley. If these were locals, they would likely try and push her towards just such a dead-end like a moonrabbit chased into a pit-trap but she didn't want to rely on their actions alone.

Lazy and slow, don't spook the kittens let them believe they are the ones laying the trap... closer... closer... shorten the distance... so their blood quickens and boldness blinds their better judgement. Sil said to herself in her mind as she sauntered around a low table with three portly Xo'Ehn heavily drinking and throwing cards angrily.

Two of the pursuers from one side and three from behind closed quickly. The center portly card player yelled "Shiffbones!" and stood up and looked straight into Sil's eyes as she turned to look behind her at the pursuers. At once, Sil noticed three Xo'Ehn, a Dwarf with a large menacing cudgel, and an Elfling that matched the footsteps she was tracking behind her. The shiffbones player stopped, dropped his cards and drink, and stared at Sil with his mouth open and a mild terror building in his eyes. The nearest Xo'Ehn hunter pushed the portly man out of his way, which caused the player to break his gaze-lock with Sil and look at the scarfaced cutthroat that was hunting her. The player lurched in even greater fear and sat down, missing his chair and falling on the ground, with his hands up in front of him like a begging wolfpup. The scarfaced hunter did not look at this spectacle of a creature but was locked on Sil, behind scarface were two Xo'Ehn looking equally dastardly. He lurched forward at Sil, who bolted to the alley entrance and into the shadows provided by the late afternoon sun. The five paused at the entrance. Sil waited inside, paced back to the wall and reached out and magicked up the Tesswood root coiled in the ground in the center of the small cul-de-sac. The dead-end had once been a well, with a grassy border and a Tesswood tree that had long since been cut down and sold for its wealth. But the roots left in the ground Sil could manipulate and now, she waited. Backing into the wall and then up it, two feet and one hand felt the tiny surface abrasions, and she used them for support. The other hand gripped the hilt of one of her daggers as she further leveraged her weight against the wall with help from her AirShy pushing up. Halfway up the wall she paused, there was a commotion outside, and the prey weren't taking the bait.

"Earcutter, is this your day? Today? This fine sunny day?" A womans low voice growled with each question getting more aggressive.

"Tess...I didn't know you were on duty today." Scarface replied.

"I'm on duty every day, you know that. How about you all scatter now." Tess' voice was firm but less aggressive.

"We don't want no trouble." A low Dwarven guttural plea sounded followed by his heavy footsteps walking away fast.

"Yeah, StrongArm every time for us, you know that Tess." Earcutter said in a cowed voice.

"Beat your feet." Tess said looking back as she entered the cul-de-sac harboring Sil.

Tess StrongSong walked in, six foot tall and clad in shining silver and blue armor. A breastplate bore the twin-masks symbol of the Songs in blazing blue, and Tess' right arm was full clad in interlocking metal plates with the fingers covered in delicate rings that seemed unnaturally flexible. Her helmet was open-faced with plates angled out like metaphorical wings and her long blond hair flowed out behind it. Sil was still perched midway up the wall and stared at Tess for a while in silence.

"I'm Tess StrongSong." Tess said finally.

Her concentration broken, Sil suddenly realized her predicament perched on the wall and hopped down, greeting Tess. "Hi, I'm-"

"Lady Sildinis of Mother Leaflan's Carnivaneers." Tess completed.

"You've heard of me?" Sil blushed as she spoke.

"Of course, you're the best." Tess said.

"Really?" Sil said stunned.

"Oh yeah, I love the MochShee wolf, and the acrobats are really good." Tess said smiling.

"Oh, yes, it's a good carnival. It is." Sil said and then shared a moment of awkward silence with Tess, then continued, "So, the same Tess StrongSong, great warrior of the Songs, that defeated a StrongSwan in single combat?"

"Well, StrongSwan's get a lot of publicity, but they aren't so tough." Tess said smiling.

"Yeah?" Sil said smiling.

"No, they are... that fight was tough as hell." Tess laughed, "and really it was more of a draw, I mean, he ran away, but I didn't do any permanent damage."

"Got the job done though." Sil said.

"I did." Tess said then put her hands down at her sides awkwardly.

"Sorry about the hanging out on the wall thing, so rude of me!" Sil said after a few seconds of silence.

"Oh, don't worry about that spider people happen around here all the time." Tess replied laughing as well.

"Really?" Sill said starting to believe.

"No, that's pretty rare, actually, though very cool." Tess said.

"You use cool, usually only gnomes use that word." Sil said back after a quick laugh.

"We have gnomes around, I hang out with a couple of them quite a bit." Tess said, followed by a pause, then continued, "I have them check around for anything that might be up underground, and so when they said someone had coiled up a Tesswood root here, I thought I should keep an eye out."

"Oh, uh, that was me. I didn't know it was not allowed." Sil said sheepishly.

"No, it's fine, totally allowed, but there are rarely any TreeShy's around that can move Tesswood at all, so I thought someone powerful was around. Now that I know it's you I don't have to worry. You don't look like a crazy magicked up killer." Tess said.

"I am so glad I did not wear my crazy magicked up killer outfit today." Sil laughed as she spoke.

"That decision totally paid off today." Tess said laughing along.

"First impressions are everything." Sil said.

"I agree totally with you." Tess replied.

A further awkward silence ensued. Sil stretched out her perimeter, moving magic through the roots and seeds in the ground and the moss on the cobbles. The players, hawkers, dealers, and cutthroats milled about outside the alley cul-de-sac, prattling and yelling, banging on tables, clinking their cups; all among a cacophony of other noises mostly happy or angry.

"Any sign of Earcutter and friends?" Tess finally said breaking the silence.

"No, they seem to have run away." Sil said.

"I have that effect." Tess said laughing.

"I do as well... I mean I have that effect too." Sil continued, "On people... oh, I was looking for my friend, True. She's so late now, it's time to worry, you know."

"True OldBerry? I saw her earlier around the Cards." Tess turned as she spoke and the pair started back to the main plaza. "I can help you find her if you like? I know someone who knows everyone around. I bet he'll know."

"Cool." Sil said and followed.

4

The pair made their way quickly through the Court of Cards in the waning afternoon sun. Traveling away from the direction of the Winds in a circular arc around the edge of the Court of Cards they finally made their way across a long narrow plaza filled with people hurrying on their way. The workday was about done and the last of the days chores and deliveries were getting completed with frenetic pace. Interspersed among the working were those finished and hurrying home to families or off to a tavern and rowdiness. The Court of Flowers had two main roads that crossed at right angles and a few side streets wide enough for large wagons to pass. All along the main roads were large brick buildings, with vast rooms full of goods stacked stories high, and in front of them were tiny brick huts were people lined up to make deals. Taverns were dotted around, some in small buildings, some in the corners of large ones. Tess and Sil soon found themselves before a sketchy looking tavern underneath a sign with two lumpy images cut into the wood with some skill. Sil could not quite make out what the images were, but they were cut with precision and the wood was well finished.

The tavern was lively even though it was early. Tess and Sil entered the smoky room, already full of rowdy revelers and half-drunken denizens in various classes of dress. Tess, towering over most of the hunched crowd, spotted her target and moved through to the back of the bar, and the crowd parted before her. Sil was busy looking around at the various patrons as she followed, then as Tess stopped at the table, turned to see the object of their search.

"Billy? Billy is your friend?" Sil said laughing and surprised.

Billy SweetSongs sat in a corner booth with three ladies in fine silk and dripping with gems cast in rare and magical metal alloys that shimmered in undulating patterns only EverShy could see.

"Well, friend is a bit much." Tess said laughing back to Sil.

"Sildinis...and Tess... I was wondering when you two would be running into each other." Billy said smiling.

Billy picked his arms off the two ladies on either side and waved all three of them away. Clearly not used to being treated in such a way, the three stood up as regal as they could and left with what dignity they could muster. Neither Tess nor Sil moved to sit down, so Billy stood up.

"Now that my two favorite people in the world are here, everything is perfect, I'm sure of it! Drinks?" Billy pointed at Sil and Tess as he finished speaking.

"I'm on duty." Tess said flatly.

"I'll take a drink. I'm not on duty" Sil said smiling.

"We're looking for True OldBerry, she's missing." Tess said quickly.

"I remember True, sweet lady, I'll ask around. I bet someone here knows something. Yeah, TwoCups is one of my favorite hangs. I'll be back with some drinks too." Billy danced in place as he spoke then turned and walked towards the barkeep.

"Two Cups?" an unkempt customer said from a table over.

"It's Two Cups." another equally unkempt customer said back from two tables over.

"Then why is there a hat and mug on the sign?" The first unkempt customer said.

"It's not a hat and mug, it's two cups." a passing man wearing a barfrock said.

"looks like a hat n mug to me." a half-drunk sailor chimed in.

"It's not a hat and a fucking mug, it's two fucking cups." Barfrock said.

"Cheese'n'toast Tomy, no need to get mad." unkempt man said, took a quick drink and continued, "sides, it does look like a hat an mug."

"I know it looks like a hat and a mug, cause bottomfeeders been coming in here for years calling the place the hat and mug. But that don't mean nothing bout the price of teacups in typerion, cause it's fucking Two Cups." Tomy with the barfrock said with growing exasperation.

"You can't call it hat and mug, that one already's around, but you could call it a cup and a hat?" a helpful customer said.

"I don't want to call it the cup and a hat, it's called TwoCups, 'cause it's mine and my name is Tomy TwoCups, so the bar is called Two...Cups." Tomy TwoCups said with the last said loudly and deliberately.

"That isn't a hat on the sign?" Mr. Helpful Customer said.

Tomy stood fuming, a bit of steam actually lifting from his brow, then said, "No, it's not a hat... on... the sign. It's Two Cups."

"Wait, your name isn't Hary Hat-n-Mug?" Unkempt customer number one said.

"Beams, you call me Tomy all the time." Tomy said to Beams.

"I thought that was your last name." Beams said.

"My last name? You thought Tomy was my last name?" Tomy said incredulously.

"Yeah, so first name?" Beams said looking into his ale and picking out a fly or hair or something.

"You been working here longeren my kids been alive, n' he's got three kids his own now. An all this time you thought my name was Hary hat-n-mug Tomy?" Tomy said more incredulously.

"Well, yeah...not...now...though." Beams said and looked into his ale.

"This is the Hat and Mug?" said another customer, looked around and said, "I thought this was A Toad And A Mushroom?"

"This isn't Toad'n'Mushroom?" yet another customer had come over and added his thoughts to the discussion.

A patron had been listening intently seated in fine attire and drinking an aperitif that seemed oddly fancy for TwoCups, and decided at this point to add, "That is not a correct quizzical, what is under discussion is 'Is this the hat and mug' and neither toads nor mushrooms are in play. currently."

A thoroughly drunken wanderer said worriedly, "Iv'e been telling peps to meet me at the toadnmush...mush...mush...muuu-"

"Mushroom!" Tomy TwoCups finally had to interject, and looked instantly mad at himself for his lack of restraint.

"I thought it was you been saying twas TwoCups?" A voice started from the shadows that would have sounded suspiciously like Billy SweetSongs if he wasn't busy arguing with the bartender.

"It is TwoCups!" Tomy said angrily.

"Toad and TwoCups?" An unknown patron said.

"Just TwoCups." Tomy said lowly as he fiercely dried a mug with a rag and walked away with shoulders slumped in defeat and mumbling to himself "just walk away Tomy, just walk away."

"I can see why Billy comes here." Sil said after Tomy was away, "It's like the spinning horizontal wheel Gnome engine but with words."

"You mean the Spider?" Tess said with a giggle.

"It's called the Spider?" Sil said.

"Yes, because it looks like a big spider?" Tess said.

"I thought it looked like a spokewheel on it's side." Sil said.

"Well, it does, that too. There's eight legs and ends in paws, you ride in the paws." Tess said.

"Spiders have paws?" Sil said smiling.

"Well feet then." Tess said.

"Do spiders spin rapidly in place? I've never seen this spider behaviour." Sil said.

"Maybe you just aren't in their confidence." Tess said.

"They spin around in place just for their friends then?" Sil said.

"Right, anyone in their circle of friends." Tess said.

"Their inner circle?" Sil said as a barman came by and set two mostly full mugs of ale down in front of Tess and Sil.

"Best not to talk about guilds in her maams, begging your pardons." the barman said as he walked away.

"Guilds?" Sil asked looking at Tess and picking up her mug.

"There's a guild called that in the Black Cups District." Tess replied and picked up her mug, held it up before Sil and clinked their glasses together.

Tess and Sil both shared a long drink of some very mediocre ale, after which they both wiped their lips with the backs of their hands. Tomy TwoCups had stormed off into the backroom and had not made an entrance since, and Billy had managed to wrangle a tray full of three mugs of ale and was walking back to Tess and Sil.

"Called what?" Sil said with Billy walking up behind her.

"The Spider?" Billy said, presented the tray out and then disappointedly noticed that Sil and Tess already had mugs.

"No, the Inner Circle" Tess said.

"Oh yeah, I know those buggers, even for BlackCuppers they're pretty mediocre. The Golds is where we are headed though, a Dark Gnome I know there can help us." Billy SweetSongs said as he put down the tray, "I'm sure of it."

"Well, I'll have to bow out of this one then, I have to stay in the Songs today. Duty you know." Tess said and picked up her second mug in her left hand.

"Adventure!... and Duty!" Sil said, a mug in each hand, as she clinked both mugs with Tess' two mugs.

5

A bit of revelry completed, Sil and Billy made their way through the Court of Flowers, with it's enclaves of wholesale merchants selling huge quantities of materials to the merchants of the City. There were rarely any tourists or talent that visited the Court of Flowers unless they wanted a deal on a huge amount of eggs or cloth bundles, only workers and buyers and other busy people doing busy things towards busy places. So those that sped about rarely gave a passing glance to anyone, and didn't care who they were when they did. The pair sped on quickly leaving Sil little time to check out any of the surroundings except the road upon which they walked and the buildings just in front of her. The road was not tiled or cobbled but a solid rocky surface of some unknown manufacture, there was no way to get a sprout through such a surface even if there were any underneath. The only buildings Sil could see were two giant brick structures that extended the entirety of the Court of Flowers, four stories tall and with huge doors every so often. When Sil passed an open door she could see the inside appeared to be one massive room filled with containers of various goods in large quantities. Machines moved the containers around in a complicated chaotic dance, and workers walked, ran, and jumped out of the way performing various tasks. There were a few huge tunnels cut through the buildings at the crossroads however Sil could not see beyond through the rushing mass of workers and wagons and machines. Once they got to the far side of the Flowers, they came upon a small gated exit in a brick wall that matched the buildings. A pair of Xo'Ehn stood guard at the gate languidly milling about. They appeared to be merchants according to stature and dress but each had a wicked looking trident with a banner bearing the twin masks of the Songs. Billy hurried on towards them, with Sil double stepping to keep up.

"Hey Stan, Berl... where's Mic tonight?" Billy said to the pair.

"Billy! Nice to see you, Mic's off to get some sup. This a friend of yours?" A TridentMan wearing a leather apron said.

"This is Lady Sildinis. She's my friend. You can let her through any time." Billy said as he walked through the checkpoint, "If she isn't with me she's probably coming to save me."

"Hey there." Sil said low as she passed and waved her hand at both TridentMen.

"You betcha Billy, and you too Lady Sildinis, good eve to you both." TridentMan said waving.

The Golden Paths District was darker than the Songs, even considering the late afternoon sun was so low in the sky. The buildings were dark small single story affairs dotted all over and painted dark and dull colors, square utilitarian mostly windowless and each one looking very similar to every other. There weren't streets or blocks of connected buildings, it was as if an entire district was cobbled then square building were thrown down on top, some times arrayed in a pattern, other times haphazard. Some were obviously used for habitation, and others for purposes mysterious.

"And probably dangerous." Billy said out of the silent dusky evening air.

"What?" Sil said.

"Sorry, thought you said something." Billy said.

"No, just looking." Sil said, then whispered, "I like this place."

It was not long before the pair stood under a very finely carved sign made of wood well finished that announced the business of Healer BlackSmoek. The building was a nondescript low single story dark block with several windows, both covered and dark. Sil side-stepped into the shadows lengthening from the setting sun as Billy opened the door and then they entered the establishment.

"Billy SweetSongs, great." Healer BlackSmoek said unenthusiastically, like he was having the worst day of his life and it just got worse.

Sil and Billy entered the small room, which was lit up with bright light from magical lanterns strewn about the place. There were wooden boxes against the wall covered in loose scrolls and two small tables, which was two tables too many for the space. Shelves on all four walls held various Gnomish looking items of unknown purpose, although most were empty. Healer BlackSmoek stood behind a low wooden counter. A fairly average looking gnome, BlackSmoek wore a fine suit with odd stiff high collars that nearly touched an equally odd stovepipe hat. The hat was black and somewhat furry, and moved slightly as BlackSmoek moved his head. A strange but finely made dark wood and metal piece wound around the hat near the brim as a hatband. Sil studied a nearby lantern closely, which looked like an old oil lamp, but contained no oil.

"How does this work?" Sil wondered aloud.

"Magick, how you think it work? I'm a Gnome am I not?" BlackSmoek said slightly perturbed.

"You are definitely a Gnome, Dark Healer." Billy said with sarcasm in his voice, along with some subtle hostility.

"Billy comes by when Billy needs something. What can I help with?" BlackSmoek said seeming nervous.

"This is my friend, Lady Sildinis." Billy approached the counter as he spoke, then leaned on the counter.

"Yes, nice to meet you." BlackSmoek said as he took a half-step backwards, then nodded to Sil but kept his bespectacled eyes on Billy always.

"And she is looking for her friend." Billy stood up and began walking around the room as he continued.

"Her name is True... True OldBerry." Sil said standing by the counter.

"Yes, Yes... I-" BlackSmoek stroked his salt-and-pepper beard with his left hand.

"Why are you called a Dark Gnome? You're quite pale actually." Billy said cutting off BlackSmoek.

"Billy tells me dark because I sell curses" BlackSmoek replied to Billy but looked at Sil when he said it, "I don't order curses, just make them. I'm a clubmaker not a ratkiller."

"Dark is the common term for CroessMonger, isn't it? At least it was in BarroRocks." Sil said.

"Yes, yes, so it is." BlackSmoek stroked his beard again as he sized Sil up.

"I couldn't help but notice the beautiful sign outside. The finish on the wood, such high quality." Sil said.

"A fine sign, very important one's sign. Beckons in the clients rightways." BlackSmoek said.

"I couldn't help but notice the strange spelling of BlackSmoek?" Sil queried.

"Yes, yes, true be told, it was a spelling error, but I made a nice price on it, so I decided to just be BlackSmoek." Healer BlackSmoek said, "I mean, it is a very nice sign."

"Still the state of education here, don't people come in asking for a blacksmoke orb?" Billy interjected as he perused the shelves.

"I don't sell blacksmoke orbs, only Sisters of Silence are licensed for that in City." BlackSmoek said a little too quickly.

A young gnome entered from the back room carrying a small tray of dark black orbs. He was limping noticeably and it took great effort to shuffle his way around Healer BlackSmoek. BlackSmoek rolled his eyes and looked slightly embarrassed. The young gnome carefully placed the tray down underneath the counter close to where BlackSmoek was standing. An angry and furtive look at the young gnome from BlackSmoek caused the young gnome to point at the tray and shrug.

"They're very fragile, sir, it's just-" The young gnome started saying before being sushed quiet by BlackSmoek.

BlackSmoek rolled his eyes again and reached under the counter and brought up one of the blacksmoke orbs, on the top of which dangled a small paper tag with a price written on it. Billy, having strolled around back to the counter at this time, picked up the orb and looked at it carefully, then inspected the tag.

"A bit pricey." Billy said.

"That's the price." BlackSmoek said back.

Billy put the orb into his coat pocket slowly while looking right at Healer BlackSmoek. BlackSmoek curled his teeth in anger and disgust while lowly hissing. The young gnome took this distraction as a means to escape his angry boss and quickly limped back through the door.

"Why not heal him." Sil said, looking at the young gnome as he disappeared into the backroom.

"what?" BlackSmoek said turning from Billy to Sil.

"Why not heal him... your worker." Sil said pointing towards the back room.

"What am I? A healer?" BlackSmoek said.

"No? Your name is Healer BlackSmoek?" Sil said.

"It's just a name." BlackSmoek said, "What you think I put CurseMonger on the sign? I think that get me dragged out and burned dead straightways."

"I can get that to happen anyway, CurseMonger BlackSmoek." Billy said each word growled more threateningly, "True... OldBerry."

"Yes, yes, True, I know this name. It isn't as easy as just to tell." BlackSmoek said nervously, looked around and closed the door to the back room tighter, then continued, "There is a guild war in the Songs. Black Arrows and SpiderWebs. These things happen."

"Was there even Black Paper on her though?" Billy interrupted.

"No Black Paper, no kidnap, but someone did kidnap anyways... as I tell before, these things happen in a guild war." BlackSmoek said, then thought about his next words, and continued "Arrows have SongMasters License for now, but SpiderWebs are vicious. This feud has gone bitter...very bitter... bodies in roadcrates."

"That explains the smell." Sil said quietly.

"So which one has True then, Black Arrows or SpiderWebs?" Billy said.

"It's not as easy as just to tell." BlackSmoek said looking furtively behind the pair towards the front door. "There are consequences to these tells."

"One of your secrets is coming out now, you choose which one... Jefry... TwiddleTwigs." Billy said angrily.

"It's not so easy as to tell... the OldGuilders have mixed allegiances. Very hard to tell who is with who." BlackSmoek said and sighed in defeat and continued, "Hebster Quick and his boys is who took True."

"I know Hebster." Billy said, stepped back from BlackSmoek, and continued "I know his spots. He's old, predictable."

"He's my age." BlackSmoek said in low outrage.

Billy stopped and leaned towards BlackSmoek threateningly and said, "Silence is golden."

CurseMonger BlackSmoek hissed quietly and shrunk backwards away from his counter. Billy turned towards the door and nodded for Sil to follow.

"You might try and hire yourself a healer. Same basic principle as those blacksmoke orbs. If people come in asking... why not make the sale?" Sil said as she left.

CurseMonger BlackSmoek picked up a blacksmoke orb from under the table and inspected it, lost in thought.

"What was that about roadcrates?" Sil said once she had caught up to Billy.

"Roadcrates? sometimes they put bodies in them for a while. Sometimes too long." Billy said distracted.

"But what is a roadcrate?" Sil said.

"Oh, you know those crates and barrels that are strewn all over the City?" Billy said, looked about into the shadows holding his breath, then exhaled and continued "Those are owned by various guilds, there are marks of ownership if you look closely. And they use them for... you know... whatever. And if anyone messes with them, Red Paper for sure."

"I see. I thought it was something like that." Sil said as she walked easy and free along the cobbles.

"We'll find Hebster Quick at his usual drinking spot this time of day, or soon will. I'm sure of it." Billy said quickening his pace, "It's a dainty little shithole back in the Songs called the PissinPot."

6

"When you said shithole, you totally oversold the place." Sil said to Billy as they both stood under an old wooden sign that swung back and forth while an image of a child urinated on a cartoon moonrabbit. When the sign swung far enough a stream of rainwater sprinkled down from the sign on those below.

"I hope that's rainwater." Sil said as she stepped back quickly.

"Sweet evening dew." Billy said helpfully laughing.

"Don't start with me." Sil said wiping off the front of her tunic.

The inside of the tavern was not any better, dirty and dilapidated, the low light hid the worst and created plentiful shadows though, which put Sil at some ease. A dozen or so ne'er-do-wells stood about trying to look anything but suspicious. Dust webs that hung in the corners of the ceiling and some other places waved slightly from the wind generated from three large spinning fans of Gnomish manufacture hanging from the roof. A low whoosh-whoosh permeated the room, but otherwise all sound had come to a firm silent stop, and all eyes were on the new pair.

"Hebster Quick." Billy said loudly and brashly.

"Billy... who's yer friend." A Xo'Ehn man in the corner stood and walked towards the pair, leaving the shadows and showing a strange and shockingly boyish face even though his hair was grey and sparse.

A rough looking street tough that had stood up from a card table looked over at Hebster and made a strange face and chuckled. Hebster gave a quick glance at one of the five dark forms that left the shadows with him. The minion was a hulking Xo'Ehn with Orc blood in his family line, betrayed by the size of his forehead, and approached the chuckler quickly and very workman-like smashed his fist into chuckler's face. Chuckler fell dead still to ground with little sound.

"I can't help my face. You see." Hebster said quietly.

"What's wrong with your face?" Billy said.

"Looks perfectly fine to me." Sil said in addition and nodded.

"Classically handsome is how I'd describe it." Billy said whilst looking towards the bar for a barmaid.

"Oh yes, classical." Sil said.

Billy skipped off as soon as the barmaid entered the room, and met her at the bar simultaneously. As Billy began chatting up the Elfling help, Sil stood awkwardly still with her hands straight down at her side. Hebster and his boys kept looking at Sil and took little note of Billy.

"We're looking for True OldBerry." Billy yelled from the bar over his shoulder, "and don't even try denying you napped her, Healer BlackSmoek told us everything."

"Oh...Sildinis...my name...is Sildinis." Sil said finally after a few seconds of silence.

"Nice to meet you Lady Sildinis." Hebster said back.

There was no vegetation at all for Sil to magick, leaving only AirShy and the sharp steel of her knives for protection. And without some root or seed she could not tell if True had ever even been here.

"I know you." Hebster Quick said looking Sil dead in the eye.

Billy was helping the barmaid pour some mugs of ale. Hebster's toughs stood behind him silently waiting for whatever came next.

"I always dreamed of seeing a MochShee wolf in for-reals." Hebster gushed after a dramatic pause "and I got to pet him too, it was amazing. Come over here, I'm buying as long as you're here. Do you know the MochShee very well? How long have they been with the Carnivaneers? How did he hurt his paw?"

Hebster continued to ignore Billy as he herded Sil to his table. His toughs moved out around the barroom and took up various seats in strategic locations. The emotional temperature of the room cooled quickly and the various rough looking patrons slowly returned to their tables and card games and mugs. Billy made his way to the table with both fists full of mugs and set them all done with impressive skill as he took a seat.

"I saw SharpTooth just this morning, he's usually sweet, but he can still be a nightmare in fur if angry." Sil said taking a sip from her mug afterwards.

"How did he lose his paw? What monster could do that to a Dire Wolf?" Hebster leaned in enraptured.

"I've never asked, I doubt it's a good idea to do that." Sil said, took a sip then continued "Could be an awlboar though, those things are huge with massive teeth and tusks..." Sil put her free hand to her mouth and made her fingers into metaphorical tusks "...they can open their mouths up almost backwards..." Sil took a sip and thought a bit and continued "...could have been a whipvine too, deadly sharp... or a bonesaw shrub, they grow low and are hard to see if your running hard and fast... snap a leg right off."

"What an amazing place!" Billy said transfixed holding his mug halfway to his face.

"Brutal you mean... what a thing to be." Hebster said.

"Why not have it healed? I heard the MochShee have BlackWills among them." Hebster continued to interrogate Sil happily.

"The pack decides if the lifeforce of the pack is more important than spending it to heal just one member. If not, they have to leave the pack. Some heal on their own, most don't." Sil said increasingly sad.

"That's so tragic, it's a brutal world...brutal world." Hebster said leaning back and picking up a mug.

"Especially in the DarkWither Wild." Sil said.

"True...OldBerry, Hebster." Billy said lyrically.

"Oh, I had to take her. she's with Halliby now." Hebster said matter-of-factly as he lifted his mug to his face.

"Halliby CrookShanks?" Billy said surprised, which caused Hebster to lower his mug a bit instead of drink.

"Yeah, CrookShanks. He has her at the Black Arrow guild hall. She's safe...from harm anyway... Halliby's a softy." Hebster said and finally took a long drink from his mug.

"What do you mean safe from harm anyway?" Sil said concerned.

"We was told to grab her. I don't know why. Best get the ransom quick though. Something odd is about." Hebster whispered.

"Why Halliby CrookShanks, he's an accountant basically." Billy said confused.

"Not anymore. He's leader of the Black Arrows." Hebster said drinking once more.

"Then Eujseri the Unclean is dead?" Billy said incredulous.

"No." Hebster Quick sighed, took an extra long drink from his mug, sat it down seemingly very serious, and began "...First there was the The Spiders Black Web, a mediocre guild but plucky, and it had a good name, yea a bold and fabulous name, and all rejoiced. For in the City of Thieves, having a really really dirty name is just about as important as ones thieving skills. And The Spiders Black Web was bold and terrifying, and so it was good. But then, as is often the case, number two decided he wanted to be number one and there was a Guild Schisming, and from then on they were known as The SpiderWebs lead by the fearsome and terrifying Eujseri the Unclean, and the Black Arrows lead by the meek and mostly ineffective Halliby CrookShanks. And all was well, until the killing started up that is."

"Bodies in roadcrates." Sil said quietly.

"Oh, they are way past that, just dumping bodies in the rivers and leaving them in gutters, now." Hebster Quick said as he raised his mug to his face, then lowered it and continued "I decided to just sit in here at the PissinPot and wait out the rough stuff and join up with whoever wins."

"What happened to Cassius?" Billy said.

"Killed by Eujseri and put on display in front of the guild hall." Hebster said, took a long drink then continued "That is why most of the guilders went with Halliby... two heavy handed... that's Eujseri though."

"So why take True? If you just wanted to lay low here?" Sil said.

"Orders. Halliby's meek, but he's well liked. Most of the guild did go with him. Don't want to burn my rowboat in the middle of the river, see." Hebster said after another long drink.

"So True is with Halliby and they are where?" Sil said increasing the aggressiveness of her interrogation.

"The guild hall is in the Court of Queens on the other side of the Songs, it has this design on the front." Hebster traced the design out on the table while he spoke.

"You've been very helpful, Hebster." Billy said smiling.

"Yeah... I have... that's uncharacteristically like me." Hebster said slightly slurring.

"I'll be going now." Sil said as she stood up and moved around Billy.

"I'm going to stay and catch up with my old pal Hebster." Billy said smiling.

"Catch you later." Sil said and left the bar.

"I'm sure of it." Billy said watching Sil leave.

Neither Hebster Quick nor any of this toughs moved to stop her, and the other denizens had since sat down and become engrossed in their drinks, some had nodded off drooling. Sil opened the door and stepped into the cool night air, which hit her like a slap across the face. She quickly moved away into the shadows around the buildings. There were no street lights, no light from busy windows, only the pale light of the Winged Moon which was just bright enough to create plentiful shadows. Taking her time, Sil wandered around the Court of Flowers enjoying the emptiness, and the quiet darkness.

It's early evening and no one is out?. Sil said as she stretched out her TreeShy sense looking for seeds or roots or anything beneath the solid thick road.

There was nothing, as if something had burned or crushed everything alive and covered it with a seamless stone. The giant buildings on either side of the road had all their doors shuttered now and the wagons gone, and all the workers had gone off to their families or revelry. Off in the distance she could see and hear individuals and a few groups moving about, laughing, talking, but they always seemed to be moving away to somewhere else, and were soon drowned out by the silence and the night insects.

"OldBerry is probably worried by now." Sil found herself whispering out loud, then finished whispering lower "I should let him know True is not hurt."

Sil didn't wait for any answer from the empty night, and hurried back to the Court of Winds.

7

The Court of Flowers got empty fast once the day was done, and the players in the Court of Cards went mostly indoors at night, but Mother Leaflan's Carnivaneers had busy attractions into the evening. Sil walked hurriedly by the paddock and the humming puller-cows still meandering happily seeking seeds in the grass, oblivious to the distant shouts and loud laughing. Turning out into the main walkway, where the rooks milled about, she walked a slower path through the carnival, enjoying the cool night air. The crowd was sparse but lively, groups of two to ten huddled up or quickly paced towards their favorite attraction one last time before closing. Moving between them solo, Sil took plenty of time making the rounds, stopping from time to time to take a long look at one of the signs before each tent or stage. She passed the closed up double wagon of Lord Amberly's Menagerie, knowing each of the tiny animals in their tiny cages by memory. Then Sil paused at Manio's Trained Wyrmcats, and then moved on to the tent that housed the Ancient Amesha Fetus, which was in fact a corpse of one of Manio's wyrmcats had that died a particularly unlucky and gruesome death. An Elfling clad in a dark cloak with a hood pulled up partially covering her face walked towards Sil, also unaccompanied. It wasn't unusual to see individuals alone in the daytime, but at night usually groups gathered, so Sil noticed her right off. Otherwise the dark figure seemed no different than any other of the denizens of the City. The hooded figure passed by Sil danger close, and without seeming to touch, a cup was suddenly in Sil's hand. Bringing the cup up to her lips, Sil drank the thick genae milkshake it contained.

Pilar's the best Sil said inside her mind. How did she hold the cup hidden? And no spillage at all.

Pilar continued on her way, moving near a group of people and suddenly seeming blurry, then quickly walking away unnoticed.

Outsider pickpockets won't be around this time of night, it being neither empty enough nor usefully crowded Sil continued in her head. So the carnival's own foragers should do well tonight.

The milkshake was thick and cold and delicious, and it only just occurred to Sil she hadn't consumed anything all day except ale. She stopped to take a long drink in front of the acrobat stage. The stage was empty and dark, no shows at night, so Sil spun around and lept up to sit on the stage and watched the carnival visitors enjoy the evening, and drank the rest of her milkshake. The main walkway led a pleasant arc around a bend with most of the night attractions along it. The HorrorOrc still had a crowd in front, although filled with older individuals than during daylight hours. Sil could see, from where she sat, Seelae Ree on the stage with Mel, cracking a whip and shaking a chair while Mel roared and shook his fists in the air causing the crowd to scream and applaud. Beyond was Maccon and SharpTooth, people enraptured as Maccon told stories of his prime with his MochShee pack. He waved his arms in the air and held his hands up wide and moved them around, all the while young and old a like snuck up and touched SharpTooth briefly. Three wagons that sold foreign delicacies were open and doing brisk business still. Each had colorful banners and signs with drawings of strange people and plants that almost certainly did not exist, but did help sell bread-wrapped meat. Sil took a last loud slurpy drink from the cup.

Her perimeter was set up, in familiar territory her TreeShy sense came quick and easy having magicked it many times by now, and Sil could tell even before the tiny gnome feet started thumping on the grass, that she was being beared down upon. A pair of fleet feet beat a fast tempo, and then Triste's LeafShy grabbed a hold of the grass and grew it quickly, followed by Triste's feet beating a similar tempo as she chased after her sister. Haile OldBerry tore around the corner just as the grass grew beneath her feet and grabbed hold, falling softly into the grass. Triste lurched around the corner laughing and released her hold on the grass.

"Good eve childpeps having fun?" Sil said smiling.

"Sil! We missed you today." Haile yelled in glee as she tried to untangle herself from the grass.

"Hey Sil! I've been practicing! Most of the day. See how quick I caught Haile?" Triste said breathless.

"You could do that yesterday, did you move the Tesswood?" Sil asked.

"No..." Triste said disappointedly and continued "I'm faster now with the grass, though."

"Faster is easy, it will always happen anyways, but if you want to get better you have to move that Tesswood." Sil said as she concentrated on the grass that Triste had grown and in which Haile was still entangled.

The grass unwound from Haile, quickly freeing her, then continued to shrink back and thicken back into its original shorter height. Haile stood up and walked towards Sil, and Triste stood where she was, watching the grass, not just with her eyes, but seeking out and sensing the magick as Sil was shrinking back the grass.

"That is so cool, I can't tell how...?" Triste said in wonder.

"I could have taught you that tomorrow, but now we have to work on that Tesswood again." Sil said disappointedly.

"We could do both?" Triste said hopeful.

"Shrinking the grass is like growing the Tesswood, but in reverse." Sil continued "These things have to be learned in an order."

"I'm sorry." Triste said crestfallen.

"Don't be sorry WeeShy, be better tomorrow than you were today." Sil said whilst she hoped down from the stage.

"Yes maam." Triste said sadly.

"Cheer up. It's just one day." Sil said scruffing the head on Triste's head.

The trio walked to the OldBerry wagon, which had the drop-down counter closed back up now. Light peaked out from the door which was slightly ajar. After a hug and g'nite, the children crawled under the wagon and Sil knocked on the door twice quick then once more before she opened it and walked into the lighted interior. OldBerry was there in his chair smoking his pipe, and across from him was Mother Leaflan. The interior was full of smoke, a fresh billowy cloud rising into the air as Sil entered. Mute tapestries of green and brown covered the front and back of the wagon cabin and on the starboard side was the workbench with a wall of small nooks filled up to overflowing with tiny pieces of wood and wool, metal, glass, and materials of strange appearance and provenance. The port side of the OldBerry wagon cabin was made up of the closed up sales countertop and a more or less organized jumble of the days unsold toys. OldBerry waved Sil in as he puffed quickly and passed the pipe to Mother Leaflan who took a long inhale. Sil sat cross-legged on the floor in the cramped cabin.

"True is safe. She's being held, but she's safe." Sil said quickly upon sitting down.

"Held? like in jail?" OldBerry said.

"Sort of...yes...as close as you get to that here." Sil said as Mother Leaflan passed the pipe to her.

"So she was caught foraging then?" Mother Leaflan said, exhaling a large amount of smoke.

The smoke rose in the air, and Sil moved it into crude shapes roughly showing a facsimile of True OldBerry walking through the Court of Cards and being surrounded by other darker figures. Sil drew in long on the pipe, then exhaled the smoke to add to Leaflan's cloud.

"I'm not sure. I think it has something to do with a guild war, but I'm not sure how." Sil said and passed the pipe to OldBerry.

"Did she say anything? A message?" OldBerry said.

"I haven't actually spoken with her yet." Sil said, the pipe having passed back to her again, and took a long inhale on the pipe and continued, "I am heading over there now, it's on the way so thought I'd put your worry to bed."

"Tell her me and childpeps are fineways." OldBerry said and took the pipe from sil and drafted on it.

"Will do's." Sil said and AirShy'd the smoke clouds with some amorphous beasts of yourn struggling against a mud flow.

"Oh dear, oh dear, first the SongMasters and now this." Mother Leaflan said worried.

"Don't worry bout True, Mother, she can take care of herself." OldBerry pondered after speaking and took a long slow draft on the pipe before he continued, "Truthtold, those guilders be lucky to have a nitpenny twixt them'en she leaves."

"Oh, you know, I'm a worrier." Mother Leaflan said, yawning.

Sil and OldBerry in turn both yawned in reply, and all three chuckled.

"I better get over there and see True." Sil said standing up and moving to the door.

"And I feel a powerful nap coming on." Mother Leaflan joined Sil at the door.

"G'nite ladies." OldBerry said nearly nodding off already.

Sil and Mother Leaflan left the OldBerry wagon and walked along the path in the chill night. Sil could feel Triste trying to move the Tesswood root below the wagon, now knowing she stayed up secretly to practice. Having stopped, Mother Leaflan looked up at Sil for a silent second and giggled, then they both continued their walk. The crowds were dying down, the shows were over, some of the talent would be talking to the stragglers and hangers-on, then off to the taverns or sleep for the early risers. The path was well lit as bright moonlight filtered down, brighter than previous due to the Winged Moon having been joined by two sister moons. The night was growing quiet, and the night insects began one by one to start their songs. Every now and then, the night air would be ripped by a loud cheer or laugh from the thinning tourists. As soon as Leaflan's wagon-tent came into view, the pair saw Seelae Ree and her brother standing in front, pacing. The angry acrobats saw Mother Leaflan and Sil and came barreling over quickly.

"Stoled it." Seelae Ree shrieked loudly at first then lowered her voice as she looked around.

"Yes, stoled it." Laene said more level headed.

"Stoled what?" Sil said.

"Rigging...highwire...poles. took them." Laene said throwing his hands up in despair and letting them drop dramatically.

"Who took them?" Sil said.

"Thieves?" Laene said and Seelae Ree punched him hard in his shoulder.

"Came back, they were gone." Seelae Ree said and shrugged her shoulders.

"I won't be able to track them, it's been too long..." Sil said worried.

"We have no show without them, who pays for rope tricks and handstands?" Seelae Ree said calming a bit.

"Seconds week is busiest, no gear, no show, no pay." Laene said looking back and forth between Sil and Mother Leaflan.

"I know. Speed is required." Sil said as she patted Laene on the shoulder comfortingly.

"I'll ask around. I met some locals that might be able to help." Sil continued "I'll get the gear back."

Then Sil was off into the night, heading towards the Court of Queens, with two tasks now to deal with at Halliby CrookShank's Black Arrows guild hall.

8

Tall wooden mansion-like buildings rose on both sides as Sil entered the Court of Queens. High pointed tiled roofs covered plank covered structures that had been once perhaps large family homesteads, but now had been sectioned up into a myriad of individual apartments for the poor and working class. A plethora of windows oddly placed, no two at the same height, adorned each house, some windows had lights and activity inside and some were dark. Dark figures huddled around some of the entrances but for the most part the Queen's Court was quiet. The Road was wide enough for two laden wagons to pass, but Sil walked on a tiled path beside it. There were magic lanterns on poles placed every so often, seemingly to maximize the dark shadows between them rather than the lighted areas. The Road of Heramaen snaked a winding path through the Court with similar wooden houses lining both sides. Alleys separated each house so close that they quickly became dark and tight.

"Enticing" Sil whispered aloud under her breath.