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Wandering Home

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Staying with Selendrile was not quite what Alys had expected.

In the stories her father used to read her, dragons all slept in caves filled with gold and only ventured out to terrorize villagers and eat cattle. Alys had realized that probably wasn’t the case with Selendrile back when they were running around Griswold. He might not have known what an inn was or when a woman was flirting with him, but he’d clearly spent some time observing humans before, enough to know how humans moved and talked to one another. Besides, Selendrile didn’t seem to like sleeping very much.

Still, she’d thought a cave might come up sooner or later until the sixth day of travel, when it became clear that Selendrile’s refusal to give her a destination was more than just his typical uncommunicative manner. “We’re not going anywhere at all!” Alys had cried out when she’d realized, and Selendrile had just looked at her as though that should have been obvious all along.

It was only afterwards that she realized their lack of destination meant they were free to go wherever they chose. So that night, after Selendrile finished trading insults with the other birds or whatever it was he did when he was in that form and turned back into a man, Alys had said, “I want to go to Guelder.”

“All right,” Selendrile had said immediately, not even asking her why. That was lucky, as Alys didn’t have a good reason. It was just that Guelder was the biggest city she knew about, far larger than Griswold, and so far from Saint Toby’s that it had never even occurred to Alys to hope to see it someday. But now that she was wandering around with a dragon-youth who kept appearing at night with stories of a conveniently “abandoned” cottage or a nearby magic stream, she thought it was about time to start hoping.

She might have regretted it the next day, when she realized it would take them at least three weeks to get there, but it turned out that going to Guelder meant doing exactly what they had been doing all along – wandering, stopping to talk to forest creatures, occasionally ducking into villages to lie shamelessly and have a hot meal – only this time, they went in the same direction every day instead of choosing one at random.

Selendrile wasn’t getting any easier to read, but Alys suspected he enjoyed himself the most when he got to watch what her around other humans. One night, he somehow managed to charm a farmer into letting them ride in his creaking, six-wheeled cart with him, then left Alys to make all the necessary conversation, watching them both and saying nothing.

That was how Alys discovered that the farmer was on the way to the market in Froyes. “That’s where my brother and I are headed, too,” Alys said quickly. Left to his own devices, Selendrile would speak just long enough to say they were newlyweds, no matter how many times Alys responded to that by treading on his foot where no one else could see. “We’re being sent to visit our cousin, but this will be our first time there. You go there every year? What’s it like?”

“It’s a city,” the farmer said with a shrug, as if that was all that there was to say.

Alys tried pressing him for more, but the farmer didn’t seem interested in sharing. This left Alys to keep the conversation going with a variety of believable but nonspecific lies about herself and Selendrile, who of course didn’t help at all, instead choosing to lean as far back in the cart as he could and watch them both.

“You could have at least sat in the front with me,” Alys said to Selendrile once they’d safely made it through the city’s gates and parted ways with the farmer.

“Any closer and I would have spooked the mule,” Selendrile said. Alys hadn’t thought of that, but now she recalled that the mule had looked a little nervy, just like Atherton’s horse had looked before Selendrile had spooked it just by standing near. “Here, take this, and let’s find somewhere to sleep.”

He strode off before Alys could inspect what he had handed her. She discovered that it was an apple, large and ripe, red shading into gold in parts. It looked delicious, and Alys was suddenly certain that Selendrile had stolen a whole bushel of them off the cart right under the farmer’s nose without even blinking.

“Of all the…” she muttered as she ran to catch up with Selendrile. But she ate the apple as they walked. There was no point in wasting it, now that she had it.

Alys had expected that Froyes would be like Griswold but larger. Instead, it was different in nearly every way. The main thoroughfare was wide and muddy, but it was filled with people and animals, and it smelled worse than Saint Toby’s ever had. The side streets were much narrower and almost seemed like tunnels with the way the closely-packed second stories of the houses on either side of them jutted out over the first stories and nearly touched. Some of the shops still had lanterns burning in their paper windows even though the sun had set hours ago. Preparing for the market tomorrow, Alys thought. The one bit of good information she’d gotten from the farmer was that this was the yearly market, which she assumed from the name drew a much larger crowd than the weekly market and required more preparation.

The first inn they tried was completely full, as was the second. Most of the merchants traveling to Froyes from far away had beaten them there and secured accommodations. But it seemed that a large city had no end to its number of shops and inns, because they found a third inn on the very same street that still had a room for them. “It’s a little small, mind,” the innkeeper told them, already counting out their copper.

“That’s fine,” Selendrile said, smiling as he snaked an arm across her shoulders. “We don’t mind sleeping close.”

Alys was going to have to come up with something more effective than stepping on his foot.

But Selendrile was perfectly well-behaved while one of the inn girls spread out straw for their sleeping pallet in the tiny first-floor room that the girl had led them to. (Alys scowled, but there really wasn’t any room for a second pallet in a room this small, where she couldn’t even stretch her arms out without hitting both walls.) He didn’t flirt with the inn girl, or fake-flirt with Alys to sell his part, which he seemed to delight in doing. Alys suspected he found the entire concept of marriage amusing. Somehow she doubted dragons had a similar institution.

Once the inn girl was gone, however, he did sprawl out on the straw as if the whole pallet was his and his alone. “I suppose you’ll want to go to the market tomorrow,” he said, expression bland.

Alys had learned enough about Selendrile to understand that this meant he wanted to go to the market too, but he didn’t want to admit it. “I’ll wait for you for that,” Alys said. “It sounds like it should last for days, so I think it probably goes on into the night too. I’ll find something else to do while you’re off scaring cattle.” She frowned at him. “Turn into something smaller.”

Selendrile blinked at her, unmoved. “No.”

“There’s no room for me to sleep,” Alys insisted. “You can sleep as a mouse or something just as well, can’t you?”

For a brief moment, Selendrile looked deeply tempted to turn into his dragon form and really take up the whole room. “I’m not sleeping as a mouse,” he said. But he did sidle over enough so Alys could lie down.

The air outside had been cold as they wandered, not quite biting, but cold enough that rain would have been miserable. Inside their stuffy little room, it was quite a bit warmer. The air was heavy with how many times someone in the building had breathed it in, but it was cleaner than the air outside, and Alys found that she didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.

She wasn’t sure what woke her up, only that it woke her so completely that she knew immediately there was no hope of going back to sleep. She groaned and rolled up to sit, combing straw out of her hair as she did so. It had barely grown since Selendrile had cut it, which was handy enough for when she had to be Jocko again to avoid looking suspicious, but it still annoyed her. It puffed up in ways that it never had when it was longer.

Giving it up as a lost cause, she stood. Selendrile was gone, and when she exited their tiny room and made it to the kitchen, she found that it wasn’t quite morning and the cook was still asleep. The only one awake was an inn girl, a different one from the one who had made up their bed, who was checking on the fire in the hearth. “There might be some soup from yesterday,” the girl offered, but the thought turned Alys’s stomach and she begged off. She’d return after the cook woke up, or else she could buy something to eat elsewhere. She had gotten enough copper and silver from Selendrile to buy meals for the week if it came to that.

Of course, she’d hardly made it out the door before she tripped over something that nearly sent her sprawling. She caught herself at the last moment on the roughly-hewn doorway itself even as whatever she tripped over complained loudly at her and flopped down on her shoe.

In the predawn light, she could just barely make out its shaggy black shape from the rest of the darkness, but she bent down to pet the cat anyway, since it had made itself quite at home on her foot. Its fur was soft, if not clean, and it purred and rubbed its face against her knuckles.

It seemed in no hurry to move, and Alys frowned, suddenly suspicious. She scooped the cat up, ignoring its token resistance, and brought it into the inn, close enough to the hearth that she could get a good look at its eyes. They were normal cat eyes, wide and shining in the light, without the slightest trace of dragon amethyst or Selendrile’s dark amusement.

At that moment, the cat seemed to have had quite enough; it gave a much stronger twist and managed to wriggle out of her grip. It seemed content to go no farther than the floor in front of the fire, though. It was doubtless much more comfortable there than it had been outside.

Alys probably should have picked it back up and dragged it outside, but it wasn’t causing any trouble, and when she looked to the inn girl, she just shrugged. So she left the cat there and continued on out, this time keeping an eye out for any small creatures who might be driven into doorways by the movement of carts and people on the narrow streets.

Nothing else ran into her, but she did manage to wander through much of the city. There were more people on the street before sunup than would have been on the street of Saint Toby’s or even Griswold at any hour, but the city was much more cramped too, its wooden buildings sagging under the weight of too many stories piled one on top of another and sometimes even leaning against one another. She walked the length of one side of the city wall, looking at the shops on the first floor and the living quarters piled messily on top of them. Sometimes she could see the dim shapes of people bustling around through the parchment windows if they had a lamp lit inside. Eventually the shops began opening up, though many of them were busy running carts to the churchyard, where the market would open.

Alys found a shop selling clapbread and got an entire bag full. The oiled brown paper crinkled under her fingers, but the firm, hot bread within stayed in one piece as she walked. She ate it sitting on one of the little bridges that dotted the river Froyes was built on, letting her oat crumbs fall to the water below. By that time, the sun was high in the sky, and in its light the water was a rough, filmy green. Alys kept an eye out for ducks or fish, but even though the river barely trickled along, she saw neither. Finally, she stood, tucked the empty bag into her pocket, and made her way back to the inn.

It was much livelier now that it was midmorning. People hunched over bowls of soup in the main room, or else passed cards around as they talked and laughed, but Alys was too full to even think about getting a bowl from the kitchen and not nearly foolish enough to gamble. She’d nearly ducked through the room when the inn girl from earlier caught up with her. “I put your cat in your room, miss,” she said loudly, wide brown eyes darting to the glowering innkeeper behind her as she wrung her hands.

Alys automatically put on her most charming smile, trying not to think about how quickly she’d learned that reaction from Selendrile. “Thank you,” she said, pitching her voice so that the innkeeper could hear without it seeming like she was yelling. The inn girl slumped with relief and Alys's smile became a bit more genuine as she fished in her pocket for a half-copper to press into the girl's hand. "For the trouble," she said, and darted past as quickly as she could.

The cat was indeed in her room, making a mess of the straw. It had dug its claws into the pallet and ripped a large chunk of it out, which it had then chosen to throw around what little space in the room hadn't already been covered by the pallet. At the sight of her it flopped over again into the loose pile of straw it had made, a picture of perfect innocence asking to be petted.

Alys sighed and decided to ignore it. She had brought this upon herself, after all, and she could hardly blame the inn girl for it. “Don’t make any more of a mess,” she told the cat sternly, and then curled up on what remained of the pallet and went to sleep.

She had a more fruitful rest this time, blinking awake in slow stages some time later to the feeling of contentment that followed a good sleep. She yawned lazily and took stock of the room. The cat had followed her instructions and not made any more of a mess; instead, it had somehow managed to wriggle its way into her arms, and Alys found herself still clutching it like a child’s doll.

When Alys got her arm out from under it, it cracked open a single slit-pupil eye and stared at her. Somehow it looked so much like Selendrile in that moment that Alys burst out laughing. This did not bother the cat at all; a moment later it shut its eye again and went right back to sleep.

Alys probably should have scooped up the cat then, but instead she brushed the loose straw from her clothing and wandered out again, making sure the door was open behind her so the cat could wander out and do its business as it pleased. It was midday, late enough that the common areas were a bit emptier even with the perennially-full tables of gamblers in the back, and for lunch there was more stew with brown bread on the side. Alys ate her bowl at a table with another girl her age, tearing off chunks of the bread and dipping it in the stew as they talked. The girl was here with her father and sister, who were at the market, selling fleece. “We drew straws to see who had to stay home to watch the sheep,” the girl explained, mopping up the remains of her own stew with a crust. “We still need to get something our brother and sister will like, mind you, and I have to take second shift watching the stall, but there should still be time to look around ourselves.”

“What sorts of things do you think you’ll get your siblings?” Alys asked. It was as good a way as any to find out what might be available at a market this large and what things would be expected to cost. Alys had no compunctions about spending Selendrile’s silver, but she didn’t want to embarrass herself or attract thieves by starting to bargain from too high a position.

That conversation lasted them the length of the meal, and afterwards the girl was happy enough to have company on the walk to her father’s stall. It was afternoon already, and Alys expected she had less than an hour before Selendrile would appear from wherever he had gone, so she didn’t mind going a bit early.

Sure enough, she’d barely wandered from the fleece tent, which had the good fortune of being very near the center of the sprawling market, to the market cross in the center of the churchyard before Selendrile crowded up behind her, staring at the booths with his hand resting on her shoulder. Alys barely managed to avoid jumping. She’d gotten used to Selendrile vanishing and then popping up unexpectedly, but not quite that used to it.

“Anything in particular you want to see?” Selendrile said into her ear.

Alys shrugged hard enough to dislodge his hand. “A girl I met told me there’s a Garlick Row down that way,” she said brightly. “Let’s go there first.”

She didn’t particularly like garlic, but it was worth getting it out of the way, and doubly worth it for the way Selendrile’s nose scrunched up whenever they passed another pungent booth. Alys talked herself out of getting any pickled garlic to annoy him, though. She would end up being the one to carry it when he went off during the day, and she suspected she would soon have enough things to carry that she actually wanted.

Beyond the Garlick Row there was the Bookseller’s Row, which interested Selendrile more. “You can read?” Alys asked him as he inspected one leather-bound volume, picking his way through its pages with precise fingers. He was tall enough that she couldn't get a good look at it, but past the curve of his arm she saw the edge of an illustration: a knight in armor, holding his shield up against a blast of dragonfire.

“I can read the language of any beast I’m in the shape of,” Selendrile said serenely. Behind him, Alys made a face, and his shoulders shook like he’d seen it, or known she’d do it.

Past that were the flower-sellers. This close to winter, their offerings weren’t as impressive as they might have been in spring, but Alys still stopped at the first booth to look them over. Most of the flowers were small and white, but there was a bundle of clustered yellow dogwood flowers hanging above her head that she asked the merchant to bring down. Selendrile frowned. “What are you going to do with that?”

“It’s good for wounds,” Alys said, though she hoped the flowers would wither without being needed for that purpose. Mostly she liked the look of them, cheerful and bright even as the days got colder and darker. Selendrile had to know that, but he didn’t say anything else about it.

She tucked the flowers under her elbow as they ventured towards the food stalls – or when she ventured towards the food stalls, at least; at some point between blinks, Selendrile had disappeared. Alys continued on, getting an oiled bag of meat buns and then, thinking of the hungry dog Selendrile had lured closer at Saint Toby’s and her own wary animal who might not be happy to meet a dragon, a smaller bag of jerky.

Alys was halfway through her buns when Selendrile reappeared with a bundle in his arms. He threw it over her shoulders while she ate on, unimpressed. It was a wool coat, thick and long enough to cover her past her knees. “I don’t need a coat,” she said, but she didn’t shrug it off as Selendrile kept assessing her.

“You will,” Selendrile said. “I’ve seen plenty of humans frozen in the snow.”

Alys ignored this new jab at her human fragility. “Where will I put it? It’s not cold enough for me to wear it everywhere now.”

This seemed to stump Selendrile for a moment. Then he shrugged. “I’ll wear it when you don’t want to.”

She stared at him incredulously. It’s hard enough getting him to keep on a normal amount of clothing! She thought. On the other hand, if this meant she wouldn’t have to put up with him wandering around naked to annoy her, she was willing to be magnanimous and not bring up that this still left her with nowhere to put the coat when Selendrile was in his dragon form.

The church bell chose that moment to chime the hour. Alys counted the tolls, then told Selendrile, “there’s a jester show in a half hour.”

“A jester show,” Selendrile repeated. Which of course meant that he had no idea what a jester was, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

Alys saw no need to enlighten him. “We’ll probably want to drop our things off at the inn before we continue,” she said.

They walked back on the main streets, carefully avoiding muddy puddles and the deep trenches left by wagon wheels. It was still busy, but no longer impossible to cross by foot, and there were lanterns sputtering on either side to make it easier to find their way. The inn had its own lantern, casting strange shadows across the sign above it, and they had no trouble slipping inside.

Instead, the trouble started when they reached their room, which was already occupied. The cat had quit its campaign against the straw pallet, or else had only just wandered back in and not had time to destroy it any further, and was laying quietly in its center. Then it caught sight of Selendrile and scrambled to its feet, puffed up and hissing.

“What is that?” Selendrile asked, looking inches from puffing up and hissing himself.

It was all Alys could do to keep from laughing. “It’s a cat,” she said, and knelt down in front of it, fishing the bag of jerky out from her pocket.

“I know it’s a cat,” Selendrile said, voice cold. “What is it doing here?”

He hadn’t sounded so dangerous around her since before they’d been caught by Atherton. Some instinct told Alys it was a bad idea to have her back to him. But she knew Selendrile better than her instincts did, so she ignored it in favor of holding out a bit of jerky to the cat. It didn’t move, but Alys could be patient. “I like it, so I decided to keep it,” she said.

“Did you?” Selendrile asked.

The longer Selendrile stayed where he was, the more the cat deflated, until finally it slouched down and took the jerky from Alys’s hand. Alys pet it as a reward. Give him enough time and Selendrile will stop puffing up too, she thought, though she wasn’t foolish enough to say it. Instead, she said, “yes,” and stood up again. “Put the coat down in the corner and let’s go. We don’t want to miss the show.”

Selendrile dropped the coat, still looking murderously at the cat. Alys considered pushing him out the door, but given the difference in their strengths, she doubted that would help. Instead she settled for looking unimpressed at him until he backed out of the doorway. This time she closed the door. The flimsy lock would hardly deter a thief, but she wasn’t too worried about anything she had left there. The cat could take care of itself.

The jester show was crowded by the time they arrived, so they stood in the back, peering at the hastily-erected stage from a distance. The crowd before them laughed, but Alys couldn’t hear anything, and the exaggerated falls were less funny without context. But then the jugglers came on. Alys clapped the moment the first one balanced on top of a spinning wheel. Selendrile didn’t, but he stared raptly as they threw up curved blades and caught them one after the other, twisting at times to grab them right before they could slice through them. When the knives caught fire, he stopped pretending any indifference, leaning forward to watch them without blinking. He stayed that way all through the finale of the act, and even through the final bows.

He still wasn’t clapping, though, so Alys clapped twice as hard on his behalf. “That was amazing!”

“What will humans come up with next,” Selendrile said, amused. The tension had completely left his posture.

“I don’t think you could catch things like that in your natural form,” Alys said. She tried to avoid being more specific in crowds, though no one was paying any attention to them.

“Perhaps not,” Selendrile said, “but I wouldn’t have any trouble with the fire.”

As if on cue, there was a great bang. Alys startled, but then there was a burst of color over the river, and another, a great explosion that peeled off to fall like a series of lit teardrops to the water below. “Oh!” Alys said. “Fireworks!” She’d heard of them, but never seen them. Even with the people milling about, she had no trouble seeing them burst into shapes and spirals, or see how their light turned the river into a dark mirror that lit up again and again with reflected fire.

Selendrile put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go find somewhere to sit,” he suggested.

They ended up on a bridge, maybe even the same one Alys had sat on in the morning, though it was hard to tell in the dark. The fireworks continued for a few moments longer, bursting into colors in the sky. A few of them lit so close to them that their light made Selendrile’s golden hair shine in the darkness. “I forgot to braid your hair today,” Alys realized.

“You can braid it tomorrow,” Selendrile said, still looking at the sky. The firelight reflected in his eyes, too, and made them glow like a cat’s.

The fireworks apparently meant that the fair was done for the day, because all around them merchants were taking down their tents and booths. Selendrile tipped his head back to watch them, so Alys didn’t bother getting up either.

Eventually, though, it got cold enough that Alys couldn't ignore it any longer. She suppressed a shiver, but somehow Selendrile caught it, though he wasn’t even looking at her. “If only you had a coat,” he said, one corner of his mouth curving up.

“Then I’d be too hot,” Alys said, but she was in too good of a mood to be annoyed. She didn’t even protest when Selendrile draped an arm around her again. He was very warm somehow, though he'd been standing in the cold just as long as she had.

Selendrile, for his part, didn’t do much more than give a disgusted sigh when they returned to the room and found that everything was how they left it, including the cat, who eyed him suspiciously from the far corner of the pallet. “I suppose you expect me to keep my distance for the sake of your beast,” he said.

“At least I won’t ask you to take the form of a mouse again,” Alys said cheerfully.

Selendrile frowned at her, unimpressed, and pulled his shirt over his head.

Alys turned hastily around and crouched down by the cat, who was looking equally unimpressed. “You’ll get used to him,” she said to it, fishing in her pocket for some more jerky. “I did.”

The cat murred skeptically, but it ate the jerky out of her hand.

Selendrile sprawled all over the pallet as usual, but he wordlessly moved over so that she could lie down without touching him. “Are you hoping Guelder will be like this?” He asked once she was settled down with her back to him.

“Maybe,” she said, looking at the cat. It was dark, but she could see it by its eyes, creeping closer to her inch by inch. “Someone told me that Guelder is three times the size of Froyes. Maybe it will have three times as much to do.”

She felt Selendrile’s chuckle more than she heard it. “You don’t ask for too much, do you,” he said, amused.

The cat had apparently decided that Selendrile was no threat as long as Alys was between them. It came close enough to nose at Alys’s arm, and when she reached out to pet it, it molded its face against her hand. “No,” Alys said, feeling full and warm and surrounded by friends. “I don’t ask for much at all.”