Three days passed slowly for Saenni, spending more time staring into the horizon than engaging with the curious humans as the horses did the work of descending the mountain. On the second day, Saenni had gotten rid of the saddle, finding it to be more in the way than anything, and proceeded to lie on her back on Kau. While the humans had voiced their concern for her falling off, she had simply shrugged and stared up at the sky.
On the last day, they left the mountain behind and entered the valley below. The wind rustled the leaves above their heads as they navigated through the forest in silence. Before long, the trees grew scarce and the thick undergrowth made way for tall grass reaching for their feet, stretching all the way to the dark city wall of Domica. Saenni sat up properly as it came into view. Much like the one she had seen on her first day, smoke billowed from the chimneys and blocked out much of the sunlight. The closer they got, the darker the very air seemed to become.
Saenni wrinkled her nose at the smell. 'You live like this?'
Meriall looked over her shoulder at her. 'Not usually. This is a mining city, so it's a lot dirtier than most other places.'
'We'll do our best to make this a quick stop,' Linette said. 'But I'm afraid we will have to stay the night.'
Saenni simply nodded as they followed the curve of the wall towards the south. Not long afterwards, they came upon the main road. It was a packed dirt path lined with black stone, and wide enough to fit two carriages next to each other comfortably. The city entrance was a gate nearly the height of the wall and as wide as the path itself; the doors stood agape, displaying the foul belly within.
Redagan threw long shadows in the late afternoon, casting the area in a cool embrace. A few guards out on patrol eyed them as they stepped onto the nearly deserted path, but did not approach as the group headed towards the gate. Saenni stayed silent as they entered the city, simply taking in the sights. Armant lead the way through the maze of buildings without hesitation. The people watched them with muted interest and Saenni stared right back at them. They kept several steps away in all directions despite their obvious interest and hurried out of the way when Armant turned them down on a new street.
Many twists and turns later, they came to a halt in front of a large building carrying the sign of an inn over its door. They dismounted as the door opened and three young boys stepped out. Without a word, they took the reins of the horses and lead them away, and Saenni followed her new companions through the door. Inside was a large, bright room filled with tables of various sizes, smelling faintly of fire and alcohol, and with stairways on either side. At the far back was a wide fireplace with three couches facing it.
As they stepped inside, a dark-haired woman appeared by the bar to the right of the door. 'Welcome to The Dragon's Rest. Are you here for a drink or for the night?'
'For the night,' Linette said and handed the woman several coins. 'Two rooms and meals.'
'Certainly,' she said and disappeared through the side door. She returned with two, numbered iron keys. 'Rooms forty-two and thirty-nine. They are reached by the stairway on the right, two floors up. Dinner will be served in just under two hours. The bathing area is open for another three hours, just let me or one of the others working here know and we'll show you the way.'
Saenni followed them up the stairs, letting her hand trail over the wooden panelling as she walked. While the bottom floor was bright and the wood used of the lighter kind, the top two floors had a darker hue and the lighting was dimmed down. Linette came to a halt in front of a door with the number thirty-nine painted on them.
'Does anyone have a preference?' she asked.
'You and Armant always share a room so he doesn't have a nervous breakdown worrying about your safety,' Meriall drawled. 'We should probably keep it that way. I'll share with our legendary dragon.'
'If Saenni is alright with that?' Linette asked carefully.
'It is as good as any.'
With a nod to the other two, Meriall lead the way into the room. She closed the door behind her with her heel and unceremoniously fell onto the bed to the left. The room was just large enough to house two beds, a window, and two small bedside tables; both carrying oil lamps. As Meriall kicked off her boots, letting them fall where they may, Saenni stepped up to the window.
It overlooked another alley, but the building on the other side was a single-story one. The sea of blackened roofs spread out all the way to the wall towering over the area like a stone cage. Humans hurried down the street, heads bent down and if they had them, hoods were drawn up. Looking upwards, Saenni could see the dark smog climb ever higher.
'What a dreary place,' she commented as she stepped away from the window.
'You can say that again.'
'Are all mining cities like this?'
'More or less. Depends on how much output they have, really. If they don't mine as much as they do here, they wouldn't create so much smoke.'
Saenni nodded and sat down on the free bed. 'I find it difficult to imagine the people living here being happy with this.'
Meriall shrugged. 'You have to make a living somehow. We can't all be taken in by rich people who happen to stumble upon you in your darkest hour.'
'Linette?' Saenni asked slowly.
'Yeah. Apparently she was taken in by a rich couple when she was three or something.'
'What about you?'
'Orphan, like a lot of people,' Meriall shrugged again. 'Lived in a city like this, but smaller. I got picked up by some soldiers one day and brought to their camp where I met my master. The training was hard but life got easier, that's for sure. Never looked back after that.'
Saenni nodded. 'It would seem a lot of people have a similar story here.'
'More than not, I would say.'
'Armant is your master, then?'
'No. He saved my life some years ago and I've joined him to repay that debt, but he's not my master. He chose to follow Linette when it was revealed she was the one from the prophecy, so here I am.'
'You don't seem very fond of her.'
Meriall pulled a hand through her short hair. 'It's not that I dislike her. It's just that sometimes she does and says things that rub me the wrong way.' She leaned forward, putting her elbows on her knees as she looked at Saenni. 'For example, is your advice about killing the magi really a test?'
'No. The easiest way to put an end to the conflict is to kill him.'
'But she is adamant about it being a test. And she's not willing to look at it in any other way. That stuff makes me annoyed.'
'I can understand that. Some people are just so focused on their own world view that they only hear what confirms what they want to hear.'
'I don't think she's a bad person,' Meriall said quickly. 'I just don't get her sudden aversion to killing. It's not like it's uncommon here. She's seen Armant kill to defend her several times.'
'We will see how it ends,' was all Saenni said. 'I could use that bath, however.'
'Lords, me too,' Meriall exclaimed and stood, a relaxed smile on her face. 'Let's go.'
Two hours later, Meriall and Saenni left the bathing area refreshed and in a good mood. As they headed down to the ground floor, Saenni took a moment to study the small human. She was more aware of her surroundings than the other two, the way her eyes flickered to doors and windows and even people told a story of its own, but when you got to talking with her, she seemed as relaxed as could be.
Meriall didn't believe like the other two, but she wasn't disrespectful either. Saenni appreciated that. It was easier to talk to her than to Linette, and Armant didn't seem to talkative type either way. Meriall knew her skills and limits well, a trait in humans that was rare; more commonly than not, the people who found themselves on quests like these tended to overestimate themselves.
'Over there,' Meriall said, bringing Saenni out of her musings.
Linette and Armant were seated by a smaller table towards the back, the food already placed in front of them. They nodded politely as the two sat down.
'Did you have a nice bath?' Linette asked.
'Yeah,' Meriall said and reached for the jug of water as they began to eat. 'It's pretty decent for this place. You should take the opportunity before we head out again.'
'I'm planning on it. We went out and got some supplies while you were relaxing, so most of it is taken care of. There were a few places that were closed so we'll have to deal with that tomorrow.'
'Dried meat. Armant wanted to get some new arrows while we had the chance.'
Meriall hummed. 'You should wait with that until we pass Naservo, they specialise in those arrows you like. We'll pass through on our way to Normery anyway, only a few days from here. Will probably be cheaper too.'
Armant gave a curt nod. 'You are probably correct. The ones I have for now will last until then. But we should get Lady Saenni some new clothes.'
'How did you get those?' Meriall asked and glanced at her. 'They look like Linette's.'
'I made them to be similar to hers, since hers were the only ones I had seen at the time.'
'You made them?'
'With my magic, yes. I have to sustain them since they aren't actually real. I would appreciate to wear real clothes for a while, providing magic to wear clothes is a bit annoying.'
'Are you saying you're not actually wearing any clothes right now?'
'No,' Saenni chuckled. 'These are as real as yours, but if I stop using magic, they will disappear. We dragons tend to do this when we know there's a chance we might transform into our real appearance, as your clothes would rip and that's just wasteful. But I don't see any real need for it for the near future, so at the moment I'm simply wasting energy instead.'
'We will deal with that tomorrow before we leave,' Linette said slowly. 'The place they recommended was closed for the day anyway. We'll leave quite early, so we don't have to travel during the hottest hours of the day. That way we can make enough headway without exhausting the horses.'
'We'll head straight for Naservo, then?' Meriall asked.
'Yes. It's fairly direct from here either way. There'll be smaller villages on the way we can take breaks at and let the horses rest as well. No use in overdoing it when we don't have to.'
Armant nodded. 'We'll stay in Naservo at the very least, but on the way there we might have to spend the nights outside. I hope that isn't too much trouble for you, Lady Saenni.'
'Not at all,' she replied. 'It might even be more beneficial for me, being a dragon and all.'
Linette glanced around before leaning forward and whispering, 'It would be for the best if we kept that part secret for now. We don't know who might be listening, and we want to travel somewhat discreetly at least.'
'I will keep that in mind.'
'It's good that it's still summertime, or sleeping outdoors would prove difficult,' Armant said.
'Perhaps not for you, but for us and the horses it would be less than ideal.'
'So tomorrow we head for the tailor after breakfast and then we leave,' Linette said. 'So make sure to be all set by then.'
'But for now,' Armant said as they finished their meal, 'get some rest. It's a long journey.'
Saenni left her bed as soon as she heard people begin moving around in the building. She closed the door behind her gently as to let Meriall continue sleeping, before making her way downstairs. The room was empty short of a handful of staff moving about their routine. As she arrived, they didn't even blink and food was placed in front of her not a minute after she had sat down.
She ate slowly, tasting the flavours and textures of the food carefully. The dryness of the bread and the sweet tang of the berries, mixing together in a strange way. The water washed it away easily. She stared into the glass, swirling the liquid around as she studied it.
'Water that interesting?'
Looking up, she met the curious gaze of Meriall. 'It's my first time tasting it.'
'Your kind don't drink water otherwise?'
Saenni chuckled and shook her head. 'I was just summoned to this world.'
'Ah. If you want to try proper water, you should head up north. Less pollution,' she added and grimaced as she downed a glass. 'Alanna River is famed for its clear waters, actually.'
'I'll try and pay it a visit one day. Are you ready to leave?'
'Yeah. I stopped by their room before I came down, they said they had someone they needed to meet in the city so we should go to the tailor first and then meet at the gate in two hours.'
'This tailor, will they be able to make clothes that quick?'
'It's a reseller type of tailor. They buy people's old clothes and fix them up rather than make new ones.'
'Alright. Eat up and let's go.'
'Let's go get you some proper clothes. It's freaking me out that yours are like Linette's.'
'She wears clothes of nobility, barely fit for the kind of travelling we do. If you want those kinds of clothes, go for it, but I'd recommend something more like mine, or Armant's. Something more befitting someone of... your appearance.'
'My appearance?' Saenni echoed.
'You don't look like one of those idle nobles. You look more like a fighter than Armant, which is saying something,' she chuckled. 'You should wear something that reflects that.'
'It sounds like you have something in mind.'
Meriall grinned. 'If you'll allow me.'