Chapter 4

Time passed slowly in the forest, and with no sky to stare at to pass time, Saenni was left with talking with her companions or studying the wildlife moving about around them. Kau seemed to have become somewhat used to her, barely even flinching when she approached now. It also made riding easier–his calm appeared to make the other ones calmer as well. The air in the forest was not as clear due to the heavy vegetation, but it carried with it the distinct smell of water the further south they went–the closer they got to the port town, according to Meriall.

Two days crawled by uneventfully. In the early morning of the third day, they broke through the edge of the forest at the top of a hill overlooking wide fields and ocean. The port city spread out from the water edge like a ripple on a pond of green. Farmers were already out working the fields, but they paid the group little heed as they passed. The city itself was smaller than Domica, but it had the distinct favourable condition of not being covered in nasty smoke.

Saenni breathed in the salty air and stretched, enjoying the feel of the sun after two days of shade. 'Open-air is always better.'

'How much can you smell?' Meriall asked from her right. She had taken to cleaning her daggers, letting her horse wander freely after the others.

'More than I can put words to. Tell me about this city.'

'Jadna is the largest port city closest to the capital, so they provide most of the trade from Ardling. It's not much, but the elves prefer travelling by sea.'

'Armant said the capital was by the water?'

'It is, but the bay that leads into it lies near a whirlpool. Very few know how to navigate the waters there, so no ships come that way. As far as I know, there is a small community in Normery who still knows how to read the waters well enough to sail there, but they're tight-lipped.'

'You mentioned the food?'

She grinned. 'Oh yeah. Thanks to the trade with the elves, Jadna have some spectacular seafood to offer, and it's also located on a particularly heated underground waterway. They have special bathhouses with the water brought up straight from the source.'

'We will stay here for two nights,' Armant said. 'I'm sure there'll be ample time to experience both.'

'Why are we staying for two nights?' Meriall asked and slid her daggers back into their place as they stepped onto the main road.

'There's a politician that we need to speak with. If we can get his support, our position with the King of Trouver will be stronger. Linette and I will meet with him tonight if all goes well.'

'And if all doesn't go well?'

'You will meet with him later tonight,' he said as casually as if he was speaking about the weather.

Meriall's grin took on a dark edge. 'It'll be my pleasure to meet him.'

'What is the likelihood?' Saenni asked.

'Pretty high. They don't tend to like Linette coming in to stir things up.'

'We will, of course, attempt to persuade him the usual way first,' Linette said with a nod. 'But I'm afraid many require some extra motivation these days.'

'Have fun with that,' Saenni said as she sucked in another deep breath. 'Something smells of citrus.'

'That would be the seafood,' Meriall said. 'I'll take you there as soon as we got a place for the night. This city is easier to move around on foot.'

They headed towards the heart of the city, but as they came upon a large square, Armant chose the way to the left, down a broad street lined with shops. Shopkeepers called out to them as they passed, selling everything from trinkets to food to fabrics. Saenni watched them with curiosity, her eyes sliding over the humans and their objects. Their obsession with owning things was one of their defining characteristics as a specie, but seeing it firsthand so blatantly was... an experience.

The inn this time was located not far from the main square and had tall ceilings and a lot of open space. The walls were made out of white stone that reflected the sun enough to not need any lanterns inside during the day. The large arches leading out into a green courtyard in the back, surrounded by a stone wall for privacy, were framed by thin curtains that moved in the breeze.

'This place has a lot of elven traders as regulars,' Meriall whispered. 'So they rebuilt it to cater to them a bit more.'

Saenni nodded. 'There's a lot of magic in the building, and the yard. I can understand why magical beings would like it here.'

'Welcome to the Flying Falcon Inn,' a young man said as he stepped up to them. He had long dark hair tied back at the nape of his neck, and piercing blue eyes that studied them closely. 'How many rooms do you require?'

'Two, with meals,' Linette said with a nod.

'And entry to the Black Mirror Bath,' Meriall added, giving Linette a cheeky smile. 'For two.'

'Certainly. Please follow me,' he said with a polite bow.

The movement made his slightly pointed ears peek out from beneath his hair. If the others noticed, they didn't comment on it. Saenni could sense the elven blood in him, see it clearly on his person, but she was unaware of how well the humans of this world could pick up on it. The magic moving about him was clear if muted. The way his eyes flickered to her, a hint of confusion in their depths, he must have picked up on something being different with her as well. Saenni simply offered him a smile in return.

They followed him up the stairs and down a wide hallway. He indicated two adjoining rooms overlooking the side street and offered them two keys. 'I will sort out the entry to the Black Mirror Bath for you within the hour. When you wish to go, please just ask any of the staff and we'll have one of our staff take you there.'

'Thank you,' Linette said and accepted the keys. She waited until he left before she turned to the others. 'Same arrangement is acceptable, I presume?'

'The two of you are heading out together and so are we, so it's for the best,' Meriall said and took one of the keys. 'Have fun with the politics.'

Linette sighed audibly. 'And I hope you enjoy the bath, even if it's on my expense.'

Meriall leaned closer to her and whispered, 'you want the dragon to be more invested? Try giving her some experiences she might like. Dragons are supposed to like heat, so the baths might be perfect.'

'I see your point,' she relented in the end. She looked at Saenni and gave a polite nod. 'I do hope you enjoy it.'

'I'm sure I will.'

The room was much larger than in Domica. The ceiling higher, the beds plush, and there were three large windows set in the opposite wall. Much like the first time, Meriall climbed onto one of the beds without hesitation and leaned her back against the wall, her feet barely hanging over the edge.

'I'm thinking we rest a bit, then head out to eat, and then go to the baths. There's a nice restaurant by the water, and there's nothing like a nice hot bath before bed to relax you for bed.'

'But you are not heading to bed, are you?'

She chuckled. 'A nice bath can help with work too.'

'Are you hoping the talks fail?'

Meriall shrugged halfheartedly. 'So far they've never really managed to convince many to support them through these talks. They don't believe in Linette's claim to the prophecy. I don't hope they fail, I am just aware of the likelihood of it.'

'Do you enjoy what you do?'

'Enjoy might be a stretch... or not. I don't know. It's all I've ever known and I know I'm good at it, and if it helps to get this whole world peace they keep talking about going, then why shouldn't I?'

Saenni studied her for a moment. 'What do you want to achieve with this quest?'

'The goal is to unify the lands and stop the magi.'

'What is your goal? What is your reason, beyond repaying a debt?'

'Peace would be nice, but I hope that with a unified land we can have less of people like me, people with stories like mine,' she said with a slight shrug.

Saenni did not press further as her eyes grew distant. Instead, they sat in silence until the sun reached high in the sky, Saenni looking out towards the water while she waited for Meriall to return from where her mind had wandered. When the woman finally shuffled off the bed, Saenni stood without a word.

Meriall lead the way through the city, indicating different establishments that hosted things she enjoyed or thought Saenni might find interesting. By the time they reached the water, the sun had reached its highest peak and the city was bustling with activity. They walked onto the pier stretching along the water edge, entrances to shops and restaurants lining the wooden deck–boats of varying sizes docked just beyond them.

Meriall stopped in front of a pair of double doors with a leaf painted onto them. 'The Ocean Leaf. Best restaurant in the city for seafood,' she said and pushed the doors open.

The smell of various spices wafted out from the restaurant. 'It smells quite good.'

'Welcome,' a short man wearing a brown leather apron called. He wiped his hands on a piece of cloth before he stepped around the desk he had been working at. 'What can we–Meri? Little Meri, is that you?'

'Master Zaya, it's good to see you well,' Meriall said and embraced the man.

'It's been too long since you came by. And who is this warrior with you?' he said and squinted up at Saenni. 'I haven't seen you around here before.'

'She's a new friend. Her name is Saenni and this is her first time here so I thought I would take her to the best place in the city to give her the best impression she can get. Saenni, this is Master Zaya, the owner of this restaurant and the largest fishing fleet based in the city.'

The man gave a toothy smile. 'Welcome, welcome. You made the right choice, Meri, coming here. For a first-timer there can only be the best,' he said and motioned for them to follow.

He lead them through the restaurant, snaking his way through the many tables until he reached an elevated section overlooking the water and boats. There were only a few tables in this section and he seated them closest to the railing.

'Seat of honour, Master Zaya?' Meriall said with a laugh.

'It's been so long since we've been graced with little Meri's presence, and she even brings along a new friend. Who has never been here before,' he exclaimed. 'It's rare to find complete newcomers these days. What do you want? All the best?'

Meriall hummed thoughtfully. 'Your daily catch will have to do. The citrus version.'

'A lady of taste, as usual,' he laughed. He bowed dramatically. 'Coming right up.'

Saenni waited until he left before facing the smiling woman. 'This is your master?'

'No. For him, it's just a title. My master is quite a bit taller and nastier. If we run into him, I'll give you this sign,' she said and moved a thumb across her neck.

Saenni chuckled. 'Very well. Now, tell me about this place.'

'Ocean Leaf? It's just a restaurant front to the fishing business he's running. They serve fresh catch, they use good ingredients and so on.'

'Why Ocean Leaf?'

'In this bay, there's a special kind of water vegetation that gives the area good ocean life. Something about it bringing a lot of fish into the bay because they like to eat it or something, I'm not entirely sure. It's a beautiful deep red colour and is called the Ocean Leaf by everyone.'

Saenni nodded and looked out over the water. Looking closely, she could see the leaves she spoke about below the surface, moving with the motion of the water. Before long, the food arrived and Meriall introduced her to all the different parts, giving her a short history lesson for each thing. Much like she had said, the food was far better than anything Saenni had eaten since her arrival in this world. Zaya had beamed when she voiced her opinion.

A lunch and a walk later, they arrived back at the inn to be escorted to the bathhouse–which had taken them nearly across town, to an area filled with bathhouses and steam rising from any hole in the street. The Black Mirror Bath was one of the larger ones, and while the outside looked like any normal building, the inside was made entirely out of black, shiny stone.

'They call it obsidian,' Meriall said as they stepped into the changing area. 'Apparently, it stores heat better than regular stone, so it's great for relaxation. You can feel it even when you step on it.'

Saenni nodded. 'Indeed. This door?' she asked.

'Yeah. This is the part for women, but since it's still during the day there shouldn't be many here,' she said and lead the way inside. She left her towel in the designated area, away from the water. She looked around and hummed. 'Seems like we're alone.'

'Good. Then I can do this,' Saenni said and let her human skin fade. The hot water moved over her scales comfortably, heating her entire being. While she couldn't unfurl her wings entirely, there was just enough room for her to lean back comfortably against the warm edge of the pool.

'You look very different. Now you look more like a dragon.'

'This is my real form, more or less,' Saenni replied without opening her eyes.

'I thought dragons were... more like beasts?'

Saenni chuckled and moved her arms through the water. 'We can be. Many factors play into how we end up looking, but Dragonoid like this is common for those who have parents who have been bonded with humans.'

'Are all dragons black, like you?'

'No. That is more to do with who we are, or who we will be, I suppose. We come in many different appearances. For example, my mother was a red dragon, and my father a green one.'

'Will I be able to meet other dragons?' she asked carefully.

'I don't expect that to be possible.'

'Why not?'

'For reasons far beyond your current understanding,' Saenni said not unkindly. 'Perhaps in the future, but now it wouldn't make sense to you.'

Meriall sighed and sunk further into the water. 'I would have wanted to meet more. I think it would have been fun.'

Saenni simply hummed in response. They remained there for several hours, soaking in the hot water in relative silence. They had been alone for the vast majority of the time, but as the late afternoon came, a handful of others joined them–forcing Saenni to retake her human appearance.

'What did you think?' Meriall asked as they left the bath in the late afternoon.

'It was enjoyable. I finally feel cleaner after Domica.'

Meriall chuckled and stretched. 'Yeah, that dirt sticks with you. I always like how heat helps with the soreness of travel. And with a stomach full of Ocean Leaf seafood? It's a glorious day.'

'The food was indeed quite good. Best I've had so far.'

'You know, it'll be fun to see how he reacts when it becomes known you're the legendary dragon of the prophecy. I wish I can be there when he finds out. I bet it'll be a great expression,' she laughed. 'I do hope you enjoyed your day, though. It's a good city, so I hope your impression of it is positive at the very least.'

Saenni nodded. 'It is. You seem to like this place a lot.'

'I do. If I didn't have a debt to repay and this whole world peace quest going on,' she grinned at Saenni's chuckle, 'I'd probably live here.'

'High praise,' she replied as they reached the inn. As they stepped inside, Armant stood from the table he had been occupying. 'Evening.'

He bowed politely. 'Good evening. I hope you have had a good day.'

'I have.'

'You need me to get to work?' Meriall asked.

Armant nodded. 'I am afraid our talks did not go as we hoped.'

'Not that we expected anything else,' she replied. She rolled her shoulders and flexed her fingers. 'My turn.'