The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 7
Read by Asclepius
Chapter Seven. The Dirty Scoundrel.
Arriving near town after a short walk through a lovely bucolic meadow and past some impressive ruins, we could hear the babbling river and soon enough came upon an old, curved stone bridge covered with lichen. I paused and had a good gawk all around from the bridge then followed the others under the arch of a tall stone clock tower. Stepping off the bridge, all I could smell was fresh bread baking. As a group, we paused to get oriented at the local bulletin board near the clock tower and Zyrina spotted another ad for Ye Olde Pickled Spinster. We were on the right trail for a bed and possibly a bath. And definitely some supper. I knew exactly where to go.
“I recognize this smell. I know that bakery.” I began to broadly smile. “She’s baked my favorite sweet.” My mouth was watering. I could smell the lemons now. This was heartening and irresistible. Lucy was also visibly buoyed by the prospect of some food and even started whistling her wandering song again. We naturally followed our noses to the southwest and soon came upon the source of the delightful scents: Bread and Roses.
Lucy was first through the door to the small bakery but Zyrina slipped through right after and I did too, once I’d taken a minute to admire the many roses still in full bloom. Oh, the sights, the smells. The memories of travels past. The sugar and yeast bread combination were doubly heady pleasures after my diet of dried nuts and fruits, soda-bread, and cheese while in flight across Novia for nearly three weeks at this point. Cheese and nuts don’t have a chance compared to a freshly baked sticky lemon bun. Especially one of Alley’s pastries.
Alley Oop looked up and smiled right at me.
“Hi Alley.” I shyly offered.
“By the Titans! What brings you this far north, Lily?” She asked on her way over to give me a quick hug.
“Following our noses to your bakery.” I said this with a grin. We were not the only customers in the place and Alley was pressed back into service.
When I had a chance after the crowd had thinned, I asked “Do you have any lemon buns left?” I didn’t see any in the display though I could smell the lemon.
Alley pulled a dozen fresh ones out from a hiding spot under her counter and winked at me. Now I was truly grinning.
“Thanks, you remembered.” I smiled again pleased that my friend was thoughtful enough to put a bag of lemon buns aside when she saw me in her shop.
“Course I did.”
After introducing the baker to Lucy and to Zyrina, Lucy and Alley struck up a conversation and I tucked into the first of my buns as I could wait no longer. Then nothing else existed for a few moments.
“Your word?” I could hear Lucy ask Alley. Alley nodded emphatically and grinned, handing a large bag of sticky sweet cinnamon breads to Lucy.
“Yes, I absolutely know Aslinne Gradh. She comes through trading her lemons and offering good fresh news at least once a year, sometimes twice. She’s friends with the cook at the Dirty Scoundrel.” She nodded out the door across the green.
Alley then waved hello to Zyrina and said pleasantly, “Good to meet you Zyrina, welcome to Stinging Tree Hollow. What can I get for you?”
Zyrina shook her head and waved her off.
“Nothing? Suit yourself.” She handed Zyrina a cheese bun and surprisingly Rina took it, sniffed it, and took a big bite of it.
“I take it none of you strayed from the path on the way into town. or you would all be in some proper discomfort by now. This town is aptly named, of course.” She looked at our limbs searchingly but seemed satisfied with our health in the end.
“Yeah, we’d been warned.” I nodded in the direction of Zyrina who had cautioned Lucy earlier when she tried to leave the path to explore a mushroom nearby that she didn’t recognize. Stinging Trees, grown all throughout the area are excruciatingly painful to encounter and, though Lucy carried healing salve (as did I), after hearing Zyrina’s recollection of the pain of the sting I wasn’t willing to chance the contact. Though I had been in this town several times I had not once thought that the woods nearby might hold such dangers, but I didn’t often wander off the trail either.
Alley continued, “However, now that your stomachs have been tempered let me take you next door for a proper welcome.” She took off her apron and gestured out the door to the building nearly next to the bakery, “At Ye Olde Pickled Spinster.” She turned to put up her closed sign and I exchanged a little glance with Zyrina. She raised her eyebrows in question, and I shrugged in reply. Then we followed Alley out of the bakery and into the Inn.
This was truly a small land in that, even this far across the continent, we had run into yet another person who is friends with Aslinne Gradh.
Once inside the inn and seated at a long wooden table after our drinks were served and we had slaked our parched mouths, Alley Oop explained.
“She trades all up and down the seaboard. How can I not know her? Plus, her fish stew is about the best I’ve ever tasted, though I’ve tried to duplicate it. She trades fairly. Always has a fair bit of news to share, too. How do you not know her?” She turned to me.
“She is the cook on my sister’s ship.”
“Captain Violet Green is your sister?”
“Sure is. You know Violet too?”
“Yup, she’s been through a few times. She’s fond of sugar cookies.”
“Yup, that’s Violet,” I nodded.
This new connection startled me a little, but I recovered quickly and ordered another round of ale. “We are actually trying to find her right now,” I pointed out. “Have you seen her recently?”
Alley shook her head and took a deep satisfying swig of her tankard.
I was beginning to remember why I liked drinking with her. She frolicked as fiercely as she fought. Maybe that’s why her bread rose to such heights. I’m sure she could beat it to submission and not even bat an eye. Tough as nails. Smart as a whip and kind, too. I soon found the piano and we screeched and wailed late into the afternoon, entertaining ourselves as surely as we annoyed those around us who did not share our exuberance. Our group spent the next few hours enjoying a good round of drinking and eating.
“Any mages about the place?” I mumbled, licking my sticky fingers.
Lucy giggled, busy with her second pot pie. Zyrina grunted at my humor and looked around at the now completely empty reception room where we had commandeered the long table and chairs for our meal. Alley took a sip of her ale and shrugged.
“Maybe there is another place that is more suitable to illicit dealings? This looks… comfortable? Cozy? Certainly, it doesn’t look like any Obsidian sympathizers are booked into rooms here.” I remarked, looking around the room we were in. There were comfortable chairs and a sofa near the fireplace, a game of chess to play and these long tables where we sat eating and talking.
“That’s a good point Lily, this doesn’t look like somewhere mages dressed in black with a bent for starting fires would be comfortable at all.” Lucy was emphatically nodding and there were bits of flaky crust falling all around her as she did. She had opened her backpack and was sorting through her herbs one by one, while she finished eating her last sticky bun.
“You could try the Dirty Scoundrel,” suggested Alley pointing out the door and nodding across the square before returning to her conversation with Lucy, who had found the little herb they were discussing. They both were examining the leaves and engrossed in the topic.
Zyrina was standing looking out the front door, “Perhaps. Wait here for me. I will have a better chance of finding something out without any of you along.”
I must admit it stung a little to be thought of as superfluous, but I could see her point. A bunch of us were a bit noticeable and not likely to overhear much if we were together. I gave a searching look straight into Zyrina’s clear eyes. They were calm and calculating but not frightened. It was quite reassuring.
“Alright, be careful,” I gave a little nod in agreement. “Lu? Agreed?”
Lucy laughed at something Alley said about the plant in her hand and nodded distractedly. As we had found an inn with yet another cook friend of Aslinne’s, she was deep in conversation and waved us off without even really paying attention. Now they began discussing some sort of salmon dish with potatoes in a hand pie that I didn’t really pay attention to as I watched Zyrina quietly make her way across the square and disappear into a rundown building closer to the water.
Having exhausted all my best stories about Zyrina and her adventures while entertaining Lucy and Alley, Zyrina reappeared, ruffled and staggering a lot but otherwise unharmed.
“You won’t believe what I found out.” Her slurred speech was difficult to follow. “Dan shez…” She trailed off then she simply keeled over, passed out.
“Oh, for pity sake. Who’s Dan?” I was a little annoyed but helped Lucy carry her up the stairs to our room and set her carefully on the bed.
“She’ll come around and tell us, stop pacing.”
As usual, Lucy’s common sense did sink in and I realized I, too, was staggering a little, so I joined Zyrina on the bed and, far too soon, felt the warming rays of dawn upon my face.
I shook myself awake alone in the room, quickly washed up and headed downstairs. I definitely wanted breakfast and dawdling would not procure food.
Zyrina was up and had changed her clothes. She had some papers spread out in front of her on the table intermixed with her breakfast dishes. Her head was cradled in her arms on the table. Lucy was slurping a strong-looking tea and munching on sticky buns from the heaping plate on the long table. Alley Oop was thoughtfully sipping her tea and reading some sort of manual making changes with a quill dipped in fresh black ink as she read.
“Morning,” I mumbled heading for the teapot.
“MMmhmm,” was all that Lucy managed.
Zyrina raised her head “Morning. Sorry I failed to stay awake last night.” She grimaced at hearing her own voice loud and raw.
“Rina, you didn’t fail. I am betting you were in a drinking contest, weren’t you?”
She flashed me a quick smile, winced, and ducked her head, “Yup.”
“What did you learn?” I was fully awake now. Zyrina didn’t drink like that regularly. She would have done only for a particularly vital reason.
“There WAS a guy who knew too much, called Dingo Danny. The owner doesn’t care who drinks there as long as they pay in labor, gold, or COTOS and Dingo Danny helps the cook in exchange for a pint or two every couple days or so.”
At this comment, Alley grunted and nodded agreement, “Pete says anyone is welcome if they want to work for their drinks.”
Zyrina continued, “The proprietor introduced him, but he didn’t vouch for Dan,” is all she said about it. She quietly started to lay out the papers in front of her so I could see them.
“This is what I heard. So, a couple of weeks ago there were three strangers in town, dressed in Obsidian robes. They sat and talked in the Dirty Scoundrel for several hours. Dingo Dan kept these bits and pieces one of their drunk assistants left behind because he hoped they’d come back and claim them, and then Dan would get a tip.” Here she looked disgusted. “He was a vile pig but easily led.”
Then Zyrina added, “I got interested when Dan told me that the men were bothered that they couldn’t find one simple tattooed mage traveling alone. Eventually he…offered…me the papers in exchange for continuing to breath.”
My raised eyebrows and then narrowed my eyes a little. They were the only comments I made about how Rina’s collected papers were acquired. Nodding, I had a good look through some of the pages: It was a meandering speech by someone called Nestor about adhering to the rules, discipline, and punishment…and ordering a manhunt for a mage from Elysium that had disappeared with a rare and special artifact. That sounded like the mage we also sought.
Lucy brushed off the crumbs and leaned in to read for herself, “’…bring the book, the mage is expendable…’?”
“And Lily, there was this too.” She handed me a letter with handwriting I already recognized.
I picked up the letter:
I’ve seen that mage you asked me to keep an eye out for.
Yup, he came from Spindleskog. Don’t know where he went. He was traveling alone. Yup, he had a small leather-bound book with him.
Three fellas in black came by just afterward. I don’t take kindly to being roughed up. No, I do NOT know anything about a dragon egg. I thought we had an established arrangement. Since this is how you value my information sharing, our arrangement is over. My debt is paid.
“Well, blast that little weasel. He sure has his hooks in every pie in town.” I could not believe the audacity.
“There’s more,” Zyrina handed me yet another paper.
Before you meet him at Los Gardeñias in Ordanis Mortis, I want to assure you I have managed to find out that the mage still has the book.
He wrote, to tell me he has something important to think about. And he says he has an important decision to make. He is still traveling and was last reported on a ship called the Sea Byrd.
It left from the Mistrendur Islands last autumn. I haven’t heard from any of the others from his cabal yet. Are we sure any others are alive? I have planned to meet with him in the usual spot and try to talk some sense into the lad.
Regardless, I will take the book back with or without his cooperation. We will have it in time for the great gathering of the Red Sashes and the Southern Red Branch. I’m certain of it.
Order shall prevail,
“I wonder where this usual spot is?” I pondered as I lay the paper back down with the others. “Seems to me that that mage is running from everyone, known or unknown to him. I wonder if he has abandoned his beliefs. What’s a ‘great gathering’?”
“S?” I asked. “Who the Titans is that?”
Zyrina shrugged “No idea.”
“Is Kitty still traveling with Aslinne?” Lucy joined in the questioning.
I shrugged perplexed, “I have no idea.”
“And lastly, there was this,” she held up the smallest piece of paper.
2 – 1 – 1
I nodded, not even trying to figure out what they mean this time, and just simply added the numbers to the rest. I would need some more time to figure out what they were all about.
“So, we still don’t know where Aslinne is, nor Kitty, nor the mage with the book either.” I sighed.
“We need to continue to backtrack Aslinne to Darkshire, and I want to stop at this restaurant where Nestor had a meeting with the mage.” Zyrina was examining the letter from S. “We might learn something.”
“Aslinne was going there too, remember? Do you think she is one of the mages?” Lucy pondered out loud.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“It’s the one we’ve been talking about. That famous place in Ordanis Mortis. It’s on the way to Darkshire, just downstream as a matter of fact.” Lucy had some very precise memory skills when it came to the location of good food and good drink. She spoke while reading over Zyrina’s shoulder. “Los Gardeñias.”
“It’s run by a woman called List Rostov.” I added. “She is a musician and bard who I admire. And her restaurant is fantastic.”
“There is a boat at the docks that will get us there. I saw it earlier on our way in,” Lucy added brightly. Lucy continued to keep us heading the right direction regardless of my despair at once again not finding who we searched for.
“Phoenix Bites here I come!” I squared my shoulders and shouldered my backpack then nodded, “Let’s go.”
And we went.