CREATURE COMFORTS

By Jonathon Burgess

 

The ditch was no longer a tenable solution. Hristomarth also refused the hedgerow, the shrubbery, and the boughs of a low-hanging tree. Even a convenient abandoned stable caused him to turn up his nose. Tonight he would sleep in a bed. A real bed with blankets and a mattress and a pillow to lay his head upon. A bed beneath a roof. No other option would be tolerated.

It seemed a remote possibility. The sun was setting fast above the forest, a wild and gloomy place with that seemed to go on forever. Hristomarth couldn’t even say how long he’d been traipsing through it—there had been a storm, that much was clear in his memory. A storm followed by endless underbrush. At least the road he’d found made the going somewhat easier, though it did seem to attract other forms of inconvenience.

“Thus the scales will harden with age,” continued Philosopher Dovardis, marching along beside Hristomarth. “This is the primary mechanism by which Darmxian Mountain Dragons gain their legendary durability. In fact, the Moon Folk Dominion would utilize cast-off dragon scales…”

Hristomarth sighed. Wandering philosophers usually waited until they found a prospect who would pay in good copper obels, or at least fresh produce. But the wyrmlings’s presence had excited Dovardis into a lecture which simply would not stop. Agreeing to travel together remained Hristomarth’s great regret of the day. Though, now he did possess considerably more herpetology than he ever thought would be useful.

Crawling along behind them both, the wyrmlings took little notice of the discourse. Each of the little monsters were weary from the hike, with no interest in causing mayhem. Hristomarth hadn’t even bothered carrying their leashes. Usually this would have been cause for celebration. But Hristomarth wasn’t in the mood. A bed. He wanted a bed.

The shadows lengthened as they marched. Nocturnal creatures stirred, making their first few tentative cries of the evening. A chill wind blew through the trees, conjuring thoughts of a warm campfire and a hearty meal. Hristomarth forced himself to put one aching foot after the other. An interruption was unacceptable. Tonight would be spent inside.

“Ah,” said Lecturer Dovardis, as they turned around a bend in the path. “Here we are.”

The forest disappeared. Its deep trees opened onto a wide plain dominated by a single massive oak at its center. Candlelight glimmered from behind casement windows hanging among the leaves. Smoke curled up from a brick chimney peaking up through the boughs. Lanterns illuminated a staircase winding down the trunk to the ground where flightless moa, horses, and wagons all clustered together.

Hristomarth stopped, the wyrmlings bumping into his legs. “What’s this?” he asked, confusion giving way to excitement.

“The Mayfly Public House,” replied Dovardis, one eyebrow raised. “I had thought this your destination? It is a common stop for those heading to the freestyle theology competitions in Lodara. My companion, the admirable Relisolde, should await me here.”

“My exhibition is bound to the east,” replied Hristomarth. He could almost feel the softness of a pillow, the gauzy lightness of the sheets. “A significant opportunity awaits us at the Great Fair of Alhambry.”

“You’re on the right course, then. In fact, there are some fascinating facts about the origin of the Great Fair. A century ago—”

Hristomarth left him to prattle. A roadhouse. He’d found a roadhouse. Food. A hearth. And a bed. By hook or by crook, a bed would be his tonight.

Travelers in all manner of garb clustered around the base of the tree. Many seemed to be on a pilgrimage. There were shabby Tophic monks with expensive cudgels at their hips. Suuthi Cultists stood nearby, wrapped in heavy cloaks and unused to the colder climate. Everyone seemed road-stained and weary.

Hristomarth scuttled over as a woman descended the stair. She was older, with silver hair and a stern demeanor. Following closely was a burly doorman with a robed philosopher held up by the scruff of his neck. She came to a stop on the last few steps and gestured sharply. The doorman flung the philosopher, sending him tumbling roughly the rest of the way.

“Attention!” called the woman. “I demand the attention of anyone planning to seek shelter in my inn this evening.”

The abuse of a philosopher was a common sight in cities, towns, and principalities across Hegres. This statement, however, captured interest.

“Full capacity has almost been achieved in the Mayfly Inn,” continued the proprietor. “There is but a single vacancy remaining!”

A concerned murmur sprung up from the crowd. Hristomarth realized that he was one of those making the complaint.

The proprietor held up her hands. “To prevent a mad scramble which might scuff my stairs, I add this additional fact; prices for a spot in the common room, with accompanying victuals, are now conditionally raised to forty-five silver obels. No aphorisms or axioms accepted! If you wish, feel free to spend the evening here outside. There is a small stream on the far side of the field. In the spirit of neighborly affection, I advise you that the field is infested with aggressive and near-sighted owls. The stream is also haunted. Please direct all queries on these matters to Rostoc, who is known throughout the roadhouses of Charke for being both unreasonable and intransigent.”

Without another word, she ascended back up the tree, as Rostoc folded his massive arms across his chest and moved to block the stairway. Despair washed over Hristomarth. Prince of Thieves and the Black Vault Below! There weren’t four obels in his purse, let alone forty-five. What was he to do?

A glance down revealed the wyrmlings staring back, both expectant and hopeful. Their eyelids drooped wearily. Splaywing sat back on her haunches and chirped anxiously. The others followed suit. Soon the chorus of chirps transmuted into growls, before becoming a plaintive communal wailing.

“Enough!” he cried, hands clapped over his ears. “Rarely is there any need for such auditory assault.” Hristomarth glanced at the other travelers, now all frowning at him. “My purse doesn’t have forty-five silver obels. Cultivate acceptance of this unpleasant fact!”

The wyrmlings looked at each other, then peered back up at Hristomarth. They opened their maws to take a breath for a truly epic complaint.

“Ut!” said Hristomarth, wagging a finger and lowering his voice. “I may not be in possession of such funds. This does not mean they may not be acquired. In fact, thoughts of a soft mattress galvanize my motivation to do so even beyond your own. Now, let us consider.” He gestured discreetly at the other travelers, clustering to compare the contents of their purses.

“Enemy?” chirped Catchmaw.

“Even better,” replied Hristomarth. “Victims. Follow my lead, now. And discreetly, if you please.”

The Tophic monks were closest. They huddled together, hirsute men in rough robes, counting coinage out of little-used purses. Beside them their mule was overburdened with trunks, travelling bags, and reliquaries.

Hristomarth bowed low, doffing his hat. “Diverse greetings and salutations appropriate to your philosophy!”

The monks looked up. One, with a copper nose-ring, waved at his fellows for caution and turned to Hristomarth. “We are devotees of the Axioms of enlightened Tophe,” he said. “However, no particular greeting is more theologically appropriate than any other. The seventy-ninth Axiom.”

“The seventy-ninth Axiom,” intoned his brother monks.

Nose-ring nodded. “What may we do for you, traveler?”

“I meant to inquire about your plans for the evening,” said Hristomarth. “Ghosts and owls are no small matter. In numbers there is safety.”

The wyrmlings all nodded sagely, somewhat overdoing it in Hristomarth’s opinion.

The monk grunted. “Our intent was to spend the night in the inn above us. The road to Lodara’s freestyle competition has been long. Relief from our varying afflictions would be welcome, even for just an evening.”

Hristomarth drew back among the wyrmlings. “Afflictions?”

"Aching bunions!” cried a monk.

“And the chafe of our robes,” added another.

Nose-ring gestured for silence. “So you see. An evening’s rest would be appreciated. A bath even more so. Unfortunately we do not possess sufficient funds—forty-five obels is an outrageous sum!”

Hristomarth relaxed. He had the scheme, now. “Sympathy is easily achieved,” he said, voice dripping with false concern. “And yet, what if a solution were at hand?”

Nose-ring composed himself. “Oh?”

Hristomarth crooked a finger for the monk to lean closer. “A single vacancy remains above, though there are easily half a dozen of us.”

The wyrmlings roared an outcry.

“A dozen! Roughly a dozen of us.” He glared at the reptilian monsters before turning back to Nose-ring. “The vacancy is indeed at a ruinous price. But what if I were to propose an arrangement? One where we can share in the comforts above? An evening’s hospitality commonly allows for a seat beside a fire, a bath, a meal, a bed. There’s nothing in the proprietor’s restrictions preventing us from taking advantage of these comforts in shifts.”

Nose-ring stroked his beard thoughtfully. “An interesting proposal. Hearthside warmth is bountiful, and so long as one goes first shared bathwater becomes a trivial concern. On behalf of my brother monks, I accept! We have only fifteen silver obels among us—I assume you have enough to make up the lack?”

“Ah,” replied Hristomarth with an apologetic shrug. “Not as such, no.” He waited until Nose-ring’s features had become sufficiently crestfallen before continuing. “However, I believe that it could be obtained…”

The monk looked up at him, followed his pointed gaze at the coterie of Suuthi cultists closer to the tree. “Oh,” he said. “Well. Opportunity should be cherished wherever it is found. The fifty-fourth axiom.”

“The fifty-fourth axiom,” intoned his brother monks.

“Besides,” continued Nose-ring. “You do possess the shifty demeanor and reptilian association of a dubious roadway vagabond. In such an endeavor these traits must certainly bear fruit.”

He winked exaggeratedly. Hristomarth forced a smile. After more conspiratorial chuckling, coins were counted over and Hristomarth moved on.

“See?” said Hristomarth to the weary wyrmlings as they walked. “The con is simplicity itself. Now that the monks are involved they will wait all evening for a return we won’t make.”

The Suuthi were more industrious than the monks. They saw to their mounts and daubed devotional blue tincture across their eyebrows. A few dug a fire-pit in the bare earth. Their quiet conversation fell away completely at Hristomarth’s approach, eyes widening at the wyrmling pack trailing on his heels.

“Diverse greetings and salutations appropriate to your philosophy,” said Hristomarth.

One of the cultists shook his head with a smile. “You Charkese are always so complicated. Why can a simple “hello” not suffice? I am Falad. What do you need?”

Hristomarth tried not to grimace. “Hello then,” he continued, holding his hands out innocently. “I only wished to inquire as to your plans for the evening.”

Falad raised a painted eyebrow. “Sleep, of course. Rooms and a hot meal in the wayhouse above would have been appreciated. But we are not so desperate to spend forty-five obels that we don’t possess. It will not have been the first evening spent contending with fell wildlife.”

A malevolent hoot echoed across the field.

“Sympathy is easily achieved,” replied Hristomarth, ducking and glancing about, a little. “I had wondered if you or your companions might be open to a solution in this manner, that we might partake even partially—”

Falad held up a hand. “Hold. If you think to propose pooling our resources to share the room above in shifts, I must decline. We were taken advantage of with such a ruse at the last roadhouse we visited.”

Hristomarth paused. This was a less than ideal development.

A backup plan was needed. Glancing about at the assembled theologians, it came to him. There was one request no self-respecting cult of Hegres could ever deny. “You misunderstand,” he said. “I only wanted to learn more about the beliefs of your sect. Surely we could convince the proprietor to allow two of us a place to chat in the taproom?”

Falad instantly brightened. The other Suuthi chatted animatedly among themselves. “At last!” he said. “A reasonable attitude in this cold, unenlightened land. So many of the locals hold the worst superstitions and misinformed opinions of the valuable service we provide! Would they complain so much if the Great Beasts rampaged again? I think not. But you! You already travel our path, endeavoring to restrain a pack of diminutive and unruly creatures. I would be pleased to educate you on the more elaborate tenets of our faith.”

Hristomarth glanced down at the wyrmlings. They stared back, weary but impatient. Greasetrap gnawed tentatively on Hristomarth’s boot.

“Yes,” replied Hristomarth. “Quite.”

Coins were counted over and Hristomarth promised to return after speaking with the innkeeper. With what had been pilfered from the Tophic monks, there was just enough to pay for an evening’s respite from the road. A bed. A real bed! The thought made him almost giddy.

Two figures in spider-silk robes blocked his path to the stair. Philosopher Dovardis was hauling his fallen companion upright. “Greetings Worthy Hristomarth,” he said with a wave. “This is my companion, Relisolde of the Conclusionary Mode.”

Hristomarth edged around them hastily. “Greetings. Best of luck with the owls.”

An out-thrust arm blocked his path. It was Relisolde, holding a bright silver obel. “Bah!” he cried. “That shrieking harridan who runs this iniquitous den is deaf to all reason. She refused my conjecture on Dizzleworp’s Third Theorem as insufficient payment for accommodations! Thus, the Conclusionary Mode forces me to accept that my one good obel is best spent purchasing a pitcher of strong ale. Traveler! Be so good as to run this errand for me. I fear the admirable Dovardis is tainted by my association.”

The coin disappeared into Hristomarth’s palm so quickly it might have never been. “Gladly,” he lied. Then he was up the stair, the wyrmlings letting out a collective groan at the climb. Behind him, the concerned voices of the Tophic monks informed Hristomarth that he’d timed his escape just right.

* * *

The snap of the hearth joined the clink of tableware and the murmur of low conversation. Succulent fat off a hot roast scented the air. Hristomarth squeezed between two glowering diners to take up a position at a table along the taproom wall near to the entrance. They returned to their card game, only to be interrupted again by the wyrmlings rushing underneath the table.

If the inn had reeked like a stable and been filled with barking toads, Hristomarth still would have been pleased. The Mayfly’s accommodations were excellent. Comprised of a two-story taproom encircling the great oak’s trunk, cleanly-trimmed branches supported lanterns all the way up to the roof and added pleasant illumination to the crackling fireplace. The bar spread out from the hearth along one wall, with a stair rising behind it to the private chambers and the common room.

Really, Hristomarth had just two quibbles. The venue was a bit cramped, with grimy travelers of all sorts sitting cheek to jowl. And the proprietor herself glared at everyone and everything as she delivered viands across the floor, like her customers were an unwanted infestation.

“Black Vault Below!” swore one of Hristomarth’s tablemates. He peered around the edge of the table, only to jerk back as the wyrmlings poked their heads up to peer about hungrily.

“Krasic?” asked his companion.

“A moment,” Krasic replied, turning to Hristomarth. “Your pets overrun my legroom.”

“Absurd,” replied Hristomarth cheerfully. “Their occupancy in no way breaks the agreement we each share regarding the accommodations. A seat at these table was promised to each of us—a seat we have. The space beneath? Only nebulous assurances. Were you a maimed soldier with no legs the result would be the same! Endeavor to reach this state of understanding—peace of mind could only follow.”   

“There’s a fat green one gnawing at my boot.”

“Finish your story,” said Krasic’s companion, “or I’m going to bed.”

Krasic glared at Hristomarth, then kicked Greasetrap away and turned back to his friend. The wyrmlings pointedly shifted their attention to Hristomarth. Under the table, Greasetrap started chewing at Hristomarth’s boot.

“Our scheme has paid off,” he told them. “A soft, warm bed and a comfortable evening are ours, with no unpleasant consequences possible.”

A shadow fell across the table, of the glowering proprietor. She held a much-battered wooden bowl, which was plunked down in front of Hristomarth with all the deference of a bedpan before the house drudge.

“Your meal,” she said flatly.

Hristomarth stared. The bowl contained a porridge of rapidly cooling slop, made from burned wheat mash and bits of fatty bacon. A single wilted onion lay across the top—garnish or ingredient, the result was the same. Hristomarth prodded the bowl dubiously. “What is this?”

The proprietor ground her teeth. “Your evening meal,” she replied.

“This is inedible!” Hristomarth cried. “I’ve paid for a ruinously expensive lodging. I expect the quality to match!”

She folded her arms. “The price was set to prevent boorish competition, as well as to maximize my profits. The proceeding was fair! What it wasn’t, was a guarantee of more than basic accommodations. It follows that tonight’s provisions are determined by availability.”

Hristomarth could only gape. “No one eats such slop!” He gestured wildly about the room. Every other table was crammed with braised fowl and slices of roast.

The proprietor seemed unmoved. “As I said, availability. You have the last bed. Which also means you sup on whatever remains in my larder. Now enjoy your repast. I call it “Whatever I Cared to Scrape Into a Bowl.” If you have further opinions on the matter, feel free to dunk your head into a stream outside and repeat them at length.”

She stormed away as Hristomarth half-rose out of his chair and shoved the table indignantly. His tablemates paused their chat to glare at him, which Hristomarth replied with a forced, brittle smile. They shook their heads before returning to their game and conversation. Hristomarth only noticed that their plates held the bones of a pleasant repast.

A wooden clink grabbed his attention. The wyrmlings were nosing at the bowl, reptilian faces managing to express disgust in a variety of ways. They looked up at him pointedly.

“What?” Hristomarth demanded, sitting back down. “You heard her. This is what I must eat, tonight. Note the use of a personal pronoun. You may hunt for mice, or something.”

The wyrmlings looked at him flatly. Then they shared a look among themselves, before slinking back down underneath the table. Their leashes trailed like snakes as they crawled off to find fortune elsewhere in the room.

Hristomarth was too hungry and annoyed to feel alarm. At least there was a bed waiting in the common room upstairs. A soft, warm bed. He just had to find some way to stomach the meal before him, first. Maybe if he scraped the grease off the onion and ate it separately?

The front door of the roadhouse banged open to admit a glowering Rostoc. Behind the bruiser echoed a chorus of angry shouting, cut off as he slammed shut the door. A cold worm of apprehension crawled through Hristomarth.

“What’s going on out there?” demanded the proprietor, appearing suddenly.

Rostoc held up his hands. “Everyone downstairs is all riled. They demand rooms, seats by the hearth, ale for the road. A few just request a balm for owl-bites.”

“We’re full,” she snapped. “And I require the balm for myself.”

“I know, I know. But I’m going to have to spend all night dissuading them.”

The proprietor grunted sourly. “Fine. Don’t let anyone up. I’ll leave you something here, beside the door.”

Rostoc nodded his appreciation. He cracked his knuckles and went back outside, into a cool evening filled with the clear cries of Tophic monks, Suuthi cultists, and two philosophers. The proprietor shut the door and stalked off, leaving Hristomarth to squirm. After a few moments Hristomarth found relief, again. The quiet chatter was comparatively peaceful, enough that he clearly heard the clattering of the wooden bowl holding his dinner.

Greasetrap had devoured it. The wyrmling clung to the edge of the table with both chubby forefeet, craning his neck further and further as he struggled to lick the dish he inadvertently pushed away. Not a single streak of fat remained inside the bowl.

“You larcenous little horror!” Hristomarth managed. “That might have been halfway edible, once I’d removed the onion.”

Greasetrap looked up at Hristomarth, long split-forked tongue hunting for stray bits of greasy wheat on his chops. Then his eyes bulged and a massive belch erupted from his maw.

The stench hit Hristomarth like a blacksmith’s hammer. He gagged, blinked through tears, and his ears were wet with melted wax. A blast of dragon-fire would be less distressing.

Eventually, when he could breath again, Hristomarth sat back up. The wyrmling was sitting on his haunches just beneath the table still, peering hopefully about. Both of Hristomarth’s tablemates waved their hands in front of their faces as they turning their chairs pointedly away.

Hristomarth pouted. Now what was he going to eat? Another bowl of greasy slop wouldn’t be forthcoming. At least outside there might have been a meal of roasted owl. All he had right now were increasingly urgent hunger pangs.

The proprietor appeared at the adjacent table just beside the door, which a pair of patrons had recently vacated. Grumbling to herself, she swept their detritus away and replaced it with a tankard of rich, foaming ale. This was followed by a platter topped by half a roasted chicken, its breast pierced by a fork and a knife.

Greasetrap sniffed at the air, letting his nose turn him around. Hristomarth stared in outrage. The harridan had lied! She had plenty of decent food left. And was obviously hoarding it for herself and her knuckle-dragging door-guard.

Well. A roast fowl would suit nicely before heading up to his bed.

Hristomarth waited until she’d left. He glanced at his tablemates, now facing away and wholly absorbed in some tall tale. The only one watching was Greasetrap, drooling thick ropes of saliva all the way to the floor as he stared at the chicken.

It was the perfect scheme. Hristomarth leaned over and took a hasty draught from the tankard. Then he grabbed the knife and cut free the drumstick, thigh, and the wing, moving the rest of the chicken to his own bowl.

A shout just outside the door interrupted him, accompanied by the tromp of boots. Hristomarth hurriedly slid his pilfered meal to the other side of his table, away from suspicion and wyrmlings both. The door banged open and Rostoc backed his way inside, shaking his fist and yelling something at those down below. The shouting was closer this time, Angrier. Hristomarth thought to hear his name.

Rostoc slammed the door shut and turned about, revealing a dark bruise forming over one eye. His glower only darkened as he noticed the platter and the tankard. “She grows stingier and stingier,” he muttered, taking up the drumstick.

Hristomarth pretended not to watch as he ate, to listen instead to his table-mates. Across the taproom the low chatter was punctuated by the crackle of the fire and the occasional sounds of wyrmling-induced drama.

The thump of many boots echoed up the stair outside. Rostoc sighed wearily, dropped his drumstick, and stormed through the door.

At least the door-guard was gone. Now he could eat in peace. Hristomarth turned for his bowl, to find it rocking back and forth as Greasetrap licked the interior. The wyrmling had snuck beneath the table to the opposite side.

“Agh!” cried Hristomarth. He grabbed at the bowl and hauled it free. The only thing left within was stinking dragon-spit and a few spots of chicken grease. He glared at Greasetrap. “That was mine.”

The wyrmling belched again.

Hristomarth eventually blinked away the tears from his eyes. Enough distractions. Checking for observers, he pilfered another draught from Rostoc’s tankard. Cool and refreshing, it was just as good as he’d hoped. He looked to Greasetrap, who sat back on his haunches now, both chubby forefeet up on Hristomarth’s leg as he watched hopefully.

“The well of opportunity,” Hristomarth said, “has run quite dry, here. Endeavor to be more like your siblings. They’ve gone afar to seek their fortunes, and seem to be doing well.”

An indignant shout and a burst of flame on the far side of the taproom hinted at the truth. Greasetrap refused to look away.

Hristomarth surreptitiously snatched the thigh from Rostoc’s plate. He had it halfway to his mouth when something banged on the landing outside. Panic shot through Hristomarth and he looked for somewhere to hide the pilfered hunk of meat. Nothing came to hand. He was forced to hold it down and out of the way beneath the table. Greasetrap immediately pounced, snatching and swallowing the thigh in one gulp. Hristomarth raised a fist and opened his mouth to roar a curse, only to be cut off by the door banging open.

Rostoc staggered through and shut the door. Then he looked at the lone wing remaining from his meal. Hristomarth was already leaning across his own table, pretending to be engrossed in the gambler’s conversation.

“Hilarious!” he said, just a bit too loudly. “The Lumbering wouldn’t budge, you say?”

The gamblers looked at him in annoyance. “Yes,” Krasic replied. “So I challenged him to a contest. But this is a private convers—”

“Hey!” snapped Rostoc. “Who’s been at my dinner?”

Krasic, his friend, Hristomarth, and Greasetrap all looked at the door guard. Hristomarth froze his features in a well-practiced mask of innocence.

“We’re not sure what you mean, good worthy,” replied Hristomarth.

A vein stood out on Rostoc’s forehead. “I mean that one of you grimy wanderers have been at this chicken!”

“Ridiculous,” replied Krasic, rolling his eyes at his companion. “This place is packed to over-capacity, and now the thuggish doorman accuses us of eating his dinner. I won’t be passing this way again, and you can be sure I’ll leave a strongly-worded review with those I meet.”

Rostoc ground his teeth and jabbed a finger at the gambler. Before he could reply, the door shook with the banging of many fists. The raised voices on the other side were clear.

“Hristomarth!” called Nose-ring of the Tophic monks.

“Get out here, you rogue!” added Falad of Suuth.

“Give us our money back!” cried Relisolde of the Conclusionary Mode.

Rostoc growled like an angry dragon. Jabbing his finger at the chicken wing in warning, he ripped open the door and barged through with a wordless shout. The pilgrims shouts turned to cries of pain as Rostoc laid into them. Hristomarth reached over shut the door firmly, until the latch clicked into place. Krasic and his companion watched him a moment longer before returning to their chat.

Among omens, the angry mob was a simple one to interpret. Perhaps it was time to leave. But even if he found a window and managed to clamber outside without breaking his neck, that meant a long night spent under a bush or contending with owls. No. A bed. He had swindled a dozen people for a ludicrously-priced common-room bed. Hristomarth vowed to have it.

He’d also have something to eat. Glancing about to make sure he wasn’t watched, Hristomarth snatched the wing from Rostoc’s plate. It was somewhat scrawny and had been charred during roasting. His belly did not care, however.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Hristomarth startled as the proprietor appeared on the opposite side of the table, spitting each word of her query with the wrath of a city magistrate. His pilfered chicken wing slipped from his fingers, falling promptly into the open, ravenous maw of Greasetrap. The wyrmling had been laying on his back beneath Hristomarth with his mouth open. Just in case.

A crunch and a gulp and the wing was gone. Hristomarth shot to his feet. “I think that I am attempting to take my ease!” he blustered. “Which is apparently impossible in this treehouse hovel.” Hopefully going on the offensive would distract her from his theft.

The proprietor returned his irritation with a flat glare. “While you laze about,” she replied, “your pets run rampant. Look at how they disrupt the ambience!”

She gestured at the rest of the taproom. It was quieter, and a little emptier now that some of the others had departed to their quarters above. The commotions he’d been completely ignoring up until now were obviously apparent.

Left on their own, the rest of the wyrmlings had taken matters into their own claws. Breaktooth hunkered on the table of a family of four, eating their dinners and staring down the patriarch of the family as they all sat frozen in terror. Splaywing clutched the shoulders of a fat merchant, wrapping her huge wings around his face and craning her head down into his drink as he struggled. Catchmaw hid beneath a table, sneaking a clever forefoot up to snatch whatever was left unprotected. Coalbelly had taken up position in front of the hearth, breathing great gouts of flame that had those nearest shying away uneasily. Jitterclaw crouched before an elderly man in a chair who fed him, nervously eying each scrap before taking a tentative bite. Idleheart lay like something dead near the bar, waiting for someone to trip over him.

Hristomarth relaxed. This was the source of the proprietor’s ire, not him. “I fail to see the cause for your concern.”

The proprietor stared. “My guests are completely unable to enjoy their evenings!”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you so very certain that’s my fault? Consider: no one is currently on fire or screaming of bloody murder. This is high praise, for this establishment. I can only assume whatever inconveniences my fellow patrons undergo from the presence of me and mine is sufficiently tolerable, in comparison.”

She bared her teeth like a wolf about to attack. “Get. Them. Out. Of. Here.” Snatching up Rostoc’s empty platter, she stormed away.

Hristomarth glared after her. He took up Rostoc’s tankard and drank it defiantly in her direction. The ale went down smooth. Refreshing. Even if it was a little warm by now.

He replaced the tankard and sat. What to do next? The pangs in his belly had grown significant. The architect of those pangs looked up hopefully from beneath the table, then belched. Hristomarth considered as he waved away the stink. Perhaps it was time to make himself scarce. The bed above was calling to him.

Beside him, Krasic was reaching the climax of his tale. His companion laughed, slapped his knee. “A Lumbering,” he said. “You’re telling me you ended up in a drinking contest with a Lumbering?”

“It’s true!” replied Krasic with both his hands up. “I figured, well, they drink a lot of water, sure, but it’s not like the seas are made of alcohol! And I had a secret: a hidden funnel with a piece of hose running out of sight.”

The front door banged open as Rostoc bulled through. Blood covered his knuckles and dripped from his nose. Both of his eyes were blackened. Notably, the mob outside seemed ominously quiet.

The doorman slammed the door shut and grabbed up his tankard. He tilted it back for a draught, stopping in surprise as he found it empty.

“So yes,” continued Krasic, lowering his voice for the big finish. “I drank it all! I drank and drank and that dumb oaf never figured out what was going on!”

Rostoc stared dumbfounded. Then he slammed his tankard down on the table. Everyone sitting near jumped, including Hristomarth. It was Krasic who had the big thug’s attention, however, turning to find himself on the edge of an accusatory finger. “Damn it all to the Black Vault Below!” Rostoc snarled. “You think you can pull a trick like that and get away with it?”

Krasic rolled his eyes. “It’s not your business, but you’ll find that I already did.”

This was the wrong thing to say. Rostoc roared and grabbed the man by his shirt, heaving him up and upending the table. Nearby patrons fled. The wyrmlings watched in interest.

The time had definitely come to retire for the evening. Hristomarth slipped around the brawl for the safety of the open floor. Just a short distance away lay the stair behind the bar leading upwards. If nothing else, he’d have his bed tonight. The thought cheered him considerably.

* * *

Someone’s knees jabbed into Hristomarth’s back. The stink of unwashed bodies pervaded the air. A cacophonic chorus of grumbling, lip-smacking, and log-sawing snores resounded all about him.

The common room was a cramped loft above the private quarters of the Mayfly Inn. His bed proved to be a pile of straw on the floor with a thin, ragged blanket. His pillow was a sack of moldy flour. The single window looked outside, where the monks and the cultists below had placed sentries to watch for his exit. It was shut, which provided security, but made the stuffy air all the worse.

The wyrmlings lay across him in a tangled heap of claws, fangs, and rough, scraping scales. Their weight crushed him. They had grown more during his travels than he’d expected.

Hristomarth redoubled his determination to enjoy this. Grabbing at the thin blanket, he tried and failed to cover himself further. Twisting for more comfort, he found himself staring directly into Greasetrap’s awful maw. Turning away, he found a pair of sweating feet.

A single tear worked its way down his cheek. He waited in vain for sleep to claim him, Greasetrap sleep-belching softly against his head. Outside, the lone hoot of an owl echoed through the night.