His stomach growled. Keenin ignored it. An icy wind blew over him. He shivered and blindly started reaching for the pile of furs, but stopped when he felt the ground under his hand turn frosty. Another cold breeze blew over. Irritated Keenin rolled quickly away from the direction of the breeze and stood up to look over the scene. Dia was draped ungracefully over the mound of furs and clutched the staff that had fallen to the ground. Beside her Clide’s wings had uncurled to reveal his thorny head although his size was still reduced to that of a bear. The dragon was unconsciously exhaling cold gusts of air. Keenin shivered again and rubbed his arms, then stepped out from behind the shadow of the boxes to let the morning sun soak into his skin. A few early risers looked in his direction but ignored him for the most part. His stomach kicked into action and ached fiercely.
He looked to his sleeping companions, resting peacefully inside the circle of salt. There was no indication that they would be waking up soon. He searched his pocket for a beef strip and pulled out the piece of map as empty as his stomach. Another thing that had failed him. Was it possible that the map had to be complete to work properly? It was too bad he couldn’t eat it Keenin thought tucking it away. His stomach growled.
The dragon behind the boxes growled too. Keenin smiled to himself. He stretched his arms up. A loud whump of a landed box startled him. He looked up at the wobbling crates and brought his stretched arms down. From behind the boxes came a snort and a thud that shook the ground.
“Hey!” he heard Dia complain. “Why is it…. why is it so bright?”
“No idea,” Clide grumbled.
Keenin prepared himself to round the corner and apologize.
“You idiot!” Dia cried. “Turn back. Turn back. This isn’t home.”
Still in hiding Keenin winced at the imagined blows to Clide.
“Aawww…” Clide whined, sounding like a child used to being scolded by their sister.
There was some scraping as the dragon sized down.
“Where is Keenin?” Dia asked.
Keenin rounded the boxes.
Dia tried to glare, but she looked funny with her poofy bedhead and the too-small faded red dress. Like a mismatched doll, she was too tall for it. He could have laughed, but he kept a straight face.
“You,” Dia said.
“I did nothing wrong,” Keenin said innocently although he did think he deserved a slap for the doll comparison.
Dia gave him a good look, looked at Clide, looked at the ground where the magic staff had fallen, looked at him.
“Well I-,” she said. “I was going to say thank you.”
“For what then?” Keenin said interested.
“Nothing. Grab the clothes.”
“Ah, that’s mean,” Keenin said as she walked by him.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Dia said running out and down the street with the staff in her hand.
“All right. I’ll get our stuff,” Keenin said.
He said that, but Clide shouldered the bundles for him.
“We can take shifts,” he said. “Why don’t you get her before she-”
Up the street Dia had started apologizing to the person she bumped into while trying to walk backwards and forwards at the same time, and bent to pick up the dropped staff. Keenin watched it warily. She walked back towards them.
“Do you remember which way the gate was?” she asked.
“Are you really going to carry that all over town?” Keenin asked her.
“That staff. Maybe you should cover it more,” Keenin said.
“Then get me something.”
Keenin looked to where Clide carried the bundles of clothes and fur. It would have been easier to take off his own baggy shirt then pull something from that pile, but…
“Could you set that down,” he told the dragon.
Clide did and Keenin found a frayed brown shirt to pull from the pile. He held this up to her half wondering why it had not been tossed away. The distant stare Dia gave him told Keenin the answer, but he could not do this for her. Dia finally grabbed it from him with a look of distaste and quickly tore and wound it over the length of the wood staff, tying off the ends.
“You’re right. This is stupid,” Dia finally said. “And this town is boring so let’s go before something happens.”
Keenin picked up the pack of clothes.
“Um, don’t you mean creepy?”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to say it,” Clide said.
Dia led the way towards the city gate while he and Clide trailed behind. The three of them remained silent. It wasn’t as though they were close friends, but what could he do to make her happy. He was disappointed that the excitement of the other day had faded. Stories had always depicted one adventure after the next, yet here he was getting dumped back into reality. If they didn’t have money or a means to live they would not go anywhere fast.
Keenin raised his eyes as Dia approached one of the armored guards standing beside the gate.
“We want to go to Behoden,” Dia emphasized to the gate guard. “Do you know which direction to take?”
“About 360 miles east that way,” the guard said pointing Eastward.
“And how much money does is cost for a ride?” Dia inquired.
“Do I look like the stable master? Go talk to the man outside.”
They did just that. The man outside was no stable master. He was a salesman who had finished delivering his goods and would be headed home. Keenin liked the rounded blue jacket that he wore that reminded him of his own patchy vest now destroyed.
“Behoden. Five silver for each person,” the merchant responded to the question.
“Five silver,” Dia repeated the unsavory number.
“Yes. That charge covers food, lodging, and my return fee.”
“And how many days is that?”
Dia looked slightly mortified. She huddled them over to the side of the wall.
“Can we walk?” she asked Keenin.
“If you want to,” Keenin said.
“Not if I want to. I’m asking you what you think about walking part of the distance. And flying while avoiding the towns. It would take half the time.”
“But if we travel while avoiding the towns, won’t we waste time trying to know where we are?” Keenin noted.
“If I fly high enough the humans won’t notice my shoadow so I could follow the roads,” Clied said.
“We would freeze to death up there. And I don’t want to risk you getting seen. The sight of you would cause a panic.”
“Just thought I would help. You realize I still have to hunt my food around here, right.”
“Still. I don’t want an angry mob or some dragon hunter to come after my friend.”
The approach of the merchant made them stop talking.
“I can see that you’re having some trouble. You know they are hiring youngsters to do chores at Diana’s temple. Of course, you would need to wear your best clothes,” he said. “Work there for a while and you can pay for the next ride.”
Dia gave the merchant an irritated look and pulled Keenin back through the city gates to get away.
She directed this comment to Keenin.
“Are we walking or not?”
Before they went to the temple the three of them stopped for some needed shopping. It had been Keenin’s idea that instead of carrying around so many old clothes they would buy a few good ones. Dia had reluctantly found some kids that needed the old clothes and left them behind. The furs were sold to a tanner for eight silver pieces.
“Are you sure you want to spend the money on this,” Dia said holding up a new dress.
“Just make sure to buy something suitable,” Keenin told her.
Keenin flipped through a rack of sale shirts.
“You forget. Compared to you I have years of shopping experience,” Dia retorted.
She was right of course which is why he was over by the discount items and Dia was…
“Would you like some help?” the store clerk asked him.
“I’m just looking,” Keenin told her.
The store clerk frowned. She must not have been too happy to have some dirty kids in her store.
“Can I try this on?” Dia asked the clerk.
Keenin saw the pure white dress in her hands and nearly choked, but managed to hold it in.
“That better not be expensive,” he said instead.
“Don’t worry about it,” Dia said flitting off to the screen at the back of the store.
Keenin sighed and tried again. He did suppose it was his fault. He stopped flipping through the rack. This shirt. He liked it. In his shifting he had stopped at a black shirt that had the sleeves cut off like a vest, but it was a turtleneck. It was tighter than he would have liked, but it would be warm and it reminded him of a knight’s under armor. He took it off the hanger, tossed his oversized shirt to the ground, and tried to pull this one over his head. He managed to pull his head through before Dia tossed the curtains of the changing room open.
Keenin stared slightly deer-eyed and he was certain that he did so because she wasn’t wearing the white dress, she was wearing a long sleeve dark blue gown, with puffed shoulders, buttons up the front, and a slightly fanned skirt, like a proper adult.
“Eh-he-hem,” the store clerk said.
Keenin pulled the fabric of the shirt over his chest and smoothed it down. Then he turned to the clerk.
“Do you have any shoes?”
“There,” she said pointing to some boxes under a display table.
“Hey,” Dia said not letting him slip off.
He tentatively looked her way again.
“Do you think I can get another one of these dresses?”
He couldn’t reply.
“Is there enough money?” Dia repeated.
“Miss,” Keenin said gaining composure to speak to the store clerk, “How much are the dresses?”
“Four silver pieces.”
“Get another one,” he told Dia. “And a pair of nice shoes.”
Clothes in hand they faced the store clerk once more at the counter. Keenin reluctantly slid over the money and nervously waited for the return of three copper. He scooped this up and started walking out of the store.
“Wait,” Dia said.
“Hat,” she said. “Your hair looks terrible.”
That’s right. His hair was still growing in. Keenin eyed the selection of hats near the door not knowing what to get. Dia walked forward, picked up a loose grey schoolboy’s cap, and plopped it on his head.
“Better,” she said.
“Ten copper,” the clerk said.
They paid and left the store for the church. Clide stepped out of a side street to join them. His clothes were quite a bit richer than the ones they themselves could afford. A blue jacket, frilly neck scarf, black tights. He even had a black lacquered cane. Dia pointed.
He lifted the cane and it became a frilly umbrella that he offered her.
“A bit of ice and glamor” Clide said. “Maybe you should keep it. It suits you.”
She accepted his offer. In no time the three of them were walking down the corridor into the heart of Diana’s temple. In crevices along the walls were small carvings, some of animalistic people lounging in the forest, others of human children playing in a field, and still others of fish-tailed girls. Dia fidgeted with her sleeves pretending to fix them.
“Who is this Diana figure?” Dia asked.
“Don’t be rude,” Keenin told her.
“What?” Dia said.
“Just play along. I don’t want them thinking we’re runaways,” Keenin told her.
“What kind of stupid idea is that?”
“Oh, and call me Scalion. I came up with it myself.”
“Why on earth would I?”
“Someone is getting too into acting it up,” Clide said. “But I see where this is going.”
“That’s right. I don’t want to be noticed by anyone still looking for me.”
“I am not calling you—”
Keenin held up a hand to cut her off because they were entering the prayer room where an older man was lighting candles down along the wall.
“Are you Curtis?” Keenin asked the man.
“Why yes. Who might you be?”
“I’m Scalion. This is Clide and my sister Dia. We come from the neighborhood earn our allowence.”
“It’s that time of the year is it,” he said straightening. “Well, we could certainly use some help. It’s a big place.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Oh, don’t thank me. Rupert!” the man called out.
A boy dressed in the same robe as the priest appeared through an archway at the back of the church.
“Rupert this boy would like to do some community work. Can you show him and his friends around?”
Rupert took them into the back corridor.
“I hope you don’t mind, but you will need to wear the clothes of our temple,” Rupert told them.
“Of course,” Keenin said.
“Oh, and you don’t need to be that formal. It’s appreciated, but we’re not that strict.”
“We are paid for this aren’t we?” Dia said.
“Yes,” Rupert said. “By law it’s a half silver per person each day.”
“It is community work,” Rupert said.
“True,” Dia said eying Keenin.
“Here you go,” Rupert said stopping at an open doorway.
Inside the room were a number of faded black gowns hung on metal racks.
“I think I’ll pass after all,” Dia said.
“I came because you said it might be fun,” Clide added.
Rupert looked at Keenin.
“Just show me where to change.”
Temples Keenin thought, why did his companions have to dislike them so much? What had happened to following his decision? Clouds of dust puffed up around him as Keenin swept the broom across the stone floor, herding the dirt away from the so-called sanctuary. He eyed Dia and Clide who had made themselves comfortable on a bench away from the dust. They seemed to be mouthing out words to one another. He had thought he had understood them, but now he felt that there was some big secret.
“There would normally be more people helping,” Rupert explained as he swept a different corner. “You’re a little early. Schools usually don’t assign community work until after the city-wide fast.”
“I need the allowence,” Keenin said as he pretended to know what they were talking about.
Keenin swiped the broom across the seat of a bench for nothing better to do. He and Rupert seemed to have started a game of questions and answers, three sweeps and then another question would come up.
“Is she your friend?”
“My sister,” Keenin responded.
Keenin and moved along the edge of a wall. When he got to a door he moved to open it, but then Rupert spoke up first.
“Scalion you don’t have to do that part. The basement isn’t used anymore.”
Keenin let his hand drop.
“Scrubbing the floors. Let me get a bucket,” Rupert said leaving the room.
Keenin turned to his friends. Dia was looking out one of the high arched windows at the skyline while Clide seemed to be napping. He approached them.
“Dia, why don’t you come help?” now he questioned her.
Dia didn’t respond.
“What are you looking at?”
She continued to stare blank-faced.
He caught sight of Clide’s movement and turned to the dragon child.
“Is she alright?”
“It’s probably the ghosts,” Clide said stretching. “There are more of them in the city. It makes it difficult for her to focus.”
Great. Now he just felt bad. She had been having so much fun earlier too. He gave up and started cleaning the benches all over again, pretending to sweep the tops even cleaner.
“Keenin,” Dia said.
He stopped at the sound of her calm voice.
“Don’t step under that.”
“Excuse me,” he said.
Dia pointed up. Keenin looked and saw the old chandelier. It would have been nice if Dia told him her discomfort with being here before. As Dia suggested, he gave the chandelier a large arc as he moved. Rupert entered the room.
“Our priest says we’re done for the day. You can get changed and go.”