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Ch 3

A great dragon's head floated in the shadows beyond the door. Its snout was large and its fur was the
grey of week-old snow. Its eyes were blacker than the eyes of blind and groping cave-creatures, and his
smile tipped upwards in the middle like the cunning smile of griffins. “Welcome, Artie,” he crooned,
stepping aside with huge shaggy footpaws. He was two heads taller than Artemiateis and therefore at
least twice as high as the door. Artemiateis ducked down in order to enter the house and stood up beside
the dragon Leciam, I’yannah following close behind. Their eyes adjusted to the dark as Leciam reached
out to grasp the door handle and pull it closed with a reluctant click.

The only source of light in the room was a clear vase of glowing stones, some orange, some blue.
Artemiateis had always thought it something of a mystery, but she never asked, not wanting to spoil the
secret. The room’s features were swathed in smoky outlines. The form of a woman appeared in the
doorway off to the right.

She was dressed in an ankle-length skirt and a long and wide but very thin scarf, which wound its
way around her body as ivy winds her way around branches. It hung over her shoulder and dangled
softly there, swaying slightly in the small wake of her movement. The cloth itself was plain and looked
colorless in the perpetual dark, but her wrists and forearms clinked with bangles and bracelets. Her hair,
tied into a dragontail, was draped over her right shoulder, shimmering light grey. She gracefully made
her way across the room to embrace her friend.

“Artemiateis,” she breathed happily, kissing her on both cheeks. Her breath was cool and wet on
Artemiateis’s neck and face and smelled pleasantly of drink. The woman’s ringed hands beckoned
I’yannah into their arms, and she jumped into them willingly. They curled around her protectively.
I’yannah closed her eyes and went limp.

The woman gestured to an empty chair with her head. “Please, sit,” she asked, smiling graciously. “I
will be right back, if you will just hold your dragon for me?” She extended I’yannah to her like a gift.

Artemiateis rolled her eyes and held out her arms to receive the six pounds of sleeping dragon-hide
that was I’yannah. “She can hold herself,” she grumbled, but coddled her dragon with gentle hands
nonetheless. I’yannah did not smile but loved Artemiateis with nuzzles beneath her jaw.

The woman tittered softly under her breath as she left the room.

Leciam took his traditional seat on the worn rug before the fireplace, breathing his smoky laughter.
“How have you been, Artemiateis?” he asked cordially, looking politely into her eyes as he spoke. “It
hasn’t been even a full day since I last saw your shining face…” Artemiateis blushed. “But I miss your
presence nonetheless.”

Artemiateis cradled I’yannah’s small body in one arm and tucked her hair behind one ear, thinking of
what to say. “Actually, things’ve been alright. It snowed,” she added rather sheepishly, desperate for
something interesting to say.

“Yes, it did,” Leciam said, sounding rather amused. “I’d say we’re due for a wonderful Midwinter
celebration at the temple this year.”
Artemiateis nodded, laughing. “Tell me, how many delightful young girls have come to ask about
their evenings at the dance so far?”

“Six,” Leciam replied matter-of-factly. “But it doesn’t take a prophetess to see how they will end up,
shrill little nightmares that they are. It’s so funny that, what with all the questions they are asked about
their situation when they come, that they still do not see that common sense is the basis of Elxo’s answer,
and not prophecy.” He scoffed this last word with great emphasis.

“It might as well be prophecy,” Artemiateis said rather seriously. “Elxo’s so smart. She must have been
through a lot in life to know everything she does.”

“She’s had her trials,” Leciam nodded somberly.

In the other room, a small candle was lit, and an effeminate shadow swayed on the wall. A long, thin
strip of orange light stretched itself out on the floor, illuminating a small section of plain carpet. The
tinkering of tea things could be heard, and a wonderful warm smell of old spices filled the room.
Artemiateis sat up straight, anticipating the drink.

Elxo entered the room bearing a tea tray, an ornate teakettle upon it. Steam unfurled enthusiastically
from the spout. She placed it on the low table between Artemiateis and Leciam, sitting herself down on
her dragon’s side of the table, and she was just about to pour cups of tea for everyone when there was a
loud, rhythmic tap upon the window.

They all faced the source of the sound, curious. Elxo stood and made her way towards the window,
weaving her way between chairs, small statues, and, ironically enough, candelabras. She drew the dark
curtains open and the room was exposed to the bright light of the sun reflected off of fresh snow.
Previously unseen was a beautifully decorated hearth, above which was a dusty shelf positively covered
with meaningless trinkets. Upon a tall round table nearby was the clichéd crystal ball. Strewn about the
room were various statues, candles, staves, and insignificant bits of clothing, like shawls and scarves.

Waiting behind the glass was a blue and purple griffin the size of a fist, who chirruped loudly and
slammed his little beak against the glass of the window, looking surprisingly fierce. Elxo lifted up the
windowpane, letting him in. He settled on a wrist that she held out for him, and began to emit a rapid
succession of squeaks, each with a slightly different tone and pitch. It sounded oddly like rubber soles
scuffing rhythmically against a tile floor. When he was finished, he looked up at her expectantly, the thick
tufts of feathers above his eyes making him look rather severe, though his black eyes betrayed no hostility
towards her. She sighed and drew a miniature flute from a pouch at her hip, putting it to her lips. A
sound of a very slightly different quality filled the room when she played, although it could not be
understood by any but her and the little creature listening upon her hand. She finished and tucked the
miniscule instrument away and the little griffin, all finished here, flew off.

Elxo closed the window but kindly left the curtains open so her guests could see. "Myria's a bit ill and
wants to know if it's a bad omen or a good one," she sighed, settling back down into her place and
beginning to pour the tea.

Artemiateis laughed. "Well? What did you tell her? That not every little thing has to be an omen?"

Elxo chuckled and shook her head slowly, offering Leciam the first cup. "Evi, no. That's bad for
business. I told her that it's a good omen as long as it goes away before four days. If it doesn't, it means
that she's doing something wrong, and she needs to re-examine her values in life."

I'yannah raised an eyebrow. "You got all that from a little sickness?" she asked skeptically.

Elxo shook her head again. "No. But I know that she won't get rid of it before four days, because she's
small and weak and everyone knows she's apt to become ill for weeks at a time in Winter. I also know
that she needs to re-examine her values. She's a shallow little wart," she spat affectionately, smirking. She
passed a small saucer full of tea to I'yannah, who proceeded to lap it up noisily. A crimson stain stuck to
the fur around her mouth, dripping.

The dragon Leciam smiled benevolently down at Artemiateis, speaking to her like a daughter. “So,
Artie,” he began kindly as he sipped his own rather large cup of tea, “tell us more about this mystery
man of your desire.”

Artie blushed and shook her head violently.

“Maybe the reason why she’s so reluctant is because he’s not a man at all,” Elxo interjected
delightedly, clapping her hands. “Maybe it’s a foxy lady!”

I’yannah chuckled to herself, and although Artemiateis shot her a deathly sharp gaze the words were
out of her mouth before she even had time to think them: “He is rather foxy, at least.”

Elxo appeared a bit taken aback. “Dordlan?” she asked quietly, incredulously; but the shame on
Artie’s face was far too much even for Elxo to provoke, so she hastily added, “It’s okay dear, don’t worry
about it,” and Artemiateis nodded and sat silently for a while, simply waiting for the redness to subside
from her cheeks and refusing to meet the pathetically sorry gaze of her dragon companion.

“Artemiateis,” Elxo asked, after a few minutes of unbearable silence. Artie looked up from her
steaming cup of tea. “I’d love to have you for lunch but I don’t think I have any meat,” she explained. The
word “meat” rolled around in Artie’s head for a moment, and she remembered her pitiful breakfast, and
realized how hungry she was. Elxo extended a handful of currency to the girl. “Do you think you
could….”

“Yes, definitely,” Artie said hurriedly, nodding eagerly. She giggled a little as Elxo looked up at her,
bemused.

“Just remember your little bundle of trouble,” she said gracefully with a little sigh, and lifted I’yannah
up into the air mid-drink. The dragon licked her chops in a rather undignified manner, and did not
comment at all when she was transferred into Artie’s arms; she was too busy sucking the crimson tea
from the fur on her paws, and rubbing her jaw and chin vigorously.

Artemiateis held her dragon close to her body as she bid Elxo and the dragon Leciam a brief goodbye,
hurrying out the door.

Upon stepping outside, Artemiateis promptly let I’yannah fall to the snowy ground, wiping her hands
with no trace of a smirk on her face. I’yannah ignored this display of general grumpiness and merely
trotted on ahead with her nose in the air; Artie followed with a slightly heavier step, her attempt to begin
a confrontation having been foiled. That snooty dragon tail whipping to and fro with every step—
I’yannah’s haughtiness infuriated her. Through grinding teeth, she managed, “Even to Elxo, that’s very
private! I thought you understood that,” she added with a rather unnecessarily desolate tone.

“Oh, shut up, you merciless gossip,” I’yannah tittered, her ears twitching whimsically.

Artie was a little spoiled and a little high-strung, a horrid combination to encounter in most any girl
her age; the difference was that she could name a good point when she saw one, and she could take a joke
or two at her expense. So she shook some melted droplets of snow out of her hair and followed I’yannah
without another word on the matter, feeling much better about the whole thing.

The two girls traveled down the road briskly, as it was almost lunchtime, and the markets would all
soon close for the afternoon. As they emerged from Elxo’s alley, the sun broke out from behind a cloud,
and the snowy streets and rooftops began to shine and sparkle white. Their exhalations took the form of
misty clouds and dispersed immediately; Artie held two fingers before her lips and inhaled deeply.
I’yannah rolled her eyes, but could not prevent a little nostalgic smile from crossing her mouth. They
reached the square.

The fountain in the center of the square stood tall and proud: a Centaur princess of times now long
gone reared high up on her two hind legs, her forelegs kicked up in furious anger. She deftly wielded a
bow easily twice her size, feminine fingers coiled tightly about the string and arrow. A fine stream of
water flowed from the tip of the deadly stone arrow, hitting the pool of ice below with a wet slapping
sound that was almost lost in the chatter produced by the large crowd of people shopping there. Artie
made use of her bipedal form, and pushed ahead of her dragon friend, every once in a while drawing
close to some attractive male and peering desperately over his shoulder in search of the kiosk she was
looking for (none of them seemed to mind so much). Finally she saw it—a fine selection of meats fanned
out atop some simple wood tables, surrounded by snow and ice, to keep fresh. She began to shove her
way impatiently through the crowd, ending up at the end of a long line of people waiting their turn to
purchase some meat. I’yannah was three spots ahead; Artie pushed forward some more to stand beside
her.

“How did you do that?” Artemiateis asked, sounding slightly exasperated, but I’yannah merely
smiled, eyes twinkling. Dragons were funny that way.

Studiously examining the selection of meats from far away, Artemiateis began to shuffle her feet back
and forth nervously, fretting a bit over the possibility of choosing a bad cut. This was for good reason, as
she could barely tell a slab of griffin loaf from a Ghaleo leg.

Finally they reached the front of the line; with a wide smile to the vendor (a tall and lithe black
dragon) she lifted a dainty gloved finger and began gently prodding a dripping pink cut of unicorn.
Several people nearby took notice and shook their heads sadly, but Artie ignored them. I’yannah swished
her tail violently through the air, feeling quite annoyed.

“I hate buying unicorn meat in public,” she spat, looking up at Artie to examine her reaction. The girl
merely nodded silently and continued her completely improvised “examination.”

Somewhere off behind the two girls a small commotion began. Artemiateis and I’yannah both
attempted to allow it to resolve itself, but the source seemed to be drawing closer and closer, so they
turned to see what it was.

A girl and her dragon, who looked older than I’yannah by a few years, were shoving their way
roughly through the crowd. She was repeating some name that Artemiateis couldn’t make out, and had
no way of figuring out, as no one else in the crowd bothered to try to help her find what she wanted. She
reached the front of the meat line, and Artie could get a better look at her: she was wild and dirty, dressed
in something that looked awfully like curtains, with long hair that was a hopeless plum-colored mess.
Her silver eyes burned with incoherent urgency; they seemed to harbor an uncivilized glint. She was
shorter than Artemiateis by a few inches, but stared up at her confidently, a strange fury burning in her
expression. “Elxo!!!” she exclaimed loudly.

Everyone around had already dismissed the forest girl and her moss-green dragon and moved on
with their days, but she was speaking directly to Artemiateis, and this made it difficult for her to follow
suit. So even as she began to blush, Artie stared right back at the furious girl, unfazed save for the redness
of her cheeks. “What?!” she managed, and although she’d expected to sound rather meek she ended up
sounding quite irritated, which was a little unbecoming to her gentle voice, but put her in control of the
situation. She straightened up, meeting the other’s demanding stare.

The other girl didn’t falter one bit. “My name is Tewhi,” she said deliberately, speaking with a voice
like hot chocolate. “I need to find the prophetess Elxo.” The dragon sitting at her feet then did a strange
thing, which was to look up at the girl Tewhi and nod approvingly at her words. She’d obviously had a
lot of difficulty saying them.

“I know who Elxo is,” Artemiateis said kindly, and she opened her mouth to say something else but
was immediately interrupted by a loud and very fat man several spots down in the line, who shouted,
“Hurry it up, please!”

Artie sighed forcefully and pointed to the cut of unicorn meat she wanted; the vendor began to
package it up immediately. She turned back to Tewhi, who looked angry and serious but also very
confused and alone. “I’ll take you to Elxo right after this,” she said, trying hard to maintain a motherly
façade. It made her feel superior.

“Right after this,” I’yannah echoed obnoxiously to the other dragon, laughing. His fur pricked up
immediately and he bared his teeth at her. The two humans looked down at him in alarm, waiting. The
four of them remained deathly still.

After several seconds passed, I’yannah had the courage to merely raise an eyebrow at the other
dragon, who immediately relaxed and gave a small chuckle.

“Nervous,” he explained bashfully. I’yannah raised her eyebrow a little higher, but did not ask for an
explanation.

Artemiateis received the packaged meat with a demure smile and a slight blush, the vendor inclined
his head. She stepped away from the kiosk and off to the side, the other three followed.

The next several minutes were used by the girls to examine each other thoroughly—Tewhi taking in
the refined and civilized woman before her, Artemiateis taking in the filthy and unmannered woman
before her. The dragons avoided all eye contact with one another religiously.
Suddenly, Tewhi’s harsh and shrewd expression began to deteriorate and give way to a shocked and
pained one. Her eyes began to glisten with obvious emotion as she stared into Artemiateis’ face. Artie
stared at her carefully, waiting for her to scream and attack—she harbored a devout fear of lunatics, and
this girl had already displayed enough insanity to qualify. But she had no idea how to react when instead
the girl dissolved into tears and stepped forward to embrace her helplessly.

Artie locked eyes with I’yannah from over Tewhi’s shoulder. I’yannah looked just as surprised as
Artemiateis felt. “What do I do?!” Artie mouthed furiously, but I’yannah only shrugged, and Tewhi’s
dragon was too busy nuzzling her knees, so Artie held her breath and wrapped her arms around the
smaller girl’s quaking body.

“It’s okay,” she murmured softly, trying to sound calm and wise although she was still thoroughly
baffled. She moved a hand to the back of the girl’s head and petted it warmly, secretly disgusted by the
feel of her dirty, tangled hair. “What is it?” she asked gently.

Tewhi moaned into Artemiateis’ chest piteously… a word that sounded disturbingly like “mama.”

NO, Artemiateis thought vehemently. She grasped Tewhi by the shoulders and held her away from
herself to look deeply into her face.

“Tewhi,” she said sternly. “I am not your mother. I am not anyone’s mother, and I will not become a
mother for a very long time still. Okay? …I’m sorry.”

Artie had tried to speak as gently as possible, but the wet, hysterical expression on Tewhi;s face fell
anyway, leaving in its place an indignant pout. Tewhi’s luminous eyes sparkled with determination as she
sniffled and wiped her tears away.

“My pain,” she managed softly, once she’d composed herself.

Artie tsk-tsked condescendingly and laid a hand on Tewhi’s shoulder. “Of course it hurts to miss one’s
mother,” she crooned, smiling a little. “I never see my mother either.”

“No,” the moss-green dragon chipped in from the ground. “My pain means ‘I’m sorry.’”

“Oh,” said Artie quite dismissively, growing sick and bored of taking care of this girl already. “Why
doesn’t she just say ‘I’m sorry’ then?” and she set off briskly through the snow without another word.

The lunchtime crowd had already dwindled down to a few small trickles of people; they were going
to be much later coming back than Elxo had been expecting. And Artemiateis had no idea how she’d get
on with her strange new ‘friend’…