Miss Smith strode past Pennae and me. We looked at each other, and I shrugged before we followed. Smith led us past the front desk where she slightly inclined her head to one of the ladies, who returned the gesture. We strode out the doors and into the bright midday sun. My heart couldn’t help but leap a little. The hours were ticking away to the deadline of the dwarf king’s ultimate.
Miss Smith hurried across the courtyard and we dove into the depths of the meandering streets. In a short while and after a half dozen turns I found myself quite lost. Even Pennae peered around us with a quizzical expression on her face.
I leaned in close. “Do you have any idea where we’re going?”
She shook her head. “No, though the area looks quite. . .tired.”
She could say that again. The houses had gotten small and had a look of tiredness on their peeled-paint walls and dirty windows. Ditches ran on either side of the cobblestone road, and those were littered with trash. Tiny gardens in the back and a few trees here and there were the only bright spots of an otherwise blighted neighborhood.
I looked to our guide. “Does Luca know this place is here?”
Miss Smith turned her face to one side to look at me with one eye as she nodded. “Yes, but change is not always quick nor easy. The homes in the Goodle-”
“The what?” I interrupted.
“The Goodle. A corruption of Goodwill, which is what the refugees called it when they first came.” She nodded at the houses to our right. “These homes are among the oldest in the city, and were built in a hasty manner during one of the early wars with invaders to house victims from other city states. They have always been structurally unsound, but their owners are attached to them and are reluctant to make changes.”
An old woman shuffled out the front door of her tiny cottage with a straw broom in hand. She looked over at us and her eyes lit up as they fell on our guide. “Little Mia! What in all the five continents are you doing here?”
A smile spread across Miss Smith’s lips as she stopped us. “I’m just looking for Ethan, Mrs. Crowley. Is he around?”
The old woman nodded up the street. “Yep. Just got back from one of his ‘trips,’ if you know what I mean.”
Smith pursed her lips. “Only too clearly, Mrs. Crowley. Thank you for telling me-”
“Now don’t you go getting away without introducing me to your pretty young friends,” Mrs. Crowley insisted as she pointed the top of the broom handle at Pennae and me. “And one of them has a strange air about her. Is she a witch?”
Smith turned to us with a slight twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “Not quite, Mrs. Crowley. This is Miss Bray and-”
Pennae bowed her head to the elderly woman. “Pennae, of the Cloud Clan.”
Mrs. Crowley returned the bow with a smile. “A pleasure to meet you both, now off with you.” She gave her broom a sweep in our direction. “I can see in your eyes that you’re in a hurry.”
We hurried onward, but I couldn’t help but cast a curious look at my feathered companion. “Cloud Clan?”
She nodded. “Yes. We avius belong to clans, and each clan has their own unique relationship with a part of nature.”
“Your clan must be special to have a relationship with the clouds,” I mused.
She shook her head. “No. There are rival clans who claim the clouds as their own.” She looked ahead of us and pursed her lips. “Unfortunately, many battles have been fought over those titles, though not for many years.”
We soon found ourselves in front of a little hovel with a single window looking out on the street. A long planter box hung below the window, and a few scraggly flowers offered a picture of beautiful blooms to anyone who passed by. I noticed Miss Smith took a deep breath before she stepped up to the door and knocked.
A male voice greeted us. “Go away!”
Smith pursed her lips. “It’s me, Ethan.”
There was a long pause before something made of glass crashed against the door. “Keep going away!”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m coming in anyway.”
She grasped the simple rough wooden knob and opened the door. Pennae and I followed her inside where we found a worn wood floor and roughly hewn clapboard walls. The hovel was split into two rooms, with a large room in the front and a dividing wall cutting off the last third. Ancient furniture dotted the room, including a coffee table and a lounging couch. A man was in current use of the lounge, and I recognized him as the artist I’d seen earlier, albeit with a swell of red color on his cheeks.
One of his arms draped over the edge of the cushions and the other one hugged a half-finished brown bottle against his chest. I didn’t need to belong to this world to recognize its alcohol. The place, too, reeked of his inebriation, and a dozen other bottles lay around spicing up the air with the aroma of their former contents.
The house, too, had a large variety of papers scattered about that resembled Smith’s office. There were white and brown sheets, both thick and thin. Some were pinned to the walls and others lay in heaps on the floor. A few folders were bursting with papers, and hardly a one was without some sketch or full drawing.
A look of fury crossed Miss Smith’s face before she marched over to the couch and crossed her arms over her chest. Her shadow fell across the man, who opened his bleary eyes and blinked up at her. “Who are ya?”
“Your sister, that’s who.”
Pennae and my mouths both dropped open. The man merely offered her a lopsided grin. “Are you now? I thought you were a pixie.” He took a drink of the bottle and wrinkled his nose. “An ugly pixie.”
Smith snatched the bottle from his weak grip and slammed its bottom down hard on the wooden coffee table. “I didn’t come here to trade insults, you fool. The kingdom needs your help.”
A smile spread across his lips as he closed his eyes and laughed. “The kingdom? What do I care for the kingdom?” He raised his arms above his head and stared up at the ceiling with slightly wide, blood-shot eyes. “Give me a kingdom and I would trade it for a box of pencils!”
Smith glared down at him. “When are you going to grow up and realize not everything is about your art?”
Some of the drunken stupor fell from his face as Ethan scowled up at her. “The day you turn in that precious library badge of yours and realize not everything is about the past.”
Smith snorted as she stepped to one side and swept her arm over the room. “Who’s living in the past?”
Ethan sat up and draped his arms over his bent legs as he studied the house. “Mother and Father would have wanted one of us to keep it.”
Smith shook her head. “Not this way. Mother would have had a fit if she saw what you’ve done to the place.”
He tilted his head back slightly and cast a look of annoyance at her. “Listen, I didn’t invite you here, so why don’t you go back to that little white tower you live in and leave me alone?”
“Because somewhere in this mess-” She waved her hand at the piles of papers, “-there might be a way to help with the trouble at the gate.”
He shrugged. “What’s that to me?”
Smith glared at him. “You idiot! This house is nothing without the kingdom! Everything would crumble-”
“Unless I kept under the tender and merciful wings of your dragon lord,” Ethan mused as he gave her a crooked smile. “Is that it? Tell me, dear sister, which do you love more? The dragon or his museum?”
A slight blush accented Smith’s cheeks. Her hand flew out and would have connected with his cheek if he hadn’t caught her wrist in his grip.
He grinned up at her. “Did I hit the mark, Mia?”
Smith yanked her hand out of his grasp and stepped back from him. “You’re hopeless.” She turned to Pennae and me, and nodded at the door. “There’s nothing more here we can do.”
Smith strode past us and Pennae made to follow her, but she paused and looked back where I still stood facing the seated man. He had bowed his head and his hands hung listlessly between his bent legs.
I walked over to him and plopped myself on the cushion beside him. He lifted his head and frowned at me. “What do you want?” The man paused and leaned forward as he squinted his eyes. A perplexed look passed over his face. “Do I. . .do I know you?”
I smiled at him. “Don’t you recognize your muse?”
His eyes lit up with recognition. “I remember you now. You walked with the king into the museum, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “Yeah, and right now he needs your help.” I picked up a sketch from the coffee table and showed it to him. “I want the guy who can make such beautiful images care about those people he drew. They need your help, too.”
Ethan’s expression faltered as he cast a dark look at Smith. “You came with my sister, and I can’t forget that.” He turned his face away from me. “I’m not your man.”
I sighed, but stood and looked down at him. “Tell us if you ever change your mind. We could really use your help.”
I moved toward my companions, and that’s when a horrific pain struck me in the chest.