"So NOW, if your caught with the Flash Blossom, you're arrested on the spot! Can you believe it?" Cherry tried to juggle two apples and failed again. "I mean, sure you were before, but they had to go and tell us again or something."
Anna shrugged. She looked out between the pillars and held up the school roof. It was sunny today with not a cloud in the sky. Almost like summer was already here. "I guess the City Guard wanted to make it look as if they were in control again."
"Well, they weren't, this time, but I guess it's okay. Like, just look out there, Goldy. We have kids again!" The panic had subsided in the last hand of days. The trickle of children that came to the church for teachings turned slowly back into its healthy river like flow. "I saw a felf child yesterday!"
"Cutest thing ever! I ran up to her and rubbed her ears! Someone told me it was good luck, but he hated it, so I won't be doing that any more."
"Felf Children means a family moved into the city. I'll have to check with the Library."
"Sure, that makes sense." To Cherry it didn't.
"The Annalow and Alexture Libraries are trading more books, Cherry. I'm guessing someone moved to help with the trade." Anna thought about it. "Maybe we'll see an Embassy. That would be interesting." The two stopped in front of a curtained doorway. Cherry's class. "You know, I'm able to add non-Red Guard to my team. You could join me."
"Wow... Gee..." Cherry Humed and Hawed. "Thanks...I don't know what to say... You're the best...Goldy..."
"It's alright, Cherry. You don't have to."
"Whew. Thank the Living Goddess. i don't think I could take another crying mothing. 'Sides, I got the best job in the world now!" She gave Anna one of the apples. "Check this out!" Cherry dove under the curtain. Anna heard the slap of her bare feet on the marble floor. "Hit it, guys!" The music started and so did the dancing.
Anna watched a little White Maiden pat one of the Dire Emus on the beak. Its handler was chatting with Madeline, making some sort of deal. "Look, I'm offering a good price at 3 horns a bundle!"
"Keep your voice down!" The riding yelled.
Madeline saw Anna and patted the handler on the shoulder. "We'll talk later. But trust me, you're not going to find a better use for this stupid thing." The handler roller her eyes and offered a ride to the Maiden still petting the Emu. "Anna, excellent."
"It's going to be harder getting your precious flowers, Madeline."
The alchemist waved it away. "Please. That wasn't about Flash, that was about Emu feathers."
"And smuggeling, no doubt."
"Not that it's any of your business." Madeline sat down next to her friend. "So, now what?"
"Now I sit."
"No, I mean about your research. Are you going to interview Peter or something?" Anna shrugged. "Okay, what about the Guards? Maybe talk to them about what happened?" Anna shrugged again. "Well SOMETHING ought to happen!"
"I've already written up a report and submitted it to Gringill. The last week has been me helping her sort her ridiculous mess of scrolls and books. Do you know why she has that line down her body?"
"Probably something to do with knitting or such. Don't change the subject. What about Lily Ripper?"
Anna sighed. "Nothing. My part is done and the scroll is sealed." She stretched. "I'm thinking about gathering up some petal and heading south to visit Drate once summer comes. Maybe talk about patterns of borc behavior. Maybe I'll visit Grush."
"And you'll...what, just give up your research?"
"Hardly!" Goldeyes laughed. "No no no. Just a month to cool off. When I come back, I've been charged by Gringill to act as consultant to the City Guard."
"That...doesn't seem right." Madeline rubbed her chin. "I don't know how that will go down."
"The idea, Madeline, was a method of thinking that anyone could do, not just Red Guard. I have room in my field for non-mumes. And I think I'll gather Duffworm on that team." Madeline sneered at the thought. "Oh, he's not so bad. Just a little bit dark."
"No thank you." After Madeline stood, she offered a hand to Anna. "I will say our little adventure was the most fun I've had since I was on the battle field."
"You never said you were in a war, Maddy."
"Don't call me that. But yes. I was on loan to the Northern Empire, oh, maybe 90 seasons back. That's where I stumbled over Alchemy. Those borc may act brash, but they're leaps of miles ahead of us in Alchemy. I never forgot it, even as I gathered ranks in the church."
"And how did THEY cultivate Flash Blossoms?"
"They way I do. Trade with the evil people who live under the world."
Luna shone bright in the sky that night, wearing wisps of clouds as halos. Anna sat in Brishah's pleasure house and slowly drew on her pipe. She just got started, but this time was determined to savor every draw of breath. The world slowly settled back into it's groove. Cherry was back to dancing. Madeline was making undercover deals to gather reagents, and Anna was smoking on a bed of pillows looking for faces in the sky.
A flicker of candle later and the lights went out, but Anna didn't care. She was busy trying to free her mind from the horrors that plagued them still. The burn of Peter's twisted mind disturbed her still and the screaming was not easily erased. It wasn't a matter of determination, for Anna. Training taught her to ease such memories away, not fight them. Eventually, because they were not hers, they were fade.
The smoke from the candles drifted toward the window. A thin trail of grey wrapped around itself in a tunnle of dark. Just a moment. Smoke wouldn't drift toward the wind which means...
"Hello, Plaything." Gravedust whispered so quietly and closely to Anna's ear she could feel the black thing's lips quiver against her skin, but she felt miles away. Anna jerked, but was pulled back down to the pillows. "Shhhh...Plaything. Be at ease."
Anna softly poked the womumes forehead with her pipe. "Have a draw." She said, half lidded eyes barely able to see the purple fog.
Gravedust pushed the pipe aside, "Perhaps another time, Plaything."
"Say what you've got to say, Gravedust. I wish to be done with you and your queen."
"A pity." Gravedust stretched her legs and hopped next to Anna on the pillows. "We all have hoped to know you more, my sweet. I, personally, wished to gather you as one of us, but even the Queen has marked you as untouchable." She leaned too close to Anna's ear again to whisper, "I think she loves you." And pulled away again. "Or she's afraid of you." As the black thing rolled her neck it made a noise like breaking tendons and grinding bones. "It is the latter that interests me so, but I'll not ask what you did to our Queen. That it between you and her."
"Then why are you here?"
"To show you this, for one." She held a sleaved needle by her fingertips and dropped it in Anna's lap. "And to smell you again." The moon light did little to make Gravedust's yellow smile any prettier.
Anna picked up the sheath. It was thin and leather, about a hand-span in length. The needles she had seen before had metal hilts to grip while stabbing, but this one had a leather grip. When Anna touched the metal with her gloved hands, she heard a familiar crackle. She drew the needle, watching the faint sparks as it pulled free. "How in Mash'ta..?" She twisted the leather hilt and pulled it away. Inside the hilt was a cage holding a crushed Flash Blossom. "This is the most evil thing I've ever held in my hands."
Gravedust genitally smoothed Anna's ear before speaking into it. "A gift from my Queen for services rendered. Use it sparingly, Plaything. We've found a single flower wears out quickly after much use, and finding a new blossom is difficult in this city." The Black thing giggled with her gravely laugh.
"It's grotesque, Gravedust." Anna sheathed the needle. "Please say it was not the twisted mind of your Queen who invented this device. She struck me as more sensable."
"You already know him as Peter, I think."
"Did you think we would not have him?" Anna stared in disbelief. The Cemetery Girl's yellow teeth mocked her. "I wonder. If Queen Nara Nakki offered you a chance to see him one last time, with promise of your safety, would you come?" Anna said nothing. Her teeth clicked on the stem of her pipe and she twisted the leather on her needle back into place. "Personally, my sweet, I would gather you into a sarcophagus with me and have the rest cover us with a stone lid. We would spend countless hours playing with each other with words and needles and crawling things that bite. The girls would gather around our tomb to dream in the mists of our agony and extacy." Anna knocked Gravedusts hands away. "To say we had planed to keep you is a redundancy, Madam Goldeyes. I was the one who told the Queen about you."
"I have no idea what you're on about."
Anna was surprised to feel a kiss on her temple. "It doesn't matter. Nara Nakki has made this offer despite my word against it. I told her you would not be interested in the fate of Lily Ripper or his final chapter."
"You've kidnapped him and Nara Nakki had her way regardless of the law. Mume's don't kill."
"He's not dead."
"Then what is he?"
Gravedust waggled her finger. "We say nothing for free. My Queen's offer is fair. Come and find out for yourself."
Anna drew the needle again. Running her fingers up and down the thing and watching the blue crackling as she did. "This ripper... Does he have a coffin like you wanted for us?"
"Come," Gravedust repeated slowly, "and find out. For yourself."
Wind whistled in between the cutains, blowing soft purple ribbons of smoke backwards toward Anna. She calmly returned the needle to it's sleave and put it away in her jacket. "Alright."