The market was much bigger than Ciaran had pictured when Raksha had told him where they were going after breakfast. Knots of people flowed back and forth through the dusty stone streets, dressed in loose clothing against the desert heat, a riot of colour and movement. They came in all shapes and sizes and colours, from the thin pale women with oversized black hats shading their faces to a group of men with skin almost as black as ebony, dressed in little more than scraps of cloth twisted around their hips. Even a woman of Azima’s size barely stood out and Ciaran himself was almost lost in the crowd, blending in with the new clothes Isendiar had given him. He stuck close to Isendiar’s side as they walked through the market, trying to take in everything around him at once, unable to keep from staring wide-eyed when a swirl of sand suddenly became a golden-skinned woman striding along the street in a dress that eddied and flowed around her.
Isendiar led them down one of the smaller side streets, where market stalls sold everything from food to weaponry, clothing to cunning little handmade toys, absently acknowledging the people who bowed to him. More than one studied Ciaran with open curiosity, looking him over with eyes of mostly gold and brown and sometimes black. Beside Ciaran Raksha walked with her shoulders hunched and a new pad of paper clutched to her chest like a security blanket, her gaze darting restlessly from one thing to the next. She shied away like a startled horse when Ciaran reached out to pat her arm and gave him a look equal parts sheepish and wary, her eyes flicking quickly to Isendiar.
Above them the sky blazed blue, the heat of the sun already bringing sweat out on Ciaran’s skin, dampening his hair and sliding down his back. It made his half-healed sunburn itch and he was glad when Isendiar waved them to a bench in the shade, sending Azima off for refreshments. She brought back cups of a cold liquid with a sweet taste that lingered on Ciaran’s tongue even after he’d drained the last drops from the cup. Leaning back on the bench, he turned his face into a sudden slight breeze and watched a young girl at a nearby stall entice people passing by into looking at the delicately embroidered belts she was selling. Down the street a man and a woman, both dressed in costumes that barely covered them, were dancing, sinuous brown bodies twisting around each other, the sun glinting off the golden bangles around their wrists, ankles, and throats. Ciaran felt his cheeks flush hot and looked away, only to catch Isendiar studying him with a thoughtful expression.
Isendiar smiled and said something to Raksha. Raksha opened the pad of paper, taking a pencil from her pocket to write a note asking if Ciaran was adjusting to the heat. Ciaran nodded and gave Isendiar a thumbs-up, unable to stop himself laughing when Isendiar mimicked the gesture. The next note from Raksha asked him what it meant and he did his best to explain, though they both seemed just as mystified when he was done.
After their rest, they walked through more of the market and Isendiar started taking things off stalls to hold out to Ciaran, inviting him to stroke the top of a rug made of some sort of thick, soft brown fur and sliding bracelets onto his wrists next to the silver bracelet he was already wearing. Ciaran happily played along, cuddling someone’s puppy as it tried to eat his nose and coaxing Raksha into tying her hair up in a scarf beautifully stitched with a stylized rising sun. Isendiar bought it for her, to her obvious surprise; she blushed so fiercely red she almost glowed but she kept the scarf tied around her dark hair. When the sun was at its highest, Azima took them to a quiet little garden tucked away in a corner of the marketplace, shaded by palm trees and featuring a tiny stone fountain carved in the shape of a dragon, set in obvious pride of place.
Servers brought them out more of the sweet drink and a light lunch, bowing low to Isendiar as they set the plates down. Isendiar flashed a smile and waved them away, pushing a plate of fresh fruit over to Ciaran. Ciaran studied him as they ate, trying not to be too obvious about it, and when he was full he took the paper and pencil from Raksha, leaning back in his chair to sketch. He didn’t look up from the paper until he was done, sketching in quick strokes to capture the image in his mind’s eye. The result was a loosely shaded drawing of Isendiar in profile, looking out at something beyond the paper’s edge with a slightly melancholy expression. Behind him Ciaran had rendered desert dunes using only a few lines, and a high wheeling shadow that could have been bird or dragon or neither.
He tore the paper loose from the pad and held it out to Isendiar, a little nervous; sometimes people got uncomfortable when he drew them, as though he were offering them a glimpse at a part of themselves that they didn’t really want to see. One dark eyebrow raised, Isendiar took the paper and studied the portrait without expression for a long moment, before the corner of his mouth curved up in a pleased grin. Through Raksha he asked Ciaran to draw something from Earth, his expression pure fascination as he studied the street sketch of downtown Toronto that Ciaran produced. He held it up to compare it to the buildings around them then signed the thank you Ciaran had taught him over breakfast, tucking both sketches neatly away in his pack.
Their little group left the garden an hour later, moving back into the press and ebb of a crowd grown even larger. After almost losing Isendiar when a big man in a hurry pushed past him, Ciaran took hold of Isendiar’s hand and let Raksha grab his other, at least until they left the worst of the crowd behind. They paused in a side street to catch their breath in the heavy heat and to let Azima—who had veered off to look at something—catch up, and while they were waiting Ciaran spotted a nearby stall selling little pots of paint. He tugged Isendiar over to take a look, impressed by the range of colours and suddenly itching to paint something, but remembered that he had nothing of value here and started to turn away. Isendiar pulled him back, gesturing at the paints and passing the seller a handful of coins. Ciaran grinned and gave him a quick hug before picking out what he wanted, walking away with a woven bag full of carefully packed paints bumping gently against his leg.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering, until Ciaran’s feet ached and pain flared through his bandaged ribs every time he stretched too far. Raksha looked as tired as he felt, her shoulders drooping, though Isendiar and Azima seemed as fresh as they had that morning. Ciaran caught Isendiar’s wrist, tugging on him until he looked around, and pointed first to his own feet and then to Raksha. Isendiar smiled and ruffled Ciaran’s hair, his hand lingering a moment, before leading them to the nearest bench. They sat and watched the sun begin to sink below the horizon in a blazing red ball, casting long red-gold rays across the streets, which slowly began to empty as the crowd all trickled in the same direction.
Ciaran touched Raksha’s shoulder, smiling an apology when she jumped, and pointed to the departing crowd. She squinted in that direction then dug the paper and pencil out of the folds of her robe to inform him that there was a feast and fire following the market celebration. He asked if she wanted to go and got a shy shrug in return, but she got up willingly when he got the idea across to Isendiar that they should follow the crowd.
A series of bonfires lit the sands just outside the city, flickering through the growing shadows. The smell of cooking food made Ciaran’s stomach growl and he guessed from the amused look Isendiar gave him that it had growled loud enough for his companions to hear. Dancers moved through the uncertain light of the fire, some in glittering costumes, others dressed plainly, and Ciaran saw a herd of horses milling around in a makeshift corral, though he couldn’t guess what their purpose was. A group of children ran past, waving bright streamers of silk, their mouths open in shouts and laughter. For a moment Ciaran wished he could hear them laugh, could hear the music the dancers moved to and the excited conversation all around him; then Isendiar touched his arm to offer him a skewer of roasted meat and vegetables, and he took it, smiling his thanks.
They found a spot to sit near the warmth of one of the fires, eating from skewers until Ciaran thought his stomach might burst if he had one more bite. He flopped down on his back in the sand, watching the stars come slowly to life in the velvet blackness of the sky. Clasping his hands over his full belly, he studied the unfamiliar constellations, wishing Alejandro was there to share them with, even if Alejandro would probably hate being surrounded by so many strange people. Just the thought hurt a little and he closed his eyes against the sudden guilt that he’d spent the day enjoying himself instead of trying to find Alejandro.
A hard elbow dug into his thigh brought him out of his thoughts and he sat up to see that they’d been joined by a group of men with partially shaved heads and long topknots. They wore sand-coloured robes similar to Raksha’s, tied at the waist by woven rope belts, and heavy leather sandals. Ciaran felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise at the sight of them and noted that even Azima looked uncomfortable, her hand hovering near the knife on her belt, while Raksha seemed ready to flee. Only Isendiar was still relaxed, smiling up at the strangers cheerfully and continuing to eat what was left on his skewer.
Ciaran tried to read what one of the men said, even though he knew it was impossible; but he didn’t need to know the language to see the flat anger in the glare the man shot him. Isendiar just smiled and shrugged, but there was a stiffness to his expression and the way he was holding the empty skewer looked suddenly like a threat. At his side Azima rose to her feet as though she were just stretching, towering over the group of men.
The man doing all the talking sneered slightly, gesturing at Ciaran as he spoke, his face flushing a dull brick-red when Isendiar gave an exaggerated yawn and looked away as though something more interesting had caught his attention. Spinning on his heel, the man in the robe reached down and grabbed Ciaran by the front of his shirt, hauling him bodily to his feet. Ciaran struggled to pull away, shoving at the man’s corded wrist, and saw Isendiar get up, the bored expression sliding into anger. He reached out one long-fingered hand but before he could touch either the man or Ciaran, something sent their attention up to the sky above them.
The dragon dropped down out of the darkness, wings extended, the wind of its flight blowing the bonfires across the sand. People bolted from its path, the happy crowd quickly degenerating into a frightened mass of bodies all shoving and pushing to get away from the dragon as it landed. The dragon snapped absently at them then reared up onto its hind legs, bellowing so deep Ciaran felt it in his bones, before dropping down onto four legs again and bounding forward. One massive paw swept a man in a sand-coloured robe out of the way as easily as Ciaran could have swatted a fly. All around them people ran and the fires crept along the sands, feeding on bits of debris.
In the confusion Ciaran found himself alone, dropped by the angry stranger and dragged along by the crowd until someone grabbed his shirt again, yanking him out into a clear space. He looked up, expecting it to be Isendiar, and instead met the rage-filled eyes of the man who had grabbed him just before the dragon’s arrival. Powerful fingers tangled in his hair and yanked his head back, exposing the line of his throat. He struggled, just barely able to see the flash of a knife from the corner of his eye, and cringed in anticipation of the blade slicing through his throat.
A sudden blow jerked the man to the side before the knife did more than nick Ciaran’s throat, and Raksha delivered a kick that landed squarely between the man’s legs. As he doubled over, she grabbed Ciaran’s arm and hauled him away with surprising strength, though her face had gone almost white with terror. Ciaran pressed a hand to the blood streaking his throat and stumbled after her, twisting to look over one shoulder at the dragon. It was snapping at blazing lines of red and gold that surrounded it in a glowing net, but even as Ciaran looked it snapped its wings out and launched itself back into the air, rearing its head back to spit a sudden brilliant streak of flame at the shadowy people below it. Ciaran saw a man go up like a living torch and jerked back against Raksha’s grip, turning to throw up everything he’d just eaten.
Hands fell on him and he struck out, afraid the man with the knife had come back to finish the job, but his fist was gently caught and he realized it was Isendiar holding him, Azima a bulky shadow at his back. Behind them the dragon roared more flame, the wind of its wings fanning the fires towards the walls of the city, where they caught hold and began to burn higher. In the flickering light Isendiar looked young and scared, his eyes wide, but his movements were confident as he pushed Ciaran behind him and began to make motions that looked almost like sign language. As his long fingers worked elegantly through the signs—signs that Ciaran could almost read, like they came from the same root of language as the ASL he used—the air around them began to shimmer, distorting the dragon as it swung its heavy head towards them.
Ciaran took a step back as the dragon padded towards them on massive clawed feet, its wings half-spread and its tail lashing behind it like an angry cat’s. He thought about fleeing for the city walls, whatever shelter they might offer, but Isendiar and Azima standing there coolly facing down the dragon made him stop. Beside him Raksha had fallen to her knees, her arms protecting her head, and he knelt beside her, pulling her into his arms without taking his eyes from the beast approaching them.
The dragon hesitated a few feet away from them, ducking its head and twisting to study them from one eye. Ciaran felt a sudden pull towards it so strong that he almost got to his feet, but Raksha’s weight in his arms kept him down. He watched instead, breathing fast and shallow, as the dragon bared long sharp teeth and snapped suddenly at Isendiar.
The resulting explosion was silent but no less teeth-jarring for all that, jerking the ground beneath them and throwing the dragon back so hard it sprawled awkwardly on its side, the thump of its body landing sending an aftershock through the sands. It shook its head, its reptilian face twisted in an almost comical expression of surprise, then heaved itself to its feet, spreading its wings out. It snapped them down and lifted itself heavily into the air, blowing sand across the little group. When Ciaran had finished coughing and clearing his watering eyes, the dragon was gone, its shadowy shape disappearing into the darkness of the night.
In the confusion that followed, with soldiers boiling out of the city too late now that the danger was over, Ciaran lost track of Isendiar and only stayed with Raksha because she clung to his hand and refused to let go. She spoke to anyone who approached them, however, keeping them from being dragged out of the area until Azima collected them and brought them to where Isendiar was arguing with a group of people who looked important. He walked away when he saw Azima, to the obvious annoyance of the people he was talking to, and together the four of them made their way slowly back to the palace.
Azima took Raksha back to her own quarters almost as soon as they reached Isendiar’s rooms. In the light of the lamps Isendiar looked pale and he dropped down onto the couch in a movement that was almost more of a collapse. Alarmed, Ciaran moved over to him and put a hand on his forehead to check his temperature, his relief at finding the skin under his palm almost normal turning to horror when he saw the hand Isendiar had been keeping hidden against his shirt the entire walk up to the palace. Half-dried blood striped his skin from a series of deep wounds from knuckles to wrist, as though his hand had been lashed by a whip. More blood had soaked into his shirt, staining the front of it an ugly red.
Scrambling to his feet, Ciaran went into the bathroom and grabbed a couple of hand towels, hunting around until he found a bowl large enough to fill with warm water. When he brought it back out to the couches, Isendiar hadn’t moved, his mismatched eyes dazed and only half-open. Ciaran checked his pulse and was glad to find it strong and steady, then sat and settled the bowl in his lap, gently taking Isendiar’s hand to start cleaning the blood away. Isendiar flinched at the first touch of the warm water, his eyes opening wide again, but though all the muscles in his forearm tensed, he didn’t pull away.
He was looking more alert by the time Ciaran had finished cleaning the angry-looking wounds, enough to get up himself, strip off his bloody shirt, and clumsily dig bandages out of a cupboard. Ciaran wrapped his hand as carefully as he could, wincing in sympathy every time Isendiar flinched. They moved back to Isendiar’s favourite couch beneath the window and Isendiar slumped down on it again, his eyes drifting shut. Settling himself at one end, Ciaran reached over and tugged on Isendiar until Isendiar lay down with his head in Ciaran’s lap, soon relaxing into sleep. Ciaran ran his fingers through Isendiar’s thick black hair, pushing it off his face, and sat back to wait for Azima to return.