A/N: I am oddly nervous about posting this, probably because I've been thinking about and planning this story for such a long time. I'm very excited about it, and I have lots and lots of stuff planned. I hope you stick with me and enjoy reading it even half as much as I've enjoyed just daydreaming about this thing, let alone writing it.
There is art! Karovie on tumblr volunteered to illustrate something for me, and luckily I really, REALLY needed help designing visuals for this, so it's been awesome to collaborate with her. I'm incredibly lucky. You can find it on my tumblr, maychorian, with the tag c5l, for The Cycle of the Five Lions. (That's the overall title of this series.)
Pidge stood at the corner and peered out into the street. That annoying bard was back again. He had a fancy hat with several feathers and a bright outfit of white and blue, the shirt short enough that it bared a section of his smooth brown midriff. Which, by the way he held himself, was intentional. His olive green half-cloak was flung over one shoulder in a very debonair (and calculated) way. In his hands was a small guitar. Or perhaps the instrument went by a different name, but Pidge was not all that familiar with musical instruments. She had plenty of experience with other kinds of instruments, scientific instruments, but music had never been her world.
The bard was not unskilled, she had to acknowledge that. His voice was pleasant, and his strumming was tuneful enough, though music probably wasn't his main skill. She had seen this bard in the marketplace telling stories, quite good ones. Even Pidge had been compelled to stop and listen for a while, though she never put any coins in his hat when he held it out afterward. He used some limited illusion magic to add a dramatic flair, and his illusions weren't bad for a bard. Pidge had definitely seen worse, not least those of her own making during her beginning training as a wizard, when she was considering which school of magic she might like to join.
All of that was behind her, now. Pidge wasn't a wizard, and she never would be one. She tried not to think about how disappointed her family would be.
But the bard. Was still. Singing.
Pidge's early reconnaissance was usually pretty easy. She came to the place she was scoping out during daylight hours and slid into whatever passersby were normally there as she calculated angles and found entrances and exits, security charms, armed guards, all that kind of stuff. Sometimes a single visit was enough to tell her that a place of interest was beyond her ability, or an easy mark, or wouldn't yield enough profit to be worth her time.
But this gods-bedamned bard kept getting in the way. This was the second time Pidge had come to check out this house, and both times he had been here, caterwauling in the street like a lunatic. Most annoying person ever.
He was drawing too much attention. Pidge couldn't sneak around the house with him causing a ruckus like this. And, yes, begrudgingly, she could admit that he was doing a fine job at his intended purpose. A storyteller like him needed to draw attention, and that was clear in every aspect of him, from his flashy but practical clothes to his loud, high-pitched voice to his exaggerated, almost goofy body language and mannerisms. His was a figure meant to draw a crowd, and he was doing it. But Pidge needed the opposite.
Ugh. Once she managed to gather enough money and influence to put together her expedition, Pidge would definitely remember to include no bards in the party. No use for performers like that on a rescue and recovery mission, anyway, but also... Pidge kind of hated them now.
Pidge pulled away around the corner and hunkered down, resisting the urge to cover her ears with her hands. She needed to listen for when the bard finished and left so she could finally, finally finish checking this place out. This house, the residence of Madam Montgomery of Sura City, had the potential to be her best job yet. Pidge knew she was grasping at straws, sometimes, but this one was a really big, really golden straw.
She had to get the money. She had to. Even if it took her years. She needed to mount an expedition to the Dragon Waste, and the only way she could do that was if she had lots and lots of money, or lots and lots of powerful friends. Pidge was not much in the social department, so money it would have to be.
The bard was still going. Pidge didn't recognize this song, either. It wasn't one of the popular love ballads she heard wafting on the air about the city. In fact, she didn't think she'd ever heard this one before. Had the bard made it up himself? What a waste of time. It was the same vapid stuff as always, all about Madam Montgomery's ocean blue eyes, the red rose of her lips and the graceful way she moved, like a butterfly. Wow. How imaginative.
There was no use for it. Pidge couldn't wait any longer. She had to get this done, even if the bard would never stop singing.
She slipped around the corner and began making her way along the edge of the high wall that surrounded the house. She moved slowly and smoothly, not drawing attention to herself. The dark greens and browns of her outfit helped her fade into the shadows better than pure black would.
While she was moving along the edge of the Montgomery estate into the alley between one high privacy wall and the next, the sound of the bard's singing finally stopped. Pidge breathed out a sigh of relief. Maybe she had good timing, for once.
She found a secluded spot behind some trash barrels and crouched down to remove her baggy cloak, the better for squeezing into tight places. Her androgynous outerwear was usually enough to disguise her gender in public, with a little help from her magic glasses to make her seem nondescript and utterly forgettable. The only downside was that every time she used those glasses, they reminded her of the wizard who made them.
Pidge sighed. She didn't have time to think about it right now. She had a job to do. As she undid the clasp of her cloak, Holly emerged from her hood and stood on her shoulder, then hopped off into the air and brought her wings into existence briefly to float next to her. Pidge gave the fairy lion a smile as she stripped off the rest of her outer garments and wadded them into a pile on the ground. Holly floated down to nestle in the pile of cloth, folding her wings away into nether space and kneading with her paws as she shaped the clothes to her liking.
Pidge reached out and gave her a quick head skritch, and Holly tilted her head up to lick Pidge's palm. The sensation was wet and warm, but when Pidge pulled her hand away, it was dry. There were a lot of things Pidge didn't understand about Holly, not least how she sometimes seemed to affect the physical world and sometimes didn't. Did Holly choose it, as she could choose to show herself to outsiders or remain as an invisible presence on Pidge's shoulder? Or did it have something to do with her metaphysical and magical form?
A question for another day. As with all the other questions Pidge had about a glowing green fairy lion that, as far as she knew, was utterly unique in the entire world.
Okay, except for that bard. Who apparently had a glowing blue lion. Pidge had seen it hovering around him, looping playfully in the air, even butting up against his hand for pets and scratches. But that had to be an illusion, right? Whenever anyone asked, he said "Blue" was his favorite illusion, which was why he kept bringing it out. How he maintained it for so long, and why other people sometimes didn't seem to notice it even when it was right there, was another mystery Pidge didn't have time for.
Holly curled up on the pile of the clothes, purring like the young kitten she resembled if one didn't look close enough to see that, no, that was definitely a tiny lioness. Pidge took off her glasses and placed them by Holly's front paws, trusting her to guard them as always. She unclipped her goggles of true seeing from her belt and pulled the strap over her head. They would help her see with absolute clarity, both through darkness and any attempt to magically conceal doors and the like. Plus, she could get a good look at any locks or other security apparatus she might need to disable later.
Before she pulled the lenses down over her eyes, a sudden, horrified gasp made her turn her head sharply up and to the right. That annoying bard stood there in the alleyway, staring down at her with huge eyes. His blue lion was riding on his shoulder, just as Holly often rode on Pidge's, and she was frozen for a moment, unable to react.
"I knew it," the bard hissed. "I knew you looked suspicious. You're a rogue, aren't you? Are you planning to rob Madam Montgomery's?" Without waiting for a response, because it was clearly obvious, he turned toward the entrance of the alley and cupped both hands around his mouth. "Guards! Guards!"
By the gods, he was loud. Pidge lurched for her feet and lunged for him, dagger already out. She didn't really want to hurt him, but she had to at least disable him so she could get away. Her heart was pounding out of her chest with fear. This could ruin...this could ruin everything. Why hadn't she even considered that he could have been observing her while she was observing him?
The bard turned at the last moment and deflected her half-hearted blow before it could land on him. The blue lion was flapping in the air now behind him, having leaped off to avoid being dislodged. It was so very like Holly, even down to the butterfly-like wings, that Pidge was distracted again.
Neither a bard nor a rogue was built for grappling, but was what they were doing now, Pidge trying to throw off the bard so she could run, he trying to pin her against the wall to trap her until the guards got there. It would have been a more even fight, but Pidge was still knocked off-balance by seeing the blue fairy lion up so close, and the bard quickly overpowered her. It just...it couldn't be an illusion. It didn't make sense. Why would he maintain a weird, whimsical illusion in the middle of a fight? That would just drain his arcane energy.
The bard shoved her down to the alley floor, hands on her wrists pinned to the pavement on either side of her head, knees on her torso. Pidge bucked beneath him, but couldn't throw him off, and he snarled down into her face. Then all of a sudden his face changed, going slack with disbelief.
"Wait a second, you're just a kid!"
Pidge sneered and shoved up against him again, but couldn't get any leverage. "I'm sixteen, you son of a goblin and a bugbear. Plenty old enough to kick your ass from here to Garrison City."
But the revelations didn't stop there. His voice was higher than before. "Wait a second, you're a girl!"
Pidge growled and tried to wrench at least a hand free, but couldn't. "Astute observation."
Then Holly leaped into the fray, flying up in front of the bard's face with a small but powerful roar. He startled back, eyes so wide they looked like they hurt, and fell off her body. Pidge scrambled up and back to the wall where she crouched, panting. He knelt there in the grime, mouth agape, and now his voice was so high it was almost a squeak. "Wait a second, you have a fairy lion, too! And it's green!"
Pidge panted for a moment, just staring at him. The blue lion had tucked its wings away and was perched on the bard's shoulder, and Holly had draped herself over Pidge's head protectively, still growling low in her tiny chest. Both lions were tense, staring at each other just as the two humans were.
"Ah, yeah," Pidge said, eyes darting between the bard and his lion. "I kinda wondered about that myself."
"You can see Blue?" The bard reached up and touched his shoulder companion, eyebrows bending in disbelief. "But she's not showing herself right now..." And then he stopped. "Oh. Heck and darnation."
He sounded like he had just understood something, but before Pidge could ask what, another sound reached them, and she turned her head toward it as her breath sped up. The guards were approaching, heavy boots clattering down the cobblestone. They were calling the bard by name, evidently familiar with him. "Lance! Where are you? What's going on?"
"Heck," Lance said again, with more feeling. He popped to his feet and yelled toward the guards. "There's a halfing rogue! Heading toward the Narrows! I'm gonna follow!" Then he turned back to Pidge and held out a hand. "C'mon, we gotta go. I know a shortcut, but we have to run now."
Pidge wanted to question this. She wanted to question a lot of things. But there was no time. She took his hand and let him haul her up, then scrambled for her cloak and glasses. Lance waited for her, dancing from foot to foot. As soon as she straightened, he grabbed her wrist and ran like the wind.
Pidge followed, keeping up but just barely. Lance seemed to know every nook and cranny of this city. He led her down twisted alleyways and backstreets, on paths that looked like dead ends until they ducked through a gap in a hedge or a fence, and even through someone's house with a flurried, "Thanks! Sorry I can't stay! Dinner smells delicious!" The woman of the house, holding a spoon and an oven mitt, gave them a pleasant smile and wave as they dove out the front door and into another street.
Finally, they reached a late afternoon market crowd, beginning to break up now as merchants stowed their wares for the night, lowered their awnings, and began to head home. Lance slowed to an amble, still holding Pidge's wrist inconspicuously between their bodies as he drew her along to walk at his side. Pidge twisted her wrist experimentally to test his grip, but he wasn't holding tight. He was just leading her, not trying to trap her. She had no choice but to continue to follow, for now.
Pidge's breath began to calm, and she looked over her shoulder, but didn't see the guards. "What are the Narrows? Why did you tell the guards to go there?"
Lance looked straight ahead, walking calmly down the street. The blue lion was curled around his neck like a scarf now, dozing on his shoulder. Holly had tucked herself back into the hood of Pidge's cloak, once she'd had the chance to whip it back on around her shoulders. Her glasses perched on her nose again, but she hadn't had the breath to speak the word to activate the disguise spell. If she did it now, in the middle of a crowd, it would completely defeat the purpose.
"The Narrows is the poor section of Sura City, all the little back alleys and closely built tenements. It's run down, and it's constantly being deconstructed and rebuilt. No one has an accurate map of the place, so it will be easy later to say that I lost sight of the rogue I was chasing in there." Lance turned his head to give her a smug, crooked smile, with sparkling eyes and an arrogant tilt of his jaw. "Quick thinking, huh? I set up our escape, and I said you were a halfling. You're small, but there's no way they'll think you're the one I was talking about, whether you look like a boy or a girl. You can thank me now."
Pidge grimaced and tugged at her wrist again, more out of annoyance than an attempt to get away. "Well, you were also the one who set the guards on me in the first place, so, no. Not gonna thank you."
Lance made a noise of disgust and gripped her wrist a little harder, not enough to hurt but enough to make his point. "Yeah, well, you were casing out Madam Montgomery's house. Don't even pretend you weren't. I was justified."
Pidge looked over her shoulder again, inescapably paranoid, then looked back at Lance's face. She drew in a breath, small and shaky. "Where are we going? Where are you taking me?"
Lance's face softened, and he glanced at her, then down at their hands between them. "If I let go, will you follow?"
Pidge didn't trust this weird, annoying bard, not really. Trust came hard, now, and she had met no one yet on her journey who truly deserved it. But he had put himself out for her in a big way, even though he had caused the trouble in the first place, and the fact that they both had fairy lions following them around, lions they both had thought to be unique in the world...
Something was going on, and Pidge needed to know what it was. Despite her desperate quest and her need to stay free of the grasp of the authorities, her curiosity was like a sharp-toothed creature in her head. She had many, many questions, and she could wait no longer for the answers. If Lance was able to supply them, or even just give her clues, she would put up with him for as long as it took.
She bit her lip, but she nodded. Yes, she would go where he led.
Lance studied her closely, as if gauging whether or not she was lying. After a moment, he seemed satisfied with her sincerity and gave a solemn nod, then let go of her wrist. "We're going to The Crystal Lion. It's an inn not too far from here. Good food, clean rooms. You'll like it."
"All right. Is that where you're staying?"
"Yeah, but that's not why I'm taking you there."
Lance gave her another smile, this one less arrogant, more childlike and pleased. As if he had a secret to share, something pleasant and wonderful that made him happy, and he was excited to tell it to her. "I'm taking you to meet my friends, Allura and Coran. They're great, but don't cause trouble. Allura will kick your ass without hesitation, and Coran won't give you dessert."
Pidge wrinkled her nose, but she supposed that was fair. He had caught her casing a potential robbery victim, after all. "I won't cause trouble," she said solemnly.
Lance laughed. "Good to hear." His stride was lengthening now, his feet eager and light on the cobblestones. Sunset was coming on, and he was going home, or something that counted to him as a home.
Pidge trotted to catch up. "And why do you want me to meet Allura and Coran?"
"Because." Lance's lighthearted expression flattened, becoming more serious and firm. He looked at her, his eyes flicking to the lowered hood where Holly was hiding. "They can see my lion, even when she's invisible. I bet they'll be able to see your lion, too. I think..." He drew a breath and looked forward, striding determinedly on. "I think we have a lot to talk about. Maybe they'll finally tell me why."
Pidge gulped, but nodded. She looked forward with Lance, wanting to catch a glimpse of this inn as soon as it appeared.
She wanted to ask Lance a million questions. Where and when he first met Blue, how it happened, what the fairy lion could do, if he had learned anything about her and where she came from. Pidge was smart enough to see, though, that this was not a conversation they should have on the street. Anyone could be listening.
The quicker they got to the inn, the better. Since her father and brother had vanished on an exploratory expedition to the Dragon Waste two years ago, every waking moment had been a quest
for answers. Pidge had broken into as many secure government facilities in Garrison City as she could, as many times as she could, until she was caught and put under house arrest. Disguising herself and setting out on her own had been a last resort, but she had done it without hesitation. As much as she wanted her family back, she also wanted to know what had happened, what the expedition had found, and why the government was covering it up.
When Holly had suddenly entered her life about a year ago, the questions had only multiplied. Somehow Pidge knew, she was sure, that her unique new familiar was somehow connected to the lost expedition and the magical upheaval she and her mother had been marking in the sky and in other arcane signs ever since. No idea how, of course, but she was sure. It was too bad Holly couldn't talk.
But now... Pidge had met someone like her. Someone who had a lot of the same questions, it seemed. And he knew somewhere to go. Someone to talk to who might be able to help.
Maybe they were finally going to get some answers.