Tavi was indeed supportive of the notion, and did indeed have a contribution toward it, but she also had a caution: it wasn’t going to be as simple as just walking out the door and going to market.

“Firstly,” she said, “you are still in my care, and not just for healing. It’s absurd, but for the moment, that lot hold power, and it would not be wise to simply ignore them. Second, it would be best if you avoid drawing too much attention to yourself. Unfortunately for us, you are rather conspicuous.”

“Oh, curses. I should have thought of that,” Rima muttered. “I’ve never seen black fur outside the royal family and its close relatives.”

“Even the Dukes don’t have that,” Tavi confirmed. “And while I don’t know how people would react to seeing you in the public plazas, I can only imagine that it would hamper your plans, one way or another.”

“What could I do about it, though?” Jisarr wanted to know. “Short of something extreme like bleaching myself white – which would itself be rather conspicuous.”

“Nothing so drastic,” Tavi soothed. “As you say, anything like that would draw just as much attention. No, I only suggest that you cover up – a hooded cloak and gloves will go a long way to make your fur less obvious. As you’ve been placed specifically in my care, it would be expedient for me to escort you – as I might do with a sensitive patient, so it’s not itself unusual. If I do most of the talking, likely most won’t pay close enough attention to your snout and tail to think you anything but a shy patient.”

“And it would all have the benefit of being technically true,” Rima mused. “For sake of contingency, it might be best if I remain here. Should the occupying Council suddenly see fit to care about your whereabouts, I’ll be able to vouch that you didn’t simply slip off on your own, and that should be enough to avoid any embarrassing incidents in the market.”

“At least, if they don’t accept me as escort enough – after all this time – you’ll be able to give me warning, yes?”

Tavi’s query was met with a brisk flick of the ears. “I can also alert you if anything substantial develops while you’re away.”

Presumably she wasn’t only referring to Dren, but it was still a heartening reassurance on that front.

A cloak of a very anonymous medium grey was easy enough to produce. The gloves turned out to be a healer’s work gloves, crafted of fine, supple, spell-treated leather, but they weren’t visibly all that distinct; only close examination would reveal any hints as to their craftsmanship, and at that point none of these simple measures would do much at all. With all that over the simple clothes he was wearing of late, well, Jisarr himself wasn’t much of a judge, but the other two agreed that he’d be easy to miss in a crowd.

He did take the royal brooch with him, tucked away out of sight. It wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to leave lying around somewhere.

Tavi wore a cloak in a very similar style to his, but in a rather less anonymous Healer’s red. She had one last bit of preparation: “I hope it won’t cause offence if I play up your small size and make you out to be an adolescent. It may give that much more credence to you being in my care.”

“As much as I know of the city, I might as well be, anyway,” Jisarr replied with a chuckle, and let himself slouch a little under his cloak. He didn’t go so far as to hunch over – he’d be too likely to mess that up as he went along – but he could make himself look a bit smaller without much effort or thought. Or at least more sullen, but that would work in its own way.

He knew, intellectually, that he wasn’t used to the city, but the last time he’d been through it, he’d been preoccupied. It was only when they turned from the small, quiet lane where the Halls of Healing were sited onto a broader and more open street that it truly struck him just how big the city was. The cavern in which Aynithral lay was almost too vast for him to comprehend. Even the columns that shored up the ceiling were incredibly thick, but at the height they rose to they seemed all too slender. Before all of that, Jisarr felt as tiny as a speck of dust.

When his steps faltered, Tavi paused as well, turning and resting a hand on his shoulder. “It gets easier,” she murmured, “the more you see it. But anyone who’s used to close, comfortable spaces finds the sight daunting. Don’t worry.”

Jisarr swallowed, tipped his ears forward, and made himself continue forward. One thing was certain, he wouldn’t need to feign nervousness. That became especially plain as they drew nearer the marker plaza, where the murmur of a thousand voices melded together into a kind of many-layered roar. Bodies clad in countless colours of cloth and fur, and even a few larger forms of surfacers, passed by one another in a living river.

And then they came into the plaza proper, and he saw the stalls and counters of the merchants.

The boast was that if it was for sale anywhere, it could be found in the markets of Aynithral. With the enormous array of things Jisarr could see just from where he was, he could well believe it.

Though there was some attempt to keep the place organized in broad terms – to keep jewellers’ shops in this section and the glassblowers on that tier – beyond that there was simply no way to tell what one would find next. One kiosk displaying all manner of worked metal body-art, including rings for men with a variety of minor enchantments for better lovemaking, sat next to a larger, more-permanent stall which sold works of metal and glass larger than a woman’s spread hand, made in fanciful forms and suitable for hanging as wall decorations.

With such an enormous variety assaulting his senses, Jisarr scarcely knew where to begin. There was just so much – even if he knew exactly what he wanted, how could he ever find it here? On his own, he’d have found it hard to even make progress through the crowd. It was only by staying close on Tavi’s tail, as the healer eased through the crowd like an eel against a stream, that he was able to see as many shops as he did.

But such meandering was not without its advantages. Passing by a bookbinder’s stall, Jisarr was suddenly struck by a memory – of how Dren had exclaimed with delight on seeing the royal library. He reached up to touch Tavi’s shoulder, turning to look over the stall in more detail.

He had no idea what sort of reading Dren might most enjoy – they’d had precious little time to learn such details of each other, and trying to think back to even those was a painful thing. Too, some books were already available to him at the Hall of Healing.

But that fondness for books gave him an idea. His attention was drawn to a fine, elegantly-styled journal. While he doubted Dren wanted to record much of anything from the last two years, maybe he’d forge some pleasant memories going forward – and this could either be a private record of them, or a way to relate his thoughts without being dependent on his voice, as he saw fit.

He didn’t hold up too much hope of the latter – certainly Dren had had the opportunity to write down requests since his release, but hadn’t seemed much inclined to do so. On the other hand, maybe this could give him a nudge in that direction, without being so high-pressure as to make him panic, or dig in his heels, or something similar.

A few more twists and turns got him a good fountain pen and a vial of ink to go with the book, and still left him with the bulk of the allowance he’d been given.

Jewellery was the next thing to catch his eye. He didn’t dare look for anything very precious, but something in silver might be within his reach, and bronze ought to be as long as it wasn’t ostentatious in some other respect. For a moment his attention was drawn to a simple, coarse-linked chain, elegant in its own way, but then his memory was drawn back to that accursed collar, and he shuddered. No, nothing for the neck.

A copper wristlet, not so much a chain as a series of slender plaques linked together, did catch his eye. The plaque opposite the clasp was set with a piece of lapis lazuli, flanked by the two characters of the ancient Crandil word for “resilience.” A more apt piece he’d be hard-pressed to find.

That left him with a much more modest sum to his name. He knew what he wanted to get, now, though he despaired of ever expressing it to Tavi without his fur catching fire from embarrassment. Really, though, it wasn’t as though he could be secret about it, not with her escorting him. So he managed to make heard that he wanted something to ease lovemaking, and she squeezed his shoulder and started steering him through the crowd.

They went into another section of the market – and if the sights up to now had dazzled him, that was as nothing next to the scents that greeted his nose now. How under earth and stone could anyone pick out what they wanted amid all this?

The answer to that, as he discovered when Tavi brought him up to a particular kiosk, was straightforward enough. The proprietor, a slight and friendly-looking man whose fur was a red tinged with violet like some imported grape wines, had a bottle of something clear which he misted about – it stung the nose briefly, but then left it clear for whatever scent followed.

So when Tavi leaned over the counter and said, as softly as the crowd around them allowed, “My charge has his eye on a young man and needs a little something,” Jisarr found himself presented with an array of faceted crystal bottles, each holding a quantity of clear, oily fluid, each etched with different characters. The first few he tried were too sweet – they smelled more like condiments than something he’d anoint a lover with. The third, now – that was another matter entirely. It was rich and powerful, setting his head spinning and his heart pounding. If sex could be distilled into an aroma and bottled, here it was.

It was a delight such as he’d have loved to share with some of his consorts, and yet it didn’t feel quite right. “It’s lovely,” he said, scarcely above a whisper, yet the merchant’s attentive ears seemed to catch it just fine. “But… not for him. It’s too much.

“You have a discerning nose, young sir,” the man said, fingers sliding over the fancy tops of the bottles. “This one, perhaps?” Another puff of acrid mist, and then he uncapped his choice, this one etched with a laden astil frond.

Both of them had their delights, but this one was subtler. It teased the nose instead of overwhelming it; the mix of scents was faintly alluring, with notes like candle smoke and astil that very much reminded him of romance but didn’t actually smell like sex directly. Where the first one promised, this one tempted, offering hints of possibilities.

And if it were combined with Dren’s own scent, especially growing heavy with need… yes. “It’s perfect.

The merchant named a price, and Jisarr struggled to contain a wince; that wouldn’t leave him with more than a handful of copper rings. But when Tavi was about to start haggling, the man held up a finger. He wrapped in black cloth a bottle with the same astil-frond marking he’d just shown, then another, smaller vial, whose stopper bore the emblem of the previous, rich-scented offering – simply the character for fertility. “Since you appreciate it, young sir – maybe you might find someone else who’s a fit for it, hmmm? Or,” his brows lifted, “enjoy it by yourself, perhaps?”

Now, that was a good way to make his ears burn. And yet he couldn’t help but chuckle. Considering what he sold, the man might not have a bad idea of how to put his customers at ease, really.

Tavi started to say something sharp, but the man made placating gestures. “See, he laughs,” the merchant soothed. “I know the sort of people you see, Healer. They need to learn to laugh, and this one, I can help with that! Now, sir,” he turned his attention back to Jisarr directly, “take these two bottles, for the fair price I have told you for this one,” he tapped the larger package, “and when you have need of more – of either, or of a new scent still – you might remember me, hmmm?”

So far as Jisarr could tell, it was a fair price – his reticence had been due to his own budget, not because he begrudged the man his fee. Measured against how much he personally valued his other purchases today, it was a quite reasonable sum. That added gift was rather enticing, for much the same reason the merchant had guessed it would be – and, honestly, Jisarr was coming to like him.

He glanced up at Tavi, but this time, she was waiting for his word. So she probably didn’t think it an unfair bargain either.

So be it. He couldn’t think of anything else he might want to get, anyway. Jisarr sorted out the last silver rod and a number of copper rings from his pouch and handed them over.

As he did so, the man’s gaze on him became curiously focused, as though the merchant was trying to place something in his memory. For a moment Jisarr quailed. Was this going to be the moment that pierced his veil of anonymity? But in the end the merchant just gave his head a small shake, handing down the little wrapped bundle in turn.

As they turned away from that stall, Tavi laid a hand on his shoulder, giving it a warm squeeze. “Are you pleased?” she asked, ears as intently focused as any of the merchants’ had been.

Even if it wasn’t his own resources he’d been spending, it had felt good to find these things, choose them, and acquire them. And he was very anxious indeed for the chance to deliver his gifts. He flicked his ears forward.

At that, Tavi smiled. “Then so shall I be. Now let’s get back somewhere quieter.”

That proved to be easier said than done. Something unpleasant was brewing at the edge of the market, the accumulated murmur of hundreds cut through by angry shouts. That was bad enough, to have looming in their path – and then he heard his name.

It wasn’t a matter of someone addressing him, he could tell that immediately; no, he was being spoken of, not spoken to. He tried to skirt the edge of the crowd, working his way close enough to figure out what was going on. Thankfully, with everybody nearby so intent on what was happening, they weren’t moving with quite as much purpose, and it was easier to make headway.

While he moved, he listened, trying to sort the clamour of voices into individual threats. Most of the voices were Crandil, but some of them were surfacers – they seemed to be on the defensive. As were some of the Crandil. Others ranged from sullen through resentful to angry.

The loudest, a stocky Crandil woman who seemed to be a guildswoman of some sort, was railing at a trio of humans and their Crandil companions – “you come down here, break a peace that has lasted for centuries beyond counting, you soil our most precious halls, and you have the gall to tell us who should and should not lead us! Mark my words, outlanders – you and your toadies,” here she and the group with her glared at the Crandil escorting the humans, “you’ll pay for shedding the blood of our emperors! Jisani will not be broken by provincial upstarts and their pets from the sun-lands!”

Jisarr stiffened.

A hand on his shoulder told him Tavi had followed him; he cast a desperate look up at her. “They think I’m dead,” he hissed.

“This could get ugly,” she warned, as the argument grew more heated. “There are soldiers on both sides, armed, and the outlanders aren’t having any luck convincing anyone that they’ve not hurt you.”

That much was plain; in response to the demand, louder with each repetition, to release Jisarr, the others had… nothing. And that awkward, well, silence wasn’t quite the right word, but the fumbling response just egged the locals on in their conviction that the reason the invaders couldn’t comply was that they’d killed him.

When he glimpsed hands on sword-hilts, Jisarr swore. “I have to stop this!” He was near shouting just to have her hear him right next to him, but nobody else seemed to notice.

Tavi drew a breath, ears flicking forward. The squeeze she gave his shoulder said, more easily than words, I am with you.Wordlessly, she relieved him of his packages, tucking them under her cloak for safekeeping. And in so doing, she let him go.

Whatever spirit had put in his mind the notion to bring his brooch along, he was grateful for it now, fishing it out of concealment and feeling it heavy on his palm as he pushed back his hood and shouldered forward, tugging off his borrowed gloves. And just in time – one shouting guardsman drew his sword and started to advance.

Jisarr marshalled every lesson he’d ever had in projecting his voice, and shouted over the din, “Stand down, sergeant!

Miraculously enough, it worked – at least in that the shouting stuttered, eyes and ears turning his way.

He swallowed, pushing forward through a crowd that now stepped back to let him pass, clutching the brooch and holding it up over his head for all to see. The angry shouting ebbed, and in its place a current of excited murmuring washed away from him.

Jisarr didn’t recognize the man, but he was wearing Aynithral Royal Guard insignia, and that meant he’d been sworn in before Rod and Crown. That it was probably Jisarr’s father – or his grandmother – to whom the man had personally sworn did not matter; the name was the same, the office was the same, and both traditionally and legally, it was the same entity. The Rod and Crown did not pass to a new bearer; that bearer only took on a new form.

“You swore before me to keep peace in our greatest city,” he declared in that same court voice, lowering his hand. He no longer needed to hold the brooch up for it to be seen; he was in the midst of a growing gap in the crowd, with only Tavi at his side. He went on, “To keep peace, Guardsman. Will you be the one to break it now? Sheathe your sword!” He swept the crowd with a glare that would have done his father proud. “All of you, put up your weapons, now!

Maybe it was respect for the symbol, maybe it was just surprise, maybe it was something else; but measure by measure, the people complied. Swords were slid into scabbards, knives tucked into belts, hammers into aprons.

Well, there was no stopping it now. The only way out of this was through. He drew a deep breath and stepped forward, approaching the heads of the respective groups. This close, he could see a Master’s insignia on the guildswoman’s tunic, and the stripes of a captain on the shoulders of the frontmost human. That’d do to start. “As you can see, Guildmaster, I am very much alive – not harmed or slain by the surfacers and provincials. I have not been mistreated by them, but placed in a healer’s care – not for anything they inflicted upon me, but for the scars left on my mind by the Dukes who were supposed to be governing in my stead and to my benefit. The true authors of the many grievances which, Captain, your allies called upon you to address.”

This little tableau had to have an audience of hundreds by now, and he wanted nothing more than to find a dark, quiet place away from it all and just curl up in it. But he held his ground, held the gaze of a dozen variously angry and sullen people, held onto his righteous indignation that so many who claimed to support the real best interests of his nation should seem so determined to drown it in blood. He was the emperor here and now that he never had been in the Deep, and the outlanders and their allies might not support his rank, but he would not let them or anyone else deny it.

The captain was at least high enough in rank to know that Jisarr had in fact been placed in custody; he now stared at Jisarr like the Crandil had grown a second head. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I came here to heal,” Jisarr shot back. “To have some taste of the peaceful life that my subjects have enjoyed for thousands of years. What I’m doing, it seems, is instead single-handedly keeping fresh violence from breaking out in the streets!”

Crandil in both crowds had the grace to look guilty.

The Aynithral locals had built up their anger on some rumoured or imagined mistreatment of Jisarr; with him standing quite healthy in front of them, they were losing their impetus. The human captain, on the other hand, marshalled his wits a little more quickly. “The General will want to talk to you,” he growled.

Did the man know how treacherous was the ground he was navigating, here? The command in his voice rekindled some of the anger on the other side. Without even looking that way, Jisarr held up a hand, palm out towards them, projecting with all his might the expectation that they would obey his unspoken command – and for now, they did, the mutters subsiding once again.

“I have no doubt of that, Captain,” he replied. “The Generals have gone altogether too long without speaking to me.” He left unsaid that when they had last done so, it had been to interrogate him. Instead he asked, “Which General do you mean, though?” As if many generals sought his time, and he had some say in which of them he would grant it to. It was a sham, but he held onto that image of power as tight as he could – he needed to keep this city stitched together.

“That,” the man grumbled, “would be General Keslar.”

Interesting. That wasn’t one of the surfacer generals Jisarr had met previously. Keslar had been guard-captain under the Duke of Tethrisal, and then militia-chief of the northern provinces – from which ranks the Crandil element of the occupying force had chiefly come. He’d gained something of a reputation for brutality over the years.

And now he was “the General” – the one above the others, presumably the badge of legitimacy on the whole occupation. The Dukes would probably have said something about biting the hands that fed him; Jisarr just knew there was some heavy irony in that man commanding an uprising against the Dukes’ regime.

Not the man he wanted to be going to see. Curse it, he wanted to bring the presents he’d found back to Dren, not go and explain himself to one of the most bloodthirsty commanders Jisani had known in recent history.

But it was ever clearer to him that his time could not be entirely his own. Not if he wanted the city to prosper. So what he said was, “So long as my Healer approves, I will meet with the General.” He didn’t think Tavi would disapprove, and truth be told, if he was going to do this he’d rather get it out of the way – not least because he didn’t want to antagonize Keslar by delaying – but maybe that would act as a reminder that they had placed him in Tavi’s stewardship, he was still in it now, and it would be singularly daft to treat him like an escapee when he was still in arm’s reach of a warden who could have him writhing on the ground with a thought.

“I have not yet declared you fit to leave my care,” Tavi replied, speaking loud and clear so that everyone nearby could hear it. “So I shall accompany you, and see to it that you aren’t removed from that care early.”

Which was her way of saying that she’d not stand for him being seized and tossed back into a cell, certainly not before she was good and done with him – and he wouldn’t put it past her to declare him unfit for release just to avoid that fate. He relaxed slightly. With her as his partisan, he could at least be fairly confident that the future wouldn’t hold any immediate catastrophe for him.

So it was decided. The human contingent and their escorts formed up, waiting expectantly; when he and Tavi started out of the market and toward the Deep, they matched pace, but left the pair to walk under their own power. Perhaps they were conscious of the hundreds of eyes that were on them as they left, some of whose owners, as they had just been reminded, did not tolerate their presence gladly.

As they walked, Tavi squeezed his shoulder, leaning in close. “Splendidly done,” she murmured. “While perhaps not quite ready for discharge, you have made good progress.”

He’d take that as his sign that he’d done the right thing, speaking up here, even if it had largely committed him to the Rod and Crown all over again. Ah, well. At least this time he was making a positive difference.

There was much more to do to ease his conscience, but it was a right step.

He squared his shoulders and walked on.