Aunbrel had spent the day not explaining the situation to Kinsley, and wasn't about to ruin his record now. "I am taking the admonishment that I not work so hard seriously. You should be pleased."
"Hey, did I complain you worked too hard?"
"Huh. Don't know what I was thinking." Kinsley walked with Aunbrel down the steps to the main floor. "Want to get a drink?"
"No, thank you." Aunbrel crossed the big main room, headed for the door. "I just want to get ho -- "
"Commander on floor!" a senior guardian's voice barked. By reflex, every person in the large room, including prisoners, complainants, Kinsley (somewhat creakily) and Aunbrel, turned to the door and dropped to one knee, ducking their heads as Commander Lisia entered the peacehouse.
"As you were," the Commander said, her leopard pacing beside her. Everyone rose and returned to their purposes, stealing covert glances to the Bright Lady's fur robes and gold headdress. She carried a leather folder tucked beneath one arm. Aunbrel and Kinsley kept their eyes respectfully averted as they moved to the door.
"Guardian Aunbrel?" Commander Lisia touched his arm.
Aunbrel reflected that twenty-foot viper-dragons had nothing on the Bright Lady when it came to intimidation. And she's not even trying. "Yes, Bright Lady?"
"I'm glad to find you here. Might I have a word with you?"
Aunbrel wondered what he'd done wrong now. "Yes, Bright Lady." He trailed obediantly behind her as she entered the guard captain's office. The captain rose and started to kneel at her entrance, but stopped when she waved off the formality.
"Thank you for bringing the Coalstone nest matter to my attention, Captain Tasker," the Commander said. "You were quite correct; it's exactly the sort of thing I need to be informed about." The captain acknowledged this with a nod.
Ah, that. Naturally.
Commander Lisia turned back to the tall elf. "You've been causing quite a stir with the viper-dragon populace, Guardian Aunbrel. They're not used to interference in nest affairs."
"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel held himself formally, hands clasped at his back. You did say I should get a hobby.
The commander leafed through the folder in her hands, saying absently, "Some of them did not appreciate it much, although Mistress River ... I'm sorry, Guardian, were you in a hurry this evening?"
'No' was untrue and 'Yes' was impossible. "Bright Lady?"
"No matter." She closed the folder. "I appreciate your efforts. Well done, Guardian. You may go. Have a good evening." The commander turned back to Tasker, taking a seat opposite her at the desk and putting the folder on the desk. "There's a few things I'd like to discuss with you, captain."
Aunbrel stood near the door, blinking, as his superiors fell into discussion. Need warred with prudence. He opened the door, and started to step outside, before need overthrew caution and prudence both. He cleared his throat.
His superiors looked to him. "Yes, Guardian?" Commander Lisia said.
"Permission to ask a question, Bright Lady?"
A graceful nod. "Speak."
"... do you know what's going on? That is, does any of this viper-dragon business make any sense at all to you? Because if you could explain it to me, I would be forever in your debt, Bright Lady."
A small smile formed on the commander's face. "I do believe, at this point, that you understand as much of it as any other person in Hopestart, Guardian Aunbrel."
"... that is not the reassurance I had hoped for, Bright Lady."
"Now you know what my job's like. Go home, Guardian."
When he got home, Aunbrel opened the door to an apartment he barely recognized.
The hardwood floor in the front room had been polished and the tile in the kitchen waxed. The rugs had been aired and beaten, making them two shades brighter, and the threadbare patches in them mended so faultlessly they looked new. The tattered sofa had been patched artfully over the top and arms. The books stacked two-deep in the row of cases against one wall had been pulled out, dusted, alphabetized, and returned with the back rows stacked atop small empty boxes so that the spines were visible above the front rows. An appetizing smell of spiced beef and vegetables wafted in from the equally-pristine kitchen.
Ember called out from the kitchen, "Good evening! I know you weren't sure when you'd be home but I thought I'd try cooking something -- I remembered you saying that the izkawa beef from A Hope in War sounded good, so I found a recipe in one of your cookbooks ...." She slithered into the front room and trailed off. Aunbrel was standing open-mouthed by the entranceway. "Is something wrong?" she asked in a small voice.
"What happened here?"
Ember coiled up on herself. "I'm sorry I just thought I should straighten up a bit and I didn't think you'd mind you said it was all right to go to the grocer's if I needed anything and well I didn't mean to mess up your books I can put them back the way they were if you don't like it -- "
The elf threw his arms out. "I don't -- " He took a deep breath. "I'm not angry, Miss Ember. Surprised. Yes. Surprised. I thought you'd spend the day reading or somesuch. Did you do all this yourself?"
"... mostly? Glasscale, you remember him, he stopped by with Mistress River to bring some of my things and they helped with getting the boxes to prop the books on. But mostly me."
"... what happened to 'I'm lazy and hate all my work'?"
"Well. It's much easier to get things done when there's no one around to interrupt me. And I couldn't spend the whole day reading. And I thought I should try to start things off right. I'm sorry."
"Miss Ember," Aunbrel said, with a straight face but a smile in his voice, "You are as bad an overachiever as I am. Is that food ready? Because I am ravenous."
Ember uncoiled, her tail giving a tentative pleased wiggle. "Yes."
The viper-dragon insisted on transfering the meal from pan to serving dish before serving. Aunbrel hadn't even known he had a serving dish. The table was already set with plates and napkins; Ember looked chagrined when Aunbrel retrieved flatware for himself. Aunbrel was somewhat relieved to see that though the scuffed kitchen table had been scrubbed and polished, it had not been stripped and revarnished. Yet. He sat in one chair while Ember coiled atop the other. They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Ember spoke. "Guardian ... do you think you could call me Ember instead of 'Miss Ember'? Since we're nest-partners?"
"Only if you'll call me Aunbrel," the elf replied.
Ember's eyes widened. "Oh, no, I couldn't do that."
"Miss Ember it is, then."
Her tail tip gave a nervous wiggle. "But you're ifisith! I ought to call you Master Aunbrel."
Aunbrel set his fork down and favored her with a look. "Don't you dare." She tilted her head to one side, puzzled. The elf sighed. "I understand this is all different from what you're used to, but I did not invite you here to be my servant. Or samassas, for that matter. I invited you as my friend. I should like us to still be friends. Ember."
She ducked her head, then opened her mouth in an imitation smile. "Me too ... Aunbrel."