The Fantastic Accordion Adventure

Zuza Chirt XVI strolled merrily through the concrete wasteland, buildings having turned their backs to her, showing rusted blue dumpsters, solemn gray faces, a smattering of dozing homeless men, and newspaper scraps and plastic bags blowing in the wind. Her hat shivered, nervous in these new surroundings, but she merely raised a comforting hand to the upturned brim, cooing a few soothing noises before continuing her jaunty, curious stroll down the alley. The trash-laden breeze pressed itself against her grey pea coat, and blew tendrils of her short, soft brown hair, making them wave about like tentacles.

The wind brought a plastic bag to her, wrapping it thoughtfully around her foot, which was raised mid-step. Annoyed, she jiggled her foot back and forth, but the bag was stuck fast. Heaving a sigh, she lifted her shoe. "Would you look at that, Hat? People just toss their trash on the street." The purple bowler hat vibrated its agreement against Zuza's head. Once the bag was freed from her foot, the wind snatched back its gift, causing the flimsy plastic bag to dance back and forth, and sing a crinkling song when it brushed the ground. "Though," she digressed, "it is interesting to watch."

She turned her fool's face up to the few, dim stars, dark eyes swiftly panning back and forth. There was something decidedly otter-ish about her features.

Finding nothing in the sky, whatever it had been that she was searching for, Zuza continued walking, the echoes of her soft-soled shoes dying before it could even brush the walls. In counter point to the rhythm of her soft footsteps, she began to hum a little song in the back of her throat, warbling nonsense interspersed with chittering, harmonic rhythms that wove in and out of her footsteps, the song reviving the good mood that the plastic bag had briefly carried off.

She then added a whistle to the melody, mixing it in with the hum and chitter in a weird sort of beatbox. As she marched to the carrying tune of her music, legs stepping high with her knees at right angles, the shadow she cast upon the wall began to shrink. The back bent forward, limbs retreated. The form upon the wall fell down onto four small legs, waddling its long, lithe form across the concrete building, tail swinging back and forth, still in tempo.

In the alley, the girl had vanished. There was only a softly brown animal, legs waddling in step to a tune that was now largely chattered, clicked and chirped. The hind legs of the animal went right-left, right-left comically. The stone walls peered down, probably wondering where the girl had gone, watching the progress of the grinning otter in the tiny purple hat that had taken her place. The animal snuffled at some crumpled-up newspapers that skittered along the alley, startled a confused homeless man as it investigated his foot, and eventually abandoned its marching waddle for the more fluid, undulating run standard to its kind.

It skirted the foot of a red-brick wall, still humming to itself, dodged around an impressive wad of gum adhered to the ground, and shoved its head into a cranny-nook where some bricks had become dislodged, and slithered in—an odd occurrence, for the space was much too small for its entire body.

The silently watching walls witness the end of a thick tail being slurped up by the hole, and then nothing: the river otter in the bowler hat had truly disappeared, its otter-song stolen by the mouth in the wall.

The head of the otter appeared from a mouse-sized hole under a tree root, hat knocked to a jaunty angle by its passage sideways through byways. Expertly, the otter jerked its head, twitching the heat back into its proper place between its ears. The tree root then barfed up the rest of the otter's body, launching it rudely onto the mulch. After much harrumphing, the otter indignantly strode away from the tree. Obviously that twig of a tree had bad manners.

The animal flowed elegantly down the romantic, brick-paved street, the white lights in the small trees twinkling as the branches waved. The nozzles concealed among the branches exhaled clouds of mist, cooling the moonlight strollers from the dry air, and gathering like microcosms of fog around the slim trunks. No one noticed the be-hatted otter as it undulated along the pathway, looking instead up at the dim lights coming from closed shop windows, the reproduction-rustic store-fronts rising two or three stories up on either side of the brick street, closing it off into a happy dream. Soft laughter drifted on the wind, the conversations of fresco diners at the bistros swimming in and out of the animal's ears.

The path-walkers grew sparser the farther the otter went, small groups of happy friends and hand-holding couples fading into the night, slowly walking, as if they had truly forgotten the whiplash, sprinting, buzzing 21st century world. The path only grew more mystical as the otter went, the shops coming to an abrupt end, and wispy trees spread out into the duskiness. In front of the otter, in an alcove among the light-laden trees, there rose a beautiful, whimsical carousel, with small horses, giraffes, lions and birds prancing in place, heads thrown back, necks strained forward, or caught in mid-leap.

The lights were off, and the menagerie stood in silence, shadows gathering across their faces. From the darkness of a crocodile's back, a long, thin form in white robes detached itself, and a smaller, more dexterous form hopped down from between the ancient reptile's gaping jaws. A golden leash, perhaps twelve feet long, bound the two forms, encircling their necks; the rope glittered subtly, throwing sparks of light into the shadow-people's eyes.

But then the man stepped forward, and revealed himself to be Hyenal Ryo, Zuza's spindly, forgetful friend from back home. And the smaller form was merely Licorice, the dancing cat-monkey. With a small smile, Hyenal pulled a large, cumbersome accordion out from his robes, a wheezy red thing with dirty blue whales on it. He spread it, fingers poised over the piano keys, and then pushed it together with a mighty heave and began to weave a jolly jig, Licorice standing up onto her hind legs and beginning to hop about in something akin to a dance. The cat ears atop her head were pricked forward in delight, and her large, round green eyes were sparkling merrily, lights from the trees playing across the darkness of her slit pupils. She waved her arms above her head, beat her hands on the ground, and then the cat-monkey did a little pirouette, smoothly then sinking down into a curtsey as the song finished some minutes later.

Licorice grinned, long saber-fangs jutting past her lower jaw. "So," Hyenal said, voice emanating from the cat-monkey's mouth like a ventriloquist. "You are travelling the worlds now?"

The otter stood up, and was once again Zuza, straightening her hat. "I have wandered the Nightsky-land as much as a might, and Calalini is far too tame. I like this place."

The main raised his eyebrows. "You think Calalini is tame?" Licorice said for him. Hyenal shook his head, eyes wide. "And may I ask, fair lass, how you got here?"

Ducking her chin down a little bit, Zuza fiddled with the rim of her hat, who shook a little in annoyance. "Oh, there are portals here and there."

"No there aren't," echoed Hyenal's voice.

The long minutes culminated, until the were-otter finally said, "It's not my fault Father leaves all of his books floating around, open for everyone to see." She stuck her tongue out at the accordion-wielding man.

He merely shook his head, and Licorice wound her four-foot-long tail around Zuza's leg, mumbling monkey-noises to herself, being back in possession of her own voice for the moment. The girl in the purple hat bent down and curled her fingers into the thick mantle along the monkey's neck and back, the rosette-laden, light brown fur being particularly thick there. "I had to get out," Zuza Chirt XVI muttered tersely. Somberness was not a strong component in her personality.

Hyenal smiled a smile that was a little sad. "I understand. I do not know the goings on of that otter bolt of yours, and you do not need to tell me. But," he said, unwavering, "that does not change the fact that you are in danger here. You yourself are barely three years old, and ill-equipped to face the world. Let alone," he rolled his eyes, "other worlds."

"This year's pups are a whiny bunch of turd-brains," Zuza lamented. "They don't know what anything is, and they don't even care to find out. No imagination. No curiosity. Why, they're hardly otters at all!" She leaned in, as if confiding one of the greatest secrets of all time. "Mum and Da are raising them badly," then snapped back into a straight-backed posture, hand clapped over her mouth.

Licorice chortled soothingly, tail tightening around the were-otter's leg, threatening to cut off circulation. Her chortle turned into Hyenal's voice: "And let me guess: there was a fight."

Zuza frowned. "You make it sound so simple."

"It is very simple. There was too much tension in your home, and being an otter, your first instinct was to hide, and to flee. And I'm guessing that nowhere seemed like a better option to flee to than another world."

She removed her fingers from Licorice's mantle, and looked Hyenal in his eyes, which were the same shade as Licorice's. "You know the otter mind too well."

"How do you think I earn my living? I have to trace that damn touring rout through otter bolt country twice every year. I wouldn't have a brass coin to my name if I didn't know what intrigued them."

"You could play at the floating castles. You would make a lot more money there."

Hyenal seemed taken aback. "Do you begrudge me my visits to your holes?"

Zuza Chirt XVI smiled, tongue clutched between her teeth. "Of course not, you dolt. For seriously thought: why don't you play there? The Sky-sea is magnificent, and not far from otter bolt country."

Licorice shuddered a bit at Zuza's words, and the accordion-man laughed. "Licorice is not very fond of flying sea life. She thinks the Singing-whales should go back to the ocean they came from, instead of wandering the clouds. She says their songs hurt her ears."

The little monkey growled her agreement, and Hat voiced its own distaste with a subtle increase of heat projected upon the top of its wearer's head. The were-otter smacked its brim with a deft hand. "Really?" she asked. "What about the Jellyfish Forest? The way they light up at night is fantastic, it's fantastical, it's phantasmagorical."

Hyenal shook his head yet again. "Even the little jellyfish scare here, even though they just float around glowing. She says the music they make hurts her ears too."

"Music? The jellyfish make music?" Zuza wrinkled up her nose in confusion.

"Well," Hyenal admitted, "it's more like a low-key humming in D minor, with a bit of buzzing here and there. But still, it hurts her ears."

A niggled confusion wormed at the were-otter's brain. "We otters live right on the verge of the Sky-sea, and when we are otters we have to sing in order to swim in it."

"I know this already," Hyenal said. "And Licorice would like to point out that you are not really swimming. You are flying." The monkey nodded as the words came out of her mouth.

"In order to swim in it," the girl in the purple hat went on, pretending not to have heard him. "We otters sing. Why doesn't that bother Licorice's ears?"

"Because," Hyenal smiled jovially, and Licorice said, "You otters aren't very musical. You make more of a squealing cry. That doesn't hurt her ears."

Hurt pride welled up inside of Zuza Chirt the XVI's bosom. "You dare to insult my singing voice?" she said, hand on hip.

"No, I'm not insulting you. I'm merely stating a widely-known fact," the dancing monkey laughed.

The were-otter turned on her heel and began to walk away from the shadow of the carousel. "You can say what you like, and you can do whatever you like. But never insult a denizen of the Sky-sea's singing voice!" she yelled to the air, not feeling that Hyenal deserved to be addressed directly. She did stop for a moment, though, and turn to address Licorice. "You know," she told the monkey, "if he's going to say something stupid, you don't have to say it for him." The cat-monkey scratched her head, frowning.

"Don't give her ideas!" Hyenal's voice said.

Zuza Chirt XVI grinned and walked away, bending forward to become an otter again.

"Otters," the master's voice in Licorice's mouth muttered.

The security guard standing watch at the carousel, hearing the last word, looked up, then at his feet, then at the carousel, confused. There weren't any otters anywhere. The guard didn't even think to question who had spoken the word.

Hyenal, with Licorice on his left shoulder, began to walk away, the cat-monkey fiddling with the shining rope that bound them, the shining coils trailing on the ground behind them.

The freight cars slowly lumbered along the tracks, rusty red, brown, dark blue or somber green, unprepossessing structures allowing themselves to be dragged along by the clanking, shapeless engine. The otter in the hat watched the wheels turning, gliding along the tarnished metal rails, eyes shining at the complexity of the whole machine.

And then, amazement! Its dark otter-eyes looked upon something very odd. On the dark side of a freight car, bright splashes of color had been rendered, swirling lines and exploding strokes of paint. Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night had been thrown upon the side of the rail car, explosions of spray paint creating a mobile work of art that captivated the otter's vision. The spray-paint creation was like nothing the otter had seen in any of the lands in its world. The art of this Earth was truly magnificent. Why, those sleeping villagers didn't even know that the cosmos above their heads had lit themselves on fire!

Curious, the otter looked at the way the car had come, and flowed down the track like a rippling river of sinew and fur. It danced along the rails and the wood planking between them, squealing delightedly at the clacking noises its nails made on the wood and metal.

Leaping from rail to wood to rail again, it took up a rhythm and began to weave a tempo, rendering music from this oddest of places, as it often did. The metal-and-wood track brought the otter-that-had-been-Zuza to a convergence of tracks, the steel joining together and splitting apart like tarnished rivers, forming an industrial delta, a flat plain on which freight cars stood abandoned.

And, of course, the otter needed to go and investigate. It delightedly scraped together some rusty nails into a pile, peering closely at the ways they overlapped, and liking the sounds they made. Its attention was then drawn from the small pile of nails to an interesting coil of wire. It pushed the coil along with its snout, making roll in a jerky fashion over the crossties. But then its attention was drawn to a far-off noise, a sort of whisper, and it set off in an excited bustle along the rail. Otters are very curious.

The rails led her to a the train yard proper: a smaller area, with a few freight cars stalled on their tracks, one engine standing lonely, waiting for the sun to rise so that it's cars might be attached and it could roll on its way. There were a few discarded paint cans, and the lights shed by the lamps high up on the posts were a dim, unwavering yellow, illuminating a scene that would bore most human sensibilities, and perhaps even seem a vague bit eerie. However, to most otter sensibilities, it was a most magnificent place, filled with doodads and trinkets for the playing with and collecting of.

The otter squealed delightedly, adjusted its purple hat (which was also shivering in anticipations) and dove into the nearest paint can. The contents were blue, and mostly dried, but there was still a thin liquid layer hugging the bottom of the rusted can, into which the otter studiously dipped its paws. Sniffing excitedly, it got a nose full of fumes, and smeared its paw on the paint can, removing the gunk, yet also leaving a colorful streak.

Going on its way to investigate one of the freight-cars' wheels, it paused, hearing the same breathy hissing whisper that had intrigued it before. It cocked an ear, and froze. And there it was again! The sound of a compressed-air breath.

Immediately the small brown animal darted off, swerving around the silent engine to the far side of the train car, under which she had observed an interesting pair of bare feet. Yet when the animal reached the far side of the train car, there was nothing there: only a few spray-paint cans, and footprints in the dirt. However, scrawled in amazing clarity upon the side of the box car was a half completed rendition of Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The otter squealed delightedly. What an interesting woman, standing on a clamshell like that! Humans and their fantastic imaginations, the otter thought with a sigh.

It lay down then, gazing avidly up at the painting, the night dark, the colors slightly washed out from the pallid lamps. The painting had been begun from left to right, each streak of color carefully molded with the next. The clamshell upon the side of the car had been applied in a delicate pink shade, only half-completed. The left half of the woman's face was complete, but the unfinished half only stared out into the sky in a tracery of lines. It was like watching the ghost of someone's half completed-thought, contemplated the otter. The animal did not want to wonder about who had created it, instead preferring to admire the work for what it was. The painter would reveal himself eventually.

And so he did, a mere three and two-thirds minute after the otter had completed that thought. He arose in a swirl of plastic bags and rock dust, making a few discarded metal bits skitter away from him. The feel of the man's presence wound its way up the otter's spine, causing hackles to raise and the webs between her toes to tingle. The Hat released a burst of cold air against the otter's scalp in fearful anticipation.

He was a pale man, with scars on his skin like railroad tracks and eyes that shifted colors, like watching trash in the wind blow by through a circular window. They were pale gray eyes, like the autumn sky, but things breezed by them, like fleeting ideas or birds. He was scrawny and malnourished, with long-fingered hands that looked like they should be fidgeting, but were kept strangely still. His hair had a greasy sheen and there were the bruises of sleeplessness under his eyes, as if the sandman had punched him in the face.

The feeling that rolled off of him was like that of the Genius Loci of the cities of Calalini: Psyda, Fountain-denizen and silent queen of Valona, city of waterways and scholars; Muse-mar, the flitting chit that whispered into uninspired ears and brought forth art in word and paint, who lived in the birds of Caledona; Tikka of Tecca, that city of inventors—she who was Spirit of the Clocktower. His vibration most resembled that of The Blue Eyed Tree Frog, that shy waif who was the protectorate and mother of all Calalini, and the culmination of all of her people's joys and grief.

Yet when the otter nudged his foot, it felt no sudden surge of power. Only the faint, constant thrum of the train yard. The man looked down at the otter near his foot for a moment, but then, assessing it to be of no importance, he picked his can back up and resumed his work in painting Venus's left foot. His finger held the top of the can down, never wavering as the pale colors burst themselves out into the open air, breathing a fast breath of freedom before slamming into the side of the rail car.

Bubbling with questions, the otter stood up, and became Zuza Chirt XVI again. As she dusted off her pea coat, in the wink-blink of an eye the man was gone again, the can clattering to the pavement. She could sense his presence dissolving, fading back into the fabric of the train yard where he could safely hide. She had never met such a skittish Genius Locus. But then, the ones she had met were the spirits of whole cities, and here was the soul of one tiny train yard. "Hello?" she called out, and Hat tightened its brim around her forehead, saying quite clearly that it did not think that this was a good idea.

She whipped it off her head and smacked the soft purple dome. Zuza turned the hat to the side, wondering idly if a feather would look good on such a hat. Then, a hand came together out of the air, snatched at the Hat, and then the rest of the man materialized, holding the brim between his non-fidgeting fingers. He examined it closely, though his fingers flinched back when brim suddenly grew burning-hot.

In that instant, Hat was back on Zuza's head, and she was angrily addressing the Genius Locus. "And what business do you, good sir, have in snatching my Hat?"

"I haven't seen a purple hat like that before," the man's voice said in a tone that implied a shrug, though his shoulders did not move.

"Well, you're mum should'a taught you better than to go around snatching people's hats. Especially especial hats like this Hat."

"Who are you?" the Genius Locus asked suddenly, abruptly changing the conversation.

"I, am Zuza Chirt the Sixteenth," the were-otter said, pointedly readjusting Hat's brim against her forehead.

"That is a large number for such an odd name."

"Not really," Zuza muttered angrily. "I'm the only Zuza Chirt there's ever been in my family. My mother just liked the number sixteen." A smidge more thoughtfully, and a tad less angrily, she added "Of the Higher Hill clan. But don't you think just because I'm telling you my name that I've forgotten that you grabbed Hat, you dirty hat-snatcher."

"The Higher Hill clan?" the Loci asked. "Where on earth is that?"

"It's not anywhere on earth," Zuza said, anger dissolving a degree more, for otters love expunging secrets. "It's on Neptune. Not," she hurried to add, "your Neptune. My friend—Hyenal Ryo, accordionist extraordinaire—told me you have things called planets here, and you named one of them Neptune."

"So you are a shape-changing otter in a purple hat from Neptune," the Loci said casually, as if not knowing that, had any human uttered that sentence out loud, they would be off to the loony ward.

"And you have yet to tell me a darned thing about your own self, least your name. If you do not bring it forward soon, I'll just call you Dirty Hat-Snatcher for the rest of our acquaintanceship."

He thought for a minute, as if adding things in his head. "Well, I guess I'm Alphert."

"Just Alphert? Not the third, not the ninth, not from anywhere or of any clan?"

"No," the man said stoically, staring out into space.

Zuza wanted to nip him angrily. He was one of the more aloof, annoying Genius Locus she had met. "You don't have to be such a nettle-priss."

"A what?" Alphert asked, confused.

"Never mind. You wouldn't know."

"Well then, I am going back to painting."

"You do that." But he wasn't listening anymore. He was tracing the line of Venus's big toe, in an elegant sweep. Disgruntled, Zuza shrunk back down into her otter-self so that she wouldn't have to talk. This Alphert wasn't the least bit jaunty. He was very interesting, and very mysterious, and otters love secrets. But if he wanted to be a sinkhole about it, then she would just be on her way.

But Hat loosened its brim, flopping dangerously around on her head, causing her to pause. Obviously Hat wanted to stay, or at least thought she should stay, even if it didn't want to. So, grudgingly, and with a bit of confusion, the otter lay back down and watched the arrogant nettle-priss Genius Locus Alphert paint. But soon anger fizzled down and awe rose up, and the Dirty Hat-Snatcher seemed to forget the otter and began to dance a dance with his hands, a ballet of arcs and paint and whirls and Botticelli.

Only some hours later, when the false prophets of the gray pre-dawn announced themselves, did this Alphert halt his hand, bringing his arm down slowly, spray-paint can spent. And there she rose in her glory: Venus, hand laid thoughtfully over her breast, seemingly not noticing those around her. Rather inconsiderate, thought the otter.

He sat down in one sinuous folding of his thin legs, gazing up alternately at his finished work and up at the sky. Rising from her otter self, Zuza sat back down and unconsciously tugged at her elbow joint a little, glad of her new, longer limbs. She cocked her head at the man, wondering why he painted on the sides of railway cars. So she asked.

Alphert looked at her oddly, and then looked down at the ground, as if pondering the question himself. By way of explanation, he said "This railcar is bound for Chicago; Albert always wanted to go there."

"Who is Albert?" Zuza asked, train of thought derailed.

"He is the brother of Alphonse, the lonely old men who have run this train yard since its beginnings." The spirit looked at her strangely for a moment, and then, as if coming to a decision, went on, "Their presence permeates this place. And because I am so…tied…to this place, it permeates me. The places they wished to go," he looked up at the painting, "their unfulfilled artistic tendencies. Their dreams."

The were-otter nodded along, extremely interested. Why, there weren't many things as exciting as this man on Neptune! Earth was a truly terrific place, bursting at the seams with gizmos and stories and new places as it was. "You are the Genius Locus."

"Not really," Alphert said, surprising Zuza in and that he knew what she was talking about. And, as if sensing said surprise, he added, "Albert loves to read. He really wishes he had gotten his Ph. D in history. Anyway, if I'm correct—am I correct?—the Genius Locus of the place is an spirit that inhabits the place, is tied to it, possess a degree of power over said place, yet can express its own personality, as long as it is in the general accordance with the type of place it inhabits."

Zuza nodded, affirming his correctness. "They are all greater than the sum of their parts. I am not. I'm just the personification of this place. I don't have any power. I am only what this place is. Currently," he looked down at his body, as if seeing through it and examining something else. He looked back up and went on nonchalantly, "Currently I am made of trash, lots of rusty nails, a few moldering cross-ties, some sorrowful thoughts Alphonse is having about his aching knees, and one and a half dead cats."

Looking closely at his oversized, unobtrusive gray sweatshirt, Zuza didn't see anything. She didn't notice anything unusual when she yanked it up either, revealing quite a normal sight: a pale, scarred chest with the ribs rising up to the skin a little. Surprised, Alphert pushed Zuza away and yanked his shirt down with a disgruntled face, but not before her sharp otter-mind noticed the faint gleam of a ring holding fast to one nipple.

"What's that?" she said.

"That," he said, "is the summation of Alphonse's wild younger days. Do you have no concept of personal space?"

"What's that?" she asked again, partly because otters didn't really have a sense of personal space. Thinking for a moment, she answered herself and Alphert at the same time: "Wait, I think think think I know what you mean. That's where people stay away from other people because it makes them uncomfortable," she paused, "…for some reason." Alphert nodded. "Nope. Otters don't really have anything like that. We sleep in big piles and bite each other and play. Oh, wait. We do stay away from each other when we have a fish, so that nobody thinks we're stealing from anybody else. But you don't have any fish, so it's alright," she said cheerfully.

"You are very odd," he shook his head.

"You're the one painting railcars in the middle of the night," she pointed out.

"You're the were-otter in the purple hat from Neptune."

"So?" she said. What he said wasn't strange. He had merely pointed out an obvious fact.

Alphert looked to the east, leaving her question unanswered. The sky was beginning to brighten from false light to true light: the pinks and peaches of the morning coming in. "The sun is rising," he said with relief, as if in dismissal.

"The sun is rising!" Zuza repeated, though she said it with more gusto.

"You are very excited."

"Well," she retorted, "the rising sun is very beautiful."

"You make it sound as if the sun does not rise where you come from," Alphert said with a hint of sarcasm, his first attempt at a joke in a long time.

Instead of laughing, the were-otter looked at him, a little befuddled. "It doesn't," she explained patiently as all hints of humor shrank away from his mind. "It's the Nightsky-land. I have seen the sun, though, in some of the places in Calalini. It's quite spectacular in Caledona, when it rises over the waves of the Ocean of Lights."

"I have no idea of the places you are talking about. And I must be going, because the workers will be showing up soon, and it is rather difficult to explain one's presence when one is scrawling graffiti on the side of the cars." He stood up and brushed off his jeans, with knees that were almost, but not quite worn through.

"Oh, they can't see me anyway, so long as I don't want them to."

The man shrugged, and began to walk away without bidding goodbye. Places did not need to say goodbye, because it was assumed they would always be there, should a visitor come back. He kept the smile dead on his lips, wondering what part of Albert or Alphonse this bounce in his step was, or which jaunty passing emotion of the rail workers' had infected him so. It was then that he looked up, and realized that he was alone. There were only the night-ghosts of the train yard, and ghosts didn't have the power to make him feel anything at all.

The were-otter, in human form, sat on the roof of the building, watching the sun rise over the mountains and paint the world red. The mountains shown in dawn brilliance, and the light crept over the long sprawl of houses, and lit of the glass and fantastic warps of architecture of this city of sin. Zuza lounged in the quickly warming air, noting drowsily that the sun of this Earth was distant and bright, and that the moon, surrendering its glow to the greater light of its day-sister, was small and cold.

Lela, the moon, her moon, always held her close as she glided through the wind-rivers above the rolling plains, and dominated the sky as the were-otter wound her way to the Sky-sea. Conversely, the sun that shown in the neighboring country of Calalini was large and red and peered close on its country like a curious eye.

Zuza liked it here, in this fire-country, though as she breathed a lung full of thin air, she looked longingly at the moon, only one night away from full. The air is too thin, she bemoaned to herself. She wanted to swim in the cloud-reefs with her brother, Blue Foot Dancing again, and to chase the fish that darted in and out of the soft, wispy corals. But that would mean returning to the bolt hole of the Higher Hill clan, to the pups who were being raised badly, to her mother's endlessly licking tongue, and to her father's pleading eyes.

Soon the moon here would be full, she thought, blinking the other thoughts away like the sheen of tears in her eyes. Zuza stared at the cold, far moon, and named her Luna, a fitting name for the distant sister of Lela. Tomorrow night she would shine brightly, happy and round, like a sated otter's stomach.

Growing bored with the phenomenon of day, the girl crouched down into her otter self, and then ran for a cranny-nook to find someplace to sleep. Happiness and sorrow were a tiring things indeed.

The next night found the otter running joyously down the romantic dream-street, the lights in the trees only catching brief sparkles, refracting the light off the drops clinging to its fur from when it had enthusiastically splashed in the fountain. The full moon lent it laughter, and people abruptly halted, wondering where the staccato squealing was coming from.

Hat clung desperately to the otter's brow, wind whipping around its brim and top as its lithe mount leapt into the air…and was borne upwards. It was for naught more than a few strides, more of a glide than a right good swim, and the feel of Luna on her skin was very different from Lela, but she was still soaring.

The otter closed its eyes and let the breeze fondle its whiskers, undulating in the wind as if it were water, truly airborne for but a moment before gliding back down to the paving stones. And then it would run, jump, and be swimming for another moment. Down and down the long street it alternately ran and glided, glad of the full moon's strength, not minding that it had fully surrendered its human form for as long as the moon shown full in the night sky.

It laughed to itself, remembering from one of her father's books that some worlds had so many moons, that many of them were full at once, while others were not. Such a world would play havoc with a were-otter's rhythms, which is why the brown animal was glad of single-mooned worlds like this Earth and its own Neptune.

Passing the bistro, and weaving in and out of trees, the otter sighed to itself. Swimming alone was very good, but swimming with others was more good.

When the otter reached the carousel, it landed halfheartedly on the back of an anal-looking flamingo. It had come here unconsciously, seeking the usually sound advice of Hyenal Ryo, accordionist extraordinaire. Upon landing, the otter found the place empty, save for the half-asleep security officer that wouldn't notice the otter anyway. Jumping, the otter glided to the next posing animal, and to the next, until it reached the crocodile with the open mouth, and curled up inside the hidey-hole where Licorice had curled previously. Otters of the Higher Hill clan were not meant to sleep alone. Before, the loneliness had been manageable, but speaking with the strange spirit Alphert had magnified the feeling.

It had lain with its eyes closed for no more than four minutes when there came a manic cry, a spastic chuckle, and was then startled awake by a prodding hand. Looking up, the otter was greeted by large green eyes, and the hackles on its neck stood up. But then hat vibrated a little in greeting, and the otter recognized Licorice.

With a laugh, a ha! and a squeal, the otter and the animal were tumbling together, as if they had not seen each other for years, instead of just for one day. But when the cat-monkey had pinned the otter, the happiness of the greeting was lost in the franticness of her gestures. Something was very wrong.

The otter looked up, expecting Hyenal to step out of the shadows, but the shining golden rope that bound the two trailed limply on the ground, the loop that would be tight about the accordionist's neck laying limp. Where is Hyenal? the otter tried to say, but only squealed. If it had been talking to fellow otters, such a squeal, along with a certain twist of the body, would have said everything. But a cat-monkey was not an otter.

The monkey chattered, clicked and moaned, but the otter did not understand Licorice's garbled message either. Finally, snorting, the cat-monkey grabbed the otter lightly by the scruff of the neck and bean to drag it. Disgruntled at being led like a pup, the otter nevertheless let itself be led.

In a shadowed corner, out of sight, lay the battered, sleeping form of a homeless man. The otter was about to run past when Licorice angrily halted it with a firm hand on the tail. Startled at being manhandled, the otter bared its teeth for a second before licking its poor tail. But by the time it looked up again, Licorice was crooning gently to the homeless man, and smoothing the hair from his brow.

The man in the torn, bloody clothes that the otter had assumed had no home actually did have a home; it was Hyenal, who was holed up in the otter's heart. Now understanding Licorice's frenzy, it whipped up its own urgency, sprinting over to Hyenal Ryo, who lay, barely breathing. It uttered a piteous cry, and the otter who was also Zuza Chirt XVI lay soothingly around the man's neck, like a pillow.

The accordionist's skin was sallow, washed-out, and sweat beaded his brow. His eyes flickered under their lids, and they abruptly snapped open as his monkey's hand brushed his brow. He gently scratched her head, and the otter quickly flowed out from around his neck, perching with its forepaws on Hyenal's chest, squealing loudly. The man weakly grabbed at the golden rope trailing from Licorice's neck, and gently draped it over the otter's shoulders. Immediately, the glaring trails of thought that raced through the cat-monkey's mind flowed through the small brown animal's mind as well, causing it to reel for a moment before growing accustomed to the noise

The most important messages played themselves over and over:

Men came and knocked Master down, and hurt him.

They stole his accordion.

He is dying.

As the last phrase redoubled around itself inside of the otter's mind, an unnatural stillness settled over her. It was like a rushing river halting in its tracks, an otter birthing a mole, or the Blue Woman turning hateful. Otters were not supposed to be so still. It just did not happen.

An accordionist without an accordion was like an otter without a tail; a floating castle without a Music-maker; a bird without wings. Without it, he would die. It was part of who he was, more integral to him than his own heart, or his connection to Licorice, who was his voice.

Hyenal whispered weakly, not so much words as a butterfly-soft exhalation and the faint fluttering of his lips. Nevertheless, sharp otter-ears understood his voice: "I am sorry to ask, but please save me." Nodding grimly—another discordant thing, for otters were seldom grim—the otter that had been Zuza rushed for a brick wall with the smallest of cracks in it, not having the time to find a larger cranny-nook to serve as a more suitable portal.

With a weird slurping sound, the crack guzzled up the otter's tail and then was spat back out in the only place it knew to go: the train yard.

Bursting forth, the animal dislodged a loose brick, and sent the whole mess clattering down on the dirt. The animal looked down at the glass shards strewn across the ground, a hazard to its delicately webbed paws. It was then, with not a small twinge of delight, that it remembered that it was the full moon, and set to gliding those few feet above the ground, reveling in the moment of freedom that wedged itself inside its mind, between frantic worry and driving focus.

The otter cast its head around, but did not see Alphert anywhere. Panting fast, shallow breaths, it squealed loudly, so that even humans might hear it, though they would assume it to be no more than fighting rats. And then, after a long, long, long moment, that small wind arose, and a head slowly formed out of the air. The head looked down at the animal that was the source of the noise, assessing it with those mysterious trash-in-the-wind eyes. "You rang?" he asked, voice calm, though his internal calm had been shattered.

The otter could only squeal more, and dance back and forth like a snake before a charmer, slapping its forepaws against the ground. Hat was also putting on a display, glowing brightly, its purple color casting strange light on the otter-face below it.

Alphert could only watch in confusion. Why did she not change back into human form. But then, faster than most, though slightly slow for a Genius Locus, he realized. Looking up at the pregnant moon, he asked, "You are an otter until sunrise, aren't you?"
The otter nodded, an action that entailed bobbing its head, neck and even shoulders. It then scampered away a few feet, looking back at the spirit, and darted back and forth in the interlaying space. "You want me to follow you," he said. It wasn't a question.

Again the otter gave its half-body nod, and ran-glided to the cranny-nook that had spit it out. Alphert watched it with a faint, internal sigh, marveling at the magnificent creature it was, belligerent girl though it may have been half the time. He looked confused as the animal proffered its tail with a waggle. It squealed angrily when he just stood there, immobile.

Hesitant, he reached down and grabbed the thick appendage; before he could draw a breath, or even blink, the otter that was Zuza half the time was diving into the wall, and he was pulled along with it. The sickening lurch as he was pulled sideways through the byways gripped him, and the complete lack of definitive space nearly made him pass out. And it was indeed unpleasant to feel himself being stretched out and spat out through a hole much too small for the body he had currently fashioned himself (out of some spreadsheets that had accidentally been let fly in the wind, and some bits of a raunchy song the yard workers had been singing).

But then the otter was off and gliding again, as if it were swimming in air, and Alphert had no time to gaze in wonder; he only had time to keep up. The animal led him to yet another animal, this one a monkey that looked like a cat, and they spun around each other in a frantic circle, both clutching a shining golden rope that lay on the ground between them.

And then both turned and ran towards an alcove of shadow, the long rope trailing on the ground behind them. By now the Genius Locus had gathered that there was an unbelievable urgency about the situation, though he himself was still hopelessly confused.

That is, until he came up to the man laying in the dirt. He was an odd man, and one of a type that Alphert would not normally bother with. But he was bleeding in places and looked like he was running a fatal fever. Kneeling over the man, the train-yard spirit produced a cool, wet rag, and laid it on the brow of this man he did not know. Mopping up the sweat, Alphert looked desperately at the otter, completely out of his element, and nervous at the fact that he had never been caught so unawares.

Instead of meeting his eyes, the otter went and bent an ear close to the man's slightly open mouth, listening. It was the cat-like monkey that made eye contact, and offered up the shining rope to him, much like the otter had offered up its tail. Bracing himself, he gripped the golden length, and immediately was aware of a presence thrumming through the threads. He could not discern it clearly, only understanding that the man before him was in great danger, and that Zuza would fix it somehow. He also understood that the monkey—whose name was Licorice, the only thing that was clearly stated—cared very much about what happened to its Master.

So the otter that was Zuza half the time wanted him to look after this man until she returned. He, the man she had barely met. Otters, or at least this otter, were very presumptuous, he thought half-heartedly.

He looked up, to ask the otter a question, but it was already gone.

The otter was digging through the piles of metal in the train yard, searching for one rust-free, unbent iron nail. The pile of detritus around it grew and grew, until it emerged triumphant, one dull metal nail held tightly in its jaws. Looking at the hole it had just dug, it dove in, was lurched sideways and then spat out from under a rock, on the shores of a creek.

The waters flowed by swiftly, and Hat reflexively tightened itself about the otter's ears, knowing the jarring journey that was to come. The otter rushed forward to the bank, and waded into the water. It was dark and cool against its fur, and it would have been a blessing to halt there for a moment. To stand still and let the water caress her until her pounding mind was silent.

But then the otter traced the symbols against the surface of the creek, squealed the otter vocalization of the alchemic word for portal, threw in the iron and waited for the hole in the world to tear itself open. It was not long in coming: the bubbling of the water, the faint glimmer of light, like the lantern swinging on the porch, welcoming a long-gone traveler home.

The otter plunged its face into the water, using its nose to test the path between Earth and Neptune, before giving itself wholly over to the current and being dragged downward. It was like no experience any human has ever had, or will ever have. More than the spine-tingling nausea of one who is afraid of heights being encased in a glass box a thousand feet above the ground. More than the excitements of the stomach dropping out of you as you hurtle down the roller-coaster's first dive. More than the embrace of a hot bath massaging your anger away. More than fear. More than warmth. It was like the culmination of a lifetime's worth of travels of a man who had walked very, very far indeed, and all the emotions and memories therein welling up in one glorious moment of remembrance.

And then the otter was home.

And was falling.

But only for a moment.

It uttered a humming song, and the air of the Sky-sea fell in harmony with the melody, and lifted the furry form aloft, catching it in the most welcome of embraces. Lela was bright, though a week or two away from fullness, and glaringly large on the horizon. Below the otter spread the great, rolling plains that lay under the Sky-sea, and on the far horizon lay a dark line of trees—the Jellyfish Forest?

Nostalgia would have to wait, though, the otter thought obtusely. If that truly was the Jellyfish Forest, then she was very, very far from home. Plaintively, the otter called out in otter-speak, Blue Woman, who is the Goddess of the Nightsky. I, your child, seek your aide. Not for myself, but for those in my heart. Gentle heart of the Nightsky, hear me! The old invocation rolled from her whiskered mouth, and a few kicks of her webbed feet added emphasis. Not knowing if the Blue Woman had heard her, the otter sang up a mighty current, and rushed headlong into the sky, praying all the way.

The ground quickly rushed by below her: soft undulations of land, herders watching over flocks of docile manatees that were laid down for the night, once, the light of a village—that must have been Gar, only town on the Sky-sea. And above her went the clouds, the fishes seeking shelter in them, the laughing dolphins hunting the fish, the sharks hunting the dolphins, and larger than everything, a pod of whales cast their shadows on the planes below. Soft phantoms lit by moonlight shadow, they breached the sky gracefully, like a poem, and swam slowly together, weaving in and out of each other. Their movements were unhurried, like the stars turning so far above them.

The otter that was Zuza did not dare swim higher into the Sky-sea, for there the currents were too strong for an otter who's clan mates swam only in the wind-rivers.

Floating castes drifted above her, though below the Sky-sea proper, upside-down windmills on the bottom turning slowly, the faint music that emanated from within the structures of pink stone keeping the mills turning, and the castle floating. The Music-maker, or rather, several Music-makers, played at all times, be an instrument with a horn, with strings, or with bells, lighting the Sky-sea with yet another layer of song, and giving their lords' abodes the gift of flight.

Swimming around the base of one such castle, the otter saw a long, smiling form weaving around and about. A noble's child, or maybe even a servant's child, having snuck down to the stables, riding on the back of a singing dolphin, feeling true freedom for perhaps the first time.

The wind at the otter's back grew still stronger, and where the winds should have swamped the small animal, they only pushed it faster, faster than it should have ever been able to go. The song was now not being sung, but ripped out of the animal's throat, and everything was a rush of wind, song, and sky, blurring together until its eyes swam and it could hardly see.

Somewhere in the mad frenzy, the otter managed to thank the Blue Woman, for it could feel the thinning of the air around it, and knew that it had reached the borders of the Sky-sea, covering in a few hours a journey that should have taken many days. Such was the power of their smiling goddess.

The hills began to rise up higher, and the otter left the sea and entered a wind-river, the current carrying her along. The otter snatched at a fish that was also riding the current, making a quick snack of it before leaving the wind-river to land. The otter stood up, and Zuza Chirt XVI ran as she had never run before, throat burning and voice hoarse from such singing.

She neared the familiar bolt, and almost paused before entering, but then shrank back down into her otter self and slithered into the hole. She sprinted through the packed-dirt tunnels, ignoring the designs on the walls, and turned from one snaking passageway to another, coming to the door of her father's study. She squealed, the otter version of a knock, and waited.

A brief eternity later, the round door swung outward, and her father, Long Tail in the Sky, was blinking at her with startled eyes. There was a moment's worth of held breath before father tackled daughter, and was busy rolling her to and fro, examining her for bumps and scrapes, and at the same time shaking her roughly for leaving. Where have you been? he demanded.

There is no time, she panted. I need to grab something, and then I have to go.

No. Her father sat down in the doorway, squarely blocking her. You will not just go.

Why-y-y-y-y-y? she squealed.

Darkness welled up in her father's already dark eyes. Why? he asked. Why? he said it again. Because your mother has lost two pups while you have been away. Because your brother Alpha Theta Breathe has died while you have been away. Because your sister Click-Click Ha! has left while you have been away. Because Blue Foot Dancing has hardly been able to eat for that he has been missing you so much. That is why.

So much has happened? she asked meekly.

Seeing his daughter cowed, he only nodded seriously, and ushered her into his study.

The books lay open on his desk, and floating—yes, floating—around the room, opened to various pages, for quick inspection. Strange glass apparatus held measured amounts of liquid metals, and the steady drip of her alchemist father's workroom brought back the memories of too many seasons. Piles of metals lay around the room, detritus from the corners of Neptune as well as from worlds adjacent: unbent paperclips, broken bells, un-sprung springs, stripped clockwork gears, broken watches, cracked statuary. All to be melted down into their purest forms so that her father might tinker with them. For that was alchemy: the science and magic of metal.

The fumes of the room burned her nose, and the confining space squashed her sense of freedom. She wanted to get out, but neither the room nor he father would let her. Soon your mother will find out you have returned, the older otter said simply.

His daughter moaned internally. Once Hapha Heesha with the Fish on Her Fang found out her daughter had returned, her chances of escape would narrow to almost zero. All that would save her was the truth: Hyenal Ryo, laying near death, in a strange world. But it was a long story, and would cut precious moments out of her timely return.

Hyenal is in danger, she said desperately. Her father raised his eyebrows. Someone stole his accordion. At this, the older otter sat bolt upright, nearly turning into his man-shape, before remembering the confines of his room. Hopefully this small explanation would suffice, and she could be away once more.

Which spell do you need? her father asked sharply.

The one for crafting. I've forgotten the symbols and half the incantation, but I know I need a bell of pure brass that rings true.

Long Tail in the Sky looked at her for a moment with proud eyes, the pleading in them evident before he ran directly for a shelf and pulled out a book. He nearly broke the binding when he threw it open to page ninety-four. He gestured for her to read it, and began digging through the pile of bells on the half-chance there would be an unbroken one of pure brass within the ranks, shaking his head as he went.

His daughter was the only one of his offspring who had ever shown an aptitude for alchemy—an aptitude that was a very high one indeed, besides the fact that she was a very gifted magicker besides, what with all that sliding sideways though byways that she did. But she had a wanderer's soul, and would never stay in his study any longer than needed to yank a book of a shelf and find out what she needed to know.

As he neared the bottom of the pile of bells, he regretted his raising of her. Maybe if he had been stricter in her upbringing, she would be less unwilling to take up his search for the Philosopher's Stone, that holy grail of alchemists throughout all worlds and all times. A lifetime's worth of research, and no one to bequeath it to. This was his loudest lament.

Not finding an unbroken bell, he looked sadly at the liquid brass that he had been strengthening for the past lunar cycle. Lela would change her face yet again before he could find metal of such quality. Sighing, he poured it out of its beaker; but instead of falling to the floor and burning his soft skin, the burning metal formed into a neat ball between his paws. With a few gestures, and layering upon layering of symbols woven in a flash of webbed paws too quick to follow, the ball changed its shape at its crafter's beckon and call.

Finally, between his paws hung a still-glowing-hot bell, a plain thing, unadorned, just as the spell called for. In the book, Zuza was just finishing memorizing the lines of script she would utter and the symbols she would sign in the conjuring.

Her father signed the symbol for cool, strong metal, and the bell stopped glowing. Long Tail caught it between his paws and passed it to his daughter, locking his feelings deep inside as she nodded her thanks and tussled with him for a brief moment in goodbye. And then she was gone, out the door, and halfway down the hall, before her father called out sharply. You forgot this!

Turning, she saw Hat clutched in his forepaw, and even from the distance and in the darkness of the tunnel she could see it was shaking. Berating herself, she knew she should have immediately noticed its absence upon her head. She only hoped Hat would forgive her.

Instead of handing the purple Hat back to her, her father gently placed it on her head. This is a very ingenious thing you made here, he commented. So many animation spells…long memorization, abstract symbols…he sniffed Hat for a second…Phosphorus, Lithium! You are a very great alchemist.

Zuza only smiled, understanding the thousand thousand meanings layered against each other in his words. She licked his cheek. I'll never be quite like you, though. I will never make a Philosopher's Stone.

Her father only shrugged and twitched his whiskers, smiled, and bade her a final goodbye. Will you ever come back? he asked.

I don't really know.

And then she was gone.

Out in the air, she was preparing to launch herself up into the wind-river when a lithe form flowed up the hillside. At first she thought it was her father, but the exuberance in the figure's run lent it only one possible identity: Blue Foot Dancing! she called down the hill, and they rocketed together in such a forceful impact that both went reeling. It was only at the last moment that Zuza Chirt XVI remembered the bell, and shielded it from her grinning brother.

You are back! he announced. You are back! You are back!

No, I'm not. she whispered sadly.

His whiskers drooped and he frowned a little. But there is a good cloud coming, and neither the dolphins or the whales, nor the sharks have gotten to it. So much fish! Will you not stay even for that?

Not even for that, she said, grooming his spine for him. Blue crooned a little under her touch, so long absent.

It has been so lonely! There is no one to fish with except mother, and she fusses.

Hyenal Ryo is in danger, Blue. The sadness showed itself in her voice.

When will you be back?

I really don't know, she replied honestly.

A sad smile played across his face. You've found your mate, haven't you?

Not that I know of, she muttered angrily. Damn Alphert. He had better be taking good care of Hyenal.

Yes you have, her favorite brother teased, even though his own loneliness was beginning to worm its way into his voice.

I don't know when I'll be back, brother, but I swear to you that I will be back.

Promise? he smiled.

Promise, she smiled back. Tell Mum to stop spoiling the pups.

Oh, she stopped spoiling them the minute Yik Squee led Grins Like Opals and Dreaming Here to their deaths. Poor Eating Starshine has really been through a lot—seeing your siblings torn head from torso by an orca will mess you up. The sadness in his voice made Zuza want to stay and comfort him forever.

But she merely licked him behind the ears and then made her final goodbye, not sure as to when she would return. The other otters, having caught wind of her return, had emerged from their bolts to watch from afar, not really sure what to make of the odd daughter of Long Tail in the Sky and Hapha Heesha with the Fish on her Fang. People from the Orange Wind clan watched, people from the High Hill and Highest Hill clans watched (centuries ago, attempting to set themselves apart, those of the Hill clan had named themselves the High Hill clan. Her 30-times great-grandfather had then named his own line that of the Higher Hill clan, to put those smug nettle-prisses in their places. But then those of the Pound a Rock clan had named themselves the Highest Hill clan, attempting to curb the whole clan-renaming war. But then the Clam-chomped clan renamed themselves the Most Best Amazing clan, and therefore curbed all attempts at renaming until the present day).

Zuza launched herself into the air, looking at the figures of the otters swimming in other wind-rivers, and wondering if one of them was her Mum, who would cry at knowing she had missed her daughter. It could not be helped.

She sang up a wind with her scratchy voice, but then the current intensified, and she knew the Blue Woman was with her once more, carrying her to the nearest body of water, which was the Singing Stream. The current all but threw her out of the sky, and she landed none-too-gently on the stream bank, and knew it was her goddess's way of saying that time was running short.

Clutching the bell's handle in her mouth, she threw a bit of iron dust into the water, sheer intention being enough to open the portal. For magic was stronger in Neptune than it was on Earth.

She emerged out of a grimy puddle in the alley where she had first strolled on that fateful night. She found the cranny-nook formed by the dislodged bricks and hurled herself into it, being carried back to the train yard, and emerging once more from the hole she had dug before.

Zuza stood up into her human self, and an eager Licorice screeched from an abandoned boxcar a ways away. It was pre-dawn again, with the sun about to rise. She ran through the twilit place, breath and blood pounding in her chest, voice almost gone. She stumbled into the boxcar, finding Alphert hunched worriedly over Hyenal's violently shaking form. The accordion-less accordionist extraordinaire was almost gone.

Gaining measure of her heartbeat, Zuza Chirt XVI began to weave the spell for crafting. Inadvertently, she began to sing the incantation in a soft, lilting voice that made the Genius Locus on the train yard look away. There was too much magnificence in this one person to be reasonable.

The were-otter raised the bell, and Hat began to sing a little bit too, a barely audible humming that swung counterpoint to the original lyrics. She swung the bell, and the note rang true as metal struck metal, like the hammer beating the anvil as the clapper rang back and forth. Then, the bell began to glow white-hot, and she had to release her grip, holding it instead between her hands with nothing but focus.

In the dark light of the box-car, the bell shone like a beacon, illuminating the rust-streaked walls of the car, and the hope on the faces of those within it. Then the bell gave one final ring, and then disappeared in a clap of thunder. This was not part of the spell, Zuza worried. Was she not supposed to sing the words? Had she killed Hyenal Ryo, beloved to her people?

But then the place where the bell had disappeared began to glow again, and the ringing of ten thousand bells could be heard in the heart of the light. But, slowly, the bells began to fade, and to morph into the jaunty, flowing music of an accordion, and there, in the middle of the box car, between her hands, grew a blue and gold accordion, adorned with vines and bells and otters. Smiling at her own inadvertent likeness upon the instrument, Zuza walked slowly over to her immobile friend and held forward the heavy instrument.

Hyenal's brow ceased to sweat, and his skin cooled noticeably under Licorice's fingers. His eyes opened, and he smiled as he saw the new instrument. The mute man mimed her handing it over, so the were-otter did. He held it between his hands, dancing his fingers across the keys and pushing it inward experimentally, gaining a sense of its heft. When the sound that rang out was like that of the carousel under which they had spoken, he grinned, shaking his head in a silent, sardonic laugh.

He ran his hand along the golden rope that was secured around the cat-monkey's neck, and it dissolved. He reached out and shook Alphert's hand, and Zuza's. He could not speak, and would not, for many a season. The rope that had bound him and Licorice and had given him the gift of voice was a very special working, by a kitsune gypsy-witch, and would need a long while to regrow, and to accustom itself to this new accordion. But still, Hyenal smiled, and Licorice hopped up onto his shoulder.

Heaving himself up, he waved jauntily and began to play his accordion, a long tunnel opening up in front of him. Hyenal Ryo, accordionist extraordinaire was walking his own path between the worlds. Hopefully he would return to his home of Caledona, as so few bards did, and give thanks to Muse-mar, who more oft than not got more thanks from the birds she lived in than from the bards she watched over. This was why the City of Bards was more commonly known as the City of Birds.

In the sudden silence, Alphert shook his head and looked upwards. "This has all been well and good, but tomorrow I will wake up from this odd dream, to the smell of engine smoke and rail worker's sorrow."

"Who says you have to wake up?" Zuza asked slyly. "Sometimes life can be a happy dream."

"But you always wake up," he sighed.

"How do you know that the life you were living before wasn't the dream in the first place, and the dream of right now isn't really a dream at all, but the waking up?"

Alphert twisted his lips in a smile. "Your attempts to confuse me are in vain."

"Oh, I doubt that," she said with a wicked grin. And, whip-fast, she leaned in and kissed him, hard but fleeting, and then, with a manic laugh, leapt out of the train car and dove for the nearest cranny-nook. She would return.

He looked out after her, confused yet again, but also elated for the first time since Alphonse had held his wife. Zuza was a master of confusion.

But then, otters have an odd sense of humor.