Mayor Barnes Fitzgerald waits for them at the station.
He is strikingly thin, with gangly arms that swing in long arcs as he strides the length of the platform. His suit is neither fine nor poor, and though the gold watch clasped to his wrist suggests a kind of wealth, his worn, ill-fitting shoes prove otherwise.
He smiles sheepishly as he approaches, revealing rows of crooked teeth. He extends his arms, as though to embrace them, but stops short by several feet.
“Dr. Josephina Gundry, welcome to Monsbury.” With a flourish of his hand, he offers it for her to shake. She does, with some hesitation.
“It’s a pleasure,”
Fitzgerald laughs, as though Jo told a joke, “We’re happy to have you. I have heard that you’ll be able to help with our little incursion.” He turns on Oscar, so suddenly Jo feels upended. “And you’re Oscar Williams? A genuine joy to make your acquaintance.”
“The joy is all mine,” Oscar says cheerily.
“Do pardon the smell,” he makes a show of wafting the air around them, as though batting a moth from his face, “we’ve done our best to keep the fires to a minimum, but, well, there’s only so much one can do with a dragon up and about!” He laughs again, and Jo is already weary of the sound. When neither of them says anything, he clears his throat and checks his watch. “Well, then,” he says, his voice wavering, “it’s best we be off. Follow me, now.”
They step off the platform, and it is immediately apparent that something is wrong.
The town is buried deep in the abdomen of Sol’s coldest mountain range; but the heat is thick and oppressive, like Monsbury has been buried in a heap of hot coals. The place is so clouded in a thick, pervasive smoke, it is difficult to see more than the mayor ahead of them. Dust coats Jo’s lungs and throat, and gifts her a second layer of ashy skin. She muffles her coughs with a now-ruined handkerchief.
She fixes her attention instead to the houses they pass. There are no smoldering pits where a home once stood, no obvious signs to where the smoke could originate. Everything, all for being dusted in a fine surface of grit, seems untouched.
They’re all very spread out from one another. One disappears completely into the fog before another rises over the hill. It creates a chilling effect. Were the path not beneath their feet, they might vanish forever into the cloud of mist.
“It looks like it might rain, soon,” Oscar says. (Jo can’t tell how he figures, in the abyss.) “Should we be concerned?”
“My home is not far ahead.” The mayor calls from over his shoulder, “It is just around this bend!”
As the houses grow denser, the path beneath their feet blends into a worn brick road. Signs of a dragon slowly begin to make themselves more apparent. Charred storefronts, free roaming cattle, and quiet folks with ruined cloths; but nothing that could produce so much smoke.
The road widens into a town square like a river gushing into open water’s. But there is nothing so grand as that. It’s as depressing as everywhere else in Monsbury, a semicircle of silent houses, like a cardboard set piece for a low-grade production, and a fountain filled with rainwater and garbage.
At the other end of the square is an iron gate. New, untouched by rust or weeds. Past it is fields of rolling grass, and in the distance, a halfhearted attempt at a forest. It’s odd. Like two different settings were mashed together and forced to play nice.
Before Jo can examine it properly, Fitzgerald tugs them into a sharp left turn, leading them toward a towering house in the center of the semicircle. It’s a pale yellow, with a porch that is, admittedly, lovely.
“Here we are,” says Fitzgerald, stepping aside to let her and Oscar pass.
Jo lifts her skirt as she climbs the stairs, brushing her gloved hand against the railing, then wincing as it comes away with a soot-stain.
The mayor throws open the ostentatious double doors, and the golden lamplight from inside contrasts the monotone world beyond. The rich smell of venison is fiercer than the smoke and entices the three indoors and out of the faux-autumn weather. Jo exhales a sigh as she unclasps her cloak.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” says the mayor when he leads them to the drawing room, clasping together his hands, “I shall go check on dinner preparations.” He tips his hat and excuses himself.
Oscar sinks into the plush couch, leaning his head back in the most ungentlemanlike fashion as he sighs in relief. Jo remains standing, hands clasped, next to the door.
“This is awful,” Oscar says, drawing his hand across his brow, “Far worse than anything I could have imagined.”
“I have rarely seen a town in worse straits,” Jo agrees. “To think; we were relieved that the dragon had not yet made off with anyone. This might prove a slower, more pervasive kind of death.”
Oscar remains quiet for a moment, then forces himself upright as they hear footsteps down the hall. Fitzgerald peers into the room and beckons them into the dining hall. “Right this way!” He says, voice full with a false cheeriness.
Like the rest of the house, the grand table is lush with finery. Silver cutlery glitters beside loaded platters of venison, corn, and dinner rolls. The smell is heavenly, and even Jo falls momentarily out of step as her empty stomach flutters.
Fitzgerald introduces his family; his wife as Kelsey, a warm face dolled up in powder and blush, and their three rowdy children, who’s names blend together in Jo’s mind. “Take a seat anywhere,” Fitzgerald says, as he sits himself at the head of the table, “and let’s dig in!”
Dinner is delicious. Conversation is alright. They do not speak of the dragon in the room. Even as it crept into every silence.
Oscar elbows her in the ribs. Jo blinks. Kelsey is looking at her, waiting for her to say something. By the lilt of her head, she has been for a while.
“Sol.” She prompts helpfully, “What is it like in the big city? Have you lived there all of your life?”
“Yes,” says Jo, setting her cider down carefully, “My father was a veteran, and my mother was a minor noblewoman, so we lived comfortably in a small estate inherited from my grandfather.”
Her family wasn’t pleased with her gallivanting off to pursue magical arts. It was a career path better left to the rich and influential, they told her, they lacked the money to get Jo even a foot through the door.
They had humored her, and here they were. Jo talks more about the capital. “No matter where you are in the city, you can always see the castle,” she says, “In the morning, the dawn reflects off the dome and it’s like a second sun is in the sky. At night, they light fireworks, and there is also a similar effect. I have traveled all over, and I have never seen anywhere like our capital.”
In this Kelsey show’s a polite interest, asking all the right questions, while Barnes quips the occasional, “Brilliant, indeed!” Jo is about to tune it all back out, when she catches the eye of one of the children.
He looks like his mother, with mousy brown hair and beetles for eyes, about eleven years old. He continues to stare at her, even after he was caught, an entanglement of anxiety and wonder written across his face. Jo notices that his plate is untouched.
He looks at his parents, then back at Jo, and cuts his mother off midsentence. His voice is frosty, for a child’s. “Have you ever killed a dragon before?”
There’s a stricken silence.
“No,” admits Jo breezily, “but I’ve dealt with magical creatures all my adult life. I am very proficient in what I do.”
The boy glances at his father, a few wayward tears creeping into his eyes. His voice trembles. “You’ve told her about Susie yet, dad?”
A shiver passes over Jo. She turns to face Fitzgerald. His face as grown to be the color of beets, a combination of fury and embarrassment and a furious sense of embarrassment. He shakes this all aside and says meekly, “I have not. It- it hardly seemed worth mentioning.”
“What is your son referring to?” Jo demands.
Words do not come easily to Fitzgerald. Not like his smile, which even now struggles to leave him. He clears his throat and shakes his head, as if trying to cough up an explanation.
“Devon had a friend,” he says, the words sticking together like tar, “he has a friend. Susanna Peterson. She’s gone missing since we sent you a request for aid.”
“Oh,” says Jo, simply. She squeezes her eyes shut; the inky dark envelops her. It’s never the news you want to hear. It’s just the kind that’s all to common in their line of work. She swallows, stills her heart, and opens her eyes. Remaining calm, even as her stomach churns.
“Peterson.” Oscar whispers, as pale as the face of the moon, “They were who Mrs. Miriam had come to visit, no?”
Jo places a steady hand on his shoulder, and he falls quiet. Fitzgerald clears his throat, and Kelsey rises to her feet.
“Why don’t I show you to your rooms?”