She could hardly say ‘no’, so after a long morning of fierce concentration and smug looks from Dani, she set out with Miklos and the three children.
They wound their way through the Old Town, murmurs and stares following behind. Toni pouted. “Why are all the people looking at us?”
Before either adult could reply, Jassi tossed her head. “They’re admiring my hair. It’s extra pretty today because Mama used blue ribbons for my plaits.”
Miklos held in a smile. “Just so, and Toni is, of course, looking extra handsome in his smart new belt and Nana’s red ribbons are lovely too.”
Toni’s tugged at the belt in question and looked down to hide his pleased smile, Nana giggled and demanded. “Cuggle.”
Miklos laughed and scooped his youngest daughter up. “I think you mean ‘carry’, don’t you?”
Nana put a chubby arm around her father’s neck and looked smug.
Jassi sighed. “She thinks she can get away with anything if she asks for cuddles.”
The cynical, worldly older sister then bounced and squealed, before racing down the narrow road they were on to greet two other girls around her age, peering at something in the gutter on the edge of the cobblestones.
Toni trotted after her and by the time Miklos and Leila drew level with the group, a spirited debate was underway.
Jassi grabbed her father’s hand, pulling him towards the object. “Papa look, what is it? Is it dead?”
Miklos looked, then paled and crouched, trying to juggle the ever-curious Nana to the side away from whatever it was.
He rocked back and looked at Leila. “Could you check it?”
Leila wormed her way through in time to see one of the other girls jab the tiny creature with her finger. It twitched and hissed.
Putting herself between it and the children, Leila said. “Well that sounds like it’s alive. But it looks very weak and I think that’s blood on its wing. Is it a gryphonling?”
Miklos nodded. “There are colonies over on the far side of the island, around Rocky Cliffs. There’s no way one this young would have come so far on its own.”
Jassi’s eyes widened. “Do you think someone stole it from its mama?”
Miklos nodded sadly. “And now it won’t ever be able to go back.”
Leila tuned out his discussion with the unhappy children and reached into her bag. She unwrapped the generous square of linen she had wrapped her loom in for travel, tucked the loom away again with a mental note to not jostle the bag and carefully reached for the pitiful little bundle of feathers and fur lying before her.
She draped the cloth over the scrawny body and bedraggled wings, then carefully tucked it underneath, earning her another twitch and hiss; its beak opening a little, eyes remaining closed.
She wrapped it further under the baby gryphonling, anchoring its wings to its little kitten body, then carefully lifted it, keeping her fingers away from the raptor-sharp beak.
It drooped in her hold, no longer even bothering to hiss. Leila decided to risk a little blood-loss and cradled the far-too-light creature against her.
The children crowded in as she stood, she said. “Be careful, it’s very weak, but sometimes that’s when they lash out the hardest.”
Toni, who had put a finger forward, aiming for the creature’s head, pulled back and looked up at her questioningly.
She asked Miklos. “Is there someone we can take it to?”
He blew out a breath, while keeping Nana from diving towards Leila, the toddler was fascinated by the bundle of black fur and feathers in her arms.
“I’d say Mother Eulogia but she’s clear on the other side of town.”
One of Jassi’s friends piped up. “No she’s not, she’s visiting with my Grandma.”
Miklos’s face cleared. “In that case, could you do a very important thing and take a message to Mother Eulogia? Tell her about the gryphonling and that we’re taking it to Mistress Matas.”
The girl screwed up her face. “Who?”
Jassi nudged her. “My grandma. Mistress Weaver.”
The girl nodded, then took off down the street, her friend calling, then running after her.
Miklos looked after them. “With that turn of speed, Mother Eulogia will be at Grandma’s before we will, we’d better get on.”
They resumed the walk, this time with Jassi and Toni skipping beside Leila and nearly tripping her every time they leaned in to take a closer look at her bundle.
They reached a high stone wall, stretching well above all their heads and Miklos led the group through by way of a blue wooden door.
Inside was a riot of colour. Leila had to stop and blink for a moment before the scene resolved into a jumbled profusion of flowers and plants in shades she’d never thought to see in nature. Why was a garden so big and bright hidden away so completely?
Jassi and Toni raced each other down the narrow stone path, winding through banks and bushes, ducking the lazy flights of nectar-drunk bumble bees.
They tumbled against the also-blue door of a stone house with wide, tall windows and scrambled inside, calling out as they entered.
Miklos and Leila followed more slowly, Miklos indulging Nana’s fascination for the butterflies waltzing between blooms, while Leila veered between worry about jostling her burden and a yearning to capture the scene in fabric.
Jassi reappeared a moment later. “Hurry up. Grandma says we’re all pesky nuisances and we’re lucky she loves us and that if you hurry up, she might just have fresh biscuits for tea. But if you keep dawdling, there won’t be any.”
Miklos grinned but sped up and Leila pulled her focus back and followed him into a cool, narrow hallway.
She followed the group the length of the hall and emerged into a wide, sun-filled room with a huge loom, the likes of which she hadn’t seen since she left Carra, taking up the entirety of one side wall. When she turned to see a second loom at the other end, this one with a half-finished working on it, her breath left her lungs in a wheeze.
The fabric was beyond anything she’d seen before. Colours twining and blending to re-create a sunset that could be kept, and held, and loved, far beyond the fleeting moments of the original.
A weak squeaking growl from her hands brought her back to the ground and she looked around to meet the grimly amused gaze of a woman the spitting image of Bianca in twenty years’ time.
“Not content with bringing one stray to my door, Miklos, you’ve dragged in two and no idea as to which will prove the most troublesome.”
Leila gulped, this didn’t sound promising.
Miklos, though, grinned even more widely. “Now, Mother, you know you’d be bored if I didn’t bring you gifts from time to time.”
He put Nana down with a firm order to ‘be good’ and motioned towards Leila. “This is the new shop assistant we told you about. She has her handloom with her so you can assess her work.”
Leila gulped again and tried to hide her bag behind her, while still cradling the gryphonling.
Miklos went on. “Leila, this is Bianca’s mother, Mistress Matas, more commonly known as Mistress Weaver.” He nodded towards the loom. “You can see why.”
Leila tried for a curtsey of sorts, but froze when her movement made the gryphonling complain again.
Mistress Matas said. “Put the creature down on the table beneath the centre window. Eulogia will want a clear light for assessing it.”
Leila nodded and made for the table, nearly tripping over a darting Nana on the way. Nana looked up at her as she dodged, then plonked herself down on the floor and started crying.
Leila eased her cloth-covered bundle onto the wooden surface in front of her, carefully placing the gryphonling on its side, then turned, saying. “I didn’t, I wouldn’t…”
Mistress Matas snorted. “We know. Nana’s manipulations are not very subtle.”
Leila’s shoulders dropped and she attempted a grateful smile before turning to unwrap her patient, who tried for a feeble kick as she freed its back legs.
Mistress Matas appeared beside her, cool dark eyes scanning over the pitiful heap of grey and black. “Those Capital people, no doubt, thinking they’d get themselves a noteworthy pet, then finding it more trouble than they’re prepared to pay.”
Jassi’s head popped up on the other side of her grandmother, the family resemblance was strong there too. “How can people have a pet gryphonling? They’re wild.”
The older woman replied. “Precisely.”
Jassi frowned at this, to her, non-answer but any response was cut off by a voice calling down the corridor from the front door.
“Cora Matas, what are you doing with a gryphonling kit?”
Mistress Matas called back. “I’m not doing anything. My soft-hearted, soft-headed relatives and a stray shop girl have imposed.”
Mother Eulogia appeared in the doorway, chuckling at the acid response. “You’d have scolded them halfway to Clearfall if they’d left it in the gutter.”
She didn’t wait for a reply but took Mistress Matas’s place and cast an equally critical eye over both the gryphonling and Leila. “You’re borrowing drama left, right, and centre right now, Miss Leila. I do hope it’s not becoming a habit.”
Leila heaved in a breath and held it, biting the inside of her cheek to force back the tears. It was too much, and now it was all her fault?
Mother Eulogia’s face softened. “There now, it’s not that bad. Even the worst storms blow over. You just have to hold on and weather them.”
With another deep breath and white-knuckled fists resting on the table, Leila nodded. “Of course.”