The most fantastic part of Waterfall City, Bix declared to herself, certainly had to be the noise. The roar of the falls vibrated into every nook and crevice until she had no idea how the bricks could manage to stay mortared together, or the windows remained in their single pieces. It was not like a song, which would rise or fall in tone (and eventually end). It resonated in the bones of her frill at a steady and unwavering tone until her hide tingled. Even in the heart of the city, it thrummed up through the pads of all four feet and into her flat molars. Worst of all, the noise made it impossible to listen clearly to anything else. Three times now she’d asked directions from willing passers-by, but the sauropod dialect relied so heavily on gentle variations in that low, rumbling timbre that Bix couldn’t tell if she’d been directed to the main doors of the library or the local jester’s academy.
If this whole misadventure had decided to happen on any other day, Bix might have been fascinated. She might have considered asking a local musician if any of the dialects had changed in response to the din, to allow for something like comprehension on day-to-day affairs. She could see no more signs, banners, or feathery headdresses than typical in Canyon City, so the adaptations were much more likely to be aural instead of visual-
The most fantastic part of Waterfall City, Bix corrected, had to be local dialects.
Bix trotted hurriedly along a market street, desperately wishing she could see enough of the sky to confirm she was, in fact, heading north. It was hard to get lost in Canyon City, what with the common-facing windows and the decorative floor tiles serving as map routes. Perhaps there were similar markings on the pathways and thoroughfares, but it was hard to tell with all the puddles everywhere-
The humidity! That was another one for the fantastic list. Strange, how it made all the fruits smell bright and crisp instead of washed-out and dusty like at home. Moisture collected in the faint lines of her hide. If she were older, with deeper wrinkles and age-lines at her neck, perhaps she would be leaking water with every step.
And they kept a library in all this chaos.
Granted, Canyon City had a library… of sorts. The Skybax Academy slightly to the north certainly did not want for a delightfully varied collection on the more public of their disseminated messages; harvest reports, weather reports, migration reports of the Rainy Basin, festival invitations (and reports), birthday notices (which, collected, made yearly reports), and juvenile teaching-songs (which were rote enough to count as reports anyway). It was perfectly serviceable and decently kept by the former Skybax leatherworker, but it was certainly not enough for Bix’s determination.
Translators needed exposure to poetry, to inflection and accent and new stories - and that wasn’t even touching the tangle that was all of the human languages that kept popping up in the coastal villages like windswept seeds. And besides… the humans that did arrive yearly for the new intake of Skybax apprentices were hardly dolphinbacks. Their common tongue tended to hold as much accent as a stone held water.
“You are certain?” her mother had asked after Bix had finally worked up the courage to declare her plan. “That is a far way to travel for such young feet. Prosperine is closer, or even Treetown-”
“There is an ore caravan heading for the Rocky Pass after the spring thaw. I am hardly walking the whole way, and it’s all perfectly safe.” The reports had all indicated it would be perfectly safe.
“Prosperine sees less dolphinbacks than we do,” added Hylo, though Bix had to wonder if her elder sister was encouraging the trip purely to secure a month or four free of Bix’s frustrated pacing. “And Bix is not so young. If she is going to impulsively change her mind about studying obscure verse, she must do it soon.”
Ah, nestmates. Always so positively encouraging.
Now Canyon City was three weeks of travel back to the east, and Bix was dearly hoping her first day of studies would not be thwarted by something so pitiable as poor directions. If only she could… ah!
The nearest bridge crossing a major canal boasted flat rails. Bix ducked under an ankylosaur florist and hopped up onto the rail’s squarish post for a slightly more elevated view of the street. There, just up the street on the opposite side of the canal, stretched the library’s hulking block of brick. The gently setting sun lit its west wall with golden light through the ever-present mist, and cast the main entrance in heavy stretches of dignified shadow.
Now if only she could reach it before the closing-bells rang.
Another positive thing about Waterfall City, she noted as she tore along the street as fast as the foot traffic allowed, was that the streets were rather well-suited for quadrupeds. There was only so much excavation Canyon City could do in order to broaden the tunnels or level them after a heavy rainfall. Here, everything was nicely flat and stable, and wide enough that Bix could dart around a slower citizen or under a fruit cart, or even ricochet off the base of a statue like a hatchling charging recklessly toward the breakfast bush. Most of the local traffic hooted and squawked with alarm (Bix might have even heard a few impolite words, though that could have been the waterfalls again), but a human street musician standing on a fruit crate encouraged her on with a boisterous trill on his panpipes.
Bix made it to the base of the stairs without actually colliding with anyone, which was only a little lucky. Her heart thundered happily from the run, blending in with that omnipresent roar like it was music. Funny, how three weeks with an ore caravan, plodding along high mountain paths and along the sodden edge of the Rainy Basin with the constant worry of tyrannosaurs felt so plain now - this was the real start of an adventure. Her first true adventure. She galloped up the stairs two at a time, stretching like she could race the setting sun itself. The doors loomed tall, creaking open as if to welcome Bix in-
Bix skidded to a stop, tripped, and tumbled three unpleasant turns frill-over-feet to land in front of the saurian at the door. Despite the idyll of the city around her, there was still a deeply-bred trickle of apprehension in her herbivorous bones as her eyes focused squarely on a set of feet with wickedly-hooked sickle-claws. Bix slowly dragged her line of sight up, up… over the pale hide of the muscular saurischian legs and sleek underbelly, the folded, three-clawed hands, the mottled gold and purple colouring of the shoulders and neck and-
Oh dear. Bix was no stranger to the meat-eating ceratosaurs that arrived in Canyon City from time to time. They served as rather helpful guides to caravans heading south through the Blackwood Flats, and they generally behaved themselves around the herbivorous population. This truth, however, had not kept Bix from keeping well out of their way. On top of that ceratosaurs tended to stand a little more than a quarter of a neck from the ground. Short, squat little Bix was well out of reach.
The deinonychus glaring down at Bix as if she’d splattered the stairs with mud was barely as tall as a human, bringing those claws rather uncomfortably close. He curled his lip, baring unpleasantly pointed teeth.
“Can I… help you?”
Bix had to strain her ears to pick up the harsh, growling words. Her frill still vibrated from the tumble and the falls were louder over in this corner of the city. “Uhm,” she offered, slowly untangling her feet and standing up properly. “I’m… looking for the library. Breathe deep?” She offered her right forefoot as high as she could reach it, hearing her mother’s voice scolding her all the way from the canyon for such belated manners.
The deinonychus narrowed his eyes at Bix’s foot. “Seek peace,” he answered with slow, rough diction. Then, “Not allowed.”
Bix felt all her stomachs drop. No, that couldn’t be right. She must have misheard. A change in the local dialect, different from the more nasal accents of the ceratosaurs. Of course she would be allowed. Anyone was allowed - it was a library. “I’m sorry,” she began, the words threatening to spill out as swiftly as the river, “I am only recently to Waterfall City, and I’m still learning the tone. I am Bix, student of languages from Canyon City. I’ve only just arrived but I would very much like to start my studies, so if I could perhaps seek even one scroll to borrow--”
The hooked claw on either foot twitched with irritation, tapping the flagstones at the top step. “Yes, yes,” the deinonychus interrupted crossly. “I am head librarian. Enit. Have many students. Many scrolls. Delicate, rare, very rare. You, four-foot… not allowed.”
Four-foot. That was certainly a new Waterfall City phrase, but it stung Bix’s heart squarely. She blinked and took a step back. “I’m… not allowed? In the library?”
“Many… delicate… scrolls,” Enit enunciated carefully, pointing again at Bix’s flat, stumpy feet. “This not allowed. Go.”
Bix wilted. There was no other word for it. All the adrenaline and excitement in her blood drained away in one long sigh. She’d come all this way, utterly certain it was where she needed to be, only to be denied at the door. Worse than denied - Enit was clearly mocking her, taunting her with the fact that he had all those beautiful, inaccessible scrolls. And ‘four-foot’? She was a protoceratops multilinguous! A long and illustrious family line studded with scholars and ambassadors and performers and yes, translators… all reduced down to ‘four-foot’ by an upright deinonychus?
The worst part about Waterfall City, Bix grumbled as she stomped her way down the stairs and toward the main canal, was the librarian. Her feet stung with each step, and her eyes smarted at the corners. All this way, and turned back at the library door. Hylo would never let her hear the end of it.
Well, it wasn’t as if Hylo knew about it yet. Bix could continue her studies the hard way - straining her ears to deafness in order to learn it all by sound. It wasn’t as if the rest of the city appeared in any way off-limits to quadrupeds. She could always seek out daily conversation companions in the markets or the parks, or even the street musicians. Her calligraphy would suffer for it, though, and there was no way she could replicate the experience of reading all the translated texts of the great plays and poems, learning spelling and the visual art of it all.
Bix hung her head. She’d been so close she could almost smell the paper. If only she could have touched even one scroll--
Bix stopped in her tracks, eyes gone wide as marbles as she stared at her feet… her filthy feet. Bits of smushed fruit and crushed flower petals stained her flat claws orange and pink, with the crushed pulp of a few leaves jammed between her toes. Water from the puddles had splashed street dust in feathery smears all the way up to her elbows as she’d charged willy-nilly across the bridge and up the stairs. No small wonder the vendors and citizens had been yelling at her in passing.
It struck her like a dragonfly flying into her frill. Not four-foot… fore-foot! Dirty forefeet weren’t allowed! And delicate scrolls indeed. How could she expect to be allowed to touch such valuable documents with forefeet that had tromped unheeded through a gutter? Prints and mud and smeared ink… oh, it would have been a disaster. Bix’s frill flushed red with embarrassment at her impulsiveness. A translator stumbling on a homonym! Such a beginner’s mistake, and such a selfish one no less.
Well. As the Code said: observe, listen, and learn. Her first day, and Bix had jumped into her studies without even realizing it. Literally, even.
With much more patient steps, Bix found a small wharf where children were launching leaf boats into the canals to race. She dabbled one forefoot, then the other, pausing a few times to pick the worst of the mess from between her toes with her beak. The sun slowly continued its way down below the city walls, and the children were eventually called to dinnertime. Bix stayed to watch the lamplighters begin their rounds.
Late evening in Canyon City was always so red - the stone of the walls and the river gorge was at its most lusciously crimson in the last rays of the sun. In contrast, the city around Bix slowly shifted into shades of blue and purple, with the lamps glimmering orange as the evening mist rolled in. It sealed the sky over, blurring out the stars above and even the horizon on either end, as if hiding everything in a soft blanket of night. The falls hummed steadily, but the sound was already starting to feel soothing in its steadiness.
The sun had barely cleared the eastern wall when Bix climbed the stairs to the library the following morning. Enit was there, and just taking down the sign that reassured all visitors the library only had to close in the evening to keep the mist and mildew out. He scowled again, lifting his neck imperiously as Bix approached.
On the second-last step, Bix paused, then shrugged her newly-acquired woven scarf from her shoulders. She carefully wiped her feet clean and dry of any lingering street dust, then folded it neatly and nudged it beside the door. “Breathe deep,” she offered in her best ceratosaur accent, lifting her forefoot for inspection. “Forefeet allowed this time?”
Enit didn’t smile… but he didn’t growl, either. After a long moment, he inclined his head the very faintest of angles. “Seek peace, Bix of Canyon City. Four-feet always allowed. This is a library.”
Bix smiled as Enit pushed the doors fully open. One lesson down… and a library-full to go.