Iorneste had been straining his senses, but the Admiral's quarters were too far away for him to hear what he hoped were the frustrated screams of the pompous little man.
He had been escorted roughly into the brig, and flung bodily into a separate cell from the one he left, landing sprawled upon the floor. One of the guards spit in his direction before slamming the gates shut, and locking it, storming out of the room, openly asking his companion why they couldn't just toss him overboard.
Iorneste lay still on the floor, his shoulders shaking convulsively.
"Funny, is it?" asked Mourne.
The silent laughter turned into open laughter, and Iorneste rolled over onto his back, tears streaming from his eyes, chest hitching spastically.
"Don't worry," Mourne said, standing up and crossing his arms, glaring through the bars towards his dragon ward. "I'll wait."
"Yes, Mourne friend..." he said, still giggling. "You should have been there. You should have seen his face...."
Mourne groaned. "Now I can finally stop wondering. You are trying to get us killed."
Iorneste's laughter increased in volume, and he was unable to speak for several more moments.
"This is not a game, Iorneste."
Iorneste sat up, wiping his eyes on his sleeve, bringing his laughter under rein, but the smile was still plastered on his face, and his blue eyes danced with mirth. "You think I just annoyed him to toy with him?"
"A little," Iorneste admitted. "But I couldn't have done what I needed to do without him trying to kill me."
"He did—you did what???"
"I had it under control," Iorneste said.
Mourne rested his forehead against the bars, and whispered, "Just tell me what happened."
Iorneste did, relating much of the conversation word for word.
"Gods, you are the foolhardiest dragon I have ever met!"
Iorneste blinked. "I thought it was clever."
"Manipulating me into releasing the Binding with conditions, and then manipulating him so you could exploit it. That was clever. But your entire exchange was him was stupid."
"He had my sword!"
"So let him keep it!"
"No!" Iorneste huffed. "He does not deserve it. Did you know it is considered an artifact, an ancient relic?"
Mourne nodded. "It is not entirely surprising. Human mages cannot create permanent enchantments. The Elvariens could, but now that they are gone and the Drac have withdrawn from the world, those items are becoming increasingly rare, and thus increasingly valuable."
"He wanted me to reveal where I got it, or else give it up. He would not have let me keep it, and if his ignorant opinion is universal, then no on else will, either."
"So you encouraged him to attack you, so that you could use the High Art?"
"What did you do to the blade?"
"A simple charm. It will last for a short while, but while it lasts no one else but me will be able to lift it."
"Further increasing the mystique of that blade. Besides its obvious enchantments, you now have people believing it has the power to control dragons, and cannot be wielded by anyone but you."
"So it now seems even more powerful and legendary of a blade than it did before."
"I...suppose so, yes."
"And hence, even more valuable."
"Have you ever considered that if you are the only one who can lift it, that they might prefer to just kill you so that the blade can choose another? Which do you think is more valuable to them right now: an uncooperative prisoner with a smart mouth who killed one of their dragons, or an ancient sword with powers so great it should have its own legend?"
Iorneste went quiet for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. It was a mannerism he'd learned from Broch, but Mourne was at least gratified to see it was coming naturally.
"So you never considered it," Mourne accused, meeting Iorneste's gaze.
"It seems unlikely. They want to question me, remember?"
"Humans do not always behave rationally, Iorn. Especially when angry, and you have certainly achieved that."
"I have also ensured that if they want that sword to be presented to their King as a gift, it will have to be me delivering it to him."
"Unless they kill you."
"Or perhaps they'll just torture me, seeking to get you to give it up of your own free will to end my suffering."
"I...did not consider that, either."
"As I have said before, if you aren't intentionally trying to get us killed, you just happen to be unintentionally a natural at it."
"He also said that dragons don't hoard wealth, that they are dumb, animal creatures."
Mourne nodded. "I suppose it's working, then."
"You didn't read about that in any of Rrachma's books? When the Drac withdrew from the world, they did their best to erase all signs of their existence. Any book that possessed knowledge of the Drac was confiscated. Any humans that had dealt with them personally were, much as they were able, captured and brought to the Kaers, there to be used as kiin. It's what happened with my father."
"I...hmm...it was a vague mention in one of the histories I read, but I hadn't considered it would be so effective."
"Anyone who dealt with one of the Drac, who still remained in the Many Kingdoms, has been long dead for centuries. Even if stories remained by word of mouth or otherwise, they would be nothing but legends by now."
"But it was just a few hundred—"
Mourne gave him a steady look.
"Right, the human lifespan. I keep forgetting."
"Which puts you in something of a pickle, Iorneste! You claim your sword was forged by dragons, yet as far as the Many Kingdoms are concerned, the only dragons that exist are drakes. They are basing everything they know about dragons on drakes, wyverns—"
"—which aren't really dragons—"
"—and possibly the Yeomi."
"Do you now?"
"I suppose it was a bit foolhardy."
"That it was. More than 'a bit'."
"But it was also fun, too."
Mourne sighed. "Is this what contrition looks like for you? Next time, tell them it was your father's. Tell them...it has been in your family for generations, and the legends say that it was forged by dragons. Tell them that you come from a long line of dragonslayers, and to dispute the origin of the sword is to dispute your own father. Unlike the Drac, humans take great stock in their patriarchal lineage. Tell them that your story about the dragon hoard, and the dragon you killed, was because the only dragon you've ever actually killed was Kulvas, Selka's mount."
"That makes me seem like such a...a whelp. A lying whelp, at that."
"You are a whelp, in human terms. You are barely more than a boy. No one would be surprised that your dragonslaying career has only just begun. No one would be surprised that you felt like lying about it, either, in order to save face."
Iorneste absorbed these words, and rose to his feet, moving closer to the bars of his own cell so he could face the kiin. "Mourne?"
"I am sorry."
"Apology accepted. If we live."
"You continue to surprise me, Mourne friend."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"You are very good at deception."
Mourne finally found his smile. "I've had a lot of practice, Iorneste. I have lived among dragons."
Sheldrache enjoyed the ocean, and though she could have traveled by flight faster than by ship, her passage on the Maiden's Fancy had served several useful purposes already.
For one, it had been many years since she had last walked in the Many Kingdoms, and she felt that it was always good to get a sense of things before walking into a new situation. It also placed her within the world, with a certain degree of background, in case anyone should ask about where she came from. She acknowledged that choosing to act as a noblewoman was risky, since someone, somewhere, would know she was lying, but she had been careful to explain to the crew that she was a minor noble, of a landless family whose fortunes had turned many years ago. These sorts of minor nobles would be widely known only by heralds and archivists, and in the case of the latter, they would only check her story if she gave them a reason to be suspicious.
She had seen the ship in the implanted memories from Iorneste, so when flying overhead at night in the direction of the nearest port and seeing it anchored in the waters below, she reasoned that she could get a sense of what had happened in the days since, and meet with her younger brother aboard the ship.
Playing the part of the damsel in distress was a good idea in theory, but she had almost tipped her hand, forgetting that there was only so much she could do about her weight. Shapeshifting wasn't a perfect transformation, and dragons were heavy creatures. Even in human form, she was still far more dense than any natural-born human would be. Thankfully, the crew had been so distracted by her beauty and her animus that the problem of her weight had slipped past their notice.
Sheldrache was disappointed to discover that Iorneste and Mourne were no longer on the ship, along with the uppity bitch who had ridden the drake and caused so much trouble in the first place. There were words she wanted to have with that woman, and her claws ached to tear the defiler's heart from her chest and eat it in front of her.
There was no end of amusement to be had aboard the ship in the meantime, however. When she was up on deck, which was most of the time, the crew walked around her almost in a trance, paying her many compliments, smiling like ingratiating fools, and treating her like a queen. Though she had dampened her animus as much as she was able, it still leaked out and influenced everyone that it touched, and as an eregaunte of sufficient age, and a female no less, her aura was quite powerful indeed.
The one named Broch required a bit more work. She had taken his quarters, and had avoided his advances on the grounds that she was still traumatized by the horrible attack of the pirates, not to mention that she was a noblewoman and he was but a man of common birth, but he still followed her about the decks, making a nuisance of himself. He reminded her in many ways of the behavior of a drake, or one of the simpering relarche, and she found it very hard to take him seriously.
Oren was a different matter. Though no less influenced by her beauty or her animus than anyone else, she could sense his annoyance at the disruption she brought to his ship, and in particular the frustrated expression he gave Broch every time the man tripped over himself trying to impress her. She had no reason to know about the previous occupants of the ship, but reasoned that she could find out more from Oren, who seemed the most likely candidate to keep his wits about him when talking to her, rather than treating her as an airy-headed prize to be courted.
She walked up to the aftcastle, pulling up her skirts to keep from treading on them, baring a bit of leg in the process and tried not to smile as one of the crewmen almost fell overboard in craning his head to look at her. She maneuvered her way into the midst of the helmsman, the ship's navigator named Wickers, and the Captain himself, who stood there smoking his pipe, eyebrows drawn low, brow furrowed, and seeming in a bleak and unforgiving mood.
He would do nicely.
She walked over to the railing, resting her hands upon it daintily, the long gloves that extended up to her biceps preventing her from sullying her noble hands. Not that she particularly cared, but appearances were important.
The captain was listening to Wickers arguing with the helmsman, but as she approached he turned his head in her direction, closed the gaping mouth of Wickers, and turned the head of the Sail Master forward in the direction of the sea, and walked over to join her at the railing.
"Good afternoon, Lady Shelle," Oren said, in a polite manner.
She turned, and blushed, as if startled by his presence. "I am so sorry, Captain! If you want me to leave, it seems you are busy doing, uh, ship activities at the moment..."
Oren waved his hand through the smoke of his pipe, dismissing her concerns. "Not at all, Lady Shelle. You're probably the best thing that's happened on this trip."
"Me?" she smiled, and with a simple bit of manipulation, brought a blush to her cheeks. "You are too kind."
"Think nothing of it. The view is actually better at the front of the ship, though."
"Oh, yes, I suppose it is, but..." she darted her eyes down to the maindeck, catching Broch mooning over her as always, and then glanced away quickly, back to Oren's eyes. The subtle gesture wasn't too subtle, however, and Oren caught the hint.
"Ah," he said. "Him. Say no more. I'll make sure he keeps plenty busy."
"I don't want to cause any trouble, Captain."
"He's been a useless git ever since you came on board, begging your ladyship's pardon."
She giggled, and smiled, sensing rather than seeing the jealous expression on Broch's face. "No offense taken, Captain. He is a good man, but I just hadn't expected...this."
Oren chuckled. "His timing is terrible, but I think it's obvious to everyone how much he fancies you. I call him Apeface, because he makes the ape face at every beautiful woman he meets."
Sheldrache felt affronted by that revelation, but let it pass.
"This is certainly the worst I've ever seen it, though. He does have some noble blood. Never lets us forget it."
She raised an eyebrow. "He does? Of what family?"
"You'd have to ask him. I'm surprised he hasn't mentioned it yet."
Sheldrache shook her head. "He, ah, he wants to talk about other things."
"I see," Oren muttered, and there was an ominous tone in his voice. "Like I said, I'll keep him busy. You can choose other quarters if you like."
She shook her head. "No, no, it's fine, really. I don't want to be any trouble."
"It's no trouble."
"I don't want to hurt the poor man's feelings, either."
"You want to marry him?"
"Do I—" she gasped. "Are you serious?"
He smiled, meeting her violet eyes and then quickly looking away, back out to sea. "I thought not. In any case, his hurt feelings are inevitable if you aren't going to be the happy ending to the romantic fantasy he's been dreaming about ever since I've known him."
"Oh," she said. "That poor man. I should talk to him."
"That's up to you, but he has no right to put you in that position, considering everything you've been through. In my opinion, you don't owe him anything. He's embarrassing the hell out of me, though, and that is something I will talk to him about once we reach port." Oren's fists clenched, knuckles whitening against his black skin, and Sheldrache had an idea of what Oren meant by a "talk".
"So," she said, voice trailing off. "Let's change the subject."
"Glad to do it."
"I'm the best thing to happen on this ship, you said, what do you mean?"
Oren tucked the pipe back into his mouth, puffing on it and sending several plumes of smoke into the air. One of them blew right into her face due to the capricious nature of the wind. He fanned it away from her face, but in truth she enjoyed the smell of the smoke, and would have asked him for a pipe as well if it wasn't considered a very unladylike thing to do. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. The bad luck we've had recently..."
"Dear Captain," she said, placing a hand upon his arm and leaning forward, revealing a glimpse down her bodice. "I do not think you would lie to me."
Watching the struggle on his face, and in particular in the struggle of his eyes to remain where they were, fixated upon hers, almost made her break out into laughter. The human males were so easily led! She let nothing of her thoughts show on her face, keeping her features neutral, and her expression as guileless and innocent as she was capable of.
He looked away once more out to sea, centering himself, the skin of his arm warm beneath her touch. The strangled sound from on deck was clearly Broch's voice, and she could not help but be amused by his masculine outrage. It would be too easy to turn them all against each other if she wanted, but right now it was simply an amusement, which could quickly turn into an inconvenience if she pushed too hard.
"Despite appearances," Oren began. "I have only been Captain for a week."
"Yeah. Captain Sorens was killed in Sandridge, and he was better at this than I am."
"Sorens?" she asked, wondering if she'd heard him correctly.
"Uh huh. Used to be an Esturian general. Had a whole different life before we knew him, as it turns out."
"Ah," she said. "Lamarke Sorens, was it?"
He turned back to look at her, searching her face, indulging himself in what he must have felt was a surreptitious downward glance over her neck, shoulders, and chest, making it one continuous swiveling motion before looking back out to sea again, as if that had been his intent all along. "I guess you've heard of him."
"A little. It was said he disappeared, and no one could find him."
"Turns out he went to sea, maybe the best place to hide."
She paused, trying to still the hammering of her heart against her chest. "One would think, if he wanted to hide, he would have used a different name."
"Sorens is a common enough name, and no one would ever have expected someone with the status of a general to be working as a merchant captain on a ship with no credentials."
She pursed her lips. "I suppose that's true. So why was he killed?"
"One of Greatre Esturia's dragonriders. She was looking for him. She wanted something from him, something he didn't give her, I guess, and so she killed him, that damned dragon burning down the entire town, and the woods along with it."
Her heart beat even faster in her chest, and though hearing about the dragonrider and the burning of the Wyldlands was troubling enough, this was something she had already known. There was something even more terrifying at work here, and she struggled to maintain her composure, and not appear too eager in asking her next question.
"What did she want from him? What could he possibly have held that would have been so important to kill him for it, and burn down an entire town?"
"Damned if I know. Some kind of box, a golden box, with strange markings all over it. Probably worth a fortune. Gone now, though. More of that bad luck I mentioned."
She felt her control beginning to slip, and stepped back from the rail. "I'm sorry, Captain, I'm feeling a bit seasick. I apologize for leaving you so rudely, but I would like to seek my quarters."
She turned and began walking away before he could answer, hurrying to the steps and towards the companionway.
"Of course, Lady Shelle," he said. "And I promise..." his voice took on a dangerous note as he glared across the deck at Broch, "That you won't be disturbed."
Iorneste's next summons to the admiral's quarters was a few hours later, well after Mourne had turned in for the night and the ship's activity was limited to the creaks of the hull, and a few desultory sounds of footsteps on deck that drifted down below.
The twin soldiers entered the room, grabbed Iorneste by the arms, squeezing hard, and barrelling him down the hallway to the Admiral's quarters. He went without much fuss, giving them the pleasure of tossing him to the floor inside and slamming the door behind them.
The raspy laughter of Selka was a surprise, and he lifted his head up in the dimly-lit quarters, seeing her sitting behind the desk in the position the Admiral had occupied the last time he had been here. Directly in front of him, still on the floor where it had fallen, was his sword.
Her voice was filled with mirth. "You have a way with people, don't you?"
"Most people," he said, rising to his feet and meeting her grey eyes. "They like me."
"I can see that," she said, eyes still twinkling in the light of the oil lamps. On the desk in front of her was a small spread of food, and she gestured to it. "Go ahead, I know they didn't give you anything to eat. Take what you like."
"Is it poisoned?"
"You didn't see fit to poison me on the Maiden's Fancy. Please do me the courtesy of assuming I wouldn't be so crass as to do the same."
"Yorn," she chided him. "Do I have to take a bite of everything before you'll believe me? There's nothing wrong with it. It's better than the crew gets, I can assure you of that."
He moved closer to the desk, still wary. "Whatever happened to the woman who wanted to kill me? We had such a mutual hatred going, it seems a shame to waste it."
"Whoever said I don't still hate you?"
He smiled, and ignored the fruit, reaching for a bit of cheese. "Good," he said, taking a bite of the cheese, "Because it would make my hating you all the more awkward."
"For all that hate, you are treating me with far more respect than you gave my father. And he outranks me."
He snorted. "His rank means nothing to me. And whatever your faults, you mastered a dragon. I see all of his dimensions, but yours are deeper than I imagined."
"My my," she said, biting into an apple. "Is that a compliment?"
He sighed. "What's going on here?"
"Aren't we just having a conversation?"
"What's going on here really?"
She nodded, chewing, and after an audible swallow said, "Let's talk about the sword."
"Ha!" he tossed his head back. "I knew it!"
"Those things you told my father...they weren't really true, were they?"
"Very well. But who is to say what is the truth? The sword belonged to my father. He told me it was forged by dragons."
"That's not what you told my father."
"Your sire opened the conversation by calling me a liar."
"Perhaps he did, but I am not my father."
"No, you are merely acting in his stead."
She remained silent at that accusation, but he was not waiting for her confirmation in the first place.
"I am a bit insulted that my most valuable contribution is viewed to be this sword." He bent over to pick it up, watching Selka carefully, but she did not interrupt him gripping the handle. Her own sword hung at her side, and she made no move towards it. He lifted it from the floor, holding it in his hand and when he rose fully to his feet she had still made no challenge.
"My father had every man on the ship try to pick it up, you know."
Iorneste smiled, imagining the Admiral's frustration. "So I guess he knows I was telling the truth about something. But what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Did you try to pick it up?"
She looked away towards the porthole, although there was nothing for her human eyes to see beyond in the darkness. "I don't know. I guess I had no desire for you to make me look like a fool again. And Mourne made it clear that dragon magic is not to be trifled with. Him, at least, I trust."
"And yet you let me pick up this sword. I'm holding it right now in my hands, yet still a prisoner."
She shrugged. "If it came to combat, you would lose."
One of his blonde eyebrows shot skyward. "Think so much of yourself, do you?"
"I've been training for battle since I was seven years old. You picked that up for the first time in anger against me on the beach of Sandridge."
This time it was his turn to fall silent.
"Did I miss the mark?"
He turned the point of the sword downward, spearing it into the hardwood floor. "Is it that obvious?"
"Only to someone who has been training for battle since she was seven years old."
He walked closer, leaving Yrmbane standing in the floor where he'd placed it. She turned her head to face him, eyes sizing him up as he approached. Placing his hands upon the desk, he leaned closer, smelling her familiar scent that had once filled their quarters on the Maiden's Fancy and looking down her neck to the dragon tattoo. "Does everyone in the Dragon Corps have a tattoo like that one?"
"Not exactly like this one. It signifies my rank, but yes, we all have one."
"So what now then, Knight-Marshal Selka Euphrane?"
She stood up from the desk, moving around it to stand directly in front of him. Though he was taller, she did not carry herself like one who was used to looking up to people, and she had a good deal of height on most human women he had met. "We will reach Ramilka by morning. There you will be taken to the Tower of Inquisition to face your judgment. It is out of my hands what happens from there."
"I see," he said, and he wasn't sure why he was whispering, except that she was so close and it felt strange to speak loudly. "So what was the purpose in bringing me here? Will it have any bearing on the—"
"On the inquisition? No. My father wanted to know about the sword. I just really wanted to ask you a different question."
"And that is?"
Pain flashed in her eyes. "Why do you hate dragons so much?"
He blinked, but kept his voice level and his expression neutral. "I do not hate them. They are simply what they are."
"Yes," he said, and bared his teeth in a carnivorous smile. "They are. But they are also proud, noble creatures."
"And yet the first one you ever killed was my Kulvas. While he was defenseless. Did your father teach you to kill them?"
"He taught me many things, about dragons and otherwise. Until I met you, I was not even aware that they could be ridden. The drac—gons would never stand for it...or so I learned from my father."
"It did not come easily, and that was the reason I was in Sandridge."
Iorneste nodded. "I see. Sorens."
"Let me guess..." he stroked the stubble on his chin, his thumb lingering over the scar on his right cheek. "It had something to do with that box you took from Captain Oren's quarters. Something in that box. Sorens was the reason there's a Dragon Corps at all."
She wrinkled her mouth, and nodded. "That is more information than you are authorized to know."
"It's not my fault that I'm intelligent enough to figure it out. But indulge me further: Where once you had the willing cooperation of the dragons, it became harder and harder to control them after Sorens left. You had to resort to more extreme methods of control. The spurs, for instance." His hand dropped away from the scar, slapping against his thigh briskly.
"You are not wrong. But how did you know?"
He left her then, walking back over to the sword, running his fingers over the draconic runes etched into its surface. "Let me tell you a little secret about dragons: They care about status. They know they are superior to humans. Every one of them know it."
She frowned. "And you know this because...?"
He ignored her question. "Whatever Sorens had, it would be something of great power, something that made him superior to the dragons, and let them know it as well. Once that was gone, some of the dragons would continue to listen, even absent his influence. But without the fear of domination, they'd become more and more likely to follow their own path, to make their own decisions. Some would even turn on their former riders."
"But not Kulvas. Never him," she protested.
"It was only a matter of time," he assured her.
She frowned, and brushed angry tears from her eyes. "There would have been time. We have the box now."
"But not what is inside of it, and that is what matters."
"Which is also only a matter of time," she countered.
"How long have you been hunting Sorens?"
"Ten years or so," she said. "It wasn't until recently that he slipped up and we realized we'd been looking in the wrong place all this time."
"I'd be surprised if any of the remaining dragons are willing to be ridden at this point."
"But not entirely without duress, yes? But it was why it was you who was sent to find him. You were the last hope of the Dragon Corps."
She nodded. "And for Greatre Esturia. Our enemies do not dare attack us for fear that we will bring the dragons upon them again. But if they find out..."
He nodded in return. "A dangerous stalemate, caught between your enemies and the dragons. The dragons might destroy you, but without the dragons, your enemies destroy you. So I was not wrong."
"Wrong about what?"
"Children playing with dangerous things they do not understand. But my judgment was somewhat hasty, because without the dragons many of you would have died long ago."
She sighed, and leaned back against the desk, folding her arms. "It shouldn't surprise me that you're from Summersgard. You sound like you spent time at the university."
"My father just taught me to use my brain first. He was...something of an instructor, a librarian, and he had quite a collection of books. I ended up reading many of them."
"There's something that has been bothering me, Yorn."
"What is it that is bothering you, Selka Euphrane?"
"The way you've been acting about the dragons, it's almost like you care about them."
"But you'd still kill them?"
He frowned, trying to form the words to explain it, when a knock came at the door. "Dame?"
"What is it?" Selka asked.
"The Admiral would like a word."
"Tell him I will join him on deck in a moment."
She gave him a wry smile. "I was supposed to get information from you."
"I assumed as much. The answers will come in time, I'm sure, as answers often do."
"I feel like you got more information from me than I did from you."
He rolled his shoulders in an imitation of her earlier shrug. "I think it was valuable information to have. For both of us. For me to know, and for you to know that I know."
"I'm still not sure if I can trust anything you told me."
He pulled the sword from the floor, holding it up to catch the light of the oil flame. "What about the sword?"
She inclined her head to the scabbard in the corner. "Keep it."
"Won't they be angry?"
"Perhaps, but you've made it clear it's of no use to them while you're still breathing."
"That sounds ominous."
"So why am I still alive?"
"Because I told them," she said, as she walked past him towards the door. "That you know how to open the box."
"But I don't know how to open the box," Iorneste said carefully.
She smirked at him, searching his face, as if trying to read the truth in his falsely-blue eyes. "Whether or not that is true, it would have been dishonorable for them to kill you. Despite what you might think about me, Yorn of Summersgard, I know something about honor, and shreds of it do remain in my 'shriveled, blackened excuse for a heart'. I will never forgive myself for what happened in Sandridge, and do not need another needless death on my conscience."
He winced, his words thrown back at him. "Selka," he said, and she paused as he addressed her, with her hand on the door.
"I...am sorry. About Kulvas."
Her eyes closed for a moment, and a single tear dripped down from her cheek like a drop of crystal. "Me too."
The following morning, it was the smells of Ramilka that assaulted Iorneste's nose long before they reached port. By the time the ship had moored, he had an idea of the city's composition, but waited for his eyes to confirm it.
When he and Mourne were brought up on deck by an armed contingent, the wave of scents from the port city they could see in the distance was almost a relief to the stagnant smell of bilge and saltwater after a week at sea, not to mention the musty smell of the brig.
Mourne had given him a surprised look at the sword strapped to his back, but Iorneste merely smiled and shrugged before one of the soldiers butted their spear point into his back, nudging him forward.
Once up on deck, they saw Selka standing there, her draconic helmet tucked under her arm. Both she and Iorneste gave each other a mutual nod, and Mourne glanced between the two of them in disbelief. "Wait...what?" asked Mourne to Iorneste, leaning closer. "What's this all about?"
"What is what about?"
"You know very well what I mean!" hissed Mourne.
"I like her," Iorneste said.
"She has a dragon's spirit. I suppose anyone who spends enough time with a drake is certain to absorb some of it."
"She gave you back the sword?"
"Well, I took it back. No one else could lift it, remember? She did say I could keep it, though."
"Ah," Mourne reasoned, nodding. "So that is why."
Iorneste considered that for a moment, then shook his head. "No, that's not it. We have an understanding now, I think."
"You have an understanding," Mourne repeated, the words coming out flat.
"Yes. And she's also more intelligent than I first thought. Precocious, really, for a human."
Mourne decided to drop it, wondering if he was still dreaming and that when he woke up for real they would be back to sensibly wanting to kill each other.
Admiral Euphrane stood rigid and official on the deck of the Cutlass, his uniform and hair white and gleaming in the morning sun. His own men stood in formation behind him, the vast deck of the galleon filled to the brim with a hundred or more of the Esturian Navy's finest.
The docks of Ramilka were clean and orderly, with the armored soldiers of Erytea standing at the docks. All of their armor, the famous whitesteel of Esturia, reflected equally bright with the sun, and everyone was squinting, even Iorneste. The temperature reflected the early summer morning, slightly cool but with a building humidity, promising a flash storm.
Selka stood on the docks, her jurisdiction officially beginning where the sea ended, her green dragonscale armor catching the sun but less so than the copper fuzz of her sunbleached hair, which became burnished gold. Her stylized dragon helmet resting under her left wrist, Sorens' golden box clasped tightly in the other hand. It seemed to gleam the most brightly of all.
The Admiral at least had the decency to let them exit the ship without bonds, and Iorneste still carried Yrmbane over his shoulder. Down the gangplank and across the wharf was the city of Ramilka, his first human city, and he drank it in with a child's wonder.
There were so many people, just in the docks area alone, hundreds of them, and he realized what any populace of a warm city soon realizes, which is that masses of people have a smell. It was warm, and it was organic, and musky. The smell of the sea was omnipresent, but the smell of fish pervaded, commingling in an aromatic stew of competing and intermixing fragrances.
He could see the walls of the city beyond, peaks of small houses made of shambled brick and rugged stone with masonry roofs built up the natural hillside. He longed to see it from the air and felt an ache looking at that ripening sky and the rays of Aeon and its sometimes sister-sun Ssestra filling the air with heat and roving thermals, updrafts and jetstreams of air from the ocean that a skilled dragon could ride and soar upon for days, and never get tired.
Such thoughts of freedom were brought down to earth, as Selka addressed Mourne and Yorn of Summersgard in a ringing parade ground voice that sliced through the murmuring sound of the docks. "Yorn of Summersgard, and Mourne Shadowfalk! You are hereby remanded to my custody and will be escorted to the Tower of Inquisition. There you will be questioned and judged. You have been accorded respect and full honors as an enemy combatant, and provided the courtesy of a military rank for the purposes of treatment as a prisoner while you remain within Ramilka. Please be aware that this is a courtesy, as you have no record of any military service, and can be revoked if you make an insufferable ass of yourself. Is that to your satisfaction?"
Mourne looked over to Iorneste, and caught him smiling. Looking past at the Admiral's face, he saw it turning a purple and apoplectic shade. Mourne made a sound that could have been a yes, still trying to make sense of the shift in the mood between Iorneste and Selka, while his dragon companion answered formally in return. "This is met with satisfaction, indeed. We will come quietly and shall give respect as it is afforded to us in return. It is a pity we could not have demonstrated that willingness until now, Dame Euphrane."
"Duly noted. Let's go." She turned on her heel, expecting them to follow, and with the two of them surrounded by the local army and the navy, they did not argue. Iorneste and Mourne left the deck of the Cutlass, and set foot onto solid land. "Goodbye, Father," said Selka. "Much luck to you in your campaign against the Dorochi."
The Admiral did not respond, but once they had left the wharf, the Admiral's voice rang out over the decks, and the crew returned to business as usual. Selka talked back over her shoulder as they walked. "First time in Ramilka?"
"Not for me," Mourne said. "But it has changed since I was here last," he said, and pointed down at the ground at the stone flagstones. "This was dirt the last time I was here."
"It's been like that ever since I lived here, and I am twenty-nine years old. How old are you, anyway?"
"I may have been confused," Mourne added hastily. "I have traveled to many cities, and they begin to look the same after awhile."
"What about you, dragonslayer?"
"First time, yes," Iorneste said, his head swiveling about and capturing everything, nostrils flaring, ears twitching: the market stalls, beginning to hawk their wares and filling the streets with voices in many competing dialects, sizzling smells of cooking food, laborers about their daily errands, the forge of the blacksmith and the pounding of his hammer on the anvil, and servants carrying loads of supplies back to the castle at the summit of the distant hill.
"So many people," Iorneste said quietly.
"What?" Mourne leaned closer.
"They are working together, like a Hive."
"I wouldn't compare humans to wyverns, Iorn."
"Just in this aspect. There are so many of them, and they work together. It is no wonder that they are both fighting for control of the world."
Mourne ruminated on that thought, uncertain of how to respond.
Selka broke ranks along with a dozen of the main force to escort them towards an old tower, looking up high above the city of Ramilka. The Tower of Inquisition, where the Esturian ideal of justice was performed.
"If you are not already aware," Selka informed them, with feigned apathy, "You cannot lie to a Questioner. They will always know if you do."
Mourne swallowed. Iorneste smiled.
by the Digital Samurai, Crysiblu