Blood, Sweat and Dragon Tears
The suns burned down hot today, and the air was still and heavy, but Selka had not dispensed with her armor. Inside the armor she was sweating enough to leave pools in her boots, and no doubt her face was flushed enough from the exertion already. But her armor was her rank and reminder of her position, and she'd be damned if they would see her succumb to the heat. After all of the insubordination and barracks comments she had heard since she had developed feelings for Yorn and rumors had spread, it was imperative that she put an end to that right now.
Selka assessed her opponent, watching him for weakness. The man circled her, well-trained, confident, but there was still fear in his eyes. She could see and recognize that fear. They were in a circle of the Duke Arenford's finest, all of them bent upon the outcome, the fear reflected in their own eyes. Until she had fought Yorn, she had become accustomed to that fear.
They were not afraid that she would win. They were afraid that they would lose, to a woman.
She got back into the dance, looking for her opening to strike early. He drove forward with a thrust, and she knocked it aside with her wooden sword with a loud clack, throwing her leg forward and connecting into his midsection with a solid kick. She snapped and popped it at the end, driving with her heel, as her Murian combat instructor had taught her, and was rewarded with the whoosh of breath as he staggered back. She swung in for his neck, but he was able to retreat and beat it back.
"You kicked me!" he said, face full of outrage.
"Ha! Feet are prohibited on the battlefield, Aswan?"
She could feel Yorn's eyes on her, but could not think about him right now and keep her head. A distraction, Yorn had said. The best kind. Just not in the middle of a fight.
Her opponent thrust, she sidestepped, but he had anticipated her sidestep, and cut in for her head. Selka ducked, smug that there was not enough hair above her head for the sword to cut. Once inside his guard, her free hand snaked up, grabbing his wrist, and wrenching it clockwise.
The Lieutenant gasped, the maneuver catching him off guard and his fingers growing weak and slackening as the weapon was spun out of his grip.
Into her other hand. She then spun and kicked downward at the back of the knee that bore his weight, dropping him to the ground. She pressed her advantage, following with her own knee, planting the armored plate squarely between his shoulderblades. His face hit the dirt. Both of the wooden swords, one in each hand, touched lightly to the back of his neck, making her point.
She leaned close to his ear, but laid her head to the side so that she could look up to the men standing over her. "I'm not asking you," she said to Lieutenant Aswan, her gaze including the others, "Not to treat me like a woman. I'm not asking you to treat me like a man, either. But you will treat me with respect, Lieutenant. I outrank you."
She rose to her feet, and she felt all the resentment welling in her chest. Sweat dripped into one stinging eye, and all she could smell was the dust in the air, and her own humidity. She felt the pulse of blood throbbing in her right temple. "Anyone else have something to say?"
The men looked among each other, murmuring, but no one had anything to offer. "Oh?" she inquired. "So the Lieutenant was your best?"
She dropped the wooden sword at the Lieutenant's feet and began to walk away, heat spots beginning to dance before her eyes. She made it two steps.
"May I have this dance?" asked an articulate, resonant voice, the one she had been trying to ignore, and she trembled hearing it. Not now, Yorn!
She turned, and it was on her lips to say "I'm sorry, Yorn. I'm tired." Thinking two steps ahead before she could utter those words, she imagined two likely scenarios. The first was that the men would see it as her admitting to weakness. The second was that they would make the obvious comment, "Sorry, Yorn, she's too tired tonight. The Lieutenant took too much out of her." She had heard worse. Either option would unravel all the work she had just done here. Unacceptable.
"If you're up for it. Going to use your staff?" she asked. During their training she had substituted a large staff for his sword, but they had soon moved on to staff fighting techniques when he had turned into such an apt student. It was amazing how far he had come in such a few short days, and with every technique it was the same: after her demonstration, a rehearsal, and a few corrective words on her part, his form was excellent. He never forgot anything she told him, and would even quote it back to her later.
He could also hit like a horse, so she made sure to institute the dojo rules of her fighting instructors. One of the best aspects of him being a clean slate was that he had no bad habits for her to break. It was as if he took all of his scholarly discipline to the art of fighting--and this was something she had never expected to see: a scholar willing, excited even, to exert himself. Despite this, he never seemed to get tired. It is so obvious that you are more than human, Yorn of Summersgard, but who exactly are you?
Yorn walked to the outside edge of the circle as she'd instructed him, drew a line in front of himself, and stepped across it. "I will go easy on you, since you are a woman."
She frowned, but then caught the glint in his eyes. He is setting me up, the son of a bitch. "Don't bother," she replied. "I was planning to go easy on you, since you're still green."
The men chuckled at this, elbowing each other. On the one hand, here was another man challenging a woman in the arts that were men's by birthright. On the other hand, Selka was an Esturian and Yorn was a foreigner. She wondered at the loyalties of the men, how they would take it, but looking around the sweating, cheering men, it seemed that country won out over gender.
"Go easy on me?" Yorn stuttered out the most ridiculous forced laughter Selka had ever heard. "You are but a woman! You are smaller and weaker than we males!" He pounded his chest, and some of the men laughed at this. Others, perhaps finding it a bit too close to home, watched with stone faces.
"How long have you held that sword, Yorn?" she asked, projecting haughtiness. They began to circle, eyes only for each other.
"About two days since I cut this branch. You?"
"I've been holding mine since I was seven years old."
"Is that so? How many hours a day do you practice?"
"Between sleeping, eating, and attending to my duties, I do little else."
"Really?" Yorn asked, initiating a lazy blow that she batted back. "I find that hard to believe. Certainly you are not performing any physical training."
She opened her mouth and mocked him with theatrical laughter. "Haha! Two hundred push ups, two hundred pull ups, and I run up and down the flights of stairs in the aerie tower every morning, for an hour."
"I do not see an aerie tower here, woman!"
"I've had to modify my routine," she said, and shrugged. "Besides, that is only my morning routine."
Yorn scoffed. "No woman could withstand such exertion! I am sure these men run every morning for two hours!"
The men were very quiet at this accusation, and Selka felt that the smile of thanks she gave Yorn was well-deserved. "In the morning? The duke's men don't rise until after they've turned the night's booze into piss."
To an outsider, this would be a grave insult, but this was no worse than anything she had heard the men say to each other. She drew a round of surprised laughter from the men, one of them slapping her on the shoulder. What was it with men and slapping on the shoulders?
"Hey, sometimes we turn it into vomit, too!" one of them shouted in mock protest, earning laughs and more backslapping from his comrades.
"I can see now why you won," Yorn said, putting his staff in motion, and directing it towards her legs. She caught it, and riposted, catching his hair as he spun away, but the force behind the blow made her fingers ache. "You were lacking a real opponent!"
The oohs and hisses from the men made her nervous, but Yorn seemed above it all. She realized it was her turn to answer on their behalf. "A real opponent? Lieutenant Aswan has fought six duels to the death on behalf of his lovely wife, the Marquesse Lorelei of Sandreen, emerging from each without a scratch! He's led men in battle, routed the Surans at the battle of Largren's Trench, and bleeding from a gut wound, broke an entire line of gunners single-handedly!"
She saw the Lieutenant getting clapped on the shoulder from the men around him, and their answering shouts of defiance back at Yorn.
"Go back to your books, Summersgard!"
"Big talk for a man with a stick!"
"We'll show you a real opponent, foreigner!"
"Knock the hell out of this peasant, Dame Euphrane!"
She indicated the shouting men surrounding them with a sweep of her chin, and yelled back at Yorn over the din. "I think you have insulted them!"
"They are on the wrong side! It is you who have sullied the manly arts of combat!" The words were jokes, she knew they were, but they hurt all the same. These were things she had told him in private, of things she had heard men say when they thought she was not around, or even worse, things she had heard her father say to her face.
She knew that these were thoughts shared by many of the men present, but somehow hearing them voiced openly made them both more present, and the hurt more real. After the initial sting, she also found that it revealed how silly they were. She shamed herself for ever being afraid of these words, resolving to show them all why they were wrong. If only she was not so damned hot and tired already. Yorn was a tough opponent even as inexperienced as he was, and the gap between them was closing daily.
Her smile dropped, and the challenge she gave him was real. "Shut up, then, and beat me."
In the end, it turned into a dance. His form was breathtaking, the speed and power of his strikes reminded her of an uncoiling snake. The soldiers knew talent when they saw it, and they could see that he was holding little back. They also saw her in the midst of it, a woman, keeping up with him, and answering him in return.
They were fair and respectful with each other, and Yorn followed her training to the letter, while adding a few stylistic flourishes of his own. Despite the intensity of their attacks, both of them had enough skill to deflect the blows so that they did not hurt as much when landed, and when one or the other saw an opening they would tap and often preemptively award the other a point, before returning to a central position and bowing once more.
In the end, she accumulated ten points first, to his seven. The last two points were achieved with sheer tenacity, and she achieved the final blow with a sloppy strike to his midsection that he mistook for a more sophisticated attack. She was nearly blind, and the world was beginning to rush in, but she took several deep breaths, and used the shade from Yorn to block the worst rays of the sun. They clasped hands in an honorable handshake, the words they tried to say to each other buried in the cheers from the men.
Then the cheering soldiers, including Lieutenant Aswan, ran forward to put their arms around her shoulders, patting her on the back. One blessed member of the band, whose name she promised herself she would learn and reward later, put a pitcher full of water in her hands, fresh from the well. She gulped it, the water splashing down her chin and over her chest. She then upended the remainder over her head, and on Lieutenant Aswan's as well, whose arm was around her. They all let out several cheers for victory, for honor, for the Duke, for the Dragon Corps, and for Esturia.
Like she was truly one of them.
She stopped caring about the heat.
The day was late, but the one of the two suns still held sway in the sky, the bluish light of the weaker sun bathing the courtyard in azure light. The humans called it a "Blue Dusk". Though there was activity elsewhere in the grounds, the courtyard was mostly deserted, leaving the dragon alone with his thoughts.
Iorneste had enjoyed his time in Ramilka. Everyone, as dirty as they were, had treated him with respect. Their little ceremonies and customs, as rustic as they were, were also delightful. He watched the military salutes with interest, and how deference was shown, and how orders were given through a specialized vocabulary. He observed high society table manners, absorbed a hundred small customs and social mores that he would have blithely overstepped a week before, and now felt more at home in the skin of a human than he ever had.
Nothing like this had ever been written in the books he had read. Fascinating!
There was more to the city of Ramilka than the castle grounds, but he had spent little time there. This was not so much due to a lack of interest, although he still found the press of people and their smell a bit nauseating, but because there was so much to occupy him here.
First off, there was the obvious reality of him being a dragon. Patience is a Drac virtue, and time was something of which he had a rather ample supply. To hurry was a very human characteristic, some of his elders would have said their defining characteristic. He was not quite that human yet.
Next there was the Duke's study, a place with chairs that bore his weight and books he had never read before. In the hours while everyone else was sleeping, he could often be found there. The Duke himself was not much of a reader, claiming most of the books belonged to his deceased father. He had redeemed his character by increments, despite his barbaric craving for dragonflesh, by gifting Iorneste with a copy of "The Military Misadventures of Robias Thune" by the eminent scholar Merentes Daenehall, written in its original old Empyrian tongue.
Beyond the books or more passive learning through observation, weapons training certainly played a large part in his happiness with the current accomodations and contributed to his lack of urgency. It was all very well and good to be a dragon expert, but Yorn of Summersgard was supposed to be a dragon slayer, and a lack of skill is something that no amount of lies can disguise in a warrior. It did not hurt that his instructor was an athletic woman with red hair and the fiery spirit of a dragon.
As if he could disguise this from himself. It was convenient that he should think of all the reasons he was so content to stay beyond the most obvious, the one his calculating dragon brain was ever so keen to bring back to his attention. She confounded him, and elated him, and fascinated him all at once. Their days together had been spent mostly on practical matters, but even on the training grounds, talking back and forth about maneuvers, techniques, and fight strategy, it all came so easily. Words flowed from his mouth, and from hers as well, and she seemed charmed by his naiive questions, just as he was charmed by her fierce, yet overcompensating spirit.
It had been difficult, but he had kept his animus under control as much as he was able, focusing on reducing or eliminating the ability to affect the emotions and outlook of others, particularly of Selka. She, however, had no such training, and he had made an interesting discovery about the human animus that he was surprised no one had ever mentioned.
Dragons could see auras, although it was more of a separate sense. They also had a direct and conscious control over it. Humans, however, were both affected by it, but were completely unaware of it at all but the most intense levels. It had been believed that humans could not project their aura, but he had received proof that this was not the case. They could, he discovered, they just did it by instinct.
It was all very well and good for Mourne to chastise him for snaring her heart via his animus, but had she not also snared his?
When near Selka, he could feel her aura reaching out, merging with his own. Through the feverish pulsing of her heart it reached out to him, and the feeling it expressed could not easily be put into words. If it could, it would have been, "I want you to covet me, the way that I covet you." Knowing she was influencing him did not arrest his desire to be influenced. He succumbed to it, because the feeling and sense of closeness was unlike anything he had ever known. The kissing was nice, but he found that he could feel almost the same just by being around her, or by thinking about her, like he was now.
The smile was back on his face, and he told his smile to stop it. He had no idea how long it had been doing that, but human expressions were, like many human endeavors, habit-forming, and seemed to come and go as they pleased.
He was buried deep in this reverie amidst the play of the light of the blue dusk, thinking his dragonish thoughts, when they were interrupted by another set of dragonish thoughts. He felt the mind slipping into the boundary of his aura, instantly directing his gaze up into the sky. He melded into its aura, feeling the shock of pain in its body, extreme hunger and tiredness, frustration and fear.
It was a drake: broken, abused, and pushed to the limit. It landed awkwardly, feet splayed, staggering as he fell to earth, and the rider on his back cursed and dropped down from the saddle to the ground.
He found the sword in his hand, and could not remember drawing it. The drake's thoughts were filled with the familiar exaltation in encountering a Drac, but there was a cold silence there as well. A sense of...hollowness? Yes, that was it. The chill of a doomed existence, the fear of the lash and worse things, the desire for an end to life itself.
As the rider approached him, he felt his ire building. This creature was responsible. This creature had no business turning one of his brothers into her slave. He could smell the tang of the drake's blood on its flanks, and it dripped to the thirsty ground. The green-scaled creature's taut ribcage was visible beneath his scales. Weariness hung like a glaze over his eyes, and he could feel the drake's need to rest. To lay down on the stones, to sleep, and never to rise again.
There was a wellspring of hope there in the drake's thoughts, a sense of rightness. The drake was now in the presence of a capable leader, a Drac, and blood called to blood. The drake keened, begging him to come to its aid, knowing that the Drac would find a way to make things right. Willing to fight, to fly, to die, for him.
The rider removed her helmet, dark hair held back in a severe bun. There was a cruelty about her pretty mouth that did not surprise him, and her ugly eyes like sunken hollows with coals in them impressed him even less. He supposed she was attractive in the aesthetic sense, but could grant her little else.
"Training, this late?" she asked him, eyeing his sword. Before he could answer, she snapped, "Where is the—ah, Selka," she said, the question dying with no real enthusiasm in her voice as Selka sprinted into the courtyard.
"Eluenne?" Selka asked. "What are you doing here?"
"Selka," said Eluenne. "I flew here. Note the dragon."
"You can address me as Knight-Marshal. I thought you were on indefinite swamp duty?"
Eluenne looked bored, not even looking Selka in the face while she was talking. She kept looking around, as if expecting someone else to arrive. "Where's your dragon, Selka? Where is precious Kulvas?"
In the blue light, Iorneste could not see Selka flush with rage. Iorn read the signs, and felt the reflexive stabbing flutters of her fury, ineptly radiating out and crashing harmlessly against Eluenne's aura of cold smugness. He had never really observed the interplay of human auras so closely before, but at this distance he found it fascinating, and it distracted him from his more immediate rage. But only a little.
The drake continued keening. His piteous sounds and the tug on his own anima, as if of something small and trusting tugging upon his sleeve, drew him over to the drake, and away from the confrontation between Selka and Eluenne.
This drake had been used hard. The dragonrider spurs had scarred up and flaked away many of the scales in front of the wings, where the rider's feet rested, gouging into the bare hide beneath. There was a gaping hole there in one portion, and the muscles had atrophied. The body of the drake told a story, and in it he could see that this poor dragon had rarely flown, rarely exercised, and if he had ever received a kind word from anyone, it was a long time ago.
To his rider, he was an animal. Just an animal with wings. A convenient transport from one place to another, that also possessed the most destructive force in all of nature in its belly. He pressed his hand against its body, and it shivered with delight. With physical contact, their auras swam together as one in that way that only dragons can. He saw Eluenne through the drake's eyes as a little girl. There had been love and affection there once. His later memories were punctuated with darkness, solitude, and pain. But the little girl had grown up. He had failed his mother. He had failed her, somehow, and was being punished for it.
"Step away from Fartbreath."
He was not sure he had heard correctly. It was Eluenne's voice, but it made no sense.
Looking up, he saw Selka's face softening. His cheeks were wet. How had that happened? Eluenne drew her sword. Yrmbane was already in his.
"I said, step away from the dragon!"
"You named him...Fartbreath?" he said.
He watched her eyebrows pull downward. "I was a child. I thought it was funny. His breath stinks. I'm sure you can figure it out. Now, for the last time, step away from him, or I'll carve you up. Or just have him eat you. I think he's hungry."
"Oh," he assured her, clamping as tight a rein on his emotions as possible. "He is hungry, yes. He is, in fact, starving."
"He'll survive," she said, and began to advance.
He was aware there were many options available to him here. His prior engagement with Selka had served as a good reminder that as good as it felt to vent his anger, it was not the Drac way. He had power, and he could use it. But what was the most effective? What might achieve his goal with the least amount of effort possible? Talking instead of fighting would be a better option to start.
"He should have eaten weeks ago," he accused her. "And he is filled with fear. Of you."
"Good," she said. "That means he won't eat me."
"But he knows it was not always that way. Once, his mother loved him, and he loved her."
Her steps faltered. Selka's voice broke in. "Eluenne has not wanted to be in the Dragon Corps for a very long time, isn't that right, Eluenne?"
Eluenne wrinkled her nose as if smelling something distasteful. "Not everyone wants to spend all day in armor, learning ten different ways to hold a sword, Selka!"
Selka cleared her throat and spat to the side. It was her only answer, and he marveled at the expressiveness and suggestiveness of such a crude gesture.
Eluenne shook her head. "There she goes again, the Knight-Marshal herself. Obsessed with training, training, training! Obsessed with preparing for a war we'll never have to fight! Obsessed with making her dead sister proud!"
That was a new revelation, but Iorneste did not have the opportunity to hear more about it. Selka drew herself up, and barked out a commanding tone that made him feel as though standing in the cone of sound could have carried him off of his feet. "You are out of line, Dame Madra! I am still Knight-Marshal, and you still are under my command. Sheathe that sword, or so help me by the gods I will have you whipped naked in the public square!"
Iorneste sheathed his sword, lest one accuse him of not being the first to take her seriously.
Eluenne sighed, sheathing her sword as well. "Fine. So who is he, and what is he doing here?"
"He is Yorn of Summersgard. A dragon slayer, and expert on dragons."
"Is he?" she asked. "Does he know why mine is so stupid?"
The anger was swelling within him, and he imagined so many cruel and dragonish things to do to this young woman that he was shocked by the vividness and potency of them. Oh, how much he really wanted to do the things he was imagining. The snapping of tendons, the cracking of bones. How much he would enjoy hearing this selfish, callous thing scream in the presence of a real dragon.
He found himself answering, and even to his ears his voice sounded sad. "Because you have made him a slave, Dame Madra. You have crushed his spirit. He is not the proud warrior of the skies he was born to be, he is a lackey. A dumb beast of burden that gives you wings, and for this gift you are not appreciative at all. It is killing him."
"A gift?" she scoffed. "I am nobility. My days should be spent far more productively, planning for my future, rather than tied to a smelly dragon. But this is my duty, and I do it. I just don't have to like it."
He stroked the hide of the drake, and smiled as it closed its eyes, feeling safe and comfortable, almost purring at his touch. "You seized the power of the gods, felt it between your legs, touched the skies under its power, yet in the end you yearned for dirt and dust and the tyranny of the mundane. I pity you."
He was getting better at reading emotions. All faces were different, but anger was consistent, logical, and testable. Seeing the anger in her face brought him pleasure. He wanted more.
"Get your dragon," she snapped at Selka. "Let's get out of here."
Selka fumed. "I do not respond to your orders, Eluenne."
Eluenne smirked. "Today, Lady Euphrane, you do."
"I was ordered by King Gracellus himself to come and fetch you, and whatever it is that you got from Sorens."
"Why did he not send someone else?"
"I wish he had!" she shrieked. "But I'm the only one who can keep a dragon in the air anymore. Speaking of which, where's yours?"
He was silent, wishing he knew what to say in this situation. It had never really occurred to him what Selka would say, with everyone else thinking Kulvas was dead, but her knowing he was alive.
"Oh no," Eluenne said. "You lost him? Is he dead? Your precious little buddy you kept telling the rest of us about?" She did a passable impression of Selka's voice. "'Kulvas and I are special. There's just something about us. We know each other. We are one.'"
Selka's silence continued, but Eluenne was having too much fun to stop. "So the Knight-Marshal no longer has her dragon? I wonder how much longer I'll be taking orders from you, then, Selka?"
Selka found her voice. "You had better hope they demote me or lock me in prison, Eluenne. Because if they do not, I've got something even more fitting than swamp duty in mind for you."
How can she abide such a loss of face? Iorneste was at a loss. No Drac would ever have stood still for so blatant a challenge to their authority unless...
Ahh, yes. Unless they were speaking for a higher authority. Acting against Eluenne, in her official capacity, would be the same as challenging the higher authority. Selka was probably in enough trouble already.
Despite all of the power he possessed in his body, he was powerless to do anything about the drama before him between Eluenne and Selka. On the other hand...
"Just go get the box, Selka," Eluenne said, waving one hand to dismiss her.
He did not see how Selka left, but she would not have wanted to see him right now at any rate. That left him alone with Eluenne and the drake, which suited him just fine.
She moved next to him, leaning her back against the dragon. He did not need to look at her to know this, he could feel it in the drake's aura, the trembling and the fear, but he smoothed those darker emotions away, filling the drake's mind with reassurance, affection, and comfort. The drake settled off to sleep and began snoring.
"How did you know all that, what you said about me?"
He gestured up, indicating the bleeding wounds on the side of the dragon. "His fear, his pain, all easy enough to deduce, when you consider his wounds. The bit in his mouth is especially cruel, though. Did you modify it?"
She looked up at it, and then back to him. "I did not, no. I am no blacksmith. But it seemed a good idea. Fartbreath—"
"—that is not his name."
"—is a stubborn...what?"
"Nevermind. The rest is easy enough to discern. Children are not born wanting to hurt other things, or hating their life. You must have developed those odious qualities as you grew older."
"Mm," she said, and turned to look at him. "Are you of noble blood?"
"Not as you would reckon it, no."
She pushed off from the slumbering dragon and walked away, as if no longer interested.
He could send his thoughts to the drake. He could encourage it to break free from its imprisonment, to strike out against those who had wounded it, and to fly free. But there were too many variables. Too many uncertainties. If the drake's escape attempt failed, it would pay the price.
Stay strong. Endure. I am coming, he told the drake. Tell your brothers, tell your sisters, I am coming. Until then, endure.
His words, and the emotions behind them, went into the drake's sleeping mind, but it would still be there when it awoke. The drake would join its fellows, and once their animas were together again, they would all hear his message. They would know, and they would be ready.
He saw the ribs of the creature heaving in the midst of its exhausted and malnourished sleep, and stroked its scales with his hand, and its troubled mind with his own.
This had to stop, and he would stop it.
Selka returned a short time later, carrying the box that had caused so much trouble. He looked past it without much concern. They would never be able to open it. He was more concerned about the look in Selka's eyes, the mask that had appeared on her face, a mask she retained when she looked at him.
"Here," Selka said, handing over the box. "you can take it back. I will return shortly, when I have secured..." she struggled with the words, "...other travel arrangements."
Eluenne shook her head. "Those were not my orders. You and the box, both coming with me."
"I'm not in the mood, Eluenne."
"I don't care if you're—Wait...is he sleeping?" The dark-haired dragonrider peered down, catching a blast from the exhale of a dragon snore in the face. "Faugh! He is! Wake up, you ugly lizard!" With a strong indication of prior experience with the act, she drew her sword in one quick motion, and moved to jab the dragon in the exposed skin in front of his wings where her spurs had rubbed him raw. Or would have.
He did not think, he just acted. He caught her wrist on the thrust, squeezing down hard, bones crunching, following up with a punch into her shoulder, into the same arm that was held at the wrist. A wet pop echoed, followed by Eluenne screaming and collapsing to the ground as he released her, clutching her dangling arm. Dislocated.
"Gods, Yorn," Selka said, dropping down to the ground to check on Eluenne, hand feeling around at her shoulder. "You going to help me reset it, too?"
"If you wish. What do we need to do?"
Selka demonstrated with Eluenne's other arm, pulling up and out with one quick motion.
"Of course, I can do that."
"No, that's what I am going to do. You're going to hold her down while I do it."
Eluenne was no help in the situation, still screaming and crying about her arm. Iorneste tried very hard to feel remorseful about it, but as she deserved even worse, he dismissed the effort and focused on keeping her still. That was the easy part. Selka levered one foot into Eluenne's armpit, grabbed her arm just shy of her injured wrist, and wrenched the arm upward.
Eluenne screamed hard and loud enough to set Iorneste's ears to ringing, then passed out on the ground next to the drake.
Shouts began, and hurried footsteps. Selka looked in their direction and groaned. "Great time for Fart—er, Eluenne's dragon to go to sleep. Waking a dragon isn't easy."
"I am not sorry for hurting Eluenne."
"I don't expect you to be. You did something that I couldn't do. Doesn't mean you won't face consequences."
"I can wake the dragon, Selka. If you want to go."
"Oh, um," she paused, as the shouting grew closer. "Her arm is no good for flying. We're grounded anyway."
"You could fly, she does not have to do it."
"It is her dragon."
"It is not her dragon."
"Fine. I still can't ride him. The bond is between child and egg."
"What if I told you that this is untrue?"
"Then I would tell you that you are wrong. It has been tried."
"In the wrong way. But if you wanted to leave, tonight, flying on the back of this very dragon, I can help you to do it. You can take this loathesome dragon rider back to wherever she came from, and the box you've fought so hard to obtain. I would do this for you, if you want."
She stared at him, as the small crowd of castle staff arrived in a milling herd at the gate and began muttering among themselves. Her voice faltered. "Damn the box. Yorn, I don't—"
"You know, we were by the ocean all this time. I would have liked to see you swim. I would have liked to see you, just you, in the water, and out of that armor."
"Yorn—" she said, and at this distance, even in the blue dusk, he saw her blushing. The private smile that was just for her was back on his face again. He could not help himself. She was such an adorable creature.
"But if you want to go, I understand, Selka—"
"Will you just shut up for one second?"
He was taken aback, but he also obeyed her request.
"I have been avoiding leaving," she said. "Besides the uncertain reception I'm walking into, I did not want to leave, because of you. Your making it easier for me to leave, it's...well, do you want me to leave?"
"No!" he protested, feeling the word torn from his throat. "But there is time, Selka. You have your duties, and I do not want you to come to trouble because of me."
"And then you dislocated Eluenne's shoulder."
"Overzealous, admittedly. Will that get you into trouble?"
"I'll deal with it."
"I took Kulvas from you, and so I thought the least I could do was let you know what it feels like to fly again. And this one needs rest, a very large meal, and then even more rest."
"Eluenne will probably be too cranky when she wakes up to go back to sleep."
"I was talking about the dragon."
She laughed in her husky way, and waved at the approaching castle guards from across the field. They slowed from a sprint to a walk seeing her calm demeanor. "It's a tempting offer," she said. "I just don't see how it's possible."
"Let me worry about that. I can make certain that the dragon will listen to your commands until you get back. You can tie...her....to that ridiculous saddle."
"It's not that ridiculous."
"It is poorly designed."
"That will have to wait until later," he said.
"Yes. Because after you leave, I will be rousing Mourne so that we can come to meet you."
She stepped closer to him, looking up into his eyes, but peeking over his shoulder behind him to indicate she was aware they were not alone. "I hoped you'd say something like that," she whispered. "Even though this is probably doomed."
The echo of the word doom was troubling. Mourne had said the same thing. "What do you mean?"
"I am nobility. You are a nobody."
He clutched his chest, feigning grievous injury.
"You know what I mean. That matters. Not to me, but it matters to everyone that matters."
"It matters to everyone that matters."
"Don't do that with me right now, Yorn."
"I just like the phrasing. It is clever. You are clever."
"You're so strange sometimes, Yorn."
"Like you were dropped naked into the world and don't know anything—"
"Except the voluminous knowledge contained in the mountain of books I have read."
"—And no one knows anything about you."
"Well you do."
"I know very little."
"I realize this. It is unfair, but there is little I can do about that. It does not matter where I come from. I just know that I like to be with you. I would like to be with you more...in the future."
She looked up at approaching guardsmen, and hailed them. "Gentlemen."
"Dame Knight. We heard a disturbance. The dragon, and the rider...is everything all right?"
"Everything is fine, Seneschal. The dragon is exhausted from its flight, and the rider may need some treatment, but I will be taking her with me."
"It was said there was an altercation."
Yorn opened his mouth to speak, but Selka stepped in front of him. "There was. The rider was out of line and attempted to draw arms and strike her own dragon, a property of the crown. We intercepted her and subdued her. She will answer for her insubordination when we land."
The sleeping drake let out a particularly loud snort, enough to rumble the ground nearby, and the Seneschal jumped. "W-well, so all is in hand, then?"
"We have it in hand, Ser. I beg you disperse the crowd and let everyone return to their evening's activities."
"Very good, Dame Knight," he said, and took a few quick steps away from the dragon, ordering the guards to return to their posts.
Soon they were alone again. He helped Selka tie Eluenne up onto the dragon's back. He touched the aura of the drake, pulling him out of sleep and comforting him, stroking his nose. His animus reassured the drake, and gave him a strong impression of Selka, let him know that he expected the drake to treat her with care and respect, and that if anything bad happened to her, he would be very angry.
The drake understood, and was eager to get back home. He turned his draconic head down to regard Selka with unblinking eyes, and she reached up one hand towards him, ever so hesitant, and her fingers touched him on the snout. Iorneste observed, and he saw their animas merge. The dragon did not understand her animus, so could make little sense of what she was sending him, and she must have understand it even less: to her the anima was tied up with her emotions.
But still, there had been something there. A spark. Perhaps a useful one that could be kindled.
She climbed up into the saddle, that ridiculous saddle, and secured the Drac chest to it as well. "If they have not stripped me of my title and position, I will be at Mir's Edge," she said.
"I will seek you there. If you are not there, I will find you, wherever you are."
She giggled, and he turned his head to the side cupping his hands in a gesture he'd seen humans perform in order to express confusion. "Seeking out your lady fair? I was just thinking of the strangeness of your adventure, Yorn of Summersgard. You have the story all wrong."
"How so, my dear Selka Euphrane?"
"In your story, the dragonslayer captures the girl, and rescues the dragon." She smiled at him, sadness brimming in her cloud-colored eyes, and donned her helmet, and he could not see her face anymore, but they were beyond the need for words.
He could feel her anima until it left him, feel the wonder and fascination she felt as the dragon took flight, and he was happy for her. He watched her fly away, fearing he would not see her again.
"It is stranger still," he said out loud, only to the witness of the emerging stars. "The dragon captures the girl and rescues the dragon, yes. Then the girl steals her dragon captor's heart."
Mourne found him there, some time later.
"You let her go."
"The box went with her?"
"You said that box has no place in the hands of humans."
"So why did you let her take it?"
"Pragmatism," he said. Then admitted, "And sentimentality."
"I could have stopped her from taking it. But I would be interfering with the Knight-Marshal of the Dragon Corps in pursuance of her duties. I do not wish to be a prisoner or a fugitive."
"Sentimentality is more obvious."
"She is in enough trouble, and the box was her mission. She has tarried here with us long enough. The longer she waits, the worse her punishment."
"Fair enough. You are just taking it very calmly."
"They won't be able to open the box, Mourne."
"You say that," he said. "But do not underestimate what they are capable of. You thought riding dragons was impossible, too. Yet they managed it."
"Not without help," he said, and tried to solve a puzzle that was missing several pieces. "But it was the wrong kind of help."
"But it still worked. Don't consider that box closed forever."
"We will deal with it when the time comes."
"Hm. So where are we headed?"
"Mir's Edge. That is where she will be."
"That's also where the dragons will be."
"Yet we are not going there to kill them."
"Of course not!"
"Are we going to rescue them?"
"Not exactly...I made some fascinating observations when Selka was interacting with the drake. It gave me an idea."
"Iorn, I never thought I'd be saying this, but..."
"You're supposed to be a dragonslayer. Do you ever intend to stop getting distracted by matters of the heart, and start killing dragons?"
Come At Me
by the Sanguine Ninja, InksplatterSenpai