Wings in Motion
The two suns burned high in the sky like baleful eyes of fire, and the heat had risen with them. The streets of Earlemont baked under summer's assault, and the moisture hung in the air, shimmering at a distance. Shade had become a precious commodity, and the bustle of business had slowed as the air grew heavy and still.
The blacksmiths took a break, stepping away from their forges, dripping sweat and drenching themselves in buckets of water. Women with infants ducked back into alleyways, shading them from the sun, and neighbors shared the shade beneath the eaves and awnings, and discussed the weather, and how it was certainly much hotter than last year, but how it had been much hotter in the sweltering summer of 544.
The city was never quiet at noon, and the sudden pop in the still air turned few heads. The second loud snap of a sound that followed it turned a few more. Some curious few waited, heads cocked to the side. After a moment, hearing nothing further, they returned to refilling their pitcher, or resuming their knitting, or pulling their hat down low over their eyes to settle back in for a midday siesta.
Then came the roar, a sound of fury and power, carried along by the very stones. It rumbled up into the bones of feet and legs, shaking windows in their shutters, knocking crockery too close to an edge to the ground, chandeliers swinging. Roosters and dogs cried out, small children joining them.
After the roar came the dragon, racing up towards the castle, reaching up near its peak, and hovering. Some pointed, and some held up children to see it, and overall there was a sense of hesitant wonder, a momentary stillness in the presence of legend, safely distant.
Perhaps some few chanced to wonder what a dragon, which they had never been permitted or willing to see up close, what would that look like? How big was a dragon, really?
Then the dragon dove like a fish diving back into water, and headed for the earth. Towards the city, coming ever closer and closer at speed towards them, sweeping over the tops of the buildings, enormous shadow stretching over the streets, and now the suns overhead were blotted out, the heat forgotten.
This time when the dragon roared, the roar was louder, deafening by proximity. This time the glass did shatter, and screaming erupted in chorus with the dragon's roar from man, woman, and child. Some of them ran without knowing where they were going, the fear was within them, the sense of being in the presence of a superior predator. Hunted, exposed, in the open.
All hell broke loose in the streets below.
The three travelers had stopped for a meal at the crossroads. Free of the Ghostwood and the rains that accompanied them there, they accepted the noonday sun with gratitude. The massive boulder that served as the marker for the main roads was at their back.
The diminuitive mereling, Gharel, sprawled on his back, one furred foot crossed over the other. In his clawed, padded hands he held onto a blackened leg of pheasant, its remains still being picked over by his companions.
The firepit they had made at the side of the road smoked, but Mourne was already sweating in the heat and sat a good distance away from it. Temptation beckoned, and he crept forward, peeling away a strip of chicken from the spit, blowing on it before tucking it into his mouth.
Iorneste watched both of them, weighing their conversations on the road since they had met Gharel in the Ghostwood, and Mourne had encountered Sheldrache, gaining a concussion for his trouble. The details of his plan relayed, debated, modified, and achieving consensus before they broke for lunch.
He watched Mourne's eyes flicker over Gharel, the faint narrowing at their wrinkled corners, how his lips firmed and pressed together. Human expressions were becoming less a puzzle for him, and much more of a map. That Mourne disapproved of Gharel had been made very clear, and this worried him the most. The relationship between Gharel and Mourne would be critical in the coming days, and it was clear that Mourne harbored either some kind of grudge against merelings, thieves, or both.
"Do you understand what you need to do, friend Mourne?" he asked.
Mourne blinked and looked away from Gharel, but not at Iorneste right away. "Of course, what more needs to be said?"
"You sound defeated."
"You made your argument, and it was sound. I conceded."
"There is still something unresolved, and now would be the time to resolve it."
"I have been been a mentor for five First Exiles. Six, counting you. In all that time, I have never agreed to what you are asking me to do."
"For starters, I am letting you go off by yourself."
"Which you agreed was necessary."
"I did. But I am still expected to supervise you, and I can't do that now."
"So why did you agree to separate?"
"Do you know what happens to an exile when their mentor dies, of anything other than natural causes?"
He pondered that, and felt a familiar stab of irritation that all of his mentors thus far had been evasive about details of the First Exile, and no one ever wrote it down, and faced a geasa against revealing its details to the young.
He was allowed to ask Mourne questions, and Mourne was permitted to answer, but he had never thought to even formulate the question before. Of course Mourne was not going to die. He was kiin, and he would protect his mentor. Except that now...
"No, Mourne," he admitted. "Does a new mentor take their place?"
"No," Mourne said. "If I die, you fail the First Exile. You become relarche, outcast."
Now that was certainly a surprise, but on further reflection certainly fit the ways of his kind. "I see," was all he could think to say.
"So as you see, friend Iorn," and he crooked his mouth in a sad grin as he said it, "By separating, you are taking a very large risk as well, particularly considering what you've asked me to do."
"Mourne," he argued, "I have minimized your role in this as much as possible. It is Gharel who will take most of the risk."
"It is still illegal, Iorn. If he is caught, and gives me up..."
"Gharel issss professssional."
"Not now," Mourne snapped. The mereling shrugged and went back to cleaning his bone of pheasant meat and gristle.
"I understand," he said to Mourne, and he did.
"Even after the deed is done, assuming we are successful, we have a debt. We cannot leave Esturia until it is paid, and we have no money."
Gharel set bolt upright staring at Mourne. He hissed and his fur bristled.
"I have enough to pay you half of your first month's retainer, thief."
"Yet I ssstill have not ssseen it."
This time it was Iorneste who interrupted. "We shall get to your compensation shortly, Gharel."
Gharel turned his head further, rolling his body and flopping onto his belly. He rested his slitted eyes on Iorneste, tail twitching behind him.
Iorneste returned to the original conversation. "I realize it is very dangerous, friend Mourne. But you said it yourself, that I should not underestimate what humans are capable of. Sooner or later, unless we do something, they will open the box."
"Yes, you trapped me handily by bringing that up earlier."
"What issssss insssside?"
"We don't know," Mourne said. "And it is not your concern. We only want you to get the box. I will help you in doing that as much as I can."
Iorneste smiled at Mourne. "Thank you, friend Mourne. Stay clever, stay hidden, and perhaps we shall not all have to live like fugitives."
Mourne shook the frown off of his face, and offered a faded smile in return. "I will take every precaution, Iorneste. I am more resourceful than you might imagine. But you must be careful as well. We both know very little about Mir's Edge."
"I will adapt," he said, and rose to his feet, stretching and hearing his bones pop. "And I will see her there," he said, thinking of her smile, and his body flooded with happiness and excitement as if from nowhere. Simply extraordinary.
"Uh huh. And the drakes, remember those?"
"Of course," he sniffed. "I made them a promise as well."
Mourne nodded in agreement. Then stopped nodding. Frowned. His head pivoted ever so slowly in Iorneste's direction. When his mouth parted at last, it dropped like a slow anchor. "You made...a promise?"
"That I was coming. To be patient, and that I would come and help them."
"How did you tell them this? No, nevermind. I actually do not want to know."
"They do not know it yet, but once Selka returns to Mir's Edge, they will."
"Ah. More secret dragon communication."
"I know," he admitted, giving Mourne a piteous eye. "It would be so much more efficient if you could be a part of it. We would never disagree on anything anymore."
Mourne huffed. "I don't expect you to understand, Iorneste. But not everyone wants to have their mind changed for them."
"It doesn't work like that. You still change your mind. It is just that some of us can be very persuasive in our argumentation."
"It's manipulation, Iorneste. Plain and simple."
"Yet you cannot really see it. You do not understand the anima."
"Then help me understand it."
"It would be like describing the color red to one who had been blind their entire life. It is not your fault, it is just beyond you, and it is beyond my ability to articulate it in any 'language' other than via the animus."
Mourne sighed. "Be that as it may, I am trusting you, Iorn. You are very wise for your young years, and I say that as one who has walked with many young Drac like yourself. But you are also impetuous, and fearless, and this will lead to many sleepless nights for me in the future."
"I will make you proud of me, friend Mourne. I will swear it to you."
"That is not necessary," Mourne said, "Because you have orders."
"Oh yes," Mourne said, and the wickedness of his grin hurt Iorneste's feelings a little.
"You are invoking the Binding?"
"You bet I am. Do you think I am a fool?"
It would not do to argue now, not when Iorneste still needed to ask him for a final concession. "Not at all. I should not have objected. I will not have your direction for some time, but your orders should keep me in the right direction. Are you revoking my use of rune magic? It is a very subtle, but versatile art—"
"I should," Mourne said. "But with so many damned dragons—"
Iorneste felt that his shock must have registered on at least one half of his scarred face, because Mourne corrected himself.
"—er, with so many dragons about, far more than we anticipated setting out on this journey, I'm inclined to be lenient. Just keep it reasonable."
"I understand. Guile is—"
"—a Drac virtue," Mourne said, and grinned. "And you skirt the edge of flamboyancy and misdirection better than just about anyone. Just keep your head. Now let's down to my rules. I hereby order you to do the following: Refrain from killing other human beings for any reason other than self-defense—"
"That seems reasonable," he admitted.
"—but you shall also do your very best to cause the least damage possible to life, limb, or property while you are out of my supervision. Get that temper of yours in check. Find a safe outlet for it."
"I shall exercise the Drac virtue of Control."
"You are also to refrain from hiring anyone else to add to our party in my absence, or for that matter at any point in the future, without my express permission."
Gharel laughed, a sound that was part yip, part yowl, part whine. His three eyes squinched shut. Mourne rolled his eyes.
"Lastly, do not commit the two of us to any venture beyond what we have already discussed until we meet again."
"Agreed," Iorneste said.
"Forgive me, friend," Mourne said, his voice apologetic. "It is not a matter of you agreeing or not. It is an order, and the Binding will enforce it. Though I am your friend, Iorneste, I must first be your mentor."
It still felt a bit like a betrayal to be shackled thus on the edge of their parting, and put a sense of distance between them that he did not like. He would have agreed to these things on his own, but by being ordered it seemed like Mourne did not trust him to be able to be able to restrain himself. Like he really was a monster in the eyes even of one of the trusted kiin.
But Mourne would also face judgment if the dragon he was letting off the leash went out of hand, and this was the realization that changed his mind on the matter. In the event that he did something wrong, they would of course wonder why Mourne was not present with the very Drac he was responsible for. They would question his judgment, to say the least, and if he had not laid orders upon him via the Binding, he would have been in greater trouble still. Like it or not, he was supposed to be on a leash, Mourne's leash, until the First Exile was complete, one way or the other.
"No forgiveness, please. You are a very excellent human, friend Mourne," Iorneste said, and felt his voice grow thick. "And an excellent example for me of what a human should be."
"I'm...honored. Thank you, Iorneste."
"That said, wise and rarest among humans—"
"What do you want?"
"Well, I cannot very well run all the way to Mir's Edge."
"You could, but it would be conspicuous. I've seen you run."
"I cannot ride a horse, either."
"Can't you just enchant a saddle so that it would bear your weight via rune magic?"
It was actually a very good point. "Let us put it this way, Mourne. I do not want to ride a horse."
"My chafed and bleeding thighs aside, why not?"
"Would you ride a pig or a cow into battle?"
"No. But it's a horse."
"Mourne," he said, gesturing to Flash, who was cropping grass nearby. "To my stomach, and to my eyes, he looks like a delicious meal, just wandering around and waiting to be eaten. I may be human on the outside, but I am still a dragon. A dragon will not ride a horse. Not in my story. It is ludicrous."
Mourne appeared to be struggling to control his quivering facial muscles. "I see your point. I see where it is going, and the answer is—"
"Wait. Before you pronounce judgment I would like to suggest that you remove bias for a moment, and an ingrained need to assert dominance over me, dominance you have already amply demonstrated via your judicious invocation of the Binding. Things are happening, and we need to know what they are."
"All I am asking for is one other sanctioned form."
"I am very uncomfortable with granting any permission for you to take any other form."
"The very principle of the First Exile is that you are bound to human form for the entirety of the exile. You have so many advantages already, and being limited to our earthbound existence is a bedrock principle of your education."
"Perhaps, but dragons can't ride horses. We discussed this before. Since we set out on our journey, we have been off guard, buffeted by larger forces. To take control of the situation, we must press our advantage. That means leveraging our own advantages."
"Within reason. But I have conceded already on principle to some of your prior requests due to our current situation. So I suppose I will concede to this. Expediency is our ally, and I will not burden you at this time when we all have an important role to play. Of course you are aware that any of these concessions can, and will, be revoked in the future?"
"With perfect clarity."
"Fine. One form. I assume a flying one?"
"Oh, by the winds, by the very stars, yes!" His three hearts began to pound triple time.
"Good fortune to you as well, Mourne friend." He could not resist the urge to walk over to Mourne and give him a hug. Their animas met, and he felt Mourne's affection and somewhat paternal regard for him, and the wriggling root of distrust of his dragon motives, the weight of many years, many seasons, and the melancholy sadness that had come with it. The steel discipline beneath. He did not push anything in Mourne's direction other than the true depth of his own regard for him, because Mourne deserved to understand it.
Mourne's eyes watered as they withdrew, and he blinked rapidly to clear them. "Like hugging lightning, every damned time," he muttered. "I'll see you in Earlemont," and started to walk away. Then his steps slowed and his voice continued to quaver as he spoke over his shoulder. "Thank you for that. I didn't know that you felt that way...I am very touched, Iorneste."
"We will see each other again soon. We are, after all—"
"Creatures of eternity," Mourne finished. "I know. Thankfully we don't need to wait nearly that long."
"Until that time, friend Mourne."
"Go with speed, Iorneste. It will take us another two or three days to reach Earlemont. Once we arrive, we will act quickly to put the plan into motion. I can only hope we will not be too late."
"Have you done the math on the number of possible combinations? You will be in time. Do not rush to act before planning, Mourne."
"Do not lecture me, dragon. I am still your elder. I will tread carefully."
He smiled. "Apologies, Mourne. And fare you well."
"You too, Iorneste. You too."
Selka scanned the streets below looking for the assassin, having already swept through the lingering smoke left by his shot. Two rifles rested upon the roof where they had been abandoned. Smart move, running through a crowd carrying rifles was a sure way to get noticed. He was also wearing white, better to blend in at a distance with the white brick roofs of the classic buildings of Earlemont. And what a shot! This was not some rank amateur she was chasing, able to shoot from such a distance up into the air, through the winds, and still hit their target. She had just seen him drop from the roof, down to the streets below, and as she and the dragon had blown past he had disappeared from her view between the buildings.
The dragon angled in response to her thoughts, sweeping back in a circle, and as they changed direction she was able to see down the alleyway, and catch a snatch of fabric disappearing around the corner, out into the main street.
Which was where she lost him. The surging, fleeing crowds swallowed him, and white or undyed fabric was hardly uncommon on the midday streets. She peered closer, hovering over the square where she had lost him as people began to flood out of it.
That was when her dragon began to descend without her ordering it, and she was certain she had not even considered it. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Why are you landing?" With the force of old habit she raised her heels, prepared to drive them into his sides, but caught herself and flushed with shame. The dragon snorted and growled but did not cease landing. Nevermind, if the dragon wanted to descend to the streets below, she would find out why.
There was a single carriage in the street, that had formerly been stalled, surrounded by swarming people. Now, even the carriage driver had fled, and the horses pranced and foamed, but did not run. The dragon seemed intent on landing near it, and she relinquished even the idea of control, thankful only that the dragon was not going violent or threatening to breathe fire.
Before the dragon had even reached the cobbles she slid out of the saddle, along the side of the dragon's body, falling only a short distance before reaching the ground. Her sword came free from the scabbard so swiftly that it rang, the blade vibrating in her hand.
The dragon began to walk slowly around the front of the carriage, eyes intent on whatever was inside. The curtain was drawn to the windows, but she heard a muttered voice inside.
"Whoever is in that carriage, show yourself now, in the name of the King!"
There was a pause inside, and then a man's voice came out. "Would na do et if I were you, girl. There's a girl in here like yeself, and I'll do her right here!" A woman's voice gasped from inside the carriage. "She won't live if you come any closer!"
Furious did not begin to describe her emotion right now. She felt the rising futility of her position, but beat it back. "There is nowhere for you to go, assassin!" She was distracted by the dragon walking on the opposite side of the carriage, placing each foot slowly, softly, deliberately down, creeping and prowling ever closer.
"Still got my pistol, Mes...still loaded!" the voice shouted back. "Got the hammer back, got it pressed right to her skull! I won't miss. Now go, and lose the dragon!"
She opened her mouth to object, but as if on cue, the dragon acted. His head struck downward like a snake, smashing through the roof of the carriage, and reaching inside. There was an agonized, terrified scream, the crashing sound of a bullet fired in close quarters, and then the dragon's head jerked out of the hole it had created, splintering the remainder of the top of the carriage to bits, opening it to the sky.
The man's screaming followed the head of the dragon, being pinned and trapped between his jaws, blood already dripping from the puncture wounds. The dragon shook the man back and forth violently in his jaws, and Selka screamed out, hand outstretched, "No!"
But it was too late. His screaming fell silent with the sickening rattle of bones that accompanied the dragon's shake of his body, and despite her screaming protests, the dragon turned his head back, looking up to the sky, unhinging his jaws, and swallowing the remains of the assassin whole.
She might have been mistaken, but when he looked back down in her direction, his eyes seemed apologetic. But whether or not the dragon was sorry, they would be getting no answers from the corpse of this assassin.
Rising from the tattered remains of the carriage was a very shaky noblewoman. Despite taking atypical pains with her appearance and her ceremonial armor, Selka felt outshined and underdressed. The noble was a Murian, of all things, dressed in the silks and light layers that characterized much of their clothing, her arms covered in sleeves. Probably, she theorized, to cover her sacred tattoos.
She looked to be barely more than a girl. Whatever Selka's feelings about what had occurred to the assassin, however, she was still a knight and there was another duty here. She looked uneasily at the dragon, but he did not seem to be making any further aggressive moves, but his eyes tracked the noblewoman in a way she found unsettling.
"Lady," Selka addressed her. "I apologize for the inconvenience. The man who just accosted you was an assassin."
The woman's eyes widened, and her lip quivered. "Oh my," she breathed, and reached out a hand to steady herself on what was the splintered wall of the carriage. "And the d-dragon?" she asked, looking up at it fearfully.
"He will not harm you," Selka assured her, hoping she was correct. "But it seems you are without transportation. Are you bound somewhere within the city? I would be happy to provide escort, Lady..."
"Shelle," the woman said, beginning to step down from the carriage. "Shelle Ru." Selka sheathed her blade and offered her a hand down. The woman took it and Selka felt almost as if she had been shocked by static electricity at their touch.
Selka turned to the dragon, and gestured back towards the royal gardens. There was a pause, as if the dragon was thinking about it, and then he began to beat his wings and took to the skies, flying back towards the castle.
The noblewoman's eyes widened. "How did you do that?" she asked, expression openly shocked.
"Oh, um, it is just that he is well-trained," Selka lied.
"Fascinating!" said Shelle. "I must confess I had not expected to receive a personal escort from one of the King's knights. Much less," she said, leaning closer and whispering, "That the knight would be a girl like yourself."
Selka thought of objecting to the term "girl", a pet peeve of hers, but let it go considering the uncertain station of the Murian. "We are somewhat specialized to the riding of dragons, Lady. Only women can ride them."
"Is that so? I would love to hear more about it as we walk."
Something about the woman both set her on edge and at ease at the same time. Part of it was the woman herself: She was absolutely exquisite, the kind of daughter her father would have fawned over. Her skin was smooth, eyes were long-lashed and an amethyst shade of violet, and hair that long and black had to have been the work of a lifetime. Her clothing was of a style that she knew would soon be all the rage at court. Exotic, powerful, beautiful, everything that her father had wanted.
And here she was with cropped hair in an armored dress. So be it. "Of course, Lady," Selka said, hiding any discomfort with a smile. "We could discuss anything your ladyship desires while we travel, but if dragons have your curiosity, it is certainly a topic I know something about."
"I would like that," said Lady Shelle, taking her arm, and they made their way through the returning crowds, now slowly calming from their panic, but none of them quiet about it.
Sometimes things were easier without a dragon around, and Selka was comforted that at least she had no dragons to worry about at the moment.
Sheldrache's carriage had been enroute to the castle when she heard screaming outside and a stampede of people fleeing some great disaster who came pouring out into the streets, running in front of the driver, who was forced to stop, and continuing to rush through the square, making it impossible for anyone to move anywhere.
"What is going on?" she called out the window to the driver, pulling back quickly inside as the press of people against the side of the carriage threatened to slam into her.
"Chaos out here, m'lady!" he shouted back. "Wait, there's a....dragon!"
"A dragon?" she asked, but there was no response and she realized her driver had abandoned her, joining the terror of the others. Peeking out the window, sure enough, she saw him, a drake with a rider upon his back in pursuit of...
The door to the carriage was thrown open, and a man dressed in white clothing ran inside, slamming the door closed behind him. He was panting heavily, sweating, and his eyes were wild.
"What the hell," she demanded, "Do you think you are doing?"
"I'm sorry, m'lady! I hit with the first shot! But he had a bodyguard, and he's riding a dragon!"
"And of all the possible places in this city you could have run and hid, you choose to come here, right back to me? Do you have any idea how stupid that was? I thought I'd hired a professional. Is that not the very first thing that you learn, or do they teach you how to wipe yourself first?"
"Hey!" he shouted back, pointing his finger at her. "You never said anything about dragons! I did my job, now you do yours! You fix this!"
She felt the mind of the drake as he came into range, and her animus and his merged. She felt his excitement at sensing her, and with a simple thought she sent him warm feelings and a simple command. Why don't you come down here and see me? She did not wait for its response, this time speaking aloud in response to the assassin. "It remains to be seen if you did your job, we have no confirmation of his death yet. As for what to do about you? I suppose you had better hold me hostage."
He snorted, but she patted the seat next to her. "Come over here. Grab me, hold me prisoner. You know you want to do it." She lashed him playfully with her animus, just once, like a sudden hot lick against the skin of his neck. She felt the rush of his desire as he closed the space between them instantly, moving around behind her and wrapping his arm around her midsection, just under her bosom. His hot, foul breath was at her ear, and the scratchiness of his beard rubbed against the side of her face.
"Mmm," she said, pushing herself back against him and causing him to groan. "That's better. Don't forget your pistol, ser." She felt him fumbling between them, reaching for the holster at his chest, and then the pistol was in his hand, heavy wooden grip resting against her shoulder, barrel pressed just behind her ear.
His free hand was questing upwards, pawing at her bodice, with trembling breaths about to reach his hand inside.
He seemed suitably distracted. She gave the order to the dragon, sensing it circling the carriage through its own eyes.
Outside, a husky woman's voice shouted, "Whoever is in that carriage, show yourself now, in the name of the King!" When Sheldrache smiled, the assassin could not see it.
Her hired assassin shouted back. "Would na do et if I were you, girl. There's a girl in here like yeself, and I'll do her right here!" He emphasized his words, gaining a double entendre, by grinding himself against her, and she responded with a gasp of pleasure, arching her back against him.
If any brain at all had remained in his head, rather than his groin, he might have questioned why she was so eager, so compliant. She had not even further engaged her animus against him, it had not even been necessary. His biological urges blinded him, and if her punishment for engaging them was to be pawed at long enough for him to be fatally distracted, then so be it.
She let them exchange threats and posturing with each other, but once the dragon was in position, she had no intention of doing anything else. "Now go," the assassin shouted. "And lose the dragon!"
Still leaning back against him, she pressed her lips to his ear. Her breath was hot against his skin, her soft whisper designed to tease and tantalize. "Good...bye," she said, and then broke his grip and his hand, throwing herself out of his lap to the opposite side of the carriage, he screamed just as the dragon plunged through the ceiling, powerful jaws snapping down onto his body. The doomed man got off a single shot, but it was not direct, and glanced off of the dragon's scales. Then with a crunch of bones and a gurgle he was torn from the carriage, and the roof was ripped off with it, bringing in the glaring sunlight from overhead.
Finish it, she ordered the dragon. After all, you are very, very hungry. There was little resistance, until the knight outside shouted "No!" but she told the dragon to ignore her words. You are hungry, after all. Surely your rider will understand.
Once the dragon had swallowed the assassin she allowed herself to relax. Now there was no one who remained alive to tie her to the assassination attempt. She saw the female knight standing there, her grey eyes and red hair confirmation of her identity, visions of her face coming to her own memories when she had melded with the drake that this female called "Kulvas". This was the one who had burned the Wyldlands with dragonfire.
So now to personal business.
Now kill her, she ordered the dragon. Though she was placed under Iorneste's protection and was prohibited from harming the girl herself, indirect misfortunes, particularly those communicated through the ungovernable animus, were something of a blindspot with regards to the terms of the Binding.
She was surprised to feel resistance from the dragon to her order, and she glanced back upwards at him, wearing a fearful mask on her features for the knight's benefit. Why do you resist? she began to ask, but with the question, always came the answer and she felt the warmth of the creature's affection for Selka, and it shocked her. Images of the kennels where he was traditionally bound contrasted with how she had directed him to sleep elsewhere, peacefully, and how even though he had not quite understood her words, he had felt the emotions behind them. I am sorry. We did not know.
Showed her how, when Selka's life was threatened, he had known about it, and had come to her as fast as he could. Something of a problem. He would not easily take an order to kill what he had done everything possible to save.
Resistance was not uncommon when ordering drakes, but outright defiance was unheard of, and she felt this young little drake on the verge of defiance. On one hand she was amused, because despite however much defiance he might possess, in the end she would have her way. But she could not ignore the impressions from the dragon, and his affection for Selka was transferred through her. She did not doubt its sincerity, and could not argue with the feelings it had gleaned from Selka.
The last revelation from the drake was most shocking of all. He showed her the treatment he had received from his former rider, Eluenne, and of how when she moved to strike him, the other dragon like herself, none other than her younger brother Iorneste, had intervened to stop the attack. How he had given the drake a message, and how he should trust Selka and protect her, and how Iorneste would be very upset if anything bad happened to her.
Even if she wanted to, and contradicted the order of another Drac, it could very well break this drake's mind in the process of attempting to carry out two contradictory orders.
Perhaps this Selka Euphrane required more study. She could always be dealt with later. In any event, the assassination never needed to be successful to achieve her goal, so she was already in a forward position to make her next move. Best not to get too distracted by less important matters.
Guile is a Drac virtue, and by that standard, she considered herself to be very virtuous indeed.
Iorneste found his parting with Gharel to go very smoothly once he gifted the tiny mereling his boots. But the creature's first reaction had not been overwhelmed.
He had in fact broken out into hissing, yowling laughter.
"Ssshould I wearrr them as mittensss?"
"Amusing," he admitted. "But these are enchanted with Drac rune magic. A sizing charm is one of the easiest early forms to master, and is a standard rune on any form of clothing. It also works in tandem with shapeshifting, another reason for its favor among our kind."
"It means the boots will fit your feet. Just put them on."
Dubious, but also curious, the mereling stuck a foot into one of the boots, long downswept ears flying up and knocking back his hood to indicate his surprise. "Ohhhh," he murred. He repeated the process with his other foot, and Iorneste's boots were now snug little leggings, conforming like a second skin to the mereling's feet.
He raised each leg, sniffing one of the boots in the process, placing them gently back on the ground. "Feel....ssstrange. That it?"
Iorneste could not help but find himself smiling. "Not at all. These boots were made for me, but it occurred to me that they could be of great use to you as well. They will increase your chances of success, which is good for all of us, and it establishes my honorable intentions on fulfilling the terms of our agreement by providing you with something that every thief desires."
"Drema?" asked Gharel.
"The quietest of steps. Gharel may be fastest, best at climb, and steal by night, at hide by day, but Gharel now also has the most silent feet. So long as you rest on your back feet, you will leave no track, no trace. I have not tested it, but you could probably use them to run on water. Certainly I can assure you that if you can find a large enough spiderweb, you could walk on it without breaking it."
"Impossssible," said the mereling, but his eyes were wide with hope.
"And one more thing," he said. "Get ready to jump." He dropped down to one knee, lacing his hands together and laying them near his ankle. "Whatever you do, be sure to land on your back feet."
The mereling nodded. "I sssee. When ready, dragon."
"I am ready. Mourne, watch close. You will enjoy this."
Mourne, atop the horse at the side of the road, shaded his eyes against the sun, nudging Flash to turn for a better angle. "The question is whether or not he will."
"Hush," he said, shushing his mentor. "Go, Gharel! Remember, on your feet!"
The mereling sprung forward, one foot making contact with his palm and beginning to spring into the air. Iorneste rose, bringing the mereling's foot with him and continuing its momentum, launching the mereling vertically into the air with all of his strength, holding nothing back. He grunted and stumbled back, off balance before spinning about and looking up into the air, trying to see how high he had thrown the mereling.
Oh my. He could not even see him anymore. "Where did he go, Mourne?"
"Wherever shooting stars go, I imagine." The tone of Mourne's voice sounded suspicious, and as he jerked his head sideways to see why, he realized that Mourne's shoulders were shaking and he was fighting back laughter.
"You really did not see?"
"He went straight up, Iorneste, but...you seem to..." Mourne leaned over the horse and the loudest, harshest, most uncontrollable laughter that Iorneste had ever heard spilled out of him.
Still no sign of the mereling.
"...you seem to have thrown our thief...away...." And then Mourne could say no more, and could probably see nothing more, either, so many tears was he wiping away from his eyes.
He stretched his senses, and then heard a distant scream, unlike any scream he had ever heard before. Then a dot resolved in the sky above into windblown fur and flashing teeth, growing ever larger, moving as fast as a dragon in a freefall dive, seconds from the earth.
"Land on your back feet!" he bellowed up into the sky, cupping his hand around his mouth.
When the moment of truth arrived, the mereling did in fact land on his back feet, dropping to a crouch on his haunches, but driven no further. The ground rumbled softly and rippled when he landed, a tiny shockwave rippling out across the ground, rocking slightly underfoot, but barely noticeable. A few trees in the still air rustled and rocked as the shockwave passed them, as if blown by a soft breeze.
"You need never fear falling to your death again, Gharel." Iorneste said.
The words were well-timed, because the initial look of fury on the mereling's face spoke of murder, as did the knives already drawn in his hands. But in hearing the words, he looked around the clearing, chest heaving and panting, and then down at his feet, only the faintest of impressions left in the earth beneath him.
Gharel dropped the knives, fell to his knees, and crawled over to Iorneste, clutching his coat in his clawed hands, looking up to him with his three slitted eyes wide. "I would sssserve you for free! I would sssserve you alwayssss! Massster! Among thievesss, you have made me a god!"
He leaned down, speaking in a lower tone, just for their ears. "Then go, Gharel, for right now there is a treasure in Earlemont that only the God of Thieves could steal."
Selka returned to the castle with the Lady Shelle Ru in tow. They had journeyed through the city, asking questions and commenting on the layout of the city, which Selka had been happy to provide as a distraction from darker thoughts. She chatted with Shelle comfortably, without any real depth, almost without thinking what she was saying, her thoughts more concentrated on the dead end concerning the assassin.
She had to revise her assessment of Shelle as a girl, however. Once outside of the pressure of a dragon or a threat on her life, the Murian seemed comfortable in her skin in a way that Selka could envy. Men stared at her, dumbstruck, and completely ignored the dragon knight escorting her. Many women and children as well.
"Look! It's a Murian princess!" one of the children shouted, and others began to look in their direction. She heard "Murian princess" uttered at least a dozen times as they walked through the city, and in time they had a small procession, curiosity and adoration capturing the imagination of the masses. The vast majority of the procession, disproportionately, were adult men. She recognized a handful of well-known married shopkeepers among their ranks.
Had everyone lost their minds?
She was humbled on that journey more times than she could count. She had always been at least enough of a curiosity to garner attention from both men and women, but in the presence of the "Murian princess", she was common and ordinary rabble.
Shelle blushed and turned to her for female commisseration at the several rather desperate love proposals during their trek. Some of the proposals were indecent. Those were the occasions when Selka managed to draw attention, when she also drew her sword and ordered the offender to recant his words and apologize for such language in front of a Lady.
It was a bit of a victory and assurance of her own skills of persuasion that all of them did.
Several times during that interminably long trek through the city streets, dealing with throngs of people and little separation from them, not to mention their growing parade of admirers, Shelle leaned close to her, hand resting upon her own arm, and asked her some questions.
So distracted had she been, perhaps, she could not remember any of the questions, or any of her answers. She could remember little of that part of the journey, in fact, until Shelle released her arm and they were standing at the gates to the castle, with the castellan and the Viceroy Tulane himself waiting for them.
"Dame Selka," he said, addressing her. "Before we address your actions, let us address the obvious. Who is this rabble that follows you en masse to the castle gates? And who," and he bowed deep, flashing his most charming smile, "Is this ravishing and exotic Lady in your escort?"
It was unpolitic of her, but Selka could not suppress a groan. She tried to cover, adding, "Forgive me, Your Excellency, I will explain the mob later, for now I would like to introduce the Lady Shelle Ru, from the Murian Isles. Lady Shelle, this is the Viceroy Esperus Tulane, former commander of the Sunlowe Order, second in command to King Gracellus Ysarde. And, I daresay," she added, winking to the Viceroy, "Quite the excellent introduction to the court of Earlemont. You could find yourself no better escort in this arena than he, and with gratitude I would dispense you to him to escort you into the arena where he is most suited."
The Viceroy blinked. "Very gracious of you, Dame Selka. Thank you. I would be happy to provide such an escort, if you are willing to do me such an honor, Lady Ru."
"In a moment, good sir, I will be delighted to comply," said Shelle.
She turned to Selka and opened her arms to her. Selka struggled to accept the hug, turning to avoid her pauldrons causing injury to the lady's face. "Thank you," said Shelle. "For coming to my rescue, Dame Selka Euphrane. I enjoyed our talks, you shared so many amazing things with me. I hope that we can talk again."
She had? Selka wished again that she could remember what they had discussed. It had seemed rather trivial at the time.
The woman's scent was rather nice, and she thought about how nice it felt to be held by her as Shelle whispered something in her ear that she could not remember. Yet she responded all the same, "Do you think so?"
"I know so," Shelle said. "You should try it." Then she kissed her cheek with dove softness, and released her, and curtsied in the most elegant manner she had ever seen.
"I think I will," Selka said, and smiled, bowing in return, feeling the gentle kiss tingling on her cheek, and bringing gooseflesh to her arms, neck, and shoulders. It did not seem to matter what she was talking about. Shelle really was quite beautiful, quite charming, and Selka's own oafish distraction, and the admiring throng behind her, was to be expected in such situations.
Which reminded her.
She turned around, facing the crowd, hand on her sword hilt. "The Lady Shelle is a guest of the court! Return to your homes at once, and stop blocking the roads!"
The groan of protest coming almost in unison from the lips of so many men would have been comical, were it not also so heartfelt. Not quite willing to storm the castle to profess their undying love, the crowd broke into mutters and began to disperse, with no shortage of longing backward glances.
"We will speak more on your actions later, Dame Selka," Tulane said to her as she turned around, hand taking Lady Shelle's and bringing it to his lips. "My lady. Thank you for this honor."
"It is nothing, Your Excellency, it is I that am honored."
Once again forgotten, Selka watched as the Lady Shelle acquired a new procession within the castle grounds, and took the opportunity to break from the procession to visit her liege, who had been in the midst of giving her some very important orders, and upon whose condition her future very much depended.
They had said their farewells, and Iorneste was at last alone, truly independent, for the first time on his First Exile. He stood alone at the crossroads for a short while, cleaning up their small camp and assessing his thoughts. His coat had been the first thing enchanted, as he found carrying a backpack burdensome. Sewn with many pockets, each of them had a pocket rune that was much larger inside, than without. A rather difficult and more advanced rune configuration, but one that he thought was well worth it.
If he was to be a wandering dragonslayer and now, apparently, dragon expert, he would need to bring his hoard with them. Some of the spare tack and equipment were slipped into his coat, disappearing into the pockets inside.
He knew he was delaying the pleasure a bit, triple hearts thrumming in his chest with anticipation. One form, Mourne had said. But one with wings? By the winds and stars, yes, he said.
He was heading to the Mir, so let it be the mirhawk. The hawk was a form with which he had prior practice in Kaer Drac, so there was no awkward period of acclimation. One moment he was standing on two legs, the next his form flowed and compressed down and he was beating his arms/wings and they were now feathers, and he was once again, for the first time in several weeks, airborne.
His cry was a mirhawk's cry, but for him it was a cry of exaltation. From here to Mir's Edge, by the most direct route he could muster, navigating via one of his greatest talents.
He did not know exactly how long it would take to reach Mir's Edge, because he had never made the flight before, but by his rough calculations he figured it should be no more than two days at most. Once he reached altitude he stretched out his wings and began to glide, seeking the updrafts and making a swift winged advance eastward towards the Mir.
The King had retired to his chambers, but since he had asked for her, Selka was allowed to see him. The guards protested when he told them to exit his room, but as the King he insisted, and they were soon gone without a trace, leaving her alone, next to his kingly bed, with him resting inside of it.
"Selka?" he said, weakly, eyes opening and closing and then opening again. Clawing towards wakefulness.
"Speak plainly, Selka. Our conversation was rudely interrupted." He began to shift in the bed, and she was relieved to see him moving rapidly towards grumpy agitation, fussing over the pillow and propping it behind him, and scooting up until he was sitting.
His only evidence of tiredness and pain was the bandage on the side of his head that could not disguise the large egg that had developed beneath it, and how he leaned his head back against the headboard and exhaled, eyes closed.
"Of course, ser. I found the assassin, ser, but unfortunate circumstances. Well, ser..."
"If you call me Ser, one more...time..."
Speak plainly. It was a hard habit to break. "Gracellus, my dragon was the one who found and caught the assassin. And ate him, unfortunately."
"Ate him? Do you know what Esperus is saying?"
"I have a few good ideas."
"Indulge me, Selka. I'd like to see how your mind works. What do you think he will be saying about you? Can you accurately deduce his motives and actions in the absence of any evidence?"
"The past is at least some evidence, Ser...Gracellus."
"And a great source of bias, if one is not careful. But please."
"I suspect based on his tone in addressing me, and conversations we have had in the past, that he is outraged that I did not stable the dragon in its customary kennel, according to procedure. That I exposed the King, the court, and the citizens of Earlemont to a threat even greater than an assassin himself in leaving a dragon unbound. How I induced terror among the citizenry, stalled traffic, caused severe damage to property, and overall showed poor judgment, and reckless, emotional behavior, ill-befitting a public representative of the King."
"I apologize, Selka, it seems you are indeed an accurate judge of the Viceroy's predictable reactions, despite lacking evidence."
"You said before it does not matter what he thinks. What is it that you think?"
"I think that if we actually want to have dragons in our lives, we have to get used to the idea of a few broken windows."
"There is at least some merit to his argument. In the end the dragon was not entirely in my control. It attacked without my order, but he may very well have saved the life of Lady Shelle."
"Ahh, is that the one causing so much of a tizzy downstairs?"
"Probably. She's Murian, and she says her family was shipwrecked. She does not hold any land or title, but she has the regalia."
"A curious guest to our court on such a curious day."
"Indeed. Quite charming, though. I am sure you will see her work her magic at court."
"Formidable, is she?"
"Outside of being in the same breath as a dragon, she has been very composed and sure of herself."
"I will keep an eye on her once I am able. She is no longer any concern of yours. You have more pressing matters."
"Yes, about that. There has been no announcement, nor do I have any proof to provide others that—"
"That the Dragon Corps is no more and has been replaced with the Dragonguard? Do you like that name, by the way?"
"I am not sure to be honest. But perhaps there is something else that could be done instead."
"What do you suggest?"
"With your permission, announce the dissolution of the Dragon Corps. Do not announce a replacement."
"That is dangerous, Selka," he said, waggling his index finger at her in a scolding manner, "The Surans hesitate only because they await the response of the Dragon Corps. They attacked in the first place so boldly because word of the backsliding failure of our dragon rider experiment has reached their ears. If they were to think us to be completely without dragons on the battlefield, they will surely advance their plans to attack."
"Not by much. If there are as many men as you have inferred, it will take time to move that many, factoring in as well the time it takes for the news to reach them. They will spend time incorporating this information to their battle plans."
"Aha," his eyes gleamed like a boy discovering a new bug, and it made her smile. "And they will be unprepared and unsurprised when the dragons do strike."
"Assuming you are able to bring us dragons."
"I swear to you on my life that I will bring you dragons, even if it is only myself."
"No need for that, but thank you. It is a time for hopes and large gambles. I will at least send you with my own private seal and authorization that you are to be trusted with the care and provisioning of the crown's dragons, with all decisions to be ultimately made by you regarding their use and handling."
"My liege! I mean, really?"
"I think the episode earlier at the balcony has amptly demonstrated your concern for my wellbeing is paramount over your own, and I thought the dragon's behavior understandable, considering the circumstances. As if he really is more than the unruly, feral beast we assumed, as you said earlier. Where is he now, by the way?"
"Sleeping in the grotto of the royal gardens, I presume."
"You presume? You trust that he's not off gobbling up the kitchen servants?"
"Trust. Yes, that is right word."
"Hmm. A well-chosen spot for a dragon if you're going to keep it on the castle grounds, at least. Thank you, but we will need to find different arrangements in the future."
"Then let us talk to my final topic, the one that we were unable to address before. Your mystery friend, Yorn."
"Ah. What about him?"
"I would advise you strongly not to pursue your feelings with him, until you are truly sure what he is, and his agenda. The aims of the secret order he described may not be in line with our own. His unwillingness to speak plainly with you, as you are I are doing now, makes me very uneasy, Selka."
"Do you? I have assassins in the capital, mysterious Murian princesses, a box of some sort of ancient enchantment, and human beings with magical artifacts who are part of secret organizations that no one has ever heard of all arriving in Greatre Esturia at the same time. I have every reason to be paranoid."
"I do understand, Ser. You make your point very plainly."
"But I do trust you, Selka. I also want to trust your judgment, but I cannot fully do so if that judgment is clouded, and if you are putting your faith in someone you cannot trust."
"I feel that I can trust him, Gracellus."
"How is that?"
"In the same way that I feel I can trust the dragon."
"The dragon is one matter, but that is not going to be enough for me with your friend Yorn. That said, Selka..."
"If he truly is a dragon expert, and he can be of use, do not hesitate to take advantage of it. He may be a lesser enemy, or one willing to help us through this crisis, but have no doubt, after the crisis is over, the identity and secrets of this Yorn will be addressed."
"I am perturbed at him for another reason, Selka. He has no right to demand your heart if he is not willing to share himself with you. I know you have received little interest from the nobility over the years, and you must be lonely. The loss of your sister, poor thing, cannot have helped you, either."
She felt the water rising to her eyes. "Ser, please..."
"So on one hand I am happy for you. So few have suffered so much, for so little gain, as you. I am thankful that he gives you that, that you find a kinship with him. But there are things about him that don't add up, that don't make sense, Selka. I encourage you to think about that, and see what answers he is willing to provide. If he gives you no evidence and you must take everything at his word, then put your sword in his belly, Selka. For he will be the very worst kind of snake."
"That is an order."
"Yes, my liege."
"Go and retrieve your armor, leave as soon as you are ready and do not delay. I will send my papers to your room shortly. Tomorrow I announce the dissolution of the Dragon Corps. Plan your journey accordingly."
"Thank you, Gracellus."
"Think nothing of it. Thanks to you, I am still alive. The assassin responsible will never trouble me again. Do not think I will ever forget that."
She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Thank you, ser. My liege, my life. If I achieve nothing else in my life, I have already received my life's highest honor."
"You are dismissed, Dame Selka. With my blessing."
"At once, Your Majesty."
She left, stopping by her room, and finding her armor cleaned and polished, straps repaired, appearing as new as if it had been just forged. She smiled at it, like a returned friend.
Carefully she removed her ceremonial armor, setting aside the damaged pauldron on the table to be repaired by Morri and his army of silent servants who banished all problems and concerns from the guests at Earlemont castle.
She stood before the mirror naked, looking at herself. There was something she had to do first. Something important. Someone very nice and very important had suggested that she do it. She couldn't remember the name of the person who told her to do it, it did not seem important. It just seemed like a very good idea.
Reaching down to the vanity drawer, she opened it, setting aside the hairbrush that Leska had left for her, hoping forever in vain that she would use it. Reached down beneath to the flat-edged blade used for shaving, which she often used to clean up the hairs at the back of her neck. It gleamed coldly, but she was excited to begin.
She rested the razor gently against her skin, pressed firmly, and felt it begin to cut.
Sheldrache smiled at herself in the mirror, finding the chambers to her liking. The Viceroy had been a pet, if a predictable one. She had removed him from her presence quickly, however, as she wanted an opportunity to savor the day's events.
Tulane had all but promised her a look at the box, and Selka had revealed many details that had given her valuable information and insight, though the girl was not aware she had done so.
That said, some form of revenge was in order for Selka's actions. Sheldrache could not have lived with herself otherwise.
"Pleasant dreams, Selka Euphrane," she whispered, blowing a kiss to her reflection in the mirror.
by Queen Z, Zaina Isard
©2015 Zaina Isard