Shades of the Truth
Oren realized there was trouble brewing on his ship, and that this trouble was a woman. Broch was now sharing a bunk with Quints, but it was clear to the Captain that his boatswain had fallen for the Lady Shelle, and it was affecting his work.
The crew were distracted, watching the drama of the boatswain and his repeated attempts to corner and woo Lady Shelle. The boatswain shirked his duties, acting ever the part of a dutiful suitor, and Shelle would give him some inconsequential task to dispense with him, and he would run off to perform it as quickly as possible, so that he could more quickly return to her side and bask in her radiance once more.
Oren's eyes were rolling so much of late that he thought they would roll out of his head at all of the simpering and bowing and elbowing side-glances, and the crew were making jests and bets with one another with only half a mind on their work. He'd spent years of his life hammering crews into little engines of efficiency, and this galled him beyond measure, and he took it as a personal failing on his part that discipline had fallen so far.
It did not help that he was not immune to the woman, either, and every time she arrived he held his breath a little, and let out a happy exhale when she left, his nose picking up her trailing scent of spice and sandalwood. He only needed to look at her to feel like a much younger man, and she inspired a strong desire like no woman he'd ever seen.
The mereling, nominally female herself, could even be caught at times reaching out to touch or stroke the Lady, possessed with her own private awe over the noblewoman.
All of which just further validated his opinion that women at sea were trouble, and arriving in Lacrasse was going to allow him to divest his crew of several of them and get everything back to normal, and figure out what "normal" now looked like, as soon as possible.
Quints was the only one on the ship who continued to act like himself, whether she was around or not, and Oren reasoned that this was either because Quints had the emotional range of a turnip, or because Quints tastes ran in the other direction.
So the Captain came to Quints, who stood with his bronze arms folded and his bare feet splayed on deck, his customary position, eyeing everything and shouting out instructions or obscenities when needed. He had effectively taken over the duties of boatswain as well, and the tick in his left eye and the generally sleepless look about him was the only indication Oren had beyond his usual bellicose bellowing that Quints was more angry than usual.
"Quints," Oren said.
"We have a problem."
"We have several problems, Captain. But they do not concern me right now. Lacrasse is on the horizon."
"Yes," said Oren, and patted Quints on his solid shoulder. "Just be ready. The boatswain seems to have lost his mind. I'd hate for him to do something sudden and stupid."
"That's what I thought. Good talk, Quints."
The Inquisitor leaned over the table, his white hood veiling his face in shadow. He had given Iorneste a seat at the table, and Mourne stood behind him, leaning against the tower wall, face impassive.
"Yorn of Summersgard, you will now face the Questioning. There is no lying to the Questioner, and if you are honest your life may be returned to you, if you are not, you shall rot."
Iorneste recognized a practitioner of magic when he saw one. Unfortunately, he had no way of countering it, under the rules of the Binding, as this was not immediately a matter of life and death. Selka stood ready at attention, hand upon her sword. Iorneste had been divested of his weapon, and it leaned in one corner fully in view of the accused.
"Let us now begin the Questioning," said the Questioner, and Iorneste raised his hand to interrupt.
"If I may," began Iorneste. Mourne made a choking sound.
"I suspect none of us have any desire to prolong these proceedings, and I bear you nor your country any ill will. I would like you to understand these intentions, and as it may aid you in understanding who I am, I would like to tell you my story."
Selka blinked and her mouth opened, and stayed open. There was no way of telling the Questioner's expression from within his recessed hood, but his formality slipped a bit. "That would be...refreshing, actually. Still know that you can tell no lie to me, for it will ring as false as a bell."
"Has anything rang false so far?"
"Not so far. I will allow it."
Iorneste smiled and opened his hands in an inviting manner. "Then I will tell you my story. I am from a long line of dragonslayers, called the Drac Orden and we were once mighty warriors..."
Rrachma turned back a few pages in the book, and began to re-read the first chapter:
Yorn was from a long line of dragonslayers, called the Drac Orden and they had once been mighty warriors, sworn to defend the lives of humanity against the powerful wryms, but rising to the occasion against any foe, no matter how great. They were more powerful than any normal man or woman, and their secret order had given them the power and strength to slay any beast. A single dragonslayer was a power unto himself, and kings and armies would look upon them in awe alike.
With the passing of his father, Yorn found himself to be the very last of this proud line of the Drac Orden. He took his father's sword, Yrmbane, and went out into the world in search of adventure. Yet still, he was not fully considered a member of the Drac Orden until he had slain his first dragon. Rumors still persisted of dragons, and Yorn went in search of them, seeking to bleed them with Yrmbane, and start the Drac Orden anew, with he as its leader.
Rrachma turned his head upwards, towards the world beyond the Kaer, and his thoughts went with it. Then, the powerful wrym began to laugh, and his booming voice filled the caverns.
"...to start the Drac Orden anew, with myself as its leader."
The Questioner paused for a long moment, unfolding his arms and then deliberately placing his palms together. "I have never heard of this Drac Orden you speak of."
"I am not surprised. It is not known to many."
"Your words ring true." The merest motion came from the hood.
Selka reacted to this, looking at Iorneste in mute disbelief.
The Questioner's hood turned to Mourne. "Is what he says true?"
Mourne swallowed, then spoke carefully. "It may be. We only met last week."
"In the Wyldlands according to record, yes?"
"We journeyed through the Wyldlands, yes. We traveled together for some time, before we noticed the forest fire. That was where we encountered Selka."
The Questioner looked back to Iorneste. "And where the dragon was slain. And that would have been the first dragon you killed?"
Iorneste nodded. "It would have been, yes."
The Questioner turned his attention to Selka. "How did Sandridge burn to the ground?"
Selka gasped, appearing surprised. "I was not aware I was under the Questioning."
"It is an important statement for the record on your part."
"It was an accident," she said. "My accident."
"An expensive one it will be, but it is not my place to decide your fate on this matter, Knight-Marshal."
"I am sorry about that," Selka said, voice diminished.
"So a dragonslayer and his companion arrive in a place that is immolated in dragon fire, with several villagers dead, homes destroyed, and one of the Dragon Corps in the midst of it. Did you declare your affiliation or position within Greatre Esturia to the dragonslayer before you attacked, Knight-Marshal?"
"No," she said, and the muscles in her jaw seemed to throb as she struggled with the answer.
"Yorn of Summersgard," the hood addressed Iorneste. "Did you know anything of the Dragon Corps, or indeed of the existence of dragon riders, anywhere in the Many Kingdoms, before challenging Selka Euphrane?"
"No, I did not."
"Is this everyone's understanding of the events that occurred?"
"Yes," they all said together, although Selka was a bit sullen and late.
"Then I suppose we know what happened. The remaining details are not in dispute. Selka did not announce her rank or make it clear she was acting in an official capacity before you engaged her in combat. I will recommend to the court that they dismiss any charges against you, Yorn of Summersgard. Under the circumstances, I'm inclined to show you leniency, so long as you are aware that further actions against anyone in the Dragon Corps or indeed, Greatre Esturia herself, shall be held against you with swift and fair judgment. For the property damage to His Majesty's dragon, you will incur a debt of sixty-thousand drema, payable to the royal treasurer in Earlemont. Interest accrues annually at a rate of thirty percent."
"Sixty-thousand!" Mourne protested.
"He's letting you off easy," Selka said. "The investment in a dragon is enough to build a palace."
"Not as helpful as I was hoping for, Selka," Mourne muttered, bearded face stern.
"It is a debt," explained the Inquisitor. "You will not be allowed to leave Esturia without paying it, but you are not a criminal, either. You may seek employment or send for funds while you wait here. The cost of a dragon—"
"It is more than fair," Iorneste interjected. "Selka has had many positive things to say about Esturian justice. I am pleased to see that the truth is given the highest consideration," he added, rising to his feet.
The voice from the hood replied, "Then I declare this remarkably agreeable Questioning complete. Luck go with you, dragonslayer." Everyone seemed to take that as their cue to leave.
"You have so much explaining to do," Mourne mumbled under his breath on their way out, knowing that only the sharpest of ears would catch it.
He knew that Iorneste had by the wicked smile that broke on his face.
Selka chose to be their guide into the castle, escorting to them to their chambers. The structure was built of the same stone as the buildings of the city, but the floors were draped in thick carpets so that every step was softened and even the thick boots of the castle soldiers were nothing but a muffled thump when moving down the hallways. Beams of light streamed through the narrow windows, catching dust motes hanging in the still air.
She stopped before their door and gave them a formal bow. "These are your quarters, for as long as you like them. I know Duke Arenford will wish to speak to you tonight at supper, but until then you have the run of the grounds, as an honored guest. We've entered an interesting new phase of association with each other," she said, turning a wry smile on Iorneste. "No one is a prisoner, or an enemy. I do hope no one wants to remain enemies?"
Iorneste bowed his head in respect. "Dame Knight, I do not want to be your enemy."
"Be that as it may, I'll expect to see you on the training grounds at dawn."
"Why would you assume that I will even be awake at that hour?"
"Because you and me," she said, tapping him forcefully in the chest with a mailed finger, "Have unfinished business."
"Ah," Iorneste's smile gleamed. "I don't think it's going to go the way that you think it will."
"My thoughts exactly, dragonslayer."
"Well," interrupted Mourne, eyes a bit wild. "It has been a long day, and I think Iorn and I should get some rest before dinner, and have a nice long discussion about this day's events."
Selka gave Mourne a questioning look, but nodded and took her immediate leave, while Iorneste and Mourne entered their rather sumptuous chambers.
"We have a bed!" Iorneste cried, and ran over to it immediately, throwing himself upon it. There was the sound of splintering wood and the bed shifted to one side by a few degrees.
The door slammed in its frame, and Mourne sputtered, "Oh, not now with the bed! Get up from there!"
"It's...so...soft," came Iorneste's muffled but pleasured reply, his face buried in the pillows.
Iorneste sat up, rolling and twisting his hair back out of his face. "You are as vexed as I've ever seen you, and yet things are going so well!"
"I don't even know what's going on! First this complete change in direction with Selka...but more importantly: How did you lie to the Questioner?"
Iorneste tutted. "Mourne, I'm wounded. You think I would lie to a Questioner?"
"I just watched you do it!"
"So you don't believe me? Even you, my dear friend?" he tutted some more, and Mourne clenched his fist, preparing to strike. "Okay, wait!" Iorneste protested, holding out a defensive hand. "How did you lie to the Questioner?"
"I didn't lie. I just carefully chose my words."
"And I did the same. I reasoned that with so much reliance focused on detecting the veracity of a statement, they'd unknowingly accept a misleading truth in their pursuit of a revealing lie."
"Whatever happened to letting me do the talking?"
Iorneste nodded. "Yes, I remember us discussing it. I decided that was a bad idea. So I started talking instead."
Mourne frowned, feeling like the pupil who wasn't getting it, and not liking it. "Why was it a bad idea?"
"Because they would be on familiar ground. They have performed the inquisition many times in those exact same circumstances. We would be two suspicious characters, and they would be free to ask whatever questions they wanted, following a format they were comfortable with, until at last they got to a series of questions that we could not answer." He leaned back on the bed, folding his hands behind his head, and his voice changed timbre as his voice was directed upwards. "There was strategy at play here, friend Mourne."
"I reasoned that they must spend more time questioning guilty men, rather than honest men. So I imagined what must happen to a guilty man under inquisition. He will wish to reveal as little as possible. He will think tactically, and only answer those questions he is asked, and he will try to steer clear of saying anything which might lead to more questions."
"And yet you volunteered your life story!"
Iorneste laughed. "Yes! Like an honest man would!"
"But it was all lies!"
"Well," sniffed Iorneste. "I made it up. I wouldn't say they were lies exactly."
"Iorneste, I think it's time I remind you that you are a dragon. You are not really a dragonslayer. You were not born in Summersgard, there is not, and never was, any such thing as the Drac Orden, and your father is not dead. Those were all lies."
"Mourne," Iorneste addressed him patiently, in the way that one regards a slow pupil. "I volunteered to tell them my story. It is my story. I told it to Rrachma once, and he wrote it down in a book."
"The story of Yorn of Summersgard, the greatest dragonslayer of all."
"You wrote a story about it? You might have told me that!"
Iorneste's face went stricken, "I just met you! It's embarrassing. I couldn't tell just anyone my story. Standing amidst such great works as the masters, my story was silly, reductive and derivative, and so juvenile! It's the kind of thing you only show someone once you really get to know them. I begged Rrachma to burn it."
"I can imagine what Rrachma said about your suggestion to burn a book."
"I still have a scar to memorialize the occasion."
"So you told them the truth, in a twisted sort of way. You literally told them your story. The one you had written. It wasn't a story about you, it was a story about the character you created."
"Yes. My story. As I was saying, I also imagined what an honest man would do, so I presented my story as an honest man would. An honest man would volunteer information to the Questioner, because he does not fear the law, and knows he has done nothing wrong. He shows no fear, his righteousness is his shield against that, and he will be cooperative to a ridiculous extent. He wants the truth known more than even the Questioner does, because he does not want that stain on his name. I presented the story I'd written, in the context of the honest man, and once I'd explained that to their satisfaction, everything else was an easy deception."
"And to their minds, you've explained it. And you got away with it via a rhetorical trick."
Iorneste did not say anything, only sat up slowly on the bed, tilting his head while giving Mourne an expectant grin. His hands turned inwards, the tips of his fingers twitching back towards himself.
Mourne held out for a moment, glaring sternly in response. And then his face folded, and he began to laugh. He laughed as much to let out his pent-up nerves as much as he did because he found the whole situation absurd. It was a good, unforced, easy laugh, and by the end of it, he and Iorneste were wiping tears from their eyes.
Then Mourne's laugh was killed as it often was, by a sudden interrupting thought. "Wait, you told him that you killed the dragon."
"Another rhetorical trick. I did not say I killed Kulvas."
"I was there, you said something like..."
"His line of questioning gave me the idea. He said, 'would that have been the first dragon you killed?' To which I replied, 'It would have been, yes'."
"It would have been."
"If I had killed that dragon, it would have been my first, yes."
"But you didn't."
"Since I didn't kill that dragon, it was not my first, but had I killed it, yes, indeed, it would have been the very first."
"Layers of rhetorical strategy you applied here, Iorneste. I am in awe. It seemed like you were excited to be questioned at the very outset."
"I was! It was nothing more than a battle of wits, with the only rule being that I am not able to lie, with the objective that I am to make him to believe something that is not actually true. But there is more to it than that."
Mourne gave him the motion to continue, finding a bowl of fruit on the table, and reaching for a squalefruit, snapping the ends off.
"I set him off balance immediately, by proposing a methodology that seemed entirely to his advantage. There is more chance for a guilty person to let something slip during an extended monologue, so the Questioner had every reason to accept my offer. Rather than submit me to a series of questions, he can instead let me freely offer up information, including details he might not even think to ask about without my volunteering them. If he finds no lies in what I am saying, he then feels he can accept the entirety of what I've said as true and move on from that base point of assumption if he has further questions."
"But if he immediately misunderstands what you mean by 'tell you my story'..."
"Yes, then his base point of assumption is flawed. He has, in fact, lied to himself via misinterpretation, the lie was not mine. In terms of understanding who I fundamentally am, in terms of a species designation or any of the details of myself I'd most like to keep hidden, what I told him was not true. But I never promised to tell him who I am. I volunteered to tell him my story. And the story is in a book, and it was absolutely true in that I did not alter the details of the story at all, merely opted to retell it in the first person instead. Since he misunderstood what I meant by 'story', he transferred his truth sense to myself, rather than the story. It was, however, entirely true within the context that I meant it." Iorneste paused for breath.
Mourne shook his head, ate fruit, and continued to listen.
"In the end, I told no lies, and due to his training and prior experience with the guilty, he will assume that all of these details are my true story, the story of Yorn of Summersgard. Which is also true, in that they are the details of the story of Yorn of Summersgard. With that established, I am now able to claim that I am the last survivor of an order of dragonslayers that you and I both know never existed, but as the last survivor there would be no one to claim otherwise. We are a secret order, so of course our existence would not be commonly known. There are much stranger and more secret things in the world, so there is plenty of room for a reasonable assumption that this is true. Since I am the last of the Drac Orden, and also the first, the Drac Orden is whatever I want it to be."
Mourne smiled, clapping Iorneste on the shoulder. "Masterful. And now everyone will believe the Questioner's story, and you now have credentials you could not even buy otherwise, and if anyone doubts your story, the word of the Inquisition will vouch for it."
"Oh, you did notice!"
"It is clear now, yes. This was a much more skilled implementation of the art of guile than you employed with the Admiral. Your people would be proud of you, Iorneste."
Iorneste blushed. "What about you, friend Mourne?"
"Things could easily have gone awry. I still think you're going to get us killed."
"You've lived a fuller life than I have, and more than three human lifespans. We are going to do something important with our time here, Mourne! Not just hide under a stone and let life pass us by. That is what the eregaunte do. Maybe even me, some day...but not now."
"Is that what this is about?" Mourne asked. "Then you are an open book to me. You might have told me about this Yorn the dragonslayer story of yours, as it makes so much else make sense."
"I told you, it is embarrassing."
"Well everyone will know it now!"
"In any case, I can see that you want to spend your First Exile actively working in the world, getting into trouble in the process, undoubtedly, but you want to do what you can to help."
"As the Drac once did."
"Not all of the Drac, Iorneste. Not all of them. Humanity has largely benefited from their absence."
"At the world's expense. There is a middle way, though, and I'm taking it. I can still help them, I just can't do it as a Drac."
"I am glad to know where your heart is, Iorneste."
"I have three hearts, friend Mourne."
"I know. It's an expression."
Sheldrache reached Lacrasse, marveling that for all the centuries that humans had trampled over the world, that they hadn't renamed some of the original Drac cities. Rasse in High Drac meant 'egg', and Krasse was the name for a hatchling, fresh out of the egg. This had been the place where the Drac had once fostered their young.
She had left the ship behind quickly with few goodbyes or entanglements, personally thanking Oren for his generosity, but could not lose Broch, who followed behind her in the small crowd. There was a seamstress in this town, she remembered, and headed in its direction, maneuvering through the crowd and drawing more than a few looks of interest.
By the time she left the seamstress with packages under her arm, she found Broch standing across the street, waiting in a place where she could see him immediately from the door. She watched him build up his courage and then walk closer, blind to the traffic that crossed his path.
His eyes roamed down her upper arms, where the gloves had slipped down, noting the elaborate webwork of tattoos. "You're Murian," he said, as a half-greeting, and then smiled awkwardly. "I'd have greeted you differently, Lady, had I known."
Sheldrache nodded. "Yes, although we do not normally reveal our regalia in public."
"I love you," he said, as if this were a rational reply. There was no sense of embarrassment or discomfort in his declaration, and Sheldrache felt briefly touched despite herself.
"Broch," she said gently, and rested her hand upon his arm. "I cannot love you. There are many things I must do now, and many miles I must go, where you cannot follow."
"I would follow you anywhere," he protested, his left hand moving to cover hers, prompting her to remove her hand from his arm altogether.
"I know, and yet you cannot. Better we leave this here, before it starts."
"It's too late for that," he said, his voice beginning to break. "I love you."
"So you have said," she said, and an edge added to her voice. "But I do not love you."
"I have never met anyone like you. My life would be complete if I could just know you."
Her immediate response to Broch was one very long blink, and a gentle furrow in her brow. As her eyes snapped back open, she asked,"Are you seriously suggesting what I think you are?"
"Just one night! Let us be man and wife for one night! I will prove my love to you!"
Sheldrache let out a sound of disgust. "In the end, it always comes down to this. I do not want to mate with you, Broch. I do not want to love you. I merely wish for you to gracefully take your leave of me, and go back to your life aboard the Maiden's Fancy. Forever."
Her last word caused him to flinch as if she had lashed him with her soul. He let out a wordless sound of anguish.
She looked down at herself and shook her head. "It was not your fault, Broch. You were the closest to me before I dampened it. I'd forgotten how sensitive humans are to anima. I was also not aware of how much the strength of my animus had grown. When last I was here, situations like this were...more manageable."
"I don't understand..." he sobbed.
"You don't have to, Broch," she said, violet eyes flashing an amethyst glow. "Not anymore. I will take care of everything."
Dinner with the Duke Arenford had been about what Mourne had expected. The food was exquisite, the portions very small, but there had been many courses. The Duke made small talk about the realm, wishing to know more about the Drac Orden, and Iorneste gave him little satisfaction, spinning out as few details as possible, as if seeking to keep its deepest secrets layered in mystery, just as likely not having invented that part of the story yet.
Mourne had taken over a great deal of the burden of discussion, sharing details of his travels throughout the realm, and asking questions of the Duke to elicit details about the current politics of the Many Kingdoms.
"The Surans continue to defy us, of course," said the Duke, pointing with a bit of flesh on the end of his fork, "so there will likely be war in that region soon, as well. They have not yet faced our Dragon Corps, but once they do it is only a matter of time."
"So none of the other nations have dragon riders?" asked Mourne.
"No, haha!" he crowed. "They are the pride of Esturia! I invited the Knight-Marshal to join us, but alas she had pressing business."
"Where is the Dragon Corps headquartered?" asked Mourne.
"Near Earlemont, at Mir's Edge. They don't accept men, you know, Mer Shadowfalk."
Mourne nodded. "It is just a curiosity to me. We are not accustomed to the idea of protected dragons, ones that serve humanity."
"So long as the brutes know who is in charge, they can be tamed, dociled by the right rider. But breeding a dragon rider takes longer than breeding a dragon. You need the right girl to do it, and you need the right training. For the girls, I mean. Dragons are stupid killing machines, they need a kick in the head to keep them on course, it takes strong women to do that. But there needs to be some kind of bond, as I understand it, between dragon and rider, so we work with both while they are young. The ones who are not suitable for the bond, well...dragonmeat is considered the greatest delicacy for a reason." He began to laugh while Mourne tried not to look uncomfortable.
Iorneste's hand clenched on his goblet, and he felt it begin to buckle to the pressure.
Unaware, the Duke continued on, "It will be years before the Knight-Marshal rides another dragon, and that's a shame, because I've heard that she was the best of them. If only we had more eggs! I hear they are trying to get the female to lay more eggs, but forcing two dragons to mate is a trying endeavor, they say."
Iorneste mumbled something, and got up like a blur, and left the table. Mourne smiled apologetically at the Duke's affronted look. "He has never eaten such rich fare," Mourne explained. "I believe it disagrees with him. He asked me to give you his apologies."
"Oh, of course! My condolences to the dragonslayer. I will send him my surgeon," said the Duke. "Now, do tell me, Mer Shadowfalk, because I am ever so curious, have you ever been to Dorochi?"
Finding sleep impossible, although enjoying his uneven bed's softness, Iorneste went out into the training yard late after dark. He looked up at the stars, feeling mournful and alone. Dinner had been the most trying event since leaving Kaer Drac, and in the end he knew he would not be able to control himself. Hearing how callously the Duke spoke of dragons wounded him, and it bothered him for other reasons that he could not quite yet formulate, he only knew that there was something else going on. The not knowing what it was that really bothered him bothered him most of all.
He took a few experimental swings in the darkness, Yrmbane cutting the air and venting some of his frustrations into his swing. He felt his ire building, but it felt good. He saw a table of urbane noblemen in his mind's eye eating a cooked flank of dragon and his swing decapitated them. How could he have felt sympathy for these vermin?
Stupid killing machines, that's what the Duke thinks of dragons. "Give them a kick in the head to keep them on course!" he snarled, and his sword sheared through one of the nearby training dummies.
Then he thought of the breeding program the Duke had mentioned, of humans forcing dragons to mate and his vision suddenly went red. He swung his blade a second time, he let out a shout, piercing the night as a gout of fire burned at the back of his throat. They have turned us into cattle. They even eat our flesh!
He hovered at the edge of rage and madness, consumed by the dragon's ire, but somewhere within remembered Rrachma's words. A Drac is not a beast, he does precisely what he means to do. His eyes dimmed their flare, and he blew the last plumes of smoke from his mouth, his strength seeming to leave with it, leaning heavily on his sword.
The thought came to him, unbidden. It bothered him tremendously, and he was not sure why it did. Does she know? Does she even care?
Quints was on guard, waiting for Broch's return. The boatswain stumbled up the gangplank, headed for his quarters, when Quints' beefy hand rested firmly in the center of his chest. "Slow down there, lover," Quints said in a deep bass rumble.
"Out of my way, Quints," Broch grumbled, with no real passion behind the protest.
The spark of a pipe illuminated Oren's face in the fading light. "You'll stay there until I figure out if you're coming back on this ship, Broch."
Broch frowned. "I just want to sleep, Cap'n. I just want to go to bed, and sleep, and try to forget."
"Went that well, did it? Well I suppose everyone has been an Ape Face at some time or other."
Broch continued walking, and Quints allowed his hand to brush off of the man without stopping him, and even the Captain stepped aside. He shook his head and sighed, "Ahh, but what a woman! I think we'll all drink to her tonight."
"What woman?" Broch asked, and entered the companionway, heading below deck.
The Captain looked over to Quints, who raised an eyebrow. "So that's how we're playing it," Oren mumbled. "Next person who says her name is going to lose an eye, I'd wager."
When the crew barged into Broch's quarters to rouse him for breakfast and give him a much-deserved haggling, they found his body swaying from the neck, feet dangling, suspended from the rope moored to his berth.
Selka arrived at the training grounds at dawn. Used as she was to arriving early for drills, or to dragging knights out of bed by their hair when she had to, she was surprised to find the dragonslayer already waiting.
His coat was nowhere in sight, nor his boots. He wore only his trousers, and Yrmbane was already in his hand, held ready in a steady two-handed grip.
"You were punctual," she said, and tossed her helmet to one side, readying her training shield.
Iorneste shook his head. "Never left."
"Something on your mind?" she asked, loosening her sword in its scabbard.
"Curiosity. Have you ever eaten dragon meat?"
She pulled her sword from the scabbard, her blade snaking through a couple warm-up swings. "I did once, sure."
He began closing the distance to her, taking several rapid steps. "How did it taste?" he asked, blue eyes blazing and teeth bared in a snarl.
She frowned, but before she could answer, his sword was swinging directly at her with force enough to kill. She thrust her shield over her head and deflected it, the impact sliding her back on her feet as the enchanted blade sheared off a good portion of her shield, just above the top of her arm.
The wind from the blow made a whiplike snap as it passed over her head but she quickly threw off her disorientation to focus on the next blow. With her free arm she made an improvised counterattack, snicking her longsword at a downward angle, spearing the unready Iorn in the thigh. "I thought you didn't want to be my enemy!" she yelled.
With a snarl Iorneste slammed his fist directly into her hastily upraised shield, and she felt the shock of the blow as her shield shattered, his fist continuing on into the center of her chest and blasting the air from her lungs as she was hammered backward, skidding on her side across the ground.
Iorn gasped, checking the wound at his leg, then looked several meters away at where Selka had landed, hearing her taking staggering, shuddering, and all-too-shallow breaths. He limped over towards her, "I told you..." he said, and grunted as he put too much weight on his leg. "This is not going to go—"
And then she was up, her sword spinning in her hands, slapping him hard in the ribs with the flat of the blade as she dashed past him. "Touch!" she rasped, spinning and backing away with a roll, her breath still wheezing in her lungs, but gaining in strength.
He took an overhead stance, inching towards her using the footwork he'd practiced with Mourne. She went for a thrust, he went to parry, and suddenly she wasn't thrusting anymore, she was rolling and pivoting to his left while he swung to his right. He let go of his right arm to swing around behind him, but he was too late. He felt the prick of her sword at his back, at full extension, ducked low beneath his blind-reaching hand. "Touch," she said, breath returning to an easy pant. "And paralyzed. Ouch."
"How did it taste?" he asked her again, and spun around, sword forgotten, dropping to all fours and launching himself towards her, catching Selka's stomach with his shoulder, slamming her back to the ground again. Before she could get up he pounced on top of her, fist raised and ready to strike, face stretched in anger, but as he landed on her she had already begun to sit up with a single well-executed motion, and he heard the snick of metal and felt the edge of her knife pressing into his neck. She was panting, and her cloud-colored eyes were full of fury and pain.
"I thought it tasted...good," she said. "But I didn't know what it was. My father served it to me on my birthday, to make a point. When I found out," she gasped, and fresh tears brimmed in her eyes. "I was so furious with him. I was raised with Kulvas since I was a girl...I couldn't..."
Iorneste slowly began to lower his fist, the anger on his face fading into a look of sad consideration, eyes falling into deep introspection. Selka's knife remained where it was, cutting painfully into his adam's apple, so Iorneste kept the rest of him where it was. "Selka..." he whispered.
"What?" she snapped, dirty and injured and still holding the knife to his throat.
"Selka, I am sorry. I lied. I didn't kill Kulvas."
Her eyes snapped open wider as if slapped by his words. He watched an array of emotions play over her face, captivated by every one. Surprise, disbelief, sadness, wonder, anger, and joy. Her eyes seemed to shimmer and blaze at the same time, and so close were they, that when she whispered, words thick with a tangled web of emotions, he felt the warmth of it on his skin. "You didn't?"
"No. I sent him away, to safety. I am sorry I deceived you. I thought...I thought you deserved to know."
The knife began to quiver at his throat. He didn't know how she would respond, so many were the emotions on her face that he could have predicted any reaction from her, except one. There was one reaction he could never have predicted, and as such one reaction against which he was completely defenseless.
The maneuver was executed as one continuous, natural motion, with no delay or hesitation from start to finish.
Selka leaned forward, closed her eyes, and kissed him.
by the Elusive Wanderer, MalyTraktorek