Cat and Mouse

When the door exploded off of its hinges into the dingy hovel that had been Mourne's safehouse for the past week, he did not have to ask who was at the door. The left lintel post was destroyed along with it, and the house groaned and began to sag, plaster and thatch raining down from the ceiling.

She was standing in the doorway, as he had expected, shrouded in falling dust and in dark shadow against the light that streamed in around her. As for himself, he had looked better, divesting himself of all possessions beyond the bare essentials, his homespun peasant clothes nothing that anyone would wear unless they had no other options. His belongings had been secured in anticipation of her arrival. He had known she would find him eventually, so long as he remained in Earlemont. What she did not know was that making himself ready to meet her had been part of the plan all along.

He would have liked to say that things were going according to plan, but then her animus hit him like a punch to the chest and face, and though it had no physical force he still felt lifted by it, compelled to his feet. Just in time for her cross the distance between them, and for her hand to clutch his throat, and slam him against the back wall of the house so hard that the world flashed white and he felt the building shudder from the impact.

"Have we met?" he asked, with only half his brain on the problem. The sarcastic half.

She turned and threw him, by his neck, across the room and into the room's only furniture. A rickety table that broke his fall and then collapsed into pieces beneath him. He cataloged the litany of bruises, abrasions, concussions, and fractures he had just accumulated in the past five seconds, and he realized that the sarcastic half of his brain was going to get him killed.

Though he had to admit that goading her into killing him would be the safest outcome for everyone. Everyone who was not him, at least.

"Where is it? You know I will only ask once," she said, caramel voice quivering down his aching spine. He felt the urge for her fill him.

Stop it, he told himself, and her. It is her, not you.

"It is both," she said aloud. "It would not work otherwise."

"I do not have the box, Sheldrache."

"Clearly, but you know where it is. Which was the question I asked."

"I do not know where the box is."

She sighed, and her boot flipped him over onto his back whether he wanted it or not, so she could look down at him. "Do not try to manage me, Mourne. Even if that were true, you know where the box is going to be."

"No," he said, and knew she could sense the truth of it. "I do not know where it is now, or where it will be. Because, you see, Iorneste's plan was a plan of parts, or phases. And he is the only one who knows all the details of the plan."

"Oh, so you can be forthcoming."

He smiled at her. "It does no harm to tell you everything now. By the time you arrived, it would be too late for you to do anything about it. He was counting on that. He is very, very clever, your brother."

"You betrayed me, Mourne."

"May I remind you, I did not even see you again until I was already on the First Exile for Iorneste. That is my primary duty. Were I to betray him, I would be performing an even greater betrayal than any betrayal you've imagined I have committed."

"You are my kiin!"

"You are making an emotional argument, Sheldrache. My loyalty to you is, of course, without question. But were the Matragaunte to order me, or you, we are to do as we are told, yes?"

"Of course."

"The First Exile is under her authority. I am under her authority, the same as if she had ordered me. I served the desire of my First Exile in acquiring a Drac artifact from the hands of the humans. That goal has been accomplished, and there is nothing you can do about it now."

"You must have had at least one accomplice."

"It does not matter, Sheldrache, don't you understand? It is too late. You were outplayed."

Her foot pressed down on his chest, violet eyes flaring with such fury and her animus boiling with such heat, smoke trailing from her nostrils, that he took her very seriously.

"Might I remind you that Control is a Drac virtue, Sheldrache!"

She snarled. "I am not feeling in need of much control at the moment."

"That much was obvious. But before you crush my chest, let me explain."

"Fine," she said, taking her foot off of his chest.

"You were outplayed because my accomplice, by now, has already completed Phase Two of the plan. We are now in Phase Three. My only role in Phase Three was to wait for your arrival, and explain what has happened. So now that this has happened, my about we interact like two civilized beings and get a cup of tea?"

She stormed away from him, facing the window. "I am still his superior, Mourne. He is only a male. You could be killed for such insubordination."

That brought him almost to his feet again, but he settled for sitting up, one arm propped behind him, when his ribs protested. "You still don't understand? You have no jurisdiction here, Sheldrache. Play in your playground as you like here in the Many Kingdoms, but where a First Exile is concerned you are to stay as far away as possible, and not interfere. Since you have interfered, you are in far more danger than Iorneste. You are, in fact..." and he chuckled as the thought hit him, and then winced at the pain it brought to his sides.

"What?" she hissed, sensing something through the animus of his meaning.

"You are now, in fact, very dependent upon Iorneste speaking of you favorably before the Draconum in twenty-five years time."

She sniffed. "I am not a hatchling, Mourne. The thought has occurred to me."

"Then what is worth all this risk? What is so important about that box, anyway? Do you even know?"

"If what you say is true, the box is now beyond my grasp. So perhaps, as you say, I took a poor risk."

"You didn't answer the question, Shel."

She reached out her hand to him. "Give me your hand, Mourne. I will help you up."

Partly because he was not sure how he would rise to his feet without fresh pain of his own, he took her hand without thinking, and though she did haul him to his feet effortlessly, her felt her presence, her animus slam into him. He instantly felt hot, all over his body, and sweat came immediately with it.

It was maddening and alluring at the same time. Her animus slithered through him as if rubbing her naked body all over him, bringing heat and pleasure to his body, but he had only the vaguest impressions of her thoughts. Curiosity, amusement, pleasure of her own, a sense of power and raw, animal emotion. He sensed the beast at bay, held back only by the tender notions of what proper behavior looked like in a civilized Drac. Her sense of face, of decorum, was the only thing that stopped her from devouring him like a sheep loose from the fold. Somehow he sensed that, if she wanted, she could have him, in any way she wanted to have him.

I do not control your mind, she once argued. The animus does not work that way. We can only encourage, or make an argument, an argument that your heart and mind chooses whether or not to accept.

It was not easy for him to realize that his giving in to her was his own fault, and that some part of him wanted it, had always wanted it. He shivered and moaned, and the protest was on his lips, but he could not voice the words. Still, he knew she felt it as soon as he did, that she was going to destroy him if she kept at it, and that he would beg her to do it.

Before her animus, the raw power of it, there was no resistance, because there was no desire for resistance. The only desire was to be with her, to be part of her, for her to be within him, and to truly understand him, to truly know him in a way that no one else could. He was her kiin, and in some ways it was like she said. This was better than "mating", this was an intimacy of a kind that human beings could only dream of.

That did not mean that he did not desire her, that his thoughts did not prompt him to grab her, to throw her to the floor, to have his way with her, while she continued to plunge into his heart and thoughts. The intimacy went mostly one way, but he knew she felt his desire, and a flutter of laughter escaped her luscious lips, and a twinkle of mischief was in her violet eyes, and his yearning for her was all the greater.

However he felt, he could not move, did not care to move. He simply allowed her to have her way with him, and was grateful for it.

When she was finished, and released his hand, and he stood there swaying and sweating and gasping for breath, it was accompanied with such a sense of loss at no longer being so fully in her presence, that he took a step towards her. She did not move, as if curious of what he would do next.

Then, the curmudgeon within reasserted itself, undaunted against the wiles of anything, perhaps something he could come to cherish as truly his own. "Gods, Shel...I did not give you permission to do that!"

"Oh, look at you," she cooed. "Such a baby. Pretend all you like, we both know very well how deeply you enjoyed that."

"But you did not ask permission! Do you not understand the violation?"

She shook her head. "No, I do not. Because I know you enjoyed it. Enjoyed it, yearned for it, and would have come back for more if you could have. But now you are returning to yourself, your separate, isolated, blind human self, and that barrier, that wall you all work so hard on building from the time you are children came back, and felt threatened."

"Damn right," he said, his voice shaking, and his whole body was shivering, and not from fear.

"But we are raised thus from birth, Mourne. We do this all the time. We do not ask permission, it is simply how we communicate with each other when we want to be understood."

"Or when you want to assert dominance, you mean."

"Do humans not attempt to assert dominance through their words? Do they not seek to inspire others to follow them, to do as they wish, and do not some of them achieve leadership and dominance by these very arts? It is not strength and power alone that comprises dominance. One must also be a communicator."

"It's not the same thing."

"It really is, Mourne. Except words can lie. Hearts do not. We do not choose to share every thought, every feeling, every secret. Some things we do keep for ourselves."

"Sometimes you even keep so much to yourselves that a century passes and you don't even care."

She ignored him. "But what we choose to share is real, is truth. So we know exactly who we are, and who we are dealing with, and they know us. This is why Drac society works, and this is why I am not afraid of the Draconum. I am content with my motivations, and my methods. During the meld, they will see this as well. We will converse on a level you can only dream of, and you will stand there wondering what has happened, and wonder why I receive no censure for my actions."

"I beg to differ, Sheldrache. You have interfered with a First Exile. They do not take that lightly."

"I am also female, a favored child of a matriarch, and my execution of the First Exile is often represented as a model for others to follow. It is a standard to which others are held. This will not be forgotten, either."

He only grunted. Who was he to tell her what Drac society was really like? "There are female relarches," he pointed out.

"Who failed their First Exile. How many who have succeeded?"

There was no point even responding to that.

"Meanwhile, my brother Iorneste is a male within his First Exile. Of all the professions and backgrounds he could have chosen for himself, he chose to be a dragon slayer. Of all things."

Mourne winced.

"He also, and this is of great fascination to me, has helped a human fly on the back of a dragon. I wonder what the Draconum will think of that? I wonder if they will even let him get that far?"

It felt like claws of ice were clenching in his chest. "Strictly speaking, Shel, there is nothing...illegal about what he is doing. Which he knows full well."

"It is highly offensive. Not to mention hardly in character for a dragon slayer."

"He has said as much, and more, many times."

"So then why help her?"

The implication hit him as the claws of ice in his chest focused their efforts and gripped his heart. "You met Selka."

She looked away, but only briefly, eyes cast aside to the floor in the barest suggestion of shame. Then, act of contrition completed, she glanced back up and leveled him with her eyes. "Quite by accident, believe it or not."

"Not," he said without thinking.

She brought her hand to her chest as if wounded, drawing his attention there. He felt a sultry tickle of arousal...

"Stop it," he snapped, and his rising anger was like a shield against her. He took a step closer, his bleeding mouth inches from her face. "What did you do to her?"

"Nothing," she said, and her eyes were unblinking.

Shades of truth, he remembered Iorneste saying, and at this proximity and with all the focus he could muster, he could feel the fractious nature of her response. But their earlier conversation had been a clue. "What did you encourage her to do?"

She answered him only with silence, and his rising anger turned into rage. "Is she even still alive?" He shouted these words at her, into her face, flecks of blood and spittle landing there.

"Your feelings for her are an open book, Mourne. As are her feelings for Iorneste. Quite tragic, really. Elshalle wrote of much the same—"

"Don't. You. Dare. Quote poetry at me," he said, his shout dying to a grave whisper.

"Mmm," she said, and her smile was seductive and cruel. "Your anger is so...delicious."

He hit her. He did not know what possessed him to do it. Maybe she "encouraged" him to do it, maybe on some level he was manipulated into doing it. Maybe he convinced himself that she really wanted it. Surely part of it was him striking back on Selka's behalf. Or maybe, beneath it all, it was just his human defiance, the Human virtue most dreaded by the Drac. He was not gentle. She was a Drac, after all, and she had tossed him around this ramshackle hellhole like he had been a child, and even if she was a vastly powerful female Drac, he was still a man, and his pride could not help but rankle.

He hit her with both hands locked together, knobby knuckles clenched white, throwing his entire body into it. Perhaps via her surprise, he caught her directly on the jaw, snapping her head and neck hard to the right and breaking a few fingers and shattering his left hand in the process, screaming with all of his might until he felt something snap raw in his throat. It threw him off balance, and he stumbled and fell, but whirled as he did so, to see the outcome of his blow.

He felt raw, visceral satisfaction as she staggered to her right, shoulder and all her weight slamming into the wall, causing the whole building to creak and groan, leaning on its foundations, and a few boards to rain down. One of them bounced off of his shoulder, and he did not even care. At this point she was in her rights to do pretty much anything to him that she wanted.

She snapped her head back into position, shock and pain in her eyes, and such a carnivorous expression on her face that he scrambled backwards a few paces, ruining the effect of his sullen glare of defiance.

She was not even bleeding, but she did settle one smooth hand against her smooth chin and adjust it, and he could hear it pop in the room, even over the sound of his hard breathing. He tried to bury his smirk, but not very hard.

"You forget your place," she said to him, walking closer, heels clicking on the wooden floor as the building groaned and swayed around them. She glanced to his swelling, throbbing hand. "That could not have felt good."

"On the contrary, it felt very good."

"Then what do you expect me to do right now?"

"Whatever you want to do, as usual. Speaking of which, what did you do to Selka?" He heard the anger still ringing in his voice, but lacked the ability to administer any more physical punishment.

"I spoke to her, about a great many things. She was an excellent escort to the castle."

"And she is still alive?"

"Mourne," she said, and grabbed him by his shirtfront, hauling him to his feet to stand before her on swaying legs. "I am not a fool. She is under a First Exile's protection. I simply used her to send him a message."

"I see."

"And thanks to her, I know where he is."

"You cannot do that—" he began, but she shushed him in a way he found most surprising, with her lips. The world went white and passed away for a time, only the sensation of her mouth upon his filling him, before she pulled back and he gasped at the loss.

"I hit you and you kiss me?"

"It may be the last time we see each other," she said.

He had no answer to that, and returned to the original point. "You still cannot visit him."

"I can," she argued. "There is nothing actually illegal about visiting a First Exile."

"It is still an interference."

"I am not standing in the way of him being a dragon slayer, am I? That was the profession that he chose for himself."

"But now that has changed somewhat. He has broadened it—"

"Cleverly into the Drac Orden. I know," she said, and smiled at the look of surprise he could not hide from his face. "As I said, we had quite the conversation, Dame Selka Euphrane, and I."

He did not have any more words to say, he was growing exhausted, emotionally in particular. Too many feelings in too rapid of a succession.

"Good bye, Mourne," she said. "I go to meet my brother. I am sure we will have much to discuss."

"Shel—" he began, but she was already leaving. She paused in the doorway, looking back at him. "Despite everything," he continued, "There has never been anyone else."

"I know," she said. "But you have forgotten your place."

"You don't have to do this," he protested.

"To allow you to strike me thus? It is a matter of face, dear Mourne. If you survive, please remember that it could have been much worse for you."

"What are you going to—"

On her way out she gave the other surviving lintel post of the door frame a hard and decisive shove. It was the final straw for the poor abused structure, which was not all that solid to begin with.

With the sound of groaning timber and splintering wood, the entire building collapsed on top of him.

Gharel had been running for days. His paws were bruised, and his limbs burned, but he had been having too much fun to miss the adventure.

So he ran, ran across the leagues of moorish countryside, avoiding the well-traveled roads, keen senses alerting him to travelers, and skirting them. Merelings were not well-loved, and for a time merelings were often killed as hunting sport by wealthy noblemen. Left dead beside the road as food for flies, their deaths were never investigated.

He ran by night, sleeping during the day, breaking from his makeshift shelter under a log, or within a ditch, or up a tree, before resuming his journey.

It took him three days, but in the end he saw Earlemont rising up in the distance. He knew the distance was deceptive, because the massive tor upon which Earlemont was built was the largest landmark for miles throughout the mostly flat lands of Greatre Esturia.

It took him several more hours of running, but his body was made for it and after his run to Mir's Edge, he had gotten back into running shape. Food was caught where he could find it, pursuing a greck for half a league before he brought it down, stuffing the half-breathing flightless bird into his mouth as he ran, feeling its bones and feathers crunching in his jaws, the sweet blood and brains commingling in his mouth.

He bit off the feet, spitting them out. Greck feet were only edible when you cooked them, and he did not have time. The main road to Earlemont ran along the river Vend, and he was shocked to find it empty as he arrived within sight of the main gates, and he noted that despite the early hour, they were locked tight.

He paused there in the road, feeling exposed, knowing that he could not blend into any sort of crowd, and that the range of vision from the top of the walls would easily spot him.

He would need to find another way in.

Luckily, he was already aware of several such ways, so he steered clear of the gate, circling around the city, searching for some kind of cover. One of the broken sewer grates had been recently replaced, he noticed, and this annoyed him. He could scale the walls, but again he would be exposed to view while climbing over.

Similar investigation around the ring of the city had provided him with the same consensus. All of the sewer grates had been checked, and recently replaced, their steel gleaming newly-forged amidst the fragrant waters.

His feral smile was cold on his face. He had a very good idea as to why the city was locked down.

But getting into locked places was his specialty, and there was one thing he knew that they could not block, could not stop, and that was the river Vend itself, which cut through the city.

Regretfully, he would have to swim upstream.

With a half-shrug, Gharel prepared to get wet.

Feeling every bit of his one-hundred and seventy-six years, Mourne staggered down the streets of Earlemont, limping on his broken leg, wincing at the flare of pain it brought to him, and his concussion was worse than before, his vision narrowed into a tunnel of suffering light.

Fresh blood dripped from his fingers, spattering the ground and his clothes. He was quite a sight, but there was little to be done for it. Many of the citizens looked away as he passed, some stared, a rare few came forward to ask if he needed any help. It was about the proportion of helpfulness he expected from society, but he turned them away, saying that he just needed to get home, and would send for a surgeon.

He kept his hood low, eyes focused mostly on the ground, which was how he ran into his first resistance.

Before he could reach the Sunlowe district, three men wearing dark clothes and darker expressions blocked his path and a bone-weary sigh rattled from his throat.

"Where you going?" one of them asked him. The man had pinched features and a warbling voice that would have been humorous if he was not already so annoyed.

"Home," he said, but did not try to walk past them.

"Then it is good we caught you in time. Didn't you know about the home tax?"

He would not give them the satisfaction of answering such a ridiculous question, so he simply stood silent.

The pinched-face man looked to his two comrades, who chuckled. "I think he knows about the home tax," one of them said to the pinched-face man.

"Oh, good," said the pinched-face man. "I hate explaining things to people. As duly self-appointed enforcers of the home tax, ser, would you be able to pay your passage?"

"No," Mourne grumbled. "I have nothing for you."

"What about at home? We could walk you home, because you seem in sore need of a helper right now, ser. Maybe we could go home with you and help you into bed, and you could go to your strongbox, pay us the home tax?"

"My memory is a bit short right now," he snapped. "What's the going rate for a home tax?"

"Well..." the man said with a cold smile. "We gives choices here in Earlemont. You pay us what we ask, however much we ask, because the home tax varies. Or else we take it out of your hide. And I think you have more money than hide right now, ser."

"One would think," he muttered, though more to himself than two the three men accosting him, "That with the entire Esturian army patrolling the city streets, a person could make it home without running into miscreants."

"Miscreants?" the man's voice warbled with mock amusement. "Did you hear what he called us, lads? He called us 'miscreants'. Well now you have fewer choices."

"I figger," piped up the third man, who had not spoken yet, "We break his fingers. He'll tell us where home is. Be only too happy lettin' us take some treasures offa his hands once his hands don't work no more."

"Come now, Blince," the pinched-face man said. "No need to get unpleasant, eh? I'm sure he was just about to let us walk him home, weren't you, ser?"

He had only recently insulted a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old dragon, and she had tossed him around like he was a kitten. The wise thing to do would be to do as they asked. He could afford no more bruises or broken bones, and he would not be able to withstand a stand up fight. His left leg throbbed as if it were being hit over and over again with a hammer, his ribs hurt when he breathed, his left hand was a swollen mess, his face probably looked like a horse had kicked it, and it felt like the bones in his head were moving every time he looked around too quickly. He thought wistfully of the willow bark in his medical pack at the house in Sunlowe.

"Yeah," he said. "You can take me up that big hill up there. I live in the castle."

The men laughed at this, and he racked his brain trying to think of a way out of the situation. His response had only been a stalling tactic.

"Nobleman, huh? You sure don't look it. But if you're a nobleman, you can surely afford the home tax."

Idiots. If he were a nobleman they were signing their death warrant. Not that his claim was very convincing in his present state.

"I don't want anything unpleasant to happen to you..." he began.

"Oh? You threatening us, ser? Chums, it sounds like we're being threatened."

"Sounds like it to me, too, Jash," said Blince. The knife was in the pockmarked man's hand as if it had never left.

The nameless other just smirked.

The pinch-faced man, now identified as Jash, lost his playful demeanor. "Now you'll just get a beating. You must be new. People round here know better than to mess with the Greenbriars."

He was in no mood. "Just get it over with. I'm half dead already, and if you want to beat up a half-dead man for a few dirty coins in his pocket, if that's the kind of action the Greenbriars want to be associated with their name, then fine. Stop wasting my time."

The other two looked at each other, but Jash stared right back, testing his resolve.

"I can't take the three of you," Mourne said, and wished he had not left his sword at home. "But I can promise you this. One of you will lose an eye before this is all over."

"That a fact?" Jash asked.

"It is. Because a man who is tired of living is the worst enemy you could have picked. Worse is a man who is tired of living that is looking to hurt someone. And worst of all," he said, the grin splitting his lips and causing them to bleed afresh, "Is when such a man finds those who deserve it."

"He's crazy," muttered Blince.

"Damn right," Mourne answered him. "I just picked a fight with a mountain. Picking a fight with you three sods is a game for children. I know I won't win our little altercation, and I don't really care. So long as I maim one of you and give you a missing body part to remember our little meeting by, I'll die happy."

"You're bluffing," said Jash, sounding more like he was trying to convince himself.

"No. I'm not. It's just been that kind of day."

They were on the verge of breaking, he knew. Men like this were after easy prey, and were not accustomed to resistance. Also, they were businessmen, of a sort. They had to weigh risk versus reward, and a gushing flesh wound would cut severely into their take. They already knew he was not going to lead them to a strongbox full of drema, and he was carrying no pack or bags for them to rifle.

He could see the calculations flickering in the expression of Jash's face, eyes shifting about and taking in the people who watched from ducked doorways. There was one further element he had to neuter before he could get out of this situation without injury. They had a reputation to uphold, and despite his threats, they would still go away empty handed, with wounded pride.

"Tell you what," Mourne said, before they could press him further. "I will give you what I have. It is not much, but it's better than a finger in your eye."

He reached deep into his shirt, pulling out the purse tucked into his waistband. He still had not spent all of the ill-gotten gains, and he still wrestled with guilt, and giving it to these clods would have been unthinkable in any other situation when he was hale and hearty, but he understood the situation. Though he was not bluffing, and would happily go to his death rather than give these fools the satisfaction of cowing him, he was now the one in control and decided to be generous in the interest of time.

Plus, it was hot and his damned broken leg was killing them, and his right leg was groaning from supporting all of his weight. In a few more minutes, he would not be able to stand at all.

He tossed the purse to the ground at Jash's feet. Jash did not move to take it, turning his head to Blince, who picked it up and peered inside. "About sixty dremas," he said, after a few moments of hasty calculation.

"More like fifty," Mourne corrected him. "That suffice?"

"You know," Jash said to him, "You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble if you'd have just given us that at the start."

"Could have," he said. "But then I couldn't have lived with myself."

Jash grinned. "I can respect that. You've got grit. What's your name, ser?"

He considered giving any number of false names, but found himself answering honestly. "Mourne. Mourne Shadowfalk."

"Not a bad day's pay. The Greenbriars could use someone like you, Mourne."

He almost laughed. What had started as a mugging had turned into a recruitment pitch, but he did not need to annoy them further, and friends in low places were better than no friends at all. "I'll think about it," he said instead. "But if you don't mind, I have to recuperate before I can consider any new job offers."

"Of course," Jash said, and spun his hand in the air in a circle. "Let's go, lads. Be seeing you, Mourne."

"Under different circumstances, I hope."

They left him there, and when he was certain they had gone he resumed his painful progress towards the Sunlowe district. He made several false turns and it took longer than expected, but once he was sure that no one was following him, he increased his pace as much as he was able.

He reached the side door of the house with the green door, more protected from prying eyes. It was then that he noticed something wet was running out from under the door. No weapons, but someone was inside.

It was that kind of day. He unlocked the door, and stepped inside with no thought of self-preservation. He was about to challenge whoever was in the house to finish him for once and all and put an end to his misery, when he saw the shivering, huddled form of Gharel in the room, his clothes hanging from the chairs in the room to dry, water streaming from his fur onto the floor.

Mourne sighed, closing the door behind him and then collapsing onto a cot nearby, where he had once treated patients in the days when this house had served as the local surgeon. Now it seemed he would be treating himself.

"You look terrrrible," Gharel told him.

"You look like a drowned rat."

Gharel's hiss in response made Mourne smile.

"Gharel, grab me that bag over there, would you?"

It was a testament to their changing relationship that the mereling went and grabbed it without complaint or sarcasm.

Some time later, with his hand bandaged, his leg splinted, and his other less serious wounds treated, and full of medicine to treat the pain, he sat propped up in his cot, watching the light fade behind the windows as the suns began to set.

Gharel sniffed, "We sssshould have morrre firrre."

"Go stoke it yourself, then. The stove is over there."

"I thought you would wissssh to rrremain hidden."

"There is no point now. There is nothing that could tie me to the theft at this point, and the stolen items are out of our hands. They are out of our hands, yes?"

"Yessss," Gharel said, scampering over to toss a few more logs into the stove. The cheery light and heat were welcome as the temperature had begun to drop. They were reaching that part of late summer where the nights were growing colder, even as the days continued to swelter.

The mereling returned with a cup that was near the stove, and the pot of tea, setting it beside him on the small table that had been moved next to him. Mourne thanked him, filling the cup and holding it between his hands, breathing the aroma and letting it cool. His left hand was an unusable claw, and was also splinted and smelly with the poultice he had concocted, even beneath the linen bandages. The heat would do nothing for the swelling, but he had found heat to be a good stimulant for the body's natural healing processes, so he kept it resting there.

"So," Mourne said. "You saw Iorneste?"


"Was he well?"

Gharel shrugged. "He wasss healthy. I did not ssstay long. He sssaid to rrreturrn to you."

"It took you a week to run there and back?"

"Sssix dayss. Thrree both wayss."

"You must be exhausted. You can use the bed upstairs, if you like."

The mereling paused. "You mean a human bed?"

"Sure, why not?"

"No one hasss let me sssleep in a human bed."

"Until now."

The mereling's three eyes blinked, and he did not seem to know what to say.

"Gharel," Mourne said, and took his first sip of the tea, enjoying its warmth on the way down. "Thank you. I was wrong about you. You do indeed appear to be an honest thief."

Gharel shifted as if sitting on something uncomfortable. "No," he said.

"No? You are not an honest thief?"

"Not alwaysss but...Gharrel hasss not everrr been trrreated like..."

"Like a human?"

"Like perrrrssson. Not by humansss."

"Nor quite so well rewarded, I imagine."

"There issss that."

"You have done everything you were asked to do, Gharel, and you have earned my trust."

"...Thank you. You arrrre not ssso bad, alsso."

They both sat in silence for a time, unwilling to cheapen the moment with talk, but Mourne found a smile on his face, and the tea was helping, making him feel drowsy.

"Ssso what do we do now?" the mereling asked after awhile, scratching an itchy spot behind his long ears.

"Mmm?" Mourne said, before the descending curtain of sleep, and he shifted his body to a more reclined position, placing the empty cup on the table beside him. "Now we wait. And I am going to sleep like the dead for most of the day tomorrow. But before I go to sleep entirely, there is something I have to know, Gharel."

The mereling sniffed and shifted his scratching behind the other ear. "What isss?"

"The box. What did Iorneste have you do with it?"

Gharel told him.

He was suddenly overcome with laughter, and despite the drugs his ribs felt like they were getting pummeled, but he did not even care. He succumbed to the laughing fit, feeling the relief wash over him.

"The drugssss affect you," Gharel observed.

"Iorneste," he said, as he began to catch his breath, "Is quite the clever dragon. I'd give anything to see what happens when she meets him."




"The one who dropped a building on me today. Iorneste's elder sister."

The mereling sat in silence for some time digesting this news. Perhaps considering what sort of dragon mess he had gotten into.

Mourne could have told him that mortals were always in a mess where dragons were concerned, but sleep closed his eyes and he reckoned, as his last thought before oblivion claimed him, that there were some things that were obvious, even to mereling thieves.

As Mourne dropped off to sleep, Gharel watched him in silence for some time, before turning down the lantern, covering him with a blanket, and then creeping upstairs to sleep in a human bed for the first time.

Rrachma sat across the chessboard watching young Iorneste at play, his tail swishing behind him, barely able to keep still. The chessboard was human-sized, and the pieces to Rrachma's talons were very tiny. Young Iorneste watched in fascination as the giant talons delicately picked up a pawn, moving it forward two spaces. It would have been easier to slide the piece forward, but the young dragon looked at his own claws, much smaller than those of Rrachma, but still awkward and his claws larger than the chessboard itself. Talons are pressure-sensitive, but not nearly as sensitive as human fingers. What Rrachma made seem so easy had in fact taken him many years of practice to master.

Iorneste tried to capture a piece several times. That it was the wrong piece did not matter to Rrachma, the point was not to learn how to play chess, not yet. "There is a path, Iorneste," he began, eyes still fixated on the hatchling's attempts to capture the piece. "A path we all once followed, but like all great ideals it grows perverted over time. Maximal effect from minimal action. The principle of moderation. Part of the Drac virtues of Wisdom and Control."

He demonstrated slowly for Iorneste, scissoring two talons apart, and slowly, ever so slowly and carefully pressing them parallel to one another. There was a slight gap at the tip, and he reached under the bulbous head of the pawn, hooking it, and lifting it up. "In time," he said, holding the pawn before Iorneste's heartsblood-red eyes, "If you can master the pawn, I will allow you to read my books. I will not have you tearing sheets out of my books, or else—"

"—You will tear out my tongue," Iorneste finished.

"Control, Iorneste, is the ultimate art of finesse. It could be considered the most aesthetic of the Virtues. It is what separates us from our cousins, the drakes, and what mortals will ever strive, and fail, to master."

"But Sreache," he said, using the Drac word for 'Master', and waved his taloned fingers with expressive intent. The pieces on the chessboard rearranged themselves into marching columns, a couple of them beginning to dance cheekily outside of regulation. The knight broke formation to bump both of them back into line. Meanwhile, one of the books flew down from one of the countless shelves, landed in front of Rrachma and fell open. Iorneste fanned his claw through the air, and the pages began to turn, finally stopping. The book turned, angled towards Rrachma, and the dragon glanced down, reading the first line.

...fell towards Amorra, many cursing their lot, but the great dragons were masters of many magicks, and rarely used claws where the High Art would suffice.

Rrachma had been reading that book to Iorneste just the previous evening. Here he had been lecturing the little whelp on the virtue of Control. What amazing control of the High Art for one so young! He let none of his pride show. "You would do your best not to rely on the High Art too heavily, Iorneste. Not yet."

"But why not?"

"Because of the First Exile."

"I cannot wait!"

"Patience, you are not ready."

"I cannot read your books unless I turn the pages with my claws?"

"That's right."

"Because of the First Exile?"

"Not just that. Being Drac, less is more. Maximal effect through minimal effort. As your birthright, you have great talents. But you should never stop trying to learn new ones."

"Even unnecessary ones?" Iorneste asked with a toothsome grin.

"How are you to know which are unnecessary, whelp? I can assure you that learning to limit great strength is among the most important skills that a Drac can master." He waved the book back onto its shelf, and told the pieces to rearrange themselves on the board.

Young Iorneste considered his words for some time, and then with a careful tip of his claw nudged the pawn forward two tiny spaces. It wobbled, but did not tip over.

Before Rrachma could make his move, Iorneste looked up at him from far below, his dragon face tiny. "Sreache?"


"How do you know so many things?"

Rrachma looked down at the young dragon and answered in seriousness, "A little bat told me."

Artist Credit


by Zaina a.k.a. "Queen Z"

© 2015 Zaina

Continue to Chapter Twenty