On the back of a dragon at night, the world became a rushing void. Selka clung to the saddle, wind buffeting her, and at these times her helm was an absolute necessity. For the first time in weeks, her armor was finally practical again, the dragon leather providing excellent insulation against the winds. Her helmet, rather than being something burdensome she had carried everywhere with her that felt rather alone and out of place, now protected her eyes, and just as importantly, her ears.
Dragons were like hawks. They did not require many wing beats to stay aloft at the same altitude, so outside of an occasional hitching as Eluenne's dragon's (she refused to even think of it as Fartbreath now) wings flapped, she remained stable. The wind whooshing by her was a constant, but it was a familiar constant and she allowed herself to feel that ache in her chest, to acknowledge how much she missed it.
Missed Kulvas. Named for an ancient war hero of the Empyrian age, Kulvas had always seemed to her to be a prince among other dragons. Her father had been surprised she had chosen that name, but she had been chosen almost at birth for her role, and had accepted it far better than her father ever had. Her family was well-respected, her father rising in the Esturian navy, and her eldest sister had been his star, his entire future. She thought sometimes of her mother, but her own birth had been her mother's death, and her sister Leska had told her growing up that her father had been much different while their mother had been alive.
She had never known that man, only the one who resented her for being born. It seemed to her that the Dragon Corps had provided her father his own answer to the problem of what to do with her. The Dragon Corps was in its infancy, and they needed girls, children of the nobility, to pioneer the first dragonriders. Lamarke Sorens had been a man of great distinction then, and daughters who were volunteered to his cause earned great respect and rewards for their family in those days. She doubted her father had given the matter much consideration when he had turned her over to the training and care of Sorens at the age of seven. It gave him ample time to focus on the only daughter he cared about.
That had been her life. Sweating with the sword in her hand on the training grounds, caring for her baby dragon, and later training the others, performing drills and once her dragon had finally matured, aerial maneuvers; and every so often being called for some sort of very limited military engagement. Few of them had been satisfying.
She remembered Ser Balsfimer talking once about the Dragon Corps. That all they were good for was dropping fire on people, and then running away, making it a fitting job for women.
She had challenged him on the spot.
She sighed, the sound carried away by the wind. Not only had she defeated him and forced him to yield, she had also broken his arm in the process. It was not really about her, she told herself. She was their leader, their example. Not challenging him was out of the question, but losing the duel was even more so.
But now Leska was dead, her father more bitter with passing years, and what of her? She remained cordial with her father, out of respect for him and his position, and though he might now lament putting her in such a post, it was too late for that.
They had flown through the night, and she felt Eluenne writhing and stirring on the dragon's back, and just in time. The details on the ground were growing more distinct, a sure sign of the approach of dawn. She had caught reflections of the Vend in the moonlight below them and knew they were close, but dawn soon brought Earlemont into sharper focus.
Earlemont was one of the older cities in the Many Kingdoms, having been built during the old empire, and looked very classic to her eyes. It was the heart of Greatre Esturia, the seat of King Gracellus, and the spiral towers that were characteristic of the Empyrian age were numerous, breaking out in silhouettes against the light of dawn.
She thought of landing in the kennels as was procedure, but discarded the idea. The poor thing was laboring and exhausted, honking breaths becoming louder to her ears as they slowed and the sound of the wind diminished with it. He would be caged, strapped down to the ground until her return, treated like a ravenous animal.
Over her dead body. She had let it pass before, but Yorn had changed her, she realized. The way that dragons were treated had been a daily injustice, and she had become numb to it. Now it was all she could see.
Instead she decided to land in the royal gardens, near the surgeon. There was some precedent for doing this, in case of emergencies she did not need to stable her dragon in the usual spot, but it was also highly irregular.
She dropped the reins as the dragon veered suddenly, banking to the right, and then diving down towards the ground. Towards the royal gardens. She was surprised enough to shout as they dove, certain that she had not given any indication that the dragon should be going in that direction. If it was just a dumb beast, relying solely on training and instinct, would it not have chosen to head for the kennels? How did it know? It was like...like...
Like he had read her mind. But how is that possible?
As they approached the ground she considered the landing point, wanting to avoid the Esturian sunlowe flowers that were the pride of the garden. Her destination was the manmade grotto built around a natural spring that was the source of the water that trickled in tiny controlled pathways throughout the garden, each of them covered with miniature bridges so that none's feet would get wet.
The dragon changed direction, angling towards the grotto, lightly touching down with shuddering limbs, easing under the hanging vines and into the cave, sloshing them through the water, although only her feet and the end of Eluenne's dangling hair got wet. He rose up out of the water onto a dry patch nearby, landscaped with soft sand, and once clear of the water, remained standing, legs trembling, water streaming from his flanks.
Her mouth was open. Incredible. Without reins, knees, or spurs, without any spoken commands, this dragon, Eluenne's dragon, had known exactly where she wanted to go.
She tried again, this time trying something more deliberate. She could feel the trembling in his legs as he struggled to stand, but like a soldier he remained at attention. Awaiting her orders? "At ease," she said, and leaned forward, rubbing her hand down the scales of his neck.
The dragon slumped down to the ground, letting out a deep sigh. Leaving Eluenne to wiggle and groan and fret upon the saddle, Selka slid out of it along the side of the dragon's body, feet sinking into the wet sand. She walked along, legs full of pins and needles, squeezing circulation back into her fingers, until she was facing him.
"I am sorry," she whispered, looking into the eyes of the creature. "I didn't know. None of us did."
The dragon closed its eyes and let out a thrum of rumbling sound, head raising from the sand to brush against her body. It was gentle, but still strong enough to make her whole body lean and knock her off balance.
"If I let you sleep," she said, "And I leave you here, you won't leave until I return? You won't attack anyone?"
The creature's head angled up, until its eyes were level with hers, and she was staring into one of the slitted red eyes, the eye itself larger than her head. Pausing, the dragon did something she had not seen any dragon do since Kulvas, but it bobbed its head up and down, nodding.
"Amazing," she breathed, patting him on the head again. "You are amazing. Please, sleep. I will wake you later, I'm sorry for having to do that, but we'll go back to Mir's Edge together, and then you can sleep as long as you like."
The dragon thrummed in his chest once again, settling his head into the sand, eyes fluttering closed. Soon, the soft rumble of dragon snores filled the grotto.
She looked down at her boots, and back to the scrawny dragon, the holes gouged in its hide.
It took the aid of her knife, but soon enough the spurs were off her boots and at the bottom of the grotto's manmade lagoon.
Eluenne had griped, but had lapsed frequently out of consciousness, which made dragging her to the surgeon's both easier and more difficult. Easier because she did not have to listen to her mouth, harder because in her armor she was very heavy.
In the end, she had carried her over her shoulder, cupping the box in the other, sweating from the effort and trying not to make it look like she was straining as she approached the nearest guard.
"Knight-Marshal!" he said, saluting.
"As you were," she said. "This poor knight needs the surgeon's attention. Please escort her there, and mind her right arm."
"I will stand your post for you until you return."
"At once, Dame Euphrane!" He took Eluenne from her, carrying her in his arms in the direction of the royal surgeon. She had chosen this landing spot for its proximity, and she took the opportunity of his brief absence to catch her breath, wrinkling her nose at the smell of herself. If she was to present herself to her liege, she would need to visit her quarters first.
Once the guard returned, she let him resume his post. She wended her way down the cobble streets within the castle grounds, before reaching the palace proper, her steps much quieter without the jingling of her spurs. She received little hassle from the guards or the porter, who recognized her, and she made it halfway down the east wing before recognizing the steward, Morri, standing in front of the door of her room.
He had wispy but still iron black hair, now a bit fussed in the wet summer air. His tight-groomed hairline moustache was snarled as his lips pursed, but the officious livery of his position hung upon him impeccable and as he saw her approaching down the hallway, the sour look fell away from his features.
"Dame Euphrane," he said, clasping his hands together in greeting. "We only just heard of your arrival, but we are preparing your usual quarters as we speak."
She smiled, "It is good to see you again, Morri. You do not need to fuss over me, I am certain the quarters are fine."
He indicated the box tucked under her left arm with a tentative gesture. "That is a fine treasure you carry, Dame. Does this mean you are not for a long stay this time?"
"I do not think so. But if you could get the ewerer to prepare a hot bath immediately, and get my field armor cleaned, I would be your most devoted subject, Morri."
He smiled. "I believe that can be arranged."
She entered, seeing the small but comfortable room. Whenever she stayed in Earlemont, this had been her home. With old habit she went over to the windows, unlatching them and looking down and out into the castle grounds several levels below. Her family's ancestral home was visible from that window, tucked into the hillside and the small gravel road leading up the hillside appeared like chalk from her vantage point. It was the house she was born in, but it had never felt like home to her. This room itself possessed a level of comfort she was unused to, and she always felt guilty taking advantage of it, as if it would make her grow soft, but in Earlemont, it was truly home.
Despite her past feelings, she felt no guilt at all right now. It had been a long and strange journey, and depending how things went in her meeting with Gracellus, this might be the last comfort she enjoyed for a very long time. The bath was hot, far too hot, but she had not waited. The armor was removed with care, though she longed to shed it right away. Morri took it from the room and left her soaking and turning pink in the bath.
With great effort, she told herself to relax, to let the warm water do its work. She managed to rest her head back, but despite the feeling of the water upon her skin, the easy breeze coming from the window, and the absolute quiet and solitude, her thoughts kept her a prisoner.
Once it had been Sorens who had been Knight-Marshal of the Dragon Corps, but he had betrayed them all, and fled the position. She returned with the very item he had stolen, killing a man who had once been more like a father to her than her own, although it was also he who had brought down his doom in the first place.
That said, she made several tactical errors. The first was making a showy entrance and flying to the center of Sandridge, demanding that Sorens show himself. In no time she had been surrounded by men with crossbows, feeling herself in less of a commanding position. Sorens had been cheeky, and had even called her out by name, recognizing Kulvas.
"Just go home, lass!" Sorens had shouted, his reedy voice catching her with the force of memory behind it. He had shown her how to hold a sword, how to fight, how to take orders, and how to give them. Now he was her enemy. "There is nothing for you to win here! Just death."
Some of his men had stood beside him, weapons raised, adjusting and readjusting the grip on their weapons, eyeing the dragon with terror. She had seen it before. They would break. They would run, with a show of force, but they did not want to be the first. They did not want to draw the dragon's attention. She realized that she had something of a different perspective on dragons, having been raised among them from a very early age, but it was a constant she had come to rely on now. Dragons terrified people.
That had been her strategy. Terrify Sorens, cow the people of Sandridge. Take him prisoner, and the box, and depart. If he would not come quietly, she was to kill him.
But Sorens was not terrified. Like her, he seemed to have no undue concern for the fact that she was on the back of a dragon, which she should have considered. "I am not your lass," she countered. "You will show me respect or you will die, Sorens."
"Then I choose to die, you ungrateful girl!"
It had not been the place for that conversation, but she felt stung. "Ungrateful? You swore an oath, Sorens! To King and country! You are an oathbreaker, a thief, and a traitor! Do not expect me to be grateful for your betrayal!"
He had shook his head, calling back to her over the field in the full sight and view of the citizens and militia of Sandridge. "They don't want what you want, Selka! It was my dream first, before it was yours, but they will kill it, Selka! They are already killing it!"
She had scoffed. The Dragon Corps was the most revolutionary force to come to Esturian warfare since the advent of firearms. There had been no attempt to kill it. If anything, they had seemed more determined in their efforts to ensure it would continue.
But she had not been sent there to debate with Sorens. Her orders were clear, even if he had forgotten his.
"I will kill you," she said, voice dripping with ice and laced with the pain of his betrayal. "You will come with me, right now, and remember your allegiance, or I will treat you like the dishonorable dog you are, gut you, and feed you to my dragon."
"Not going to happen, lass."
Being called lass yet again brought an angry flush to her cheeks, but it was hidden behind the mask. "Final warning, Sorens."
It was at that moment that one member of the Sandridge milita had decided to get the drop on her, or perhaps he did not realize how sensitive the trigger was. The bolt was loosed, and it was on target. The Sandridge militia had no particular obligation or allegiance to Sorens, so the outcome of her ultimatum was not their concern. Seeing one of their own firing, many of them took it as the sign to fire as well.
Sorens' men, on the other hand, realized that there was no reason for diplomacy anymore, and fired their weapons as well. Sorens himself did nothing that she could see, but in the instant that a bolt was loosed all real decisions were over, and her focus was elsewhere.
Ducking behind Kulvas' neck and using it as a shield, she jerked back on the reins, pulling open his mouth. On command, he unleashed hellfire, vomiting forth a spray of burning liquid that streamed through the air like a gushing torrent of rolling flame. She yanked the reins quickly from left to right and back again, and the flame followed. It swept over the ground, and any caught in its path who were spattered by the liquid were burned through by it immediately. The missiles enroute to them were caught by it, smoking or melting and rattling against Kulvas' hide only as so much debris. It smoked men inside of their armor, just beginning to scream before they burst into flame and were lost in the wash of fire that followed. She caught her final glimpse of Sorens, staring forward into the gulf of flame, mouth opened either in defiance or a scream, she could not be sure. He did not have time to give air to his last words, because the spray of fire caught him, and then he was lost within it, and seconds after nothing but ash.
Heat waves filled the air around her, and she began to sweat beneath her armor.
She was no longer threatened, and no longer the greatest threat. She watched as the fire crept along the ground, burning the green grass, blackening the stone, and then reaching the trees at the outer edges of the clearing, the great Vellarien trees, which were said to be fireproof.
Then she watched them beginning to burn, and as the smoke grew thicker she heard the screams from the forest, the cries to run, and the brief but futile attempts to extinguish the fire. It was not going to stop, and there was nothing she could do about it. The screaming, the cries, the sounds of people calling out to loved ones, cutting out in the roar of the fire beginning to rush through the trees, it was all too horrible. She could stand it no longer, neither the suffering or the flame, and drove her heels into Kulvas' side, directing him up above the beginnings of what would soon be total devastation.
She left the clearing behind, seeing the people streaming towards the boats on the wharf, those few who could escape. Sorens had a ship, and her primary goal had been the box. If it was on the ship, perhaps her mission could be salvaged. So she moved to the beach, where the fire would not reach, and where she could interrogate the survivors, find Sorens' ship, and get away and back to Earlemont as soon as possible, and make her report.
That was the part she thought she could explain to the court. Everything that happened after that was going to be a lot more difficult.
Her field armor was useless to her right now, as it was still being cleaned, with the exception of her boots. She could wear a uniform, which so many in the military, knights included, had taken to doing. She had one...somewhere, but she would rather not wear it. It made her feel like her father. There was another option, and she bit her lip too hard considering it.
Her ceremonial armor remained, still in place within the wardrobe where she had left it after her first time trying it on, and only at her sister's insistence. She had given it a dim view in the past, referring to it as an "armored dress" but Leska had told her it made her look beautiful and powerful, both acknowledging her as a noblewoman, but reminding everyone that she was a knight. That was another reason she had never worn it, it reminded her too much of Leska.
She put it on, a bit slowly, observing the effect in the mirror. The overlapping pauldrons were elaborate, ornate, impractical, but very striking. The gloves were armored, but articulation remained in the fingers. There was an armored bust, and some dragonscale patterning across her midsection, but this was dress material that would not turn a blade, and it swept down just shy of the floor. She had added splits to the side of the dress for practicality, and rather than wear some traditional piece of ladies' footwear, she wore her freshly-cleaned dragonscale boots beneath, still a bit damp at the toes.
Lastly, she buckled on her sword. Another sign of her status as a knight, and a reminder to others of her position. She looked at herself in the mirror, tried to straighten her unruly hair without her metal shoulders poking her in the face, and was not sure if she looked powerful or ridiculous. She needed Leska to tell her, and remembered again that Leska was not here, and that she would never see her again.
She looked at the empty room before she left, feeling alone. It never used to matter, but now it did, and feeling the emptiness made her miss Him even more.
She waited before the great vellarien doors leading in to the Great Hall, waiting for her summons. It was to be a closed door session, with a limited audience.
She reminded herself of who she was, drawing it on like a second armor as she heard the herald's voice inside beginning to announce her. It was time to remind them who she was. She was a knight, of the Dragon Corps, the King's own order of knights. She was a warrior, a soldier, a leader both on and off the battlefield.
This was nothing. This was just administration, part of her duties. The easy part. The "Mask of Nobility" her sister had told her, trying to explain it to her once long ago.
"Nobility are not like commoners," Leska had instructed her, her words as calm, coiffed, and patient as ever. "So they do not act like commoners. It is this that sets them above the rabble, and distinguishes them among their peers, elevating the ambiance and discussion between them so that no one need suffer too much unpleasantness. The work of the nobility is important work, and this is how important work is done."
Selka had snorted. "It's pompous buffoonery! It's men getting together to compare how excellent they are, constantly worried about what face they are supposed to be showing, and everyone is spectating, and awarding points, while sneakily moving around and stabbing each other in the back to get what they really want. I hate it."
Leska had flushed to the roots of her red hair. "Among the Knights, do you not have a code of behavior?"
"Of course, but it is different."
"No, not really, Selka."
"It is. We show respect to our superiors, but also to those under our care. It also is important to follow the chain of command, to be loyal and honorable and true. We do not present a false face to each other."
"What if you are ordered to do something you disagree with?"
"Then you respectfully disagree, but you do what you are told."
"Then you are still acting, Selka. It is just that you understand the rules in that situation. You don't understand the rules at court."
Selka remembered saying a few unladylike words.
"It's not your fault!" Leska had protested, moving over to put one arm around her shoulders. "You spent all your time training to be a knight, and that is a different kind of decorum. It is at least a start! You learned some decorum, you just need to learn the rules."
"I don't have time to learn all of the rules," Selka had said, shrugging off her sister's arm. "Just give me the basics."
Leska had sighed, but with more love and patience than she deserved had told her what she thought that Selka needed to know. She had held onto her sister's rules like a mantra. It had never seemed natural, but so long as she remembered the rules, she would be fine.
That's what she told herself.
"Rule Number One," Leska said, "The most important of all. Only His Majesty is allowed to make a spectacle in the court. If a spectacle will occur, it shall be by his direct action. Anyone who creates a spectacle in the court and surprises Him will not be invited back to the court, and depending on what the foolish clod has done, may face severe repercussions. The King is the most important person in the room, and with every action you must show that. You do not take the light away from him in his own home, he remains the master of that domain. It is the very embodiment of his power, and if he loses control in his own court, he loses his crown."
"That is a bit of an exaggeration, isn't it?"
"I wish it was, but kings have been deposed for less. He cannot afford to show weakness, and he will not thank you for making him appear weak. His only recourse when that happens will be to punish you severely, to show that he is strong. If that happens, you would have no one to blame but yourself. He has no other option, lest he lose respect and later his head.
"Yet do not grovel before him, either. Wearing the Mask means that you honor him openly, but you always retain your dignity.
"Rule Number Two: Nothing is ever His Majesty's fault. This becomes complicated by Rule Number Three, which I'm about to talk about. Either take responsibility for His failings, or simply focus on solutions rather than on blaming him, even indirectly.
"What is he?" Selka had scoffed. "Made of glass?"
Leska had slapped her across the face, and so startled was she that she had allowed it to happen. "Even in private, Selka, even in your thoughts, even in jest, you should never harbor even a single negative thought about your liege! He was born to rule you, and you are sworn to him."
"Fine," she said, holding her stinging cheek and reproaching her sister with her eyes. "So what is Rule Number Three?"
"This is where the Mask is involved. Nothing is His Majesty's fault. If your liege lord was anyone other than the King, I would tell you the same thing. But since you are the King's own knight, and since he is no less than the King, this is tremendously important for you, Selka. He chose you, his actions chose you."
"What if you do something wrong? What does that imply about Him?"
"That he chose poorly in trusting me. That he...made a mistake?"
"Which is why, Selka, you must make it easy for him to avoid the blame for your actions. He did not make a mistake choosing you. His choice was valid, you failed yourself. Or someone or something else conspired to make you fail. But no matter what that is, you will continue to make it right to Him, to amend your mistake, to your last breath, on your Honor."
She blinked. "What was that?"
"That was the Mask. That is what you must convey. With every interaction, every decision to which he is privy, you must show Him that not only was his trust in you justified, but that it is rewarding him beyond his wildest expectations. You must never give him a reason to lose hope in you."
"You know," she said, hands scrubbing in her cropped hair, "I was kind of nervous before. Now I am terrifed."
"Rule Number Four—"
"Oh gods, there's more?"
"Yes, Selkafish. Rule Number Four: The nobility do not bleed."
"We do not bleed?"
"Yes, do you know why?"
She grumbled. "This is so stupid...because we're special beings separate and apart from the common rabble?"
"You don't ever say things like this to the common rabble, though, do you?"
"When do I ever talk to the common rabble?"
Selka rolled her eyes. "Fine, we don't bleed. What if I'm actually bleeding? Do I hide myself from court?"
"Swords are not drawn in court, Selka. That's not the blood I meant. They are the wrong weapon for that battlefield."
"So now it's a battlefield?"
"Of a sort, yes. I was being figurative when I talked about bleeding. Words are weapons in court, Selka. They can wound, but they must never see you bleed."
"I never realized you had such a...martial opinion of courtly life, Leska."
She had laughed, and Selka missed that laugh in remembering it. "I don't, you goose! I am trying to translate for you so it is in terms that you will understand."
"I think I get it. No matter how I'm feeling, don't let them see I am bothered. Is there a Rule Number Five? And is that the last rule?"
She shook her head, then stopped, and then nodded. "The last rule, but not really, Selka. There are hundreds of small things you will do wrong without even knowing it, but I suspect they will be willing to see you as a woman-at-arms and forgive some of these. But there is a time when the Mask becomes an impediment, and when it no longer applies."
"The court is like a dance, and the King is leading it. He is choosing the music, he is directing the peformers, and he is the one who decides when it starts, and when it ends."
"First a battlefield, now a dance?"
"This is how I think of it, Selka. My point is that when the King drops the Mask, when he stops the dance, you should drop yours as well."
"You may balk at behaving in this funny way at court once in awhile, when you come to visit or to make a report, Selka. How do you think the King feels?"
She shrugged. "I never thought about it. He was born to it, he must enjoy it, right?"
"None of us really enjoy it all the time. It is exhausting always presenting the best face to everyone, to smile and to dine and listen to honey words drenched in poison. To capture innuendos and implications and determine if they are genuine or merely bluffs...it is a dance, sister. It is a game. It is war. It is all of these things. But the King must perform it more than any of us. I think it safe to say he tires of it, surely he must. But because he cannot appear weak, he cannot ever remove the Mask, lest his weakness be turned against him."
She shuddered. "I had no idea."
Leska nodded. "So if he ever drops the Mask, if he talks to you like you are just Selka, and he is just Gracellus, he is showing you a great honor. He is showing you that he can trust you. You must immediately show him such respect in return, and never make him regret his vulnerability."
Selka had left that conversation feeling very frustrated, but left court that evening without hearing people laugh behind their hands for the first time, which was a definite improvement.
She let in one very deep breath as the herald's words faded, and one very slow exhale as the doors opened and the light of the solarium beamed in through the windows above the throne, reflected through many prisms in the glass to dance in rainbow motes throughout the room.
Her footfalls were loud as she moved, even on the carpet, and the creak of metal made her feel less out of place. Six pairs of eyes were focused on her, and she returned their stares as she approached the throne.
The stare of the King's right hand, Viceroy Esperus Tulane, was the hardest to return. Ser Esperus Tulane was former head of the Order of the Sunlowe, one of the oldest of the knightly orders of Esturia, and first among the King's knights. A damned fine group who still took pride in their vows, by her estimation.
Tulane's heavy black eyebrows were low and accusing, some of his powerful build going to fat, but not enough for her to like her chances in a fight with him. His folded arms and unruffled, unwavering stare was like an assault against her own armor. But she had not so soon forgotten the lessons of her sister, and she would not bleed. Not here, so soon, in front of her King. The defiance that filled her reminded her of the feeling of combat, that feeling she loved most. Having an opponent in the room made it so much easier to remember who she was.
She met their stares as evenly as she could, acknowledging each of them, but keeping her eyes focused primarily on the King himself. It had been months since she had left Earlemont, and it seemed he had aged. King Gracellus Bordyll had been ageless for as long as she could remember, but he was well into his sixtieth year and his dark brown hair was streaked at the temples, and his beard now showed white at the chin. The lines around his eyes seemed deeper, but the eyes themselves retained their own inner gleam. His face was not stern at her approach, one corner of his mouth already turned into a half-smile.
She knelt before him, and the court, and took the box from under her left arm and held it up to him, eyes cast down. "My liege, honored lords of the court, I apologize for my long absence. I return at last, my quest complete, for the glory and honor of Esturia."
Her words hung in the air in the vast chamber, nearly empty. Never much for long speeches, she remained frozen in this position for some time. Were they expecting her to say something else? No, the King is ruler of the court, he commands the dance. She remained where she was. Not her move to make.
"Rise, Dame Knight," said the King in his commanding voice, with only a touch of the quavering of age. She rose, and opened her eyes to the court. Just in time to see the Viceroy pluck the box from her hands, standing before her.
"You took this from Lamarke Sorens?" he asked her, voice still raw from past service and shouting on the battlefield.
She nodded. "Yes, Your Excellency. From his quarters aboard his ship."
He turned the box over in his hands, fingers running over the markings about its surface. "What do you make of these?"
"I believe it may be dragon magic, Your Excellency." Too late, as the words left her mouth and she saw the look on his face, she realized her mistake.
He rumbled laughter. "Dame Selka, Sorens was a traitor and a madman. We all know of his beliefs regarding dragons, but that does not mean we share them. Since you are now head of that upstart order, you do not need to continue them for his sake."
Being called "upstart" by the representative of a four-hundred year old institution stung. She opted to withdraw. "It was mere speculation, Your Excellency. I do know that you will find it very frustrating to open."
"We will open it, Dame, there is no question of that. Sorens was a liar and a charlatan, but what is in this box is real. Once we have the secret of his dragon control, we will be free to bring more dragons to our cause."
No one had told her that they even knew what Sorens' box did. Maybe they had not wanted to tell her. Over the months she had been gone, the Viceroy must have forgotten he had made that decision. She tried not to overplay her hand, but her mind still was buffeted and distracted by the ramifications of what this meant.
"It would seem," she began, "That if he were not around to control the dragons, it would explain why we have been having so much trouble with them these last several years."
He looked up from his study of the box, as if surprised a fish could talk. "That is correct, Dame Euphrane. We know that this works, but everything else that man said is a lie. We are free to question all of it, not that we haven't been questioning it for some time."
She nodded. "That seems wise."
"Including his belief that only women can ride dragons."
She felt like someone who had been holding their sword wrong and left an obvious opening. "I am not convinced that this belief of his is wrong, Your Excellency. There have been numerous attempts—"
He smirked at her, and some of her sister's advice must have been coming through at last, but she realized somehow that he had just drawn blood, and she had let him.
"That is enough for now," came the King's voice, cutting through their conversation and the subtle chatter in the room. "Leave us, I would speak with Dame Euphrane."
There were a few murmurs at this pronouncement, but none objected. She knew the rules now, and understood why they would not. They shuffled out, almost to a man. The last remainder was the Viceroy, still holding the box.
"Esperus," said the king, "You may leave with my blessing to begin your work to open that box. It is of utmost importance."
The Viceroy blinked and looked between his liege lord and herself, but nodded and thanked His Majesty for his blessing under his breath as he left.
She thought through the interaction and realized in a way that left her breathless and paranoid, that at its core every interaction here meant something. All of it. She had bled, the King had spared her, and dismissed the room so that they could talk in private. When the Viceroy had objected, her liege had appealed to his higher duty, leaving him no reason for further objection, and saving his right hand from losing face in the process.
The work of a master, or a king.
The doors boomed shut, and they were truly alone within the Great Hall. The king walked away from his throne, motioning her over to the balcony. He opened the doors wide, letting the air stream in and walked out onto it, looking over his city.
Selka smiled as she smelled the sunlowe on the breeze, and walked out to meet him, boots clacking on the floor. The wind blew her hair, and the skirls of blowing wind reminded her of being on the back of a dragon, and looking down at the ground and people like bugs below, she felt no fear.
It was probably the only place within the King's court she could have felt comfortable.
"I come out here often of late," he said, as she drew closer. "It brings me peace. Reminds me of this world, our beautiful world, and our beautiful piece of it. Of the hard times ahead..."
The King did not turn at her approach, speaking out into the wind, but the words carried back to her. "I would ask, Dame, that we speak plainly. There is much to discuss, and I wish there to be no airs between us."
It was the fifth rule. He was dropping the Mask! She tried to feel like it was an honor, but more than anything she felt relieved. It would not do to leave him exposed, so she did not let her surprise delay her response too long. "It would be a relief, my liege, and I am humbled by the honor."
"You have been out of contact, and absent the military counsels."
"I am sorry, my lie—"
"Stop it," he said, and she flushed and felt her heart begin to race. "When I ask you to speak plainly, no honorifics. No apologies. Just tell me what happened."
"Yes, my—" She saw his face, raced to find an appropriate epithet, and dismissed just calling him "Gracellus" immediately. "—Ser. Ser, I will tell you what happened."
"All of it, Selka. I need to know everything, and the truth."
"Is that a problem? Do I have your undivided loyalty or not?"
"Of course, Ser. Now and forever, Ser, even in death."
He turned and peered at her, looking through her, as if searching her for something. "Do not dazzle me with pretty words, Selka. I hear them enough."
Why not? He was as much as daring her. "I have never known you like this, Gracellus. Speaking to you like this would be my death, had you not allowed it. I am struggling to convince myself, against long practice, that I am not digging my own grave."
At that, he laughed, and she had never heard him laugh before. It was almost like a cackle, both abrasive to the ears, but pure. It made her smile even as she felt the urge to wince. "When I ask you to speak plainly, Selka, I mean exactly that!"
"Then to speak plainly: As my liege lord I have sworn an oath to you, and I will follow that oath to my death. Oathbreaker will never be on my grave stone, I would sooner die. That is the truth."
"I believe you. Tell me what happened to you. I wish to know."
There were many details she did not want to tell him. There were many things that she would rather have not shared.
But she told him everything, because he was her liege, and because whatever feelings were in her heart, if her lord asked it of her, were also his to know.
She told him of the fruitless search for Sorens until she caught his trail and followed him to the Wyldlands. She told him of the standoff and the burning of Sandridge. She told him of her encounter with the dragon slayer, the one who she thought had killed her dragon, but had actually released him. She related the details of the Questioning, and of his answers to the questions to the best of her recollection.
She told him of her journey aboard the Maiden's Fancy, and her transfer and the transfer of prisoners to the Cutlass, her father's ship. Of her time in Ramilka, and even some of her private conversations with Yorn and his answers about the secretive and lost Drac Orden to which he belonged.
She did not speak of their romance, and in this she felt guilty as it was indeed a divided loyalty within her heart. Neither did she think she was disguising her feelings from his shrewd gaze, either, but he did not probe her further about her feelings towards Yorn. As if she was sure what her feelings towards Yorn even meant.
For his part, the king did not get surprised or shocked or even angry, he just seemed to be considering her words without comment, but he would nod kindly for her to continue or wave his hand to dismiss any hesitancy in her account of events.
His Majesty leaned back against the balcony, stroking his beard, looking into her face, head shaking back and forth. "Little Selka," he said. "What has happened to her? She has grown up."
She felt a bit stung, and decided to test her permission to speak plainly a bit more. "I did not leave you a girl, Ser."
"That is not what I meant, Selka. I was paying you a compliment. But I remember you when you were very young, you see. I also remember your mother, and she was a rare creature. Everyone respected and loved your mother. But this is not about that, or even about age. My royal children are my world, but though some of them are grown, none have really grown up. What I mean to say is, and listen to me closely, Selka: Until you have left your world, you can never really be anything but a slave of it."
She knew exactly what he meant. "Gods, yes."
"Which is why I value your counsel."
"—I, uh, wonder. I made so many horrible mistakes. What is to be my punishment?"
"No punishment. You made mistakes, but still acted with honor. We will do what we can for the survivors of Sandridge in your name. Meanwhile, our stockpiles of vellarien wood have turned into a valuable currency. I have other questions, though, and perhaps hard decisions that you will not like."
"Oh. Of course, Ser. Whatever you decide will of course—"
"Stop it. There is a reason I am asking you to speak plainly, and part of it is to save time. What is the current status of the Dragon Corps?"
"I have not been back to Mir's Edge yet to inspect their condition, but it was very grim when I left, Ser."
He sighed. "Then it is worse than you know. The Viceroy has taken over in your absence, and—"
"He did what?" Her hands clapped over her mouth, trying to push the words back inside.
He shook his head, but there was a smile on his face. "Do not act like a child, Selka, not after I was just praising your newfound maturity. I know you do not like him. I know he does not like you."
"It is not that, Ser. I admire him, but—"
"His opinion of you does not matter, mine does. But I have several problems, and since one possible solution is to dissolve the Dragon Corps and remove you from your status, it is up to you to help me come up with a different solution."
"One problem is that you have no dragon, and to lead the Dragon Corps one should be able to ride a dragon, don't you think?"
"You broke Dame Madra's arm, I have heard. What was that about?"
"In truth? She moved to strike her dragon."
"Dragons are unruly, Selka. You know that better than anyone."
She shook her head. "Not anymore. I realized something today, something that Yorn told me, but I never quite believed."
"The bit and the spurs is the wrong approach. They are not unruly because they are mindless beasts."
"They are much smarter than we think. Not as smart as we are, but I think they can understand us."
"You know what the court would say if they heard this."
She nodded. "I do, but you said—"
"I did. 'Speak plainly'. It is still hard to believe. But I do not have to believe you, just to believe in you. Dame Madra's father will be calling for your head, you know."
She snorted. "If he treated his daughter like an adult, perhaps I would not have to mother her."
"Ha!" The King laughed. "Steel in your words as well, Selka."
She started to apologize, realized that he told her not to do it, and instead just shrugged.
"Why this sudden urgency for dragons?" she wondered. "You mentioned the military counsels?"
"Ah. Yes. While you were traversing through the wilderness and moving at sea, not to mention enjoying your holiday in Ramilka—"
"My liege, I—"
"I do not begrudge you your little indulgence, I am only saying that now there is important work to do. The Surans have invaded Arrowshead."
"Ser! You should have mentioned this at the start!" She looked around, as if the Surans could be entering the city at any moment.
"Calm down, Selka. At this point they are only mobilizing their forces and awaiting our response. Diplomatic relations with the Suran empire have been strained of late, one of our vessels killing the heir to the Suran throne while enroute to the Dolorchian front being a primary cause."
"Oh no," she said. "Ser, you are far too calm about this."
"It is too little too late for us, Selka. There is no more reason to panic, the panic already happened while you were away. We scoffed at the other nations and their search for the catalysts and sulphors needed to make black powder. This was my fault."
She started to object, but her sister's rules did not apply anymore.
"They have colonized Ghanji, and already have all of the supply and many, many guns. They mobilize the peasants, give them a weapon and a week's training, and march them off against us, decimating any knights who try their lines. They are defeating fully-grown knights who have held a sword since their boyhood, with barely-trained peasants. Our attempt to secure Dolorchi and the materials we need, and the usurious costs in purchasing them from other nations is crippling us."
"Either we need firearms, or we need dragons, and it's too late for firearms. We cannot field those kinds of forces, outside of mercenaries, and our coffers dwindle. The Surans have claimed the western front largely unchallenged. They have not advanced, and know that we will not press them. Meanwhile, more of their forces continue to move in, massing at the border. Diplomatic relations have ceased, our last messenger has not returned to us. So when I ask you, Dame Euphrane, if you can restore the Dragon Corps, if you can give me dragons, I have a very good reason for asking."
She swallowed, and her voice still rasped more than usual. "No."
"Speaking plainly, Ser, I have no interest in reviving the corpse of the Dragon Corps. That order was disgraced by its founder turning traitor, and his name will only continue to soil it, and what I have fought for."
"Hmm. What do you propose?"
"Disband the Dragon Corps. Reform it as a new order."
"With yourself as the leader?"
He pondered. "Would it be open to men as well?"
She shook her head. "Not as dragon riders. It won't work."
"They will want you to prove that."
"Mmm. They are welcome to try, how about that?"
"I thought a newborn dragon needed to bond to a new rider?"
"I don't think so, not anymore. I think we just misunderstood what Sorens was trying to do."
He did not pursue it further. "Done. I have little choice, but there are two avenues I am taking, and it will lead to two different orders."
"When the box is opened, we will be able to control dragons and make them work for us. Your methods will no longer be necessary."
She staggered as if punched, but could not find her voice.
"Be that as it may," he said, one hand reaching out to touch her arm. "I do not know how long that will be. I need dragons, by any means necessary, in no less than a fortnight, or Esturia will fall."
She nodded, blinking back tears. "I understand. It costs you little to trust me completely, to give me your full faith and confidence, when the situation is so dire."
"Selka," he said, tone admonishing, "There is truth to what you are saying, but do not think I do not care for your position. I want you to succeed, but you have to prove it to everyone first. Especially yourself."
"My liege, I—" and then she was struck dumb.
"I will not get in the way of that, not when it could save us all. So my resources are at your disposal, Selka. The Dragon Corps is no more. You are now Knight-Marshal of the Order of the Dragonguard, my personal right hand. All responsibility for its success rests upon your shoulders, and all of the responsibility for its failure. You may run it as you see fit. Are you willing to take on that responsibility?"
She was about to answer, when her eyes got distracted by a glint of something shining down below. Some instinct took hold and she moved, too late, but just enough to jostle her liege. She watched as his head snapped to one side and heard the jarring ring of metal as he and his crown fell to the ground. The crown, shattered at the right temple, hit the marble floor with a harsh clang, spattering red on its white surface.
She heard the answering thunderclap of sound come after the shot had been fired. Shot. Had been fired. Turning towards the direction from which she had seen the glint, she felt a large hand slam into her shoulder. The impact threw her backwards and her left shoulder went numb. The metal of her left pauldron was dented and mangled, the bullet lodged somewhere within.
From somewhere far below came a roar, a roar that shook the ground and sky, and brought her heart to her lips.
Gracellus was moving, but weak and dazed. He looked up at her from the ground, blood dripping from his temple. "Did I....hear...?" he began to ask, and then the balcony soon was enveloped within the shadow of a dragon, roaring, with tiny tongues of fire darting between its lips.
She recognized that dragon. Elunne's dragon, formerly known as Fartbreath, now known as her new best friend. It was time to test it all. She looked in the direction of the gunsmoke from below, a sure sign of the shooter's position and knew time was of the essence. But now she had a dragon.
Guards began streaming into the room, the banished court returning so swiftly they had to have been waiting in the hallway, and before the eyes of her King, who was being helped to his feet and moved away from the window, she said to him, "I am willing, Ser. To the end."
She turned and leaped from the balcony onto the back of the dragon, now her dragon, she had decided. She did not need to tell him where to go, because he already knew.
Before the shocked eyes of the court, the dragon turned its head downwards, its entire body dipping and following it down into a precipitous dive into the city below, in pursuit of an assassin.
by Queen Z, Zaina-Isard
©2015 Zaina Isard