A Night For Answers
It was a terrible storm, one of the worst Oren had ever experienced, and it was all he could do to hold his ship together. Quints' bellows, normally so loud, were lost in the roar of the sea. Men clutched the gunwales, the mast, or tied themselves to the ship as waves pitched over the deck, at times almost submerging the ship.
The sails had been dropped, and they were largely at the sea's mercy. Wickers shouted in broken Empyrian from the aftcastle, staccato words in Suran dripping from his lips, eyes wide, calling out to the devil storm. The new boatswain, called Peth, who was half the man that Broch had been, struggled to give orders to a crew that could barely keep their feet. Jagged bolts of lightning sparked the sky, illuminating the seas in white, and sheets of rain poured down, drenching everyone and everything in sight. The helmsman kept the ship from pitching over, but he could do little else, and he had help from two of the crew to help him hold the wheel steady.
He had not seen Caliel in some time. She was presumably up top in the crow, but above him was nothing but darkness and falling water, clouds as black as blackest night, and whatever stars lay beyond them obscured, making their navigation all the more difficult.
Oren shivered in the rain and cold winds, the coat he had taken from Sorens of some comfort against the wind, but within it he was still soaked to the skin. They had been bound for the Suran port of Aravir, but it was anyone's guess where they lay now. The storm had buffeted them most of the day, possessing a fury and endurance that had already damaged the ship, but he was still proud of her. She had taken the worst the storm could offer and was still standing, and he had only lost one man overboard, a testament to the cagey experience of the crew.
The foremast had snapped in the sudden winds that had preceded the storm, and the quick bellow of Quints to lower the mainsail, in defiance of anyone else's order, had saved it. Shortly after the storm had swept over them, and they would have been at the bottom of the sea by now without the quick thinking of the quartermaster. Oren made a mental note to increase the man's share, if they survived.
And then, as suddenly as it had began hours before, the winds began to slow, the rains decreased to a light pour, and the seas began to calm. The clouds, although not disappearing completely, began to thin and the crew began to gingerly release their white-knuckled grip, untying ropes from their limbs and leaving the white bloodless lines behind where they had knotted so tightly.
Overhead the moon peeked through the clouds, and gave them a bit more light to see by. Wickers, voice hoarse at this point, gave a muttered command to the helmsman, who directed their course a few more degrees to port, and the turbulent sea turned into a glistening white highway as the moon's light overhead reflected upon its broken surface. They were not calmed, not by a long shot, but there was no longer a crisis.
Caliel took that moment to drop down from above, shivering and dripping like a drowned rat on all fours, before rising up on two legs before him. "Captain," she murred, and he bowed his head to her, letting out a long, shuddering breath that he had not realized he had been holding.
"What is it?" he snapped. "See anything up there in this miserable excuse for weather?"
"Yessss," she said. "Sssome disstance to the eassst, there isss light."
He glanced in the general direction of east, squinting his eyes. He could almost make out what she was talking about, but his eyes were nowhere near as acute as hers. It probably helped that she had three of them. "It's a purple light," he said. "Very strange. A lighthouse, perhaps?"
"Look clossserrrr," she murred, and handed him the spyglass.
He took it, putting it to his eye, and focusing it into the distance, swiveling it about until he settled upon the distant point of light. The strange, dark, purplish-blue glow of fire blossomed in the distance, against the silhouette of city buildings. "That's a hell of a strange fire. In this storm? How is that possible?"
"Look clossserrr," she said again, and he peeked away from the spyglass for a moment to give her a glare that he hoped conveyed his irritation. Why so cryptic? Why not just tell him?
All the same he humored her, as she was a trusted member of his crew, human or not. "I see the buildings...it's a city. That's not Aravir...Qualida, perhaps? There is a tall minaret...ahh, yes, Qualida. The whole city is ablaze! What could have done such a—"
And then he realized why she wanted him to look closer, because the shadow that passed in front of the distant flames, growing ever closer, was a sight he had never seen, but one which was unmistakable. Powerful limbs, a long sinuous tail, and enormous batlike wings, fanning the air. And then, a distant roar that he could just feel trembling in his chest, trumpeting like thunder, and another spiral of flame.
That was why Caliel had not told him. He would not have believed her.
"Quints, Wickers!" he shouted. "Turn this lady around! There will no safe harbor here!"
Quints slapped over the deck on his bare feet, and leaned close. "What is it, Cap'n?"
"Dragon," he muttered. "It's a bloody, bleeding dragon."
Quints did not argue with him, and the crew were spurred into action. The Maiden's Fancy turned, raised sail, and beat all hell in the opposite direction, seeking a safer harbor. It occurred to Oren as he glanced behind them that it would seem there were worse things to be found at sea than storms.
Cooking dinner was something that took an elaborate amount of preparation, Iorneste discovered. Mourne moved slow and deliberate about the kitchen, but his hands moved with familiar practice. There were numerous tools and implements, bowls and components, spices, and vegetables, all of which he'd have been perfectly content to eat in their raw form, except the vegetables.
Mourne slapped his hand. "Stop that!"
"But I am hungry!"
"It's not ready yet. Go sit down."
"I do not want to sit down. I want to eat."
"You are acting like a child."
"Are you sure there will be enough food?"
"Iorn, what is really going on here?"
He adjusted his breastplate, not wanting to look Mourne in the eyes. The armor sleeve at his right arm hid his scarring pretty well, though there was little that could be done about his face.
"Ah, that." He heard Mourne's smile in his voice as he stirred a bit of sizzling meat in a pan that filled the house with the most seductive aroma he had ever smelled before. "She will be here soon. You know she is coming, and are you not a dragon, with the patience of the ageless?"
"Oh shut up," he said, but he did wonder about the words of his friend. What had happened to his patience? It had been there yesterday, he was sure of it.
Mourne responded only with a laugh. "You look good, Iorn. Like a real warrior, a true dragonslayer. That armor suits you well, even if it is a bit patchwork."
"Armor on the leading arm is the most important," he said without thinking, the words had come directly from Selka.
"Whaat isss with the dragon?" asked Gharel, who had appeared from nowhere, and was munching a piece of raw meat he had stolen from under Mourne's nose. Mourne threatened him with the cooking knife. The mereling showed him his teeth.
"He is nervous," Mourne said. "Most men are, when courting a lass."
"I am not," Iorneste insisted, "'Courting a lass.' It is only Selka."
"Then why so nervous?"
"I am not nervous!"
Then there came a knock at the door, and he turned so suddenly that he dashed into the small table, and fell over it, crushing it to splinters under his weight.
While Gharel fell to the floor, holding his belly and hissing with laughter, Mourne struggled to hold his mouth in a neutral line.
He felt a flush at his face, and three hearts beat within his chest like a cacophony of drums. He pushed himself off of the floor, snatching up what remained of the table and hiding it behind one of the curtains. The broken window, out of which he had been bodily thrown by his sister, was boarded up, but the curtains were still intact. He brushed his hair from his face, straightened his clothes, and walked to the door. His hand hesitated over the doorknob.
"It is never good to keep a lady waiting, Iorn. That goes double where the Knight-Marshal of the Drac Orden is concerned."
"Please stop helping me," he said, and letting out a final breath, he opened the door.
He almost did not recognize her. Gone was the armor in which she had spent most of her time. Tonight she was dressed like the noblewoman she truly was, in a long dress of embroidered silk in red and gold. The tattoo was prominent on her bared neck, but there was a necklace of sparkling jewels, and her left ear dangled with a matching ruby pendant. A light dusting of color was on her face, and her lips had been rouged the brightest of red. Her cloud-colored eyes sparkled beneath eyelids painted a soft blue. Her hair was still short, and cropped, her bare arms were tanned and muscled, adorned with silver bracelets. It was still Selka, and yet it was Selka as he had never imagined he would see her.
He could not help but smile, however, seeing that her feet were wearing boots beneath the dress, and her sword was still buckled around her waist. She sized him up in return, and she brought a hand to her mouth, a charming crooked smile scarcely hidden behind her fingers.
"You look—" they said together.
"Amazing," she said.
"Beautiful," he echoed.
There was a long silence as they admired each other, and Mourne cleared his throat. "Invite her in, Iorn. It is customary."
He felt irritation at his friend trying to help him once again, aware of how awkward he suddenly felt, but seeing Selka there and how she was dressed, and knowing that she had done it for him, some of his nerves began to settle. But not all.
"Will you please come in, Selk—er, Knight-Marsh—um..." What in the world was wrong with him all of a sudden?
She walked past him, still smiling, eyes dancing with amusement. "Thank you, Iorn." She took in the room, its cheery light from the many lanterns, glowing soft against the night's blackness outside the surviving windows. She took in Gharel with a look of surprise, and then Mourne behind the counter. "Your house is beautiful, Mourne."
"Humble," he said, smiling, "I think is the word you are looking for. But thank you, Selka. You look radiant. Dangerous, but still very radiant."
She laughed, and moved over to him and put her arms around him, and they exchanged a long embrace.
"It is good to see you," he said softly, but Iorn's ears were sensitive enough to pick it up. Watching Mourne holding her gave him a covetous feeling that reminded him of hoarding. Treasure. She was his greatest treasure now, and he found himself hoping that he was also hers.
"And you as well," she said, louder. "I apologize for not saying good-bye the last time."
"It was not really a good-bye. I believe we will have ample time in the future," Mourne said, releasing her with a look to Iorneste and going back to preparing the meal. "You are, after all, kiin. Like me."
"Yes," she said, and grabbed a roll from the table, biting into it. "We should talk about that."
"Hey!" Iorneste protested. "Why can everyone eat but me?"
"She is nobility, Iorn. Nobility get to do whatever they want."
"And I am Drac. My bloodline is—"
"Not important," Mourne interrupted, brows drawn low. "Because you are still an exile, and so far as we are concerned for the next couple decades, human."
Selka moved over to where Gharel was crouched, eyes darting up to the meat on the counter. She knelt down to his height. "We have met, have we not?"
Gharel's triple eyes shifted. "I do not think ssssoo," he said.
"Yes, I think we have. We locked you in the stockades some years ago."
"All merrrelingssss look the ssssame to humanssss," he countered.
"Not to me," she said. "I have spent more time with merelings than most. I remember you. Eluenne almost gutted you."
"I do not—" he protested.
"But you were stealing food from our pantry to bring to your kits. Are you sure you are not the same mereling I met all those years ago...what was it...Kharel?"
"Gharel," he said.
"Right," she said, smiling. "Do not fear, I am not here to imprison you. And if you are a friend of Iorneste and Mourne, you are a friend of mine."
The mereling's face was inscrutable, but Mourne spoke up for him. "He is, indeed, a friend."
The mereling smiled in return, unable to find words. Selka rose to her feet and her hand hovered, just for a moment, as if she was about to pat him on the head, but pulled her hand back. She looked up and caught Iorn staring at her, and blushed.
"I did not think I would see you in armor for dinner," she said, moving over to join him.
"I wanted to surprise you," he said. "I spent most of the day at the armorer's tent in the market. I did not think to see you in a dress."
"Because I had a similar idea," she said, and reached up, smoothing the hair away from the side of his scarred face, resting her palm there.
"I was very surprised," he admitted, reaching up to take her hand. "But pleasantly."
Further conversation was interrupted for a time by Mourne declaring that dinner was ready. They moved to the table and began their feast, and talked, and laughed, and drank. For a time it was the focus of their conversation, but once the dishes were empty and all had their fill, save Iorneste, the conversation moved to other matters.
"I had a question, Iorn," Selka said at last, wiping her mouth.
"You need only ask," he said, swallowing his seventh roll.
"When I told you about Sorens, I said something that surprised you. He told me, when I asked him how he knew the combination for the puzzle box, 'A little bat told me,' and you seemed shocked. Why?"
"A little bat told me?" Mourne said. "Sorens said that?"
"To whom was the question directed, friend Mourne?" he asked the kiin, but favored him with a wink.
Selka turned her head to Mourne, mouth wide. "Am I the only one who does not know what this means?"
"Sorry, Selka," Iorneste said, before Mourne could answer. "It is simply that it is a favorite expression of someone that both Mourne and I know. Rrachma, my sire. When I would ask him how he came by some sort of knowledge, and he did not feel like explaining it to me, that is what he would say. 'A little bat told me.'"
Mourne nodded. "I had heard him say it before, back when the two of us spent more time discussing philosophy or my travels, and playing chess."
Iorneste nodded. "He said it to me quite often. I was full of questions."
Selka frowned. "So what is the connection between Sorens and Rrachma? He was not..." she gasped. "Was he a dragon? Was he Rrachma?"
Iorneste shook his head. "No, he was not a dragon. You saw him die to the dracfaer. I have a different theory."
She leaned forward in her chair, listening. The rest of the table followed suit. Faced with a captive audience, he continued.
"We know that the puzzle box that contained the signet was in fact the same puzzle box he had tested me with some thirty years or so ago. I spent a year on it, figuring it out. In the end the combination made sense to one such as myself, with an eidetic memory. He had been very particular in the order in which he had me read my first books. I would finish one, and he would present me with another. It was not until after I had read a certain number that he started allowing me to choose my own."
Realization dawned in Mourne's eyes, but Selka's were still confused. Gharel seemed interested only in picking the flesh off of the bones that Mourne had left behind.
"Each of those books contained a clue, and reducing the essence, the message, if you will, of each book revealed one of the runes in the sequence. It would seem that only a pupil of Rrachma's was intended to be able to deduce the combination, and despite what should have been such an obvious clue, it still took me some time to have the confidence to trust my inferences. After all, a single wrong guess, and the box would have been forever closed to me. I took the challenge very seriously."
"A year!" Selka said in surprise. "You worked on nothing else but how to open the box...for a year?"
"A year and some days, yes. I did some reading during that time, of course, but it was my primary concern for most of that year. Once I had solved it, and presented him with the opened box, he said something cryptic to me that only makes sense now in retrospect. He said, 'Good, Iorneste. If it has taken you a year to solve this puzzle, I can be well assured it will take anyone else a dozen lifetimes.' He did not compliment me often, but as one of the handful of compliments I ever received from him, it stuck in my memory."
Selka frowned. "So then how did the box end up in Sorens' hands?"
He grinned, "Rrachma is clever. So, so clever. Guile is a Drac virtue, as we are fond of saying, as is Wisdom. Rrachma possesses both. I believe that Rrachma, through his extensive research and his keen intellect deduced the location of a dragon signet."
Selka was still frowning. "So why would he not go and retrieve it himself?"
Mourne shook his head, catching on. "He could, but not without drawing a great deal of attention to himself. Rrachma has not left the Kaer in many, many years. Doing so would raise questions, and the signet is one of the most prized artifacts among the Drac. It also has no business, in the minds of the matriarchs, in the hands of a male."
Iorneste chuckled. "Indeed. So instead of going himself, he sent someone he thought he could trust. Someone he had known for many years. One of his kiin."
Selka's head leapt off of her hand. "You think Sorens was kin?"
"Kiin, and yes, I do. It is just a hunch, but it makes a great deal of sense."
"You said he had many heretical ideas, things he said which revealed he knew a great deal more about the Drac than anyone else in the Many Kingdoms. He spoke of wise, intelligent wyrms, who could take the forms of people, and who had once ruled all of humankind. This is not common knowledge. The Drac have taken elaborate steps to ensure that this is not common knowledge. So how else did he know about it? Why would he use my mentor's favorite phrase? How did he end up with same puzzle box I had puzzled over, which soon disappeared after I had solved it?"
Her face was a moonlit shore of exquisite shock, with waves of realization hitting it. "But he did not bring back the box to Rrachma."
"No, he did not. I have only speculations as to why. Maybe he was not supposed to return it to Rrachma? Maybe what he did instead was Rrachma's plan all along? I do not have the definitive answer to this. But it does not seem likely because...well, humans are not supposed to be in possession of Drac artifacts. You might trust a kiin to deliver it, but you would not trust them to keep it."
"Especially not a dragon signet," Mourne added, fingertips tracing circles on the tabletop.
"Precisely, Mourne friend. And you do not give them an unopenable box to put it in unless you want to keep it safe."
Selka nodded. "It is good to see where we sit on the picking order of trust. But you still have to trust that...kiin?"
"...You must trust them enough to give them the combination to open it, so that they can place the signet inside of it. That way, even if Sorens were killed or captured, even if the box was stolen, it would still be safe, until it could be delivered into Rrachma's hands."
Iorneste beamed at her with pride, "She is very intelligent, Mourne. She is a dragon among humans, as I have always said."
Selka blushed. "Thank you. I think. So somewhere along the way, on the journey back to Kaer Drac, he tried to use the signet, you think?"
Iorneste shrugged. "Speculative, but it seems logical."
"He discovered what it could do. And he found some wild dragons to test it on, and found he could speak to them. He found...he found Matra, didn't he?"
"I think so. As for why he chose to create dragon riders, that I am not certain. There is a whole hidden history there, motivations of a dead man, which none of us may ever know."
"The bigger question," Selka said, "Is why he did he leave? He had already betrayed Rrachma, he was doing something that he knew would get him into trouble, because the Drac don't like the idea of humans flying around on dragons. Yet he did not seem to care about that at first. And then, suddenly, he leaves?"
"Over a woman," Mourne interjected.
"What?" Iorneste and Selka said it together.
"So Oren told me," Mourne said.
"How did I never know about that?" Selka asked, mouth agape. "I knew him almost my entire life! I did not know that Sorens had any romantic...well...I did not think he was romantic."
Mourne fell silent, looking at his hands. "Whoever she was, she left, and Oren said that Sorens was quite despondent. But I have my own theories about what happened. I believe that once the dragon riders appeared, the matriarchs had their suspicions, and sent someone to investigate. There she finds a puzzle box of Drac origin, and her suspicions are confirmed. For whatever reason, she could not open the box herself, and did not try to take it, but tried to seduce Sorens to open it for her. We know that he did not, but the circumstances as to why might forever remain a mystery."
Iorneste nodded. "Perhaps that is a mystery, but I think we know who the woman was. Someone who could charm anyone, within a matter of minutes."
Mourne sighed, "Sheldrache. That's who I think it was, too. She has been far too involved with this for it to be a mere coincidence. Besides, the matriarchs trust her ability to move about within the Many Kingdoms, due to her prior experience. She was a model First Exile."
He fell silent, and after a long sigh in the waiting silence, continued. "I know what that is like, to have her so close, and then to have her leave. Suddenly. The void that remains. The sadness. Perhaps she promised him that she would return, I am sure she had not given up. But also, with her gone, without her confounding influence, Sorens could begin to think clearly. He must have realized that he was trapped. He must have realized that she was after the box, and what was inside of it. If he was kiin, he probably knew what she was. He knew that the Drac would return for him. He was supposed to return it to Rrachma, but he had not done so. He would have no help from him. Sheldrache wanted it, and if she told the matriarchs about it, they would move the heavens themselves to get it out of his hands, and into their own."
Selka's eyes were filling with tears. "I have wronged him, all these years."
"You could not have known," Iorneste said. "And if he had left the box with you, your troubles would be even worse. If he had told you where he was going, he risked endangering you, and all of the Dragon Corps. To whom, I am certain, he had grown very close. So long as he was no longer involved, so long as the signet was not in your possession, he could hope that you would be left alone. That perhaps you would find a way to work with the dragons, as I taught you."
"Except that did not happen," Selka said. "When he left, the dragons were never the same. And the Viceroy got involved, and decided to ensure, by any means necessary, that the greatest asset of the Esturian military remained an asset."
Iorneste nodded. "Which is when Strahnd and his ilk arrived, and where everything disintegrated. Meanwhile, Sorens fled, trying to escape, but could not risk settling anywhere. If he had, there was always the chance he would be noticed, discovered. So he took to the sea, a place where he never needed to have a home, and could remain hidden, and did so, for many years."
"The rest, I believe, is easy enough to deduce," Mourne said. "When you set Kulvas free, you also were foolish enough to tell the Drac what happened—"
"Out of loyalty!" Iorneste protested. "I thought they deserved to know that humans were riding dragons. I was...I will admit, rather outraged."
"And who should happen to discover Kulvas, of all the dragons in Kaer Drac, but your sister?"
He groaned. "And she finds my message, a message to my people, letting them know I had captured the dragon rider. That Sandridge had burned."
"Sandridge, on their very doorstep," Mourne said. "The vellarian wood burned. A dragon rider, a tie to Sorens. Sorens is gone, yet humans are still able to ride dragons? Curious enough to pique your sister's interest. She goes to find you, and discovers the Maiden's Fancy. She begins her masquerade as Shelle Ru, and there she discovers something that must have shocked her to her very core."
"That it was Sorens' ship," Iorneste finished. "As she told you when she met you in the Ghostwood. That he was dead, but she discovered that the box had been taken."
"Taken by me," Selka added. "And returned to Earlemont."
"At which point she had a greater priority than merely punishing you, Selka," Mourne said. "The box she had thought lost, now almost in her grasp."
"Except," Iorneste said, smile wide, "I led her on quite the merry chase. I had already opened the box on the Maiden's Fancy. While the ship's crew moved above decks in the day, I had already stolen into the captain's quarters. It was easy enough to find the box, it radiated magic, and I recognized it right away. I opened it, and before I closed it, I replaced the signet with a common ring I found in the room that had once belonged to Sorens."
"Ahhh," Gharel purred. "It was thissss ring I returned to you in Mir'ssss Edge?"
Iorneste inclined his head in the mereling's direction, granting it. "Indeed, my furry friend. Part of the plan. I needed the box to be completely empty. It was also a test."
"For you. If you returned to me the ring from inside the box, as I asked you to do as part of Phase Two of our plan, I knew that I could trust you. By all accounts it was a ring of great power, you had every reason to believe so, and it was certainly valuable in its own right. But instead of running away with your treasure, you came to me, and delivered it without fail, just as I requested. I could then assume you had also delivered the box, according to my instructions. I knew then, I truly knew, that you were both a true professional, and a trustworthy friend."
"Had I known the ring wasssss worthlessss, I would not have run quite ssssso quickly," the mereling said, arms folded.
"It is not really worthless, in fact," he said, reaching into his pocket and sliding it across the table to the mereling. "You may keep it now. It has served its purpose."
The ring disappeared in seconds into the mereling's paws, and he bared his teeth in a carnivorous smile. "Sssso ssssneaky, dragon," he said, voice trilling with admiration. "We are ssssspiritsss of a kind."
"I like to think so," Iorneste said. "We could not have done this without you."
Selka grinned. "So he was part of a plan to get her captured?"
"I did not know if she would be captured," Iorneste said, and felt a writhing sense of guilt. "And to some extent I am responsible for the death of the Viceroy and so many others. In the same way I tested Gharel, I also tested her. Our little thief planted the box in her room after she had left the castle. Then, shortly after, he delivered an anonymous note to the captain of the guard, saying that he had witnessed a noblewoman fitting Sheldrache's description carrying the box back to her quarters."
"Aha," Selka said. "How long had you planned this?"
"Since Mourne, Gharel, and I split up on the road. Me to head to Mir's Edge, the two of them to play their parts here in Earlemont. I had thought that Gharel would be the one to steal the box, but it was in fact Mourne who did that. The rest, however, went very much according to plan."
"Hmm," she said. "I don't understand how you knew she'd leave the castle."
Mourne chuckled. "Because it seems that Gharel's instructions were to keep the box hidden until she had left the city. The box was gone, that was all I knew, once I handed it to Gharel. I did not know what would happen to it after that. Iorneste made certain that we did not both know all the details of the plan, so that she could not pry them out of us. For all I knew, the box had been brought to Iorneste, or buried under a rock somewhere."
Iorneste nodded. "When she found Mourne, which was part of the plan, all he could tell her was that the box was gone, and send her after me. If things did not go according to plan, I assumed she would seek me out."
Selka nodded, "She sure did, and tossed you around like a sack of wool. Only for you to inform her that the box was, in fact, back at her quarters in Earlemont."
"I can only imagine," Mourne said, laughing, "How angry she must have been!"
"Furious," Iorneste admitted. "But too eager to return to punish me overlong. Which was probably a good thing."
"Considering she dropped a house on me," Mourne grumbled.
"Sorry, my friend."
Selka nodded. "But they found the box before she returned."
"Found it, but this was where the timing was important, because they had not yet opened it."
Gharel hissed. "Waited there in the cassstle for dayssss, I did!"
He nodded, "Yes, Gharel, but you are getting ahead of the story. Once she was captured, there was a window of time, a window in which the room she had ransacked would need to be remade. Only an expert thief could have snuck into a room, in the middle of the castle, while maids were moving about setting it back in order, and planted another note, a scrap of paper, upon which was written the combination. Making it appear as though she knew the combination, and had opened it, further damning her when they found it empty."
Gharel leaned back at the table with his furred hands behind his head, animal mouth baring a vulpine smile.
Mourne shook his head. "That was some plan, Iorneste."
"I trusted both of you to execute it to perfection, and you did. It would not have worked otherwise."
Selka's brow was furrowed, puzzling it out. "If she had found the combination while searching her room, she might have taken it. I understand that. The Viceroy might never have realized the box was empty, nor been able to open it. But why was that subterfuge necessary?"
"In retrospect," Iorneste said, "It probably was not. But I had already set the plan in motion, and wanted to account for some variables. Sheldrache was acting erratic, and violent. She had already tossed Mourne about—"
"Twice," Mourne muttered.
"Only once at that time," Iorneste reminded him. "But I knew she would be angry if she arrived and discovered the box missing. Her rage when she discovered it had been opened..."
"Which," Selka said, eyes narrowed, "Was considerable."
He sighed, and threw up his hands. "I am still new at the machinations of my kind, I am afraid. I thought if there was a lull between the time she discovered that the box was missing from her room, and between the time when she discovered the box was empty, she would have time to calm down. That she would realize, if the combination had been written on paper, and found in her room..."
Mourne finished for him, "That a Drac had already opened it. That you knew how to open it, and considering the difficulty it took you to puzzle out the solution in the first place, that you must have been able to open the box for some time. Though even when I first mentioned the box to you, you gave me every indication that because you were Drac, you could open the box easily."
"Shades of the truth, friend Mourne, I am sorry," he said. "But Sheldrache should have known better. I gave her too much credit. She was too angry to think properly, too greedy for the box to give it due consideration. I assumed she would think about it like I would. That once she arrived and found the box missing, she would be calm enough to accept imprisonment, until she could discern the location of the box. Then, once it was revealed that the box was empty, and that the combination to the box had been found scrawled on a piece of parchment found in her room, that clearly I had known the combination all along."
"Clear to you, maybe," Selka said. "Convoluted to me."
"Like I said," Iorneste insisted, "She was Drac, of my brood. The Obsidian brood is renowned for its subtlety and skills of intrigue. I assumed she would realize that I had it. That she would realize she was beaten, that it was mine now by hoard rights, and that she might as well extricate herself from whatever trouble she was in, and leave quietly."
"But instead," Mourne said, pointing to the window. "She still thought I had it. That I knew where it was, even though you were already here, in my house."
He nodded. "I realize now that not only was she not thinking clearly, she had underestimated me, just as Errezahn the Yeomi had. Because I am young, an exile, and only a male."
Selka was chewing on her lip, and they fell into silence. Iorneste watched her close, feeling her unease, her frustration. "I don't like it," she said at last, looking up at him. "How you toyed with everyone so easily, so offhandedly. Even your friends."
"Not with you," he said, but he could not muster the volume to say it much louder than a whisper.
"At first you did," she said. "But I thank you for keeping me out of matters with Sheldrache, as much as you did. But men are dead because of her. You could have revealed you had the signet at Mir's Edge. To me, to her...so why didn't you?"
"I did not want her to know I had it at all!" he protested. "I did not want anyone to know! You cannot imagine the kind of attention I am going to receive now because of this thing, once the matriarchs find out. But after she behaved the way she did with Mourne in the Ghostwood, I did not think she deserved to have it. I also did not want her to use you, or anyone against me. Again, her rage was considerable when she met me, you saw that. I thought she might demand it, in exchange for someone I cared about. I did not want her to pluck the knowledge that I had it from your mind, any more than I wanted her to do the same to Mourne. I was trying to keep it a secret."
Mourne spoke up, "But you could have dominated her there, as you did with her here, in my house. The outcome would have been the same. She would have left you alone."
He did not have a good answer for that, and looked down at the table. "I did not have you to guide me in all my decisions, Mourne. I thought...well, I guess I thought I was being very clever. That a confrontation with her would not be necessary, once she realized she had been outplayed. I tried very hard to avoid that. I am sorry, to both of you. For those men who died, Selka. At the least, I think she will not reveal that I have the signet to the matriarchs, lest she lose even more face when it is revealed how I outmaneuvered her, how she lost control in the castle. But she might have done so if I had revealed the signet to her at Mir's Edge, before she was so humiliated. Perhaps...I do not know. I am very sorry. However, Mourne, I must point out that you have culpability in this as well."
"Oh? How so?"
"You changed the plan. Gharel was supposed to take the box. He has no connection to us in Sheldrache's mind, so he was the perfect agent to steal it. I gave him a contingency plan, which we then followed to this point, but the box was supposed to remain hidden indefinitely."
"Yesss," Gharel agreed. "You told me to brrring you the rrring, and if then you told me to returrrrn, I wasss to execute Plan B."
"Which involved planting the box in Sheldrache's room. To give her an even greater problem than us to be concerned about."
Mourne sighed. "I am sorry, Iorneste. I did not know the whole plan, but you did not know everything, either. I had to act."
Selka's brows were beetled. "How so?"
"No one, not Rrachma or anyone, anticipated that the entire city would be mobilized to try to open the box, or that they would take so methodical an approach to cracking it. I realized that we did not have much time, and that with so many eyes present, Gharel would be inhibited trying to steal the box. We needed to act quickly, and someone would need to be there, in plain sight to steal the box. They would not have allowed a mereling to enter the palace, so that left only me."
"And my bootssss," hissed Gharel.
"They were my boots first, mereling," Iorneste admonished him.
"But you are right," Mourne sighed. "If Gharel had stolen the box, as was your original plan, she would have had no way of knowing who had taken it. Once she knew I had taken it, she came after me. That was your contingency plan for me. That if she was on to us, she would come looking for me first, and that I should lay low somewhere. I did not know that she would know where you were, either, Iorneste. Though she'd have wormed it out of me eventually, if she wanted."
"Once she revealed that she had tampered with Selka's mind, I knew she was in the capital. Gharel, when you returned to me early, I also realized that things were not going according to plan. So I sent you back, to execute the contingency, or 'Plan B', as you call it."
The furrow was still in her brow, but Selka nodded, slowly. "It is a world I am not used to. I never cared for the intrigue of the court, but the intrigue of the Drac is beyond anything I ever imagined. You did keep her rather occupied running about, during which she could not cause too much mischief. Ultimately, the blame for her actions still falls upon her."
"Indeed," Mourne said, and his voice softened. "It was still a good plan, just not a perfect one. But few plans survive the real world, Iorneste. They rarely ever go just as imagined. That so much of it did is quite the testament to your intelligence. That so much went awry is a testament to your inexperience."
"I am trying," he said. "To gain that experience. So much of this journey did not go as I planned. I did not know I would encounter dragons so soon after leaving Kaer Drac, much less a dragon rider, or an ancient Drac artifact locked in the same puzzle box Rrachma had once placed before me. Or that my sister would come after me. That I would fall so much in love with one of the dragon riders and decide to help them. That Selka would become kiin. There was a great deal of improvisation."
Mourne stood up, moved around behind him, clapping him on the shoulder with surprising firmness, using his whole right hand. "The best plans account for improvisation, and you still did that. But now that we have our answers, my bad leg is tired from walking around on it all day, and considering recent events, I could use a drink. The rest of you can stay as long as you like."
"But you have been drinking," Iorneste protested.
"I know. I'm going to get a drink somewhere else."
"If your leg hurts, I could do some more healing," Iorneste offered.
Mourne paused, exchanging a look with Selka, and then shook his head. "I think tonight, Iorneste, you have better things to do. We'll leave in the morning for our trip to the front, to show those Suran bastards what it looks like to run from a dragon in flight. We can get another healing in before we leave."
Iorneste frowned, adjusting his armor. "I had almost forgotten that was in the morning."
Selka winked at Mourne. "I hadn't. Gharel, why don't you go with him?"
"Gharel isssss comfortable."
Mourne paused, halfway out the door. "Gharel, come have a drink. Besides, there are takir players at the place I'm going, who have no idea how to play, and even less idea of how to hold onto their money."
The mereling flew off the chair, and pulled up his hood. He was out the door without a word to anyone.
"That one does not know how to say goodbye," Mourne said with a grin. "Enjoy your evening, you two. We will not return until the morning."
And then they were alone in Mourne's house, just the two of them. He looked about, seeing Selka and the suddenly empty room. "That was strange," he said.
"Not really," she said, rising to her feet, and pushing the chair under the table.
"What do you want to do?" he asked, feeling a fluttering in his stomach, and uncertain of its origin.
She did not answer him, only grinned at him in a way that made him feel warm all over, as her eyes looked him up and down. Her animus was pulsing, and her scent grew more pronounced as she moved closer.
He rose to his feet, frowning, "I am not certain what happens in such conditions as these," he confessed. "Are we to dance?"
"Mmm," she said, moving closer to him in a slow liquid way. "Something like that."
"So we are not going to dance? What are we going to do?" he said, and had to clear his throat, because it was dry for some reason.
"Do not make me say it, Iorn. I think you know."
His thoughts rattled about in his brain, disorganized, as she moved close to him, resting her palm on his breastplate, eyes staring deep into his own, mouth slightly parted. "I think..." he said. "I think I do not know the steps to this dance."
She reached down and took his hand, and pulled him towards the stairs. His feet followed. "Don't fret, Iorn," she said. "I'll lead."
Sheldrache did not announce herself when she arrived back in Rrachma's lair. She simply swooped in, and landed with enough force to rattle the books in their shelves. She felt disappointed when all it earned from her was the merest flicker of his eyes behind his dragon-sized spectacles.
"That did not take long," Rrachma said to her, animus skirling with amusement.
"You have some explaining to do, Sagragaunte," she said, prowling closer to him where he was reading a rather large and ponderous book, bound in cow's leather.
"To whom? And what needs to be explained?"
She reached out, attempting to meld with him, but he rebuffed it. A low growl in her throat, she moved closer, tail swishing behind her, although still careful to keep it clear of his books. She might have been angry, tired, and frustrated, but she did not want to see what he would do if she injured one of his books.
"The puzzle box," she said, and enjoyed seeing him blink, and lift his head to meet her eyes.
"Ah, that. Sorens was rather disobedient, as you are aware," he said.
"Was he?" she asked. "I had not realized the origin of the puzzle box when I met him the first time. You might have told me that."
"If you recall," he said, yawning so deeply that she could see the second tongue at the back of his throat, "You did not consult with me at all when you went to investigate Lamarke. That was Lorchyra's doing."
"Yes," she said, head snaking down to confront him. "But if you gave him the puzzle box, that means you must have known what he was going to place inside of it."
"Of course I did," he admitted. "Is that what you wanted me to explain?"
"You located a dragon signet, and you told no one?"
"Why should I?" he asked. "I am the one who located it. With great difficulty, I might add."
She growled at him, but he was unperturbed, and looked back down to his book. "Calm yourself in my lair, Sheldrache. You did not tell anyone either, now did you?"
She settled back onto her haunches, tail curling around her body. "No."
"And why not?"
"Because I wanted it for myself."
"Of course you did."
"But now Iorneste has it."
Rrachma grinned toothily. "So he does."
"You do not seem concerned by that."
"At least it is finally in Drac hands."
"Strange, though, that you would place it in a box that only he knew how to open."
"Coincidence," he said, with a sniff.
It was her turn to grin. "I do not think so, you clever wyrm."
"Think as you will. I used Iorneste to test the strength of the cipher. His intellect is considerable, as is his memory. I also gave Sorens the cipher, as you must know. Yet despite all your wiles, he did not open it for you, did he?"
She growled, a deep rumble. "I would have, if he had given me more time. But then the King discovered I was not the noblewoman I had claimed to be, and demanded that I leave. I simply hid out within the city itself, waiting for my opportunity to meet him again when he left Earlemont."
"You did not attempt to coerce the King into letting you stay?"
"I did!" she cried, tail slapping the floor. "But his mind is loyal first to the country, not to himself. There was no crack in his armor, no desire for himself, no self-interest I could exploit. He is a very rare creature, among humans."
"He is also of the lineage of the old kings, the ones who resisted us in the first place. By all accounts, a good and wise king. Strange that you should have been so bold to return to Castle Earle as you did, in the guise of a noblewoman, so similar to the story you had given only ten years ago."
She scrambled to her feet. "How did you know that? Have you been—"
"Scrying?" he asked, and he pointed to the crystal orb nearby, smoke swirling in its glowing depths. His eyes still did not leave the page of the book he was reading. "Of course. It has been quite amusing to enjoy Iorneste's adventures. And your own maneuverings as well."
She fell silent at that. It made sense that he would be curious about the exploits of the haergaunte he had fostered on his First Exile. "Then you saw everything?"
"Well," he said, "Not everything. The scrying crystal is quite tiring at long stretches. But I believe I saw enough. Though although I can see events unfold, I can only deduce thoughts and motives. For instance, your attempt to assassinate that very King who had foiled you years before: Was that revenge? Or strategy?"
She rumbled in her chest, bringing her head down to rest upon her claws, feeling weariness in her bones. She had not rested since long before leaving Kaer Drac, and she had been postponing her slumber even then. "I did desire some revenge, it is true," she said. "Once I left, Sorens stole away in the dead of night, under my nose. It was some time before I realized he was gone, and by then he had covered his tracks well, and escaped me. Had the King not gotten in the way, I would have had the box. But in truth, it was simply so that I could move about the court freely. He may have recognized me, and my animus is of no use against him, it would seem."
"Your first mistake of many this time, Sheldrache," he said. "You would send an entire Kingdom into upheaval to achieve your own ends. Such interference is hardly condoned. We are not supposed to make such waves, and you made a tsunami."
"I did not kill him."
"How much of that was your doing?"
"And what about Iorneste?"
"What about him?"
"He is helping them to ride the drakes."
"An action humanity had already undertaken. He did not set them on that path. If he had, you might have a point."
"Which would not have been undertaken without your own kiin, Sorens, setting them on that path. How did you escape censure for the actions of your kiin?"
"Kiin are still human. The doctrine of non-interference does not apply to them. But the matriarchs grew curious, and Lorchyra sent you to deal with it."
"Yet you do not care that Iorneste is helping them to ride our kind like horses?"
The old male drac gave her a long, level look over the top of his spectacles. "Iorneste is an exile. He is granted certain considerations, as if he were human. It is you, post-exile, who should rethink your approach. You know the rules, you swore to uphold them. He has little to worry about, and he has given them back their dignity. Do you think the matriarchs really care about some humans riding around on the backs of drakes? Do you not realize that any one of us could reclaim the drakes, send them back to Kaer Drac if we wanted? They are as curious to see what happens next as any of us. It is, in my opinion at least, the most promising development in our relations with them since we retired to the kaers. If it becomes a problem, it will be dealt with. For the time being, Iorneste has every right to his actions. As for you, what was your excuse for attempting to commit regicide, and violate our doctrine of non-interference in human affairs?"
"I thought..." and though she had the words, she did not want to speak them aloud.
"You thought," Rrachma said, "That once you had the signet, all would be forgiven. No one would stand against you. That whatever excesses you were guilty of, you would dominate any who questioned you, myself included, with the newfound power of the signet."
She did not answer, though it was true enough.
"All the while, you were not aware that Iorneste had already taken the signet."
"Which is why," she said, "I know you intended for him to have it all along."
The old wyrm's chuckle rumbled in his chest, echoing in the vast cavern. "You give me too much credit, Sheldrache. Iorneste turned into an excellent contingency, but I did not expect Sorens to delay as he did."
"He did more than delay."
"He was as immortal as you or I. I told him to return it. I did not specifically forbid him dallying along the way. He should have known I did not intend him to use the signet, however, and that was his betrayal."
"So dragon riders in Greatre Esturia was not part of your plan?"
"Why would it be?" he asked. "What would I have to gain from such?"
"I do not know," she mused. "I do not even know what he gained from it."
"A sense of purpose," Rrachma answered her. "In our conversations in the past, Sorens had long yearned to return to the world. To be of some kind of use. He said that all we do here is talk, and ponder, and watch the world go by. I thought that giving him an assignment in the Many Kingdoms would calm his prattling, assuage his need for adventure. I knew him to be a good-hearted sort, and that he missed his old homeland."
"It was just Esturia then, not Greatre Esturia."
"All the same to him. When the two nations split into Greatre and Lessre, he begged me to allow him to return. He wanted to unify them. I would not allow it, and for that decision I heard about it from him for a century. I grew weary of it. Perhaps that was his goal, to reunify the nations. Perhaps to strengthen Greatre Esturia so that it would not fall to some other Kingdom. We will never be able to ask him such questions now, alas."
"Thanks to that human bitch," she growled.
"Selka Euphrane? I find her to be rather delightful, and she is kiin now, so perhaps I will get to meet her some day."
"You would," she grumbled. "Opining often about your desire for equality between male and female Drac."
"Not so often anymore," he countered, "As I have realized how little that opinion holds weight."
"Aha," she said. "And so I see your plan all along. How better to elevate a male drac's standing, but with a dragon signet? With the signet, a male drac would be greater than many of the females. Were it in your possession, you might have rivaled Lorchyra herself."
"Again," he said, flipping the page and keeping his eyes riveted to the text there, "You do me too much credit. My plan was simply to keep the signet safe, hidden, away from those who would want to use it to exploit their position, and toss Kaer Drac into upheaval."
"Unless it was a male drac, who could overturn the domination of the female drac that you had long argued against?"
"Even if that were true, Sheldrache, do you think I would admit to such? Do you think to get me to admit to that kind of heresy as leverage of your own?"
"You do not need to admit to anything. It is plain enough."
"So you say," he said, snorting. "I will not budge a firmly-held presupposition such as yours, I see. You are too enamored with your theory to see reason."
"And what am I not seeing, Sagragaunte?"
"That not everyone who possesses power wants to use it to dominate others."
"You are telling me that if you had received the dragon signet, you would not use it to dominate others?"
"That," he said, and he glanced up again from his book, "Is exactly what I am saying."
"Then what would you have done with it? Kept it in that box? I do not believe that."
"Some who possess power merely hold it in readiness. Others hold it simply because it would be too dangerous to let someone else hold it."
"And which are you?"
"I am both, dear Sheldrache. I am both."
"And you do not think that allowing a haergaunte to hold it is dangerous?"
"Not in Iorneste's case, no."
"Your judgment is clouded. I will admit that he is impressive...for a male of his age. But you were wrong about Sorens as well."
"I did not raise Sorens from a hatchling, nor can a Drac meld with a human the way that he can with another Drac. I know Iorneste very well, Sheldrache, and that is credit that you should be giving me."
"I suppose," she said, yawning. "Very well then, keep your secrets."
"I have no secrets," he said, looking back down to the book.
"Then meld with me, and prove it."
"Another time," he said. "It is difficult enough to carry on a conversation and read at the same time. Impossible with a meld."
"Then stop reading."
"No," he said. "This is important."
"A book can always wait."
"But the knowledge inside of it cannot. This book is about the Yeomi, and I have only recently obtained it."
"Why are you reading about the Yeomi?"
"Because," he said, "Clearly they have returned. Iorneste encountered one."
"And killed it, if his words are to be believed."
"He did, and I do believe it, because I watched him do it."
She was silent at this, feeling rage at the mere mention of the betrayers.
"There is so much more going on now than Iorneste, his exile, or the dragon signet, Sheldrache. I would suggest you get some rest. He will need you soon enough."
"And how," she said, rising to her feet, "Would you know that?"
"For one, because he has called you to return to him in a year's time."
She felt shame, and bowed her head at the loss of face in his eyes. "You saw that."
"And second, because if the Yeomi have returned, we must all be ready. And you have delayed your rest long enough. Enjoy it now, while you can."
She flapped her wings. "So be it," she said. "But we are not done with this conversation."
"We are for now. Rest well, Sheldrache."
"You as well, Rrachma."
"I will be too busy to sleep, I am afraid. And unlike you, I have a few more years before my rest becomes a pressing matter."
"One last question, before I go," she said, wings flapping harder and beginning to pull on the aethir to bring her into the air.
"How did you discover the location of the dragon signet?"
"Ah," Rrachma said, and she could feel the amusement returning to his animus. "A little bat told me."
by Zaina a.k.a. "Queen Z"
© 2015 Zaina
This ends Iorneste: A Dragon Story. It has been a wonderful journey, but now the first draft is complete.
Now a new journey begins: one of revision. To fix the problems with the story, correct the language, and cut and trim it into a better and more finished work. When it's finished, there will be a book! Stay tuned for more info on that.
If you want to stay up to date, so I can announce when the book is ready (or about other details) I recommend you head on over to the subscribe page so I can send you an email to notify you when the book is ready. These things take time, so expect a few months, at least, before that's all ready to go.
For those of you who have followed my journey over the months, who have stayed all the way to the finish, or to those who just started reading a short time ago and just had to go all the way to the end to see what happened next, I am honored and humbled. However you got here, this has been one of the most wonderful and fulfilling experiences of my life, and it has been equally wonderful to share it with you. A story means nothing without readers to enjoy it, and I hope that you have, however rough and unfinished it may have been.
At this time, I have one final message for you.
Iorneste and Rrachma, Courtesy of Angel-soma