Valaista hitched up the hem of the long-sleeved, emerald-coloured gown that she had borrowed from Amorda’s wardrobe and dropped to one knee. She was feeling overheated and tired, and had sought out the vast pool in the visitors’ wing.
She splashed a handful of water on her face. This time of night, the water was heated. Cayless had tried to explain the intricate workings of the House’s califer to her a few days back, but the dragon-girl had lost track of the elf-woman’s technical maunderings. Fine for her, she grumped. Cayless needed to know about valves and pipes and fireboxes and such-like; she had to keep the House running. Valaista had no interest in such things. Her father had tasked her to learn the Art Magic from Thanos; but the human had been spending the past several days closeted at the college, along with that kulta, Mahanirion. The one that disguised himself as an elf-woman, and went by the name of ‘Ara Latentra’.
Valaista was brilliant and insightful. But she had two problems of which she wasn’t mature enough to be aware. First, the iron dragons had an ages-old dislike for golds. The most powerful of the true wyrms, the golds always stood first. They led all leagues; they won all arguments. They emerged triumphant from every fight. Luck seemed to follow them everywhere. Everyone seemed to forget that it had been an iron dragon – Luja Varten, whose name in mortal tongues meant ‘Steadfast Purpose’ – who, in the depths of time, before even the Kindred were birthed, had led the rebellion against the overlordship of Achamkris, uniting all of the metallic dragons, and most of his ferrous brethren, in their shared campaign to escape from Bardan’s dread rule.
The result was a long-standing, deep-seated grudge. Less charitable scholars had dubbed it an ‘inferiority complex’; but to Valaista’s months-old mind, it was nothing more complicated than jealousy. The golds were the favoured; the golds were the heroes. The golds got everything they wanted. It was as simple as that. She wasn’t old enough to appreciate the deep, philosophical roots of the ancient gold-iron dispute – the fact that the golds considered the irons to be indecisive fence-sitters, too ready to discard principle in order to preserve order. The irons, for their part, respected the golds for their power and their unerringly honourable comportment, but feared their single-minded dedication to right conduct. The golds, in the irons’ estimation, were too powerful; and because they inevitably sided with what they perceived to be right and justice, because they were swayed too easily by concern for the oppressed or compassion for the downtrodden, they were – according to the irons – far too likely to use that immense power in ways that threatened to upset the fundamental order of the Universe.
Valaista had a wyrmling’s grasp of the dispute. She knew that too much heat was as bad as too much cold; that gluttony was as much a threat to health as starvation; that excess of wealth caused as much misery as widespread poverty; that cowardice was as dangerous as bravado. Moderation in all things; calculation, consideration, judgement. Only then, resolute action. That was right conduct, and it was instinctive in the irons.
Her second problem, of course, was jealousy.
“Domina? Lady, are you well?”
Valaista looked up. Two of the younger gentlemen attending the party had approached surreptitiously, and were standing, as (she was learning) elven propriety demanded: not less than two sword-lengths back. Both were well-dressed, immaculate and exceptionally good-looking. To her surprise, both were speaking the traveling tongue. Evidently someone had warned them about her difficulties with elvii.
She stood, flicking the droplets of water from her face with her fingertips. “I’m fine,” she said absently. Then, remembering Thanos’ stern disapproval and her manners, she added, “Thank you.”
Both men looked relieved. Valaista, who was learning to read elven faces, revised her earlier estimate; they were, in fact, no more than boys. If they had already come of age, it was only recently.
The taller of the two – she noticed the difference almost immediately, although it was so slight that it might have been no more than a trick of posture – smiled hesitantly. “Excellent,” he said. He looked nervous; he still held one of the embroidered napkins from the dinner table, and appeared to be twisting it into a cord between his fingers. “We…uh…”
“We were wondering,” the ‘shorter’ of the boys said, with a little more confidence, “whether you might settle a dispute for us.”
Valaista shrugged. “I will do what I can,” she replied.
The two glanced at each other. Clearly neither was willing to take the first step.
The dragon-girl regarded each in turn, her curiosity aroused. “It would help,” she said reasonably, “if you were to tell me what it is.” She remembered something else. “My name, by the way, is Valaista.”
“Oh, we know!” the taller lad blurted out, flushing. “I mean, ‘Enchanted, lady.’” He bowed gracefully. “Kandan Toll, cadet of House Drývanteum.”
Valaista nodded. She glanced at the shorter boy.
“Pyril Varres,” he said weakly, “of House Solostyriannis. Distantly.”
He bowed as well. It was clearly something that both lads did a great deal. Unlike talking to girls, she realized suddenly, struggling not to smile.
“A pleasure, gentlemen,” she said crisply, as Thanos had taught her. Ekhani pleasantries were nowhere near as florid as those customarily employed by the elves, but they did have the virtue of speeding up conversation. “What brings you to Domus Casia?”
“We’re pages to the Starhall. We’re attending Lady Ara,” Pyril replied. “She’s here to bring a message to the Baroness and her husband.”
Valaista frowned. “I thought swordsmen accompanied the Ancillulae.”
“They do,” the taller lad explained. “But Lady Ara’s a scholar. She likes having good writers around.”
“And we are,” the shorter added. “Good writers, I mean.” He looked flustered. The taller boy rolled his eyes.
“I see.” Valaista couldn’t help but smile. Though both were probably decades her elder, they made her feel like an older sister. “And what, pray, is the nature of your dispute?”
The two fellows glanced momentarily at each other again. The shorter – Pyril, she reminded herself – waggled his eyebrows. Kandan, the taller, nervous one, shook his head minutely. Valaista frowned, wondering what they were on about.
Finally, Pyril sighed. Turning back to Valaista, he adopted a studious pose, his hands clenched behind his back. “We were wondering,” he said airily, “whether, if you were to take one of us as lusor, you would prefer my colleague” – he nodded at Kandan –“or myself.”
The dragon-girl blinked, puzzled. “I’m sorry. ‘Lusor’?” Thanos hadn’t taught her that word.
Pyril looked equally baffled. “You…er…don’t know what ‘lusor’ means?”
“I’m afraid not.”
He glanced at Kandan, who was flushing like a summer sunset. The taller lad held out his hands, shrugging.
Pyril took a deep breath. “It means ‘playmate’.”
Valaista stared at him, her face blank.
“For…er…you know…” he stammered, “um…love play.”
The dragon-girl’s eyes widened. “I’m afraid I am under age,” she said weakly.
Kandan cocked his head, manifestly puzzled. “So are we,” he observed. “Though, like you, not by much. And anyway, that’s what ‘lusus’ means, lady. Play. Just that. Certainly not…ah…everything.” He looked as though he were about to gesture with his hands, then changed his mind, and locked them behind his back like his comrade.
Perplexed by the sudden turn the conversation had taken, Valaista fell back on the only escape route she knew. “My guardian will want to speak with you,” she said swiftly.
Pyril’s eyebrows drew together. “For a simple lusus?” he asked. “Really? He’s that protective? Does he allow you no latitude at all?”
Feigning sadness, the dragon-girl nodded. “I’m afraid not. He’s human, you see,” she added, hoping that that would help to explain her refusal.
The shorter of the lads looked surprised. Then he shrugged. “Very well. Where is he?”
Valaista blinked. She had no idea where Thanos had gone. Probably off somewhere with that damned kulta! she raged inwardly. Apparently she was on her own. With two randy young men. She wished she had listened more carefully to Karrick’s repertoire of curse words.
The two randy young men in question were waiting for her expectantly. Her mind a-boil, she went through her options. She obviously didn’t know enough about high elven customs to be able to talk her way out of this; and Thanos’ instruction had, thus far, centred on the arcane and military aspects of Ekhani lore, rather than the gentler arts, if indeed the men of the Empire knew or practiced any. They probably mate with their armour on, she thought, panicked.
That left only one source of inspiration. Pasting a pleasant smile on her face, Valaista nodded regally. “The dilemma you pose, gentlemen,” she said gently, “is impossible to resolve. I cannot choose between you.”
Pyril and Kandan glanced at each other, eyebrows drawing together in comedic concert.
“I must, therefore,” Valaista said, doing her best to mimic Cayless’s seductive, breathy tones, “take you both.”
Both lads froze solid. “Both?” Kandan squeaked, his voice rising an octave.
“Together?” Pyril said.
“At the same time?” Kandan added.
“Of course,” Valaista nodded. “Is this acceptable to you?”
“Yes!” Kandan exclaimed.
“Hells, yes!” Pyril echoed.
“Excellent.” She held out her hands.
“What...now?” Kandan squeaked.
She fixed him with her gaze, wishing that she had an elder’s power to terrify the weak-minded by her presence alone. Instead she fluttered her eyelashes, as she had seen Amorda do on more than one occasion. “I am simply perishing with anticipation,” she breathed.
Stunned by their good fortune, they each took a hand. Valaista pulled them, unresisting, up the stairs at poolside, towards the sleeping chamber that she had occupied since the party’s arrival Starmeadow. As she passed through the beaded curtain, she tossed what she hoped was a seductive glance over her shoulder. It wasn’t necessary; both boys were hopelessly smitten, and followed after her like a pair of puppies.
She let the curtain fall back into place and turned to face her guests. “Disrobe, please.”
They did. Valaista blinked in surprise; she had never seen any two-legged creature doff its garments so quickly. She gave her guests a frank once-over, and couldn’t help making a mental comparison to the only other Kindred males she had ever seen in the altogether. Next to Thanos, Joraz, Breygon and especially Karrick, the two elf-lads looked undernourished, pale and sickly. She was suddenly vastly conscious of the fact that she was half a head taller than either boy, and almost certainly outweighed them both. There was hardly enough meat on either of them to make a decent meal. That thought made her grin.
The two lads grinned idiotically in reply.
Clearing her throat to conceal her amusement, she murmured, “Perhaps you would help me with my gown.” She unfastened the clasps at her shoulders, winking as she did so. “I borrowed it from the lady of the house, and what is about to take place would probably damage it beyond repair,” she added by way of explanation.
Pyril and Kandan exchanged another gleeful grin. Fumbling in pathetic eagerness, they helped peel the costly emerald dress off their hostess. Unabashedly bare, Valaista took it from their trembling hands, folded it carefully, and laid it across the top of a chest.
Turning back to the two lads, she smiled even more widely, held out her arms, and said, “Ready?”
The two boys nodded eagerly.
Seconds later, twin screams split the night. The beaded curtain burst asunder, scattering bits of bone, silver and porcelain across the floor. Two naked elf-lads, white-faced and gibbering in abject terror, bolted from the chamber, colliding – respectively – with a marble column and a glowing brazier. Hot coals scattered across the pristine flagstones, sizzling as they tumbled into the pool. Pyril yelled as he trod on one. The pair recovered their footing with the grace of dancers and bolted out the front entrance of Domus Casia, streaking past the trio of wide-eyed Cæleques lancers who stood at the door.
As they ran, Kandan gasped, “Did you see that?”
“No!” Pyril shouted, “and neither did you, so shut up!”
Before the lancers could so much as lay hand to hilt, the two lads had vanished into the snow-dappled expanse of the Via Alnus.
Cayless, who had been laying a woven wreath of holly and wheat at the shrine to Hara Sophus that stood at the head of the visitors’ wing, started in surprise at the sudden shrieks. As the two bare-arsed boys bolted out into the frigid night, she ran for Valaista’s chamber, tip-toeing carefully to avoid slipping on the bouncing, rolling beads from the sundered curtain.
At the doorway, she had to swallow a shriek of her own. Perched on the stragulum, its maw stretched in a fiendish rictus of immense satisfaction, was a dragon. Its hide was dull, greyish black; its fangs and talons and curling, demonic horns the shade of quicksilver; and its eyes a whirling, piercing scarlet, the colour of flowstone. The beast was approximately the size of a small horse.
Cayless grasped the door-frame for support. “V…V…Valaista?”
“Of course,” the vast lizard hissed, working its hindquarters more comfortably into the mattress.
The elf-woman took a deep breath. “Are you all right?”
“Very much so.” She grinned again, showing her fangs. “You saw my visitors taking their leave?”
“I did.” Cayless glanced toward the front of the house, then down at the twin piles of masculine clothing scattered on the floor. “In fact, I saw good deal more of them than I ever expected to. What happened?”
“The losers propositioned me,” the dragon explained, sounding offended. “For something they called ‘love-play’.”
“Ah, of course,” Cayless nodded. She grinned suddenly. “And you declined?”
“Not too emphatically. Neither of them was on fire.”
“No, and I didn’t eat them, either,” the dragon sighed. “Thanos is teaching me restraint.”
“Good for him,” the elf-woman said. Then she grinned. “You know, if you didn’t want them, you might’ve sent them my way.”
“They told me that they had not yet...what is your phrase? ‘Passed without the walls’?”
“That’s it.” Cayless laughed aloud. “And perfect! Best to catch’em when they can still be taught.”
“You would have…er…dallied with them nonetheless?”
“It’s an elder’s duty to instruct the young, isn’t it?” the elf-woman replied in perfect seriousness. "They both looked old enough for a few lessons."
The dragon’s eyes stopped whirling. She nodded, abashed. “My apologies. That did not occur to me,” Valaista confessed. “In the future, I will send all of my would-be suitors your way.”
“Just the two-legged ones,” Cayless specified quickly.
“As you say.” The dragon stretched her neck until the vertebrae cracked. “I am finding your customs somewhat complicated. Especially your casual approach to mating. Your kind seem willing to engage with anyone, anywhere, whenever you happen to have a free moment, and are mutually so inclined.”
“Anywhere, anytime, I’ll stipulate,” Cayless snorted. “But not ‘anyone’. I do my best to stick to bipeds. I have some standards.”
Valaista blinked several times, the nictitating membranes clicking as they opened and closed. Thin tendrils of smoke leaked from her nostrils.
“Joking!” the elf-woman exclaimed, blushing furiously. “I was joking! Deus sylvae! Don’t you know a jest when you hear one?”
“It was not clear to me that you were jesting,” the dragon said seriously. “Do mean that you do not, in fact, restrict your choice of mates to bipeds?”
“Thanos also needs to teach you sarcasm,” Cayless said crossly. “By the way, what you called those lads? It’s pronounced ‘lusor’, not ‘loser’.”
The dragon snorted, and Cayless jumped as a burst of flame and sparks jetted from her nostrils. “I do not believe I misspoke,” Valaista said tartly.
The elf-woman chuckled. “Okay, maybe you understand jests after all.” Greatly daring, she touched the dragon’s scaled jowl. “Thank you, by the way. For not roasting those two ‘losers’ in my mistress’s house.”
“You are welcome,” the dragon nodded. “Although I confess the temptation was overwhelming. I am getting a little tired of everyone I meet trying to couple with me.”
“The price of beauty, dear,” Cayless clucked. “You should’ve picked a younger-looking elven form. Or a wartier one.”
“Indeed,” Valaista sighed.
The elf-woman shook her head sadly. “Still...you ought to try new things. You might’ve enjoyed yourself with those lads, you know.”
“Doubtful,” Valaista sniffed. “I am insufficiently experienced to opine with authority on the reproductive capacity of your kind, but they appeared to be still some years from achieving their full growth.”
Cayless collapsed to the mattress in an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter. The dragon decided to wait politely until the elf-woman’s fit had passed.
When Cayless had at last regained her equilibrium and sat up, Valaista asked, “You are recovered?”
“I am.” The elf-woman wiped tears from her face. “And I swear, I’ll never, ever impugn your sense of humour again.”
“I was not jesting!” Valaista protested, baffled.
“I know, dear,” the elf-woman chuckled weakly. “I know. Look, you’ve had a busy evening. Is there anything I can do for you in return for not barbecuing milady’s guests?”
Valaista cocked her head. “Perhaps there is. My kind do not do well in the cold. It is distressing my hide. Do you have any oil to hand?”
A few moments later, Cayless, a large bronze vessel in one hand, found herself bending over Valaista’s dorsal ridge, vigorously rubbing half-pints of olive oil into the dragon’s coarse, pebbled carapace. “How’s that?” she grunted.
“I’d need a cudgel to do this any harder,” Cayless muttered.
“I would be happy to wait,” Valaista said plaintively, “while you fetch one.”
Cayless ground her teeth, rubbing harder, feeling the dragon’s scales scoring her palms, and breathing heavily with the exertion. “You know,” she said between strokes, “this would…be a lot more fun…if you were wearing…your other shape!”
Valaista twisted her neck around to look the elf-woman in the eyes.
Cayless grinned hopefully.
The dragon sighed, shaking her head in disbelief. “Only bipeds, you said?”
“As a rule,” the elf-woman replied with a seductive wink. “What do you say?”
Valaista didn’t say anything. Instead, she rose to her clawed feet, dumping Cayless to the mattress with an oil-drenched squeal. Talons clattering on the marble, she thudded out of her room, down the stairs, and into the pool, where she squinted, clenched her jaw, summoned all of her considerable powers of concentration...
...and turned herself into an octopus.
After Joraz left the table, Thanos had done his level best to participate in the conversation. It was hopeless. Amorda and Myaszæron seemed to be engaged in a contest, each attempting to outdo the other in effusions of risqué innuendo. It was amusing to watch Breygon, seated between the two women, struggling not to scowl in irritation at the chattering banter; but he rapidly became bored even of that.
When he turned away from the host and hostess to look for Valaista, and discovered that the girl had disappeared, he was momentarily concerned, before recalling that she was somewhat better equipped to take care of herself than the average elven lass. Even Cayless was gone, doubtless on some errand for her mistress.
The warcaster glanced around. Nobody seemed to be paying him the slightest attention. Smiling to himself, he slipped the book he had been reading out from under the table, opened it to the marked page, and dove back into the complex draconic text with a will.
He didn’t come back to himself until someone tapped him on the shoulder. Starting up, he first noticed that the candles were a handspan shorter, and that Breygon, Amorda and the princess were standing and chatting with a number of the lady’s domestic staff. Thanos was the only one still sitting.
Twisting around, he found himself staring into Ara Latentra’s golden eyes. There was a tiny grin on her lips. “A man after my own heart,” she murmured. “I, too, would rather read than eat.”
Thanos nodded acknowledgement of her point. “Food is transitory,” he replied, taken aback, as always, by her poise and beauty. “Knowledge is forever.”
“Well said,” she replied. She slipped into the chair next to his. “Do you have a moment?”
She frowned as she asked this, and Thanos’s hackles rose immediately. “Certainly,” he replied, all business. “I wasn’t aware that you were…that you had been invited.”
“I was not,” the girl – Dragon! he reminded himself. He’s a dragon! – shrugged. “The Queen asked me to convey her congratulations to the newlyweds.” She nodded towards the fireplace, where Breygon and his new bride were deep in conversation.
“Very kind of her,” Thanos said guardedly.
“Very astute of her!” Ara laughed. “The Palace is a-buzz with today’s events. The names, the glitter! The White Countess shows up, bruised and bloody, and lays the vini concilio at milady’s feet? Amorda claims the title of Lewat’s mate? And the deadly symbolism of the poisoned rose?”
“Symbolism?” Thanos asked, perplexed.
“Of course!” the elf-woman frowned. “To the floriographer, the scarlet rose is the most ancient of icons, signifying true love. Whoever poisoned it wasn’t merely trying to harm; he was doing so in a way that said, to all present, that your friend’s union is forever tainted.” She shook her head in admiration. “No one in that hall could possibly mistake the symbolism of such an act.”
“You sound impressed,” Thanos said coldly.
The dragon-woman shrugged. “It was a dastardly deed, to be sure. But it was also subtly done. A most elegant insult.”
“I’ll be sure to compliment the perpetrator,” the warcaster growled, leaning back and crossing his arms. “Before I burn him down to his boots and piss on his ashes, that is.”
“Calm yourself,” Ara said softly. There was a peculiar glint in her eyes. “Your friend and his mate are safe. And because of what happened today, by week’s-end, the tale of their mating will be told in every tavern, croft and sewing-circle.”
Thanos looked immensely tired. “You know,” he said in a deliberately offhand drawl, “I can remember a time when Breygon did everything he could to keep a low profile.”
“Holy Miros!” Ara exclaimed. “You amaze me, sirrah. Today was a triumph, at least by the standards of the Third House. I don’t know what kind of baron your friend will make, but as spectacles and scandals go, he’s worth his weight in diamonds. I’m surprised half the nobles in the temple didn’t spontaneously burst into flame!”
“I was short on bat guano,” Thanos said drily.
Ara laughed. “I didn’t mean because of you.” She put a hand on his arm. He withdrew it, gently but insistently.
She looked a little sad at that. “As I said, I’d like a moment, if you don’t mind. Could we speak in private, somewhere?”
The warcaster shrugged. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “My bedchamber is through there. That’s about as private as we’re going to get in a ‘low house’.”
The elf-woman blanched. “Er…perhaps somewhere else. For now. A little further from your friends.”
“The library?” He grinned. “I know you can’t say no to that!”
Ara laughed weakly. “No, I suppose I can’t. Very well. Lead on.”
Thanos glanced around. Nobody was paying them any attention, so he didn’t feel any particular need to excuse himself. He stood and, out of habit, offered the elf-woman his arm. She took his hand instead, following him. After a few paces, he extricated his fingers from hers. It took some doing; she had quite a grip.
‘He’, dammit. ‘HE’!
The library was technically in the private suite of the House, but Thanos knew that Breygon and Amorda would probably continue entertaining their guests for some time to come. And in any case, the lady had offered her mate’s friends the run of the place, excepting only – for obvious reasons – her bed-chamber.
When they entered the enormous, book-strewn room, Ara’s eyes widened, and she uttered a little gasp of delight. “It’s enormous!” she whispered.
“The phrase every librarian loves to hear,” he deadpanned. “I’ve already been through it. Or most of it, anyway. Our hostess keeps it pretty well organized. Is there anything I can help you find?”
The elf-woman turned to face him. “I’ve already found what I’m looking for, I think,” she said carefully. “You consider yourself a philosopher, do you not?”
Thanos frowned. “I’m not certain I’d describe myself in those terms,” he replied.
“I meant it in the elven sense. A seeker-after-wisdom.”
Thanos nodded. “That’s a fair description, I guess.” He pulled a chair out from a reading table and waved her to it; she sank into the cushions with a grateful nod. “Warcasters aren’t like wizards,” he went on. “And we’re not like sorcerers, either. We’re more like…well, more like your kind, to be perfectly frank. Dragons, I mean. We study, we learn, we plan, yes. If we didn’t, the Army wouldn’t let us anywhere near a battlefield for fear we’d roast our own troops. But when swords are out, it’s the tacticians who do the thinking, while we tend to act on instinct.”
“It is a matter of training?”
“Yes and no,” he temporized. “Our powers come almost entirely from within, as yours do. What the training does is teach us how best to use them.” He scratched his head. “I suppose that’s what sets us apart from sorcerers, really. Discipline.”
“But the study is important, too,” she insisted. “And the learning. Yes?”
“Oh, absolutely,” he nodded. He seated himself on the edge of the table, wondering what she was getting at.
“You conduct research, yes?” Ara pressed on.
“Of course,” he shrugged. “Not as widely as wizards do, of course. We tend to focus on things that will be useful on the battlefield. New spells, new enchantments for items, mostly destructive to be sure, but protective, too. It’s all part of our work.”
“You study, you develop new ideas, new approaches to old problems, and you try them out,” she nodded. “New hypotheses, in a word. You test them, you gather data, and analyze it against your theories, to judge their rightness.”
“You’re talking about experimentation,” the warmage said. “Of course, that’s how we work. We’re empiricists. We have to be. Otherwise there’s no real learning. Not with any rigour, anyway.”
“Yes!” Ara slapped her hand against the table. “Rigorous experimentation is the only route to wisdom!”
Thanos blinked, surprised by her sudden ardour. “Then we are in agreement,” he said uncertainly.
“Yes!” she said happily.
“Outstanding.” He tugged at an ear. “Er...what, precisely, are we in agreement about?”
“About the importance of experimentation,” the elf-woman said emphatically. “I wish to propose an experiment.”
The warcaster’s eyebrows rose, and he grinned. “We’ll need a lab,” he said excitedly. “I could speak to Kalestayne. Or maybe Salus’s mate, Onyshyla…”
“This room will be fine,” Ara said firmly.
Thanos glanced around, looking doubtful. “Amorda’s a little short on equipment.”
That made her smile. “But you are not. Or at least, I hope not. That is the experiment I propose.”
The warcaster frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I wish to couple with you.”
He blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I wish to join with you,” the elf-woman repeated. “Here.” She tapped the table for emphasis. “Now.”
The warcaster’s eyebrows met. “On the table?”
“I would prefer something softer,” the elf-woman said without expression. “But as you wish. The floor would also be acceptable.”
Thanos blinked thirty-seven times – he counted – before swallowing heavily. When he spoke at last, he sounded as if he had swallowed a morningstar. “I’m sorry,” he rasped. “I’m not…ah, I’m not looking for a mate.”
“Nor am I,” Ara replied evenly. “We are simply experimenting.”
“Ah,” Thanos gargled. “Experimentation. Yes.” He fumbled another chair out from under the table and collapsed nervelessly into it. He cleared his throat. “What is your research problem, then?”
Ara dimpled. “Spoken like a true philosopher,” she said. “Very well. I am, as you recall, a kulta. A gold dragon.”
“I’m not likely to forget that,” the warcaster said stonily.
“When we were reading the day before yesterday,” she went on, “you seemed inordinately interested in the harkittu passage describing the Weird of Wyrms.”
“ ‘The weird’…oh yes,” he recalled. “You mean, the calling that each of the dragon races accepted at the Raaku. The ‘Raw’.”
“Precisely.” She took a deep breath. “I of course am drawn to follow the kultaraaku – the Weird of the Gold Wyrms. But I wish to comprehend the hopearaaku.”
“The ‘silver raw’,” he translated. “You mean, the calling of the silver dragons? Their ‘Weird’?”
“To better understand them,” Ara sighed. “The mightiest of my kind…they stand aloof from the world. The greatest of the golds, like Oroprimus, make their homes amid the outer realms. But the silvers do not. They live here, and they do so in order to be closer to you. Your kind. The Kindred. I wish to know why.
“I serve Venastargenta,” she said, sounding frustrated, “and I wish to help Svardargenta find his daughter, when he arrives. But I know nothing about how they think! If I could just understand them…”
“I can’t help you there,” he said faintly. “I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of why dragons do what they do.”
“You misunderstand,” the elf-woman – man, dammit, MAN! - said, giving him an alarmingly frank look. “It is not your knowledge I seek, but your…ah, other skills.”
Thanos frowned. “I still don’t understand. How can…” he cleared his throat. “Sorry. How can…um…us...er, doing that…help to explain how silver dragons think?”
“By filling in a blank space in my research,” Ara replied soberly. “Like you, I am a servant of the Art Magic. And like you, I am an empiricist. The Weird of the hopea – the silver dragons – is you. The Kindred. The silvers are drawn to you. They all seem impassioned to work with you, study you, aid you, fight at your side, educate you, cherish and sustain you.” She snorted. “And even mate with you. They can’t seem to keep their claws off you. I want to know why.”
Thanos scratched his jaw. He was suddenly conscious that he needed a shave. “And you think,” he said weakly, “that…um…an experiment, like the one you’ve proposed, might provide some…illumination?”
“ ‘Illumination’ is too lofty a goal,” the elf-woman replied. “We are scientists. We seek fact, not truth. I am merely seeking observational data.”
“You're seeking it in my trousers!” the warcaster said weakly.
Thanos couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I’ve been called worse things by women than a ‘datum’.”
Ara smiled politely despite the feebleness of his sally. “So, then, you agree. Excellent. We may begin?”
The warcaster barked a nervous laugh. “I think you’ve overlooked some potential avenues for falsification, my dear!”
“Oh?” The elf-woman frowned. “I perceive no flaws in my experimental design. To what potential errors are you referring?”
“Well, for one thing,” Thanos exclaimed heatedly, “you’re MALE!”
The elf-woman’s eyes widened. “While I am by no means expert in Kindred physiology,” she said carefully, “I have been wearing this shape for some years now, and am familiar enough with it, I think. I am reasonably certain that I got it right.” She stood and began shrugging her way out of her gown.
Thanos, eyes wide, thrust his chair backwards. The legs caught on one of the rugs, and he nearly toppled over, pin-wheeling his arms for balance. “What are you doing?!” he demanded.
Ara paused. “We cannot be confident of our results if we are not confident in the design and setup of the experiment, now, can we? As the only Kindred involved in this research project, you are best qualified to verify the accuracy of the equipment I propose to use. Please do so.” And with that, she pushed the dress down around her ankles and stepped out of it.
When he didn’t say anything, the elf-woman said, “Well?”
Thanos made a sound vaguely reminiscent of a large animal being strangled.
She sighed. “You are the most qualified judge. I do not dispute that. If there is something wrong with my form, I will adjust it.” Ara held her arms up and rotated in place. “Please! Is this shape acceptably female?”
The warcaster put his head in his hands. “It’s just dandy,” he muttered.
“Not that I can see, no.” He cleared his throat again. "Most definitely, no."
“Excellent.” She pursed her lips. “The internal structures are, I believe, also correct, although they are of course a little more difficult to verify. However, if you wish to conduct a more thorough inspection, we could –”
“No! No no no!” Thanos leapt out of his chair, waving his hands in a vague, warding-off gesture. “No, I’m sure everything’s FINE.”
“Good,” Ara said. She stepped forward and put her arms around his neck. “Shall we proceed?”
The warcaster removed her arms, took a careful step back, and put his fingers to his temples. “Please try to understand this,” he said clearly. “You. Are. MALE.”
The elf-woman looked supremely vexed. “You inspected me yourself. Clearly, I am not.”
“Your MIND is male!”
Ara looked shocked. “Is that what you wish? To bond in spirit as in flesh, sieulu to sieulu?” She swallowed heavily. “Forgive me, but I had not anticipated that extent of intimacy. It is usually only even possible between draconic mates.” For the first time, she looked hesitant. “But if you consider such a spiritual joining to be crucial to our endeavour, I suppose I am willing. I presume you are capable of mind-speech, and able to –”
“GAH!” Thanos shrieked. Had his hair been any longer, he would have torn two fistfuls of it out by the roots.
“Is there a problem?” someone remarked idly.
The warcaster spun in place. Breygon was leaning against the door-frame, watching the pair with a look of mild surprise painted on his face.
Thanos glanced over at the naked elf-woman. Ara seemed only slightly perturbed. “Shall I dress?” she asked.
“Oh, heavens no! Not on my account,” Breygon said. “I simply heard the commotion and merely wanted to ensure that all was well.”
“It is,” the elf-woman confirmed.
“It most certainly is not,” Thanos hissed. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to catch the general gist,” the ranger shrugged. “As I understand it, hse wants to…how does Karrick usually put it? Ah, ‘roll you like an old poncho’. Just to see what it’s like.”
“Not ‘she’,” Thanos glowered. “ ‘He’.”
“While you,” Breygon went on happily, “are, for reasons that are beginning to become clear, opposed to the idea.”
“She’s MALE!” the warcaster shouted. “Remember?”
“Really?” The half-elf sauntered into the room, walked over to Ara, and looked her over carefully, grinning as he did so. “Yes, I can see the dragon within her, and I can tell that he’s male. But I’m probably the only fellow in Starmeadow who could know that without using a good deal of magic. How would you know what he really was, if I hadn’t told you?”
“You did tell us!” Thanos exclaimed.
Breygon, still looking admiringly at Ara, and getting an indifferent glance in return, shook his head. “I’m not as learned as you, oh master of magic. But I’ll wager I’ve done a little more ‘data gathering’ than you have, at least with respect to elven physiology, especially over the past month.” He nodded at Ara. “I assure you, that is most definitely a lady elf. And a very, very nice-looking one,” he added with a gentlemanly nod.
“Thank you,” Ara murmured. “A girl likes to be appreciated.”
Breygon laughed and bowed. “Think nothing of it, my good sir.”
“You’re not helping!” Thanos barked. The warcaster found his fingers curling involuntarily into claws. “Her – I mean ‘his’ – mind is male! It’s just her – his, his! – shape that’s female!”
The half-elf cocked an eyebrow. “I believe you’re making my point for me.”
Thanos’s eyes were getting a little wild. “You –”
Breygon held up a hand. Striding to a chest, he found a blanket of bright blue wool, brought it to Ara, and draped it around her shoulders. “This might take a while,” he said apologetically. “Try to keep warm.”
She nodded her thanks. “It is a little chilly in here,” she acknowledged.
“Valaista keeps saying the same thing. Maybe that’s why the silvers hang around our kind so much,” Breygon shrugged. “They don’t mind the cold.”
"Body heat?" Ara looked dubious. “That seems an awfully simple explanation.”
“Add it to your data.” Turning to Thanos, he said, “Do you remember Hutana Membelas? The dryad we encountered northwest of Joyous Light? The one infused with the last vestiges of the Forest Mother’s power?”
“Of course,” the warcaster snapped.
“Was she beautiful?”
Thanos blinked. “I suppose.”
“Would you” – Breygon grinned – “ever consider playing ‘hide the bodkin’ with her?”
The warcaster’s eyes widened. “I…er…”
The ranger didn’t let him get any further. “That's not a 'no'. How about Angin, my little pixie adjutant?”
Thanos looked appalled. “She’s too small!”
“You casters know how to change the size of other creatures,” Breygon shrugged. “If she were your size, or you hers, would you consider it?”
Thanos thought about that. “I suppose I might,” he said warily. The little flitterby was absolutely adorable, after all.
“Of course you would,” the ranger nodded. “How about Lööspelian?”
The warcaster felt his heart give a peculiar thud. “No question,” he murmured.
Breygon nodded again. “So,” he summarized, “you’d happily couple with any number of different supernatural monsters…but you’ll turn up your nose at what, insofar as any of your senses are able to detect, is a pure-blooded Kindred woman?”
“Now it’s you who’re making my point!” Thanos exclaimed triumphantly. “He’s not a Kindred woman. And all those you mentioned are females!”
Breygon’s lip twitched. “Yes, of course they are.” He toed a chair forward and dropped into it. “Ever see a male dryad?”
“There’s no such thing,” Thanos scowled.
“Exactly,” the ranger nodded. “So how do they reproduce?”
“Why, they…they…” The warcaster looked puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “How do they reproduce?”
“They mate with oak trees,” Breygon replied.
Thanos’s mouth dropped open. Then he turned an unhealthy shade of yellow.
“Get your mind out of the midden,” the half-elf snorted, rolling his eyes. “It’s a spiritual thing, sielu to sielu, with kesatuan as the conduit. The dryad finds a belukar, an oak grove, that calls to her spirit, and falls asleep between the roots of her ikanatek. It's a spiritual bonding far more profound than any enjoyed by mortals, or even dragons. When she awakes from her sleep, she is with child.” He snorted. “Always a daughter, of course.”
“Of course,” Thanos sighed. “What’s your point?”
“My point,” Breygon replied, “is that you don’t seem at all distressed at the idea of inserting yourself into a mating process that normally involves a fey and a plant, so long as one of the two looks like a Kindred female.”
The warcaster got an odd look in his eyes. “Er…”
“Now, take Angin,” the ranger went on relentlessly. “She’s not even Fey; she’s an Outsider. And an Eladrin. Yet you said that, if she were your size, you’d consider it. Yes?”
“I’m starting to have second thoughts,” Thanos said weakly.
“I should hope so. Because there’s a bigger physiological difference between you and her than between her and a Balrog.”
Thanos looked scandalized. “Oh, come on!”
Breygon turned to look at Ara. “Mahanirion, old chum,” he said, “back me up, would you?”
The elf-woman shrugged. “Your friend is correct. Eladrins are similar to demons in that respect, if in no other. Their internal structures consist of undifferentiated tarmorämäa. Um…‘mystical energy-given-form’. They are an animate excrudescence of their extramaterial plane of origin.”
"See?" Breygon smiled at Thanos. “What he means is that they – demons and Eladrins – have no innards. Just solid, magically-infused…you know, stuff.”
“I know exactly what he means!” the warcaster snarled. “And the same point applies to Lööspelian, I suppose? After all, up until a few days ago, she was a fiend of some sort, which means she had no guts either, right?”
“Actually, I think devils and archons are a little more similar to us,” Breygon said clinically. “Organically, anyway. I should ask Angin about that. But in Lööspelian’s case, that wasn’t my point at all. No, regarding her, I meant that she had spent thousands upon thousands of years inflicting untold pain and suffering upon the Kindred, serving as an instrument of the Dark Queen’s malice and spite upon Anuru. And yet, you’re willing to mount her just because she turned coat in the past few weeks, and happens to look like a beautiful woman. Even though in reality she’s anything but.”
Thanos opened his mouth to retort. Then he closed it, smiling wryly. “Don’t think I don’t see where you’re going with this.”
“I was hoping you might,” the ranger replied evenly. He nodded at Ara. “This looks like a beautiful woman, too. But in her breast – and yes, I said ‘her’; we are the physical beings that Bræa in her wisdom made us, and form will always matter more to us than any other consideration – in her breast beats the heart of a gold dragon. You would be hard pressed to find a purer, nobler or more blessed mortal being anywhere in all the wide world.” He snorted. “And I say that as someone who ‘has a problem with dragons’.”
Ara looked at him wonderingly. “That is higher praise than I merit,” she murmured. “But I thank you nonetheless.”
Breygon smiled lopsidedly. “Actually,” he confessed, “no offence, but I wasn’t speaking about you specifically. I was thinking more of Ally.”
The elf-woman looked puzzled. “Who is ‘Ally’?”
“Someone a lot like you,” Breygon said distantly. “An elf who had a dragon hidden inside her, all her life.”
Ara’s eyes widened. “You are speaking of Duke Kaltas’ daughter, then. That is a tale that I would like to hear!”
“If you’re at dinner tomorrow night, you’ll hear it all,” Breygon promised.
“She can hear it now,” Thanos said. Standing, he offered Ara his hand. She took it, and he pulled her to her feet. “I’ll tell you all about Ally,” he said awkwardly, “once we’re done…er…gathering data.”
The elf-woman beamed and clapped her hands. The blanket started to slip, and she clutched at it, rescuing it at the last possible instant.
Breygon jerked a thumb at one of four doors leading out of the library. “Why don’t you use Amorda’s boudoir? There’s a nice, comfortable couch in there.” He winked. “A sturdy one.”
Thanos flushed, but did his best to remain businesslike. “Your good lady won’t be needing it?”
“No.” Breygon grimaced. “It’s al fresco for us tonight. Traditional, I’m afraid.”
Thanos recalled the snow that had been falling all day, and shivered. Then he smiled. “Frostbite is a small price to pay for the prize you’ve won.”
“It would be the least of the wounds I’ve suffered in wooing,” Breygon said drily. He bowed, first to Thanos, and then to the pink-cheeked elf-woman standing nearby. “My friend, my lady,” he said as solemnly as he could, stressing the last word, “I bid you good night.”
“Thank you,” Ara said. She had pronounced dimples. Neither Breygon nor Thanos had ever noticed that before. “For everything.”
“Yes, thank you,” the warmage said, still a little flustered. “Until the morrow, then?”
“Or the afternoon. There’s no hurry.” Breygon slapped him on the shoulder. “Enjoy your research, boys.”
Thanos eyed the ranger sourly. He looked about to say something caustic, but was cut off as Ara tugged on his hand, pulling him toward the boudoir door.
“Do you need an assistant?” Breygon called after them with a grin. “I could come along and observe. Maybe take notes. I could find some paper and a quill. An hourglass, a yardstick, calipers…”
Thanos slammed the door. The key clicked in the lock.
Breygon blew out his breath in relief. As he trotted back to the dining hall, he muttered, “Bloody humans.”
She was still there; still seated on the bare earth, beneath the bare branches of the ancient oak tree. With his new eyes, her skin seemed translucent; and when he closed them, he could see the light of her sieulu flickering like a fading star against the sable blanket of the night. It looked…dimmer.
Something was wrong.
Joraz trotted over to her side and sat next to her. “How do you feel?” he said softly.
She didn’t answer; not for a long, long time. He waited patiently, knowing from personal experience how winding, how stony, was the path that she trod.
At last she heaved a great sigh and, bending forward, put her head in her hands. “I am lost,” she whispered.
Joraz nodded. He knew that feeling, too. “How, lost?” he asked.
She turned to face him; and now that she was animate once again, he was alarmed at the bleak desperation in her eyes. “I think,” she said hesitantly, “that I have found the place that you found. Moktavaaya. The slaughter-plain.”
Joraz didn’t say anything. Sometimes listening was more important than speaking.
“An apt name,” she mused. Looking up at the snow falling from far overhead, she spoke softly, simply. “In my mind’s eye,” she whispered, “I stand on the field of battle. There are bodies and broken blades everywhere. My brothers, my sisters, both the old and the new, the exalted and the damned, lie everywhere. The earth is a clinging, poisonous morass of muck wetted by the glittering ichor of the Anari, and the poisonous serum of the Uruqua. The stench of fear, and decay…everywhere.
“I flee,” she went on, bleakly. “For how can I stay? Which side shall I join? In whose company shall I fall? The brothers and sisters who loved me, and who I betrayed? Or the brothers and sisters who accepted me, and tortured me for five ages of the world?
He said nothing. She had given him strength in his extremity, and now he tried to do the same for her. He willed himself to be a rock; to exude comfort and reliance, friendship and warmth. He couldn’t tell, though, whether she felt it.
“I flee,” she continued. Her voice was hollow, empty. “I flee to the hills. I climb, and climb, and climb. The rocks cut my hands, my feet. My blood stains the stones. The air is ice and flame, and the water, vitriol and ash. The torment is exquisite, fitting.
“I climb and climb, until I reach the summit. And what is at the summit?” she asked, her voice breaking.
Joraz nodded. “The battle-plain, and the bodies of your brothers and your sisters,” he murmured. He had been there before; at the clearing in the trees, at the end of his road, with no path visible.
Lööspelian nodded. Tears were running down her cheeks. “I have climbed those hills, now, a thousand times. I feel each step, each cut of the stones, upon my soul. Each cut is a message – that the world has passed me by. That there is no fit place for me, on earth, in heaven or in hell. That from dust I came, and to dust I must return.”
She shook her head. “How do I feel?” she whispered. “Old. Worn out.”
Joraz smiled. He held out his hand. “Let me show you something,” he said gently, “that will make you feel young again, as when the world was new.”
The fallen angel shook her head. “When the world was new, human, I was already ancient beyond reckoning. What could you possibly show me that…that…”
Her voice trailed off. She was staring at him, rapt with wonder.
Joraz took a deep breath, felt for the fabric of reality, and – still holding tightly to her hand, and drawing her after him – stepped within himself.
Her eyes were full of stars.
Grunting like stevedores, Perdo and Laestor dragged the man’s naked, unconscious carcass out the door of Room 101 and down the hall to their shared office. Once there, Perdo slammed the door. Laestor merely stood by the victim’s unmoving shape, staring at it in appalled helplessness.
“Second drawer,” Perdo snapped. “Yellow flask.” He opened the door again and glanced back down the hall. “Crat! We left a trail! Half a moment, while I find somebody with a mop!”
While his colleague shouted for a maid, Laestor fumbled in the desk drawer. He found the flask in no time. Yanking the stopper, he tilted the bottle over the unconscious man’s lips, letting a measure of clear, sparkling fluid flow over them. When the man didn’t respond, he emptied the flask.
Perdo returned a moment later. When he entered the office, he saw that Laestor had draped a blanket over the injured man, and was sitting at the desk, toying with the empty flask. He dropped into his chair. “How’s he doing? Sleeping?”
Laestor snorted nervously. “Yeah. The long sleep.”
Laestor placed the flask on the desk and gave it a flick with his finger. It spun and clicked. “He’s dead.”
Perdo’s eyes widened. “You fed it to him, right?”
“Right down his gullet,” Laestor nodded. “The whole shot.” He snapped his fingers. “Nothing! Looks like your little darling Letifera killed him.”
Perdo sighed, shaking his head. “Well, that’s the first one this year.”
Laestor stared at his colleague. “This has happened before?”
“Couple of times per annum,” Perdo shrugged. “She’s a rough one. They all know that, going in. S’why they all sign a release.”
Laestor blinked. “There’s a corpse on your floor that looks like it died crawling through a bin of broken glass. I’ve seen fewer whip-cuts on lifetime thieves at the scourging post.”
“So,” Laestor said heatedly, “you’re taking this awfully well!”
“Occupational hazard. Look, grab the blanket, will you? Before it gets all bloodstained.” He fumbled in the desk, coming up with a stoppered bone tube. “Gonna have to buy another of these now, dammit.”
“ ‘These’ what?”
Perdo grimaced. “Watch and see, my son. And keep you silent; this ain’t easy.” Holding the tube in one hand, he made a number of complex gestures in the air, muttering under his breath. Then, pulling one of the corks, he dumped a scrap of rolled parchment, about the size of a single quarto page, into his hand. He set the tube aside and, kneeling next to the dead man, unrolled the scroll.
As Laestor watched, stunned, his colleague began chanting in a low, barely-intelligible voice. At the end of the passage, his voice rose to a cry. “Valkoinen palo myöntää tämä mies ikuiseen lepoon. Pöly teille pöly!”
At the end of the phrase, the scroll caught fire, and disintegrated into ash. The corpse quivered, twitched…and dissolved into a light fall of grey dust.
“Sjau feikinstaffr!” Laestro swore, making the Protector’s sign before his breast.
“Shut up,” Perdo grunted. “And grab a broom, would you? I gotta find a replacement, or she’ll have me in there, and the hide off me before sunrise.”
Laestor was sweeping up when a staccato rumble of boot-heels sounded on the outdoor stairs. The two men glanced at each other. Laestor hurriedly swept the last of the dust under a book-case, stowed the broom, and was seated by the time the door was flung open.
Both elves stared in shock at the apparition that stumbled in through the portal. Perdo surreptitiously put a hand under the desk, reaching for the hilt of the sword he kept strapped to the underside of the wood.
The newcomer was easily a head-and-a-half taller than either elf. His close-shorn scalp nearly brushed the overhead beams, and he blinked owlishly as he dodged a lamp hanging from the rafters. He probably outweighed the both of them put together. He was a human; that much was certain. And he was dressed as a warrior, albeit an off-duty one, unarmoured, and with nothing more than a long, well-used sword hanging at his side.
His hands, both men noted, were full. One held a glass wine bottle by the neck; the other, a large (for the elf-realm, at least) beer mug.
He fetched up in front of the desk and glowered down at the two elves, blinking like a vampire at high noon.
Perdo cleared his throat. “Um…stage, cage, or –”
“Lookin’ for a girl,” the man mumbled in passable elvish. “Or two. And the pisser.”
Laestor, stunned into speechlessness, pointed at a door set into one wall. It was clearly marked with two runes stamped into copper sheet: “W” and “C”.
Perdo was the more astute of the two. His eyes narrowed. “Any girl in particular?” he asked.
The man frowned. Perdo could almost hear his thoughts gasping for breath as they swam upstream against a flood of alcohol. “Pulse’d be nice,” he said after a moment, swaying gently. “Strong, too. ‘Cause I’m…you know…”
“Big?” Laestor offered, wide-eyed.
”Thass’it,” the man nodded, pointing approvingly at the smaller man. He swayed again, then set a course for the bathroom, and made for it in a wide loop. “Back in a –”
He crashed into the door-frame. The wall shook. His only remark was “Kak.”
After the door to the WC was closed, Perdo turned to Laestor. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I dunno.” Laestor made a face. “Are you thinking that we’re going to need a mop, too?”
“No, idiot!” Perdo slapped his colleague on the ear. He pointed to the bathroom door. “That he’s our replacement!”
Laestor’s eyes shifted rapidly back and forth for a moment, then widened. “Him? Really?”
“What if she kills him, too?”
“Who cares?” Perdo shrugged. “He’s a human! I won’t even have to waste a pulvis spell on him! We can just dump his carcass in the river!”
“How?” Laestor asked. “I doubt we could lift him!”
“Blanket and barrow,” Perdo shrugged. The bathroom door handle rattled. “Now shut it,” he whispered, “and let me handle this.”
When the man stumbled back out of the WC, Perdo was on his feet. “Sir,” he said with all the unction he could muster, “I think I’ve found the answer to your problem.”
“Excellent,” the man replied with the gravity of the chronically inebriated. He held up the wine bottle and gave it a shake. “Empty,” he observed.
Perdo cast a glance at Laestor, who interpreted it correctly. He snatched a half-bottle from the cupboard, brought it over, and traded it for the warrior’s empty flask.
The man made a show of patting his pockets. Since he still had the beer-mug clenched in his fist, he managed to soak his clothes rather thoroughly. “M’a little short,” he said apologetically. “Like you two,” he added with a giggle.
Perdo ground his teeth. “On the house, sir,” he said, smiling. “Now, if you’ll please follow me, I’ve got just the girl for you.” He strode out into the hall.
The man looked sad. “Only one?”
“Oh, she’s quite a handful, sir,” Perdo said merrily, positively radiating bonohomie.
The human patted his pockets again. This time, Laestor was ready and snatched the half-empty beer-mug before it could fall.
“Thanks!” the man exclaimed. “'Bout the girl...m’a little short.”
“She’s on the house too,” Perdo sighed. Money wasn't the worry; if he didn't find someone to keep Letifera busy, she would solve all of his other problems for him with her dagger or her lawyers. He didn't know which would be more painful.
When they reached room 101, he tapped lightly on the door.
“What?” The word was muffled by the heavy wood of the portal.
“I’ve another for you, domina,” Perdo called.
The human passed the wine bottle – empty – back to Laestor, and rubbed his hands happily together. Then his brows drew together. “Hang on,” he said, looking puzzled. “ ‘Domina’?”
“That’s her name,” Laestor whispered in a sudden moment of inspiration.
“Send him in!” was the imperious reply.
Perdo lifted the latch, opened the door, and shoved the human through it. “Good luck, friend,” he muttered. He shut the door hastily, turning the key in the lock for good measure.
He put his ear to the wood. “Sangua cariosa!” he heard the woman swear, and winced. “A roundear dog?”
To his astonishment, the next thing he heard was the human. “Ho ho! A whip? I’m gonna like you, girly!”
An instant later, the whip cracked, and Perdo flinched back from the door.
“Everything all right?” Laestor asked, looking worried.
Perdo shivered. “I guess we’ll see, won’t we? C’mon, let’s get back out front.”
Dawn was painting the sky, and Perdo was fast asleep, drooling onto his desk blotter, his head pillowed on folded arms, when the door from the guest rooms banged open. Laestor was still awake. When he saw the human from Room 101 come striding in, he shook Perdo. And when that didn’t work, he punched him in the shoulder.
Perdo, as was required by the nature of his work, snapped awake, fumbling for his dagger. When his eyes cleared and he saw the man, his chin dropped to his chest. The fellow was not only vertical, but looked approximately nine hundred times better than he had eight hours earlier. His eyes were bright, his hair combed, and his tunic looked as though it had been washed and dried. Perdo was even able to make out some sort of symbol embroidered over the left breast; it looked like a pair of “E”-runes from the traveling tongue, with a long sword running through them. He didn’t recognize it.
There was something unmistakeably martial in the fellow’s bearing. Laestor, unaware that he was even doing it, stood up. Perdo, out of habit, followed.
“Morning,” the man said crisply. He strode up to the table, banged a large pouch down on it, and began unfastening the buckles.
“Good morning, sir,” Perdo said, blinking in astonishment. He couldn’t believe how healthy the fellow looked. Apart from a single long, slender welt on his left cheek, just under the eye, the man looked as though he had just spent a half-week enduring a cure at the Arx Calidus baths.
“Did you…ah…sleep well?” Laestor asked, as perplexed as his colleague.
“Never better,” the man replied. He upended the pouch, and a flood of aureae spilled out.
The two elves’ jaws dropped open in astonishment. Perdo was the first to recover. “I…um…sir, there…there’s no charge. For the night.”
“Eh?” The man looked puzzled. Then his face cleared. “Oh, that! Nah, I know.” He nodded at the pile of coin. “That’s from Letty. She said it was to be half for you and half for me. Wanna help me count?”
Perdo’s mouth opened and shut several times. At last, summoning every ounce of his formidable intellect, he managed to squeak, “What?”
“Half’n’half,” the man repeated. “Are you all right, buddy? There’s drool on your chin.” He pointed.
Perdo hastily wiped his face with his sleeve. “D…D…Domina Letifera…gave you that?”
“You heard me,” the man replied. “By the way, let her sleep. Poor little lamb’s all tired out.”
Perdo and Laestor exchanged a wide-eyed look. Lamb? Laestor mouthed.
Perdo held his hands out helplessly. “Sir, what did you mean by –”
“Ssht!” The man was counting the money laboriously. There was a good deal of it; hundreds of coins, in fact. At last he gave up and, with the edge of his hand, swept the cash into two roughly equal piles.
He glanced back at Perdo. “Good enough?”
The elf blinked. “Well…ah…surely.”
“Outstanding.” The man swept one pile back into the pouch. Almost as an afterthought, he took one of the coins out and flipped it to Laestor. “For the wine,” he explained.
“Grates,” Laestor said faintly.
The human buckled the pouch and slung it, clinking merrily, over his shoulder. He glanced around. “Nice place you got here,” he commented idly. “Fun girls. Clean, too.” Settling his sword at his side, he strode purposefully over to the back door. He paused with his hand on the latch. “Dunno how you make any money, though, with the girls paying the customers.”
Perdo’s right eye was twitching. “Well,” he said faintly, “it seems to work out.”
“You know your own business best, I guess,” the man shrugged. He opened the door. “See you tonight.”
Perdo fell backwards into his chair. “What?” he said again.
“You…you’re coming back?” Laestor said in shocked disbelief.
“Gotta,” the man shrugged. “Letty begged me.”
“She…begged,” Perdo repeated.
“Domina Letifera begged – begged! – you to return.” The stark disbelief in the elf’s voice would have offended anyone less thoroughly self-assured.
“Yeah. On her knees, no less. Can you believe it?” the man sighed. “Bloody women! Nag, nag, nag!” He hitched at his sword-belt. “Well…valeo, guys.” His boots thundered down the stairs. He was whistling.
When the footfalls had died away, Laestor turned to Perdo. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I dunno,” Perdo said faintly. He was still staring at the door. “Are you thinking that we could both use a night off? Someplace far away?”
Laestor laughed. He nodded at the pile of money on the desk. “Actually, I was thinking ‘halfsies’,” he chuckled. “But I like your idea, too.”
Amorda and Breygon spent the night together in their garden, under the stars. As tradition demanded, they accompanied each other sans apparel; but Breygon, out of force of habit, and reasoning that he would not be risking the Protector’s grace by displaying a little martial prudence, brought his sword, his grandmother’s dagger, and his bow and quiver. Amorda brought the virga that the Queen had sent her.
Before bedding down, the ranger built a comfortable shelter out of dried leaves and fallen boughs; warded both of them against the cold; and authorized his new gardener, Kakallatherial the treant, to tear the limbs off of anyone who tried to disturb them before sunrise.
And that is all that anyone will ever know about their wedding night.
Just as the sky began to glow in glorious pinks and oranges, and just before the Lantern broached the western horizon, Breygon snapped awake. Something had intruded itself upon his consciousness; a deep, maddening itching in his left palm. He scratched at it furiously, without relief, wondering what might be causing it.
He recognized what it was a moment later as a thunderous flapping noise burst over his head.
Tearing himself out of his lifemate’s grasp, he fumbled an arrow onto his bowstring and searched for a target. He could feel the dragon, but he couldn’t see it.
Invisible, he thought. Damn it! He wished he’d been a little more inclusive in his choice of accoutrements for the evening’s festivities.
He felt the blast of freezing air, a wave of unnaturally piercing cold, as the creature flared overhead; and when it landed, he could see the massive indentations its hindclaws made in the snow-frosted grass. Based on their size, it looked to be the biggest dragon he had ever seen.
Drawing the fletchings to the angle of his jaw, he took aim at where he knew the enormous beast had to be. “Show yourself!” he grated.
Precisely at that moment, though, the wind brought the creature’s scent to him – stone and sky, the clean air of the mountains, a hint of frost and ice, the sparking taste of metal…and a peculiar, intoxicating spiciness that he had smelt before. Now, though, it was overpowering. He recognized it at once, and began to relax.
The ranger saw nothing, but he could feel the tingle of the flux in the air. When a figure faded into view, however, it wasn’t a dragon. It was a man. A human, by his appearance, of about Thanos’ age and Karrick’s size. He had tousled hair of black-brown, flecked with streaks of iron-gray, and a steely, frank gaze; and he was clad in well-made, and also well-used, plated armour, with a long sword at his side.
He spotted Breygon, and his lips split in a friendly smile. “Hail!” he called in the travelling tongue, holding up his hands to show that they were empty.
Breygon’s aim didn’t so much as twitch. “Hail yourself,” he replied. “You are Svardargenta. Aren’t you?” It wasn’t a question
“Svardargenta of Cloudspire,” the man replied with a low, sweeping bow. “You have keen eyes, sirrah.”
“Nose, actually,” the half-elf chuckled.
“You must be Breygon Sylvanus. The Warden of the Woodlands."
“Guilty,” Breygon sighed. He lowered his bow. “Welcome to Starmeadow, and to Domus Casia, sir.”
“I thank you,” the man replied, walking over and extending his hand. When he saw what was reclining at the ranger’s feet, still fast asleep, however, he halted, looking somewhat abashed. “Perhaps introductions should wait until your good lady is afoot. And dressed.”
Breygon looked down. In the heat of the moment, he had completely forgotten that he too was stark naked. He cleared his throat. “Agreed.” Nodding at the house, he added, “Make yourself at home, please. Cayless will see to your needs. We’ll be in once I’ve roused milady.”
Svardargenta held up his hands again. “No hurry! Some rites are sacred!”
“Not as sacred as playing hostess to you,” Breygon grinned. “Amorda’s been dying to meet you. She’ll strangle me in my sleep if I deprive her of the honour of being the one to welcome you to our house. Trust me, we won’t be but a moment.”
“Very well,” the disguised dragon nodded. “I’ll wait inside.”
Breygon knelt, sliding the arrow back into his quiver.
“Oh,” Svarda added as he turned to leave. “Before I forget – ego te gratulo, bellator!”
The half-elf couldn’t help but grin happily. “Grates agere, dominus,” he laughed.
Svardargenta bowed. “Inside, then.” He waved merrily over his shoulder as he ascended the garden steps. “I hope someone here knows how to make a decent cup of tea,” he added as he disappeared inside the vaulted entrance to the house.