The Everlight is eternal and unchanging, limning the upper planes and all things within them with a soft, lustrous glow, like pearls bathed in liquid gold. There is no one source for its divine radiance; it seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere, as omnipresent as the air itself. Of its own accord, it never fades nor fails; only in places where the ruling Power prefers the softer illumination of shadows, or the spectral glory of dusk or dawn, or the sable velvet of night, does the Everlight give way to local variation – and then, only for so long as the Power that desires the change continues to desire it.
The Everlight, omnipresent and omnipotent, was nevertheless a phenomenon of the realms of the Anari; it had never touched Anuru. Miros had been born beneath the stars, a scion of the Elvii delivered into the world before her folk had been adopted by Hara. Her first cries had been witnessed neither by sun nor by moon (for neither yet graced the empty spaces of Anuru in the long childhood of the Kindred, before the fall of their Holy Mother), but only by the gleaming star-points in the black mantle of night, the departed spirits of the Minions of Light who had fallen in battle with Bardan’s unholy forces in the long war before ever the Kindred were made. Miros had grown to womanhood beneath the night sky. She had come into her power in the eternal darkness; had sought out her mortal foe and lifemate, the great red wyrm Scîarratekkan, in the starlit shadows; and after emerging victorious from her devil’s bargain, had passed into death in the smoky, fire-lit dark. Not for a score of centuries after her death did the Lantern first rise above the hills and vales of the world.
When at last Hara had put his hand upon her sielu, drawing her immortal spirit back from the Long Halls after centuries of death and taking her into his service, Anuru was still a place of darkness. When she was made the mistress of Dracosedes, Dragonhome, a place forged from the stuff of the World Made and set high in the sky above Hara’s domain, the endless sylvan realm of Fulgoris, she opened it eternally to the Everlight, so that there would be no shade or shadow. There were both, to be sure, in small places – in the caves that peppered the spindling, ice-shorn mountains of her realm, or in the dungeons beneath Kohta Kohtauri, the Meeting Place; or in the fiery pits of Brazenhault, or the deepest store-halls of Arx Dentis, or the libraries of Libramarkam and the Supreme Sanctum. But unto the realm of Miros writ large, night came never.
Ordinary folk found the eternal illumination alarming, at least at first. Ælyndarka did not. But then again, she was hardly ‘ordinary folk’. Nor were her circumstances anything less than extraordinary. Since returning to her lifemate’s side, she had not slept, nor even so much as tranced, and yet she was not fatigued. Seeing her beloved Perky again – or as he was known to his vassals, and for that matter to all of Dracosedes and the rest of the Universe, Venastargenta, Lord of Silverstair, First Speaker of Wyrms, and Ensihopea, bespoke lord of all silver dragons – had breathed new life into her tired veins.
After satisfying – at great length – her long-denied, earthy desire for her lifemate’s touch (which, to her delight, he shared), the two had spent long hours simply sitting and talking, reminiscing, speaking of events and folk long past, recalling the all-too-brief time they had spent together eight centuries earlier. They spoke of their meeting, and of their joining; of the pleasure they had taken simply in each other’s company, and of the joy of the children she had born him. She was a little taken aback, as she always was, to hear him refer to the son and daughter who had died in the same terms as the two who had lived, but she recognized it for what it was; not senility, but the dragon’s sense of eternal being.
The great wyrms, after all, were not Kindred; they had been made by Bardan. Even those who had broken with the Ender at the Raw thousands upon thousands of years before the Kindred were made were still what the Dark Powers had made them. Their sielli were bound to the World Made, or to oblivion. In death, the wyrms who had the strength and desire to do so retained much of their power, and could visit the spirits of the Kindred who walked the last path to the Long Halls, and even linger there awhile; but the wyrms could not join their Kindred friends on the final journey. They could not pass beyond the gray door that lay at Hall’s End. That grace – the gift that Bræa had given her children: the right to depart the World Made, and journey beyond the end of the Long Halls to the World Beyond the World, where even the Powers themselves could not go – was reserved by the Holy Mother to the Kindred alone.
The thought tore at her heart, as it had for more than eight hundred years, since she had first learned what her true love truly was. But she had taken some small consolation in his authentic being; though they could never share together the final adventure, she had been comforted by the knowledge that he was a dragon, long-lived in a way that few mortals could imagine. She had never thought that he would be the first to leave – that he might Depart, transmigrating unto oblivion while she still walked the earth. She had never thought that she would be denied even the cold solace of seeing him among the ashen pillars of Tvalt’s penultimate resting place.
The very notion was intolerable. Intolerable!
A sudden chilling blast roused her from her reverie. She shivered involuntarily.
They were flying over the Mountains of Miros. Venasta had taken her flying many times over the past few days. He had offered to don a saddle for her sake, but she had disdained it. She trusted him implicitly, and felt that there might be something blasphemous in treating the mightiest mortal dragon in all the world like a horse. Besides (she forced herself to admit with an embarrassed cough), she enjoyed the feel of his pebbled, silver-black scales pressing against her as the enormous muscles worked beneath his hide. She enjoyed it a great deal.
She shivered again.
Are you cold, kaveri? the great dragon asked, glancing back over his shoulder at her.
In fact, she grinned to herself, it was heat and not cold that was making her shiver – a delicious, aching heat that she was doing her best to ignore. But that heat was highly localized, leaving the rest of her feeling like an icicle. She thought about trying to explain that to him, but couldn’t think of any way to do so that wouldn’t make her sound like a randy strumpet. So she simply smiled. “A little,” she called, raising her voice to be heard over the whistle of the wind. “That’s a lot of ice down there.”
Venasta blinked, leathery membranes the size of pillow-cases sliding over his colossal, rippled-silver eyes with an audible click. An instant later, Ælyndarka found herself enveloped in a fluffy, cloud-like wrap, complete with hood and muff. The garment reached her knees, appeared to be made of soft silver-grey fur, and cut the wind like a stone wall.
She ran her fingers through the silken fibres, and laughed aloud.
Do you like it? the dragon asked. His mighty wings hadn’t missed a beat.
“I love it!” she chortled. She rubbed her cheek against her shoulder; the fur was as soft as it looked, and felt warm against her skin. In fact, her whole body – clad otherwise only in snug riding leathers over her smallclothes – felt warmer than it should have. “But I was expecting an endure elements spell or something!”
Spells work fine, Venasta shrugged. But even my spells fade in time. This will last for centuries. He grinned, showing his arm-long fangs. And it makes you look positively lovely. Like a porcelain doll.
“It certainly does!” she sniggered, flushing anew. For some reason his compliments always made her feel like a virgin at an older sister’s saltatio. “What is it? Or rather, what was it?”
Remorhaz. The dragon took another look at her, nodded to himself as if in approval at what he saw, then turned back to his flying.
That made her sit bolt upright, all thought of heat and pebbled hide forgotten. “What?” she exclaimed. “You mean, those big, spiky worm-things?”
“They have fur?”
Yes, the dragon replied. It is highly prized. Their blood burns with the flux. Garments made from their hide generate their own heat.
They’re very common in the mountains, he went on pensively. Both here and in Fulgoris. Also in Albéorg. He grinned toothily. I’ve hunted remos there with the Seuralaiset.
Ælyndarka frowned. “I don’t know that word. I mean, I know what it means, but…”
The Sacred Companions, he explained, wings beating smoothly. He banked gently to the right, angling away from the highest peaks, towards a long series of snow-filled valleys. It’s a cohort of Taistas – battle dragons, you know – who’re sworn to Karg.
He glanced back at her, a quizzical look on his face. She even joined us once in the hunt, you know. Karg, I mean.
Ælyndarka snorted a nervous laugh. “You went hunting with Karg, the Goddess of Bears? In the immortal realm of Albéorg? For remorhazes?”
It’s ‘remorhai’, he corrected automatically. And yes, I bore her myself. It was a great honour. She sat right where you are sitting.
“With her big sword?” Karg, the queen knew from chapel paintings and tapestries she’d seen, was usually depicted bearing an enormous two-handed blade.
No. She borrowed a spear from one of the Allfather’s battle-maidens. He sounded pensive. It was six centuries ago. Seems like only yesterday.
“Why?” the elf-woman exclaimed.
Because I’m old, I suppose, he replied pensively. And because the Twilight beckons.
“No, no,” she said with forced gaiety, trying to sound as if his words hadn’t run an icicle of dread into her breast. “No, I meant, why –”
Why a spear? The dragon glanced back at her again, brow-ridges furrowed. It is difficult to throw a greatsword from dragonback, love. Even for Mighty Karg.
“Gods, would you let me talk?” Ælyndarka exclaimed, exasperated. “I meant, why would a goddess want to go remorhaz-hunting in the first place?”
She wanted a fur coat, Venasta explained.
The elf-woman frowned. “She couldn’t just...you know, make one?” she asked, wiggling her fingers suggestively. “A real, permanent one?”
Creation is not one of Mighty Karg’s divine spheres, Venasta replied seriously. She is a breaker, not a maker. Besides, where would be the fun in just...He held up an enormous claw, wiggling his talons in a clumsy imitation of her gesture.
“All right,” she laughed. “And why did the rest of you go, then?”
The Taistas came a-hunting because they serve Karg in all things, the colossal dragon said with immense solemnity. And I went because one of the Powers of Light invited me to attend upon Her. Then he turned his great head again and winked back at her. Also, because remos are delicious. He smacked his chops obscenely. Spicy!
The queen barked a laugh. “You still think with your belly, don’t you?”
I am a dragon first, kaveri, the vast creature nodded.
“You certainly are,” Ælyndarka murmured. She laid a gentle hand on the back of his neck, loving the electric touch of his scales. She swallowed heavily, trying without much success to banish thoughts of the future. “Did she…did Karg ever get her coat?”
Oh yes, Venasta laughed. I killed the remo myself, and had its hide cured, prepared and tailored into a lovely mantle for her. It looked very well on her. But in the end, she didn’t keep it.
The elf-woman felt irrationally offended on her mate’s behalf. “After all that?” she exclaimed. “Why not?”
Gods don’t get cold, my love, the dragon sent gently.
Ælyndarka blinked. “Very well, I suppose that’s a point,” she admitted. “So, whatever happened to the thing?”
She gave it back to me, Venasta replied with vast equanimity. And I have given it to you.
It took a few moments for his words to sink into her wind-chilled brain. When they did, she looked down at the fluffy garment, its silver-gray sheen gorgeous in the Everlight. After a long moment, she squeaked, “Karg wore this?”
Only once, the dragon nodded. But yes.
If it eases your mind, Venasta added, modulating the strength of his sending until it was like a whisper, it looks nicer on you than it did on her. You’ve a much more womanly figure. Beneath her mail, the Lady of Bears is all muscle and sinew.
Also, he added clinically, Karg’s hair is sun-golden. It clashed with the silver of the fur. Your locks make a far more complimentary pairing.
“Oh, thank you!” Ælyndarka squeaked, sounding as if she were being strangled. “Thank you very much!”
Just my opinion, the dragon shrugged. He shot her a silvery glance. By the by, love, I’d rather you didn’t tell her I said that. The Lady of Bears has quite a temper.
“Oh, mum’s the word,” the elf-woman said faintly.
At a high mountain tor, in a saddle between three needle-pointed, glimmering peaks, the great dragon spiralled in, thudding heavily to earth and sinking knee-deep into the ice-crusted snow. Ælyndarka slid to one side in preparation for dismounting, but the dragon held up a claw to stay her. He looked around the cleft in the hills, took a deep breath…and the snow melted away. Before the elf-queen’s astonished eyes, the icy landscape retreated, bleeding away like morning mist before the summer son, and – to her utter amazement – leaving behind an untouched verdant sward. Thick, green grass abounded, peppered here and there with clover shoots. As she watched, slender tendrils peeped through the earth, exploding into broad leaves and gorgeous blossoms the instant they felt the Everlight.
All around them, for more than a hundred paces in every direction, warmth and moisture filled the air, banishing the cold, dry winds of the mountains. Pines shot up, narrow needles trembling with pleasure; and she thought she saw the telling tail-flash of an arctic hare as it scurried into the sudden underbrush, as much taken aback as she by the sudden change of scenery.
He had made a garden; a garden, just for her. “It’s lovely,” she sighed. “But why?”
She felt a tremor beneath her. The dragon was laughing. “What?” she asked.
We’ve been apart too long, love, and dealing only with your countrymen has dulled your wits. My long absence has made you forget. He grinned back at her to take the sting out of his words.
That you cannot conceal your moods from me. Or your desires. With immense gentleness, he offered her a claw and helped her to the grass. Perspective, it turned out, had tricked her; the waving blades were as high as her knees. Delighted, she kicked off her shoes, rolled her stockings down, and dug her toes into the earth. “What mood are you talking about, you old lizard?” she giggled.
There was the briefest of perturbations in the flux, accompanied by the subtle tingle she felt whenever he transformed. When she glanced over her shoulder, the dragon was gone, replaced by the tall, slender, silver-haired form of her lifemate.
He was conspicuously unclothed. “This one,” he murmured, holding out his hands.
Ælyndarka grinned, blushing furiously and cursing him for making her feel like a giddy schoolgirl. “I suppose I could be convinced,” she sighed theatrically.
Later – much later – they lay together on the grass, limbs intertwined, staring up at the slow whirl of glimmering colours that painted the sky above Dracosedes. “That was amazing,” she said drowsily.
“I thank you,” Venasta murmured. “One does one’s best.”
“Kurja!” The queen balled up her tiny fist and punched him in the shoulder. “I didn’t mean that! I meant this!” She waved a hand at the surrounding greenery. “I’m not exactly a neophyte at wizardry, but I wouldn’t even dream of attempting such a…a fantastic transformation.” She shook her head in wonder. “And so smooth! I didn’t feel so much as a hint of the flux!”
“That’s because it wasn’t a transformation at all,” her lifemate replied lazily. “I simply spoke to the fabric of the realm and asked it to alter itself to conform to my desire.”
“You’re saying you just…changed the world?”
She cocked a droll eyebrow. “And that doesn’t take magic?”
Venasta shook his head. “Dracosedes is the divine seat of Holy Miros, kaveri. All things here respond to her will. And I am her Viceroy.” He laughed softly. “For a little while longer, anyway.”
The casual reference to his impending death brought the fear back. She put a gentle hand on his chest, feeling the thud of his lifebeat, luxuriating in his simple presence after so long. “You’re saying, you just ‘willed’ the snow to melt, the grass to appear, and the flowers to bloom?” she asked, deliberately ignoring his last phrase.
“More or less,” he shrugged. “Honestly, love, I didn’t even think about it. I’ve been doing it for so long now that it’s almost unconscious. Dracosedes knows me. It knows my wants and my needs, and it answers. That’s all there is to it.”
Her brow furrowed. “So you just…what, spoke to the green? And it served you?”
“You don’t understand.” Lowering her shoulders to the grass, Venasta rolled atop her again, supporting himself on his elbows. His silver locks cascaded down around her face, brushing her cheeks like a curtain. “It’s not magic. I’m not even a sorcerer anyway, Elly. I haven’t been one since the Darkness, when I heard Holy Miros’ call, and became one of her champions. The magic that I wield is Her divine gift.”
“I know all that,” she sighed. “I remember everything you’ve ever told me.” She put her hands on his cheeks, struggling to maintain her equanimity. She really did want to talk, but her body betrayed her, and she found herself almost involuntarily pressing up against him.
“I know you do,” Venasta nodded. “What you need to understand is that this power – the power to warp the world to my will – will pass on when I do. No one will come after me.”
That banked her fire. “What do you mean?” she exclaimed, suddenly chilled.
“Exactly what I said,” he sighed. “There are none to whom I may pass the mantle of Viceroy. It ought to have been Glory, of course, but no one’s seen her in a hundred years.”
“Who’s Glory?” Ælyndarka frowned. “Oh, you mean Thundering Glory, don’t you?” She struggled to remember the ancient silver dragon’s name in the Wyrmspeech. “Jyrinaaya Autuus?”
“Yes,” Venasta nodded. He glanced around. “This...my task, I mean...was to have been hers.”
“What happened to her?”
Venasta shrugged. “If I knew, I’d be able to do something about it, wouldn’t I? I’ve been looking for the better part of a decade, and haven’t found any traces of her. Except one. And it led nowhere.”
“What was it?” she asked. To keep herself amused, she ran her nails lightly over his ribs, remembering how he had enjoyed that.
“She came to see me…oh, about three and a half centuries ago now, I guess,” he replied, obviously struggling to recall. “At Arx Dentis. She was looking for hints about where the Miruklær might be found.”
“Good luck to her, then,” the queen snorted. “Magi have been searching for that for five millennia. Bloody Tîor hid it too well.”
“That’s what I told her,” Venasta nodded. “What stuck in my mind, though, wasn’t the fact that she wanted it. It was what she wanted it for.”
“And that was…”
He cocked his head, grimacing. “Well, time is the one force in all the universe that even the gods must obey, isn’t it?”
Her eyes flew open. “I didn’t know that!”
“Very few do,” he shrugged. “But it was implicit in the fabrication of the World Made. In the Void there is no duration, no decay; only constant change. When Anā and Ūru bound the universe together, they had to effect a primal differentiation to create and stabilize the act of severance. Duration was the ontological underpinning that they chose.”
Ælyndarka smiled. With a single exception, she wasn’t used to talking to anyone that much smarter than her. “You remind me of Kalestayne.”
“I’ve met the Magister Magnus,” Venasta winked. “I like him a great deal. I debated him at a symposium once, in the guise of a Gasparri loremaster. He had no idea who I was. We had a fabulous dialectic. It went on for a day and a night.”
“Who won?” she asked, fascinated.
“He did.” Venasta shrugged. “I could’ve countered his winning argument, of course, but doing so would have required revealing who I really was.”
“How so?” she asked, puzzled.
“We were debating the principle differing interpretations of the intent of the Holy Mother in crafting the Kindred with free will and their respective implications for errant conduct,” Venasta explained. “Kalestayne took one side of the argument, and I took the other.”
“Oh?” the queen smiled. “Which interpretations?”
“Kalestayne defended the infralapsarian paradigm, while I stood as advocate for the supralapsarian perspective,” the dragon replied.
Ælyndarka blinked. “Hunh?”
“I thought you studied philosophy at the College?” Venasta chuckled. “Infralapsarians contend that mortal free will is a consequence of their ability to do evil. Supralapsarians believe that mortal evil is a consequence of Bræa’s decision to grant your kind free will.” He shook his head. “Believe me, the philosophers of your realm have spilled an ocean of ink deconstructing the merits of both ideas.”
“Which one do you believe?” she asked, frowning.
“The Kindred do evil because they have the freedom to do so,” Venasta grinned. “You could call me a dyed-in-the-hide Supralapsarian. But not by virtue of any special insight or reasoning on my part, I assure you. I simply know it for a fact.”
“How?” the queen asked, nettled.
“Bræa told me,” the dragon shrugged. A grin displayed his teeth again. “But it wouldn’t have been fair to mention that in my debate with Kalestayne. Besides, he deserved to win; he was the better rhetorician. By the time he was done talking, I was half-way to taking his side – and I knew from the Holy Mother’s own lips that he was wrong! I preferred to leave him the victory.”
“To get back to the point I was making,” he went on before she could interrupt again, “because Anā and Ūru built time into the foundation of the universe, time – like light and dark – is one of the ordinal forces of the World Made. When Anā and Ūru later brought forth the Powers, time was woven into their being. This did not please them, as you can imagine, and by an act of their collective wills, time is normally suspended for them, so long as they remain here in the outer realms. It takes almost all of their power to deny its passage, and their denial endures only within the scope of the realms they command. It’s why they so seldom leave them.
“However,” he continued, “because Anuru was created as a battleground for the Powers, time had to be allowed to flow normally there. In the mortal realm, all things decay. Even gods.” He grinned sadly. “Even dragons.”
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she swallowed heavily. “Why…why did Thundering Glory…what did she want with the Miruklær?”
Venasta cleared his throat nervously. “Well, she reasoned that if even the gods were subject to time in Anuru, she might be able to use Tîor’s discoveries against one of them.”
The queen frowned. “She wanted to use time-magic against a god?”
“The Weird of the hopea burned extraordinarily bright in Glory. She was willing to risk everything to spare the Kindred their suffering.” The dragon-elf’s silver eyes whirled brightly. “She told me that once she found the Miruklær, she was going to destroy Ekhalra.”
Ælyndarka choked on a breath. “What?!” she gasped once her windpipe had cleared again.
“You heard me.”
There was a long silence. At last, the elf-woman said, “Well, that’s…pretty ambitious.”
“Glory was never one for thinking small,” Venasta observed glumly.
“Did she ever try?”
“I don’t know. I thought of that; I often wondered whether, just maybe, she’d been able to find the Dark Queen’s fastness in the depths of Yl of Wonders, and confronted her, and had been slain.” He shrugged. “But I have no way of learning the truth. I’ve searched for the lost myself, and have never been able to find it.”
“Hmm.” She nodded absently. “So…to return to the original point, then, is there no-one else who could take over from you as Viceroy? Why couldn’t your son Svarda do it?”
“ ‘My’ son?” Venasta’s eyebrows rose. “You are my lifemate, Elly. The fact that he was born of another true-mate is of no moment. By our custom, he is your son too.”
Ælyndarka snorted a laugh. “I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose he is, isn’t he? My question stands, though; why couldn’t he do it?”
“Because he is too young,” the silver-haired ‘elf’ replied gravely. “And too inexperienced. In time, he may merit such an honour. But not yet.”
“And there’s no one else?” she asked, astonished.
“There are many,” Venasta shrugged. “Both in the outer planes, and in Anuru. But they all have flaws. After Glory, M’hallannias – she’s a kulta, a gold – would be my first choice. She is an accomplished mage. But she also is too young; as with Svarda, the older dragons would not heed her will.
“I had also approached one of the mightiest of the valtameri, Lallgahenador of Kohtagard, last summer. I think he is likely to refuse, even though he already lives here, in Dracosedes.”
Valtameri, she knew, meant ‘ocean’ in wyrm-speech. It was what the dragons called their bronze brethren. “Anyone else?”
“If Lal refuses, the next one on my list is Anachromin Ferrous,” Venasta shrugged. “You see how desperate I have become. He’s a rauta – an iron dragon. Stern and honest, yes, and mighty, too; but he is too dedicated to order above all other things. I’m not certain that he could be trusted to always do what is right, rather than what is merely expedient. And because of that, I don’t know that Holy Miros would accept him as her envoy.”
A sudden though occurred to Ælyndarka; a name that Ara had once mentioned to her. “What about Ashoda Kaldis? He’s a silver, isn’t he?”
“He is,” her lifemate nodded gravely. “And he is virtuous and powerful. But he has only ever aspired to the Ascendancy.” He frowned in disapproval. “He rejected the Weird of the hopea long ago, and cares nothing for the fate of the Kindred. The affairs of the Universe are of no interest to him. He seeks only perfection, and has no desire to lead.”
“You don’t like him, do you?”
“I don’t trust him,” Venasta corrected. “He is powerful and wise, to be sure. But I will not leave your fate, and the fate of all your kind, in the claws of one who does not share in our Weird.”
She frowned. “You’re in a bind, my love.”
“I am,” he agreed. “And regrettably, I have little time left to find my successor.” He smiled. “One week more; the last tick-tock of the ancient clock.”
The lump in her throat swelled and burst at that, and her carefully maintained control melted into tears. She threw her arms around his neck, pulled him down to her, and sobbed into his ear.
He held her gently, stroking her hair and letting his breath tickle the back of her neck until the fit passed.
In time, the warmth between them returned. When it became heat, she snickered again. “You don’t feel all that old, my love,” she grinned.
Venasta pulled his face back, flicked the tears from her cheek with a gentle thumb, and returned her smile with one of his own. “Unlike you paltry mortals,” he intoned solemnly, “the First-Born retain their immense vitality even in extreme old age.”
“I noticed your vitality. It’s hard…not to.” Shifting her hips slightly, she found what she was looking for and arched her back, sighing deeply.
He shifted his position a little to oblige her. “Is that what you were seeking?” he chuckled.
“It is.” She grinned suddenly. Her breath came quicker. “Though I don’t know whether ‘immense’ is the right word for your…your vitality, my…my good lord.”
He smiled. “Would you describe it as ‘adequate’, then?”
“G-g-gods, yes,” she breathed. “Yes, I…I suppose…”
Venasta laughed. “You’re as insatiable as ever, aren’t you?”
“I’m worse…than ever,” she corrected, breathing deeply as they began to move against each other. “I’ve been waiting…a lifetime to…to touch you again!”
“And while you waited, I got old,” he murmured. He matched her rhythm and kept it up without apparent effort. “I’m so sorry, Elly.”
“Don’t be.” She clutched at him, digging for purchase with her nails. “We’re to…together again.
“And like I said,” she grinned, gasping, “you don’t…feel all…that old…to me…”
Later, as they relaxed together and watched the undulating colours of the sky in silence, Ælyndarka suddenly stiffened and spat a curse.
“What is it?” he asked, alarmed.
“This bloody place!” She pointed up. “There’s no Lantern. There’s no night! We’ve been here for hours at least, but there’s no way to tell how long!”
“There are many ways,” he disagreed. “Your own lifebeat marks the moments. Your hair is longer than it was when we arrived, and your talons, too.”
“They’re called ‘fingernails’, you great lizard,” the Queen murmured.
“We grow thirsty,” he went on, ignoring her, “and hungry.” He tickled her ribs. “Are you not hungry, kaveri?”
“Not for food,” she said with a playful smirk. “But that’s not what I meant. I meant that without the Lantern, there’s now way to know exactly how much time has passed.”
“But there is.” He pursed his lips. “Perhaps I should have brought my clepsydra. However, it is possible to calculate elapsed duration. I have not counted my lifebeats; but since we arrived at this spot, we have coupled five times. Each encounter lasted approximately two sticks, except for the second, when you selected a position that was unfamiliar to me.”
“Is that a complaint?” she asked archly.
“Merely an observation,” he shrugged. “I am delighted to find that, even at my advanced age, I still have things to learn. Objectively, however, it led to you reaching the stars and clouds rather more quickly than usual.”
“That’s why I suggested it,” the elf-woman drawled.
“Doubtless. In any event, the reduced duration of that episode was offset by our fourth encounter, when you ordered me – if I recall your exact words – to ‘slow down and take my bloody time.’”
Ælyndarka flushed to the roots of her hair.
“And of course,” he went on implacably as she coloured to the shade of a beet, “there were several sticks of idle chit-chat in between each engagement. Adding the five or so sticks you slept between the fourth and fifth couplings…” He broke off suddenly. “Kaveri, are you trying to injure me?”
She was punching his shoulder repeatedly with her small fist.
“Because if you are,” he went on, showing no visible signs of distress, “you must know that you would need an epic weapon to so much as scratch my hide.”
She gritted her teeth and kept punching. “Can…I…borrow…one?!” she hissed between clenched teeth.
“What is distressing you?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
“I forgot how gods-cursed clinical you can be!” She hit him a final time and shouted, “Stop trying to analyze this!”
He gave her a puzzled look. “I was simply trying to explain how it might be possible to calculate that time is passing.”
“I know time is passing!” she cried. It was nearly a sob. “I know!”
Venasta was nothing if not wise. He shut his mouth, put his arms around his lifemate, and simply held her close.
It took her some time to calm down. When her heart and her mood had moderated somewhat, she screwed her courage to the sticking-place and, staring up into the pastel majesty of the sky, asked the question that she had been dreading. “How…how will it happen?”
“How will what happen?”
“When you…when it’s time…” She couldn’t finish.
“Ah,” he nodded. “It’s simple enough. On Bræa’s Dawn, at the Hall of Ages, I will convene the Council one final time.
“I will take my leave of my friends and colleagues, ceding the Stone to my son as First Speaker pro tem. I will then descend the mountain to the tomb of Jawartan, where he, the mightiest of my ancestors, rests in glory and gilt darkness, and bow to his ancient bones. And to those of his friend and your ancestor, Yarchian, the last High King of the Elves.”
Ælyndarka nodded. The whole world knew the tale: how Yarchian had fallen at the Gloaming of the Wyrms, the great battle that had put an end to ancient Harad and the Age of Wisdom; how his companion and war-mount, Jawartan Ensihopea, lord of all silver dragons, had born the king’s broken body back to Dracosedes in his talons, laying him in an empty grotto above the Funeral Plain, an honour that had never been accorded any non-dragon before or since; and how, after bidding farewell to family and friends, and begging their forgiveness for failing to prevent the fall of the mortal world before the fires and shrieking hordes of Bardan, he had embraced the Twilight, and passed on, with the elf-king’s body still cradled in his mighty claws.
He paused, reflecting. “I have visited the grotto many times, to pay the kolehti, as is required of us all. And in the hope that I might touch his ancient courage and understanding. I think he comprehended the Weird of the hopea better than any other of our kind.”
“Did you ever…did you ever find what you sought there?” she asked in a small voice.
Venasta shook his head. “While many of our kind stay on in spirit, Jawartan did not. He went on to oblivion, and did not linger.” He sighed heavily. “I was present when he passed, my love. He was a dragon at the height of power and majesty. I have never been able to understand why he left.”
I do, Ælyndarka thought to herself. I understand. But she said nothing.
He was silent for a long moment. At last he shook himself and went on. “From the grotto, I will fly to the Funeral Plain” – he snorted in amusement – “and find a comfortable spot. My friends will accompany me, and my enemies too, those who care to do so. I will speak my testament and make my bequests. And then I shall simply…depart.”
Ælyndarka swallowed hard, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice. “How…how does that…”
He turned to look at her, silver eyes gleaming. “The Twilight is always with us, my love. It is there for the taking. When we are young, life is sweet, and its grip is strong. If it becomes unbearable, and we wish to depart, then we must seek out the Twilight, and grasp it in both claws, and embrace it.
“But at my age,” he laughed drily, “the Twilight is ever-present. At the back of the mind, in the touch of winter, in the beckoning of the shadows. When we grow old, it is the Twilight that pulls at us. It takes an act of will to deny its embrace. I have done so, holding it at bay for many, many years now. I know its savour of old, Elly; the Twilight has been my constant companion since long before you were born. I no longer need to seek it out; when the time has come, I will simply cease to resist its call...and I shall depart.” He shrugged. “It is as simple as that.”
The elf-queen shivered violently. “But…how do you know that the time, this time…how do you know it’s right?”
He kissed her gently on the top of the head. “It is given to us to know.”
She took his hand and held it between both of hers. “I want to be with you when it happens.”
“It would do me great honour if you were,” he murmured.
Silently, her shoulders shaking, she began to weep again.
He kissed her damp cheek. “I hate seeing you cry.”
“It’s too soon!” she bawled.
Venasta sighed. “You don’t know what you’re saying, Elly,” he said softly. “You know how old I am in your head, but you don’t comprehend it in your heart.”
He stared up at the shifting pearlescence of the Everlight. “I have seen more than four thousand winters wax and wane,” he murmured. “I was hatched in the eighth century of the Age of Wisdom, during the early days of the peace of Yarchian – not long after the end of Bîardath’s bloody reign, and Mærglyn’s rebellion, patricide, and defeat at the hands of Bræa and the Army of Light. I met her then, when I was just a hatchling – I saw the Holy Mother, wearing her mortal manu, walking among the elves, living as one of them, teaching them. I knew all the names of legend – like brave Fineleor and his lifemate Anja. He was stern and strong, and she was like him; so terrible, so grim, and yet so very beautiful.”
His eyes grew distant; their silvery whirling all but ceased. “I knew the sons of Esu, too, at the apex of their empire, in all the martial glory of their youth. I flew above the lofty heights of Yl – Yl of the Towers, Yl of Wonders. I set my talons into the topmost spires of the Golden Hall, the greatest temple to Bræa Lightbringer that has ever been built. I felt the gold, cold and lovely beneath my claws, and yet such was the glory and marvel of Her worship that I felt not covetousness, but wonder.
“I counselled the kings and generals of men who lived and died there,” he went on, “and I taught their priests and their wizards. I instructed their smithies, and healed their sick, ran and played with the children, and learned wisdom from those who awaited the end of their days. I knew Yl of Wonders in its heyday, kaveri, and revelled in its unparalleled majesty.” His expression grew bleak. “That was before the Darkness came, and Ekhalra lay her fist upon the world of men, and made their golden city, the greatest city in all the world, into a place of darkness, of terror, and of blood.”
“Did you know Yarchian?” the elf-queen asked, fascinated. Her lifemate had never spoken to her like this before.
“I did,” Venasta nodded, his silvery eyes distant. “I knew him well. My grandsire Jawartan presented me to the High King of your people when I was a new-blooded warrior, young and eager, courageous and stupid and naïve. I was only four hundred years old when I bore Yarchian’s herald, Sivinakis Priicis, to Oldarran and the Gloaming, where the old world ended, and my race nearly died. Because of my youth” – he smiled, rueful at the memory – “the King refused to allow us to fight in the front rank. And so we were spared the first clash of fang and fire, and thus were among the fortunate few who survived. It was Sivin and I who scoured the field after Yarchian’s fall, and found the Alurenqua, the black sword of the elf-kings, the blade forged by Tîor himself five hundred years before my first flight, and returned with it to Starmeadow.
“Apart from Oroprimus and his dread sister,” he said in a soft, hollow voice, “– and they might as well be gods, those two – I am the last mortal creature who knows what the world was like before the Darkness. The only other living being in all the World Made who saw those days come and go was Kayubesi, the great oak-heart called Centang Lewat, the last of the four Wardens of the Woodlands, who lived in the southern reaches of your land. But he has returned to the green. He ceded his title and his charge to our great-grandson a few moons ago. I am the last who lives, that saw those days of courage, and glory, and despair. Now I am very, very weary.” He stroked her hair with supreme gentleness. “My time has come at last. I have earned my rest.”
“ ‘Our great-grandson’,” Ælyndarka murmured. “Young Breygon, as he calls himself. That’s quite a coincidence. Isn’t it?”
“I have seen four ages of the world come and go, dear heart,” Venasta replied gravely. “Coincidence is an illusion.”
The queen frowned. “All those long years, and you ended up with me. I suppose I should be grateful that I shared at least a few years with you.” She glanced up at her lifemate. “A happy accident?”
“The happiest,” Venasta chuckled. “And the most fortuitous in my long life. I had only meant to quell what I thought to be the makings of a civil war in the elf-realm. When I came to your chambers, my sole intention was to rescue you from Percorian and his brothers. I never knew that doing so would lead me to my Weird, and that my Weird was to become your lifemate.”
“But not your true-mate,” the queen grumped.
“I beg to differ,” he chuckled, giving her nose a gentle tweak. “I believe you’ve met our children. You would not have clutched if the bond betwixt us had not been true.”
“It’s not the same thing,” she shivered.
“Not, it absolutely is not!” he agreed. “And that too was a stroke of luck for you. Had our places been reversed, you’d’ve spent two years sitting on a nest built into a glacier. I don’t think you have the temperament for that sort of thing.”
She hit him again. “That’s not what I meant!”
“I know,” Venasta said soothingly. “I know.” He seemed to hesitate a moment before plunging on. “Does it make any difference to know that in all that time, you were my only love?”
“Hah,” she snorted. “I find that unlikely.”
“Perhaps. But true.” He frowned. “I am speaking as precisely as I can, kaveri. I’ve had…” he paused, considering. “Thirty-one true-mates of my own kind, in my time. One hundred and seventy-nine hatchlings in all. Most recently, as you must’ve guessed,” he added, “I mated Svardargenta’s mother.”
“It didn’t last?” Ælyndarka asked coolly.
“True-matings rarely do,” Venasta chuckled. “The blood calls to us, and if we must we forsake our lifemates for a time, to couple with the true-mate and produce the strongest possible offspring. We are driven to this neither by love nor by desire, but by instinct. We are what the Ender made us. In any case, neither she nor I desired a more profound liaison, though honour compelled me to remain at her side until our clutch had hatched. Once our get had taken to the skies and found their names, we parted amicably.”
“What was her name?” the queen asked.
“Why does it matter?” the dragon replied, expressionless. “Love, she met her end in battle centuries ago. Many years before you took the throne.”
The elf-woman shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I was just wondering why you didn’t…why the two of you did not become lifemates.”
Venasta smiled lopsidedly. “I already had a lifemate, you ninny.”
“You mean me,” she snorted.
“You are the only lifemate I have ever taken.” He kissed her gently. “The Weird of the hopea is to care for the Kindred, yes. But the Weird of my long life, Ælyndarka Æyllian, was to love you. And only you.”
Ælyndarka shivered, thinking of the immensity of that life. There wasn’t much that she could say to that sort of declamation. “Well…it took you long enough to find me,” she sighed at last.
“It certainly did,” he agreed with feeling. “But it was worth the wait.”
He hesitated for a moment, then went on in lower tones. “Love, I did not wish to raise this, but I must. I was wearing this shape” – he tapped his breastbone –“when we met. It was a measure of expediency at the time; but I had to retain it to answer the political needs of our marriage in the elf-realm. To maintain the guise of Duke Percorian, I kept to it throughout our time together…including when our young were conceived.”
“I remember,” she winked. “Great gods, how I do remember!”
He smiled without humour. “This is serious. You know what I had to do, to protect our children.”
Sobered by his manner, she nodded.
“I do not know what will happen when…what I mean is, you need to be prepared…”
“I know,” she interrupted. “I know.” But she didn’t need to be prepared, did she? Not really. Not if she…
Don’t think it. Don’t even formulate the thought. He’s too –
Too late; he must have sensed something, felt something. “What are you planning?” he asked sharply, turning to stare at her.
Ælyndarka kept her expression carefully sad. “I’m just thinking about how much I’ll miss you,” she temporized. That, at least, was the truth.
Her answer seemed to mollify him. “I’ll miss you, too,” he murmured. “You are Kindred; I am wyrmkind. I am bound to the World Made, in spirit as in flesh. Even if it is granted unto me to remain beyond the Twilight in some unliving form, the time will still come when we shall be parted forever. When you die, yours is Bræa’s Gift – to journey to the Long Halls, and remain there for a time; and then to pass through the gray door at hall’s end, to travel beyond this, the gods’ prison. To pass on, to the world beyond the world.”
Tears were streaming freely from her eyes now, but she was not weeping. She put her cheek against his and let him hold her.
“I have seen many things, many wonders, in my time,” he went on, staring dreamily up at the shifting shades of the Everlight. “But you, my love…you shall see such wonders as even I have not dreamed of. When you depart the world of the living, your sielu will travel on. It will pass beyond the strictures of the Powers, beyond the span of all that is known, and into that which cannot be known. How I envy you!”
Ælyndarka heard the resignation in his voice and shivered violently. “Piss on Bræa and her gifts,” she grated. Tears were running down her cheeks. “If I had it in my power, I’d trade the world beyond the world for an eternity in the endless fire, if it meant that you would stay with me for but one day more.”
He held her close and chuckled. “Then it is fortunate,” he whispered into her ear, “that not even the Holy Mother has the power to grant such a request. When a dragon senses that the time has come and he decides to embrace the Twilight and depart, there is no force in all the World made – not even the Powers themselves – that can stay him.”
“I know there isn’t,” Ælyndarka murmured. “I know.” She laid her head on her lifemate’s chest, listening for the gentle thunder of his lifebeat.
In fact, she thought with calm resolve, I’m counting on it.