The Dragon Caller: Prologue and chapters 1-2

June 30, 2018 The Dragon Caller 0

Prologue (Ruell)

Ruell was blue this time, blue with black tips to his wings and tail, and big – perhaps the biggest yet… Muscular power rippled through him, so that he glided effortlessly. So exciting! It was awe-inspiring to have so much energy at his command.

~~~~~

Tonight I’m just cruising about, nowhere particular to go, nothing particular to do. Below me, the sea is black velvet, studded with diamonds where the sliver of rising moon catches a wave. Flying near me is a female, brown and gold, very pretty, not one I know. Not in the mood to be admired, though. She’s circling steadily, gazing down, looking for fish.

She dives suddenly, wings folding, spearing into the water with a great splash. Not so impressive – a young one, maybe. The water heaves and she surfaces. No fish. Should I show her how it’s done? Maybe make an offering? She isn’t in the mood just now, but another time…?

It’s too much trouble to go to, and I can’t be bothered. She’s not enticing enough, and when she’s grown a little, she’ll come to me. A couple of easy flaps, and I leave the little brown and gold dragon far behind. I rise effortlessly, the sea falling away below me, a shimmering carpet. Shall I go west, to the empty horizon? Or north, to the Shifting Isles? Or east…

~~~~~

He could see the island! There it was, clear as anything. Dragon eyes were much sharper than human ones. If he could only fly closer, he could see the palace and the bell tower.

~~~~~

Something is tickling my mind, some awareness that shouldn’t be there. I’ve noticed it before, but dimly, a far-off, distant thing, not anything to trouble about. It first intruded on my consciousness last winter, when I was sleeping in my cave. Not much reaches that far south, so I was intrigued, I’ll admit it. With the spring, I chose to wander northwards, and sometimes that odd prickle was there again. Nothing threatening about it, though. As if anything could threaten a fully-grown dragon!

Now it’s there again, but it isn’t distant, it’s right here, inside my head. And also somewhere else…

The impudence! I spin on one wingtip and power east, towards the coast, flying lower. There are humans there, many humans on the mainland, and also some on the scatter of islands that fringe the ocean, but I care nothing for that, not when my mind is being invaded. The nerve of this being… whatever it is. Where is it, the creature that dares to intrude into my mind? Is it a caller? Surely not! We destroyed them all, didn’t we? Let me just find this thing and it will feel the wrath of dragonkind. Now it’s north of me, but I turn in a wide sweep, so low that one wing is all but touching the sea below. North, north, now a little west… One of the islands then. But which one? By the bones of my ancestors, when I find this wicked thing…

A great roar bursts from my mouth, the flames stretching twice my own length. Which island is it? I’m getting so close—

1: Dragonflight (Ruell)

Ruell woke in a lather of sweat, his head heavy. The dreams were becoming too scary altogether. That was the first time his dream-dragon self had belched flames. He could still taste the hot sulphur in his mouth, feel the power of those great wings. And the anger – never before had he dreamt of dragon rage, and it still ricocheted through his body, jangling his nerves, making him shake with the echo of it.

He breathed deeply and waited. Beneath the surface emotion was something else, something deep and raw. He had no idea what it was, but every dragon dream left him this way, pulsing with some unearthly energy, like the almost inaudible roar of an underground river or distant thunder. Dragon magic, he called it, but he had no real explanation for it, accepting it as part of the experience of the dream. Sometimes, he’d even felt it at other times, a low rumble in the corners of his mind, there for a few heartbeats and then gone. But after a dream, it was strong and steadfast, lingering for a while before it faded away.

He leapt from his bed and raced to the window. Sometimes when he woke from one of his dreams there really was a dragon out there, flying above the water. Always too far away to tell whether it was the colour of his dream, though. Sometimes he was sure it would be, if he could see it more clearly, but at other times he laughed at his own foolishness for thinking that way. Tonight there were no dragons in sight, not from this window.

For perhaps an hour he watched, hoping, but with the cool light of dawn he turned to his shelf of books. Which one today? He knew them all by heart, but he still liked to read them again, murmuring the words to himself and touching the pictures. He liked the ones with pictures best.

There was one book that mentioned dreams, and perhaps that might be reassuring. He reached for the book, the embossed leather so worn with age that the title could not be read. But on the first page, in letters dark and strong, he read: ‘A Thorough Analysis of Dragons: Their Physiology and Behaviour, Newly Revised and Updated Edition by Eddor Karfordrin, Scholar Dignitarium of the Academia of Mesanthia. Printed in the Reign of the Fifteenth Empress and Dedicated with Humble Respect to the Glory of Her Great Empire’.

Ruell didn’t understand most of that, but it didn’t matter. He turned to the chapter and began to read.

‘Dreams of dragons are believed by the simple people to be prophetic, that if one envisages oneself in a particular place or engaged in a particular activity, then one will, in time, come to that place and accomplish that activity. This is utter nonsense, naturally, the merest superstition, as promulgated by those who have no understanding of the world. Only the Spirit of the Empress has the power to make true prophecies. That is not to say that such dreams are devoid of all meaning. To dream of seeing a dragon is…’

His fingers turned page after page, mouthing the words, immersed in the long-ago time when there was an empire and prophecies and everlasting books. And dragons! What would the world look like, if dragons and humans lived side by side, in harmony? His eyes flew over the pages.

‘…never been proved under rigorous conditions. On the other hand, to dream of flying is—’

“Ruell, did you miss the bell again?”

He jumped, and the book slid from his grasp and crashed to the floor. “Sorry. Didn’t notice.”

“We’re eating with Tella today, and you know what it’s like if we’re late.”

“I said I’m sorry!” He bent to pick up the book, but when he tried to close it, some of the pages protruded, dislodged by the fall. “Now look what you made me do, Garrett! It’s broken!”

“It’s just a book, Ruell.”

“Just a book?” he cried in indignation.

“It’s not real. Sooner or later, you have to get your head out of books and find your proper place in the world. Either that or go to the Academia in Mesanthia. There might be enough books there even for you.”

Ruell was mesmerised. “What do you know of the Academia? This book was written there!”

“Was it? Well, I went to Mesanthia once. Long time ago now. The Academia’s a big, fancy place. Look, I’ll fix the book later, all right? But you really need to get dressed, or we’ll be so late we’ll be cleaning the latrines for a month. Hurry up.”

Ruell hastily threw on some clothes. He always felt under-dressed beside Garrett, who was rarely seen without his armoured leather gear and swordbelt, no matter how early or late the hour. Garrett wasn’t tall, barely reaching above Ruell’s shoulder, but he was powerfully built and when he took his sword to the training court, the guards treated him with the utmost respect.

He followed Garrett out of the room and down the dusty winding stairs of the tower. His tower, as he liked to think of it, for no one else liked to live here. Mostly the rest of the Windblown Isle’s residents clustered in two or three of the main sectors of the palace, Tella and the chosen few in one, the guards and boatmen in another, and the lowly grunt workers in a third. The fetchers and carriers, as Garrett called them.

The bottom of the stairs was half silted up with a great heap of windblown leaves, brittle with age, crackling where they trod on them.

“They’ve got in here again,” Garrett said. “I’ll sweep it out later.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll do it,” Ruell said. “My fault for leaving a window open.”

They crossed the courtyard where Melliara was already hard at work, sweeping the morning’s leaves into a neat pile in one corner. She looked up and waved a casual hand at them. Ruell tried not to blush, and failed, smiling at her. Smiling – grinning inanely, more like. He wished he could be relaxed around women, the way Mikah was. He acted like it was no more than his due to be admired, and they flocked around him, giggling foolishly like mindless chickens around the cockerel. Whereas Ruell blushed and stammered and shuffled his feet. Especially with Melliara, but then she was so pretty. Her cheeks had a roundness to them, so soft and smooth, that made his heart hammer in his chest. He was so stupid near women, and they just laughed at him, he was sure of it. Still, it was better that way, after what had happened behind the milking barn. To cover his embarrassment, he lowered his head and scurried after Garrett.

Guards watched the doors of Tella’s apartment. The Queen’s Tower, she liked to call it, and she’d had a passing stonemason carve it into the lintel over the door. Or tried to. He’d struggled for days but only managed four letters before giving up. “Stone’s too ’ard,” he’d said and then, frightened off by Kestimar, he’d left. Within a few days, those letters had gone, the golden stone as smooth as it had been before. The palace was a strange place.

The guards threw open the doors and they passed through. Inside, there was no sign of the decay that infected most of the palace. Here no dust gathered, no leaves hurled themselves through open doors or windows, no spiders wove industriously in corners. The rugs glowed with vibrant colours, and even the air seemed alive, energy-giving, smelling faintly of honey and apple blossom.

Up wide stairs, along a corridor and into the sitting room, with its familiar mismatched furniture and shelves of dragons’ eggs. Ruell ran his fingers over them as he passed, feeling the tingling pulse of magic in each one, like a faintly beating heart. Except for the last one, the odd one that Garrett had brought. It had never quite matched, that one.

Through an ante-room they came to Tella’s dining room, a formal counterpoint to the homely sitting room. Here, the furnishings shone with polished wood, the intricate whorls of knotting making an entrancingly random pattern. As a small boy, Ruell had spent hours running his fingers round the tracery, spiralling in and out, never quite sure where he would end up. Nowhere else in the palace had wood like it.

His mother was already there at the table, wearing one of her new gowns, her face lighting up as she saw them enter.

“Garrett! Good morning. And Ruell! How thoughtful of you not to be late today, for you know how I like to eat on time. Come here and kiss me like a good boy.”

“Good morning, Mother. You’re looking well today.” He bent to kiss her cheek, still smooth as a young woman’s.

She laughed, knowing that she always looked well. No one would guess that she had seen more than sixty summers. What magic preserved her looks? Was it the palace? There was something strange about it, with so much decay everywhere, but not here in this part, the golden-walled Queen’s Tower. The rest of the palace was a mish-mash of reds and browns and greys and black, some walls of stone, some of brick, some shimmering almost like metal. The rest of the palace and the grounds around it tried constantly to cover everything with rotting leaves and dust and wind-blown detritus. But here, nothing rotted, not even his mother.

Kestimar, on the other hand… Such a big man, hunched up in his chair by the window like an over-sized spider, his hair wisps of grey, his arms and legs stick-thin. He glowered at Ruell, but said nothing. Ruell nodded at him, and took his seat at the table opposite his mother. He had no quarrel with Kestimar, but he was an irascible man, no doubt about it, and there was no point inviting trouble by speaking to him unnecessarily. It was Garrett, as always, who addressed the older man.

“Good morning, Kestimar. How are you today?” His tone was bright.

Kestimar growled like an animal. “Worse for seeing your ugly face. Don’t look at me like that, or I’ll cut those eyes right out of your head.”

“Ah, having a bad day, I see,” Garrett said with undiminished cheerfulness.

“Garrett, stop it,” Tella said, as she did every day.

“Why do you do that?” Ruell burst out. “Garrett’s being polite to Kestimar, why do you tell him to stop it? I don’t understand you, Mother.”

There was a silence so profound that the distant clatter of pans in the kitchen could be heard.

“Long story, Ruell,” Garrett said. “Not very interesting. Kestimar, do you want me to push you to the table?”

This time the growl was a roar. “Girl!” Kestimar yelled.

From the service door, not a girl, but a man emerged. Savroan, Kestimar’s attendant, was a big, ugly man with a pronounced limp. He grabbed the handles of Kestimar’s wheeled chair, spun him round and pushed him wordlessly to the table, so that he sat at Tella’s right hand.

“Where’s the girl? I wanted the girl,” Kestimar yelled, arms flapping.

“You made her cry,” Savroan said, his voice a low rumble. “Get me instead when you make the girls cry.”

“Fuck it, I want a girl, not a great lump like you!”

“Don’t we all,” Garrett muttered.

“Fuck you, Garrett! Fuck all of you! If I can’t do a fucking thing for myself, can’t I at least have something pretty to look at?”

“Gotta stop making them cry,” Savroan said.

“By the Nine, stop this!” Tella said. “Savroan, go and get the girl back. If she hasn’t enough stomach to listen to a bit of ranting, it’s time she learnt. I mean, look at him! He’s not going to hurt her, is he? It’s just words. She needs to toughen up. The Nine know, he has little enough pleasure in his life. And Garrett, just shut up. Savroan, tell them we’re ready to eat now. Ruell, don’t sit there with your mouth flapping open.”

The trolley arrived on creaking wheels, the serving girls, with frightened eyes cast at Kestimar, set the dishes on the table, then scurried away.

Tella and Kestimar fell into their usual morning dance – he grumbling about everything, she trying to tempt his appetite with choice pieces of fruit or fish. Ruell had heard it all before, and always admired her restraint. His mother might be testy with everyone else when they displeased her, yet with Kestimar she displayed infinite patience. Ruell tried to emulate her, but it was hard to do when Kestimar put up such an effective wall against the world. He had always been tough to please, but now he was impossible and only Tella bothered to try.

The door opened to admit Mikah, as splendid as usual in his uniform. Ruell automatically sat up a little straighter. Mikah was only twenty-eight, very young to be the guard captain, and there had been some muttering about his rapid promotion, but to twenty-year-old Ruell he was a hero.

“Good morning, Majesty,” Mikah said, bowing low.

Garrett smothered a laugh. For some reason that Ruell had never understood, it amused Garrett greatly whenever anyone addressed Tella that way. She liked to call herself a queen, and even though it was just a conceit, not a real title at all, it was only polite for subordinates to address her with due deference. Ruell glared at him.

“Show some respect, you worm!” Kestimar growled. “Gods, if I had the use of my legs, I’d teach you respect!”

Garrett subsided, but the grin wasn’t entirely extinguished.

“Good morning, Captain Mikah,” Tella said, which set Garrett off again. Tella ignored him. “Sit down, do. What news?”

Mikah shot a quick glance at Ruell. “A dragon was sighted last night, Majesty. It flew quite close before veering away.”

Ruell leaned forward in his seat. “Was it blue? I’m sure it was blue!”

“Stupid boy!” Kestimar muttered. “Why should it be blue?”

“I dreamt of a blue dragon last night, that’s why,” Ruell said. “Maybe it was a prophetic dream. Was it blue, Mikah?”

“It was dark,” Kestimar growled. “No one can tell the colour of a dragon at night.”

“Actually, Commander, it was not long before dawn so the moon was up at the time,” Mikah said apologetically. “The watch guard didn’t note the colour, though. I’ll ask, if you like, Ruell.”

“Don’t encourage the child,” Kestimar said. “This obsession with dragons isn’t healthy.”

“Well, he’s had it all his life,” Tella said with a graceful lift of one shoulder. “He was conceived in a dragon cave, after all, so maybe there’s a touch of dragon in him.”

Kestimar grew so red-faced that Ruell thought he might explode. “You’re too soft on him, Tella. He’s twenty years old – he should be a hardened swordsman by now, not skulking alone in that tower with his books, his head filled with dragons.”

“He’s not cut out for sword work, or any heavy duties,” Tella said. “He’s always been delicate.”

“Delicate!” Kestimar spat. “You just coddled him.”

“He was always small for his age. I’ve had four, I ought to know what’s normal for a child by now. Just because he’s had a bit of a growth spurt lately doesn’t mean he’s up to wielding a sword.”

“And you’re such an expert on swordsmanship, I suppose. He’d do fine if he set his mind to it. Take Mikah – you never saw a less promising specimen when he first came here, almost as short as Garrett, and couldn’t lift a sword without falling over his own feet. Now look at him. Well, he’s still short, that can’t be helped, but he’s worked and trained and then trained some more until he became… reasonably competent, shall we say. He’ll never be good, unfortunately. It does take a certain amount of innate ability.” Mikah accepted the insult with his usual benign smile. “But Ruell – I’d make something of him, if you’d let me have the training of him. He just needs a few muscles on him.”

Tella shook her head, the dark curls bouncing. “No! Just leave it, Kestimar.”

Ruell kept his head down, concentrating on his plate. They’d had the same discussion many times over the years, always with the same outcome, and he had no fears that this time would be different. Even Kestimar, a man who didn’t usually accept a refusal, recognised that tone of finality in Tella’s voice. Still, it was unsettling. Normal. He wasn’t normal. He’d seen enough children growing up alongside him to know that much. Always the small, skinny one. Never able to run as well as the others, or climb or dance or… or other things that boys began to do when they reached a certain age. And women… after that one time behind the milking barn, he’d never tried again. No, he wasn’t normal.

“Maybe you have some other role in mind for your son, Majesty,” Mikah said smoothly, reaching for the jug of apple juice.

“What do you mean?”

“Even you can’t live for ever, Majesty. It would create greater stability for the business if you were to name your heir once and for all.”

“We’ve talked about this before, Mikah,” she said, frowning. “The time isn’t right—”

“The word from the Bay is that a couple of orders have slipped through our fingers because of uncertainty about the future,” Mikah said. “A ship is a big project, very time-consuming to build.”

“We build the best ships – the lightest and fastest on the coast,” Tella said. “We have ship owners all the way from Drakk’alona coming here to buy from us. The order book is full. So we lost one or two – what does that matter? You worry about defence, Mikah, and let me worry about business.”

“As you wish, Majesty,” he said evenly. “May I go to the Bay on the next run? We could do with a few supplies for the armoury.”

“Of course,” she said, smiling. “I might even come with you and talk to the shoemaker again. Ruell, would you like to come? Maybe the bookseller will have found another dragon book for you.”

The familiar burst of excitement exploded in Ruell’s chest. A new book! Even though most of the time the bookseller would look sad and shake his head when he saw Ruell arrive, sometimes – oh, those few glorious times! – there would be a wide smile and the joy of a new book set aside for him, a whole volume of new information about dragons.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Kestimar said, rolling his eyes. “Now look at him, grinning like an imbecile. Girl! Where is she? Someone get me out of here!”

Ruell laughed, too happy even to care about Kestimar’s bile.

2: Sand Eagle Bay (Garrett)

Garrett always enjoyed sailing with Tella. She may not have been a real queen, but she did things in such style, it would be easy to fall for the illusion. She wore a full-skirted silk gown, the neck and hems trimmed with embroidery and tiny iridescent shells, the voluminous sleeves lined with a different colour material. Over the gown she’d draped a cloak so fine the first drop of rain would soak it through. Her dark hair was always left loose to curl around her shoulders, and today her head was wound about with ribbons and garlands of small flowers like a crown. As the ship skimmed the waves, she stood at the prow, cloak and hair flying. She looked magnificent.

At the port’s harbour a crowd had already gathered, for the ship was famous, and when it flew the queen’s flag at the top of the mast, the town knew she was aboard and came to the quay to ogle her. An impromptu band made up of four or five of the wharf workers struck up a suitably stirring melody, if a little out of tune. Three men from the kylerand ran down the main street to greet such an important arrival. She was certainly important to them, for they were her own people and their jobs depended on her approval.

She stepped ashore with regal smiles, Mikah and his guard escort saluting her smartly. Ruell followed, then several of the island’s kitchen workers shopping for supplies with wheeled baskets, and three or four guards out of uniform, taking some time off. At the rear ambled Garrett, hands in pockets.

He let the others stride purposefully away ahead of him, set on their various destinations. The shoemaker. The bookseller. The armourer. The tavern. He was in no particular hurry, so he followed them slowly down the pier and along the landward wharves, busier than he’d ever seen them. Cranes hoisted, men heaved, netted crates and barrels swayed, overseers yelled.

At the far end of the quay, Tella climbed into a pull-along and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

At once Garrett stopped dawdling and turned swiftly into a narrow alley between towering warehouses, stepping aside here and there to avoid carts and mule dung. Another turn and another alley, this one opening out into a small dusty square, where shade trees sheltered lines of mules and a few benches for the old men and women to sit and gossip over their pipes. At the far side was Garrett’s destination, a long, low building, its wood grey with age. Over the porch stood a giant wooden bird, painted a garish yellow, and, just to be sure there was no mistake about the building’s purpose, a carved tankard of foaming beer.

The sign always made Garrett smile. The locals called the place the Golden Chicken, but officially its name was taken from that of the town. Sand Eagle Bay had not much sand and no eagles to boast of, and if there had ever been such a bird as a sand eagle, no one had seen one, except, perhaps, the wooden one perched above the tavern drinking ale. For most of its history, the town had huddled cautiously in solid stone buildings around the harbour, or in compounds behind high walls, as defence against the raiders who came with fire and sword, and carried off anyone they found into slavery. Now that the threat of raiders was gone, the town sprawled right to the edge of the ocean but the residents still built in stone, just in case.

The tavern, however, remained resolutely wooden. But then it had never had anything to fear from the raiders, being their mainland headquarters. Now it had found a new purpose in being the centre of information in the town, the place Garrett came to at the start of every visit to Sand Eagle Bay.

He pushed open the door, a bell clanging above his head. Inside, the big room was dark and cool, heavy with the smell of cheap oil lamps, stale stew and pipe smoke. A couple of the corners housed groups playing some kind of game with flats and small coins. A woman pushed a broom about in a desultory fashion. Behind the counter, a man scrabbled on the floor, only his back visible.

“Hi, Zamannah. How are you?”

A head emerged above the counter. “Garrett? Another quarter moon gone already? Goodness, how time runs by.”

Zamannah was much the same age as Garrett, but he looked younger. He had the clear, pale skin of the hill tribes of Thar-briana, so delicate he looked like a porcelain doll, his face free of the wrinkles and scars that graced Garrett’s weatherworn features. He was the nearest thing to a friend that Garrett had ever had.

“Here,” Zamannah said, sliding a tankard down the counter. “Get that inside you, friend. Driamora, if the floor is not swept by now, it never will be. Time to get to the kitchen and see about the soup.”

Wordlessly, the woman leaned the broom against a table and vanished through a distant door.

“Another new one?” Garrett said, taking a long draught of ale. “What was wrong with the last one?”

“She was bedding the customers,” he said. “Which is a fine and long-standing tradition in tavern workers, I acknowledge, if it takes place in the evening after the kitchen work is done, and I get my share of the profit, but she would be gone all afternoon. Pfft, so difficult to find a decent woman these days.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” Garrett said with a smile.

“Come on, you need not play the innocent with me,” Zamannah said. “You have never had any trouble getting women.”

Garrett shrugged. “Women who offer and women I’d want to bed are two different things. I’m too old to play games with every woman who gives me a smile and a wink.”

Zamannah snorted with derision. “Too old, friend? Fifty is no age, and you are as fit as a man half your age, so do not play the old man with me.”

“Oh, everything is in full working order,” Garrett said indignantly. “I’ve no objection to those games. It’s the other kind, where you bed them once or twice and they start hinting about marriage and babies, and getting uppity if you so much as look at another woman. Or they won’t let you near them again without presents. I like a woman who’s pleased to see me, gives me a nice cuddle and then waves me off in the morning with a smile. Uncomplicated, you know?”

“I know.” Zamannah sighed. “If you find one like that, and she has a sister, send her to me.”

“I will, and I trust you’d do the same for me. But this isn’t getting the sails mended, as they say. Tell me all the news, Zamannah. Is it true that Amontis has lost a couple of orders lately?”

“Not officially, but I hear rumours. Hakkirin has two ships already, and is wavering over the third, belatedly conscience-stricken dealing with former raiders. He is an old man, so he needs to square his misdeeds with his gods. As for Norre – he is just playing around. It is his wife who holds the purse strings, and she does not trust your queen, not one bit. You know how some women are with one who is more beautiful? And now that Lethryan is tooling up to build ships in the same style, you will have a rival for your customers.”

“Will his ships be cheaper? Better crafted? Faster afloat? More durable?”

“Probably not, but he is well known here, he has contacts in Drakk’alona and he has three lusty sons following him into the business. People like stability, friend. The Island Queen has done a great deal for the Bay, no one denies that, but it is also remembered what she was just a few short years ago. Amontis may be terribly respectable these days, but no one has forgotten the time when your people terrorised the coast. There is always the fear that she will turn back to those ways. Or her successor might, whoever he might be.”

“It won’t be Kestimar, if that’s what people are afraid of. He’s a shell of his former self, and there’s little enough fire in his belly these days.”

“Hmm. That is not what I hear, but you know him best. But who else could take over? Not that popinjay running things here, and as for the boy – he is weak, a dreamer. Now if you were to—”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Just no.”

“Very well.” Zamannah sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “Then there is Mikah.”

“Mikah!” Garrett said, slamming his tankard down so forcefully that ale slopped over the rim. “He’s twenty-eight years old, and barely knows which end of a sword to hold, even now.”

“He is guard captain. He must be good at something.”

Garrett laughed. “Indeed. He’s been warming Tella’s bed all winter.”

“Ack! I thought you—”

“Not for a while now, no. She’s easily bored, and likes variety.”

“But at least you are closer to her age,” Zamannah said in shocked tones. “He is so young and she… why, she must be more than twice his age.”

“She’s over sixty,” Garrett said. “Still in fine shape, though.”

“And that is unsettling, too. There is magic afoot somewhere, to keep her looking much as she did years ago. She has not aged a day since… well, since you came back here, friend. Whereas Kestimar has aged enough for two people, from much the same date.”

Garrett sipped his ale in silence.

“Well, you may keep your secrets, but others besides me have noticed something amiss and connected it to you, so have a care. As for Mikah, this is disappointing news, for that is the worst reason for a promotion.”

“What is more, he’s already dropping hints about the succession,” Garrett said.

Zamannah raised an eyebrow. “You think he has ambitions there himself? Hmmm. But then he is generally well liked, friend. Here, at least.”

“He’s well liked on the island, too, but no one thinks his promotion came because of his ability with sword or bow, or his leadership skills.”

“Will there be another outbreak of… disagreements? Things have been quiet since Kestimar’s day.”

Garrett shrugged.

“Let us hope it will not,” Zamannah said. “Enough blood has been spilled over the years, and another civil war could ruin Amontis, ship building, brewing and all. And then what will your queen do, eh, friend?”

*****

The grandiosely-named Amontis Mansion thrust its six stories towards the sky, glittering with marble facings and a multitude of windows. Scaffolding around the imposing portico supported several masons, all chiselling away industriously at a frieze of carved ships in full sail over the entrance. Inside, more marble in intricate multicoloured patterns on the floor echoed to Garrett’s booted feet. Women in softly draped gowns curtsied as he passed by.

He took the stairs two at a time, up and up and up again, passing an elderly man in the rich velvets of a merchant being hoisted aloft in the lifting chair. On the top floor, two men rose smoothly from behind a polished desk to greet him and escort him to the office. He shook his head in disbelief. As if he didn’t know the way! He came here every quarter moon bearing instructions from Kestimar.

Outside the door, one of his guides stepped in front of him to knock briskly on the door. Silence. Then a voice from inside. His escort threw open both doors and bowed as he passed through.

There was only one man inside, silhouetted against one of the windows. He was a little older than Garrett, but the years had been kinder to him. Still handsome, he had a full head of hair only just turning grey in a manner that made him look regal rather than old. And he dressed so well, in the velvets and satins and fine lawn shirts of a nobleman. Maybe he was, at that, or had been in a previous life, although he never spoke of it. It was something of a tradition on the Windblown Isles not to enquire too deeply into a man’s past. Every one of them had something to hide, and the right to leave it in the past was a principle Garrett would defend to his last breath.

“Ah, Garrett! Do come in!” An elegantly manicured hand waved him towards a chair. “Please, sit down.” As he gestured, a waft of perfume fluttered.

Whenever they met, Garrett felt grubby and unkempt, and very, very old. His face showed his whole history, one of fist fights and misjudged training sessions and a life lived under a blazing sun. Oh for smooth, unblemished skin, and a body not criss-crossed with scars. And a little more height. There were advantages to being small enough to escape notice in a crisis, it was true, and more than once an enemy had made the fatal mistake of underestimating him. Besides, being short had given him a fierce desire to beat everyone to pulp, and he’d worked hard to be capable of it. But by the Gods, looking up at people all the time was very tedious. Sadly, even magic couldn’t make him taller, no matter how much he wished it.

“Wine, Garrett? Do try this one, it’s from a very promising new vineyard near Thar-briana.”

“Gods, Jonnor, what are all these people for? Women in the entrance hall, and those two blocks of wood who saw fit to show me to the door. What’s that all about?” He slumped into a chair, legs stretched out.

Jonnor raised his eyes to the ceiling with a sigh. “Good morning, Jonnor. How are you, Jonnor? What a pleasant day, Jonnor. Any of these would be acceptable but no, you have to come in here whining like a child. What have you done? It’s all different. That’s my job, Garrett, to be the public face of Amontis, and let me tell you, the customers like the girls who greet them, and they like being escorted to my office.”

“Well, I don’t, and since I’m not a customer, there’s no need to make the effort with me. Shall we get down to business?”

“I suppose so.” He poured wine for himself but not for Garrett. “And how is everyone on the island?”

“Fine. Everyone’s fine.”

“Kestimar? No worse?”

“Just the same as ever.”

“And Tella?”

There was always that softer edge to Jonnor’s voice when he talked of Tella. Garrett suspected that he’d rather fancied himself in love with her at one time, and even now there was a tenderness towards her that belied the utter selfishness of the man in other ways. Well, Garrett couldn’t quarrel with Jonnor’s taste in women, for he’d been half in love with her himself, once. More than half, perhaps, and not his restrained, sensible half, either. She was the kind of woman to attract men like wasps to a honeypot, and many a man harboured a secret passion for her, if the truth were known. She’d never favoured Jonnor with any particular attention, but Garrett couldn’t fault him for his devotion over the years.

“Tella’s in her usual excellent health.”

Jonnor grunted. “What are Kestimar’s wishes this time?”

“His orders are here, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary.” Garrett fished two crumpled sheets of paper from a pocket, making a valiant attempt to smooth them out.

Jonnor took hold of them by the fingertips, looking at them distastefully. He laid them out on an angled writing box, and then picked up a writing stick, making swift marks here and there on each paper. For all Jonnor looked like a foolish aesthete, he was as sharp as a dagger when it came to the business, and made his dispositions with admirable decision.

Garrett stared blandly into space, pretending to take no interest. Jonnor thought his marks were out of sight, but to Garrett it was not so. His magical ability was a small but useful one – to look through another person’s eyes and see exactly as they saw. With a quick shift in his mind, he was able to see the papers spread out and note every mark that Jonnor made. It had taken a while to work out the meanings of the marks but now Garrett knew instantly which instructions Jonnor planned to comply with, which he would delay and which would be ignored altogether. He never used the information, but it gave him inestimable pleasure to see the small ways in which Jonnor defied his superior, and Kestimar’s bewilderment when his clear instructions inexplicably failed to bring the expected results.

“Anything else?” Jonnor said, laying down the stick and scooping up the papers into a neat pile.

“I’m to tell you that he’s disappointed in the delay to the Sundancer, and he wants to know if it’s true about Lukran day Norre taking his custom elsewhere.”

“Pfft, what nonsense!”

“No truth in it, then? Contracts being drawn up as we speak?”

Jonnor reddened slightly. “It’s not quite that simple. Norre is a complicated man who needs to be… coaxed into an agreement. He needs to feel he is in charge of the process.”

“Even when he isn’t? I hear his wife is the one in charge.”

“You hear wrong,” Jonnor said, eyebrows snapping together. “Why do you listen to gossip, Garrett? I have Norre well in hand. If you want gossip, there are more rumours of dragons near the islands. People think it’s only a matter of time before they find their way to the coast.”

“No point worrying about what may never happen. Especially if it involves dragons. If they want to eat us all, there’s not much we can do about it.”

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” Jonnor said smugly. “This whole building is dragon-proof. Stone exterior, metal shutters to cover all the windows, and essential supplies in the basement, in case we get trapped here. The dragons will get bored and fly away long before we run out of food.”

Garrett laughed. “And water? Where does that come from?” Jonnor’s lips compressed into a puzzled line. “Don’t tell me your only water source is the well in the yard at the back?” He shook his head, amused. “First rule of siege warfare – secure your water supply. Then food, then defensive strategies.”

“And what would you know about siege strategy?” Jonnor sneered. “You can barely read and write.”

“No, but Kestimar can, and he’s had a proper education, too. He understands all this stuff. Believe it or not, there was a time when he looked kindly on me, and let me pester him with questions. He taught me everything I know about sword-work and battle tactics and warfare. Used to talk for hours, and had the whole canteen mesmerised. He was always bitter and angry, but he had flashes of friendlier behaviour, too. Then Tella showed up and he settled for bitter and angry on a permanent basis. Gods, he was angry! Things got difficult after that. But he’s got a sharp mind, and you’d better not forget it.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

“Ack, Jonnor, don’t get uppity. We’re all on the same side, aren’t we? You, me, Tella, Kestimar…”

“So who’s on the other side?”

Garrett folded his arms. It was an interesting question, with many possible answers. “Everyone,” he said eventually. “Everyone who isn’t us is on the other side.”

“That’s a very pessimistic view of life,” Jonnor said.

“True. But it’s kept me alive all these years, so I’m sticking to it, if it’s all the same to you.”

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