“What do you mean we can’t send out a single rescue ship? You already have volunteers–” I gesture towards Fin, Silv and Elen, who stand silently by my side. “All you need to do is provide us with resources, we could do the rest!” My voice is cold, angry, tight. It took me three tries and hours of waiting to get this meeting with their Council. I’m not going to give up this easily. I flick my gaze from one flat face to another. They were impressed enough with my claim on princehood, but I have no magic to show them, and they don’t appear to trust the crew’s assertions that Briareth definitely survived his jump. Much less that he has magical abilities and training that might make him uniquely suited to survive a den of feral dragons.
“Unfortunately, Prince Faladel” A nasty Kashan by the name of Tuppin Bodnist says, putting an emphasis on the word so as to call even that into doubt, “We’re simply overwhelmed right now with refugees, scavenging supplies, and outfitting the ships to bring in more. We don’t have the time or resources to let you hunt one friend down who was stupid enough to jump onto the back of a dragon.”
“Are you suggesting,” I say, raising an eyebrow and meeting his red eyed stare with one of my own. “that the member of a diplomatic embassy who fought to protect your citizenry isn’t worth a week’s rations for a company of three in this country?” I don’t count Fin; he’s assured me he doesn’t need rations.
“Of course we don’t mean to suggest any such thing–” A Tadhiel breaks in, “It is just difficult for us to imagine a reality in which your friend survived as you claim.”
“You mean you don’t believe me.”
“Would any sane person?” Tuppin cuts in again. “You come to us, claiming all sorts of nonsense, but you have no proof for any of it. No papers, no magical abilities that you can demonstrate, only your own word, your status as an unknown, and the words of three–” He glances at Silv, Elen, and Fin, “–questionable sources. Is it any wonder we think you all biased, unreliable, and, dare I say– a liability?”
“First you insult my honor, and now you besmirch my companions?!” I fill my voice with outrage. It isn’t hard. “I come to you requesting simple resources with proof my eyes have seen and I will swear to. My friend has magical abilities and training that makes survival almost certain. These three would also swear willingly that he turned salted-water sweet, and that he survived his jump and was carried off. Yet you insult me, degrade those who have helped me, and say I can’t even have that which I request? Items so easy to procure, that in normal times they would be sold in your marketplace for mere coppers?” My eyes flick in turn to each of the nine faces staring at me impassively from their silver thrones. What little hope I have dies. Some look away, others meet my gaze head on, blank stares giving away no thoughts. Tupin smirks at me, apparently taking delight in this.
“You must understand, young prince, it isn’t just the rations we cannot spare during this trying time.” The eldest Tadhiel says peaceably. “The people who go with you, volunteers they may be, but their services are truly needed elsewhere. The boat, the knowledge of how to use it, we are in dire need of both to ferry as many supplies from the ruined Outpost as we can scavenge. Although your friend is, of course, important, your tale of him surviving is… Highly unlikely at best. And if he does indeed have magical abilities that might serve him well in the Dragons’ nest, surely he can survive another week. We can meet again then.
“Are we in agreement on this?” He asks the others before I can protest. Silent nods, all around. “Then I am pleased to declare this meeting at an end.” He smiles at me. “We shall talk again next week. In the meantime, Brothers, let us adjourn for lunch.” There is a mumble of assent and old legs creak as they stand and leave, parting like a river around me and my friends. I stand frozen, disgusted by their eagerness to escape this room. It almost feels like they think their lunch is more important than Briareth. No, it isn’t almost. It is like they think it is more important! I can barely stop my lips from pulling back in a snarl. It looks like we’re going to have to go about this some other way.
A hand taps my shoulder and I twist, not hiding my anger as I spot the third Tadhiel Chairholder. He hadn’t spoken at all during the meeting, not choosing to voice his opinion or ask questions.
“I truly am sorry about your friend.” He says, smiling down at me. I’m not used to people taller than I am yet. It’s unnerving to look up at him. “I don’t doubt that he might have survived, but it will probably be a few days at least before you can go after him, even if I do help you in getting supplies. Would you like to stay at my house during that time?” I blink at him, surprised, and my confusion fades my snarl into a simple frown.
“You would help us?”
“The council won’t, but I, as an individual, would be glad to.” He smiles at me, white teeth matching the faded color of his thinning hair. He wears it short, and keeps his goatee trimmed to a fine point. I scan him, but am convinced this is no trick.
Letting my shoulders slump slightly, I admit “I’m sure we would be glad to take you up on your generous offer. It has not been, shall we say, the easiest time for us.”
“I’m sure, and I would love to hear the full tale of your misadventure over supper.” He says, turning away and glancing at my companions, “you will join us, of course?”
I wince internally. I hadn’t even thought to check. I should have looked to Silv, who leads their crew. Fin and Elen tend to follow her. She nods easily. “We follow where he goes. Especially if it eventually leads to the Dragons’ nest.”
“You have a special grudge against them?” The Chairholder asks curiously.
“Doesn’t everyone nowadays?” She answers dryly.
He chuckles. “True. One of the blessings of these times is the shared experiences and hatreds I suppose. Once the war is over, we will all go back to petty disputes, but for now at least we are united.” He starts walking out of the room, obviously expecting us to follow. We do, unquestioning.
The last day has been exhausting. From the time those horns blew, bringing the news all too late that the dragons were spotted, it was complete chaos. I was in the middle of negotiations with Silv and the Keeper of Outpost Seven, a capable Zytherling Matriarch by the name of Sotair Brygosom. They both immediately bolted in opposite directions after hearing the horns. I didn’t know who to follow, so I stood there confused for a few seconds before choosing to follow Silv back out into the mess that was the main corridor. There I was swept along in evacuations, unable to fight the tide of people, much less find a speedy Zytherling in the midst of all that.
I think Silv felt guilty for abandoning me, for the next time we met up, on the unloading docks of The Light that Guides the Lost Seas– the proper name of their Capital, as I learned on the sleepless trip over– she immediately promised to help me retrieve Briareth. Meanwhile, I wasn’t even aware that something had happened to him, and had just thought he was on a different ship of evacuees! I had been stressed before, hoping he’d been okay, and wondering if he’d been hurt or shot himself in the foot trying to defend the city. Little had I suspected he’d jumped on a dragon’s back, killed it, and then got carried off by its companions! Although, in hindsight, that sounds just like him.
Things only got worse from there. We didn’t have a place to stay, all the inns were filled, and the Chairholders were deep in discussion and weren’t seeing anyone. Four hours we waited in line before being told our story wasn’t worth hearing by guards. Another six hours, and another rejection. They were eating breakfast now, come back later. Four more hours, and finally we get in. But then they deny us anything.
Chairholder Helios-Lime III, however, shows us the first welcome we’ve had in The Light, and promptly instructs his servants to guide us to our bed chambers. I can’t even be surprised that they aren’t people at all, just constructs with no clear enchantments put on them. I’m too tired to consider it at all. I’m just content that my bed is warm and soft, and that the midday light is blocked by thick curtains as I fall asleep.
When I wake up, all that is left of my dreams is a sense of deja-vu and pure fear. I’m frozen for a few seconds, cold sweat beading underneath my heavy coverlet. Something had happened in my dream. Something I’d seen before. Something to do with cabbages– which doesn’t make any sense! But I can’t remember it. I get up and open the curtains to light the almost pitch dark room. But the sky outside is no brighter. Just a sliver of a moon is left in the sky, and the stars are bleak. It’s the dead of night.
But I can still see light in the hallway from underneath my door. My stomach grumbles, reminding me I haven’t eaten all day. I sigh, and venture out into the hallways. Perhaps someone in the kitchens is still up and wouldn’t mind providing me with a small loaf or some leftover soup. Quietly I explore, trying to find servants’ paths and not disturb anyone who might be sleeping in nearby rooms. I have no luck. Eventually, I just wander aimlessly, trying to find anything that looks familiar. I’ve given up finding the kitchens, I want to find my bed. Half asleep, I blink, thinking I’ve seen a shadow cast by the multiple lamps on the wall. But that can’t be right. I haven’t seen anybody else out this late. “Hello?” I call out, my voice bouncing slightly off the stone walls, and eventually being consumed by the red carpet under my feet. There is no reply.
Still, unease from my earlier dreams plagues me, and I walk forward on soft feet, determined to check out what could have cast the shadow. I round the corner, but nobody is there. Certainly not Briareth. And I know of nobody else my size who could have cast a wingless shadow in this world. Sighing I rub my eyes. I really need more sleep. This was a stupid decision in the first place. There’s no way Briareth is here, perhaps he was in my nightmare, and that’s why I have this ill feeling following me.
After retracing my steps, I eventually find myself back at my room’s door. I collapse back on my bed, and don’t move again until the dawn light touches my face through the still open curtains. That alone is what convinces me that I didn’t dream the whole strange experience.
A servant quickly arrives, a Tadhiel instead of a construct, and is surprised to find me already awake. He is dressed in quite nice clothes for a servant, and introduces himself as Gilfri Polo. He takes me to get washed up, helps me dress myself, and then takes me down to breakfast, all in a vaguely sullen way.
“Gilfri!” Elen greets him as soon as she sees him. “You’re going to show us all around? Aren’t you supposed to be in successor classes with Chairholder Helios-Lime III right now?”
Successor, not servant? I glance down at the young man who glares at Elen, and readjust my thoughts on him. No wonder he’s upset!
“Aren’t you supposed to be far out at sea where you can’t bring shame to your family?” He snaps back, clearly embarrassed by his menial duties.
Elen’s eyes widen, shock and hurt clear as day on her features.
“Dude! Uncalled for.” Fin says, angrily. “If you know her at all, you know she meant nothing by it.”
The young man stares at the heavily muscled, black-winged Kashan going over to comfort Elen. He frowns, guilt and a little fear etched on his equally expressive features. “Sorry, Elen, you know I didn’t mean it. I’ve just been frustrated for the past few months. Nothing that I should have taken out on you.” Smiling, he tries to mask it all, failing pretty miserably. “Why don’t you introduce me to all your new friends? I’ve never met your shipmates, but they look like good eggs.”
Although to me–and apparently Silv and Fin, who still stare at him unimpressed– it feels like blatant condescension, Elen is ready to let bygones be bygones and introduces all of us happily. Silv starts regaling him with our adventures, which he seems to find very exciting. Despite my hunger, I can only pick at the lavish spread of breakfast, waiting till the Chairholder deigns to join us. According to Gilfri, he likes to sleep in and won’t allow himself to be disturbed until the morning is half gone.
When he does eventually come down, he greets us cordially, dressed in what is clearly a formal outfit. Silver-grey robes fall to his ankles and his thinning white hair has been combed back from his face, exposing all the wrinkles on his large forehead. He eyes Gilfri cooly, who instantly goes from very invested in Silv’s tale of the dragons’ attack on Outpost Seven, to a badly feigned disinterest.
It is clear from the way he dismisses the boy that he finds Gilfri lacking. Gilfri slumps away, off to alert the servants to prepare the Chairholder’s map room for us.
“I’m sorry you had to deal with him, he’s such an idiot child.” The Chairholder shakes his head and pours himself a mug of a dark steaming liquid. Drinking it, he sighs in pleasure, and starts preparing some toast.
“Forgive me for the question,” I begin, “But from what Silv has explained of your culture,–” During those many hours we waited in line in vain. I add on in my head. “– you Chairholders chose your successors. Why would you choose someone you don’t think of as capable?”
“I owed his family a favor.” The Chairholder says, “His great-great uncle chose me for this position, so I choose him as my successor. It really isn’t as free a choice as an outsider would think. If favors and promises from past generations aren’t followed through, feuds start, and they are nearly impossible to diffuse.”
“So power passes through the hands of a few select families repeatedly?” I ask, trying to wrap my head around it.
“Well, it isn’t impossible for new blood to break in.” The Chairholder takes another gulp of the dark liquid. “But it is very rare indeed. It takes generations of political maneuvering to set up. And one stupid decision can undo all that work.” He shakes his head, putting down his cup and brushing the few toast crumbs out of his goatee. “But that wasn’t what I came down to talk about. I wished to discuss how our arrangement is going to work. I was thinking on it after you all had gotten settled, and I believe I have more to add.”
I frown, considering what this could mean. Arrangement isn’t a good word, it suggests we will owe him something after this. And if ‘favors’ like this are culturally necessary to repay… Well, I wouldn’t want to be seen by anyone as potentially in his debt.
“As you already know,” He continues, blue eyes gazing at me steadily. “I’ll be happy to help provision a ship. In fact, I’ve already sent most of my flesh servants out to procure supplies. There is however, more I am willing to offer. I haven’t made this information public yet, but ever since the dragons first started appearing amongst the outer colonies, I’ve had my best specialists trying to work out where exactly they are coming from. That is why I’ve sent Gilfri out to prepare the map room for us. Once you are finished with your breakfasts, I would be happy to show them to you. However, they must yet remain between us, for I am not certain of their accuracy. You must all swear to secrecy until you return successful. For I would hate to lead excitable young soldiers with less at stake than yourselves astray with an old man’s musings.”
I look at Silv, who stares at him with wide impressed eyes. “You think you’ve found their hideout?”
“Their Nest.” The Chairholder confirms. “But again, I must beg your confidentiality in this matter. For I am not yet certain of its validity.”
“You want us to test it for you.” I say, catching on.
“Indeed.” The chairholder admits. “You have all to gain here, and nothing to lose.”
Meanwhile, I muse, he has everything to lose if any of us let it slip that he knew the location and hadn’t revealed it to anyone once we get back. Something doesn’t add up here, but to know anything more– Indeed, to get anywhere really– we have to accept his offer.
From the look on Silv’s face, her brain was on an entirely different track and one related far more to finally hunting down the killers of her family. But we are all in agreement as she says, “Take us to this map room.”
The old Chairholder seems delighted by our agreement and without any further ado takes us down the corridors to his map room. Gilfri has been there and disappeared again. The maps are all laid out, and anyone who had been working here was dismissed. A plate of shortbread cookies, of which the Chairholder promptly takes two, lies in the middle of the large table that occupies most of the room.
On it, is an amazingly detailed rendition of the islands surrounding the capital, with a few model ships scattered amongst the blue seas clearly meant to indicate the ships abroad at the moment. Pulling out a few more model ships, Chairholder Helios-Lime III shows us the history of dragon attacks, and says– like an old schoolteacher trying to get a point across to his pupils– “Now, does anybody see anything strange? No? Nothing?”
Silv stares daggers at the pieces meant to represent the dragons. I study the board a bit further, wondering what I’m missing, while Fin and Elen just shake their heads. The Chairholder sighs and shakes his head as well. “I didn’t really expect you to, it took my best people years to figure it out. We’ve weighed dragons, dissected them, figured out their average muscle and weight. Mr. Kashan–” He points at Fin, “Your lot specializes in this, despite not having hollow bones. Dragons also don’t have hollow bones. The fire would heat any air up until it expanded them so far as to crack them. So realistically, despite their huge muscle mass and impressive stamina…” He trails off. I still have no idea what he’s talking about, and from Fin’s blank look, he doesn’t either, but Elen’s eyes widen.
“They can only fly so far, right? Kashan’s build up muscle so they can take extra weight of non-hollow bones, Dragons would have to as well.”
“Exactly!” The chairholder slaps a ruler on the map. “It’s an impressive distance, but it isn’t limitless. And the calculations are null if they happen to have more than one base. But I doubt it. They only started these massive organized attacks a few months ago, it’s unlikely that before that they had two bases. It just wouldn’t make sense for them to have that type of planning and coordination, and not have better strategy.”
“But the attacks were all seemingly at random back then.” Silv interjects. “That’s why people were so terrified. My hometown thought it was safe, then suddenly it was burned. It was halfway across the world from the first attack.”
“Right again!” The Chairholder flicks his ruler at her, clearly pleased. “It came as a surprise, it started unease, and then full fledged panic as people thought anyone could be a target! We got our defenses up slower than normal because we just didn’t know what we were fighting against, we attributed too much to our enemy! Once we realized they were minor raids, and we had a proper defensive system in place, things started to get a lot easier.”
“And then we started getting absolutely hammered. They went from raids to warfare. We don’t need a history lesson, get to the point!” Silv says impatiently.
“Alright!” The Chairholder says, still grinning. “Really, I think Gilfri has lowered my bars when it comes to students. But let me bring it back. It was all ‘here there be dragons’ for a while. They had no pattern, a range that made no sense considering the breadth of their attacks, and no island that we– that is to say, the other Chairholder’s and I– knew of could host a large amount of carnivorous beasts indefinitely. However, we didn’t think about one thing. An island that moves.”
Fin snorts and starts shaking his head. “No, no, hear me out.” The Chairholder unrolls an equally large map over the preexisting one. It is in black and white, but has the same outlines of islands on it. The major difference though is in the red and blue arrows crisscrossing the map, seemingly at random. “A map of the wind currents in an average year.” The chairholder explains. “A necessity for a larger ship.” He grins and pulls out another dragon figurine, this one with a green string attached.
“Assuming the dragons have a moving island that follows the windcurrents, starting with the first attack back in… was it December?” He hesitates frowning.
“Last october.” Silv corrects him. “It was a minor village, people didn’t realize it until November, and nobody took it seriously till the second one in December.”
“Of course.” He smiles and moves the dragon figurine to one of the blue arrows slightly further northward than his original position. Traveling down the arrows, he puts a pin in for every attack along with a date. It matches up almost perfectly. “There will be variation in the wind-currents,” He shrugs them off, “No year is quite like one another.”
“Still, this is…” Fin hesitates, “Impressive.”
“Nobody will believe it.” Elen shakes her head. “A moving island.”
“Not just moving, flying.” I say. “It doesn’t go based on water currents, but on sky currents.”
Everyone turns to look at me. I had been silent this entire time, but I wasn’t expecting that much surprise from my suggestion. “Well, if your boats can fly, why can’t an island? It’s a lot bigger but…” I hesitate, as I realize that my logic isn’t the problem here. “What is it?” I ask them.
“Your shirt is glowing.” Elen says.
I glance down, there is a soft silver glow coming from beneath my tunic, and an unfamiliar lump is pulling it outwards in a certain direction. Confused, I reach into my neckline and pull out a small silver beetle on a necklace. The beetle was a gift of an old friend of mine, but it had never acted like this before. The silver-swirling inlay is glowing gold, and as I hold the tiny beetle, it very distinctly pulls against its chain, trying to go somewhere. I quickly put the pieces together.
Briareth has activated his beetle, called out to Adamar and our other friends from Mossblossom Central to help out. And Adamar was clever enough to build a finding function into our twin beetles, although he forgot to mention it to either of us.
“What is that?” Fin asks, leaning over to study the beetle.
“Magic.” I say. “Briareth is definitely alive, at least he was when this started glowing! Did any of you see it start? Or has it been going for a while?”
“It was glowing at breakfast.” Silv says, “I didn’t think much of it then. It only now started pulling at your shirt though.”
“Perhaps he’s on the move?” I muse. The Chairholder stares at my beetle, and then laughs ironically.
“I really don’t give you enough credit.” He says, “You already had a way to find your friend. I didn’t have to show you my old map collection after all!”
“How soon can we leave?” I ask, glancing from the beetle to his face.
“It will take another few days to procure those provisions, I’d say plan on leaving in two days. If you’re fast and fly through the night, you should make it there in five. And from my calculations, your flying island should be here in a week’s time.” He taps a place on the map that is decently far south of The Light, as they call their capital. “After that, you’ll all be free to murder those flying pigs to your heart’s content, and hopefully rescue your friend. If your necklace brings you directly to him, I’d bet Gilfri he’ll be within a fifty league radius of this point.” He taps the spot on the map again.
The young Tadhiel, who had just poked his head in the door and had his mouth open to announce something, looks slightly horrified at what he just heard.
“Oh don’t you worry,” Helios-Lime III says, turning to grin at him. “It’s a safe bet. Now shoo! Don’t go snooping in on your betters, how many times have I told you!” Gilfri scuttles out, looking slightly hurt. “Not like it would be much of a loss anyway.” The Chairholder murmurs, and I can’t tell if I was meant to hear that or not.