Chapter Two

by Ember

A/N: I come to love this story. -sighs-

Realin made it about a foot into the castle before running almost head-first into a servent, panting and gasping for breath. The brown-haired, brown-eyed girl looked up in almost-fear, starting to stammer appologies before exactly who she'd run into became apparent and she started stumbling over a million things at once, her words running together and slurring against each other on her tongue.

"Calm down," he told her, letting one heavy hand rest on her shoulder; apparently, she thought that was less calming than threatening because she continued to babble.

"What's wrong?" Keasy came in on Realin's heels, the snow and the dragons apparently less than suffecient to keep her attention while her betrothed was off somewhere else. "Is something the matter, child?"

Despite all her shortcomings, Keasy was better with people than Realin and he willingly backed off, letting her handle the now-hiccupping girl. "King Kirilyn Dreth v'Keene the fourth sent a message with a bird to the Storm Keep," she said, the words rasping in her throat. "He has urgent need for sir Realin."

"What's gone wrong?" Realin barked at her, then, when she started on a whole new jumbled vein, decided to get his answers more directly and jogged for the dome-shaped bird tower.

A wizened old man named Spade ran the bird tower, and if he'd ever had a surname, or any name other than Spade, no one remembered it anymore. He never really spent time with anyone but the birds and other servents, going so far as to having a little tunnel dug going straight from the dome to the the servents' hallways under the first floor of the castle. He wore off-white, a sort of ivory-color, to make it harder to pick out the stains all over his jacket, and kept his flyaway white hair pulled back in a sort of fried ponytail. He'd had a handful of apprentices but had sent all of them away in disgust for some slight shortcoming, and it was common knowlege that when he died, the Storm Castle would have to look outside of Beroth for someone trained in handling birds, because Spade wasn't going to train anyone in his lifetime.

He always smelled like a mixture of brandy and bird droppings and never, ever got excited, because, as he told Realin several times, if he got excited the birds would get agitated, and he'd gone his whole career without getting the dome of birds stirred up, not even once.

So it was significant when Realin got to the top of the stairs and found himself surrounded by screaming, hopping birds, some going so far as to tear their feathers out with their beaks, some just looking mildly annoyed. It was also significant to see his own father, S'nathi Lucinyr, talking in a hushed tone with Spade and Jaccie and Jaami Dreth v'Keene, the twin princes, all up to their ankles in bird feathers and droppings and looking a little put off by the musty stench of the whole tower.

"Realin!" Jaccie was the first to see him, pushing a lock of dark hair out of his green eyes to stare in mingled terror and relief at his old childhood friend. It was said that the twins were illigitemate, that they were the king's by a woman from Gryphon or Phoenix country, because indeed they looked nothing like Kirilyr or Kavor, his youngest sibling in the East Quadrant. Jaami glanced over, looking just as worried as his brother, then gently pulled a tightly-rolled peice of paper out of Spade's hands and handed it to the dragon rider.

"My brother was kidnapped," he said, quietly.

"They think it was Raven Country," Jaccie managed to choke out, pulling hard on his short hair as if his hands were desperately searching for something to do. "They don't have proof, though... and father, he wants to meet with you, Realin, he wants to ask you... he wants to ask you to bring him back."

Jaami rested a hand on his brother's shoulder, quieting him. "What Jaccie is trying to say, Raelin, is that crown prince Kirilyr might have been taken by Raven country. This is... not strictly confidential, per-say, but, for the moment, father doesn't want it spoken of too much." As always, his voice was very quiet, hushed almost, and painstakingly calm.

Confidentiality made sense- king Kirilyr the fourth wouldn't want his whole country screaming war before he was even certain that the Raven country had taken his son, though really, Raelin would have bet money with anyone that it was. Their neighbor to the west was smaller but infinitely more hostile, and it was obvious that the landlocked country desperately wanted the northern pass that would have connected Raven with Dragon's easternmost neighbor, Gryphon, and their precious gold and salt. Equally sensible was his decision not to make it officially confidential, since no civilian liked the idea of the monarchy holding secrets, though all of them knew it was, had to be, true.

"It's a secret, sort of," Jaccie was continuing. "But there have been crows everywhere, back home, on all the rooftops, or so father told us, and they've been there since Kiri disappeared. I only ever really spent time with him four times, you know- five if you count when Jaami and I had communion. I don't really remember it, though."

"I do," Jaami said thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Read the scroll, Raelin."

"Yes, read it."


Knight Raelin Lucinyr of the North Quadrant Dragon Wing:

I have never had the joy of writing to a knight during a peaceful time, as my beloved wife has generously dedicated her own personal time to the dispension of awards and medals of honor. In fact, it seems the only time I ever put pen to paper is in time of disaster, of need- a time such as this one, a time of emergence. I sent details of an incident in the palace to my sons in the North Palace, which I know that your family runs, so by now you must know the bare details of what has occurred. I request- indeed, I beg for- your aid in this disaster against the crown, and your aid in particular, and your aid alone. I greatly desire your presence in the Central Palace in Rale. I would desire your presense the moment this message touches your hands; indeed, I would desire your presense before the bird leaves the city, before I even sign this letter, before the ink dries on the word I write this second. But I leave your moment of departure to a moment of convenience and merely beg you to hurry, fly to Rale, fly to the aid of your crown.


King Kirilyn Dreth v'Keene the fourth


Beneath was his seal, four dragons with their necks and tails entwined in a circle- the lithe, short-furred, seal-like frost dragons of the North Quadrant, the guady, finned fire dragons of the East Quadrant, the long, heavy-scaled mist dragons of the West Quadrant, and the bulky, wingless earth dragons of the South Quadrant. In the center was a large crown, on which were four jewels. With the red-brown ink, the colors of the gems couldn't be told, but most children and all adults could tell you from left to right the crown jewels were blue, pale green, white and red.

He stared at the too-neat writing of the king for a long second, thinking, considering.

"Will you help him?" Jaccie said, once it was perfectly clear he was no longer reading. "Raelin? Will you?"

"Leave him alone," Jaami murmurred.

"No, it's fine," Raelin said, shaking his head and shoving the paper down suddenly, making the half-dozing Spade jump slightly at the sound of his palm on the richety table the old man read and wrote messages on. A candle perched on the edge flickered in surprise. "Of course I'll help him."

"Do you want me to send a message?" Spade was still shifting from one foot to the other though most birds seemed to have calmed down. "A tern can make it to the city in a day and a night, I should think."

Raelin shrugged. "Don't bother. Arroth can make it in a day." His gaze flickered to his father and he knelt, didn't bother asking for permission, then turned and flatly ran down the steps to the hallway that would take him to his room, where he could pack. He had to hurry, pack quickly, because Arroth had to be fed and the kitchen told to pack for both of them, and he didn't have much time to spare.


Frost dragons were the largest of all the dragons, in height and length if not in mass. At a full twenty-five feet tall, and forty long without even his whiplash tail, Arroth made a hefty example of his species, and while the Southern Quadrant's bulky earth dragons might have made him look somewhat of a lightweight, he was fully large enough for the thin leather saddle buckled to him, burlap saddle bags tied one to either side, hanging almost empty with nothing inside but Raelin's armor, a backup short sword in case his rapier should bend or wear down, and lunch for the one day he planned to be flying. He had a bridle on, though no bit, and the long reins that draped down his neck were more for guidance that control, for the rider to suggest the way they should go since the direction of his flight was Arroth's decision at the end of it no matter which way an inexperienced knight was jerking his head. He was sitting, cat-like, on his haunches, wings folded tightly to his sides, tail wrapped around his hind paws, the end twitching every so-often with some thought he couldn't quite express to the humans around him. The short, seal-like fur covering his body was soft to the touch, like velvet, expecially around the snow-white of his muzzle and face. Raelin stood for a second beside him, hand brushing over the downy coat bristling over behemoth muscles, tense and wiry, just below the surface.

"Alright, Arroth." A slight slap to the side communicated their hurry and the dragon clambored to his feet, unfolding his massive wings and flapping them hard a couple times to get the blood circulating. Frost dragons had no blubber and not very much fur; to keep their blood warm their veins had thick walls and were deep under their skin. Because the webbed wings had such thin membrane, the veins in the webbing had to have very thick walls to keep the blood insulated from the cold air outside. There wasn't much room inside for the blood to flow and circulation slowed down if they didn't move their wings, so stretching before flight was required. Arroth worked his wings as Raelin climbed onto his back and settled into the saddle, shoving his ankles into the straps that would hold him on when the dragon's lean body flexed and twisted in takeoff.

He ran fingers through the slightly-thicker fur on the dragon's neck, scratching at the tiny scales on his skin. The stripes running from the dragon's spine curled like black claws. The huge wings slowly stopped moving, then stretched out to their full, sixty-foot span, the clawed edge almost catching the North Palace's wall, the edges of the membrane catching and snapping in the wind. "You ready, Arroth?"

His answer was a deep-throated sound, almost a purr. The wings pulled back slightly, folding at the first, elbow-like joint nearer to his body, and he trotted forward, moving away from the Palace, to the cliff where Raelin had watched him dance. For a second they stopped, looking down at the scattering of houses, hunters and trappers who preferred to live away from the main city surrounding the twins, and then the massive claws on Arroth's front talons and back paws dug into rock with a sickening wail of tortured stone, and they lept from the cliff and dove, suicide-angel style, towards the rocky plane beneath them. For a heart-stopping moment that never failed to dislodge Raelin's stomach, they were plummeting, without control or lift, and then the wings snapped out and Arroth's hindquarters, containing the saddle and rider, rolled forward on momentum, jostling the knight and the saddlebags, the former holding on tight to the thin leather of the dragon's reins while the latter swung back and forth freely and without fear, bouncing off the dragon's sides.

Working for altitude was perhaps the most uncomfortable part of dragon riding. The wing beats twisted the dragon's body in the air, jerked him up a dozen feet then dropped him four, again and again, until a stray bit of wind picked them up and threw them skyward. They were flying due south, but Raelin twisted in his saddle to look back behind them, where fresh snow lay in a glittering new blanket over the city of Beroth. He couldn't see any people in the city itself- though two dogs were walking side by side through the snow, which came up to their dragging, wet bellies- but there were people in the Palace, watching him from the top of the terrace that extended out of the main living room- Jaccie and Jaami, Keasy, his father.

They look worried. He could barely see their faces- they were getting higher, now, much higher, and he watched their faces and then forms and then themselves disappear out of sight as the Palace dwindled down to a clay toy- but he had definitely seen worry when he could see them better, in their eyes, in their postures. I suppose... there's a reason. I might not come back this time. This wasn't just another battle, this was behind enemy lines and there was a very good chance he'd be going at it alone. But this wasn't the time to think about that.

And when one flew, over the snow, over the moutains, looking down at everthing that looked unreal, so small and unimportant, it was easy to give up thought.


There were a lot of crows in Rale. On the edges of buildings, on the rocks, in the trees, they huddled and bobbed and perched and screamed, wheeling through the air, picking through the grass. This place was too far down for the cold front bearing the snow the Northern Quadrant had seen, but it still seemed a little chill even for the tough black birds, and surely it was getting late for them to still be out, with the waning sunlight making even Arroth's motions more uncertain by the second. He flew right for the landing pad he'd visited once before, flaring violently with a snap of leather once he was over the bare earth strip, landing hard on his back paws then falling onto his fore. Raelin slid off his back, shaking out his cramped legs, reaching up and patting the sleek muzzle of the giant beast before leaving him to the servents already emerging to take him into the dragons' quarters and feed him.

"His Highness is in the west courtyard," one of them said in an undertone, the slight emphasis on west striking Raelin as important, as clarifying. The Palace in Rale was huge, three or four times the impressive bulk of the Northern Palace in Beroth, and Raelin had not nearly spent enough time in it to have memorized his way around, but as soon as he started westward another ubiquitous servent appeared at his side, guiding him so subtly at first he was unaware he was being guided. They slid into a hallway, through a room into a corridor, through another room into another hallway, and out into a small stretch of gardens, decked out with small, tough plants, winter stealing life even through their strong grip, and larger, more impressive flowers already dead from early chills. A cloth roof covered part of the courtyard, but it didn't keep out the ravens; they perched in the flowers, in the trees, on the roof, on the huddled figure sitting on a stone bench.

Raelin had never seen the king, or any king, or any duke or bishop or such man of power, looking so weak and frail as that old man covered in birds. King Kirilyr the Fourth didn't even move the shake off the heavy ravens, just let them sit on him, silent but unmistakable messages.

Before the knight could bow or the servent scurry away, the king was talking, as if to himself, or to the birds around him. "Three of my soldiers interecepted messagers going from Raven to Phoenix with drafts of an alliance treaty."

Phoenix was an expansive southern power, famous for dense jungles, a particular whiskey, and, legend heralded, an immortal monarch.

The servent moved quickly away, apparently not too curious at the issues of kings and knights, issues that could get her in over her head. Raelin dropped to one knee until King Kirilyr noticed it and waved him up impatiently. The sharp motion startled the crows and they wheeled off and away from him in a black flock. "Significant, aren't they? Only Raven mages could make them act like this. The crows, I mean."

"Raven took your son, then." Not even so much as a question in his voice. Raelin stood and hovered uncertainly until King Kirilyr noticed this and waved vaguely at a bench across from him, his general air snapping, 'do you always wait until someone tells you what to do?'

"I'd be surprised if it were anyone else," the king said with a sigh. "You know what they want."

Of course he did, everyone knew; control of the Northern Passage was vital for trade. Trekking across land lost Raven men, goods, and money every trip they made. He didn't say anything, though, just waited.

"We can't give it to them, though, not with Phoenix conspiring with them. Once Raven controls the Northern Passageway, we'll be surrounded, west, north and south. The only country that might allign with us is Gryphon, and without the Passage they couldn't send in halfway decent cavalry. The other rivers from Gryphon are too small for a real fleet, so all their armies would have to come by land, which wouldn't be fast enough, or effecient enough. Granted they would actually vouch to help us, for which there really isn't a good reason they would."

Raelin took a deep breath, considered his next words heavily, then decided they had to be said and he'd lived a good life anyway. "And if they offer you your son for the Passage? Would you give it up for Prince Kirilyr's life?"

The old man looked up and faded blue eyes with a shocking hardness to them met Raelin's own pale gray-green ones, and the aging king said, plainly, "No."

"But you're willing to send someone to break into where ever they are keeping him and bring him back. Not worried about the message that would send?" Was he pushing it too far? Should he just close his mouth and accept instruction?

King Kirilyr shrugged. "Messages, politics. War seems inevitable, at this point, doesn't it? My army knows it, my captains know it. My diplomats in Phoenix know it. None of them know what has happened here, but they can all feel that war is coming upon us; you can smell it, you know, you can feel it over your shoulderblades like the breath of some beast. You're a soldier. You know."

He was a soldier, and he did know, but he didn't comment to that. "And if I fail at it. Prince Kirilyr is dead, what then?"

Frail shoulders lifted and fell. "The throne goes to Jaccie or Jaami, Jaami probably because he was born before. The war begins. The war would begin either way, but in the situation you describe, Dragon would make the first move." His tone made his preference clear- Raven making the first move on Dragon made the enemy out to be the 'bad guy,' made the other, uninvolved countries side with Dragon over Raven. "Dead or alive, the war wouldn't be effected, though."

"But you would be." He had no idea why he said it; more, asked it. What it had to do with anything. Pale blue eyes locked with his again, still hard, distant, cold.

"Of course I would be." But the weathered face didn't have much left of human in it.


Another servent was called in to guide him to the guest room he would stay in, and yet another had already moved the saddle-bags from Arroth's sides into the room, putting the dirty burlap gingerly beside the bed. The guest room looked immaculate around them, shining wooden shelves with a couple of books thrown on for the charming 'lived-in' look, the bed was huge and looked more comfortable than it felt, it was perfectly swept and dusted. Raelin hadn't wanted to spend the night, but King Kirilyr had insisted, while he summoned another mage with another osprey to send to the Liithe nobility, so Raelin could lodge in the Western Palace in Khyle in two days' time.

He had just barely settled down when a frantic knocking sent him jogging towards the door, his shirt already unbuttoned showing a wiry, muscled chest. Holding the cloth closed over his skin, he opened the door slowly, feeling the wood torn from his grip as the force behind it shoved itself- herself- into the room.

"Sir Raelin?" she asked, brown hair escaping the knot it was in, balanced on the top of her head, strands falling into her face. She blinked green eyes at him, crossed her arms over her heavy breasts, and waited.

He cleared out his throat and forced himself to look away from the pale stripes of her arms folded over her curves, wrenching his eyes to meet her's. It wasn't easy, she really was quite a pretty girl, and the sheer silk covering her didn't do a very good job of obscuring that. "I am," he confirmed, belatedly realizing he was unconciously blocking her from the rest of the room and moving stiffly to the side, gesturing towards one of the chairs. She hesitated, then picked the one closest to the door; he took the second and looked at her in a way he hoped was more 'polite interest' over 'neanderthal staring at a woman's chest'.

She was crying, but she looked somehow very strong while doing so, sitting upright in her chair and meeting his eyes easily. "I am the lady Cayro d'Viel. I wanted to meet the man who was going to bring back Prince Kirilyr." Her cheeks flushed when she mentioned the name.

"The lady d'Viel. His Highness mentioned you." Also the fact that the prince was going to marry her, if his father had to gag him and drag him to the ceremony by his hair. Given the force with which the tears were now cascading down the lovely lady's face, he declined to mention that.

The reasons King Kirilyr had to so vehemently support the marriage, the kind didn't give, but they weren't hard to figure out. It was common knowlege by now, to the extent that one only really had to walk into the Palace to find out, that Jackyl d'Viel, a quite powerful duke and owner of a lot of land in the Southern Quadrant, was offended, and that Prince Kirilyr had offended him. Angry powerful men were never good, and the fact that the Lord d'Viel was in perfect position to pass that anger down to his daughter made matters worse, and made it clear that without compensation, the entire family would someday harbor grudges against the crown. Moreover, the lady Cayro was one of seven children, and the only daughter; that kind of fertility made her a very desirable mate for a crown prince, who wasn't expected to form alliance marriages like his siblings.

She blushed prettily, just as she was supposed to when informed of acknoledgement from the king, then continued, "He might as well have. I'm in love with his son."

"Love?" Raelin blurted before he could stop himself, then grabbed control of his tongue. It was his right to doubt, though, and he couldn't help it; according to King Kirilyr, the crown prince and the Lady d'Viel had met for three hours not yet five days ago. "I mean, m'lady-"

"No, it's alright." Her blush had deepened and she looked positively charming. "It sounds stupid. Nurse Liaya always said I was a horrible romantist."

"It doesn't sound stupid," he tried, but once again she wouldn't let him finish.

"But I feel different around him. And I want him home, and safe, and happy. I don't think he loves me, and I don't mind; if he's happy, so will I be."

She sounded like a bad poet but her eyes reminded Raelin of Jaccie's, once, when he was young and had picked flowers for Kaesy and was holding them out, stoicly, waiting to be approved. Heartbreakingly sincere.

"I'll try my best, my lady," he told her, inclining his head slightly towards her. She smiled, rose gracefully, and curtsied, then backed out of the room without even saying goodbye. Her eyes still sparkled with tears.


Once more, Arroth was burdened with full saddle bags, saddle and rider, and looked impatient to get into the sky. Raelin ran his fingers through the soft fur on the dragon's neck, muttering to him under his breath about long-winded old airbags of monarchs and their good luck speeches. Of course King Kirilyr would choose today; in fact, now, to present the issue at hand to his council, and only his council, counting on those most trusted of nobles to hastily spread the word to the others, and say a 'few' words about Raelin's bravery in the face of danger, and the granduer of the dragon Arroth. If he was going to get to the Western Palace in a fortnight he was going to have to leave now; Dragon was wider than it was tall and the Western Palace was further away than the Northern Palace from Rale.

A sudden lurch of motion from Arroth snapped Raelin out of his reverie just in time to hear the king say, "And may no crosswinds blow on your journey, and the skies remain clear." Obvious from the way he said it, a dismissal- also obvious from the way people were looking at him, an introduction to Raelin's speech. A speech the knight had no intention on giving.

"Thank you, your grace," he intoned towards the monarch, tapping Arroth in clear signal to start forward, a signal the dragon decided to take with full pleasure. "I will try my best," the knight shouted over his shoulder as they lurched forward and upwards, and then he was holding on tightly as the world diminished below him.