Author's Note: And this is the final bit. After this, I'm going to leave it up here for a month or so before I start editing and polishing for submission. In the meantime, I'm going to start work on something else-on what I'm still in a divided mind, but it'll damn well be undivided soon in a matter of days.
Considering that this is a one-shot, there won't be any sequel or any other stories set in this world. Not in the near future, anyway.
In which the author is glad to say there need not be further chapters starting with "In which".
Karan lifted his head, straightening his neck to look at the cloud formations ahead of him instead of down at the ground. Even though the mild chills and snows of early winter had given way to the true nature of the season, full-blown cold that seeped through hide and scale to be staved off by one's inner fire, he wasn't seeking the sun's warmth, nor giving thanks to the Flame.
Karan couldn't bear to see Hanor's boarding-house being torn apart.
Even as he glided through the air, Karan could envision the scene in his mind: small dragons, farm workers lacking employment in the winter eagerly tearing apart walls with their paws for a few Royals, putting aside the rubble and metal scraps for reuse. Quirl and the Esteemed Governor would be there too, supervising the methodical destruction of Hanor's memories to make way for the Sercanethyst extraction plant they'd planned to set up. Already some of the necessary machinery had arrived by freight, so Karan heard, and his imagination added into the picture a few crates by what used to be the front door. The crates would be glowing faintly with harmless natural arcane emissions and would be heavily guarded by whatever security the Esteemed Governor could marshal.
Her brood and home were the only chances Hanor had at immortality in this world, no matter where the fire of her life might burn now. The former is missing, the latter gone in the name of profit and progress. When both Elured and I die-or even worse, forget…she'll be gone forever. From this world, in any case.
The thought was not the most savoury one.
Controlling his descent in a slow, lazy spiral as he made to land on a thick snowbank, Karan hit the ground and got to his hind legs, shaking off flurries of snow off his body. When he'd been a dragonet, there had been many more open spaces in Reth, spaces where younglings like the one he'd been could gather and play in the snow during winter.
Now he hated snow when it sought to cover him, because it reminded him of the ice.
Home-no, Karan thought as he padded towards the crude entrance. It isn't a home, not yet. Actually, it's more of a den and a den it shall be, until perhaps one day it'll be a home like Hanor's was when enough dragons have lived in it for long enough.
It was a den all right, a single-room hollow into rock without even a proper door. Only the most essential of things like Elured's typewriter and a pair of desks and chairs stood out in the open; the rest was still in boxes, pouches, jars and crates heaped in a corner.
Looking up from the article he was working upon, Elured acknowledged Karan's presence with a nod. "Back already? Did you see what remains of the boarding-house?"
"I couldn't bear to look, even at that distance."
A sigh. "Understandable. Neither can I, to tell the truth."
"Quirl still shouldn't have evicted us the first thing after receiving the deed to the boarding-house from the land registry. She shouldn't have. Does she have no sympathy for others of her size?"
"She could, and she did, Karan. She's not the Respectable Quirl we knew. I suppose it's only a matter of time before she's not a Respectable any more, grown big on the products of her find and more. If one learns anything working with the Esteemed Governor, it's how to invest capital wisely."
"You think that troublemaker I chased off then had anything to do with it? I mean, he caused Quirl all sorts of harm; I wouldn't be surprised if he had something to do with how she's changed…"
"Whatever it is, rumour has it the Esteemed Governor sent him off somewhere. He's certainly not in this demesne anymore. I suppose I must thank you for that exclusive interview you gave for the paper some time back-sales have been going good."
"Notable Karan, the dragon who dared stand up to the one of the mightiest trade consortiums," Karan replied with a bitter laugh. "Overblown and far too romantic, to tell the truth. Then again, anything to help sales of Fantastic Fantasy as well as the amazing exploits of Marshal Winsdor. Given the rate royalties are coming in, I should be destitute for about four or five more Annums. Three if I'm lucky."
"Perhaps. At least the Esteemed Governor and Governess are letting us squat on their land-they have a conscience and that's more than I can say for more-who's that?"
Outside, a muffled thud announced the arrival of a moderately large dragon and sticking his head out into the winter cold, Karan's grimace turned into a faint grin. "Favoureds Insilan and Gren? Whatever brings the two of you here?"
Wordlessly, the two Emberseers emptied their waist-pouches of their contents. Enough food to bury Karan spilled out onto the snow: cuts of all kinds of meat ,dried, salted, cured, sealed in jars. Stuffed innards, delicious sweetbreads in all sorts of marinate, an assortment of bones and even a small jar of raw gold. Staring at the pile of foodstuffs, Karan's forepaws travelled to his underbelly, as if afraid his inner fire would rip out and consume him alive. "Elured? You'd better come and look at this."
Mumbling and complaining as he exited their crude dwelling, the reporter let out a small gurgle as his gaze fell upon the gifts. Tail twitching, eyes whirling, Elured slowly shook his head. "Favoureds…"
"All the factory-dragons got together and came up with these for you, Notable. Even though I stand here now, it was their initiative, their way of thanking you for improving their working conditions. Ever since the industrial stoppage an Annum ago, the factory owners and cartels have been rightly worried about disruptions in their supply lines-"
"Yes, yes, you've told me all this before. I know you're proud of it, Favoured," Karan replied, waving off Insilan's words. "But that doesn't explain your presence, Gren."
"I was just going about my rounds when I spotted a fellow broodling of the Flame struggling under a heavy load. A willingness to wisely share others' burdens is a virtue. Back to the subject, Insilan is correct. You are their Majestic, in a manner of speaking-it does not go down well to let someone you respect go hungry."
"They…they must never do this again," Elured murmured. "Times are not…friendly to them. I won't offend the factory-dragons by refusing their gifts this time, but please…they must never do this again. The two of us will manage. I'll pack this in snow somewhere safe, Karan-you enjoy speaking with the Emberseers."
For some time, author and Emberseer spoke with each other. They spoke of politics, relations with the wyverns, how Insilan's civic-improvement projects were going ahead, sales figures of Karan's writing and of a few other matters. When they were done, Insilan and Gren said their goodbyes and flew off into the noon sky.
Barely had they vanished when a Renowned came winging in from the distance, painted in a pattern of golds and blues that Karan didn't recognize, but must have had come from a well-off brood, judging by the gold dust stirred into the paint. Landing on the Snowdrift, the courier gave Karan a curt greeting.
"You are Notable Karan, Brood of Roarn, are you not?"
"Yes. Whose courier are you, and what business does your employer have with me?" Instinctively, Karan half-crouched, wings slightly apart, ready to leap away at any untoward movement on the part of the courier.
"My mistress wishes you to have this," the courier answered stiffly, retrieving a letter from her waist-pouch and bending down to hand it to Karan. "Why she deigns to write to a Notable is none of my business, but if I were you, I would heed what she has to tell you." Without another word, the courier pushed off and flapped away hastily, as if loathe to associate with Karan. Moments passed as Karan turned the letter over and over in his forepaws, feeling the smooth yet thick quality paper against his hide. Finally, he took a deep breath to fan his inner fire and tore it open.
The writing was smooth and flowing, the hand of an aristocrat, and the writing was light yet clear-evidence of good pencils. Unfolding the letter, Karan began to read:
Notable Karan, Brood of Respectable Roarn:
If you haven't worked out who this is already, your attorney is more capable than I thought. I must confess even I am unsure why I am entering into correspondence with you, a mere Notable, but nevertheless something in my inner fire compels me to do so. Perhaps it was the sheer foolhardiness-nay, stupidity with which you sought to defy me, or perhaps it was the strange fact that you managed to sway so many of the factory-dragons behind you-a fact that I have no doubt influenced the outcome of your trial.
I cannot say that I am satisfied with the outcome-no properly filial dragon with a healthy respect for their brood would, I'm sure, but at the moment, I shall have to be satisfied with condemning you to a life of destitution, no matter how short it may be. Because of this loss, I have to move my consortium to stave off attacks from others who would take advantage of my perceived weakness. I hope you are most pleased with the trouble you've managed to create for us traders, especially with the new rules set down to prevent disruptions of labour to factories. Thank you for increasing our overheads yet again.
"Justice for all." I've always placed very little faith in this phrase and after recent events, less so. Seems like popular opinion is stronger than justice.
In any case, after your departure from the courthouse, your Renowned attorney and I have had a conversation. She appears to be a fascinating dragon in more than a physical sense and I find myself interested in her services, despite some false conclusions she'd arrived at. In any case, I never sent hired thugs after you-the likes of me are far too sophisticated for that
Maybe this will give you a sense of closure. It has for me. Perhaps that fine will actually make you learn to give something to society instead of always manipulating it to your benefit.
May the winds go well under your wings,
August Nilnth, brood of August Eredar.
Slowly, Karan folded the letter, careful not to puncture the paper with his claws. Setting it down onto his desk, he sat there for the good portion of the day, stirring only when Elured came back in from his task.
Then he picked up pencil and paper and began to write about Marshal Winsdor.
Anvar was pleased, and so was the wyverness snuggled against him, the stinger on the end of her scaly tail padded and wrapped, her dull black eyes closed in comfort. While he knew his money couldn't buy love, it could bring him an illusion of it-and these consorts he'd been recommended by the wyvern cartel his brood-mate dealt with gave a damnably good illusion. Furthermore, they were safe-the mistress herself was well-known for not taking sides or doing favours for businessmen.
The other day, Lodver had returned from the site to be prospected, gushing over a baking, barren plain where there was no surface water, so wells had to be dug extremely deep to reach aquifers, the sun beat down so fiercely that no wyvern with any sense went there, and the local wildlife fought each other savagely for any scrap of shade the terrain had to offer, be it from rock overhang or huge cacti with thorns any Dignified dragoness would desire on her back.
In short, it was a dragon's desire. Anvar had scented a business opportunity and conferred with his brother on the possibilities, to discover to his delight the most scenic places were well away from the proposed mines. There would be work to be done, facilities for guests' accommodation and recreation to be built, wyvern lords and ladies to bribe and negotiate with, but that could wait.
The wyverness wasn't ugly, but more…exotic, even with the beginnings of a numbing cold Anvar had felt inside her when they'd mated, sort of the opposite of a dragon's inner fire. An inner chill, perhaps? Come to think of it, dragons and wyverns weren't too different, after all. She had wanted gold, he had wanted the illusion of love, and they'd traded their goods exactly as advertised. Not like Quirl at all.
Squirming against Anvar on the forest clearing's lush grass and nuzzling him gently, the wyverness let out a happy hiss like a jet of steam escaping from machinery. Yes, there would be work to be done soon, but Anvar was busy savouring the here and now.