7

It was glorious to shop in such a city. Townspeople scurried out of the way and swept into great low bows of respect as they saw the black unicorn coming down the street. Aloise had followed in front of her old servant with an air of pomp and circumstance. She was a princess, after all- and why should she not still be bowed to? Indeed it was her rightful entitlement.

Lady Giselle was so beautiful, with glistening hair and a huge sachel of gold to spend, Aloise noted. If only she could have a new hat and matching pair of slippers. The local shops seemed to have plenty of skilled designers for such garments. But she dared not impose on her new lady. Not yet anyway. There would be plenty of time for flattery and well-earned rewards.

"We shall return to our manse now, I think" Lady Giselle announced in her silvery voice, exiting the last shop. She tossed a brown wrapped parcel into the bag across the unicorn's saddle. Aloise studied the shop window. Dried herbs hung in the dark windows, with countless jars of colored powders all in a row. Medicines and skin creams, Aloise supposed. Surely such a young beautiful woman as lady Giselle didn't need beauty creams.

Aloise's feet ached with every step by now. Ladies shoes in the Kingdom were not made for long walks, but were more for appearance. The shoes had pinched her toes on the first day of her journey, now they gave her blisters all along her heels. She had to take very small steps to accommodate her cramped shoes.

A light breeze played with the unicorn's glossy tail. Alosie noticed eyes upon her, and she realized with some annoyance that Valency was eying her the entire way to the manse. Though he appeared to wish to say something important, he stayed frustratingly silent the whole way. Lines of anxiety occasionally creased his ancient forehead. Why in the World did he look so worried? How silly old men could be.

The group rounded a deep dark forest of pines. Skies above seemed darker here, almost a shade of amethyst. Low black clouds scraped the tops of the giant trees. "Ah! Here is my home" the lady pointed to a large pewter colored mansion.

"Is it made of metal?" Aloise asked, she gaged the glazed gray color of its walls, and hundreds of reflective glass windows.

"Yes." The lady explained. "This is a special kind of metal element. Metal attracts energy, from the surrounding environment, and organic material absorbs energy. Living creatures within a metal structure gain extra strength from this transfer of energy." Giselle swung off of the great black horse, with all the grace of a trained performer.

"Ah. It's a genius idea." Aloise admitted. "But doesn't it drain energy from somewhere else?"

Giselle waived her hand dismissively. "Nothing to worry about." She betrayed an expression of arrogance for a brief moment, but quickly tacked her gushing smile on again.

"Now, Valency-" Giselle handed the reins to her servant "Put Ryuu into his stall, and I shall speak with miss Aloise in my chambers. Do not interrupt us."

The old man obeyed with a genuflect, leading the unicorn away.

"Hmm. Ryuu. What a pretty name for that unicorn." Aloise wondered aloud.

"Yes. In the tongue of the villagers it means dragon. He is my own personal 'dragon', you see. So I felt the name was fitting."

"I have always felt a strong affinity for the animals we work so closely with in Palmetto Ridge. Here, men and beasts work side by side as companions. That is one of the many things I love about this land. In the Kingdom it is quite different. Men are the masters to every slave. Animals are a mere disposable race of beings to them, even women are regarded as non-citizens. I'm sure you will attest to that. Perhaps it is why you ran away to begin with?" Giselle produced a knowing smile, showing Aloise how much she understood already.

Aloise shuddered, recalling how her own father's guard had spoken of having "some fun" with her as punishment for running away. It was the same always in the kingdom. "Punishment" might be anything, from a severe beating to rape or even death. Wives suspected of cheating were stoned to death in the village square, with hundreds of bloodthirsty spectators shouting from the hillside.

Every misdeed was the fault of the female- for they were rumored to be the purveyors of original sin, and so it was their lot in life. Girls would often be executed for disrupting the family honor- whether they had done wrong or not. Even royalty could not escape their gender.

"I had to get out of there." Aloise confessed. "And on the very same night I tried to escape, I found help. If it weren't for Savon, I don't think I would have made it here at all.

Giselle led Aloise to the heavy front door. She pushed against it with a long, thin hand tipped in deep red. It squealed open on a pair of complicated hinges.

"And who is Savon?" Giselle smiled as they climbed a spiraling staircase.

"Oh. He's a boy I met in my father's castle. He came here to be a dragon knight. I suppose he got in and by now he's training with the other soldiers. So lucky. All of his dreams are coming true now. I wish I could learn a skill."

"Indeed." Giselle mused. A slight smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.

The sun was setting quickly behind the huge evergreens which surrounded the castle. "Aloise?" Lady Giselle placed a pale hand on the girl's wrist. "How would you like to be my apprentice? You could stay here with me- and I shall teach you all that I know. We will work together, and when I die, all of this will be yours. How does that sound?"

"Well, yes. I would like that very much." Aloise looked around the stunning halls of the manse, with its dark stone floors and silver plated walls. She suddenly frowned. "But what is it that you do?"

"In good time, you shall know exactly the answer. I'm afraid I cannot define myself for you right now. There is so much to tell."

8

Savon held his breath and allowed the icy water to rush over his head. It was so freezing that his ears felt they might fall off. The powerful rush of water resounded like thunder, and clapped against his neck. He stood up on the smooth wet rock, away from the rushing waterfall. Kiro laughed nearby.

He was kneeling on the rock as well, and Kiro methodically lowered his own head into the water. It splashed over his shoulders and Kiro disappeared under the crystalline flow.

"Showoff." Savon said under his breath.

"It's a matter of perception. Concentrate all of yourself into the core of your body; here" Kiro pointed to his stomach. "Do not exist in that moment. The waterfall is an element of nature, even with all its force. Focus your energy within your self. And you can endure anything."

Savon tried it again. The year's worth of training had passed by as if it had been only a month. Soldiers trained for a year were granted a trainer to assist their final learning, in this case, Savon requested Kiro as his sensee.

Kiro was a quiet and reflective teacher, though as the general's son, he was met with mixed feelings at camp. Some of the captains seemed jealous of Kiro, and some seemed to simply loathe him. Coupled with Kiro's shy nature, the other trainers tended to speak ill of the general's only son. Perhaps that was why Kiro often chose to train away from the Dojo- out in nature.

Birds called from around the ravine. It was early morning, the time of day that Kiro usually chose to start lessons. Savon tried the waterfall again. It was difficult to focus his being. The ability to cease feeling human needs perplexed Savon. He felt so hungry right now. They had left before breakfast time.

Excelcor roared from the riverbank. As a fire dragon, he wasn't terribly fond of water. He had grown several sizes in the past year, now twice as tall as Savon. All these long months, Savon had carefully measured and weighed Excelcor with borrowed equipment from the dragonary. Excelcor ate more and more with the passing weeks, and he grew fast. The small points on the back of his head had become long, bone-colored horns. His ever larger body developed prominent black stripes, and his wings- thin and membranous before; had grown so large that he could not stretch them out within the trees. Excelcor had entered a goofy teenage phase. Though he was still beautiful, his long limbs could seem a bit gaingly at times. When Excelcor wanted to fly he needed several dozen meters to take off properly. Fully grown dragons were less awkward, Kiro assured Savon. When Excelcor was fully grown, he would master his own flight abilities.

Next to Excelcor stood a deep green dragon. She was of the very darkest color of a still summer pond, with reflective yellow cat's eyes. Still as a statue, the pearly glistening creature starred silently, witnessing everything around. Midori, who belonged to Kiro, was an electric dragon. Of course, he'd had his pick of the dragonary in his youth, and the two of them had grown up together. They even shared the same quiet, contemplative personality.

"Can't we do some more aerial training?" Savon begged, shaking water from his ears. "Excelcor has only been able to carry me since last month. He's been dying to fly with me ever since we first came to the Dojo. Let's fly for the rest of the day."

Kiro sighed, Midori shook her scaly head at him as if she understood all too well about impetuous youths. She glared at Excelcor. Kiro looked back at Savon. "I suppose so." Kiro said slowly.

The two men climbed back to the rocky banks. Savon scrambled up after Kiro, heaving himself onto the dry grass and finding his shirt on the branch where he left it.

Kiro paused. He tilted his head to the side and waited. "Someone's coming." he whispered.

Savon strained and held his breath. Yes, a faint sound of footfalls came through the brush.

Kiro walked over to Midori and drew his sword from her saddle.

A moment later one of the captains came bursting through the trees.

"My lord," the captain bowed to Kiro. "The general wishes to see you at once."

Kiro nodded and swung up onto Midori. "Wait here for me" He instructed to Savon.

"No Sir." The captain licked his lips nervously. "He wants to see both you and your pupil. He says he has a mission for you two."

"So soon? ...I had hoped we would have more time." Kiro's voice darkened.

"I'm ready, sensee." Savon insisted.

Kiro rolled his eyes as Savon jumped onto Excelcor. The young dragon had to run towards the ravine, unfolding his massive wings at a running start. Midori gracefully jumped into the sky from the ground, while Excelcor circled the ravine to gain height.

In roughly ten minutes they had flown back to the Dojo. Midori and Excelcor waited by the fence, while Savon and Kiro cowered in front of the door to the general's office.

Kiro opened the door and gestured for Savon to walk through first. Though his knees were shaking, Savon managed to walk normally, and respectfully salute his general. The general was exactly as Savon had pictured him- and older, scarier version of Kiro.

He stood facing the window, watching morning training of the new recruits.

"I'm not much for running around the issues, so I'll give it to you straight. The Scarlett Witch is up to something, and we need to know what that is. Villagers have reported for a while now that she's got another witch in training. One witch in this place is quite enough. Can you imagine what two of them could do? They'd take over this entire country- make themselves the queens, and then we'd just be living like people in the Kingdom do. No one wants that."

"Kiro- you're my son, and I know I can trust you. Savon, you are my son's apprentice and he trusts you. That's good enough for me. Speak of this to no one. Go there tonight and discover what you can. It's a dangerous mission, but I have the utmost confidence in you."

"Yes, sir" Both soldiers answered.

"But father, what if we do find another witch?"

"That's simple. In order for this country to remain free, we've got to do whatever we can to stop this now. If you see another witch- and if you can get at her- I want you to assassinate her. Don't think twice about it. Witches can be very tricky. Make it look like an accident if you can- but kill her... Immediately."