Chapter 13

(My my my, aren't you all nice and clean again,) Erasmus marveled as she entered the clearing. She ignored him, stowing her gloves back into her bag.

(Hello?) Erasmus prompted. (You see, when I address you, it means I am initiating a conversation. The polite thing to do would be to reply back, yes?)

She remained silent, still ignoring him, although she glanced around the clearing, finally finding the large, scarred horse standing near the edge of the clearing, nibbling at a few leaves on a large tree. He chewed them contemplatively, watching her with one wise brown eye.

(Fine. I'll speak for you. I think you would be interesting to find that I had a little chat with the horse, and he informed me that his name is Thunder That Rolls Over the Mountains Like the Sound of Many Hooves Striking Stone at the Same Time.) He paused for a moment. (You know, I think that thought was grammatically incorrect. Could you hear the capitalization? Do you think I did it correctly?) He watched her. (Honestly, you have nothing to say about this? You don't want to tell me how evil I am? You don't want to point out that if I spoke to this horse, I can talk to your little fox too?) He waited, but she continued to ignore him. Finally, he let out a sigh. (Fine, I'll admit it. I was wrong.)

For the briefest moment, she glanced at him, and her heart sank to see he was smiling. (Ha,) he said smugly. (You are listening. But yes, I was wrong; you see, I cannot talk to this horse any more than you can.) He cocked his head, watching her. (What, nothing? Not even the hint of a smile? You wound me, princess.)

She could feel the familiar anger bubbling inside of her, but she forced it down, returning her eyes to the horse. She clicked her tongue against her teeth, and his ears pricked as his large head turned towards her. She made the noise again, and his large, feathered legs slowly rose as he moved towards her, head bobbing gently. She reached out with a hand to touch his nose, and felt his warm breath against her palm.

"Hello," she crooned to him, and pulled an apple out of her bag, one of the two she had left. "Want some of this?"

Watching her carefully, as if she might be trying to trick him, he delicately took the apple from her hand, and took a step back, crunching it in his long, stained teeth. She smiled as juice dribbled down his chin.

(This is all rather adorable, but we need to be moving,) Erasmus said, sounding almost cross.

Seralynn rubbed the horse's velvety nose, still ignoring him.

(Princess, you are only being childish,) Erasmus growled. (Stop this farce and get on the horse. The village is amassing itself, I believe, probably to find the thief of the beast.)

"Now, if the owner was a drunk," she said, addressing the horse, "how could he remember his horse was stolen? How would he know it didn't simply wander away? And why would the village care about the horse of the town drunk?"

(This is no time for you to finally develop a brain,) he snapped. (Get on the horse, and let's get moving, or I will kill it.)

This time, her eyes couldn't help but flit to his. "What?"

(This horse is of no use to me if you won't ride it,) he answered, (and the beast won't forget a giant dragon. Some mages are powerful enough to take the memories out of such a creature, and I'd rather not have my presence known.)

"Why would a mage take the memories out of a horse?" she demanded. "Why would they bother? If the village finds him safe and sound, they won't think anyone stole him. Why would they care?"

(You're right, the chances are slim, but there are chances nonetheless,) he said smoothly. (Now get on it, or his blood will be on your hands, understand?)

She felt her fists clench. The horse took a step back, watching her with nervous eyes. Then, she took a deep, calming breath. I won't let him get under my skin.

She smiled at the horse and led him to a tree stump, which she stood on, and hoisted herself onto his back. His back was long and wide, but the saddle was comfortable enough.

Monarch let out a peep from the ground. Bending over slightly, Seralynn attempted to grab her. Instead, Monarch leaped onto her outstretched palm, nearly knocking Seralynn over as she used her hand as a stepping stone to spring onto the horse's back. She scrabbled for a grip and the horse shied to the right, his head moving up and down nervously as Seralynn steadied the fox on his broad, tan back.

(Finally,) Erasmus growled. (Let's hurry, before you become mysteriously deaf once more.)

He spread his wings wide, preparing to leap into the air, but the slight prickle of anger she felt coming from him did not quiet. His scales glowed slightly red – did his anger activate the fire churning in his belly, she wondered – rather than calming blue.

Seralynn watched him, a mocking smile at the corners of her mouth. He glanced at her with sharp green eyes, before letting out a calming breath, sending smoke wafting into the air. Slowly and painfully, his scales dulled from threads of red to solid blue, and he rose into the air.

The horse, which had been still while Erasmus had not moved, letting out a whinny of alarm as the great creature rose into the sky. Even though he could not see Erasmus, he could smell him, and the smell made the great horse tremble with fright. Seralynn's hands tightened as she felt him tense, knowing he might buck.

"Hey, it's okay," she whispered into his ear, trying to keep a low, soothing tone. "It's fine. Look, he's already gone, everything's okay."

As Erasmus's wing-beats headed away from them, the horse seemed to relax slightly, and Seralynn smiled; most high-strung animals, such as her own mare at the stables, would have fled in fright, but this gentler horse had a slower vision of life. His ordeals – whatever they might have been, drunken owner or not – had prepared him to meet life's surprises with slow, steady calm.

"Now, he went that way. We're heading towards the village," Seralynn whispered to him, using one hand to gently guide his head in the right direction and spurring him forward with a gentle squeeze of her legs. Ever so slowly, the horse started forward, moving down into the forest. Giving Monarch a slight squeeze, Seralynn sighed and rested her face against the horse's neck, breathing in the scent of his mane.

The horse seemed to grow uneasy as they neared the village, but she carefully guided him away from it, staying clear of any paths that might lead stray villagers to them. They passed the village quickly, not wanting to attract any attention to themselves.

It was several hours before they stopped, to allow the horse and Seralynn herself to drink. Monarch lapped at the water, before darting away into the forest, probably to do her business.

Seralynn had to climb into the lower branches of a tree and lower herself down to mount the horse again. His ears flicked at her, but he didn't move.

She waited for Monarch to return, and the fox did so with another bird in her mouth. Seralynn helped her onto the horse once more, and he began plodding forward again, making his way steadily and sure-footedly through the stream.

Erasmus's thoughts brushed the edges of her wall, but he did not speak to her; she could sense he was still irritated by her ignoring him. Absentmindedly, she found her fingers weaving through the mane of the horse as he walked. He really was a magnificent creature, with his large, muscular body. She glanced towards his hindquarters, frowning at the lash marks she saw there. Whether his owner was drunk or not, the horse had obviously been whipped to make him work, although the wounds were old. His ribs told her that he was underfed, but these hardships had made him strong, impossible to stop when he had set his mind on something. He pace was slow, but he was still faster than she would be on foot, and his strength made it possible for him to carry everything that Seralynn would amass on the journey, including her new foxy friend.

Perhaps Erasmus was right in stealing him, she admitted to herself. But it doesn't excuse the other things that he has done, to the unjust and just alike.

An idea slowly occurred to her. Perhaps I can learn more about him; his weaknesses, his strengths. I could inform Gordon Gideon of these. Dragons were slain in the past, and they could be again if I gave the slayers the right information, yes? Then Erasmus would get what he deserved, and I could ensure that Gordon Gideon was paid like the hero he is.

Of course, it would have to be after I married Auber and did away with my father's decree, she mused, and it means that I won't be able to simply ignore Erasmus…. She felt a prickle of fear as her thoughts turned to those she had had before, about wondering whether Erasmus's contact with her mind might change her some way. Him talking to me will affect me either way, she reasoned, since he won't stop. And ignoring him makes him angry…even if a dragon's word is his bond, which I am not sure is true, he might still decide that hurting me to make me listen to him might work out in his favor. She shuddered at the idea of the monster bearing down on her, fire gathering in his jaws as his claws glinted, ready to strike her down like so many others he had killed. How many sons did he take from fathers, mothers? She wondered. How many brothers? How many lovers? How many fathers?

She swallowed resolutely. He has to be stopped. When this is all over, I will make sure that he is killed, one way or another, no matter how much power it takes. I'll enlist a dozen mages if I have to.

Seralynn did not ride for much longer, feeling tired quickly. She allowed the horse to stop, and dismounted, taking her bag and Monarch with her.

"I would rather be in an inn or something, wouldn't you?" Seralynn asked Monarch. "Wishful thinking, I suppose." She climbed up into the nearest tree, wincing as the bag tugged on her shoulder. Monarch didn't attempt to follow her, curling up at the base of the tree instead. Seralynn laid down on a curved branch, using her bag as a pillow as usual. The horse didn't seem inclined to move for several moments, until he took several steps to nibble on more tree leaves.

Feeding him will be a chore; he's already eaten most of the hay that came with him, and horses need more than just grass and leaves.

Pulling her last apple out of her bag, she clicked her tongue. The horse's ears pricked and he turned towards her. She tossed the apple down, and he moved to the side out of the way, before approaching the apple cautiously. He mouthed it before figuring out what it was. He scooped it in his mouth and began crunching loudly. Feeling her own stomach rumble slightly, Seralynn sighed and closed her eyes.

. . .

The next morning, the horse was waiting for her as she mounted him, scooping up Monarch as well. This time, though, Monarch sprang down from her perch on the horse, causing him to let out a loud breath, and she waited for the horse to move before tagging along behind him.

Erasmus did not speak to the princess as they continued, but she wasn't worried; the sea lay to the east, and all she had to do was follow the rising sun.

The horse was steadfast for most of the time, but several times he paused to nibble a few leaves or blades of grass when he could find them. Once he smelled water, and derailed them from their chosen path entirely to find it. Seralynn had a drink, but she couldn't get the horse to move; he flicked his ear at her and continued to drink, forcing Seralynn to wait until he had his fill before he would move again.

Aside from this, the day was uneventful. Erasmus said little, even when they halted for the night. They began moving again the next morning before dawn. Seralynn managed to doze off again, until the dragon's words jolted her awake a few hours later.

(We're coming up on the sea,) Erasmus said. (When you reach it, begin following the path.)

Seralynn's eyes widened. So soon? she wondered. I suppose we have made good time, especially while Erasmus was flying . His speed is incredible. It could have cut our journey in half if he would just let me ride him.

She could hear the sounds of the ocean approaching, and her eyes widened as she caught her first glimpse of the rolling seas between the horse's ears. The waves lapped against the white sand before her, and she waited until the last possible moment to turn the horse down the path running parallel to the beach, not wanting to look away.

The salty smell of the sea filled her noise, the sounds of strange birds she had never heard before screeching in her ears. She felt a trill of excitement as the path climbed up a slope; the white sand was slowly replaced by cliffs, growing higher and higher as they continued. The sea turned from lapping against the beach to crashing boldly against the jagged rocks, sending spray bursting into the air.

She looked up at the sky, marveling at how there was not a single cloud blemishing the vast blue expanse. Come to think of it, there haven't been clouds since we've set off, she thought. A fall drought, perhaps? It's lucky, though; I don't think Erasmus could match his scales to the varying colors of gray in clouds.

They continued on beside the shore for several hours, until Seralynn felt Erasmus's thoughts nudging her mind. She assumed that meant they were closing the distance between them once more, and as the feeling grew stronger, she squeezed the horse gently with her legs.

"He won't be on the path, so let's go over here," Seralynn said, guiding the horse to the left of the path, turning her back on the rough sea and returning to the forest.

(Warmer,) she heard Erasmus say. (Warmer…warmer…oh dear, you're in danger of bursting into flames!)

She entered a clearing, and saw Erasmus lounging on the ground, watching her with his keen green eyes. (Finally. That horse is really remarkably slow; I would have beaten him much harder, mmm.)

She rolled her eyes at him, dismounting. She opened her bag, sending Monarch springing out. Erasmus eyed her for a moment, but said nothing, and she grew inpatient.

"Well?"

(Well what, princess?)

"The sea," Seralynn pressed. "We're buying our way over, right? And you'll be flying over?"

(I cannot fly the entire way,) he said. (Even by flying, it would be a journey of at least seven days. I cannot fly for that long without pausing for rest, and dragons…we don't much like water.) he seemed uncomfortable.

"What's the matter? Can't swim?" Seralynn teased, taking vindictive pleasure from the self-conscious prickle she could sense from Erasmus.

(I can swim like a fish,) Erasmus said. (Admitted, a fish that is unable to allow its head to dip underwater. We dragons are creatures of fire; we can swim like a snake, but we have a rather…paralyzing fear of extinguishing said fire with an accidental swallow of water. Sea water would be…even more uncomfortable.)

"So you can't swim, and you can't fly; how are you going to make it over?"

(You'll just have to convince them, princess, now won't you?)

Seralynn blinked at him. "I can't lie to them, and I can't pull anything out of thin air. What do you want me to do? I can't tell them I'm the princess and demand they listen. Merchants are cutthroat people, you know."

(Use your feminine wiles.)

"I'm supposed to be a boy."

(Use your masculine wiles then, I don't care. Just get it done.)

She stared at him, and then her eyes narrowed as something occurred to her. "When you fly, you can generate wind, right?"

(If my wings are angled in such a position, then yes.)

"Does it affect how you fly?"

(It can be a little more taxing, but it shouldn't make much of a difference.) He watched her suspiciously. (What are you planning?)

"Nothing much," Seralynn said with a grin. "I think I can make this happen, but you're going to have to be waiting just offshore, hidden."

(And I will do what?)

"I guess you'll just have to see," Seralynn said smoothly. His eyes narrowed even further.

(I'm not going to like this plan, now am I?)

She grinned, showing him every one of her teeth. "Nope, I don't think so."

She rose to her feet, glancing over her shoulder; the horse had worked his way through most of the hay, and he watched her as he chewed, massive teeth grinding against one another. She looked for Monarch, but the fox seemed to have disappeared, perhaps looking for more birds to snatch.

"I will have to wait for Monarch," Seralynn decided, then glanced at him. "Well, go on then. Out to sea with you."

His eyes narrowed. (I do not like your tone, princess.)

"Says the dragon who is afraid of a little water," she scoffed.

(Says the princess who is oh so delicate, and quite probably very tasty,) he answered, his tongue snaking out to touch his nose.

"You can't eat me," she smirked. "You need me."

His scales rippled a dull red-orange; he was obviously bothered by this attitude of hers. (I need a princess who will do what I tell her, not one who thinks she knows more than a dragon as old as myself.)

Seeing an opportunity to gather more information, Seralynn asked, "How old are you, exactly?"

He shrugged. (More than four hundred years, probably less than six hundred.)

She stared at him. "You don't know? Did you lose count or something?"

(A dragon can call to memory approximately the last five hundred years of his or her life,) Erasmus said. (I can't remember farther back at this moment, although I've read several texts stating that it is possible to remember more, though meditation.)

Seralynn pictured giant Erasmus in a meditative pose, surrounded by scented candles, and giggled. "Meditation, huh? Maybe that will help you with your anger issues, you think?"

Erasmus's eyes narrowed. He spread his wings wide, his scales rippling to blue. (If this plan works, perhaps then you can gloat. But I suggest you keep any further comments to yourself.) With that, he took off into the sky.

Seralynn felt a nudge against her leg, and saw Monarch blinking down at her, a bird clutching in her mouth. Seralynn took it, giving Monarch a scratch behind the ears as a reward and stuffing it into one of the saddlebags.

The horse seemed finished with his hay, so Seralynn mounted him again, leaving Monarch on the ground. The fox still seemed pleased, following the horse closely as he plodded back towards the path.

The port town came into view quickly, and Seralynn saw with awe that it was at least twice the size of the villages they had encountered previously. The sheer number of people, of all different races, was staggering. Stopping to scoop up Monarch and hide her in the bag, Seralynn entered the town. This town had a gate, much like her village back home, and Seralynn felt a pang of longing.

"Name?" one of the guards asked, barely giving her a glance.

"Sai," she answered, using her old nickname. It was ambiguous enough to pass for a boy's name.

"Sai?" the man asked, glancing up at her. "That's a big horse."

"His name is Thunder," she said, resisting the urge to smile as she thought of the absurd name that Erasmus had concocted.

"Thunder? Fitting, for such a big guy. Can I examine your bags there?"

Swallowing nervously, she nodded, and he rifled through her saddlebags, finding nothing of interest. Then, he motioned for her deerskin bag.

"It has, um, sentimental value," Seralynn croaked, her mouth dry with nervousness, not wanting him to find Monarch.

He watched her warily. Then, he shrugged. "I can't see a scrawny kid like you being much trouble, even with a big horse like that. Go on."

Seralynn smiled at him, and he motioned her through.

The sheer babble of voices was what struck her first, followed by the height of the stone buildings; some of them were an amazing three stories tall. She stared at them, wondering what might lie inside such important buildings.

It was then that she realized she had no idea as to where she was going, or how she was going to get on a boat herself, let alone enacting her plan. She swallowed, and then dismounted, searching for help.

"Can you—excuse me, could you—pardon, but I need—" she tried asking for help while avoiding being stepped on, an impossible task.

Deciding to head towards the east, where she knew the sea lay, she attempted to lead Thunder through the crowded streets. So many people seemed to unnerve him, as he snorted at them as they passed.

The massive docks lay before her, and she stared in awe at the huge ships, easily as tall as buildings, built from sturdy wood with beautiful white sails. Only one ship had movement, with gritty sailors running over the deck like busy worker ants

"Perfect."

She hurried towards it, and looked for someone important, someone in charge. She saw a man with an impressive-looking hat sitting on a wooden post, watching the men work. From his clean brown goatee, fancy clothes, and the clink of gold when he moved, she guessed he was some sort of merchant.

"Excuse me," she said, and he glanced at her, before returning his gaze to the boat. "Is this boat yours?"

He seemed to wait for her to go, before turning towards her with a sigh. "Yes, this is mine," he said, his nose lifted slightly. Seralynn flushed, realizing that even after her bath she looked like a mess.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm seeking passage to Hondae," she said nervously.

"We're going there," he said mildly, "but I'm afraid we aren't taking passengers, only cargo, and certainly not…horses." His gaze lingered on Thunder with a look of disgust at such lowly-bred horseflesh, and Seralynn flushed again.

"We can pay."

"I doubt it," he answered. She quickly pulled out her purse.

"How much?"

He sneered down his nose at her. "Five hundred coins, and that's a one-way trip."

She swallowed. "Gold?"

"What else, boy? Maybe even extra for the horse." He smiled at her, blue eyes glinting coldly. "Don't have enough, do you?"

"I have fifty remaining," she mumbled. He only laughed.

She swallowed; she'd been hoping to avoid this, but it seemed she had no choice. "There is something else I can give you," she whispered. "Well, not give you…but he can help."

He squinted at her. "Help?"

"I'm traveling with…a dragon," she murmured, glancing around to make sure no one was watching. "He can flap his wings in such a manner that it can speed up your travel."

At this, the merchant gave a laugh that made his entire frame shake. The coins in his purse jingled furiously. "A dragon!" he snorted with mirth, and Seralynn thought he wiped a tear from his eye. "That's a good one, boy. A dragon!"

"I'm serious," Seralynn insisted. "Please, you must believe me."

The merchant snorted. "Boy, I will believe nothing of the sort. You can come with me, if you pay, but the horse stays here…unless you will sell him as well?"

"Listen," Seralynn said urgently. "Take me and my horse into the sea. He will be there waiting for us. If he isn't…dump us both into the sea." She looked him square in the eye. "I swear on my life, he will be there."

Please, please let him be there, she prayed.

The man was watching her now, considering it. Quickly, she plowed ahead, "He can flap his wings in such a manner as to send more wind into your sails, as I said. He can cut your travel time in half, truly!"

The man's tongue licked over his thin lips. "In half?"

She nodded quickly, and his gaze flitted towards the ship, considering. Finally, he nodded. "Hand over the coins," he ordered, holding out his hand. Sighing quietly, she dumped her coins into his waiting hand.

"Go on," he said impatiently, and she walked up onto the gangplank. Thunder balked, not liking the feeling of only wood under his hooves. He jerked his head back, but she held on tightly.

"Come on," she coaxed, slowly leading him up the plank onto the ship. She paused, and waited for the merchant. He followed her, and whistled. Two sailors approached, holding out their hands. Feeling dubious, Seralynn handed them the reins, and they led Thunder away; he gave Seralynn a scared glance, but did not fight back.

"Where do I go?" Seralynn started to ask, but another sailor already had her by the arm. She let out a squeak as the man pushed her towards a ladder that led down below the deck. He grunted at her, and she climbed it timidly.

Below decks was dark, and cramped; Seralynn yelped in pain as she ran into a box of something heavy and metallic, and her elbow bumped into another hard object.

"Where am I staying?" she called up.

"I hope you're comfortable!" the merchant answered with a laugh, and she heard his footsteps receding. Seralynn blinked, and started for the ladder, only to let out a shout as some sort of door was lowered, leaving a wooden grill above her.

"Hey!" she shouted. "This wasn't the deal! I wasn't supposed to be locked down here!"

"We never specified any terms, now did we?" the merchant called, and he reminded her of Erasmus for a moment; she half expected him to say 'mmm' at the end of his sentence.

Growling to herself, she felt her way over towards one of the boxes, sitting down. Monarch stirred in her bag, and Seralynn allowed the fox to climb onto her lap.

"At least you're here, huh?" Seralynn said softly as Monarch snuggled against her arm. "There's that, at least…."

The ship rolled with the waves hitting the docks, and Seralynn's stomach churned. In such cramped quarters, and in the dark….She let out a moan, resting her head against a box, trying to breathe through her nose, deeply and evenly. It did little to settle her stomach.

Then, she heard a man give a shout, and she picked Monarch up, moving towards the grill. She saw the sailors moving – untying the ship, perhaps? And as the wind filled the sails, she felt the ship moving forward. Clutching Monarch tight enough to make her squeak, Seralynn retreated to her seat, feeling the ship move underneath her feet. Letting out a whimper, Seralynn buried her face in Monarch's thick fur. She felt the fox lick her ear, and felt comforted.

Erasmus's conscience brushed against hers. (I'm assuming your plan worked, princess? Care to tell me what it is when we meet? I'm flying towards the ship gliding forward, since I am assuming you are on it. I'll stay hidden until I see you, mmm.)

She never thought she'd be comforted by the sound of his voice in her mind, but she found that she was grateful for her silvery tones gliding over her own worried thoughts. She thought about responding, but knew she would rather have her full strength at hand.

"Hey!" she shouted up, standing again. "You have to let me out! He won't appear until I am on the deck!"

The merchant's face peered down at her. "Is that so?" he asked slowly. "Not getting cold feet, are you? Thinking about jumping ship?" His eyes narrowed. "Is that a fox?"

Ignoring the question, she growled, "I would never leave Thunder behind. Let me up!"

He seemed to be considering it, then finally opened the grate. "We're watching you. Don't try anything."

Hoisting Monarch in one arm, she climbed up the ladder, whimpering as the ship rocked from a particularly boisterous wave.

"Throw up, and I'm keeping the horse," he warned. Glaring at him, she forced herself to stand, placing Monarch down. The fox sat by her feet, but seemed interested rather than afraid of her surroundings.

Seralynn stared up at the sky, her gaze racking the blue expanses, searching for green eyes. She nibbled her lip anxiously. Please let him be here, she prayed, a sudden image of the merchant and burly sailors throwing her and Monarch to the sharks rising in her mind. Please don't let him be angry about what I said…just let him show up!

And, more importantly, let him go along with it….

The sudden beating of wings over the sounds of the waves brought a smile to her face. The merchant looked up, frowning.

"I don't see any—" his words broke off in a gasp as Erasmus's blue scales melted away, exposing his normal brown coloring. His wings were easily as wide as the entire ship, although he was not as long, and Seralynn was sure the merchant was imagining his entire cargo – himself including – suddenly bursting into flames.

"That is the dragon," she said, attempting to remain calm as Erasmus slowly lowered himself, his claws barely brushing the deck.

(This plan best be good,) Erasmus thought, before rasping, "Greetings, human seller-and-buyer-of-wares. Please don't soil yourself, you might ruin your pretty boat."

Seralynn smirked at the merchant; he seemed ready to do just that.

"A dragon," he croaked. "A real dragon." He turned to Seralynn, fear in his eyes. "You are in league with this creature?"

Glancing at him, she nodded. "Yes. And he has told me that he can fly to blow wind in your sails."

Erasmus's eyes widened, and then narrowed dangerously. "In exchange," she said quickly, "he will be able to rest when he needs to; he cannot fly the entire way on his own."

"And he will speed our ship?" the merchant demanded, and she nodded.

"Hold on now," Erasmus said slowly, his eyes narrowed. He glanced from Seralynn, to the wooden grill, towards the merchant, and seemed to be drawing his own conclusions. "I believe there are some boundaries we need to set, some rules."

The merchant watched him warily, and Erasmus gave him a small smile. "First," the dragon said slowly, "I do not work for you. Do not get this impression. I am selecting your ship because helping you benefits me. Because I do not work for you, I will not be taking any orders. If you attempt to give them to me, you will find yourself beheaded and your body at the bottom of the ocean."

The merchant swallowed. "Second," Erasmus continued lightly, "you will all address me as either 'sir' or 'your Grace', since I will soon become a duke."

Despite herself, Seralynn smiled at the small joke, holding in a laugh at the merchant's expression.

"Third, none of you will breathe a word to anyone about me, or my traveling companions. And if I find out that you have done so, I will track you down and take the souls of your children, one by one. If you don't have children, then I will ensure that you never will."

The merchant's eyes widened. "Are you…are you the dragon that stole—"

"Fourth," Erasmus interrupted, "you will not ask any questions that I do not want to answer. If you do, I will toast you and devour you."

"But how do we know which questions you won't answer?" the merchant demanded, before paling as he realized his mistake.

Erasmus watched him for a moment. "You won't know until you ask," he said finally, "but once you have asked, there are a few easy questions you can ask yourself to see whether or not I wanted to answer it. First, ask yourself 'Am I on fire?'. If the answer is yes, ask 'Am I being eaten?'. If the answer is also yes, then you will soon be dead and your conclusion will not matter. If, however, you have not been set on fire, my answer is probably forthcoming." He paused for a moment, and the merchant stared at him. "I'm sure you have gone over those in your mind just now, and came to the conclusion that I did want to answer your question," he said silkily. "I hope you are satisfied."

The merchant seemed at a loss for words, and Seralynn had to hide her mouth behind her hand to keep her smile hidden. The way Erasmus had humiliated the stuck-up man made her almost – almost – not want to tell the hunters about his fear of water, once everything was said and done.

"And don't let me forget the final rule; none of this boy's possessions are to be touched; if any harm comes to him at all then I shall simply torch your ship and ride the driftwood to the shore."

The merchant paled, probably imagining his entire ship going up in flames and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

"Also, you will return his money."

The merchant looked mutinous, but he finally sighed. "Yes, sir," he growled towards his toes, before snapping a finger. One of the sailors disappeared, reappearing with Seralynn's purse. He handed it to her with a frightened look.

"Do you agree to my terms?" Erasmus said smoothly. The merchant swallowed.

"Yes, your Grace."

Smoke blew from Erasmus's nostrils. "Excellent." With that, he flew to the back of his ship. He flapped his wings, angled them slightly, and a gust of wind surged forward, whipping Seralynn's short brown hair backwards.

The merchant gave Seralynn a glare. "I suppose you'll need better quarters, then," he growled. "Come with me."

He headed towards a door near the front of the ship, between two small sets of stairs that led up to a higher deck, opening the door and disappearing inside. She followed him and found a corridor; his room was to the right, as she could see from the lavish bed.

"To the left," he said in a low voice. With a glance at him, she opened the door and looked around. The room was small and somewhat cramped, but it at least had a bed and a small table, as well as a little window.

"Is this to your liking?" the man hissed, and she nodded. His eyes narrowed as he turned away; she heard his footsteps receding.

(I can feel your pleasure,) she felt Erasmus say. (You just don't like my tone when it's addressed to you, mmm?)

She laid down on the bed, as Monarch hopped up beside her, putting her bed on the table. She wouldn't need her strength for the ride, she knew, and practicing talking to him might be good for her. Yes, she thought, but received no reply.

(Yes!) she thought again, more strongly, and he seemed surprised.

(Trying again, are we? Don't push yourself too far, you might pass out.)

(Not doing anything.)

(True, for at least the next seven days.)

At this, she was surprised. (Only a week?)

(To cross the sea with my added power? Yes, of course. Normally it would be quite a bit longer, but I think I can manage, mmm? I don't need a lot of rest, only a few hours. The rest of the time I'll be flying right behind the boat.)

(Food?)

(I hoped this man packed plenty, don't you? The sailors won't be as important with my powers; I might have to eat them.)

Black dots suddenly covered her vision, and she closed her eyes, feeling groggy. He sensed this through their link.

(Rest your feeble mind, princess. You might need to be careful if the merchant tries to pull anything on us, yes?)

She wanted to respond with a biting comeback, but found that her weariness was too much. With a quiet sigh, she rebuilt her mental wall, and rested her head more comfortably against her pillow, allowing exhaustion to sweep her away.

. . .

She woke up to feel the odd sensation of her stomach rolling; they were truly in the depths of the ocean now, and with Erasmus's added speed, the boat was rocking with the waves somewhat violently. Clutching her stomach, she let out a low moan as sea water splashed up against her window.

Monarch seemed as happy as a clam, bouncing on the bed and running around the small, cramped quarters. Just watching her race in circles made Seralynn dizzy, and she closed her eyes again.

Seven days of this? She wondered to herself with a sigh. I'd much rather be riding with Erasmus….

Still, she was not as tired as she was the first time she had attempted to speak with Erasmus, perhaps because their conversation had been shorter and she had been prepared for the draining feeling. Sitting up slowly, clutching her bed tightly as the waves rocked the boat, she forced herself to her feet. It felt almost like standing on one leg with her eyes closed – a game she had often played with her mother – as she felt as though she was about to fall over. Holding on tightly to the wall, she headed towards the door, walking down the hall and onto the deck.

The wind of Erasmus's wings mixed with the cool sea breeze chilled her, and she huddled there near the door with her hands tightly hugging her arms. Erasmus was blue again, perhaps to hide from any other ships they might encounter, but the sea spray meant that he wasn't completely invisible. She thought she saw the glint of his green eyes, but he was too far away for her to be certain.

Looking around the ship, she was finally forced to sit down as the ship gave another lurch. Just then, the merchant appeared.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. In his hands, he held a steaming bowl of soup. The smell of carrots, garlic, and chicken finally caused Seralynn's stomach to revolt. She raced to the side of the ship, just barely making it as her last meal forced itself out the hard way. Behind her, she could almost hear the merchant's smirk, and Erasmus's mental laughter rang in her ears.

. . .

She resigned herself to her room for nearly three days, unable to keep anything down but water. Erasmus did not disturb her for the first two days, but on the third she sought him out, out of boredom.

(Erasmus?)

(Still puking, princess?) he inquired. (Or have your guts finally settled themselves?)

(I don't think they're settled, but I'm starving,) she answered. (Have you been eating well?) she asked politely. She could feel his amusement.

(Very well, yes. A sailor asked me a rather personal question, and another decided that I should be flying faster than I am…I didn't behead him, though, I was hungry.)

Alarm flickered through her for a brief moment, but she gave a little sigh, knowing that he was probably only joking in his ill-mannered way.

(Hope they were good. How much longer?)

(Four days, princess, as long as we don't run into any foul weather.)

Seralynn let out a moan. In four days, perhaps she'd have her sea-legs. Her stomach growled at her, sounding irritated.

(Gonna go eat.)

(Good luck finding something edible.)

Seralynn rose to her feet shakily, careful to not wake Monarch. She slowly made her way towards the door, peeking out cautiously before heading down the hall.

She leaned on the wall, feeling wooziness come over her as the ship rocked, but forced herself to keep going. As she approached the end of the hall and large double-doors, she heard a loud, rough voice ranting. At first, her dull mind thought it was Erasmus, but as she neared the room she realized it was a man.

She opened the door hesitantly, but the man didn't seem to notice.

"Don't like my food, do they?" he growled, waving a pan in one hand while shaking a knife in the other. "Well, I'll show them! They can make their own food for all I care!" He savagely speared a fish with the knife as he turned.

Seralynn trembled uncertainly, her gaze darting over the room. Simmering pots and pans covered every available surface. A haze of steam billowed behind the man, making his face impossible to see. Heavy scents hung over the entire room, sending a multitude of memories filling her mind as she thought of meals past.

Her stomach gave a fearsome growl, and the man turned towards her quickly. His eyes flashed blue, the color of the sky. That, along with his straw-colored hair marked him as Songbird-Kin, although his voice was rough and rasped against her ears unpleasantly.

"Who're you, boy?" he glowered.

"I'm just, um, hungry," she mumbled. "I've been seasick, and I…."

"Can't keep my food down? I suppose it's just too awful huh?" he roared, shaking the knife again. Seralynn shrank back, feeling frightened and weakened by hunger.

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Wait," he said slowly. "What sailor gets seasick, eh? And I don't remember spooning you your food…who're you, then?"

"I came with the dragon," she answered softly. His blue eyes widened slightly, and for a moment the anger was gone from his voice, leaving his unshaved face looking almost pleasant. Then, he quickly frowned again, his eyebrows looking like bushy blonde caterpillars as they framed his blue eyes.

"So what do you want?"

"I need, um, food?" she said, phrasing it like a question.

"And you came to me," he said slowly.

Hoping to placate him, she quickly said, "I've heard your food is very, um, delicious."

He frowned at her again. "The sailors talking about me, again, eh? Probably making fun of me, I bet! Old Jay doesn't know what he's doing, old Jay can't cook, old Jay doesn't know nutmeg from peanuts….Well, we'll just see!" He seemed to be bellowing at no one in particular. Ignoring her, he turned back to his work, chopping several vegetables into tiny pieces.

She hovered, uncertain as to whether or not she was supposed to stay or go. Finally, she saw him glance at her as if to make sure she was there, although he said nothing.

"Here," he said gruffly, pointing towards a small wooden table. Taking a small bowl from one of the shelves, he ladled a strange, murky liquid into it. "It'll calm your stomach. Good for travel." With that, he returned to his cooking.

She stared at the soup dubiously, picking up the nearby spoon with a wince, noticing the odd brown stain on the handle. Gently, she scooped up a bite, staring at the unknown objects floating in the brown liquid. Swallowing nervously, she ladled a bite into her mouth.

Her eyes instantly widened as the soup slid down her throat, warming her from the inside out. It tasted like nothing she had ever tasted before, despite its humble ingredients: chicken, carrots, broth, small pieces of bread, and other things she couldn't quite name, unknown spices and herbs. Taking another bite, she felt her stomach give a gurgle before settling, pleasant warm spreading through her belly.

Within moments all of her soup had disappeared. Jay turned towards her, and glanced towards the floor, as if she might have dumped it to avoid eating it. Instead, she smiled at him brightly, holding out her bowl for more.

"Someone with sense," he grunted, but he looked mollified as he spooned more soup into her bowl.

Her stomach bulged pleasantly against her grubby shirt as she polished off her third bowl, resisting the urge to lick it clean. She let out a soft sigh, enjoying the first meal since she'd stepped foot on the boat.

"Finally finished?" Jay asked.

"Yes, my compliments to the chef!"

If he thought her somewhat formal phrasing was odd, he didn't show it; rather, he smiled slightly, tossing the bowl and spoon towards a large dish filled with water. They missed, landing on the floor, but he didn't seem bothered.

"Told them they were wrong," he said, but he seemed to be grumbling to his hands. "Told 'em I could cook. Told 'em it was good. Next time they moan, I'll point 'em towards him…always complaining, those sailors..."

He shook himself, and glanced up at her again. "Where are you from, boy? Not Lapidae, surely?"

She blinked, then nodded, and he snorted.

"You'd better keep your eyes down, is all I can say to that," he grunted, turning back to his cooking. "Dark things have gone down in your homeland, or so they say."

"Dark things?" she asked, trying to keep the fear from her voice. "What sorts of things?"

"Surely you've heard?" Jay seemed aghast. Luckily, Seralynn didn't have to explain her ignorance, for he continued. "Supposedly the king's daughter ran off to make a bargain with a dragon. The dragon went and made off with the king of Ursdae's spirit, and by the gods the Bear-Kin have been roused!"

"T-they think the princess did it?" Seralynn stammered. "They think she's to blame?"

"Well, she disappeared at the same time," Jay said, and shrugged. "Seems reasonable enough to think that it was her. Who else has something worth a dragon's bargain, otherwise?"

Seralynn stared down at her hands, unable to believe his words, despite Erasmus's warnings.

There really will be a war between our kingdoms if I don't intercede before it's too late, she thought, fear making the hairs on the back of her neck tingle. I have to finish this quest of Erasmus's, and quickly!

But surely Auber received my letter? Doesn't he know that I would never hurt his father? Why hasn't he spoken up?

She was so caught up in her thoughts that she did not notice Jay's silence until she glanced up to see his violet eyes had settled on hers, and a certain thoughtfulness had crept into his face.

"It can't be a coincidence, another dragon appearing out of nowhere…and so close to Lapidae, too," he said slowly. "Let me see you, now. Hold still." He reached out with one rough hand, nudging her chin upwards; her breath caught, but she had no way to fend him off. He studied her face again, and to her surprise the smallest of smiles flitted over his face.

"Seems I've gotten compliments from royalty, then," he said, leaning back against one of his counters.

Her heart rose into her throat. "You mustn't tell," she said, knowing she had no way of lying. He waved her words away.

"I have no interest in it," he said, "and your dragon has sworn to kill us if we breathe a word, did he not? Lose no sleep over me. But I'd be careful, if I was you. Not everyone here is as slow on the uptake as I am, and I'm sure our friend Basil has you pegged."

"Basil?" It took her a moment to work out that this must be the merchant's name. "Will he speak of us to anyone, even with Erasmus's threat?"

Jay spread his broad hands. "Not for me to say, lass. All I know is that he would gladly slit his mother's throat for a few pieces of gold. I don't know how much he treasures his own."

Seralynn's heart sank; she could only imagine what would happen if the citizens of Hondae heard that Lapidae's princess, the daughter of one of their own royals, had gotten herself into so much trouble.

"Thank you," she blurted, rising to her feet. Without waiting for him to say anything more, she fled to her room, collapsing onto the bed and buried her face in her hands.

How could so much have gone wrong in so few days? she wondered with desperation. How did I manage to get myself involved in this terrible scheme? I only wanted to save one village, but now I've put my entire kingdom at risk….

Hot, bitter tears rolled down her cheeks, and even Monarch's quiet brushing against her couldn't stop them. On the edge of her mind, she could feel Erasmus shift as he noticed her sobs.

(Princess…?)

She ignored him, knowing that if she responded, she would only fall asleep once more.

I can't rest, not now, she thought. I've got to figure this out. There has to be something I can do, some way of setting this right…I can't come out and explain things, for no one will believe me and I might be captured…but surely there's something.

She flopped onto the pillow and stared up at the ceiling, thoughts churning in her mind as the sea cast its waves against the window. But no matter how her mind thrashed and flailed, it felt as though she was drowning in an ocean of troubles.