=The Next Step=
Faeryn's scream faded back into the darkness of her nightmare as Tenma bolted upright in an unfamiliar bed.
The sudden movement racked her body with a shock of pain, and she inhaled sharply. Looking down, she saw that the entire length of her right arm and left leg were wrapped in white bandages, and several small gashes were covered by squares of gauze. She could feel more bandages wrapping her torso beneath her clothes.
She was in a double-sized bed with purple drapes and matching sheets, in the center of a tall, round room constructed of gray stone.
A desk across from her was piled high with tomes, stacks of unused parchment, pens, a glass globe with a small wizard figurine in it, and colorful glass bottles.
On the other side of the room was a door, framed in dark-varnished wood, which had a stained glass depiction of dancing fairies dancing among pink and yellow daises set into the center.
Tenma pushed the silk comforter away, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and forcing herself to stand. She was dressed in a white cotton nightgown with three-quarter sleeves and a pink ribbon wrapped around her chest, tying off with a bow in the front. It was certainly not hers.
Upon standing for a moment, using the bedpost for balance, Tenma realized that she was in some sort of tower.
The ceiling far above was made entirely of glass, which explained why everything was so unbearably bright – morning's pale light washed down on the room in all of its blinding harshness.
Attached to the skylight was a giant model of the planets, which seemed to move in real time, creating the largest mobile she had ever seen. A ladder was pressed flat against the wall, leading up into a small loft just under the skylight.
But what held Tenma's attention was a far smaller detail.
Just beside the door was a gorgeous little clock made of dragon ivory, a carved fairy figurine praying atop the clock face. Behind her was painted a lovely cobalt sky, puffy white clouds, and a golden sun with its lips puckered to unleash wind.
This very clock had hung in Tenma's bedroom her entire life. After stumbling over to get a closer look, she knew there was no mistake.
Her father had brought this back from a trip to Bastion when she was just a baby.
Right then, the door opened and in stepped a man with a clean shaven face, dark-hazel eyes, and neatly cut midnight hair.
He blinked a few times at Tenma, clearly surprised. In his right hand was a silver tray with several medicinal bottles and a mortar and pestle balanced on it.
"Oh," he said uncertainly, still a bit shocked, "you're up."
But no, she wasn't – not anymore.
As soon as he said this, Tenma became increasingly aware of the agony in her legs, which now elected to abruptly fold beneath her.
The man was quick – he managed to catch her before she collapsed to the floor. Over his shoulder, Tenma saw the tray floating in mid-air, bobbing slightly.
"Y—you're a wizard." she said painfully as he helped her back to the bed. The tray followed, gently placing itself on the nightstand.
"I am Lathan Leafaunt." he explained in a soothing voice, as he began mixing the contents of each bottle into the mortar. "The court Wizard of Jade."
The name was of course familiar. Everyone knew of the great Lathan and his astounding power. But why was Tenma receiving private medical care from the most prominent wizard in the empire?
"Where am I?" she looked down at her bandages. "What happened to me?"
"Try to calm down. You're safe." he assured. "You are in the palace, in the capital city Xiao. What's the last thing you remember?"
Thinking back, it took Tenma only a moment to replace her confusion with absolute horror.
"The fire…" she said breathlessly. "My father, m-my sister – where are they? Are they safe?"
A sense of crushing urgency rose in her chest and caused her to hyperventilate.
Seeing her panic, Lathan placed a warm hand on her shoulder and passed her the mortar, now swirling with jewel tones, and asked her to drink it. Almost mechanically, she obeyed. The potion tasted of peach juice and mango, sending a warm, comforting feeling all over. Her pain all but vanished, along with her anxiety, and her head was nearly impossible to hold up.
After easing her back against the pillow, Lathan took a seat by the bed.
"Please do not be alarmed – this elixir will make you drowsy and you might feel a bit funny, but I promise that it will not harm you." Something about his face made her believe him. His eyes, probably. They were very kind.
"Tenma, what I'm about to say – there is nothing I can do to make it easier…I'm so sorry." His voice caught, and for a moment Tenma thought she saw tears glaze over his eyes. Regaining himself, he continued. "Your father did not survive. No one has been able to locate your sister's body, but with a fire of this magnitude… flames leave only ash in their wake."
Tenma felt as though someone had punched her in the gut. She couldn't breathe. The room spun around her like a massive wheel.
Miros was gone, and poor Mira, alone and trapped in her bedroom as flames mercilessly closed in on her. It was not fair that Tenma had escaped. She should have died with her family.
A knock at the door made the spinning pause. Without waiting for an answer, a woman with a harsh face and silver hair pinned into a perfect bun walked in, holding some type of board with papers clipped to it. Her cheekbones were sharp, her dress was gray, and her eyes squinted as she sized Tenma up.
"Master Lathan, now that she is awake, it's time to get started –"
"Eudora, have you no manners?" Lathan spoke in a low warning tone. "My study, if you would."
As he stood and gestured back down the stairs just outside the door, his voice was anything but suggestive.
Eudora looked like she might protest, but thought better of it and obeyed, with Lathan close behind.
"I will return shortly, Tenma."
A few minutes later, Tenma heard them arguing, their voices carrying up to her.
"Honestly! She's just been through a great deal of trauma!"
"I understand sir, but –"
"No, you do not understand!" Lathan cut her off in outrage. "Tenma has hurt enough. I won't have you cause her anymore confusion. The child just lost her family, allow her a damn moment!"
"Sir, the order comes straight from the empress." Eudora replied stiffly. "I am to explain everything as soon as possible."
A momentary pause ensued, which gave Tenma's groggy mind time to process what was being said and wonder at what they meant.
Tenma's uncle was a member of the prestigious Battlefront, a group of warriors that boasted Jade's most elite. But her father was a samurai who'd retired at a young age, and by comparison, at least on a social scale, Tenma was no one.
So why had she been brought to the royal city? Why was she being treated by Lathan? And what on earth could be so pressing that the empress herself issued orders regarding Tenma?
Presently, the court wizard and the stiff woman returned to the room, where Lathan cleared his throat and regarded Tenma with an apologetic expression.
"Tenma, this is Eudora, royal assistant to Empress Chi Ling. I am afraid that, in addition to your loss, there are… some other things you must be made aware of." Here, he moved back to his seat by the bed and focused solely on Tenma. "I wanted to give you some time to find peace, but unfortunately, that decision has rather suddenly been found out of my hands. I promise there will be time to heal. Physically and emotionally.
"Your brother is a dragon Ryder, and you've grown up knowing what that meant for him." Lathan seemed uncertain about how to begin, and Tenma had a difficult time following at first.
She hadn't seen Edward in two years, since he'd gone abroad to study feral dragons. Ryders were people chosen by dragons, imprinted upon. Edward had told her a little about this process. It was as if the human and the dragon belonged together, like they were of one heart and mind.
"There are some species of dragon born with Intelligence, the ability to understand human speech. Even rarer of a phenomenon is when these dragons seek out human counterparts. When this happens, their spirit is connected to that human. They share a soul, you see. These chosen Ryders of the firedrake are sought out and brought here to the capital with their dragons to train in combat. When they reach the age of thirteen, they are honored as official members of the Jade military, clearance level of a knight."
Of course most of this was common knowledge. The only thing Tenma had not previously known was that the Ryders and the dragons shared a soul. However, it did seem to account for how depressed Ed became on his visits home – Miros did not allow dragons in the Hollow.
How miserable it must have felt, to be separated from half of your spirit. Surely Miros would not have permitted his personal prejudice to cause his son pain?
"Tenma, you are a Ryder, too." Lathan explained, meeting her confused gaze. "Originally, Faeryn was going to tell you when you turned five, but Miros blamed dragons as a whole for what happened to your mother, and forced me out of your life. Although, this was much more painful for Artemis…"
The name struck up a warm fondness in Tenma's chest, though she did not yet understand why. She also felt a deep emptiness in her stomach all of a sudden, as if she'd just realized something was missing.
"That's your dragon – Artemis. He's been with you since your birth, but remained hidden due to your parents' wishes. He's the one who brought you here after the fire."
"How?" Tenma's voice came out hoarse. "How did this fire start?"
Vaguely, she recalled being chased through the house, but she wasn't certain it had actually happened. Had someone intentionally set their home aflame?
Lathan frowned, radiating sadness. "It would seem that the hearth spat some embers onto a rug…"
One dying bit of ash had destroyed everything.
Tenma's family was gone. Only Edward and her uncle remained. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, but she kept them at bay while she listened to Lathan further explain about dragon Ryders.
In addition to sharing a spirit, Ryders and their dragons could sense each other's emotions, as well as physical pain. Did that mean Artemis had felt every injury she'd sustained through life? Suffered through every fever? Every heart break?
Swallowing hard, she stared down at the edge of the comforter, which she gripped so tightly that her knuckles turned white. As the potion Lathan had given her spread throughout her body, it became ever more difficult to focus, but she was determined to remain awake. Looking up at the wizard again, she somewhat regained herself.
"What is the next step?" she asked softly, her scorched vocal chords already exhausted by the brief exchange.
Lathan summoned a cool rag from thin air, gently patting Tenma's feverish cheeks with it as he spoke next.
"The only thing I am worried about at present is making sure you recover. Everything else can wait." Here he shot a sharp look Eudora's way, silently daring her to contradict him. But she bowed quietly out of the tower without pressing the issue.
"Rest for now." Lathan sounded almost pleading.
It didn't take much – even with the confusing spectrum of emotions she felt and the thoughts whirling through her mind, Tenma managed to drift into a deep sleep.