Authors: Marc Secchia
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction
By Marc Secchia
Copyright © 2015 Marc Secchia
Cover art copyright © 2015 Joemel Requeza and Marc Secchia
Cover font design copyright © 2015 Victorine Lieske
For the power of love is greater than any Dragon,
Greater than magic, greater than soul-fire,
It changes the immutable,
Breaks all chains,
And stirs the Islands to dance.
Hualiama kicked off her soft slippers. Picking up her formal lace skirts, she dashed out of her chambers, but the long train snagged on the curved claws of a stylised jade Dragon. Dagger in hand, she hacked wildly at the priceless fabric restricting her stride. Bleeding–Dragon fire take it! She stumbled up endless stairs designed by an architect enamoured with galleries sized to house ridiculous mountains of royal artefacts. Entering a long corridor, her woefully short legs stretched into a flat-out sprint. Ranks of larger-than-life paintings of tall, pointy-eared ancestors blurred to either side. All of her attention was focussed on the altercation on the Receiving Balcony, atop Fra’anior’s Royal Palace.
A Dragon’s voice boomed, “This means war, King Chalcion!”
She had to stop them. Now.
Slewing around a corner, Lia deliberately cannoned off a man-high ornamental vase. She caught her balance with the agility of a dragonet. Head down, she pumped her arms, accelerating to the speed of a warrior and dancer who trained for five hours daily. Twisting between two thickset marble columns to shortcut her route, Lia used a stone pot-plant as a springboard to leap upward at full stretch, flying briefly over a yawning drop to the palace gardens below. Snagging the crenulations atop the wall with her fingertips, she wriggled upward with the facility of a lizard scaling a wall and vaulted smoothly onto the balcony beyond. One more level.
She heard querulous voices, and the swish of Dragons’ wings. They were leaving.
Her heart could not sink, because it was thrashing about in her throat. But it should. This was just the incident to ignite the simmering relations between Dragons and Humans. She should know. That very morning, Lia had witnessed a Dragonwing immolating a Human village.
Bounding up the final staircase, she raced out onto the balcony, screaming, “Stop!”
Lia caught her foot in the wreck of her dress, slipped, and skidded across the rough flagstones all the way to the edge of her father’s robes.
Stooping, the King seized her arm. “This is an outrage, Hualiama! How dare you barge–”
She tore free, hurled herself to the balcony’s edge, and screamed again, “Stop! By the Spirits of the Ancient Dragons, please!”
Hualiama gazed out over her beloved Island. Sweet, haunting harmonies of birdsong and dragonet-song saluted the gathering evening. The ever-song, some called it, the unique melody of Fra’anior, an Island-Cluster of twenty-seven Islands precariously perched on the rim-wall of the greatest volcano in the Island-World. The late afternoon light streamed in so thick and golden, she feared the King might pass a law to hoard it in the royal treasury. But she had eyes only for the Dragons.
Four Dragons winged over the vast bowl of Fra’anior’s volcanic caldera, their scales gleaming like glorious jewels in the resplendent light. Two were hundred-foot Reds, as perfect as matched rubies, called Zulior and Qualiana, and the third a vast emerald-green named Andarraz. Sapphurion, the Dragon Elder himself, led their Dragonwing. His scales evoked the turquoise hues of a clear lake. All were breathtaking, but Sapphurion was the greatest of all, the leader of the Island-World’s Dragons.
The four Dragons banked with supreme grace, angling back toward the Receiving Balcony. Hualiama’s heart stood still.
“Now you’ve done it, you insolent wretch,” the King growled, right by her ear. “You’ve wrecked our negotiations …”
Words that beat upon Lia’s eardrums without meaning.
A hymn of aching awe slaked her spirit as Sapphurion’s mighty wings flared, occluding the suns. His talons dug into the paving stones, pitted by many such landings. Crouched down, Sapphurion’s spine-spikes exceeded the height of the twenty-five foot flagpole set back from the balcony, flying the purple of Royal Fra’anior. The scent of an adult Dragon teased Hualiama’s nostrils with hints of charred cinnamon, sulphur and the smoke of his belly-fires. The other three Dragons thudded down nearby, easily filling the broad balcony as they folded their wings with a leathery rustling. Flame licked about their nostrils.
Zalcion, the King’s brother, hissed in her other ear, “I hope you burn for this, Lia.”
Lia stood erect, meeting the Dragons’ glares with a brave mien, while nerves churned her insides like the bubbling lava-vents of the caldera floor. Let them blow smoke. Six years ago, Grandion–noble, unforgettable Grandion–had broken the draconic taboo of non-interference in Human affairs, helping her to rescue her family. Lia had seen neither hide nor talon of him since, though she daily watched the skies. Did the matchless Tourmaline Dragon shun her out of shame? Or had her impetuosity instigated his banishment, or worse?
Thoughts to shadow the most brilliant suns-set.
With enormous dignity, Sapphurion bent his neck to regard the Human delegation. He rumbled, “Who evoked the Spirits?”
“My daughter, Hualiama,” said King Chalcion. “Forgive her, she’s but a callow youth …”
The Dragon’s predatory gaze lit upon Hualiama, his blue-in-blue eyes swirling with magic and Dragon fire in their depths. She had to lock her knees to restrain an urge to dive beneath the paving stones and pull them back over her head as fast as humanly possible.
Clasping her hands over her pounding heart, Lia bowed deeply. “O mighty draconic majesty, may the sulphurous blessings of the Great Dragon Fra’anior abide with you and your kin.”
“Very formal and correct, little one,” said Sapphurion, his brow-ridges wrinkling slightly in consternation. “You would speak?”
Must she always be little Lia, or ‘short shrift’ to her royal brothers and sister? For Lia was unusually diminutive for a Fra’aniorian, just five feet and two inches in stature. She possessed the pointy ears and smoky green eyes which betrayed an Isles heritage, aye, but beyond that, her past was a mystery. A Dragoness had found her upon Gi’ishior. The Dragons had brought her to the Human King and Queen, who adopted her at some point after her second birthday.
Petite and small-boned, and twenty-one summers of age, Hualiama wore a proper silken headscarf imported at enormous cost from faraway Helyon, and a now-ruined lace gown in a green which matched her eyes. Her right foot stood in a puddle of her own blood.
Little Lia, lover of all things Dragon.
She blurted out, “O Sapphurion, it
Dragons who burned the village–”
Fury! Thunder! Hualiama shrank back before catching herself. How ralti-stupid was she? How many times had the King and Queen not counselled her not to speak with a rush of blood to the head?
“Insolent hatchling!” Andarraz bellowed.
Zulior shadow-charged her, roaring, “Foul accusations!”
The King gabbled, “Lia, please! The Dragons are riled enough already.”
Zalcion twisted her arm until her skin burned. “Control your daughter, Chalcion! War breeds in reckless words.”
“I bring proof!”
Spoken at a moment when person and creature alike paused for breath, Hualiama’s protest rang as clearly as a bell. The silence expanded, as viscous and all-pervading as the golden light.
Every eye, Dragon and Human alike, burned at her.
Sapphurion crooked his foreclaw. “Approach, little one. Need I advise you how serious an accusation this is?”
Lia tottered forward on legs which had lost the will to support her weight. “I understand, mighty Sapphurion.”
“Impossible,” sniffed Andarraz. “Must we suffer insult upon insult?”
Had she wished, Lia could have reached out to touch the Blue Dragon. His flank was a mountain of armoured Dragon scales, his forepaw several times longer than her body, and she dreaded to think about his fangs, gleaming briefly within a mouth which could accommodate ten of her in a single bite. Better to face Sapphurion, however, than her father and his bristling posse of councillors behind her. The Dragon Elder might be called harsh and unyielding behind his back, but he was also by reputation a Dragon who valued justice and integrity above all else.
Sapphurion growled, “One must have good reason to stir up the Dragon-Spirits, little one. What proof do you offer?”
“My witness of today’s events.”
“Witness?” Zalcion almost howled. “Chalcion, brother, this is madness–”
“King Chalcion,” Sapphurion boomed, silencing the King’s brother. His forepaw engulfed Lia’s shoulders, the three forward-facing and two opposing talons closing about her slender frame like a cage of grey swords. Even though his Dragon hide warmed her skin, she shivered. “This is your second daughter, Hualiama?”
“Technically, Hualiama’s a royal ward, a foundling–” Chalcion cleared his throat “–but practically, I treat her as my own daughter.”
“Technically, I live in a palace, but practically, I’m a nobody.”
Lia only realised her whisper had carried when the Dragon’s paw twitched. She winced, hanging her head. Please, let none of her family have overheard. What must Sapphurion think of her now–churlish? Rebellious? A foolish child?
Could she be the same Hualiama who–
the Red Dragoness Qualiana broke off as her mate nipped her shoulder sharply. Without losing a beat, she added,
Sapphurion, do the dragonets not call this one Dragonfriend?
The same Hualiama? She had never heard of another person who shared her unusual name.
Aye, I had forgotten,
said Qualiana’s mate.
It took every ounce of Lia’s courage to school her features into stillness. They were speaking Dragonish, mind to mind … and thus, she knew his lie for what it was. Sapphurion had not forgotten. Dragons never forgot. She had once lived with a dragonet, her best and truest friend, Flicker–that much was public knowledge. But Flicker had also taught her to speak Dragonish. A Human who understood Dragon speech? Who had lived upon the holy Dragon Isle? Secrets to bury in the depths of the Cloudlands.
Qualiana rubbed her knuckle beneath her eye, a gesture which signified deep Dragon emotion. She said to Sapphurion,
O my soul’s flame, this girl saved Grandion’s life.
Silence! Speak not of that traitor in my presence!
Sapphurion’s thunder ignited her mind. For several breaths, all Hualiama saw was Dragon fire, a darkly orange conflagration behind her eyes. Traitor. Such a simple, soul-destroying word. A sorer wound she could not have imagined. Oh, Grandion! Great-hearted Grandion, who had sung and journeyed with her. What had she done to him?
The Blue Dragon’s voice betrayed no emotion. “Hualiama, you claim to have witnessed today’s events?”
Quelling her anxiety, praying the Dragons would not have detected her response, Lia replied, “I did, mighty Sapphurion. You may read my memories from my mind, as I know you’re able.” His paw tightened, the talons pressing into her belly and upper thighs like a suit of metallic armour. Accordingly, she steeled herself. “I entreat you, o most noble of Dragons, to set aside thoughts of war. We trust you to bring these Dragons to justice. Let us bind lasting peace between Dragons and Humans.”
The power of Sapphurion’s mesmeric gaze made blackness creep around the edges of her vision.
Wretchedly unsteady of voice, Lia added, “But I beg you to look no deeper than today, mighty Sapphurion. Please, I mean no disrespect, but you must swear it on the name of the Black Dragon, Fra’anior, or upon your mother’s egg.”
“Heavy words.” His wings flared briefly, signalling irritation. “You presume to bargain with a Dragon?”
She could not tell what lay beneath that lidded reptilian gaze. Cold sweat trickled down Lia’s spine. “M-Mighty Dragon … I-I …”
Have not you tormented this hatchling enough, Sapphurion?
The fire in his eyes threatened to make her forget her own name. Sapphurion growled, “Very well, little one, I shall honour your request. I so swear, upon my mother’s egg.”
At his low prompt, Hualiama opened her mind to Sapphurion, and summoned her memories of the day’s events. An alien yet beautiful presence, a being of pure flame, stepped within the portals of her being. The Dragon Elder sailed with her in her solo Dragonship, westward and south around the volcanic rim, Island to Island. She stopped at Gi’ishior, home of the ancient Halls of the Dragons, to make necessary repairs. Lia saw just a quarter-mile across the abyss at tiny Giaza Island, Dragons firebombing a Human village, the carnage, the horror nigh slaying her spirit …
Dragons blatantly enjoying their sport, tossing bodies to each other and pretending to miss their catches … now hiding from a Dragon who soared above the hallowed ground–stop! She banished that memory. Returning to Fra’anior, the main Human Island, hearing the altercation on the balcony, running upstairs …
“Enough,” said Sapphurion.
Only the grip of his paw kept Hualiama from collapse.
Stepping around her mate, Qualiana reached out to touch Lia’s forehead with her foreclaw.
Strength to you, little one.
Lia’s vision cleared. A sense of wellbeing rippled through her body. And Hualiama reeled, seeing in her mind’s eye another time and place, the Red Dragoness crooning over her clutch, and an odd thought intruded. Did she recognise this Dragoness’ mental touch? How? No part of her agitated feelings made sense. Her soul sang, ‘I know these Dragons!’ Something in the timbre of Qualiana’s voice had stirred memories so long buried, it was as though they lay beneath the impenetrable Cloudlands. An awakening, her heart insisted. Beyond reason or belief, her rational mind disagreed.