Maya pushed the kitchen doors open to reveal the activity and noise of Reiont’s kitchens. Chantal followed, watching the cooks. Maya apologized for interrupting before asking an elderly lady for a basket with enough food for two. The woman nodded and waddled toward the huge ovens on legs almost too thin to support her plump figure.
“Here,” Maya said as she took a couple of Raesh cakes from the cooling racks and handed them to Chantal. “These will tide you over until we get where we’re going.”
“You’re sure?” Chantal asked. “They don’t look too happy.”
Maya turned her attention to the scowling kitchen hands preparing cakes for the ovens. The young women looked down and blushed under her gaze. “They can take them from Lanre and my share if they’re so worried about the number,” she answered. “It wouldn’t do for the king’s granddaughter to faint of hunger.”
The kitchen workers' blush deepened as they redoubled their efforts filling the pans with cake batter and stuffing. Chantal nodded before biting into the first cake. It was warm and soft, buttery and spicy, and she had to fight to keep from eating it too fast. They were a favorite of hers, served only on holidays and big events like coronations and weddings, and she’d never had one fresh from the oven before.
The old woman returned, struggling with the weight of the large basket she carried. Maya thanked her as she took the basket and shook her head.
“You’re trying to make me fat before my wedding, Tatia.” Maya accused.
“Impossible,” the cook responded. “You’re too skinny.”
Maya chuckled and bid Tatia good day before she led Chantal out of the kitchens. They rounded another corner to find two enormous doors stretching floor to ceiling. Each was engraved with a snarling dragon, carved into the wood with intricate detail. The dragons stood rampant; their serpentine tails curled around the sphere like a shield. The image was familiar, but Chantal couldn’t remember where she’d seen it before.
The bubbling bass voice of a male dragon rose somewhere across the courtyard as Maya pulled one of the doors open. Other powerful voices joined in as she followed Maya out into the throbbing air. Maya added her soprano to the chorus while they strode across the massive courtyard toward a set of Yekaran apartments.
The complex door and most of the apartment doors within stood open in the heat. The last notes of the song echoed off the walls of the wide corridor as Maya entered with a confidence Chantal found impossible to imitate. She had never been near a dragon, but she remembered seeing her father’s companion from a distance. Could something so powerful, so fearsome, be intelligent and friendly? The stories she’d read and heard never seemed to agree, and her father had always refused to speak about them. Still unconvinced but overcome by curiosity, Chantal followed Maya into the gloom and through one of the open doors.
The apartment they entered was little more than one very large, sparsely furnished room. A two-drawer chest stood in the far right corner; a lantern sitting on top provided the only light. A Yekaran lounged on an overstuffed mattress to the left of the room. He was shrouded in shadow, but his size was unmistakable. A cold shiver skittered down Chantal’s spine as she craned her neck back to meet the glint of his eyes in the dim room. He was very still, lying there with one foreleg crossed over the other and wings folded and tucked close to his sides. Then a grin spread across his surprisingly expressive face, exposing rows of dagger like teeth that caught the lantern’s light and causing her gut to clench.
“Mein, mein Tricon. Mah eh gleo us es no.” Maya teased.
Chantal could not understand the words, but the language sounded familiar. Was this the Yekaran language?
“Micht das mention jiu wo lai shuo’ aber scias ay’h veil trioblóid es statuatis mahti venias se undisonus.”
“Paentieo, Maya,” the dragon answered with another of those fearsome grins. “Venbat eh wenig vebat inithe.”
Chantal gulped when his attention turned toward her and was surprised when he began speaking in Terran.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“Tricon, this is Chantal,” Maya said as she urged Chantal closer. “She’s Ralic’s daughter. Chantal, this is Tricon, my Yekaran Companion.”
“My greetings to you, Chantal,” Tricon answered with a bow before turning his attention to the basket Maya carried. “I’m guessing you’d like to fly out to the beach for your midday meal?”
“How’d you guess?” Maya answered, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth. “Chantal is to be paired with a Yekaran Companion,” she explained. “I thought it would be good for her to learn a bit more about your people before making the choice. Besides, I’ve never heard you turn down the chance for a good hunt.”
“God bless you,” he answered with an exaggerated sigh. “Any excuse to get away from Deligh for a while!”
“I’d love a little trip, but I’m covered in dust after helping the planters this morning. Would you mind if I took a moment to clean up?”
Maya nodded and moved out of the dragon’s way. Chantal wasn’t far behind and stood watching in awe as the large reptile rose from the mattress. Lying down, his shoulders had been about as high as a retesh, but he stood almost twice as tall again. His neck was slender and long in proportion when compared to a human. Perhaps the horned frill arching back from his skull made his head appear larger and heaver than it was. It was impossible to tell much about his wings, tucked back and in around his sides as they were, but they looked like leathery hide that would stretch taught when spread rather than the feathered wings of a bird. Though his feet and the way he carried his weight on the front of his digits reminded her of a raptor’s talons.
His grace and the fluidity of his movements amazed her. She’d always thought Yekarans would be awkward, lumbering beasts because of their bulk. She’d been so wrong! As he walked into the sunlight, his coloring finally became apparent as a rather dull, rusty brown. She felt slightly disappointed, having hoped the shadows had been hiding one of the myriad of colors dragons could boast.
Maya followed Tricon out of the apartment and motioned for Chantal to come along. She fell into step beside Maya, questions multiplying in her mind as her awe and fear seeped away.
“What were you saying before?” Chantal asked. “I didn’t recognize any of the words you were using. Were you speaking the Yekaran language?”
“I teased Tricon about making so much noise, and he apologized for getting carried away.” Maya answered with an amused smile. “And, yes, we were using Yekaran. It’s something of a tradition of ours to greet each other in the language.”
“How’d you learn it?” Chantal asked. “I’ve never heard more than snippets before.”
“It’s taught like any other subject, especially in the castles,” Maya answered. “But, I learned more from speaking it with Tricon and his family growing up. Weren’t you taught it?”
“No,” Chantal answered, unable to hide her disappointment. “But, Tembar doesn’t have many dealings with Yekarans; perhaps my father didn’t think it was necessary for me to study.”
Chantal started to ask when she’d met Tricon, but then Maya grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She forgot her question as she started to protest, but the warning look on Maya’s face stopped her. The older woman nodded toward Tricon and, still confused, Chantal turned her attention to the dragon. The world seemed to slow for her as she watched.
Tricon stopped at the other end of the courtyard and spread his wings. Folds of leathery hide spread taught between ribbings like huge fingers to reveal a wingspan of more than fifteen meters. The drake’s massive head turned toward his right shoulder and his chest dipped toward the ground pulling air into his lungs with a nasal whine. Tricon opened his mouth and a plume of fire erupted from it to roll down the full length of his body, overheating the already oppressive air and filling it with the stench of scorched dust.
Chantal lowered the arms she’d raised to shield her face, blinking her eyes to clear them of tears. A thin layer of fog formed around Tricon’s glowing scales. It became difficult to dismiss the sight as her imagination when she heard the condensation hiss as it came into contact with the fire-treated scales. Tricon stood motionless until the last of the fog burned away, leaving the once dull, ruddy hide an amazing rose tinged gold gleaming in the sun. He pulled his wings back to his sides and proceeded to the wall where several saddles hung, leaving Chantal standing agape.
“What just happened?” she asked.
“Yekaran’s take fire baths,” Maya answered. “It conserves water while cleaning them more efficiently, and they’re largely immune to flame.”
“I meant the mist,” Chantal clarified as she turned toward the noblewoman, trying and failing to keep from glaring. Maya hadn’t answered her question, and Chantal doubted the woman was ignorant of the fact. “Where did it come from?” she asked and winced at the accusing tone.
“The air around us,” Maya answered. “This close to the Deep, there’s almost always a high level of humidity in the air. I slowed and condensed the water molecules around Tricon’s body.”
“No!” Chantal whispered, taking a step back from Maya. She thought she’d escaped such beings once leaving Tembar Flats. “You’re the Grand Lady. You can’t be another monster like Brance!”
“I’m not,” Maya answered, raising her hands in a placating gesture. “I was born this way, as were many other Terrans. The mineral Ralic blames for making Brance the way he is causes some people to be born with abilities. So many in fact there are laws governing how those abilities can be used.”
Maya took a step toward her, and Chantal backed away. It couldn’t be true. She was lying. Everyone always lied to her.
“King Aligh isn’t the highest power in Tekar,” Maya continued. Her tone was pleading. Chantal knew the woman was trying to calm her down; she both welcomed it and resented her for patronizing. “There are councils whose only job is to train individuals to control their ‘talents’ and govern how they’re used. Anyone who dares break the laws the councils set in place are subject to the harsh justice they’re known for dealing out. Not even Aligh could protect me if I used my gift to harm another person.”
Chantal calmed somewhat. Maya seemed to relax in response.
“I have much to explain to you, and I will once we get to the beach. I didn’t mean to frighten you, and I swear I won’t use my abilities around you again if they make you uncomfortable.” She paused. “Well, unless a storm’s about to blow us all away. I do have some sense of self-preservation, and I’m partially responsible for the safety of those in Reiont.”
“Is that what you use them for?” Chantal asked. “Protecting people from the transition storms?”
Maya nodded. “I can’t stop them. Alone, I can only cause minor changes in temperature, humidity, and electrical charge within a radius of a few hundred meters. I can alter the conditions enough to ensure the storms are weaker than they would have been otherwise or induce enough of a shower to keep the crops from frying in a drought. It’s what people with my talent are trained to do. It’s the same with the other groups, especially the water keepers and thermals. Otherwise, it’s unlikely we Terrans would have lasted so long on Yekara.”
“What do you mean?” Chantal asked. She shivered. “Water Keepers and Thermals… What does that even mean?” She scoffed. “You talk like we came from the stars.”
“Did Ralic keep you from learning anything of our history?” Maya asked.
Chantal felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. “My tutors focused on math and science.” She grimaced at the squeak in her voice.
Maya sighed. “We’ll have to fill the gaps in your education later, but in short, yes. We’re not native to Yekara. That’s why utronumite affects us the way it does.”
“I’m ready, Maya,” Tricon called.
Chantal turned to see the dragon waiting. He had strapped a double saddle around his neck, just above where his wings and shoulders met. It was a marvel one of their ancestors, human or dragon she didn’t know, had thought of a way to construct strong buckles the Yekaran’s could work with their nimble but bulky talon like foreclaws.
“Can you trust me enough to come along?” Maya asked.
Chantal nodded. “But, I want some questions answered once we get there.”
“Sure,” Maya agreed and reached for the riding straps as Tricon eased down onto his belly. The stirrup was still just below Maya’s waist, but she slid her foot into the loop and pulled herself into the saddle.
Chantal knew she wasn’t more than a few centimeters shorter than the diminutive woman, but she doubted she’d manage quite so easily. Maya seemed to notice her unease.
“It helps to put a hand to his shoulder for balance,” Maya suggested. “Make sure your foot is secure in the stirrup. Then, use it and the saddle to pull yourself up.”
Chantal nodded and wedged her foot into the stirrup. She hauled herself up, but she overbalanced when she tried to swing her leg over and barely managed to catch herself.
“It’s a bit more difficult than riding a retesh,” said Maya. “It takes everyone a few tries.”
Chantal tried and failed two more times before she found the balance she needed to clamber on, even with Maya’s help. Maya congratulated her before proceeding to instruct her in flying safety.
Chantal found the thick leather belts attached to the back of the saddle and secured herself. The riding skirt made felt cumbersome, bunched up as it was after her less than graceful ascension into the saddle, but she dared not shift before the straps were secure for fear of falling. Afterwards, moving more than a couple of centimeters was impossible, but the feeling of being held in place made her less nervous about flying atop a great beast she’d just met.
“I’m as ready as I’m going to get,” said Chantal. “I think,” she mumbled.
Maya nodded before leaning toward Tricon’s massive head. “Take it easy today, friend. Chantal’s never ridden before.”
Chantal heard him snort and saw his horn tipped frill move as he nodded. Under the saddle, the muscles of Tricon’s long neck flexed. She could feel the movement and hear the plate-like scales scraping against their sheaths on the saddle’s underside.
A startled squeak escaped her throat, and she clutched the riding straps like a lifeline when his weight shifting off his forelegs rocked Maya and her backward. Chantal’s heartbeat thundered in her ears. The safety harness held fast without giving in the least, and it was reassuring.
Within seconds, the great shoulder muscles bunched behind the saddle, and Tricon leapt. The force of it surprised her, forcing air out of Chantal’s lungs in a grunt. Tricon unfurled his wings and began pumping the air.
Thirty strokes had them above the castle walls, and he kept climbing higher. It was amazing and dizzying all at once, but eventually, dizzying won out. Chantal closed her eyes until she felt their flight level out before peeking again.
It was as if everything had dropped away. Nothing existed except the three of them and the sky, with the forest rushing by beneath them and the mountains ahead. It took Chantal a moment to remember to breathe.
Tricon carried them over the forest and between two mountains. The second summit had sheared off in places, leaving a cliff sheltering a stretch of beach beneath. Once they were over it, Tricon glided around in a gentle circle.
The Yekaran brought them to what looked like a makeshift picnic area with a fire pit flanked by two flat, oblong boulders long since polished smooth by the waves and one that looked almost like a dragon sized plate. As they neared the ground, Tricon shifted his angle and backwinged into a soft landing that left him ankle deep in the sand.
Chantal undid the straps with a minimum of fumbling once he’d settled down onto his belly. She swung her leg over and misjudged the distance to the ground. Luckily a sandy beach was a much more comfortable place to fall than a paved courtyard, and tumbling onto her rear from the back of a fully-grown male dragon only damaged her pride.
“Are you okay?” Maya asked.
“Nothing’s hurt,” Chantal answered as she scrambled to stand. She busied herself in removing as much sand as she could while Maya climbed down. Then she helped Maya pull the basket from the saddle bag. How had she missed Tricon taking it from Maya?
Chantal followed Maya toward the fire pit and the two oblong stones placed to either side of it. She heard Tricon shift behind them and looked back to see him fumble with the saddle buckles as he grabbed onto one of the slender branches of a scraggy tree with his tail. It pulled away from the tree with a snap, leaving a gaping scar behind. Tricon freed himself of the saddle and stowed it in a tiny cave part way up the cliff face.
Chantal giggled at the sight of Tricon using the branch like a backscratcher over the area the saddle had occupied a moment before. It occurred to her they probably weren’t the most comfortable things for a Yekaran to wear. Apparently they itched after a while.
“Help me clear this,” Maya said, and Chantal pulled her attention away from the dragon. She hadn’t noticed from the air, but the fire pit was full of debris washed in with the tides. Maya had knelt to begin clearing it, and Chantal stooped to help.
Several loud snaps sounded behind them. Chantal guessed Tricon had decided to use his backscratcher as kindling, and the fact was confirmed when they finished clearing the site. He was waiting for them with one fore claw holding the branch in six pieces. He dropped them into the pit before returning to gather more wood.
The trio worked together, and soon they had a small fire. Tricon retrieved an old looking metal spit kit from one of the small caves and washed it in the ocean. Chantal and Maya assembled it, and soon the little kettle packed in the basket was hanging over their growing fire.
“Why don’t you gather yourself some sea greens, Tricon,” Maya suggested.
“I’d rather not,” answered the dragon. “We've had them for seven days straight.” Chantal watched, surprised dragons were capable of whining like human children. “Your choice: fried, baked, or stewed,” he continued in what Chantal guessed was an impression of someone.
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice your flame is off color?” Maya scolded. “You’ve been pushing part of your share on the younger ones again, haven’t you?”
Chantal blinked at the sight of Tricon lowering his eyes as he nodded like a guilty child. Her focus bounced between the dragon and Maya. She was thunderstruck and confused. Was this what the relationship between companions was like?
“If I know you, you’ll want to have a good hunt this afternoon,” Maya continued. “You’re going to need enough of a flame to cook your kill. That will lower your utronumite levels even more. A nice salad will replenish your supply, but I want you to gather enough for me to make a stuffing for you.”
Chantal marveled at the nerve it must take her to scold and lecture such a large, powerful being. Then she saw the look in Maya’s eyes soften. There was a concern there that spoke more of a familial relationship than one of an owner toward their beloved pet.
“If something does happen, I want you to have a strong blue center. It wouldn’t do to set a bad example,” she teased.
“I suppose you’re right,” Tricon agreed. Then, he turned toward the water. He scooped out two large piles of a long, thick plant Chantal presumed was the sea greens Maya spoke of and placed them on the third polished bolder that reminded Chantal of a dragon sized plate. He gestured toward Maya in a way that seemed like the Yekaran equivalent of a bow. His expressions were difficult to read, but she was almost sure he was being cheeky. She was still trying to puzzle out the scene when he took to the air once again.
“You seem very comfortable around him.”
“Of course I am,” Maya said, giving her a penetrating frown that left Chantal uneasy. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“He’s so big,” Chantal said. “So powerful.”
“Oh, he’d never hurt me,” Maya replied as she stood from where she’d been sitting on the opposite bolder. Chantal watched as Maya walked over to the greens Tricon had left behind. “We’ve been friends since he was two days out of the shell.”
“Oh?” Chantal sighed. “You’re older than he is then? I got the impression it was the other way around.”
“That depends on your point of view.” Maya laughed as she sorted through the greens. “In human terms, he’s twelve, but Yekarans mature at a different rate than we do. For them, being twelve years old translates to roughly twenty-six.” She stopped to regard Chantal with a smile.
“Will you stir the stew, Chantal?” Maya asked. “After that, you may want to watch Tricon. He’ll start his hunt soon.”
Continue to Chapter 4, Part 2.