The first morning when he woke up from a nice, long sleep in, Lykouleon was waiting to give him a whirlwind tour of the palace, pointing out places he thought Thatz might be interested in, focusing especially on the kitchen - thieves' honour might have prevented him from eating that snack, but it had still looked pretty damn good. Next he was off to get thoroughly beaten up by Tetheus, who made him run so many laps that his legs felt like jelly at the end of it and then started hitting him with sticks before he'd even had a chance to recover. After that, Raseleane and Cernozura introduced him to his official Earth Knight chambers; they were bigger than everywhere he'd ever lived put together. The bed was an ocean of fabric and squishy enough to swallow him up. He couldn't resist bouncing a little when he sat down; he'd never slept on anything so nice and soft before- and the two women exchanged glances before sending him off down the hall to Alfeegi.
Thatz gulped. He hadn't actually met Alfeegi yet, but everyone had been warning him all day not to make him mad. He was pretty sure he was going to anyway, and he only got more sure when he arrived outside Alfeegi's office and there was a neat row of chairs lined up by the door, all occupied by people who looked like they would rather be meeting their undertaker.
"Take a number," one of them said tonelessly, and he didn't get what they meant until they pointed towards a little table. An antiquated machine that groaned when he touched it sat on the varnished tabletop next to a bowl of scrunched-up paper. He turned the crank a little hesitantly, hoping like hell that was what he was supposed to do and that Alfeegi wasn't going to chew him out for wrecking his stuff, and the machine shuddered and spat out a strip of paper with a grinding noise.
53. Fantastic. Could they be anymore obsessed with bureaucracy?
He flopped down on the ground next to the end of the line to wait.
Maybe an hour later he heard someone calling his name, and his head shot up. A man with a clipboard and a vexed expression was waiting outside the door.
"Next," he said, sounding even more annoyed. "Thatz?"
"Yea-I mean, yes, that's me," he said, scrambling out of his chair. Alfeegi gave him a sour look and motioned for him to follow him into the room.
"Please pay attention," he reprimanded, and then his face softened slightly. "I apologize for the wait; we've hired a lot of new personnel lately and I have to make sure everyone is entered correctly."
"No worries," Thatz said faintly, wondering what he'd gotten himself into. He'd never thought he'd have a job where he could be referred to as personnel before.
"This way, please," he indicated, letting Thatz go in front of him and closing the door with a neat click.
He'd had more than enough time while he was waiting to dread this interview; his mind had dreamed up all kinds of nightmarish visions of Alfeegi's office: dark, dreary, cold, musty smell, Alfeegi glowering at him from beyond a desk piled with towering papers. In reality, it was actually kinda... nice. The curtains were open and the sun lit the room; a pleasant breeze, too gentle to even ruffle the curtains, cooled it. There was even a vase of flowers on the desk. And the couch looked really comfortable.
"Now, this session is to get all your paperwork sorted out. There's quite a bit, so please be patient," and Alfeegi produced a stack of forms that made his eyes bug out of his head. Alfeegi noticed his expression, and a smile tugged at his lips. "Don't worry; most of these are for me, not for you."
He couldn't help sagging back in his chair in relief.
"Please fill these out and let me know when you're finished," Alfeegi said, handing him only a few of those papers, thank god, and a quill.
The first page was easy, age, gender, race, choose-one-of-the-following tick-the-box kinda stuff; he zipped through it in no time. His heart sank when he turned over to the second page and saw that it was written through with things like Professional Qualifications and Previous Experience and Educational History in fancy capital letters. Previous experience? Somehow, he didn't think they wanted to hear about his years as a thief. Although he had picked up some pretty useful skills...
"Would you like me to go through it with you?" Alfeegi said, startling him out of his panic. He hadn't noticed Alfeegi was watching him.
"Actually, yeah," he said, a lot cooler than he felt. What kind of knight couldn't even fill out his own papers? Alfeegi pulled his chair around to his side of the desk.
Tapping his quill against the paper, Alfeegi asked, "What's the highest level of schooling you have currently completed?"
"Uhm," he said. "School?"
Alfeegi gave him a shrewd look.
"When was the last time you attended any school?"
"...A couple of years ago?" he tried, starting to sweat. Alfeegi frowned, and a cold lump of fear formed in his chest. They wouldn't kick him out for not being smart enough, would they? Lord Lykouleon hadn't mentioned anything like that... "It's not compulsory..."
Not that he had gone most of the time; he'd always hated studying and he'd never been good at it. Mr. Luno's droning voice had been enough to put anyone to sleep and he'd spent most of the time he had been there looking out the window and wishing he was exploring a cave or doing anything more exciting than sitting in a stifling village schoolroom. After he'd left to go to the city, it wasn't like there was anyone around to make sure he went to school, not that his parents had ever really done that anyway.
"...for humans," Alfeegi finished. "A situation that should have been rectified years ago." He pursed his lips. "Perhaps it doesn't really matter. This is the dossier we compile on everyone. As a Dragon Knight, you're a special case. Whether or not you have experience is not much of a concern since His Highness will make sure you learn everything you need to learn. Fill in what you can and don't worry about the rest."
Thatz bit his lip and bent over the paper, blocking Alfeegi's view with his arm so that he wouldn't see how slow and awkward his handwriting was.
After a really embarrassing incident at a banquet;that would teach him to order things he couldn't pronounce- he took to sneaking into the library late at night. The stacks stretched on for miles and miles, and some of the books had titles with he couldn't even begin to wrap his head around -soteriology, xylanic, ad astra per aspera, geez, what did dragons read for fun?- so he decided to start small, in the children's section. He ran his fingers over dusty spines, searching for a familiar title, but none of the fairytales were the same. What he wouldn't give for a Princess and the Pea, or a Rumpleskil-Rumpletil- he couldn't even say it.
There was a little book, very battered and old, squeezed in at the end of the row. He pried it out.
"Ye Olde Farie Tale Collection," he read, making a face at the old-fashioned spelling. Still, it was better than nothing, and he pulled up one of the soft, squishy armchairs that dotted the aisles.
The light was bad -could have done with another candle- and the print was small, and with the old-fashioned language it was enough to make his head hurt, but just looking at the contents page;all those old human fairytales, not those dragon ones he'd never even heard of before- brought back fuzzy recollection of his mother reading to him, sense-memory of a book, a warm blanket and a soft lap. He blinked a little. He was way too old to cry, damnit.
"Thatz? What are you doing here?" Rune said, appearing out of the shadows with his own candle.
Crap. "Oh, nothing," he said quickly, stuffing his book into the crevice between arm and cushion. "What about you? Aren't you usually in bed by now?"
"I remembered a story one of the elders told me as a child, and I wanted to see if they had a copy of it here." Rune looked at him curiously, so obviously only holding back on asking about to be polite that Thatz was tempted to just tell him and get it over with already. "Do you know it? It's the one about the rain of flowers."
"I don't know any of your stories," he said.
"Really?" Rune's voice held a note of surprise. "If you don't mind, then what were you reading?"
He reluctantly dug the book out from its hiding place and handed it over.
"Oh, I've heard of some of these before. I haven't heard the stories, though." Rune hesitated for a moment. "Shall we read it together?"
A hard knot of panic twisted in his stomach.
"What's the matter, Thatz?" and it was really one of those times when he wished Rune wasn't so perceptive.
"I'm not really a good reader," he muttered.
"You can't read?" Rune sounded... sad, and the knot wriggled.
"I can, just... not long, complicated things. I can read menus and maps just fine," he said, and gave Rune one of his cockiest grins. "Plus, I must know the word for treasure in every language there is."
"The Zagat Guide to Enchanted Eateries," Rune said with a tentative smile.
"Then we should definitely read this together," Rune said, and squeezed into the armchair next to him. "Which one is your favourite?"
"Don't worry, if you have trouble I'll help you."
They were pressed together thigh-to-thigh, the point of contact warming them both; Rune's candle making the night so much lighter. Rune never laughed or scolded, just listened as he read slowly, helping him if he stumbled over a word, his bright hair tickling against his skin.
Becoming Dragon Tribe really wasn't as bad as it could have been. In the beginning he had missed the gang, but Rath and Rune made up for it. Sure, Rath was clearly hiding something -okay, a lot of things- and Rune was so highly-strung he was going to give himself a heart attack if he didn't calm down, but it was actually fun to go on missions and eat weird local food and listen to Rune and Rath bitch at each other. He even enjoyed reporting back to Lord Lykouleon.
It was all the stuff that came after that wasn't so much fun sometimes. Filing reports was as tedious as all hell. Alfeegi complained about the bureaucracy that created so much work for him as much as everyone else, so he wondered why he insisted on it so vehemently.
Rath had complained the entire way back from Luwa about all the hoops he was going to have to jump through to get a new sword and why did there have to be so much red tape when he could spend all that time doing something productive like killing demons? So Rune had decided they should fill in their mission reports together, after Rath's last little disaster which had necessitated Alfeegi actually taking a day off for stress leave.
Thatz counted surreptitiously on his fingers under his desk and filled in what he thought was the right amount.
"Wow, your handwriting is really messy," Rath commented, picking his report up before he had a chance to stop him.
"Rath!" Rune reproached. "Don't you think that's rude? Finish your own report."
"Done!" Rath sing-songed, waving his folder. Thatz caught multiple appearances of the words demons and killed. "Seriously, though, it's like a five-year-old's."
"Rath, enough, you're embarrassing him," Rune said.
"Oh," Rath said. Thatz snatched his report back and kept his eyes fixed firmly on the paper. "Can't you write properly?"
The world seemed to stop for a moment. Rune's head came up and he opened his mouth, seemingly split between chewing Rath out and saying something sympathetic to Thatz.
"I can write fine!" he said; it sounded defensive to his own ears. "I... just haven't been to school much, that's all."
He could feel his cheeks burning; hear Rune's slight nervous inhalation. Rath seemed to take a moment to think this over, cocking his head to the side, and Thatz found himself holding his breath, wondering what he was going to say. And then he smiled.
"You're lucky, Alfeegi used to come and drag me to my lessons if I tried to skip." He plopped down in the chair next to Thatz. "See, it's easy; you just make some of the letters funny. You're supposed to draw this one like this..."
"The paper's here," Rath said.
"I still don't think it's right to make Fire fetch your paper for you," Rune lectured. "He's not a dog, you know."
"You don't mind, do you?" Rath asked as Fire dropped the newspaper in his lap.
I've given up on him already, Fire scribbled madly. He held up another sign. My master is a slob.
"Oh, fine," Rath said, faking a pout. "Besides, I don't see you two getting out of bed."
"Too hungry to move," Thatz said, patting his stomach. "Reckon Fire would get me breakfast?"
"You have your own dragon," Rune said disapprovingly. "Not that you should be using him as a servant."
"You're so grumpy in the mornings, Rune," Rath said, and sprawled on the bed with them. "Paper."
He spread the different sections out on the bed.
"You just want to read the comics," Rune reproached, but without much heat to it.
"Business," Thatz said, and Rath extricated the appropriate section.
"What do you want that for?"
"Gotta see if gold's going up or down."
"Says the one who adores the comic about the dashing knight with the big sword who kills lots of demons like mad."
"It's a good comic," Rath said. "You should read it."
"Fine, lemme see," he said, tugging the paper over and Rath came with it, leaning over his shoulder; Rune, sleep-soft and warm, flanking his other side.