Mercury skimmed the notice board, looking for numbers rather than details. Whatever job had the most zeroes at the end of it, that was his forte. He plucked a flyer off, taking it back to the market stall Emerald was currently pretending to browse. “How about this one?”
“Escort mission for a prince across the mountains. He’s gonna want you to carry all his shit.” She pocketed a necklace as the man at the stall turned to help another customer, moving on to the next booth. “Try again.”
Back to the board, tossing the flyer for the escort mission aside and looking again. Ugh, this would be a lot easier if she’d just help him pick one, but no, Emerald had to do her whole ‘steal from the rich and sell to the richer’ routine in every town. It was a wonder they weren’t up there with ‘wanted dead or alive’ yet.
“Hey…” The green-haired thief walked up behind him, taking a bite of an apple and tossing one into his hands. She pointed to a flyer under the others, pulling it down and reading it. “Here you go, slay a dragon. Easy peasy, yeah?”
“Yeah, the Amber Dragon went so well last time.” He snorted, shaking his head. “What’s the reward?”
“Better than Amber. The town’s offering the dragon’s horde for its carcass. They must be getting desperate.” She walked as she talked, back towards the inn they were staying at. “And until Cinder gets… back… this might be a good distraction for you.”
“For me? What’re you going to do?” He shook his head as she pulled the handful of expensive jewels from her pocket, snorting. “Why do I even ask? Fine, I’ll do the dragon job. Where is it?”
“Just south of here. Go for the noble knight routine, not the heathen mercenary.” Her red eyes moved over him, her smirk growing. “And Mercury? Don’t fuck it up.”
“ ‘Don’t fuck it up’,” he repeated, mocking, as he crossed the mountains. This would be a lot easier with her along to help, to guide him through the narrow passages and winding canyons. The map in his pocket was next to useless, had been discarded after he’d come across the first landslide on the path. These people were terrified of the Golden Dragon that had taken up residence in their mountains, they hadn’t exactly been focusing on documenting the changing topography.
To be fair to the village below, their most effective fights were apparently a group of teenagers. And no sane mother would send her child to fight a dragon. Better to post up in nearby towns and hope for someone like him to come along.
Mercury had to wonder how many others had tried and failed to rid the town of its Golden Dragon. The elders spoke as if the dragon had been there for generations, but the fervor with which they wanted it gone told him a different story.
This was a new development and he’d gotten fucking duped by these people. It probably wasn’t even a Golden Dragon, just another Amber one.
Good for minerals and mines, bad for small farming communities that had to pay tribute. He’d get precious stones and useful materials that he could sell in bigger cities, but he’d also have a hell of a fight on his hands.
Though… if they were right, if it was a Golden Dragon, the town was a bunch of idiots. Golden Dragons brought prosperity where they settled, put untold riches in the hands of all in their domains. It was rumored that even the historic presence of a Golden Dragon would lead to centuries of prosperity, the richest cities in the world built on the sites those rare beasts once called home.
Emerald really should have come along, she could try to convince it to come with them, to eliminate their money woes forever.
He made camp for the night in a cave, lit a fire and settled back against the wall, eyes on the exit. From up here he could see the stars, the moon, the splay of the mountains below him. It was quiet, secure, a place he could actually rest. Emerald may have liked her cities, her excitement and the multitude of suckers waiting to be robbed blind, but he’d take the isolation any day. The only sound his own heartbeat in his ears… He preferred it.
The early dawn came with rumbling rocks, jerking him from sleep. Mercury pushed himself to stand, limping slightly from the night sat upright on the hard ground, moving to the entrance of the cave. He jumped back, almost fell in his own fire as earth and rock slid down the mountain inches from the cave entrance, quickly sealing him in.
Under his breath he cursed, looking between his options. Dig out and continue climbing or hope that the cave led further in and came out somewhere else. He looked away from the blocked entrance, into the darkness beyond his fire, then to the flames themselves. They stirred just slightly in the stilling air, shifting this way and that. After a moment they grew completely still and he sighed in resignation. Dig out it was.
The faintest movement of the flames changed his plans, the slightest push towards the cave entrance. If there was airflow coming through the cave, there had to be a way out somewhere. Mercury slowly unwrapped the cloth from his arm, tying it around one of his unburnt logs from the fire before sticking it into the flames. He pulled a second log directly from the fire, tamped the last of the embers out of it and scratched it against the uneven cave wall. Perfect.
With light and a means to find his way back, he started further into the cave.
At first he didn’t notice the increase in temperature, thought his sweat came from exertion. He didn’t see the way the light shifted, the way his torch became weaker and weaker in the face of this growing brilliance. And, had he not been keenly listening for a sound other than his own footsteps, he may have stumbled right into the dragon’s lair without ever being aware of his mistake.
It was laughter that gave him pause, that made him reassess his surroundings. He set the torch on the ground, stomped out the flames and looked around at the mild golden glow of his surroundings. Lightly touched the wall, feeling the heat that radiated from the rocks. He’d been on a steady upward climb at first, thighs burning with the effort of it, but somewhere along the way things had turned to downhill, had spiraled deeper into the mountain. He’d almost gone back, but every time he’d stopped to check, that small puff of air had moved the flame on his torch and he’d kept on.
Now, aware of how close he was to his goal without being prepared, Mercury hesitated. It was one thing to bring a dragon out, to slay it away from its horde, but this… He’d never faced a dragon with its horde behind it. Supposedly proximity to the horde increased their power. Supposedly, the instinct to defend made it more ferocious. Supposedly--
“I know you’re there, you know.”
The voice made his heart stutter, an involuntary step backwards. It wasn’t quite the roar of a dragon, was closer to human than anything he’d expected, and that had thrown him off. Mercury reached for his knife as footsteps closed in on him, the sound of laughter like coins jingling in a pouch.
What rounded the corner was not a ferocious beast but a… a girl. Her hair sparkled like gold, perhaps was gold, her body draped in loose fabrics, earth tones with highlights of color like a sunrise. She gazed at him with red eyes, jogged something in him that fit pieces together.
A half dragon.
Mercury pulled the knife from his side, took another step back and prepared to fight. From her golden hair sprouted a pair of horns, tipping each of her fingers were long claws, and when she grinned he could see sharp teeth. She reached up, raked her nails down the rock and left deep grooves behind, flakes of gold dust drifting down onto the pile of pebbles she’d just turned the solid wall into.
“Did you come here to kill me?”
Of course he did, why else would be he there, except… “No.” Mercury dropped the knife to the ground, his hands slowly lifting, disengaging himself as a threat. “I was sent here to slay you, but… I have a better idea.”
“You can’t have my horde.” Her eyes turned sharp, something rustling behind her. Her tail lashed out from behind her back, whipped against his lower leg. The dragon frowned when he didn’t flinch, struck again. “Usually humans fall down after that.”
“I’m not like usual humans.” He took a step closer, watched her face carefully. “I’m not interested in your life or your horde. But the people of the village want you gone and I think we could… come up with an arrangement to make everyone happy.”
Her eyes darted back over her shoulder, arms crossing in front of her chest. “What were you thinking?”
“Come with me. Travel, see the world… Find a village to settle in that will accept you.” The tail lashed out again, struck his other leg and she growled in frustration when he still didn’t flinch. “And if you can’t find one, you can stay with us. I have a friend who is… similar to you.”
“Similar how?” Under her anger, he could see curiosity growing. Actual consideration of his offer.
“The eyes. Red eyes of a half-breed, right? She comes from a human father and a fae mother, has the power to cast illusions and see with eyes not her own. Half the being, half the power… all of the cost.” He reached forward, touched the warm skin of her arm gently. “They’ll keep sending people like me to do away with you. One will succeed.”
Her hand closed over his, claws digging in and drawing blood until he yanked away. The grin on her face returned, grew even. “I want to know how a human bleeds from the hand but not the legs. And how such a miraculous human plans to find me a place to stay.” She stepped forward, cupped his cheek with a burning hot hand, the touch gentle. “My name is Yang Xiao Long, the Golden Dragon of the east mountains.”
“Mercury Black. A mercenary from the Mistral mines.”
“Absolutely fucking not ,” Emerald hissed, darting her gaze across the inn’s common room. He’d had the forethought to put Yang in something less flashy, to cover her hair and her horns, hide as much of her nature as possible under clothing. She looked like a penitent, until she opened her mouth, laughter ringing out nothing like those that sought to repent for the world’s misdeeds.
“She’s a Golden Dragon, Emerald. We’ll be rich without ever lifting a finger.” He caught the glint in her eyes at the words, grinned wide. “It’ll be fine.”
“And when she finds this place to settle down that you promised her?”
Mercury raised a finger, pointing to Emerald’s face. “You know she won’t.”
“Put that finger away before I bite it off. So when she figures out you lied to use her ?”
“You stayed.” A low blow, to be sure, but no less of the truth. He ran a hand through his silver hair, shaking his head quickly. “Cinder still isn’t back. We need a better source of income than the notice boards until she returns. And--” He snapped his mouth shut as Yang dropped beside him, staring at the plate of food she’d brought over. “Are you feeding everyone in here?”
“Get your own.” She curled her arm around the plate protectively, beginning to eat ravenously.
Across the table, Emerald grinned. “You know, I take it back. I like her.”
The inn was crowded, a festival in town drawing people in from all over. While they had two rooms already, getting a third was out of the question. Emerald sharing her room was also out of the question. Mercury eyed the half-dragon sprawled out on his bed, a frown on his face.
“Don’t dragons usually just curl up in a corner?”
“This bed is stuffed with goose feathers. If you want me off it, you’re going to have to kill me.” She propped herself up on one arm, watching him closely. The concealing robes had been left on the floor, her body draped in only the light bedsheet. As it pooled in her lap he sucked in a breath, darting his eyes away.
“Are you naked?”
“How else am I supposed to sleep?”
“Okay… we need to seriously teach you how to pass as human if we’re going to stay in town.” There was no way he was sleeping on the floor. Mercury crossed to the far side of the room, closed the curtain in front of the window and disrobed to just his pants in the candlelight. He took a seat on the edge of the bed, leaning over to blow out the candle before nudging Yang until she made enough room for him to lie down. Almost immediately her warm body pressed to him, her arm crossing his torso and head resting on his chest.
“You haven’t told me yet.”
“Told you what?” His heart hammered in his chest, he was sure she could hear it. This close together, the press of her bare skin on his… He willed himself not to think about it too much.
“How a human bleeds from the hand, but not the leg. Or…” She yawned, her fingers curving against his side. “Or how he plans to tame me.”
“Stories for another day.” His arm slid around her shoulders, pulled her just a bit tighter to himself as he got comfortable. “Get some sleep, Yang.”
“Mmm… goodnight, Mercury…”
The days of traveling were better with three people. Or, more precisely, watching Yang and Emerald butt heads and get on each others nerves was more entertaining than doing it himself. The number of times he had to step between them, diffuse a fight before it could become catastrophic was less pleasant, but the price of his daily amusement wasn’t higher than the value yet.
They settled in for a night on the road and he helped set up the tent, sent the girls inside and sat up by the fire to keep watch. It wasn’t more than an hour later that Yang crawled out of the thin canvas, joined him at the fire and laid her head in his lap. He raised an eyebrow in silent question, didn’t get an answer and let it drop.
“Tell me about the stars.” She whispered, her eyes bright red, darting across the sky. “Tell me the star stories.”
“I don’t know the star stories.” He tilted his head up, followed her gaze to the brilliant pinpricks of light above them. “In Mistral, you couldn’t see the stars. There was too much dust in the air from the mines.”
“Then… I’ll tell you.” She sat up, took his hand in hers and leveled it upward, pointed him towards a particularly bright light. “That’s the Home Star. It’s to the north, and if you’re lost you find it and follow it, and it will lead you home.” Each time she moved his arm she pressed closer to him, guided his gaze around the sky. “The Sisters are there, they rise and set together. And over here…” Yang turned his head gently, pulled his gaze down to meet her eyes. “Over here I’m wondering what it’ll take to get you to kiss me, Mercury.”
“All you had to do was ask.” Mercury leaned in, sealed his lips against hers as his hands settled on her hips. She slid her arms around his shoulders, pressed herself close to him and rocked her hips down. The heat of her made him groan, the feelings stirring inside him filling his mind with only thoughts of Yang. She moved her hands to his chest, pushed him down slowly, and followed him to the ground, their lips still locked together.
She knew what she wanted, broke the kiss long enough to remove his shirt. His hands raked up her sides, pulled away the loosely draped fabrics she preferred to wear and cupped her breasts. On either side of his head her hands dug into the earth, left deep gouges in the soft dirt with flakes of gold in them. “Mercury…” She panted his name and ground her hips into his, both of them feeling the ache of their want for each other.
The searing heat of her skin only made him want more, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her back into another bruising kiss. The ground against each other, muffled moans with their kisses, trembled on the edge of control.
“Do you want--I mean…” He broke away, tilted his head back and almost screamed as Yang went for his neck, mixed pain with pleasure through sharp bites and gentle nibbles. “ Fuck , I wanna be inside you.”
“Thought you’d never ask.” She sat up, breathing hard, both of them taking a chance to catch their breath. Her hands made quick work of his pants, pushed them down his thighs as he finished pushing her loose skirt out of the way. As the warmth of her fingers wrapped around him he felt his hips twitch upward, eyes rolling back. It was so much more than when he took himself in hand… “Easy now…” The warm press of her body against his returned, her hand guiding him against her.
Mercury took a few steadying breathes, settled his hands on her hips and held her close. He was almost there, could feel her against him, the excitement between her legs matching his own. Out here on the side of the road, her body pressed to him, her hair hiding them from the world inside a curtain of gold… He entered her slowly, his groan caught by her lips, their tongues twisting around each other as their hips pressed flush together.
Yang rode him slowly, moved herself up and down and reveled in the heat he put inside her. Her breathless cries for more were answered by his hips moving up to meet her, his hands trailing over her body, lighting fires across her skin in their wake. He traced over her hip bone and inward, touched between her legs and she clenched around him, dug fresh furrows that shot veins of gold deep into the dirt under them as she came.
A second wave of orgasm took her before she could come down from the first high, her screams of pleasure muffled against his neck, her tongue tasting the bruises and bitemarks she’d already left there. Mercury held her tight, buried himself inside her and rode out the bliss with her. They came down together, breathing hard, her slow movements removing him from her. Yang carefully redraped her fabrics as Mercury fixed his pants, the two of them settling by the fire once more.
She ran a finger down his thigh to his lower leg, feeling the hard metal through his pants. “Was it the mines?”
“No.” His arms wrapped around her, pulled her in to rest against his bare chest. “It was something much darker than that.”