“I was just trying to ask a few questions,” Slaine said levelly, in what he hoped was perfectly serviceable Plains language. A bit rusty after years of disuse, probably, but certainly not bad enough to warrant the hard knock to the head he received. While Slaine laid on the ground, unable to right himself because his hands had been tied behind his back, the Wyvern Chief slowly placed a sandalled foot on his head so that Slaine’s face was pressed to the dirt. To think that the hunter would get himself caught so quickly, Slaine thought ruefully.
Replying in his own broken Plains, the squint-eyed Chief said, “No need for me to listen to dead man.”
Slaine tried to spit out the dry mountain soil that had gotten into his mouth. He succeeded, only for twice the amount of soil to find its way back in when he opened his mouth to talk. The Wyvern Riders laughed as they watched him retch, their chief leisurely grinding his foot into Slaine’s cheek as he struggled. Eventually, Slaine gave it up as a bad job and laid still again as he said, “Now, technically I’m not quite dead and as an envoy of Vers I really am supposed to deliver my message. And, it would be beneficial for the Wyvern Riders to hear me out. The Empire doesn’t take kindly to those who harm her people-”
The Chief stepped back and yelled out something in his own language. Suddenly, his wyvern entered Slaine’s field of vision. Heedless of the fact that he was bound, Slaine gave a cry of fear and made a mad scramble backwards from the beast’s head, eyes fixed on its bared dagger-sharp teeth. The creature growled, its ruff of brown feathers flared out. The Chief laughed. “Keep your message. Vers-man speaks of Empire’s ‘kindness’. You are forgetting. You are in Dragon mountains now. No protection from stone-wings.”
Slaine said nothing, mesmerised as he was by the wyvern’s slightly open jaws and the way it kept its slit-pupiled eyes on him, mindless of anything but the fact that at any moment that red mouth could open and pour flame on him, melting his flesh and searing his lungs-
The growling stopped when the Chief placed a hand on his wyvern’s flank. The man was now looking at Slaine with more amusement than anger. His gaze roamed over Slaine’s sweat-soaked shirt, tangled hair and quickly bruising cheek. The chief smiled a snake’s smile, with predator’s eyes. “You will be slave. Watching your fear, funny.”
“I warn you, my disappearance will not go unmarked by the Empire,” Slaine told him. Painfully, he gathered his legs under himself so that he was kneeling – not the most dignified of positions, but a step above how he had been curled up in the dirt only moments before.
The Chief shrugged. “You are careless and you crash. Eaten by dragons. No mystery disappearance.”
Slaine’s confusion only lasted for a moment, until he caught sight of several of the Chief’s men pushing his airskiff towards the cliff. One of them gestured roughly. A wyvern went up to the small vessel, sniffing at its sail and scratched wooden hull cautiously. Slaine waited until the creature was close to the engine. Then he activated its Aldnoah.
At once, the skiff sprang to life. Lights flared along its sides and the thing whirred. The wyvern gave a squawk, beating its wings in surprise. The men scattered.
The skiff’s rudder was damaged and the sail torn, but Slaine wasn’t there to steer it anyway. He watched as it shot itself off the cliff then rose in fitfully, zipping into the morning mist. The Wyvern Riders stared after it dumbly.
With some luck, hopefully someone would find it and realise that Slaine was still alive.
Unless he wasn’t, and the thing went crashing down to the ground as its Aldnoah shut off.
In which case Slaine’s only consolation would be the flabbergasted look on the Chief’s face. Even that was gone quickly enough, replaced by a livid expression as the man rounded on him, his staff raised and his wyvern poised to pounce the moment he gave the signal.
Which is why he hadn’t seen the bright orange dragon swooping out of the mist from behind him. By the time his men and wyverns had let out warning cries the attacker had bowled the Chief over with the strong downdraft. With a graceful flap of its feathered wings it landed lightly in front of Slaine. Extending its long neck, it gave a screech, then gazed down at Slaine’s captors imperiously with its turquoise eyes. The wyvern’s tail curved around Slaine – not constricting, but enough to keep him in place.
A rider slipped down from the orange wyvern’s saddle. He was holding the Chief’s staff in a gloved hand. Slaine quickly glanced at the man, who was clutching his hand in pain. To be able to grab something like that mid-flight signifies masterful agility and precision.
If it hadn’t been for that feat, Slaine would not have thought much of the newcomer; he was slender, short… petite, in fact. Combined with his youth, it made it even more surreal to see him raise the staff above his head and for the enemy wyverns – after all, he’d just attacked their master – to bend their own serpentine necks as if bowing. The tribe muttered, but to Slaine’s surprise none of them berated their steeds. The men just looked at the boy. Even their Chief was waiting.
The boy spoke, in the language of the Wyvern Riders. Slaine caught the word ‘Versian’, the name almost unrecognisable after being subjected to the guttural, growling accent of the Riders. The Chief replied in the same language. The man sounded angry. But Slaine couldn’t guess the boy’s mood from his tone, which seemed flat and dull by comparison. Then, Slaine heard the boy say something that sounded like:
“Princess Asseylum! You knew her!” Slaine cried. Both the boy and the chief turned to him.
The boy tilted his head. In perfect, if somewhat terse, Plains the boy said, “I do know Seylum. She visited us. She did not say that there would be another envoy.”
The Chief shouted something. The orange wyvern roared briefly, then closed its jaws with a snap. Silence fell once again. The boy never looked away from Slaine, his red eyes locked with Slaine’s own. Belatedly, Slaine realised that he was supposed to reply. “The Princess visited you?”
“Yes, Seylum stayed with the Shinawara tribe.” At Slaine’s confused look, the boy elaborated with, “My own tribe. You have been caught by the Novosibirsk tribe.” The boy indicated the wyverns that men gathered behind the chief.
“They… certainly don’t seem keen to show me hospitality,” Slaine said with a nervous chuckle. His humour didn’t appear well-received, if the boy’s stony expression was any indication.
The boy turned back to his fellows and conversed with the Chief again. Slaine watched him carefully. Suddenly, the boy frowned. In a fiercer voice than Slaine had come to associate with him, he shouted something while shaking his head sharply. This incensed the ‘Novosibirsk’ tribe – the Chief gave a shout of his own, and his wyvern lunged.
Before Slaine could ask what the boy intended to do, the wyvern rider had let out a wild shriek. Slaine looked at him, his first thought that the boy had been injured somehow. Then he heard the answering cries – calls that echoed the boy’s own, but far louder and harsher than any human sound. More wyverns, green and dark grey, dropped from the mist to land between Slaine and the Novosibirsk. A particularly large beast, its feathers the colour of a stormcloud, stood right in front of the Chief.
“Are they going to fight?” Slaine hissed to the boy. The boy turned to him. Instead of answering, he snaked one surprisingly muscular arm around Slaine’s waist and swung them both onto the orange wyvern. By the time he’d recovered from the sudden change in position Slaine saw that the Novosibirsk Chief had also mounted his own steed – Slaine assumed that the ‘friendly’ wyvern riders were part of the Shinawara. Slaine squirmed, desperately trying to get back to the ground. The boy’s grip tightened. “Wait, are you planning to fight?”
The woman atop the storm-coloured wyvern glanced at Slaine and the boy over her shoulder. Without warning, she yelled. No, roared – roared like a dragon, a sound that spoke of strength and challenge more clearly than any word in any language Slaine knew. Her wyvern also joined in so that their voices blended into one thundering cry that seemed to shake the heavens themselves.
Then the Shinawara Riders followed, both human and wyvern howling to brew up a storm of sound. If Slaine hadn’t been confused and terrified, he would have told the boy to refrain from bellowing right into his ear.
With his ears still ringing, Slaine didn’t register the wyvern beneath him shifting until the first wingbeat. Then it was too late – it’d leapt into the sky, with Slaine on its back, held captive by some madman. Twisting so that he could look the Rider in the eye, Slaine shouted, “What are you doing? They’ll be roasting our tails any moment!”
“They won’t attack. Stop moving. Your weight is already affecting Sleipnir’s rhythm,” the boy replied. He had his arms on either side of Slaine’s body, reaching around him so that he could place his hands on a raised strap attached to the wyvern’s harness. Unfortunately, this meant that he was awkwardly peeking over Slaine’s shoulder, his nose pressed against Slaine’s back so that he could feel the boy’s warmth breath through his shirt.
The wyvern growled – the sound rumbled up through its chest and into Slaine’s legs where he’d clamped them tight around the beast’s body. The boy poked him in the back. Slaine’s heart jumped to his throat; Slaine himself had both hands gripping the saddle and didn’t dare let go to retaliate. Partially through anger and mostly through fear, Slaine snapped, “What?”
“You’re hurting Sleipnir. Relax.”
“I don’t think I can do that!” It was an honest, if rather undignified, response. To Slaine’s indignation the boy actually moved one of his hands down to give Slaine’s thigh a reassuring pat. His voice rising to an embarrassing squeak, Slaine demanded, “Use both hands to steer! What if we get thrown off?”
Slaine watched with horror as the boy moved both hands off the saddle. “Sleipnir won’t throw us off. As long as we don’t disrupt her wingbeat she can easily keep all of us aloft. Relax and don’t grip so tightly.”
Slaine gripped tighter, closed his eyes and tried to pretend that he was somewhere far from wyverns and their insane riders – somewhere that was preferably on solid rock. At the foot of the mountains. Indoors.
He failed quite miserably. But he made a valiant effort.
Inaho stared at the Versian, unsure of how to proceed. The tribe had investigated the Imperial skycraft on his insistence – Inaho had been surprised to see it flying by without its pilot, but recovered quickly enough to assume that its owner had run afoul of something or other. That ‘something’ had been the Novosibirsk tribe… that wasn’t too surprising; the dragon tamers had a good reason to be hostile to people of the Empire. But killing a Versian would only make trouble.
That meant that Inaho had to keep this Versian alive. It was quickly becoming a more daunting task than he’d anticipated.
Crouching beside the prone man, Inaho poked him gently in the hip. The man groaned. He’d thrown himself off Sleipnir the moment she’d stopped moving and lain on the ground ever since, having declared that he was never leaving the safety of land again. Inaho poked him again. There wasn’t any response. Inaho said, “You were safe in the air, too. Sleipnir wouldn’t have let you fall.”
The man responded with something unintelligible. It may have been in Versian. It may have just been because he was curled up with his face buried in his hands. Inaho kept patting his hip, just above where his thighs joined his body,scratching occasionally. It didn’t have the same calming effect that it did with dragons. The man made an irritable shaking motion, mumbling something again.
“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” Inaho told him.
The man finally raised his head so that Inaho caught a glimpse of his eyes – they were bright blue, like the sky. They were also narrowed in fear or anger. The man hissed, “Get. That beast . Away.”
“Sleipnir?” The dragon was curious about their new visitor; she’d been hoping that the man would play with her like Seylum had. Now she sunbathed on the rock next to the Versian, waiting for the games and petting to start. It wasn’t likely that her hopes would be realised. Inaho whistled and gestured for her to join the other dragons – Sleipnir slowly walked away, head drooping in disappointment and dragging her feathery tail as she went.
Slowly, the man sat up. Inaho saw how he was breathing heavily. His eyes were wide. As someone who took care of the easily-scared hatchlings, Inaho recognised the way the Versian looked around wildly, his body tense. Like a hunted animal.
“I know you don’t trust me. But you are safe here. My name is Inaho; I was a friend of your Princess,” Inaho said, holding out his hand.
The man narrowed his eyes. Hesitantly, he took Inaho’s hand. “Slaine Troyard. Thanks. For saving me from… the other tribe.”
His name is less strange than Seylum’s , Inaho noted. The man was dressed differently to Seylum as well; he wore a loose white shirt – now streaked with dirt – with a frilly protrusion below his neck like chest feathers, and dark pants that hugged his legs closely. It seemed much more practical than the Princess’ ornate dress. It also looked a lot colder. Once the adrenaline wore off, the man – no, Slaine – was going to feel uncomfortable. Gesturing towards the rest of the eyrie, Inaho said, “It’s dangerous to stay out here. I can take you to my home; you can rest there. Or I could give you something to eat.”
A loud rumble from Slaine’s stomach answered him. Slaine blushed, stammering an apology – first in Versian, then in Plains.
“[No worries],” Inaho replied. Slaine looked surprised that he knew Versian, but didn’t comment on it. Silently, the man fell into step behind him as they walked towards Inaho’s home. Inaho led the man towards an opening in the sunset-orange rock that made up the mountains of his homeland. Sleipnir could enter the eyrie by air. It was more difficult to get to the village on foot; they were well hidden. As they stepped into the cool shadows of the tunnel, Inaho said, “Stay close. There are guards.”
Slaine looked around. “You live in caves?”
“You’ll see soon,” Inaho replied. He reached the end of the tunnel and waited. The sound of the door grinding open filled the tunnel, echoing off the narrow walls. Slaine paused when he first heard the sound but hurried forward when a sliver of sunlight shone through the widening gap. Inaho held out a hand to stop him from walking too far ahead. “The door opens inwards. Wait.”
Slaine tensed when he felt Inaho’s hand against his chest. Inaho could feel the man’s heartbeat, through where his palm met Slaine’s shirt. A quick rhythm. Inaho turned to Slaine to see if he was scared.
The door opened further and Slaine’s face was bathed in sunlight.
His hair gleamed silver-gold and he raised a hand to shield his eyes – and how blue they looked, as vivid as the open sky. As the he got used to the light, his hand dropped away. Slaine’s eyes widened, his expression one of surprise. No, not surprise – one of wonder.
“This is where I live,” Inaho told him, leading him out into the warmth of the summer sun and to his home.
Slaine couldn’t stop himself from gasping. The tunnel led out into a terraced valley. Huge columns of red stone rose from the valley floor. The walls of the valley were dotted with cave openings. Connecting these were wooden bridges – things that swayed as people walked across them, decorated with colourful feathers that danced in the wind. These strings of rainbow plumage also adorned the huts that were dotted throughout the valley; splashes of colour against the background of ochre and blue sky. And there were wyverns .
They basked in the sun, they flew through the air, they sat next to cooking fires and waited for people to throw them scraps. They came in emerald green, in sapphire blue, in the colours of sunset and honey and speckled salt-and-pepper. The valley was filled with the sounds of the beasts. It was a clamour of whistles and chirps and howls, the click of claws on stone and the flap of feathered wings.
Slaine didn’t move until Inaho gave him a gentle push. “We have to get out so they can close the door.”
“Right, right.” Slaine followed him down a short flight of stairs carved into the stone. The moment they reached the bottom, a shadow passed over them. With a thud, Inaho’s orange wyvern landed beside them. Slaine jumped.
“Don’t be afraid of Sleipnir. She wants to be friends,” Inaho said.
“Well maybe I don’t want to be friends!” Slaine snapped, his heart still hammering frantically.
The wyvern let out a series of growls and whines. Bluntly, Inaho told him, “Your opinion will not matter in this.”
“What do you mean-” Slaine couldn’t finish his question. The wyvern pounced. Slaine was trapped between its claws. He closed his eyes.
For good reason, it turned out. Something warm, squishy and very, very damp was pressed against the entirety of his face. It wrapped around his chin and dragged across his cheeks, over his eyes and up into his hair. Just when Slaine thought it was over, the process was repeated. Struggling in the beast’s limbs was useless. It had laid its body over Slaine’s own so that he couldn’t even shift his legs to kick it away.
There was a thump. The wyvern squawked. It moved away from Slaine, who cautiously opened his eyes and got up from the ground, wiping his hand over his face. It came away covered with wyvern saliva.
Inaho handed him a cloth. “She’s only doing this because your reactions are entertaining.”
“You made it do that! It’s your wyvern!” Slaine snatched the cloth out of his hand and tried to clean himself.
“I can’t make Sleipnir do anything.”
“Then you’re a terrible wyvern rider.” Slaine wrinkled his nose. He smelt like charcoal and burnt meat. Surprisingly, it didn’t ruin his appetite: his stomach rumbled again.
“I have some food at my home. It is not far from here.” Inaho gestured at a cave on the eastern wall. He turned and started walking towards it without waiting to see if Slaine would follow. Since he didn’t have much of a choice, Slaine headed after him – but not before shooting the orange wyvern a glare. It simply squawked at him.
Huffing, Slaine began the climb.
Inaho pushed back the canvas that blocked the cave entrance and gestured for Slaine to enter. It was unexpectedly homely: its sandstone floor was covered with woven carpets, with neat shelves carved into the curved walls. Slaine couldn’t see much else once Inaho let the canvas drop, plunging them all into darkness, save for some spots of light from slanted holes dotted around the roof.
The scrabbling sound of claws and the brief glimpse of feathers as the canvas was pushed aside was all the warning Slaine got before he realised that the wyvern was in the cave as well. He shouted, backing away from the beast until he was backed against solid stone. There was a sudden, terrifyingly familiar intake of breath-
Light and heat flared. Slaine curled up tighter, smaller, his eyes shut tight. All he could see was fire. Smoke. Embers. Sparks that rained down onto his skin as he screamed and cried until he was hoarse, until the wreckage was wrenched away from where it had trapped him and he saw…
Slaine felt someone gently pry his arm away. A hand cupped his cheek. He opened his eyes to see Inaho kneeling in front of him. Wordlessly, the man brushed Slaine’s tears away with his thumb.
Slaine jerked away from his hand, wiping his face with the filthy sleeve of his shirt. Dusting himself off, Slaine growled, “I thought you said there’d be food.”
“Wait a moment.” Inaho began to take off the leather armour that the wyvern riders seemed to favour, hanging them up onto hooks set into the wall. First he stripped off the pieces that protected his elbows and knees, then the pauldrons, then the vest…
Slaine quickly turned to face the wall. Had the princess been subjected to something so indecent? “Isn’t… isn’t there some kind of room you can change in?”
“Change? You mean my outfit?” Inaho asked. “I’m not changing. The armour isn’t needed here. And it’s too hot to wear it anyway.”
Now that he’d pointing it out, Slaine began to notice how warm it was. It wasn’t just from the hearth, either - a steady current of warm air blew from the back of the cave, as if some huge animal lay just out of sight around the bend. All he could see was the play of golden lights against the back wall.
“Don’t go near there,” Inaho called out.
Slaine risked looking at him. That was a mistake. He caught sight of the boy’s bare back, the shape of his muscles thrown into contrast by the firelight; more tanned skin than Slaine had ever expected to see; a glimpse of slender legs and bare feet. Inaho’s only concession to modesty was a piece of cloth worn around his hips and a belt decorated with bits of metal and orange wyvern feathers. Slaine turned back to the wall and tried to forget what he saw. To think that Princess Asseylum had seen… this ! Had she lived here? And watched every day as this Inaho character pranced around practically naked?
“Here. Take as much as you want.” A bowl of bacon was placed beside him. Slaine mumbled his thanks and took a piece.
He nibbled it. The spices that had been used during the smoking process added to the rich, savoury taste of the meat itself to blend into a flavourful, melt-in-the-mouth experience. Momentarily forgetting his manners, Slaine wolfed down the first piece as he grabbed a second one.
“You should eat slower. That’s dangerous,” Inaho said.
Slaine looked up, his third piece of bacon hanging from his mouth. He nodded sheepishly. After chewing and swallowing properly, Slaine said, “This is delicious! It’s nothing like anything I’ve eaten before!”
“Seylum said the same thing. I gave her a lot to take home.”
“I see.” Slaine watched Inaho. He couldn’t read his expression - there was nothing to read on that blank face, even though he could see the boy clearly where he sat by the fire, carefully toasting bread. The chain around his neck gleamed in the firelight; when he leaned over, there was a flash of blue as the jewelled pendant moved. “Your necklace…”
Inaho gestured to it. “This? Seylum gave it to me. She said it was a Dragon Tribe necklace.”
“A dragon rider’s necklace?” Had the Princess really gotten that impression?
“It’s not,” Inaho said.
“I should think not,” Slaine answered. “How long have you had it?”
“Since the end of spring,” Inaho answered. He handed Slaine a piece of bread.
Slaine gladly took it; the smell of it toasting had been a delicious torment. It took all of his discipline to wait so that he didn’t burn his mouth. To distract himself, he said, “Did she give it to you before she left?”
“Yes.” Inaho fidgeted with the pendant. “I had been under the impression that it was Aldnoah at first.”
“The Princess wouldn’t have given such a treasure away so lightly!” Slaine laughed. In the corner, the wyvern let out a musical, warbling growl. Slaine stopped laughing.
Inaho seemed amused by his reaction, which made Slaine feel unreasonably angry - the way those eyes, red in the firelight, softened as the corners of his mouth tilted up by the smallest of fractions. But that moment was soon gone and Inaho’s expression was neutral as he said, “I would not have accepted it if it was Aldnoah. The stone of the Versians is evil.”
“Evil? Aldnoah is the only thing that can control dragons!”
Inaho sat there in silence for a while, as if pondering Slaine’s words. Then, he lifted a hand and hummed. There was the long, slithering sound as his wyvern made its leisurely way towards him, until it could sleepily nuzzle its snout against his palm. Clucking his tongue, Inaho burned a piece of bread charcoal-black and tossed it into the wyvern’s maw, his fingers just shy of its wicked teeth. Satisfied, the wyvern lowered its head to the floor and went to sleep.
Inaho gently stroked the wyvern’s feathers. Staring into the fire as if in recollection, he said, “Control is the way of the frightened. Here, we choose to trust.”
Slaine finished his bread - the last bite was dry and stuck in his throat, but his cup was empty and the jug of water too near the wyvern for his liking. He swallowed it with difficulty. “Trust… can be dangerous too. ‘ Those once burned are wary of fire ’. You have your way, and I have mine.”
After that, they said nothing. Inaho rose and packed up, after which he filled a bowl with warm water and gave Slaine a towel to clean himself with. Slaine insisted on having Inaho turn away before he undressed; Inaho simply shrugged and woke his wyvern up, told Slaine to leave his dirty clothes in a corner and left the cave. When he returned, Slaine was wrapped up in one of the blanket’s he’d given him, fast asleep.
Inaho fetched another blanket - they had spares, Yuki wouldn’t need them - and pulled it over him. After all, Slaine might have caught a cold, sleeping so far from the fire.
Slaine woke up to the sound of wyverns. Or more accurately, the sound of wyverns woke Slaine up. As the sun started to spill over the high walls of the valley, a clamour of hoots, whistles, screeches and trills filled the morning air. Slaine curled in on himself with the intent to block out the noise through sheer willpower and go back to sleep.
Something nudged his side, rocking him back and forth while mewing - at least, Slaine called it mewing in his mind, but no cat could have replicated it. Still, the plaintive sound conveyed the creature’s desire for attention well enough, so Slaine reached out a hand sleepily to pet it in the hopes that it would let him sleep for a while longer.
His fingers brushed some sort of muzzle; it was covered with short, velvety fur and very warm. Too dry to be a cow, too large to be a cat or dog, too pointed to be a horse…
Inaho’s orange wyvern screamed exactly when Slaine screamed. They both jumped back - Slaine knocked his elbow into the wall, the wyvern upset a stack of bowls with its tail. Inaho rushed in, followed by a black-haired girl and a freckled boy. Both strangers were holding spears.
Spears that were pointed at Slaine.
Holding up the blanket to preserve his modesty, Slaine tried to make placating gestures with his free hand. “I was just startled. There’s no need to be alarmed.”
The boy growled something and shook the spear threateningly. He took a step closer, still muttering in his own language, his spear coming ever closer to Slaine’s throat. He didn’t seem to understand what Slaine said.
“Inaho? Your… friends don’t seem to like me…”
Inaho finally stopped soothing his wyvern and seemed to notice Slaine’s predicament for the first time. He spoke to the two strangers. The girl lowered her weapon, though she remained wary, her stance tense and her eyes fixed on Slaine.
The boy shouted, shaking his head and stamping his foot. Inaho frowned and said something else. The boy gestured angrily at Slaine. Now the girl put a hand on his shoulder, trying to get him to lower his spear, speaking quietly. Even through the harsh tones of the wyvern tribe’s speech, she sounded sad.
The freckled boy lowered his spear. Then he ripped a single grey feather from a band around his arm and threw it at Slaine’s feet, before he stalked out of the cave.
“I thank you most sincerely for your hospitality,” Slaine said, “but I see that my presence is unwelcome here. Could you do me one last kindness of telling me how to get back down to the plains? Preferably via the Western pass.”
“No,” Inaho replied.
Slaine blinked. “Do I… at least get an explanation for that?”
Inaho paused in his work, staring at the tub of water as if the dirty bowls from their breakfast had just revealed some astounding revelation. He turned to Slaine and said, very slowly, as if to someone rather unintelligent, “The Plains are forbidden. All passes are closed.”
“So I’m your prisoner.” What happens if I try to leave? If he left, would Inaho be among those sent to hunt him down? Snapping jaws, a rumbling growl, the gust of hot air that quickly became searing heat…
“You are my guest.”
“A guest that cannot return home.” And a guest that would do well not to antagonise the only local that was showing him kindness. Slaine picked up a rag and began to dry the bowls Inaho had washed. “Are the passes closed both from the ground and from air?”
“You want me to fly you over.” Inaho passed another bowl to him. “I cannot do that.”
“If you explain that I’m just trying to get back to the Empire-”
“We would be killed.” Inaho stood, stretched and picked up the tub of water. “Yesterday’s events should have shown you that the tribes of Terra, which is what you call this region, do not follow one leader like your Empire. Each tribe is independent. They would treat an outsider like me as an enemy.”
“And you bested them!” Slaine stacked the dried bowls neatly and followed Inaho to the edge of the creek that ran through the valley. A wyvern with deep blue feathers was drinking from the clear mountain water. Slaine made sure to give it a wide berth, standing so that Inaho was between him and the wyvern.
“I didn’t ‘best’ them. They realised that the ‘fire’ of the Shinawara is stronger than their own, so they did not fight. If I was alone, I would be killed.” Inaho emptied the tub into the creek. “The Novosibirsk is only one of several tribes that guard the border. The Shinawara cannot challenge them all.”
Slaine huffed. He looked up at the sky - it was clear and blue today, with the only clouds in sight being wispy, frail things. But he could still remember the thick mist that had lay on the mountains when he’d arrived. “If you can’t face them head on, why not sneak past them? You came out of nowhere that day. It was as if you were the wind itself.”
The way Inaho paused and cocked his head to one side made Slaine suspect that he enjoyed the flattery, although his expression betrayed nothing. Inaho shook his head. He began to walk back to his cave. “No.”
“No? Surely your dragon, with as skilled a master as yourself, can manage such a feat?”
Inaho stopped walking and looked at Slaine curiously. Slaine said nothing, waiting, hoping that the bait would work…
“...we could. But not with you. You’re too loud and heavy.”
And with that, Inaho walked away from him.
Slaine refused to let the matter drop. He pestered Inaho with increasingly outrageous plans of escape as he followed his host everywhere around the valley, until Inaho and Sleipnir left to complete their duties for the day, and waited until he returned to begin anew. He spent his days sitting in the cool, dark cave, like a bat that couldn’t fly away from its roost.
On the third day, the chieftess of the Shinawara watched him wander back to the Kaizuka’s home from the entrance of her own cave. She sighed. Turning to her dragon - an elegant creature with feathers the colour of the ocean, deep blues and sea greens that shifted as she moved - the woman said, “Do you know why you can’t get a mate, Mizusaki?”
The dragon gave a musical warble that may have been an answer.
The wind against his face was cool and crisp; the sun on his back warmed him through his leather riding armour. Beneath him, he could feel each wingbeat, the push and pull of muscles and the shifting of scales and each pulse of the dragon’s heart.
The sky was theirs; the wind their servant, all things their prey.
Sleipnir chattered happily now that there wasn’t a need to be silent. Inaho gave her neck a few pats, but couldn’t share her joy - it had been another unsuccessful attempt, and things didn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. At least there hadn’t been another attack. He’d have to think of another plan. There would be an opportunity in a month’s time, when there would be less guards on the border…
Inaho snapped out of his musings when he saw Sleipnir’s ears perk up. She turned easily at a gentle tug of the reins, so that they flew with the wind blowing towards them. Inaho relaxed: Sleipnir had given an excited chirp when she scented the newcomer. There was no danger. Soon the beat of wings became easily distinguishable. The tawny blur came steadily closer as Sleipnir slowed down; soon both dragon and rider were easily identifiable by sight.
Nina greeted them with friendly roar. Inaho and Sleipnir echoed her call. Inko waved, shouting over the wind: “Hey, Nao! Chief Magbaredge wants to see you!”
Inaho nodded. He leaned as Sleipnir angled her wings to turn back towards the eyrie. Behind them, Inko gave a yell of surprise. It took her a while to catch up. When she did, Inaho said, “You’re not using your weight to help Nina make turns. It’s slowing both of your down.”
“Well we can’t all be prodigies, Nao.” Inko glanced at the direction Inaho had just come from. “What were you doing over there? That’s not part of our hunting grounds.”
“I was searching.”
“For food?” At the mention of food, Nina raised her head and gave a hopeful squawk.
“For a gap in the border guard. Very few people go into the eastern regions of these mountains. I was hoping that the guard would be more relaxed.”
“The east? You can’t go there!” Inko said. It was loud enough that Inaho looked around to see if there was anyone to overhear them. They were alone.
“I didn’t say I was going there. I said I was looking near it. We’re not hurt.”
Inko didn’t seem mollified. Putting her hands on her hips and frowning, she said, “Is this because of that Versian? I know Seylum was nice enough, but we can’t trust them! Don’t risk your life for that boy. How could you help him after what happened to Oki!”
Inko’s voice had risen to a shout at the end of her speech, but after saying Okisuke’s name, she fell silent. She turned away from Inaho. Her shoulders shook. Nina whimpered.
“Seylum is the daughter of the Versian emperor. Slaine said he knew her. If we tell her what is happening, she is in a better position stop the attacks. Upsetting the Versians would further endanger us.”
When Inko faced him again, the telltale glisten of tears on her cheeks and the puffiness around her eyes made Inaho realise that she’d been crying. “How can you sound so calm about it after what happened? Aren’t you… angry? After what happened to Yuki… don’t you want to fight?”
“No. Anger makes it difficult to think clearly.” Part of him was angry. But there was no reason to direct that anger at Slaine. And the anger was tamped out easily enough - he could still remember the sound of the storm, the chill of the wind howling over the ocean, the crash of the waves against rock… “Fighting is not the solution we are looking for.”
After a pause where the only sound was the steady beats of dragon’s wings, Inko gave a watery chuckle. “You always sound so reasonable when you say things like that. I admire that about you, but next time try to take the feelings of others into account, will you?”
“I’ll try.” The red walls of the eyrie were fast approaching; Inaho saw the guards take flight to challenge them. Inko waved, to him, then she and Nina swerved off again towards the horizon. The guard gave him the same message Inko had: the Chief wanted to see him; she was waiting at his home.
Misuzaki was basking in the sun just outside his door. Sleipnir chirruped, flattening on the ground and fluffing her feathers, her tail swishing from side to side and throwing up a cloud of dust that sent unfortunate passersby coughing. Misuzaki lazily opened one eye, seemingly uninterested in the invitation to play. Sleipnir, however, was undeterred by this lukewarm reception, shooting out small gouts of flame in excitement. Seeing that his dragon was sufficiently entertained, Inaho went into his home without her.
As expected, Chief Magbaredge was waiting by the hearth. Slaine stood off to the side near the left wall. However, Inaho was surprised to see a third person lounging carelessly near the warmth of the fire. “Marito.”
“Welcome home, Inaho,” the man said, smiling. “But don’t you think you should be greeting our esteemed Chief instead of a rambling coward like me?”
“Inaho has lived here long enough that I’m sure we’re all used to his… highly individual way of doing things, Marito,” the Chief answered. “And we’re both the type to cut straight to the point, aren’t we, Inaho?”
“Is this about Slaine?” Inaho glanced at the man. He seemed frustrated, looking at each person as they talked in confusion.
Marito also noticed. “Chief, Inaho, it’s rude to leave our esteemed guest in the dark like this. Switching to Plains isn’t too much of a hassle, is it?”
“I see no harm in it,” Magbaredge replied. In Plains, she said, “Truthfully, it is better if he can listen. This matter is about him.”
“You know Plains!” the Versian said.
Magbaredge smiled. “Yes. The older know. Before the war, there was trade with Plains-people.”
“Trade helped for mountain tribes, coast tribes, ice tribes, forest tribes. Plains have more food, mountains have medicine and ore,” Magebaredge continued. “Now, dragon tribes all in mountains. Plains not safe. Forest not safe. Coast… not safe. Only here, in mountains, Vers cannot come. Stone-wings cannot fly in mountains.”
“I’m sorry, what are the stone wings?” Slaine asked. “Inaho has mentioned them, but I don’t understand…”
This time it was Marito that answered. “Stone-wings are your dragons. Vers-dragons. Their skin-” he tapped the hard wall of the cave “-like stone. They have been changed, by stone. Their hearts are stone.”
“By stone…” Slaine frowned. “By the Aldnoah?” The stone of the Versians is evil .
“Vers takes dragons. Makes them stone-wings. This cannot be allowed.”
“Which is why you can’t let me leave,” Slaine finished.
“It is good you understand,” Magbaredge said. “Shinawara tribe is tribe of many tribes. Many mountain people, but also from forest, from coast, from ice-plains. Not many eggs, but some spare. You can be first Versian in Shinawara tribe.”
Inaho watched Slaine’s reaction. Surprise came first, as expected. Then, a small frown. Hesitation. When Slaine smiled, Inaho felt something akin to the thrill of taking off, of the first pulse of a dragon’s wings as the ground fell away.
“My deepest apologies, Chief Magbaredge of the Shinawara, but I must decline your generous offer. My loyalty is to Vers and I must remain a faithful servant to the royal family,” Slaine said, bowing deeply.
Inaho blinked. For a moment, he’d felt… no, it was Slaine’s decision. The man wished to return home. Inaho’s own feelings had no place in this matter.
But in reality, neither did Slaine’s.
Marito sighed. “Not a choice, child. You stay as Shinawara, or you stay as prisoner. Sorry, but for you to leave, is to bring danger. If you go, stone-wings will come.”
“Stone-wings cannot come here!” Magbaredge snapped, in Terran. Slaine’s eyes snapped to her immediately, his stance wary. The Chief noticed, and said in Plains, “Versian, you will have time to think. Inaho, teach him to live as Shinawara. Later, we speak again.”
With that, she left. Marito gave Slaine and Inaho a wave of farewell before he ducked out of the cave as well.
An awkward atmosphere hung in the air. Yuki, Inaho thought unhappily, would have known what to say to disperse it. Otherwise, Sleipnir could be relied upon to break the tension – the heavy, charged, dangerous feeling, akin to the charged air before a storm. But Slaine did not seem to like dragons.
So it was up to him. Inaho said, “Slaine, I’m sorry-”
“No.” Slaine smiled at him, a dazzling smile like sunshine breaking through grey clouds. “This suits me better, for now.”
The uneasy feeling disappeared and Inaho smiled too. “That’s good. Do you want to eat? I trapped some cliff-chicken…”
Slaine kept smiling even as Inaho prattled on about the rewards of his hunting. The boy seemed relaxed now, shrugging out of his vest and hanging up his travelling garments as he talked. When he turned to wash the dust off his face, Slaine let the smile drop. It was tiring, after all, to keep up false appearances.
He wondered how long these wyvern riders could maintain their own deception. They had to be stubborn, eking out a living in the harsh mountains. That didn’t matter. He was stubborn as well. He was a survivor as well.
Either they will break… or I will break them.
At the bottom of the canyon in which the Shinawara made their home there wound a cheerfully bubbling stream. It was heavily used by the tribe; dragons and humans alike drank from it, drew water for their daily needs or simply played in the refreshing spray. People gathered along its banks – especially the younger members of the tribe, who would use their chores as an excuse to dawdle and chat. A few of them nodded to Inaho as he went past. Most ignored him. The dragons, however, never failed to trill a greeting to him, which he returned without fail.
Further along the stream, nearer the northern end of the canyon, the ground became rugged and uneven. There were no inhabited caves here. No weight of feet or claw to smooth out the rocks. The shape of the looming cliffs meant that this area was shaded most of the time. The cold and dark, coupled with the harsher terrain, kept the tribe away. Soon the chatter of people and dragons died away so that only the steady burble of the stream remained.
Inaho kept walking. The path was inclining now. Little rocks, hiding in the shadows, threatened to snag at his feet. As he sidestepped the spiky leaves of thriving weed, he heard the splashing. A few more steps brought him to the pool where the waters welled up from stone.
At the edge of the shallow pool, scrubbing and occasionally muttering, crouched Slaine. His bare chest and arms were wet – when he got closer, Inaho could see goose bumps on his pale skin. A breeze swept through the alcove. Slaine paused his washing as a shiver ran through his body.
“You don’t have to bring the washing so far away. The water downstream isn’t much dirtier,” Inaho said.
Slaine gave a shout, leaping to his feet and grasping at something by his hip. He muttered again when his hand came away empty. He’s used to having a weapon.
“Sorry. You startled me,” Slaine said. He hastily wrapped himself in a blanket, which caused another shiver as the half-dried cloth touched his skin. But he hadn’t been quick enough to stop Inaho from seeing the blotches of scarred, discoloured skin that covered his chest and back.
And Slaine knew that he had been seen. Glaring, he snapped, “I like it better here.”
Inaho inspected the pieces of laundry laid out on the rocks around them. “There’s no sun here. It’s harder to dry.”
“It dries. That’s what’s important,” Slaine growled. He fished out the shirt he’d dropped, rinsing it with more force than necessary. “Well? What did you come nosing around for? Afraid I’d scaled the walls and escaped?”
“That would be impossible to do without a dragon.” Inaho looked up at the sky; bright blue and cloudless, with the sun sitting just above the eastern edge of the canon. “Do you want to go outside, Slaine? I cannot help you leave the mountains, but we should go flying.”
“Why, so you can accidentally push me to my death and not bother with the corpse?”
“No.” Although, if Slaine struggled as much as he did last time, there was a chance that he wouldn’t need pushing. “It would be best if you didn’t go near the cave today. Your scent alone could cause trouble. The safest thing to do is to leave you outside while I explain your presence.”
“Outside? Alone?” Slaine didn’t look scared. Inaho couldn’t discern his expression. Thoughtful?
“With Sleipnir.” The way Slaine grimaced made his feelings on the matter clear. “It’s dangerous alone. Especially now.”
“And I’ll be safer with a fire breathing carnivore beside me.”
“Yes. Very few creatures will attack a dragon,” Inaho pointed out. He started to gather up the wet clothes; he’d dry them with Aerion’s help later. Slaine glared at him for a while but eventually relented and helped him.
Inaho thought about it. Picking up the basket of laundry, he answered, “Humans.”
Slaine wasn’t sure which was louder: the frantic beating of his heart, or the thunderclaps of the wyvern’s wingbeats around him. The ground rushed past them in a steady stream, as if the treetops were water. Beneath him the wyvern’s muscles writhed as it struggled to keep its cargo aloft.
A warm body was suddenly pressed to his back.
“Stop that!” Slaine snarled, turning.
Inaho looked… well, he looked blank, but Slaine fancied that he was surprised, and hopefully a bit intimidated. “If you’re cold, this is the only way I can make you warmer. Usually a rider leans closer to their dragon for warmth, but you’re sitting very stiffly. All the wind hitting you in the chest.”
“I’m fine,” Slaine said. He sat a little straighter to prove his point, despite the way the cold air knifed straight through his thin shirt. He’d had a coat, but that had been lost with his airskiff.
“You were shivering.”
Slaine gripped the saddle tighter, willing his arms to stop trembling. Deep breaths. There was nothing he could do. And besides, wasn’t it safer, sitting behind a wyvern’s head?
Although… the beast’s long neck could whip around… pour flame over its back, protected by its natural fireproof grease while the humans roasted…
“I said I was fine!”
“I know but- SLAINE!” Inaho shouted as Slaine quickly leaned back, as far as he could in the saddle, to get away from the feathered snout that had suddenly turned towards him. The wyvern waggled its ears. Perhaps it was trying to say that it’d had enough of its passengers and was about to cook them. “Slaine, stop, you’re going to push us off.”
“Why’s it looking at me? What does it want?” The wyvern’s eyes were blue. The blue of a summer sky, round like polished gemstones, inhuman and unreadable. Slaine’s panicking brain also helpfully pointed out that they were similar in shade to his own. What a droll coincidence, to have the same coloured eyes as the animal that’s going to kill and eat me.
“Sleipnir heard you shouting. She’s worried about you.”
“Told you, did she?”
“She doesn’t have to.” Inaho leaned out from behind Slaine and stretched to pat the wyvern’s snout. “Just a bit further. We’re meeting Inko and Nina near the lost fields.”
Apparently mollified, the wyvern faced forward again. Slaine hoped that Inaho hadn’t caught how much he’d relaxed when it did. He relaxed even more when he saw that they were losing height, finally landing in a grassy field next to a large tree. Slaine looked around. The red bulk of the mountains still loomed around them, but aside from some ridges covered in overgrowth, the area was oddly flat. To their right tall, leafy stalks grew up like a green fence.
“Here,” Inaho said, throwing Slaine a woven bag. Peeking inside revealed pieces of dried meat and some apples. “I’ll be leaving with Inko soon, so this is your food for the day.”
Slaine glanced at the wyvern, which was sniffing at a flowering bush. “And what does it eat?”
“Sleipnir ate a lot yesterday, so she won’t really be hungry today. If she wants to eat, she will hunt.”
“I’ll try my best not to look appetising once you leave.”
Inaho shook his head. “Sleipnir won’t eat you.”
“Does she eat mountain goats?”
“When she can catch them.”
“So what’s stopping her from eating a human that’s roughly the same size? Not hairy enough to taste?”
“What stops a bull from goring the farmer, or the dog from biting its master?” Inaho clapped his hands. The wyvern stopped its investigation of the flowers and trotted over – Slaine hadn’t even known that such a large creature could trot, but there was no other way of describing that bouncy gait. Inaho made a gesture. The wyvern rolled lay down on the grass, curled up, closed its eyes and was still. Inaho settled himself on one of its legs. “A mutual understanding that it is more beneficial to be allies than adversaries.”
“And what can a mere human offer a flying, fire-breathing carnivore?”
“If you want the true answer, you must ask the dragons. I do know that dragons – the free dragons, not the stone-wings – have always lived in tribes. There is safety in numbers. Humans have joined those tribes. Or perhaps the dragons joined human ones. It happened a long time ago, and the result is the same.”
“A new fruitful life as a pack animal?”
“You are assuming that these dragons are mindless, like the Versian ones. They are not. You know this. That is why you call them ‘wyvern’.” Inaho crossed his arms. “The dragons you know are beasts that attack on their master’s command. They are weapons. You will be surprised to know that this is not normal – a ‘wyvern’ is cowardly by nature. They will flee from a foe that shows the will to fight.”
Which explains the yelling match against the Novosibirsk, at least , Slaine thought. “So these wyvern- these dragons hang around with humans because we don’t jump at loud noises?”
“Because humans allow them to accomplish things they could have never done on their own.” When Slaine scoffed, he said, “You speak of flying as if the rider is a burden that the dragon must carry. Which in your case is true. But a true rider aids the dragon in flight, allowing them to make turns that are otherwise impossible. The most difficult is the Heavens Fall – a dive where the dragon’s momentum would mean crashing if not for the rider.”
Would any of the Knights’ dragons trust their masters and risk a bone-crushing impact with the ground? Not that they could, considering their size, but Slaine found himself wondering what it took for any living creature to have such faith in someone. Had Inaho done it before? Had his feathery orange beast dived towards death and escaped?
As if it heard his thoughts, the dragon suddenly woke up. With a yelp it rolled onto its side. Inaho jumped off its leg, but its tail swung around and caught him in the chest. Inaho toppled onto the dragon’s stomach where its claws closed around him. Slaine jumped up with a yell.
“I’m fine, Sleipnir just wants to play,” Inaho said, very calmly, despite the fact that he was being smothered against the dragon’s feathery chest. It cooed, snuffling at his hair as he slowly pushed his way out of its embrace. After detangling himself he rubbed the dragon’s stomach, as if it was a giant dog.
Still wary, Slaine sat down again.
Inaho said, “You seem convinced that dragons will attack people the moment they’re not tightly controlled. Is this what happens with stone-wings?”
Slaine watched the dragon. Whenever Inaho slacked in his patting, it would nudge his hand with its snout, even paw at him with its sharp talons. Its teeth could crush that slender arm in seconds. But it never did. And Slaine was starting to believe that it never would.
But at the same time… he remembered. He replied, “In the past, there was a Viscountess who displeased the Emperor – not the current one, but his son, Gilzeria. As punishment, he destroyed her Aldnoah and had the royal guards take her away. That night, it rampaged through the town and attacked the royal palace. It killed many. Including the Queen Consort and its former master, Viscountess Orlane.”
“How did this Orlane treat her dragon?” Inaho asked.
“I have no idea. This was before my time. But the aftermath of the attack meant that many dragons were killed. Smaller ones, mostly. There were riots. As I understand it, the stock of Versian dragons was never able to recover.”
“When Seylum came here, she was surprised to see so many dragons in one place.” Inaho frowned. “She was surprised to see the dragons flying free.”
Flying free and not killing everyone in sight. “You were right when you said that ‘stone-wings’ are treated like weapons. When they’re not in use, they’re locked up.”
“Seylum said that a friend told her that there was a place where dragons and people lived together, where children could run up and touch a dragon’s wings. She told me that she’d wanted to see that place her whole life.”
Slaine turned away so that Inaho wouldn’t see the tears in his eyes. “I guess she did, then.”
“She said that she wanted to make Vers such as place as well, one day.”
“I wonder why she put faith in such a foolish idea,” Slaine mused. Unable to sit by idly any longer, he walked over and inspected the thicket of tall grass off to the side of the clearing. When he got a closer look at the stalks, he was surprised. “This is wheat! The same kind we have on the plains!”
“This used to be a village,” Inaho said. “Before the attacks. Many villages were abandoned.”
Slaine went over to the ridges. Underneath the greenery was the hint of stone. He brushed some of the moss away. Rectangular blocks of stone. They formed a line – a line that used to be a wall, Slaine realised. Walls that were once part of a house.
Inaho stood as well. “Some villages were destroyed during the attacks. Inko and Nina are going to land soon. I’ll be leaving with them. Stay with Sleipnir until I return.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t plan to walk back to Vers while you’re gone,” Slaine replied.
But as he watched Inaho leave on the back of his friend’s golden dragon, Slaine wondered if it would be the safer option, if the alternative was being stuck in the mountains with a fire-breathing beast he had no control over.
It wasn’t that Slaine minded being alone. Sometimes he enjoyed it, even. The peace of silence, the comfort of knowing that no one was around to catch him idling and beat him for it. And there were worse places to be alone – the mountain air was crisp, the sun was warm and the grass was soft.
Perhaps the problem was that he wasn’t actually alone. He’d laid down on the ground to rest, but relaxing was impossible because he kept getting nudged in the side. And because the creature nudging him was more than twice his size, ‘being nudged’ meant ‘being gently rolled back and forth’.
“Do you mind?” he asked.
The dragon’s ears perked up. It looked at him. Then it began nudging him again.
“Stop it! Stop!” Well, it probably doesn’t understand Plains, if it understands human speech at all. “Sleipnir!”
This time, the dragon chirped and sat down. Slaine observed the perked ears, the focused gaze, the way its claws were kneading at the ground. The swish of the tail. It was tense… attentive. Waiting for Slaine’s next move. Now what do I do?
What had Inaho done? “Would you like me to pat you?” Slaine reached out. He didn’t dare take his eyes off that dragon’s mouth, ready to jump back if it showed the slightest sign of opening. Slowly, he stretched his arm out. The dragon lowered its head. His palm brushed against its feathery snout. The dragon pressed its snout into his hand. Slowly, he began patting.
Her purring hummed through his arm. She was warm, warmer than any living creature he’d touched before. The feathers that covered her face were small, soft things – his fingers glided over them easily, from the end of her snout and up over her nose, over the ridges above her eyes and back down, following the curve of her jaw. Before he knew it he’d stepped closer so that he could use his other hand to scratch her chin. Sleipnir loved it, closing her eyes and purring until the sound filled the entire clearing. Slaine laughed. “You’re just like a big cat, aren’t you? A big flying cat.”
Sleipnir rolled over and fixed him with a wide-eyed pleading look.
“Oh alright,” Slaine said. He chuckled as he crouched down beside her and patted her stomach. There were some places that made her purr, others that made her squirm. When Slaine reached up to massage where her wings joined her back she relaxed and let out a happy sigh, becoming a boneless heap. Slaine laughed. “Must be hard carrying two people back and forth all the time. I’ll do my best to make it worth the effort.”
Suddenly, he felt Sleipnir tense beneath his hand. Slaine saw that she was sniffing the air. Whispering, he asked, “What is it?”
Slowly, the dragon righted herself. Her gaze was directed at the wheat. Slaine tried to peer through that green wall, but it was too dense to see anything. He looked to Sleipnir – she was crouched low, tail twitching, upper lip drawn back in a silent snarl.
Slaine stood, backing away so that he wouldn’t be in the dragon’s way if she decided to pounce. There was a rustling sound from the field. Whatever it was, it sounded big. But surely even a bear wouldn’t take its chances with a dragon? ‘A wyvern is cowardly by nature.’
Sleipnir whimpered. When he glanced down at her, Slaine was surprised to see her looking at him, as if for directions.
He patted her flank. “You’ve got nothing to be scared of. Don’t worry.”
The stalks of wheat shook. Slaine thought he could also hear something else, a swishing, slithering sound. He caught a glimpse of something among the plants. Something that glittered emerald where struck by sunlight.
There was an answering growl. But it was deeper, rougher, older …
The dragon’s head snaked out from between the stalks gracefully. The rest of its body followed with less poise, leaving a path of crushed wheat in its wake. Its feathers were… strange. They shone like glass and seemed stiff; when the dragon moved, Slaine could hear them grating . The crystalline growths surrounded the dragon’s eyes and formed ridges down its back. Slaine could even see where some outlying glass-feathers had broken off, showing patches of leathery brown skin.
When it saw Sleipnir, it reared itself up, spreading wings that threw shadow over the entire clearing. Slaine was dismayed to see that its sharp fangs made Sleipnir’s look like soft nubs in comparison. It was more than twice her size; Slaine suspected that it was twice her age, as well.
Hopefully, Sleipnir wasn’t thinking the same thing. With forced joviality, Slaine gave her thigh a playful slap. “Come now, we can’t let that brute get away with such an insult! Have at him!”
Sleipnir reared up. Slaine had to duck as she spread her own wings. She bared her teeth, hissing, standing tall, feathers bristling. The green dragon closed its mouth with a snap and dropped down. Sleipnir glared at it from above for a moment before she followed – Slaine felt the ground shudder from the impact.
The green dragon flinched. Slaine studied its stance. Its wings were still slightly outstretched, its tail thumping the ground, its claws digging into the ground. There was strength in the bunched muscles of its front limbs. Still raring to fight. It seems that this one isn’t a coward at all.
Slaine heard the intake of breath beside him. He felt Sleipnir’s chest expand, air filling those massive lungs. There was such power in there; it was the rumble of distant thunder before the storm, the scent of electricity in the air. Slaine felt his heart speed up. When Sleipnir drew back, Slaine found himself taking a deep breath as well. When she opened her mouth, he followed.
Inaho heard the roar. Areion didn’t need his urging; he dived towards his sister’s location, olive green wings flapping powerfully.
They landed in the clearing to find Slaine with his arms around Sleipnir’s neck, laughing. Inaho listened to Slaine’s recount while Sleipnir and Aerion greeted each other. Feathers that shine like glass… “Are you certain about its size?”
Slaine scoffed. Pointing at the abandoned field, where there was a clear path of crushed plants, he said, “Do you think we made that?”
“Sleipnir is not capable of that.” The claw marks in the dirt give a good estimate of its girth. The depth of the furrows in the dirt were worrying. A dragon with claws that large. “It would be best if we left quickly. I’m glad you are both unharmed.”
“So am I. I’m still pretty shocked it worked.”
“Despite what I told you this morning? Together, you can accomplish what was once impossible. You Versians are foolish for not realising this.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Slaine wasn’t acknowledging it – from what he’d described, he’d synchronised with Sleipnir perfectly once he overcame his fear. He showed fire. With training, he could become a formidable rider .
Slaine crossed his arms. “You said yourself that Versian dragons are different. Aren’t you the foolish one for forgetting that, then?”
“Maybe,” Inaho answered.
Areion, satisfied that his sister was safe, padded over to Slaine. Inaho expected the man to flinch. Areion was larger than Sleipnir, being fully grown, with two large horns atop his head and longer teeth. But Slaine held his gaze. He stood his ground as the dragon sniffed him, barely moving even as Areion nudged at his neck. With a huff, the dragon ended his inspection and went back to fawn over Sleipnir.
Slaine let out a breath, shoulders relaxing.
“Areion has accepted you. I wasn’t certain if he would try to kill you when he woke up, which is why I needed to remove you to get him acclimated,” Inaho told Slaine.
Slaine looked at him, wide-eyed. He opened his mouth and closed it again without a word. He made a few frantic hand gestures. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “Next time I have a close brush with death, try not to tell me.”
“I’ll try,” Inaho replied. “We’ll be riding on Areion because he’s bigger, but he belongs to my sister, so it will be more difficult for me to guide him. It will be best if you sit behind me. Be careful not to apply too much pressure or make loud noises that startle him. He is wary of Versians.”
“So you’re telling me to get on the back of a dragon that might try to kill me.”
“Yes. But saying it like that makes the truth sound alarming.”
“What if… I rode Sleipnir?”
“I need to guide Areion, so we cannot ride Sleipnir-”
“I meant by myself.”
When Inaho studied Slaine’s eyes, he saw fire . “If you wish. Get in the saddle, I’ll show you where to place your hands…”
By the end of his instructions, Slaine sat astride Sleipnir as if he’d been born among dragons. His posture was impeccable – gone was the man who clung close to the saddle, hunched in on himself in the mistaken belief that this would keep him from falling. With the sun gilding his tousled hair golden and an easy smile on his lips, Slaine didn’t just look comfortable, he looked as if he belonged right here, right in this moment. If Slaine shed his fear of dragons and learned how to live with the tribe… would he change his mind? Would he choose to stay?
“Alright, what am I doing wrong now? You’ve been staring for a while now,” Slaine said.
“Nothing,” Inaho answered. “Sleipnir’s enjoying this. Let’s go.”
The journey back to the Shinawara went smoothly. Slaine seemed to know exactly when and how to move to compliment a dragon’s movement in flight; when asked, he explained that similar skills were required piloting a small aircraft like his lost skiff.
When Inaho asked if he preferred dragons to Versian aircrafts, Slaine had answered, “I could get used to this.”
That had made Inaho smile, although he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he did miss Seylum, but hadn’t realised it. The past month had been hectic after all. He’d ask Yuki about it when they got home.
He wasn’t the only one eager to return. Sleipnir, thrilled that Slaine had chosen her over Areion, chirped and fussed over Slaine the moment he left the saddle. Slaine laughed, embraced her, ruffling her feathers.
In her excitement, Sleipnir pounced at Slaine, puffing a wisp of golden flame at him.
“Slaine, it wasn’t dangerous-”
But Slaine wasn’t in any state to hear his explanations. The man had thrown himself away from Sleipnir, running until he’d reached the canyon wall, where he’d curled up with his arms over his head. Inaho could see him hyperventilating. When he walked closer, he heard Slaine’s ragged breaths. They sounded… wet? Was Slaine crying?
Inaho reached out. “Slaine, you weren’t in danger…”
“As if you’d know!” Slaine snarled. His hand closed around Inaho’s wrist suddenly, painfully. Inaho saw the trace of tears wetting Slaine’s face. Then Slaine pushed him – by the time he’d gotten back to his feet, Slaine had run off.
Inaho massaged his back. “Sleipnir, where did he go?”
Sleipnir looked up at him mournfully. Like Slaine, she’d curled up, tail wrapped around herself and wings folded tightly. Areion was cooing at her, but Sleipnir was clearly shocked and upset.
“Sleipnir, where did Slaine go? Slaine. Find Slaine,” Inaho repeated. He rubbed his wrist. A bruise was already forming. It would be awkward if Slaine ran into someone like Calm, in his current state.
Sleipnir pointed her head towards the north. It made sense – there, Slaine could find quiet, away from people and dragons. Away from fire.
Inaho started to walk to the pool where he’d spoken to Slaine that morning, but stopped when he recalled the way Slaine had looked when he touched him. Wild, scared eyes. Open mouth, teeth bared. Violent and unreasonable.
Perhaps bringing Slaine back to his senses would require a different approach. One that he’d yet to master.
“Sleipnir, Areion,” Inaho called out. “We’re going home.”
Slaine thought about fleeing when he heard footsteps. He’d managed to calm down enough to catch his breath. He doubted there was anywhere in the valley he could go where Inaho couldn’t follow, and his pride wouldn’t allow him to flee regardless. So he sat and he waited, curled in on himself like a hunted animal, with rough stone pressing into his back reminding him just how trapped he was.
“Hello? Slaine?” a woman’s voice called out. Slaine lifted his head and saw a glimmer of gold reflected off the rocks marking her approach. He regretted not bringing a light himself; his toes still stung from the many times he’d stubbed them during his mad dash away from the dragon. “Slaine? My name is Yuki. I am Inaho’s sister.”
Slaine stood up to greet the woman just as she came into view. He gasped. She had her arm held aloft. Her bare hand was engulfed in golden flame.
Yuki followed his gaze and smiled. “This is a special fire. It does not hurt. It heals.” With her other hand she took a knife from her belt and made a shallow cut on her shoulder. Slaine watched as beads of blood welled up, a dark line against her skin. Slowly, Yuki passed the golden flame over the wound. Then she beckoned Slaine closer.
She scrubbed at her skin, so that the dried blood flaked off. The cut wasn’t entirely gone, but it had healed to the point that it was hard to see traces of the injury even in the glow of the magic fire. The woman gave him another smile. Holding out the flames towards him, she said, “See? Safe.”
Slaine backed away. Even if it didn’t burn flesh, the heat from flames still caused his heart to speed up. “Is that dragon fire?”
Yuki seemed to sense his discomfort, immediately withdrawing her hand. Cradling the flames close to her chest she answered, “Yes, nesting fire, for the eggs. Sleipnir wouldn’t hurt you. She was playing, and she is sorry. Will you come back? Nao has made dinner.”
“Of course.” Slaine caught sight of the necklaces Yuki was wearing. One was a simple thing, a single white seashell hanging on string. The other was much more elaborate; a chain of pearls from which there hung three pendants made of precious stones – the sun, the moon and the teardrop. “Your necklace… did you get it from Princess Asseylum?”
“Yes!” The smile Yuki had as she looked fondly at the gems was genuine. Unlike Inaho, Yuki smiled a lot. Her hair was darker than her brothers, and her eyes didn’t have that rich undertone of red, but Slaine could see enough similarities in their appearances to find himself wondering what Inaho would look like, smiling like that. He was so caught up in his musings that he didn’t catch what Yuki was telling him.
“I beg your pardon, what was that?”
“Seylum thought the necklace she gave Nao was from here. Have you see it? It looks more like something from the lowlands,” Yuki said.
“It’s mine, actually,” Slaine said.
“Oh! Are you fine with Nao having it?”
Slaine looked away from her. He folded arms and replied in a carefully neutral voice, “If the princess gave it to Inaho, then it is his.”
Yuki stepped in front of him, thrusting out her arms to block his path. “No, Slaine. My question: do you want it back? Doesn’t matter if Seylum gave it. Slaine’s choice.”
There wasn’t any need for him to take it back. He never explained its significance to the princess. As far as she knew, she’d returned the necklace to its rightful place, as ironic a mistake as it was. Quietly, he said, “It belonged to my father. I… I don’t have much from him. Or anything at all, really. It’s supposed to bring luck.”
“Then it works. Because now it has come back to you,” Yuki said.
I’d rather Princess Asseylum returned safely than a stupid trinket, Slaine thought. Aloud, he said, “Father would have been pleased to know it.”
Yuki gestured to her shell necklace. “This is all I have of my father, as well. It is precious, because there is little left of my tribe. Just Nao, Sleipnir, Areion and me.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” The chief mentioned something about Inaho being an outsider . “I know what it’s like to lose your home.”
“I miss it. Even when Areion flies as high as he can, we cannot see the sea from these mountains.” Yuki laughed, but Slaine could hear the pain in her voice. “I wanted to see it, even though it is lost – even the ruins are gone because of the storm. A few weeks ago, I went out of the mountains… and got hurt. Nao was so worried! And Sleipnir too.”
“Was that why I didn’t meet you before?”
“Yes. Areion was helping me heal. With this,” Yuki gestured to the golden flame. “But I was lucky. Okisuke was not.”
“Was there an accident?”
Yuki gave him a strange look. Calculating. Almost… cold, like a hunter sizing up their quarry, judging whether to make the lunge. In that moment, she looked like her brother.
“No. It was the war.”
The feathers tinkled when Inko scraped the head of her spear against them.
“If you push with force, you can pierce them,” Inaho said.
Inko huffed. “I’m not blind, you know!” She found her eyes drawn to where Inaho had done just that. He’d left his spear buried in the dragon’s side. The thrust had been clean – Inaho was a proficient hunter – but the beast had tried desperately to pull the weapon out, leaving a messy wound still lazily oozing blood. Inko had been surprised to see that it was still red, still liquid. She’d half expected the crystallisation to have turned the creature’s veins to stone.
On the other side of the corpse, Inaho was sawing away a piece of crystallised hide. The last of the skin came away with a tearing sound. Inaho carefully scraped away most of the gore and rolled it up. “This should be enough for Chief Magbaredge.”
“Do you think its contagious?” Inko asked. Nina and Sleipnir waited for their riders some distance away. It was unnerving how the normally energetic orange dragon stared meekly at the corpse. The fight had been quick enough. It had barely been a fight – Inko and Nina had swept down as a diversion, and Inaho had taken his shot the moment the dragon reared up to challenge them, Sleipnir’s speed as she dived helping the spear pierce its lungs. The beast had been dead before Sleipnir landed.
“It shouldn’t be. Seylum said that only one Aldnoah could be used for each dragon, with the exception being the magic of the royal family.” Inaho wiped his hands on the grass, then stood up and looked around thoughtfully.
Inko copied him. She wasn’t sure what he was searching for. They’d tracked the dragon’s path easily enough. It had seemed reluctant to fly, leaving a trail of distinctive claw prints and tail marks. And every so often there’d be scenes of destruction. Scratched trees. Flattened bushes. Burned vegetation. Places where the ground had been erratically dug up.
She looked at the dead dragon, its eyes dull and the last of the foam drying on its lips. She hadn’t known that Inaho would have killed it when he told her to distract it. Was this what a stone-wing looked like? The ones that had driven the tribes from the plains… the ones that had slaughtered Inaho’s village while he’d been gathering oysters with his sister.
“Nao, do you think Marito- wait, Nao!” Inko called as Inaho disappeared from view. Inko ran to where he’d been standing and found herself standing at the edge of a drop. Below her was a field of large boulders. Inaho was picking his way among these. Then, he disappeared again. Inko had no choice but to scramble after him. She followed him into a cave; its entrance was hidden from above. When she’d caught her breath, Inko said, “Nao, what are you doing?”
“The effect of Aldnoah on dragons depends on proximity. After hatching, a stone-wing is exposed to Aldnoah by a member of the ruling family of Vers. Afterwards, this Aldnoah is transferred to the ownership of a Versian knight, along with the dragon it has attached to.” Inaho’s voice echoed off the walls of the lair. It had to be a lair; Inko could smell the musty stink of a dragon that didn’t groom regularly. A diseased dragon, living alone.
“What? Did Seylum tell you that?” Inko yelped as she stepped on a sharp stone. “Nao, don’t you think we should at least get a light?”
“We should find a light source soon enough.”
Inko found herself rendered temporarily speechless by this nonsensical statement. In the silence, she heard it. An odd, rhythmic sound. Too sharp to be breathing. Too regular to be wind or echoes. Inko felt her way around a bend in the cave, and was surprised when Inaho had been right.
The chamber was lit by a very weak golden light. It came from a boatlike object carefully placed in the centre of a crater dug into the sand. The machine was also the source of the sound, a soft putputputput .
“This looks like the sky ship thing Seylum visited us in!” Inko exclaimed. “Except really small. A baby. It’s even in a nest! They… they don’t grow them, right?”
“No, the Versians build them. They run on Aldnoah,” Inaho explained. “This one should be Slaine’s. We saw it before we rescued him.”
“Oh, I remember! But I didn’t really see what it looked like. It just went whoosh, straight past our patrol.” Inko examined the thing’s sandy cradle. “At least it’s safe.”
Inaho crouched down. “The nest. Feel it.”
Inko did. The moment her hand touched the fine grains, a warm tingle spread up her arm, a soothing wave of relief. It disappeared as suddenly as it came but the sensation was unmistakable. “Nesting fire! Was the dragon trying to hatch Slaine’s boat thing?”
“That’s the obvious explanation.”
“Aw, when you say it like that it makes me feel dumb. We should tell Slaine we found it, shouldn’t we? Yuki said he’d gotten upset yesterday.”
“Yes. It’s proven to be dangerous to leave in the open; Slaine should know how to safely shut down the Aldnoah. We can use some vines to make a net and carry it between Sleipnir and Nina.”
Inko thought about the green dragon, with its tinkling feathers and frothing mouth, randomly rampaging through the forest. “Is it safe? The stone of the Versians is evil…”
“Exposure seems to take time. The transformation was incomplete. Seylum said there were different types of Aldnoah – this one, used for travel, is probably not the one used for stone-wings.”
“Ah, you sound really confident when you put it like that!”
“No, this is merely an educated guess. I could be completely wrong.”
“Nao, don’t say that!”
The plan had been, as Yuki explained it to him that morning just before Inaho left on an errand, that she wanted him to help her wash her dragon. Things had certainly started according to plan. It was an unusually warm day for the mountains, the warmest day by far during his stay. The banks of the stream were thankfully deserted. Slaine wondered briefly where the usual crowd had gone, but decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Yuki had gotten right to it. Areion was apparently in an appalling state. Slaine wasn’t really sure why; the dragon looked as clean as any to him. As he mimicked Yuki’s movements, carefully scrubbing feathers and massaging wings, Slaine began to suspect that this was more of a treat for the dragon than for the sake of hygiene. Areion was soon purring just like Sleipnir.
Slaine soon got into the rhythm of it, working in tandem with the dragon rider. Until a group of people had walked past, spotted Yuki, and rushed over to give her hugs and claps on the back. She was soon being swept away by the swarm of smiling faces. She’d shouted something to Slaine along the lines of returning as soon as she could as Slaine looked on in bewilderment. The sound of cheers and laughter soon faded into the distance.
“I guess it’s just you and me now,” Slaine said to Areion. Areion gave him an intelligent but uninterested look. In terms of personality, bubbly Sleipnir seemed more similar to chatty Yuki while quiet Areion resembled stoic Inaho. Slaine welcomed the peace; it was a nice change from yesterday’s hectic events.
Sometimes, when he paused to survey his efforts – the dragon positively sparkled, he doubted a single speck of dust remained on those feathers – Slaine would hear distant drumbeats, or whooping cries, or the sound of flutes. It seemed to come from one of the upper terraces on the western wall. Slaine had never been there himself, so he couldn’t begin to fathom what the dragon riders were doing there.
“Oho, very good work!” someone cried.
Slaine peered around Areion’s bulk to see a familiar man. He’d been with the Chief that day. Slaine recognised his shaggy brown hair, stubble-covered chin and the band of umber feathers around his upper arm.
The man patted himself on the chest. “Marito.”
“Slaine,” Slaine said, gesturing to himself.
Marito glanced down the stream, then sat himself down, sighing blissfully as he lowered his feet into the water. At Slaine’s questioning look, he explained, “Carrying supplies down to guard post. Long walk. Paths not clear anymore – not enough people using them.”
He reached down and, wincing, picked some sort of spiky seed out from his toes. He flicked it away with a look of disgust.
Walk? “Marito, I notice that I’ve never seen you with a dragon…”
Marito laughed. Slaine detected a hint of ruefulness in his laughter. Pointing to the feathers he wore, Marito said, “No, no, Humeray is here. Always with me.”
“I’m so sorry. Was your loss recent?”
For a moment Marito looked taken aback. Slaine wondered if he’d committed a social faux pas. But the former dragon rider smiled. “No, it was a long time ago. After dragon tribes all go into mountains. I went on hunting trip. Leader of five men, six dragons. Attacked by stone-wing. Only I live.”
Slaine recalled what Yuki had told him of her injury. “Is there better hunting down on the plains?”
“Plains forbidden. Dragon tribes only in mountains. Stone-wing came to mountains,” Marito told him. “You look like I am liar. This is because others have told you stone-wings cannot come here? They say I am a liar. They say I led hunters into storm; they died because I was foolish. So they call me coward.”
Marito said all of this very casually; Slaine supposed that time had dulled the sting of it. Repeated exposure to such demeaning treatment would eventually crush all pride, he knew. Although he didn’t say it, Slaine agreed with the rest of the dragon riders. Vers had never attempted to breach the mountains. It was too difficult to navigate. There’d been talk of having scouts discover the dragon tribe’s hideouts and lead the armies in, but no Versian had ever returned…
“The others may call you coward, but I think I prefer ‘Marito’, myself,” Slaine said.
The man laughed again. “Such a shame that younger ones cannot speak to you! You would make friends fast.”
Slaine thought back to his first morning with the tribe. “I don’t think I made such a good impression on Inaho’s friends…”
“Calm, yes?” Marito caught Slaine’s confused look. “Calm is his name. Sounds like word in Plains, ‘peaceful’, yes? Maybe a joke by gods – Calm is like fire; loud, want to fight.”
“Usually, no. But before you come here, around one month before, Calm go to find food with Okisuke. Okisuke was Calm’s dragon. He did not come back. Days passed. Chief call dragon and riders, search for Calm. They find him alone.”
The feathers around the freckled boy’s arm… “Was Okisuke a grey dragon?”
“Yes. You saw the memory-token. Like mine.” Marito regarded Slaine with a guarded expression as he said, “Calm says Versians killed Okisuke. Versians in the mountains.”
Slaine made sure his own tone was carefully neutral as he asked, “Do you think Princess Asseylum killed the dragon, then?”
“No. Calm and Okisuke leave before Princess leave. We find Calm after Princess leave. Not enough time. Even if slow sky-boat turn around. Not enough time to meet.”
“So you believe that there are Versians in the mountains.” Which isn’t true. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have sent me.
“I believe there are stone-wings in the mountains.”
Slaine held back a frustrated sigh. He’d worded it badly, perhaps: Marito didn’t believe Versians were in the mountains because he knew there was one standing in front of him, or something to that effect. Still, the fact that he’d gotten such a cryptic answer surely meant they were hiding things from him?
And yet Inaho had shown him nothing but kindness.
Not just Inaho, of course. Inaho hadn’t been acting alone. It was ridiculous that he’d thought of Inaho, first and foremost. It was ridiculous to be thinking like this at all… his focus was wavering, dangerously close to flickering out like a candle left untended in the wind. He needed to keep his mind on-
A sound jerked Slaine out of his thoughts. It could only be described as big , a sort of expansive whoomph, a sensation of muted thunder that wasn’t heard so much as felt. He turned just in time to see a giant pillar of fire disappear into the sky, where the music and shouting had come from earlier.
“What are they doing there?” he asked Marito.
“Practicing what, widespread arson?” There was another roar of flame. This time Slaine saw it in full glory. A tower of white-blue flame, almost too bright to look at, existed for a fraction of a moment before it morphed into a spiralling column of red and gold that briefly danced towards the heavens before it too faded, leaving only the cloudless sky, empty and dull.
“Is destruction all Versians know dragon-fire can do?” Marito said, grinning. Slaine supposed that he looked somewhat dumbstruck – the beauty and brevity of the display had left him speechless, longing for just another glimpse. “You are thinking: this is magnificent. This is nothing. It is more beautiful at night. It is sad I will not be with you at the festival. I would like to see your smile as you watch the dancing fire then.”
Slaine hadn’t even noticed that he’d been smiling. Slightly embarrassed, he asked, “Why can’t you go?”
Marito’s smile turned bittersweet. “They do not want me. I spout lies. I killed my hunters. So I am on guard duty, every year. No, no, do not frown for me. If I am chosen, younger ones can have fun at festival. So, you go, have fun, do not think of cowardly Marito.”
“Are you going to be alone during the festival?”
“Being alone is peaceful,” Marito said, shrugging. “And, Humeray is with me.”
“Yes, sorry, I forgot.”
The man hummed thoughtfully. “You are a kind boy, Slaine. When the Princess arrive, she arrive with many Versian. You arrive alone. They sent you on some foolish errand, yes? The chief say I lie, when I say stone-wings can come into mountains, so I am chosen for Shinawara guard, to watch for danger they think does not exist. But I am proud, because if the danger is there, I am watching. Will you choose to find joy in your foolish errand? Go and enjoy the festival, and smile, Slaine.”
There was something about Slaine smiling, Inaho realised, that had an uplifting effect. This was natural – humans often smiled to put others at ease. But the way Slaine had looked when he’d seen what they brought him gave Inaho more than a sense of comfort. His joy seemed contagious. When he’d seen Slaine’s expression of happy surprise, Inaho had felt a sympathetic surge of excitement and accomplishment, a much stronger reaction than he’d warranted. He was about to ask Inko if she’d experienced something similar only to have her lament the lost time and run off.
Slaine finally stopped his inspection of his sky-boat. “Why did she leave?”
“To practice,” Inaho replied. “There’s still a couple of days. She hasn’t lost much time by spending the morning with me. But now if she makes a mistake during her dance, she’ll blame me.”
“You did this for my sake, didn’t you? It was… very kind. Please extend my thanks to her.”
“Sure.” Slaine had thanked them already when they’d first presented their find to him, but Inaho hadn’t translated it for Inko. He wasn’t certain why. Maybe it had been because Slaine’s gratitude was so obvious? Inko hadn’t needed to hear it. The words were just… flavour, something to enhance the experience. Pleasant but unnecessary.
“So why aren’t you practicing?” Slaine asked. “Not the dancing kind of man, I suppose?”
“I don’t need practice.”
Slaine scoffed, but the exaggeration with which he did so suggested that it wasn’t serious. “Oh my, what confidence. Your partner must adore that stubborn attitude of yours.”
“I dance alone. It is different from Versian dancing. It is less structured – there is no set form or number of partners. I believe Seylum compared it to poetry. It is meant to convey the emotions of the dancer to their audience.”
“So what do you do, stand completely still?”
“Are you joking? Your expression is serious, so I can’t tell…”
“That’s not something I want to ever hear from you.” Slaine waited a moment before adding, “I’m still joking.”
Inaho smiled. “You’re hard to read, Slaine.”
“This festival. It seems like everyone is going, but I spoke with Marito who’s on guard duty. He said something about being chosen. How many people are chosen per tribe?” Slaine asked.
“One each,” Inaho answered. “It’s unwise to be so lax, but that has always been the tradition. It’s justified since it’s only for one night every three years and most believe that the mountains offer enough protection.”
“Reluctant guards are prone to negligence,” Slaine said. “The ‘volunteers’ are usually chosen according to seniority or as a punishment, correct?”
Inaho gave Slaine’s words a moment’s thought. “You are making a point about how the guard, during festival night, will be especially weak as it is made up of the inexperienced and incompetent. Why did Marito tell you this?”
“He didn’t exactly. It’s just something I realised on my own; he’s never spoken against the tribe,” Slaine said quickly. Inaho wondered why he sounded concerned, but gave it no thought as Slaine said, “This is my chance. I have my airskiff back. There’s no better time for me to leave. I just need your guidance.”
Inaho considered the plan. Slaine’s reasoning was sound; it would probably work. Even if the night turned out to be clear and cloudless, it was unlikely that the guards would be paying attention. And if they were caught by Marito, he lacked the means to stop them in the air.
This was the perfect opportunity for Slaine to return to Vers.
The last true obstacle to his plan stood before him.
“There are other dangers in the mountains,” Inaho said.
“Surely nothing that a rider as skilled as yourself can’t protect me from?” Slaine asked, smiling. Inaho didn’t answer him. He dropped the coy attitude. “You know that I’m willing to risk it. I’m willing to risk anything. I’m going to try. If you want to stop me, do it right here.”
They both glanced at the hunting knife strapped to Inaho’s hip.
Inaho shook his head. “It’s foolish. You don’t understand the dangers in the mountains.”
“Well maybe instead of being so evasive , you could explain them to make me understand,” Slaine said.
“There may be stone-wings in the mountains.” Inaho told him. Slaine huffed, until Inaho realised that it was actually a laugh. Confused by such a reaction, he asked, “You think it is impossible?”
“I told you yesterday. The ‘stone-wings’ have been locked up ever since Deucalion attacked the palace. There’s no reason for the knights to risk execution by taking a quick stroll through the mountains. This place isn’t exactly next to Versian borders, you know. Marito probably just encountered a large wyvern. Unless it was really a storm.”
“Perhaps. But Okisuke was not killed by a storm; he was killed by a dragon.”
“A wild dragon, then. I’m pretty sure those exist, seeing as how I was attacked by one.”
“A Versian dragon.” Inaho made a gesture that took in his entire upper body above the waist. “All this. Gone.”
Slaine folded his arms. “So you found a half-eaten dragon corpse. It could have been… a pack of wolves. A large bear. Some very hungry eagles.”
Inaho shook his head, struggling to piece together the words of a language he was only passingly familiar with to convey his message. “All gone, one bite. Clean. The bite was the shape of… the moon, when the moon is curved, the edge, completely clean. Through skin, through bone. Like a cut.” He made a scooping motion with his hand. “Large mouth. To take half a dragon, and bite.”
“I’m going to try either way,” Slaine told him. “You can help me. Or you can dance away at your festival, in which case I’ll ask you to forget I mentioned my little escape plan.”
Slaine walked away. Inaho watched him leave, wondering if the next corpse he found in the valley would have pale blond hair and sky blue eyes.
“They might jam the propellers and fins,” Slaine suggested. “That could cause stalling.”
“We were careful to avoid those,” Inaho replied. “Every moving part has enough space to function normally.”
“It probably interferes with the aerodynamics,” Slaine tried. “If I lose control, the results could be catastrophic.”
“They don’t do that,” Inaho answered. “If a dragon can fly like this, then you will be fine.”
“The added weight of it all might throw off my instinct,” Slaine pleaded. “They’re a hazard.”
Inaho held Slaine’s gaze. “Your instincts are good. I have no doubt you can adapt. It is a short flight to the festival, and the day is clear. There is no reason to be concerned.”
Slaine eyed his airskiff. It would be exaggerating to say that it was unrecognisable, but not by much.
The sail, which had been torn sometime after Slaine lost it, had been replaced by sturdy cloth. This cloth bore painted designs - or more accurately, a patchwork of them. There were small, crudely drawn flowers. There were intricate swirls that suggested a more practiced hand. There was a stylised dragon in flight taking up most of one side. There was something brown and round and may have been a bear, judging by the three black dots that could be a face. The range of styles and competency implied that half the tribe had decided to contribute their artistic skills – whether they possessed such skills or not.
Then there were the flags. Strings of brightly coloured rags tied carefully to the mast, along the keel, wrapped along the rails like creeper vines. And after a brief inspection Slaine had to concede that Inaho was right, their addition would not hinder the airskiff in flight.
Finally, there were the feathers that had been secured with tree gum along the fins. Slaine admitted that he admired the handiwork. Longer flight feathers had been stuck to the edge of the fins and shorter ones covered the top, resembling true wings in everything but hue; the feathers had come from many different dragons, resulting in a display of rainbow plumage.
The overall effect was rather nice. The colours and textures made the normally plain, standard airskiff a treat to look at. Except…
“How am I supposed to sneak away in something like this?”
Inaho remained silent.
Slaine groaned. “Fine, fine, we’ll just hope for a cloudy night and do our best, I suppose. You managed to store the supplies without trouble?”
“Yes, you have enough food and water to last a month.”
“I’m surprised you found the time in between doing all of-” Slaine gestured to the redecorated airskiff, “-this.”
“A lot of people contributed. They wanted you to experience the festival properly. The same thing is done to dragons.” Inaho said all of this in his usual monotone, and it was at times like this that Slaine cursed his stoicism. ‘You can be the first Versian in the Shinawara tribe’…
Slaine considered his options. There wasn’t enough time left to remove all the decorations before the entire tribe – and their Versian ‘guest’ – left for the festival. As he stowed some extra blankets on board, he saw something glitter. Princess Asseylum’s necklace, sitting atop a stack of bacon. Slaine sighed. “As long as it won’t hinder my escape.”
He didn’t think over much of it when Inaho didn’t reply, so he was surprised to turn and find that the boy had left.
Vivid orange feathers, strings of blue beads, claws painted green; Sleipnir made quite a sight, and it seemed that she wanted Slaine to know it. The dragon paraded in front of him, wings spread out for display with her head held high.
Inaho watched Slaine as he praised her profusely. Sleipnir would not understand his words, but his gestures and tone conveyed his message well enough. His voice, Inaho mused, sounded like a nightingale’s song: it flowed up and down gracefully, soothing, yet with enough variety that it wasn’t boring. It was a voice that caught you attention and held it. Slaine gave his speech life. A bright, warm voice…
“BOO!” shouted Inko. Inaho flinched. Laughing, Inko said, “Wow, I never thought I’d manage to sneak up on you. Thinking about the festival?”
“Mhm,” Inaho replied. Slaine had stopped talking. Pushing himself off the warm rock he’d been lounging on, Inaho asked, “Why did you come here?”
Inko pouted. Inaho wondered if she was mad that he wasn’t congratulating her on surprising him. Inko turned to her dragon. “He’s got a point, Nina. I have no idea why I even bothered. Do you really think he hasn’t noticed?”
“What haven’t I noticed?” Inaho asked. It wasn’t his fault that Inko interrupted him when he was distracted. “Is Yuki ready to leave? She shouldn’t be, she slept in again…”
“She said we could go ahead without her; she doesn’t want Slaine to miss out. But Inaho, look .” Inko twirled around. The upper layers of the skirt flared out, being shorter and made of a lighter cloth. Beads clacked together as they fell back down after her spin. Metal bracelets jangled, the fine chains looped from her painted belt jingled, her anklets chimed as she stomped her foot. Still holding her arms up in a dancer’s pose, she asked, “What do you think?”
Inaho looked her over. The rounded, graceful movements. The heavy use of green and blue paint on her clothes. The shape of the runes drawn on her face. “You’re going to be dedicating your dance to springtime. The flowers in your hair suggest that it is in celebration of the season, as opposed to a performance asking for the season to be blessed.”
Inko sighed dramatically. The bracelets clamoured again as she brought her hands to her hips. “You have no idea how to please a woman! I bet Slaine and the dragons can appreciate how much work I put into this.”
“I don’t think-”
“Nina! Sleipnir! What do you think of my dress?” Inko asked. The dragons responded happily when they heard their names. When Inko waved her arms, they mimicked her, resulting in a powerful gust of wind that threatened to bowl Slaine and Inaho off their feet. Oblivious to their sudden discomfort – or perhaps satisfied by it – Inko clapped her hands and said, “Look, they like it!”
Inaho was about to explain that their response had nothing to do with her outfit when he heard clapping. He turned to Slaine, who said, “Miss Inko certainly looks fine. I’m certain that this beautiful outfit portends a beautiful dance.”
Inko gasped. “Does Slaine like it as well? Don’t lie to me, that smile means he said something nice right? You’re in the minority, Nao!”
“You understood her?” Inaho asked.
“Not her words,” Slaine admitted. “My guess can’t have been far off. Can you please tell her I give my compliments?”
Inaho did as he asked. Inko bowed to Slaine and then repaid Inaho’s efforts as translator by ribbing him mercilessly for ‘having less manners than a dragon’, not breaking her flow until their dragons – and Slaine’s aircraft – took to the air.
From the smirk on Slaine’s face, it seemed that he’d understood Inko’s teasing as well. And Inaho had the unpleasant suspicion that he was on her side.
Slaine looked around the festival grounds. It seemed to take place on a plateau that had a single raised hill in the middle; stalls, cooking fires and tents were being set up all around them. Dragons thronged the air, flying in from every direction.
Almost every direction.
Pointing to what looked like a distant canyon, Slaine asked, “Doesn’t anyone live there?”
Inaho shook his head. “That is a forbidden place.”
Inaho’s eyes narrowed. “You’re thinking of using that route to leave the mountains.”
Slaine shrugged. “Guilty as charged. What’s the danger? Avalanches? Strong winds? Maybe we could-”
“We won’t,” Inaho said simply, and refused to respond to any other questions or suggestions regarding the ‘forbidden zone’. Or anything regarding the escape plan in general. Slaine decided to give him the benefit of doubt; he was probably just being cautious about their plans being overheard.
There was, however, a snide, cynical voice in Slaine’s mind that asked, ‘ Why did you expect any different?’
Because, Slaine told himself. Because Inaho is different.
It bothered him that Slaine couldn’t say exactly why.
Slaine watched the slow progress of the sun across the sky. Every moment he waited was another step towards the limit of the Counts’ patience, another step closer to too late. He sighed and murmured an apology to the Princess, directing his words to the cloudless blue heavens.
Sleipnir whined and nuzzled his face.
“Do you understand the danger you’re in?” Slaine asked the dragon, patting it on the nose. “Or are you sad because I have to go?”
Sleipnir licked his neck and nuzzled him harder. Slaine laughed as her feathers tickled his skin. “As if I’ve stayed long enough to be missed… maybe I’m flattering myself.”
“I’ll miss you,” Yuki said from somewhere close behind them. Slaine jumped. Yuki smiled apologetically and waved to him. “And Nao too.”
The dragon squawked.
“But,” Yuki amended, “Sleipnir will miss you most of all.”
Slaine scratched Sleipnir’s chin, causing her to purr happily. “I suppose it’ll be rough having to do your own laundry again, Miss Yuki.”
Yuki laughed. “I like you for more than doing chores, Slaine! Although… you really are good at washing clothes…”
“It’s kind of you to say so.”
“It’s the truth!”
“That would be more convincing if you left Mr. Stoneface out of it.”
“Nao likes you. I’m his sister. I can see!”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it, since Inaho’s not around to confirm or deny it,” Slaine replied. “Speaking of, where has he disappeared to? He’s got a habit of just wandering off on his own.”
“That is the truth,” Yuki said with an embarrassed laugh. “He has gone to prepare for dance. That is a guess – he did not tell even his big sister where he is going!”
“He’s gone to practice? I thought he wasn’t taking it seriously.”
Yuki shook her head. “It is very serious! The dance of the festival, it is not like Vers dance that Seylum show us. This dance is how humans and dragons first speak. It is the ‘true language’ which let us live as one.”
A dragon taming ritual? This was rather serendipitous. Princess, isn’t this what you came to find? A way to live in harmony with dragons, instead of enslaving their wills with Aldnoah. Slaine didn’t know how much Princess Asseylum had managed to learn, but he would also do his best to honour her last wish and bring back such knowledge to Vers. “If this dance allows one to tame dragons, shouldn’t Sleipnir be with Inaho right now? Or is it possible to learn without a dragon present?”
This question seemed to catch Yuki by surprise. Finally, she said, “The dance is the feelings of the person dancing. It shows your heart to others. So it can be for people, or for dragons.” She paused and added, “Inaho dances alone. His feelings are… difficult to show others, and he is stubborn, so he has never danced with others.”
Slaine chuckled. “He isn’t the type to compromise, right? Although, you could say that means the emotions in his dance are always honest.”
Yuki smiled. “That is a nice way to speak of it! You really do like Nao, huh?”
“My eyes see all! You are good friends! So, if you leave, Nao will be sad!”
There was a loud squawk.
“But, Sleipnir will be more sad,” Yuki amended.
Inko had been certain that she’d made no noise as she approached. Nevertheless, Inaho ceased all movement and stared at her hiding place until she stepped out from behind the boulder. “Aw, I just wanted to get a sneak peek!”
“You will have the chance to watch me tonight,” Inaho replied, “as you have had for every festival year previously since we became of age.”
“Then, since I’ve watched you dance so many times before, there’s no reason to be shy now!” Inko countered. “The only person who’ll be seeing it for the first time is Slaine.”
This, of all things, seemed to come as a surprise to Inaho, as his eyes widened a fraction and he paused as if considering. “…that is true. That increases the importance of tonight by a significant amount.”
Inko hummed. She fiddled with the necklace she held, watching the light dance across the mica pendant. “That’s true, it’ll be the first time in years that an outsider’s been to the festival. Not even the Versians visiting with Seylum got to see it. Slaine doesn’t seem to know how special he is, right?”
Inaho didn’t respond. He might have been thinking, or staring off into the distance, or just blanking out. Inko waited as the silence stretched on, then sighed.
“Nao, you’re always so quiet and… you know, you always have that blank face of yours…” Inko said, as Inaho watched her expressionlessly. “I feel like this is the one night I have where I can truly understand what you’re feeling.”
“Why not just ask me?”
Inko opened her mouth to explain, faltered, and changed the subject. “Do you remember when Seylum was here?”
“It wasn’t that long ago.”
“That’s not what I-” Inko sighed. “I was sort of expecting Slaine to have the same effect on the dragons as her, but most of them seem to ignore him. Weird, right?”
“Seylum was the weird one. Slaine is a normal human.”
“Seylum wasn’t human?”
“…Inko, Seylum was human.”
“But you just said-”
“Seylum is a part of the royal family of Vers, whose bloodline is bound to Aldnoah. While other Versians have to use Aldnoah to control dragons, they can do it by birthright. They can even override the command of dragons under the influence of Aldnoah.” Inaho paused, and added, “That is what I understood from Seylum’s explanation.”
“So… Seylum’s blood… is sort of like a bigger, more powerful Aldnoah?” Inko groaned. “This is so confusing. I wish I’d been able to talk to her. I feel like Nina understood her better than me! Did you notice how all the dragons ran up to her? Cuddled her? I felt so betrayed…”
“It was odd, wasn’t it? Did you recognise the patterns in their behaviour?”
“What do you mean?”
“The dragons were protective. If too many approached her at the same time, fights would break out.”
“Oh yeah! Oki really got trounced by the girls, didn’t he? Calm said he was upset for days afterwards.”
“It’s not in Nina’s nature to be aggressive. She’s easily distracted and avoids conflict.”
“Something caused her to go against her instinct. Or more accurately, a deeper, more powerful instinct overrode her natural behaviour.”
“Nina was brainwashed? But Seylum wouldn’t do that! Would she…? She’s a Versian after all…” Inko buried her head in her hands.
“I suspect that Seylum herself wasn’t aware of it. But the effect her presence had on the dragons is interesting. It caused them to display nesting behaviours.”
Inko remained silent, hoping against experience that Inaho would explain things clearly.
The silence stretched on.
“That… is really interesting…” Inko prompted.
“You have no idea what I’m referring to.”
“Don’t say it so bluntly!”
Inaho blinked, ever clueless. “That day we hunted the dragon affected by Aldnoah. We found Slaine’s Aldnoah-powered craft in a cave. In a nest.”
“So… Seylum really is just a big, talking Aldnoah?” Inko could feel the classic Nao-Headache building up; it was a feeling people often experienced after prolonged conversations with Inaho. She hated how talking to him gave her the impression that she was missing some very obvious connection.
Inaho shrugged. “I have no idea. It’s just an interesting observation. What are you holding?”
His question caught her off-guard. Inko fumbled with the necklace as she tried to hide it from view. “Oh, it’s just something I made…”
“That’s a proposal necklace, isn’t it?”
“I can’t hide anything from you, can I?” Inko groaned. She held the piece of jewellery out for his inspection. Even as clueless as he was when it came to social rules, Inaho was careful not to touch it. Unable to stop herself, Inko asked, “Do you like it?”
“It’s not too badly made,” Inaho muttered as he looked over the pinkish stone. He straightened up. “Who are you going to give it to?”
“I- what? You can’t ask that! Anyway, thanks for your opinion!” Inko quickly tucked the useless thing away as the last of her courage and determination ebbed to nothing. “So! When are you going to make one, Nao?”
Inaho blinked. “I’ve already made mine.”
“ What ? You’ve found someone?”
“It’s not like that. Yuki and I don’t want to use the Shinawara emblem; she says that we should use seashells like our old tribe did. That’s why she went back to the coast after Seylum left, since then she told us there weren’t any Versians outside of Vers any more.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that’s why Yuki got hurt.”
“We kept it a secret. It was lucky Aerion found her on the beach and carried her back. I made mine so I could show her when she woke up.”
“That’s really sweet.” Inko wanted to ask to see it, but that felt like overstepping her boundaries. If he wanted to give it to me, he would have. “I should… go now. See you tonight!”
Inaho nodded his farewell. As she walked away, Inko heard his footsteps resume. And she knew for a certainty that no matter how quickly, how silently, how unexpectedly she turned around, he’d stop the moment she did.
He’ll always do things his own way. At his own pace. It was just Inaho’s way. And Inko told herself that she was okay with that.
In the light of the setting sun, the crowds moved towards the area that had been set out to create a stage of sorts. It was only a wide circle of flat red rock surrounded by torches; there were no seats, no chandeliers, no polished wooden floors. People settled down in a rough hemisphere around it. Slaine had intended to sit further back so he didn’t draw attention to himself, but Yuki grabbed him by the shoulders and steered him towards the edge of the stage.
From his place at the front and centre of the audience, Slaine found himself looking at the squat pillar of rock that loomed behind the stage. As he watched the silver moon rose above it, settling like a round jewel above it. With their final celestial onlooker in place, the performers began.
The dances were beautiful. In Vers the dancing was done in carefully tailored suits and cumbersome dresses, each step following a strict set of rules, each movement a result of hours of lessons from the finest tutors in the empire.
But here, the dances felt wild and free. Feathered capes billowed as the dancers whirled, wisps of colourful cloth swaying with their movements. Their bare feet were as much an instrument as the singers and drummers and flutes – bells jingled on their ankles and wrists, the fine chains that hung from their waists tinkling as they moved against each other. It wasn’t music that was simply heard. Slaine felt it thrumming through his bones, his blood.
And then the flurry of colours and smiling faces stopped. The dancers left the stage to rancorous cheering like the group before them, but as the applause died down no one came to take their place. People that Slaine recognised from the Shinawara – Calm, Yuki, several others whose name he hadn’t learned – reached up and dimmed the torches. Everyone else seemed to be waiting, watching the stage. Slaine felt a bit frustrated that everybody but him seemed to know what was going on.
Then in the darkness he saw movement, a short figure dressed in silks and feathers. The drums began to beat, slowly, the dancer stepping forward into the light and Slaine saw that it was Inaho. There were orange feathers adorning his hair that matched the ones that formed the skirt hanging from his hips. His upper body was bare; some of the other dancers had painted patterns on their skin but Inaho’s remained unmarked, so that Slaine could clearly see the slender planes of muscle of his chest. He wore bells on his wrists and ankles. With every step, every gesture, they jingled faintly.
He began to sway his hips to the beat of the drums. Slaine realised that he’d never paid attention to how curvy Inaho was; thin waist that widened at his hips, shapely thighs, slender legs. The costume he wore accentuated his figure, the feathered skirt flaring out as he swayed.
There was something hypnotic in the way he moved. Something about watching the way the muscles on his bared abdomen shifted as Inaho thrust he hips and chest out in a smooth, wavelike motion. The drums beat faster and Inaho’s movements became quicker to match, yet no less graceful. If before he hand been the calm ocean waves, he’d now become the sea amidst a storm. He twirled. The feathers caught the torchlight and glowed and for a moment it was as if he’d woven his skirt of flame.
Slaine saw that Inaho’s efforts had left him flushed, the rosy tint only just visible in the torchlight. There were times when his eyelashes fluttered as his feet wove complicated pattered across the rock. And he’d begun to pant, as sweat beaded on his brow and ran down his chest and back. The drumbeat grew frantic and Slaine realised that his heartbeat had mirrored its pace.
The rhythm built up to a frenzy and with one last spin Inaho stopped, arm outstretched, as the last echoes of the drums and bells faded away.
His face and hand pointed directly at Slaine.
Slaine recalled what Inaho had told him about these dances. It is meant to convey the emotions of the dancer to their audience.
Slaine looked into Inaho’s eyes, red and shining in the firelight, and thought he saw the question in them.
What is my answer?
Then the moment was over. Inaho bowed as the crowds applauded, then turned and walked back into the shadows. Slaine caught Yuki’s knowing smile. He suddenly felt the need to excuse himself; the torches had grown too hot, the air too warm.
It was only after he’d stumbled into the cool quietness of the night that he’d realised he was blushing.
Slaine almost jumped. Inaho had appeared behind him suddenly. He’d taken off the skirt and the bells – he wouldn’t have been able to sneak up on Slaine if he hadn’t. Coughing to hide his embarrassment, Slaine said, “Your dancing was nice.”
Inaho blinked at him. “You compliment people lavishly when you feel that the situation demands it. Yet now, your words have become trite. Do you feel that I haven’t earned it?”
“No! I just… I’m feeling a bit…”
It may have been a trick of the moonlight, but Slaine could swear that Inaho smiled as he said, “Follow me. I have something to show you.”
When a hatchling first became strong enough to fly, an older dragon would encourage them to leap from rock to rock, gradually leading them across larger gaps until their wings flapped on instinct. They would then half-glide, half-fly to their kin, chirping happily as they played this game of tag. And so they earned their place in the sky among their brethren.
But there would sometimes be a hatchling whose fear of falling overcame their fear of being abandoned. No amount of cooing or barking would cause them to brave leaping over a gap they deemed too large.
At this point, the older dragon would take the hatchling to a high place. They would lead them to the edge…
…and give a push.
“It’s not that difficult. Just jump and grab this ledge,” Inaho called down. “This one. I’m standing on it.”
“Well of course you’re standing on it! You can’t just be hovering!” Slaine snapped. His pale hair stood out against the grey rocks. In the moonlight, his eyes were the colour of ice. Beyond that, Inaho couldn’t see much of him, but he could guess at his furious expression easily enough. “It’s too dark for climbing. Why can’t we just fly up?”
“Dragons aren’t allowed,” Inaho told him. “I won’t wait much longer. You can try to find the way back down yourself.”
There’s a grunt, then a hand grasped the ledge. Slaine followed shortly after. Inaho confirmed his suspicious that Slaine’s expression was indeed one of fury. Slaine growled, “And break my neck? There’s easier ways to kill myself.”
Inaho said nothing and continued leading the way. To a dragon rider, who had to be fit and used to clambering up a moving beast, the path was not a difficult one. The bright moonlight made the shadows treacherous though; it created illusory gaps with its dark shadows and hid handholds, so that Inaho relied more on memory than his eyes. Slaine would simply have to mimic the route he took, which the Versian did. Albeit with much complaining.
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see when we arrive.”
“You brought a torch. Light it.”
“I need both hands for balance and climbing.”
“Is this really necessary?”
Inaho just kept walking.
Eventually he arrived at the spot where the rock opened up. He stepped through, and heard Slaine gasp.
“Inaho? Where did you- oh…”
Inaho had lit the torch. The orange light of its flames danced over the cave walls, which were covered in lines, dots, runes. They stretched up and across, covering the entire cavern. Above them the roof opened up to reveal the distant stars.
Slaine ran his fingers over the nearest of the carvings. “This… this is a map.”
Inaho nodded. “An exact map. This cave is found in the middle of our lands. Each mountain, each coastline, each eyrie here is placed in the correct position. For example, do you know which direction the Shinawara eyrie is?”
Slaine turned several times, muttering to himself. At last, he pointed, and the graceful certainty with which he did showed his confidence. He turned to Inaho, daring to be corrected.
Inaho simply nodded. “Now walk in that direction.”
Slaine did so, and Inaho followed him, until they reached the cave wall. There, Inaho handed Slaine the torch so that he could look at the map. At last, he pointed. “The Shinawara.”
Slaine whistled. “I supposed accurate mapmaking is easier when you have flying cartographers. So this is what you wanted to show me?”
“Yes.” Inaho moved forward. He slipped his hand over Slaine’s own. “Our home.”
“Our…? Yours and your tribe’s, you mean?”
“That doesn’t necessarily exclude you, Slaine.”
Slaine smiled. “You know what? I like the sound of that.”