by G. Scott Huggins
The Century Ship burned.
From her mainmast cell, Responsibility heard the screams, and the roar of the flames. Flames engulfing square miles of sailcloth and rope. She scrabbled at the trapdoor, but it was bolted shut.
Outside, her mother burned the ship, searching for her.
Responsibility peered out the tiny windows, but smoke filled her eyes. She tried to cry out, to shout to the dragon that she was here, was burning. But what good would it do to shout that name? Her mother knew it not. Her mother had called her…
Responsibility hid under her wings from the flames, vainly trying to remember the name that would save her.
She woke, gulping down great draughts of clear night air.
Azriyqam. She clung to the name more fiercely than she had clung to any boat, out in the Great Ocean. My name is Azriyqam.
Sleep forgotten, breath slowing, she rolled out of bed and strode to her balcony.
Her cell was gone, but her new rooms also overlooked the sea from a great height, a comforting and frightening resemblance. From this ledge, the walled face of the mountainside dropped five hundred feet to the Spinward Court of the Kreyntorm. Beyond its curtain walls, ten thousand lamps shone like orange stars on the descending terraces of Stormbirth, thronecity of Halskette. Below that lay the darkness of the sea.
Azriyqam thought about visiting her brother’s rooms, but Asnai would be asleep. She could go down and wake Zhad, the other refugee from Ekkaia. But no. She did not want to wallow in memories. She wanted to escape them. She stepped up on the low ledge of the railing and spread her arms. Her wings. They went out a long way.
On Ekkaia, where she had been a lone freak, she would never have dared this, to stand in plain sight, eight-foot wing-arms catching the wind. It brought on a moment of nausea and fear. But here, this night, she was a halfdragon of the royal blood. She leapt.
She knifed through the air like a diving bird, tasting freedom, and the pain shooting along her flight muscles was sweet agony. Pulling up, she swept low over the outer wall. The guards nodded, but did not challenge her. She was free as any other halfdragon in the kingdom.
Except that she was not. She beat at the air with her wings for height—and managed only to slow her descent. Other halfdragons could truly fly. She had seen them, but all she could manage was a controlled glide, lower and lower, unless she found a rising thermal.
The square beyond the Spinward Gate rushed up at her and she braked. The humans in the square paused, watching her alight on the flat stones. There was a knot of merchants from the Far Isles wrapped in bright, winding garments. Several couples clasping hands, dressed sparsely but well for the warm evening, a bespectacled old woman in a cloak, and two children gaping in frank envy. But no one curled a lip at her, or asked what she was doing out of her cage, much less threatened to beat her. It was glorious.
She ran into the maze of wonders that was Stormbirth. No fear of being lost; the Kreyntorm could be seen for a hundred miles out to sea; behind it the immovable moonspike in the lightward sky was a spear of silver, casting black shadows broken by lamplit doorways. From them wafted smells of sizzling food and perfumes, snatches of song, and the murmur of conversation.
A roar of applause sounded before her, and Azriyqam broke out of the street onto a narrow plaza. To darkward was a cliff wall with guards manning an arch. Then she realized where she was: the upper edge of the Bowl Theater. The applause continued; the show was ending. She used her height to gaze over the wall.
Thousands of people stood, applauding the performers on stage below. Most were human, with some halfdragons like herself. Even a few dragons reclined on their great raised daises.
Now that she knew where she was, she looked around. “Jerah!” she shouted, finding the fruiterer’s stall.
“Princess Azriyqam,” shouted the big man. “Come quick before the crowd hits!” Azriyqam glanced over her shoulder at the throng of theatergoers pouring from the gates of the Bowl, and ran to the fruiterer’s side.
“Thank you, Jerah,” she said. “One of the peaches, please.”
He handed her the enormous red-orange fruit. Azriyqam needed both fingers and both thumbs to grasp the great peach. Humans might envy her ability to fly, but Azriyqam couldn’t help thinking how much easier life would be with a full complement of their fingers.
“Your Highness is always welcome,” Jerah grinned. “But I can’t help thinking the Kreyntorm must provide fruits far better than mine, and without getting your wings bruised.”
Azriyqam laughed. “Where would the fun in that be? Next time, I’ll come after seeing the play.” She stepped aside, folding the long wing-bones she had in place of fingers tightly about herself. Biting into the peach, she let the sparking sweetness run into her mouth. Such a change from sad Ekkaia, where all was dried, salted, and preserved. Fresh fruits and vegetables had been a luxury for the higher ranks.
“By the way,” said Jerah, “who’s your shadow? Guard of some kind?”
“Guard? I’m out for a walk. What need of guards here?” She followed his gaze over the heads of the crowd… and saw the bespectacled old woman from the square. Azriyqam stared directly at her. The figure straightened, gripping its cloak with brass-ringed fingers. Its hood fell off, and torchlight shone off long white hair, smoky lenses, and a pale, scared face. It ran.
“Who..?” started Azriyqam. She had never seen that… person before. Who would dare follow her, and why? Gripping her peach, she elbowed her way through the crowd. By the time she won free of it, the cloaked shape was a speck of darkness speeding into the night, far beyond Azriyqam’s ability to run.
Azriyqam launched herself into space at the edge of the Bowl and curved right. She gathered speed, scanning the sloping streets beside her. Far off, she could just see the white-haired shape. It was slowing. Whatever it was, it thought it had evaded pursuit. Then it remembered it had been watching a halfdragon. It looked up. Saw Azriyqam sliding through the air. It turned and ran, dashing up a flight of stairs to the next terrace. Cursing, Azriyqam banked hard, felt a muscle stretch as she snapped around.
The face of the terrace swelled in her vision. She braked, shooting herself upward.
She was going to stall. More by luck than skill, she hit the top of the stairs. And her quarry. Slammed into it, tumbling with her target. Sharp edges dug painfully into her wings. Reflexively, she clutched it. It shrieked, and rolled to its feet, shedding its cloak. It turned to face her and Azriyqam stopped breathing.
The girl was even younger than herself, dressed in a thin brown tunic. Her arms and legs were thin, emaciated. Over them she wore brass… armor? No, it was like a second set of bones with metal joints. They joined behind the girl’s back. Each joint whirred with energy as the girl slowly backed away, staring out of the dark, brass-rimmed spectacles.
Only they weren’t spectacles. They were implants, replacing the girl’s eyes. “What are you?” Azriyqam whispered.
For a moment, the girl’s mouth opened. Then she fled. Azriyqam scrambled up, but the girl’s joints whined and her limbs blurred. She vanished up the stairs to the next terrace.
Azriyqam stared after her. She picked herself up, stretching her burning wings. Nothing was broken. Unsteadily, she walked home.
Morning came far too early. Azriyqam sat at breakfast, wishing she could rest her elbows on the table. Her wings got in the way.
“Late night, Azriy?”
She snapped her head erect and met cool, blue eyes in the hard, black-bearded face of the Crown of Halskette, Da’vid IV. “Yes… Father.” The word still came with difficulty. She had only known him three weeks.
When Azriyqam had been only two, the Consortium had tried to conquer all the Near Island Kingdoms. Crown Da’vid had been caught away from Stormbirth, on one of his smallest islands. Only a hidden underground fortress had allowed him to survive. Believing him dead and the Kingdom lost, Azriyqam’s Dragon Consort mother, Shaaliym, had fled with her infant daughter.
Only Shaaliym truly knew what happened next. She had Foreseen that Azriyqam and her brother would meet at sea. She had left Azriyqam on the deck of a Century Ship, traditional prey and foe of Halskette’s Free Navy, charging them to keep the girl safe.
Shaaliym had disappeared, but Da’vid’s Kingdom had fought back, forcing the Consortium to accept it as a client-ally rather than a conquest. Not knowing her name, Ekkaia’s crew had called the strange, halfdragon girl Responsibility, and given her just enough food, exercise, and consideration to keep her alive. In case Shaaliym came back.
“Doing what?” The Crown’s voice was not harsh, but it was strange. Responsibility—Azriyqam—found herself missing old Cana from the Century Ship. She knew and appreciated his rough kindness, but her father was a stranger.
“I flew down to the Theater.” She didn’t want to mention her strange follower. Unthinkingly, she reached for a roll, then hissed in pain.
“Without guards?” The Crown’s voice was sharp. “I’ve warned you about that, Azriyqam. And what have you done to yourself?”
She could not meet his eyes. How angry was he? Anger was pain, was punishment. “I… I just flew…” she stammered.
“Father,” her brother, Asnai, began, but the Crown held up a hand.
“Azriyqam, look at me.” The Crown’s voice was a command she must obey, but his eyes pierced. “A princess does not cringe. She speaks truth and accepts the consequences of her actions.”
Azriyqam froze, shaking.
“Da’vid,” a soft alto said. The King looked round. A deep blue, finely-scaled hand rested on her father’s arm. Dragon Consort Khiirya leaned over, fixing Azriyqam with eyes as yellow as Azriyqam’s own.
Khiirya was Da’vid’s second Dragon Consort, wed after Shaaliym had been lost. In Human form, Azriyqam’s stepmother appeared as a beautiful matron, though hairless as Dragons always were. “I think we have been lax regarding Azriyqam’s education.”
Azriyqam panicked. Lax? What did she mean? Was she going to have her locked up? But the Consort said. “She has never had the instruction—or even the example—any other young halfdragon takes for granted. She needs to stretch her wings, not overstretch them, as she is clearly doing. She needs a teacher, and now.”
The Crown froze. Then he nodded. “Who?”
Khiirya studied her. “Another halfdragon, certainly. Elazar?”
The King gripped his Consort’s hand, looked at Azriyqam. “Elazar, then. Will you listen to him, daughter?”
“Yes,” said Azriyqam, softly. She met Khiirya’s eyes. “Thank you, Lady.” She rose. “Pray excuse me, I am fatigued.” She stumbled from the hall.
Rapid footfalls soon sounded behind her. She flinched, but was relieved to see her brother. She dropped her arms, let her wingtips brush the floor. She swayed on her feet, and welcomed his strong arms as he helped her down the corridor.
If she trusted anyone completely here, it was Asnai. It was he who had freed her from her prison-life, when her Century Ship had captured him. In truth, they had freed one another.
“I must apologize for Father,” he said. “He’s not trying to be harsh. But he’s frightened.”
“He’s frightened?” Azriyqam protested.
“Yes. He thought you were lost, twenty years ago. Now he has you back—and he doesn’t know whether you’ll fly off again or get yourself killed. Part of him wants to lock you up until he’s sure…”
Azriyqam froze at the thought, huddled beneath her wings.
“But he knows he can’t do that, so he issues commands. He’s the Crown; that usually works. He’s trying… to be a father to you. And he’s ashamed that he failed you for so long.”
“Failed me?” How?
“By leaving you on that ship. For twenty years.”
It was too much. Azriyqam broke down sobbing. The last thing she remembered was her brother putting her in her bed and tucking her in as if she were a child.
The smell of rich food woke her. It was afternoon. Who had brought..?
The figure on her ledge rose to his feet, and she sat up. “I thought I might have to wake you. You can’t afford to miss another meal. Eat.”
The enormous platter beside her bed bore a huge fish almandine on a bed of spinach. Dates stuffed with dark, strange-smelling meat accompanied it, with sliced avocado.
But it was the stranger she stared at. Taller even than she, his scales were of bronze. He wore practically nothing but a sort of harness that effected basic modesty, filled with strange tools. “Who are you?”
“Elazar. Your father did say. I am pleased to meet you, Princess, but not pleased to have to repeat myself. Eat.”
Azriyqam found she was hungry, but… “Won’t you join me?”
“I have eaten.”
“But this is far too much for me!”
“It is not,” The older halfdragon approached and she yelped as he gripped her wingtip in two fingers and raised it. “Much pain?” he asked.
“Some,” she winced.
“I shouldn’t wonder if you’ve a badly healed hairline fracture here. What did you hit with it?”
“Haraad’s throat,” she muttered, withdrawing her wing. During their escape from Ekkaia. She shuddered, remembering the crunch and give of cartilage.
“A man’s throat? You’re lucky you can fly at all. These are for flying, lady,” Elazar said, raising his own wingtip. “Nothing else. You’ve been raised by humans and fed by humans, but you can’t be a halfdragon and live like humans. Eat.”
Azriyqam ate, and her tutor held forth.
“To fly, halfdragons must not only eat more than humans, they must eat differently. Our wingspars are not just hollow, but reinforced with magnesium. Your meal is rich in this metal.”
“Metal?” Azriyqam sniffed one of the meat-stuffed dates. The flesh was rich to the point of bitterness, contrasting the sweetness of the date.
Elazar snorted. “Even humans need iron; you need more. Hence the liver. Never tasted the metal in blood? You will before I’m done with you. Fighting with your wingtips indeed, gods help us.”
“I was escaping prison; what should I have fought with?” Azriyqam snapped.
“To be sure. Your brother told me. It showed courage. A desperate courage I will teach you to avoid the need for. Ideally, we fight with these.” He drew from his harness a blade and handed it to her.
The hilt was light and strangely twisted, but it wrapped around Azriyqam’s thumb and forefinger like a glove. The blade was thinner than her finger. It went effortlessly where she pointed it. “Airswords. I will teach you to fly and fight. Now that your eating lesson is over.”
Azriyqam looked down at the plate, astonished to find it empty.
“Come,” said her tutor. Wordlessly, she followed him from the room to begin her lessons.
It was dusk on the fifth day of her training, and she was still hungry when they climbed the stairs back to her chambers. “When we can return here through that balcony, starting from the Spinward Court,” said Elazar, “I’ll have nothing left to teach you.”
Azriyqam shook her head. For hours each day he had exercised, not just her wings, but every part of her. He had shown her the beginnings of airsword technique. As tired as she was, her wings no longer hurt, as they had after the first day, but vibrated with life.
She gazed out the balcony. “You’re ready to fly again, aren’t you?” She nodded. “Just so. If I hadn’t intended that, I’d have had a heavier dinner prepared. But you’ll wear appropriate gear. It’s waiting.” He pointed at her bed.
A harness lay there, and Elazar excused himself while she changed. It was tough, but light, covering only her breasts and hips with soft leather. There were points along it for hanging tools, but only bronze knobs hung from them.
“What are these?” she asked, joining him on the balcony.
“Weights,” he said. “A halfdragon should be able to fly while carrying things, and you might as well get used to it. We’ll fly as level as we can, to the bay and back. Ideally, we’ll land right back here, before the spike dims too much.”
He ran and leapt off the balcony. Azriyqam followed. Despite her best effort, she ended up thirty feet below her mentor. He dropped to meet her, and slid leftward; she followed.
Stormbirth unrolled below them. Azriyqam could see the Bowl theater to her right, but Elazar angled toward the heights of the Dragon City.
Here the architecture was massive, laid out in enormous blocks of stone, and Azriyqam was abruptly conscious that they shared the sky. She saw other halfdragons out for an evening’s flight. But more than that, she saw the dragons themselves, plunging through the sky like Century Ships of the air.
“The hexagonal tower is the Dragon Queen’s Residence,” Elazar called. “And the open square to darkward is the Great Forum.” Azriyqam looked down, and her breath caught.
Just to the left of the Forum, a small tower with a flat roof revealed a lone human figure, facing the sea, and the colors of dusk shone like fire along its brass frame.
Azriyqam dived. Behind her she heard Elazar shouting, but she had to see. She braked against the speed of her dive. The pale figure stood motionless, as if in a trance, lenses pointing skyward, arms outstretched. It was the girl from last night. She was alone. Folding her wings, Azriyqam landed.
This close, she could see the girl’s limbs twitching with tension—no: pain. Yet she did not move, despite Azriyqam arrival right in front of her. She stood as if locked in place.
“Who’s there?” The words came as if ripped from her.
Azriyqam approached, slowly. This close, she could see the whole of her erstwhile follower. With horror, Azriyqam saw that the brass skeleton that started from her spine and neck was a part of her. The long bones of brass sprouted from it and ran down her limbs, piercing her flesh at the joints until they terminated in rings around every finger and toe. A thin cable connected the back of her head to a hole in the roof.
“It’s me,” said Azriyqam quickly. Elazar would surely come after her, doubtless displeased, but she had to speak to this girl. “Why were you following me?”
The girl’s breath came faster, but she still did not move. “Are you here to kill me?”
“Kill you?” repeated Azriyqam, shocked into incoherence.
The girl swallowed. “You have found me. Promise to kill me,” she said, “And I’ll tell you everything.”
Azriyqam gaped. “I just want to know who you are. Look at me, at least.”
“I cannot see you,” said the girl. “And I cannot move. They have turned off my limbs and my eyes. It’s my punishment; to stand here without food or water or rest or sight.” The words were a dull rasp.
Azriyqam’s skin crawled. Even her prison had not been so bad as this. “For how long?”
“Who knows?” the girl cried, in a voice bereft of hope.
Azriyqam reached a decision. “How do I free you?” She looked at the bewildering skeleton of brass that connected the girl’s limbs to her spine.
“I wouldn’t leave an animal caged like this. How do you… work?” she demanded, helplessly.
“You can’t free me,” said the girl. “Can’t you see? The frame is part of me, and I can never be free of it. They’re using my eyes to watch you even now, I promise. If you want to help, kill me and end this!”
As if to punctuate her words, shouts rang from below. Azriyqam ran to the edge of the roof. At the bottom of stone stairs that ran up the tower’s face, two guards stared up at her.
Reflexively, Azriyqam ripped two of the weights from her harness and drop them fifty feet down onto the guards’ heads. Both men staggered and fell heavily. Azriyqam rushed back to the girl. If they were using her eyes…
Azriyqam pulled the cable from the girl’s head. She gasped. “I can see!”
“Now what?” Azriyqam snapped.
“There’s… there’s some kind of control. On my back. I’ve never seen it.”
Azriyqam looked frantically. Her back was a mess of scar tissue and implants. She found what looked like a switch. It moved under her fingers, and the girl collapsed to the roof, tiny motors whirring. Then she staggered up. Dark lenses looked into Azriyqam’s eyes.
Of course, this left them trapped on the roof on a wide courtyard. The guards were moaning. Well, she had escaped from her cage with Zhad… “Can you ride on my back?” she asked.
The girl snorted. “I weigh three hundred pounds; we’d both die.”
“I’m not leaving you here. I’ve seen you run. Can you escape this place?”
“I have to! But where will I go?”
“The Kreyntorm. Tell them you’re my guest. The…” she’d never said the words. “The Princess Azriyqam. What’s your name?”
Azriyqam launched herself off the roof in a flat glide. Below her, Threlya climbed down the side of the tower, her mechanical joints blurring as she broke into a run. Suddenly, a diving bronze shape cut in front of her.
“Ground. Now!” Elazar snapped.
Azriyqam had forgotten her tutor. Now she obeyed, setting down in the next street.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” the old halfdragon demanded. “That was the Consortium’s embassy you violated!”
Azriyqam’s voice failed her. The Consortium? The Kingdom’s former enemy and dangerous ally? Asnai’s Consortium? Azriyqam swayed.
“Back to the Kreyntorm,” Elazar growled. “Now.”
“When I was ten, I began to grow weaker,” Threlya said, sitting in Azriyqam’s chamber. “By the time I was twelve, I could barely crawl. The doctors called it dystrophy, and said I would waste away, and die.”
Elazar and Asnai sat with them. While waiting for Threlya, Azriyqam had explained what had happened last night. Threlya had arrived while she was finishing.
“The Consortium said they would save my life. And they did.” She raised her hand, joints whirring. “By turning me into this. The warframe lets me move, makes me faster and stronger than any human.” She sighed, looking very tired. “But it hurts. And I belong to them.”
“Slavery is illegal under Consortium law,” said Asnai, his face darkening with rage.
“Collecting debts isn’t,” the girl said. “I have to work off the cost of the warframe.”
“How much is that?” asked Asnai.
“Millions,” whispered the girl. “I am very expensive. But not valuable. As you saw.”
“And what about your eyes?” said Azriyqam, chilled with mounting fury.
“They took them,” the girl said simply. “Now, they can record anything they want from my vision, whenever I return. I was ordered to follow and observe you when you went out.”
“Aren’t you a little conspicuous?” aske Elazar.
“I watched her three nights. She never saw me. The fruit-seller pointed me out.”
Azriyqam’s blood chilled. “But why would the Consortium want to watch me?”
Dark lenses met her eyes. “You have returned from the dead. The Ambassador knows that the King loves you. You might be used as a lever on an ally the Consortium deeply wishes to bring more firmly under its control.”
Asnai flushed. “Bastard!”
Elazar shook his head. “Bitch. I knew the Ambassdor Celaeno was determined to press the Consortium’s authority in this kingdom. I did not know she would go to such lengths. But then, your return, Princess, was strange enough that it must have tempted her to use you.”
“She will not use me,” said Azriyqam.
“On the contrary,” said Elazar. “She already has.”
A knock sounded at the door. The herald entered at Elazar’s bidding. “The Crown and Throne require the presence of all here in the Royal Hall.” Azriyqam’s eyes widened, but Elazar’s only hardened. “That will be Celaeno,” the old halfdragon said. “Say little.”
Silence awaited them in the Royal Hall. Its immense dome enclosed them like an arena. Hanging from it were trophies, plundered from a thousand ships when Crown and Throne had ruled the Free Navies, before the Kingdom’s sea power had been subordinated to the Consortium.
The dark red coils of Throne Elyoan of the Halskette wound around the Great Dais, her wings stirring the air. On her shoulders sat Crown Da’vid. His face was stern. Azriyqam forced herself to look away from the twin monarchs and study the tall woman before them. Ambassador Celaeno.
Nearly as tall as Azriyqam herself, she was an athletic woman with hair in a long, braided queue. She wore the uniform of the Consortium Navy, minus rank insignia, a reminder of where her power lay.
On seeing Threlya, her eyes blazed.
“Ah, I thank Your Majesties for the prompt return of my property,” she said, her smooth contralto echoing in the Hall. “Such cooperation can only strengthen the ties between the Consortium and its peoples. Your Highness,” she spoke to Azriyqam. “I presume you will make an appointment before again gracing our embassy with your presence.”
“You Presume A Great Deal, Celaeno,” rumbled Throne Elyoan. “The Crown’s Daughter Has Made No Admission Of Any Visit To Your Residence. We Have Only Your Word.”
“Very well; let us hear her.” Celaeno smiled. “Your Highness. Did you trespass on the roof of the Consortium embassy this evening, attack the guards, and steal away Threlya, my servant?”
Azriyqam looked up at her father. The Crown’s face was white and expressionless.
A princess speaks truth and accepts the consequences of her actions. Those had been his words. She might as well find out whether he meant them.
“I did land on your roof, because I saw your slave, whom you’d set to follow me. I did not know it was yours. I hit your guards because I thought them criminals. And I freed your slave from her torment, though she surely left on her own.”
The Crown’s face was thunderous, but silent. Celano spoke:
“It is well you have spoken truth, Highness, for we have the evidence on film. A lie would ill suit one of your Line. Now we have but to discuss the amends due the Consortium for your crime, and this unpleasantness will be behind us.”
“Hold!” cried the Crown. “And what of your setting a spy upon my daughter in my own city?”
Celaeno smiled. “Majesty, your daughter is overwrought. Doubtless her long captivity among Century Ship barbarians has unhinged her. I gave no such command. She saw my servant and imagined she was followed.”
“I do not!” cried Azriyqam.
“Well,” said the Ambassador. “Have you proof?”
“I have your slave! Threlya told me the story!”
“Threlya is no slave, but an indebted servant. One who might tell any lie to avoid paying her just debt to the Consortium. Her testimony cannot be valid against a free Consortium citizen.”
Azriyqam’s temper snapped. “I see. I’m to be mad, and she’s but a slave. I’d rather be either than a lying slaver like you!” Behind her, Elazar groaned, but the Ambassador grinned like a shark.
“A liar? I see. Then I challenge you, Princess Azriyqam.”
“Challenge?” She couldn’t mean…
“The choice of weapons is yours. Second thoughts? A pity. Cowardice befits one of your blood even less than falsehood.”
Suddenly, Elazar was in front of her. “I am her second. The Princess Azriyqam chooses airswords, of course.”
Celaeno nodded. “Of course. Please speak with my Vice-Consul to arrange matters. Your Majesties,” she bowed. Crown Da’vid looked ashen and ready to explode. “The amends are quite satisfactory. By your leave.”
Azriyqam stood frozen as she walked out.
At midnight, Azriyqam heard a soft knock at her door. Elazar and Asnai entered. “I told you she’d be awake,” her brother said.
Elazar nodded and stood before her. “The duel takes place in a week. I insisted you have that much time to recover. You’ll have some time to train.”
Azriyqam looked at Asnai. “Is the Cr… is Father very angry?”
“Furious,” Asnai said. “It was all the Throne could do to keep him from declaring war on the Consortium tonight.”
“I told you to say little,” said Elazar.
“But I couldn’t just let her…”
“What, lie?” barked Elazar. “That’s her profession. Slander you? How would you have been hurt? Your honor and courage may do you credit, but you let the Ambassador use them to hurt your father and bring us to the brink of war with the Consortium. A war we cannot win.”
Azriyqam looked to her brother for denial, but Asnai shook his head.
“You have a responsibility,” said Elazar. “To your Line and your Kingdom.”
Responsibility. She had always thought that being a responsibility was imprisoning. It never occurred to her that having one could be just as confining.
“What shall I do?” she whispered.
“You cannot refuse this duel. Celaeno would insist on your disgrace; it would be just as useful to her as your death. You could never wield power, and would always be a source of public shame to the Crown. You must win.”
He drew his airblades and handed them to her. The metal was cold under her fingers. “Please accept these,” he said. “As my gift.”
“Are they likely to do her any good?” Asnai’s voice was bitter. “Celaeno is an accomplished swordswoman. She’s killed before.”
“Yes, it’s a pity your sister can’t simply drop darts on her head, the way she managed those guards with the brass training knobs. She has natural talent. How did you learn that, raised among humans?”
Azriyqam flushed dark blue. “I… was kept at the top of the Century Ship’s mainmast,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot to do. So I sometimes tried to hit people with my food. And other things. I got good at it.”
“A Century Ship’s mainmast is three hundred feet high!” said Elazar, eyes widening. “No wonder that was easy for you. Unfortunately, it’s useless. You’ll be fighting indoors, and you’ve already chosen your weapons.” He sighed. “The most experienced duelist can be overconfident. And she is as confident as I’ve seen. Tomorrow we must find a way to rattle her.”
Worse than me? thought Azriyqam.
Morning was a long time coming.
But the week flew by.
Azriyqam walked toward the Royal Hall, airswords wrapped around her fingers, pointing at the ground, wings folded up. She no longer wore the training harness. Elazar had seen to her outfitting. Instead of brass weights, her new dueling vest had scabbards for two knives. These were not weapons, but tools: the short, thick trophy knife, and the spike of the misericord, the mercy-knife to be plunged into the heart or brain of a mortally-wounded foe. She tried not to think about whether Celaeno would be wearing similar tools to be used on her. The crest of her father’s house, the crowned head of a dragon, was embroidered across her breasts in gold thread.
She had not been able to face her father. Nor he, apparently, her.
She was going to die. She knew it, as absolutely as she held the airswords. Elazar had taught her much, but the ease with which he disarmed her showed her lack of skill clearly. In truth she had learned more of flight these seven days, and that had kept her sane.
At the doors, the Crown, her father, waited.
He looked into her eyes, and the pain and disappointment there stabbed her to the bone.
He took her fingers in a strong grip, hands enveloping hers around her sword hilts. “I love you, Azriyqam,” he said, voice a whisper. “Even in your foolishness… You have risked your life for the powerless, and that does honor to our Line. I am proud of you. And so would your mother be. Never doubt it.”
Azriyqam returned his grip. “Save Threlya,” she choked.
He nodded. “She will have refuge. Now conquer, daughter.”
And he was gone, striding before her toward the Throne. He passed by Celaeno without a word. Azriyqam felt her spine straighten. Felt a bit more like a Crown’s daughter.
The Ambassador waited in the black dueling ring, blades at her waist. She wore a dueling jacket, with a scarf wound around her shoulders and left arm. Azriyqam stopped twenty feet away.
The Master of Ceremonies, another halfdragon, stepped between them. He held out a cloth. “To yield the ring is to yield honor. When the cloth falls, begin.” Azriyqam watched, not the cloth, but her opponent. The half dragon let it fall, and stepped back.
Azriyqam lunged as Celaeno drew. A halfdragon’s reach is his best weapon against Humans. Elazar had said. Azriyqam grinned as the Ambassador danced back, parrying her blows. The crystal ringing of swords filled the hall. Now they circled each other.
Celaeno was trained in the saber. It’s a heavier blade, so she’ll fight mostly with her right hand. But don’t forget about the other sword. She’ll surprise you with it. And indeed, Celaeno presented her right side to her foe, her left blade arched over her head.
Then she attacked.
The whip-thin blades sliced the air, too fast to see. Azriyqam parried frantically, backing. She blocked three strikes from Celaeno’s right-hand blade before the left speared the membrane of her right wing.
Hissing in pain, Azriyqam disengaged. Blood dripped down her wing-spar.
Do not let her control the duel.
Azriyqam attacked, striking with both blades, using her reach. Celaeno blocked her left-hand strike and whipped the end of her scarf around Azriyqam’s right-hand blade. She had just time to realize that the scarf was weighted before the thick cloth tightened, and the airsword was wrenched from her hand to clatter away outside the dueling ring.
Desperate, Azriyqam flicked her right wingtip out at Celaeno’s eyes. Her foe’s left airsword twitched and Azriyqam felt the pain of a deep cut along her wing-spar. Gritting her teeth, she lunged with her remaining blade. Thought-quick, Celaeno met her thrust with both swords together and twisted.
Azriyqam’s airsword broke, leaving her staring at six inches of blade. Celaeno grinned.
In three steps she leaped into the air and beat the air, each second expecting to feel a sword through her back. She snapped into a hard turn and climbed, ignoring the pain from her pierced and bleeding wing. Climbed for the first time in her life.
“The Princess has left the field,” she heard Celaeno cry. “Coward!”
“Hold!” Elazar roared, below her. “She remains within the ring!”
“She’s twenty feet up!” shouted the Ambassador.
“The Ring has no upper boundary!”
“Should I grow wings, to fight with her?” Celaeno spat.
“Should she grow solid bones, to fight with you?” Elazar asked.
Azriyqam strained against the air. The week of training and proper diet had strengthened her, yet she faltered. Her new skills had failed. But perhaps her old life…
She beat at the air, knowing it was a forlorn hope. She crossed her arms to yank her knives free of their scabbards and fell, losing vital altitude. Snapping her wings out, she looked down. Twenty feet below her, Celaeno looked upward with her lips curled in a sneer.
Azriyqam had never dropped anything while flying. She’d never had the chance. And these knives weren’t meant for throwing.
They were all she had. She slowed as much as she dared and released.
Celaeno twisted out of the way of her trophy knife. It clattered on the stone floor. The misericord struck her in the arm. Azriyqam’s heart leaped up with the shout that rose from the spectators.
Then Celaeno removed the blade from where it had stuck in her sleeve. It was clean of blood. From such a small height, the light weapon hadn’t even penetrated the thick cloth Celano wore. The ambassador held it up, dropping the airsword in her left hand.
“Come down, Princess,” she called. “I promise it won’t hurt.”
Azriyqam beat the air with her wings to maintain flight, circling. They burned with pain. She could no longer climb.
She looked down at her father, seated on the Dragon Throne, and met his anxious eyes. The Throne’s head lifted, and Azriyqam met two much larger eyes.
The Throne of Halskette breathed fire.
The billow of flame passed directly under Azriyqam, lifting her on a thermal plume.
“What are you doing?” the Ambassador shrieked. “Treachery!”
“Applause,” corrected the Throne. “For An Honorable Combatant, You Whine Overmuch. My Flame Never Touched You.”
Azriyqam reached the top of the dome. All around her, the trophies of a hundred battles passed by quickly. A shield, a lamp, a sword… A mace. Folding her wings, she clutched it in all four fingers. An instant she hung there, her feet drawn up against the dome’s edge, bracing her against gravity. Her head snapped back and she saw Celaeno just beginning to look back up at her.
She heaved, and wrenched the mace free.
Twisting in the air, Responsibility dropped.
Her wings snapped out. She twisted, clutching the mace. Shrieking with pain, she let it fall on Celaeno’s upturned, astonished face.
Azriyqam’s feet hit the blood-spattered marble of the Royal Hall.
The Ambassador’s Vice-Consul stared white-faced at his chief’s shattered skull. “Treachery. That weapon… not agreed to…”
Elazar advanced on the Consortium officer. “Celaeno’s scarf wasn’t agreed to either. If there was treachery, she brought it herself. Say that word again, and you’ll answer my challenge.”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “Or get you gone.”
The Vice-Consul ran for the Hall doors.
Responsibility turned, staggering toward the Throne, who lowered her head. Crown Da’vid leapt off to meet her, but she raised an arm and met the Throne’s eyes.
“The Throne Supports The Crown,” the dragon rumbled. “And The Crown Ennobles The Throne. So Has Our Kingdom Ever Prospered. We Act As One In Times Of Need. You Are The Symbol Of That Union. Remember That, Foster-Daughter.”
Azriyqam embraced her father under the eyes of the dragon. “I will never forget it,” she said.