Saturday, November 28, 2020

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 7

Part 7
"Dealings With Dragons"

Many years ago, in the Marketplace of the Outer Realm...

“Knives for sale!”
“Liquor by the pint!”
“Get your choice of silks and furs from across the sea!”

Markus adjusted his hooded jacket and kept his eyes down. That was how you dealt with aggressive vendors in the markets of Outer Realm: eye contact indicated willingness to buy, to be solicited. If you looked at them, they were obligated to try their hardest to convince you to buy whatever it was they were selling, whether or not you actually needed or wanted it. Actually, if you didn’t want it, that only made it more of a challenge for them to overcome, more of a success if they managed to wear you down.

“Oi, you!” Said a gruff voice, to no one in particular. “Wanna buy an animal?”
Markus fought the urge to look around and see who would be foolish enough to respond; chances were good that he would be the one left to take the bait, himself.
He found a gap between two people to shove himself through, get away from these lowlifes—but then his path was blocked by a body at knee-height, blacker than a shadow. Markus didn’t feel the predator’s muzzle connect with his left knee, but the panther surely did. It growled in warning, and the crowd suddenly thinned out to about one fourth of its previous size. Markus took the opportunity to shove his metallic hand into the deep pocket of his jacket and slink away unhindered, undetected.

“Rawk! Rawk!”
Markus flinched and reeled away from the ungodly screech accompanied by the rustle of stiff feathers. His eyes came up for the first time since entering the market.

A girl stood before him, with a monstrous crow clinging to her shoulder, half again as big as her own head.
“And when I find this key, what can I do with it?” she was asking someone obscured from his view. “What does it unlock?”
The crow turned and looked straight at Markus, and he ducked around the nearest corner. The outskirts of the Market was not a place to be noticed by anyone else. Unless you knew them and trusted them already, chances were good that any stranger might turn out to be your enemy. Markus leaned against the wall, his mechanical fingers pressing against the brick beside him.

Another sound overlapped the conversation he hid from, coming from somewhere behind him. Markus turned and peered through the rolling fog, desperately wishing that he had his cousin's Gift of Sight with which she could see clearly through just about anything, even solid stone. As it was, he needed to creep closer to see what could be making that mournful, growling noise.
Markus measured his steps, knowing full well that if it was some kind of predator, he could be exposing himself to an attack. The cry rang out again, but Markus heard notes of agony, rather than aggression.
He stepped close enough that surely the creature should be right in front of him--then, quite unexpectedly, a pile of rubble swept up against the wall just a few yards in front of him shifted and moved.

Markus had to gawk. A dragon lay buried under the remains of a wall it had very evidently crashed into, judging by the jagged edge just above it, and the fact that some of the stones pinning the dragon down were the same size and shape as the bricks used in the wall itself. It groaned, shifting its weight back and forth in an attempt to free itself from the rubble--but to no avail. Markus noted a particularly large stone resting on the thin membrane of its wing. He took a step closer, the gravel crunching underfoot.
Immediately, two golden eyes fixed on him, and he felt the puff of hot breath as the dragon became aware of his presence. Markus drew his hands out of his pockets, and pushed the hood off his head, to show the animal that he meant no harm, and posed no threat.

The dragon took its own time in evaluating the status of this intruder, spitting a small fireball just over his head. Markus stopped in his tracks, and then began moving closer. By the time he was within arm's reach of the dragon, it had not attacked him, merely watched him with a curious glint in its eye.

Markus reached out to grasp the stone pinning the dragon's wing, taking care to balance the whole of the weight on his mechanical hand, and use his flesh hand and natural muscles merely for gripping. It took a single heave of the pistons and gears to heft the rock off to the side, and from there, Markus could extend his prosthetic arm to sweep away the rubble from around the dragon. Once both wings were free, the dragon staggered up to a standing position on all fours, prompting Markus to back out of its way. He watched the creature spread its wings, test the joints, and groan when it noticed the tattered edge that had been torn by the debris. Its back and haunches, too, bore a few scars, but none of them too recent. It looked at Markus, blinking and bringing its head close to sniff at him.

Markus dared to reach out and lay his mechanical hand on the dragon's shoulder, just at elbow-level to him. "Easy, there," he said. "I can help with your injuries, if you let me." He gestured to the wing, letting the dragon make the first move. "May I?"

The red-scaled dragon responded by folding its wing down in front of Markus. He spread his prosthetic hand over the injured area, using the implants in his brain to activate the dispersion of aerosolized tissue-repair gel--a feature that the surgeons who designed his prosthetics had included, should Markus ever find himself on a battlefield somewhere and in need of a medic. He never did, of course--but now he found a use for it, spreading the ointment over the swath of wing. He moved on to the other injuries as well, and by the time he finished, the wing looked as good as new.

"Okay, boy," Markus prompted as he stepped away. "Try that on for size!"

The dragon held out its wing, running its nose along the edge, as if searching for a remnant of the pain it had felt from the injury. Finding none, it jumped onto the top of the wall in a single bound, where it clung to the rock and found room to spread its wings and flap them a few times.

Markus felt the rush of relief and excitement the dragon's movements as he watched it hop back down to the ground. It stood almost the height of a horse, though the long neck gave it a much higher vantage point. It bent its pointed head down to his eye-level, and nudged his shoulder in thanks.

Markus chuckled and rubbed his hand along the sinuous neck. "You're a fine fellow. Whereabouts did you come from, eh? And how did you get here, anyway?"
The sensors in his implants tripped, and the voice in his head told Markus that someone was approaching behind him just before he heard a gruff voice shout, "Hey you! Step away from my dragon!"

The dragon let out a soft growl, and Markus saw the ridges along its spine raise in heightened alarm. It didn't strike him as the way a tame animal usually greeted its master--But then again, this is not your average tame animal! He reasoned. Markus turned to address the three heavily-armed men converging on him from opposite ends of the crossroads, stepping away from the dragon as he did so.
The creature responded by slithering up behind him, pressing its body against his back and curling its neck protectively over his shoulder. Markus made no move to touch it.

The foremost man--the same one Markus had seen hawking exotic creatures in the market--now wielded a thick metal club, and he gestured toward Markus with it. "Is you deaf?" he said. "I said step away. That there dragon belongs to me!"
Markus scanned the faces around him. "Your dragon?" he remarked. "That's amazing! Where did you happen to find such a rare beast?"

The thug on his left held a thick chain in his hands. "Shaddup, thief!" he said, making a lunge for the dragon's exposed neck. Markus sidestepped his movement, and the dragon swung its head around with a defensive roar, blasting a jet of flame toward the man with the chain.
"Get back!" Roared the trafficker, as his associate howled in pain at the burns.

Markus could feel his mechanical limbs already adjusting as his brain sized up the number of potential threats and the best way to subdue each one. He wagged his head and clicked his tongue. "My, my! That doesn't seem to be the reaction of an animal who's happy to see its master."

The head trafficker glared at the strange young man. "What's it to you? I catch you trying to steal my property, and you try to tell me that it ain't mine? Think again!" Markus registered the club heading right for the side of his head, and he raised his metal arm, still covered by the sleeve of his jacket.

Clang! The club glanced off the metal with enough force to send a jolt through the man's arm. When he picked up his fallen weapon, he stared askance at the deep dent in its surface. Three pairs of wide eyes fixed on the average-looking man who had just managed to bend steel.
"What are you?" gasped the henchman on the right.

Markus flipped up his hood, activating the defense patterns in his mechanical limbs, and braced himself for a fight. "Your worst nightmare," he answered, launching himself at the nearest thug.
The traffickers had swords and clubs, and even a set of chains with which to restrain the dragon, but Markus had his own arsenal built into the shape of his own body, in addition to the small pistol he carried. A flick of his mechanical fingers could alter their shape and size, turning each digit into a deadly blade or a small ballistic weapon, while valves in his shoulder and side opened to release clouds of smoke or noxious gas for cover. The dragon made very clear its own stance on captivity, fighting with tooth, claw, fire, and tail to avoid recapture.
They'd mortally wounded one of the henchmen, and sent the other two scurrying away when Markus finally declared, "I think they've learned their lesson."

The dragon gave a happy squawk, and bent its head down to nudge Markus in the shoulder again.
He chuckled and ran his hand over the smooth scales. "That's a good boy--"

With a short growl, the dragon pushed a little harder against him, sending Markus tumbling backwards into the dirt.

He coughed, working his way back to his feet again. "What was that for?" he asked. "I did save you, you ungrateful--" He stopped as an idea occurred in his mind.

The dragon remained sitting peacefully in front of him, staring with those golden eyes. Markus let his implanted sensors reap their data.
IDENTIFICATION: Dragon, Female, the voice declared.

Markus couldn't help himself. He burst into hysterical laughter. "You..." He spluttered. "You're a girl dragon!"

The rumbling growl was more like a feline purr as the she-dragon settled on the ground in front of him. Her neck was about as long as he was tall, and so even with her body resting on the ground, she could look Markus in the eye. He reached out slowly, stroking the scales on her neck. "Nice to meet you, milady," he said.

She growled gently and prodded him in the shoulder. He watched as she brought her head around to touch against her own flank. Underneath her warm breath, a few of the scales changed color, leaving a mosaic-like design of pale scales amid the bright-red ones: a large seven-pointed star, with five smaller dots arranged in a semicircle over it.

Markus stared at the design, then at the dragon who had essentially scarred her own body with it. "How did you--" he coughed and looked down. Sure enough, his jacket had slipped away, revealing the very same mark on the prosthetic plating just under his shoulder. Her head came to rest on his shoulder, and on impulse he wrapped his arms around her neck. "I guess you're really mine now," he sighed. "That's the Firron family emblem you've somehow transferred to your own skin."

The dragon pulled her head back and rested it on top of his, sighing a puff of warm air down the back of his neck.

Markus released the hug and stepped back, scratching an itch on the top of his head. "What should I call you then, Dragon-of-Mine?" he mused.
She blinked, watching him patiently without making a sound.
Markus shrugged. "Whenever I would imagine having a dragon companion of my own, I always called it Hadrian... But that's a man's--" He stopped as the dragon seemed overly interested in what he was saying. He tried it out again. "Hadrian?"

The dragon warbled deep in her throat, and the large head bobbed up and down. Markus patted her on the side. "Well, I suppose that's as good a name as any. Come on, Hadrian! Let's go see if we can't find a real job for the two of us!"

Man and dragon walked out of the city together.

Present day....

Three years, and her cheeks still burned at the sound of laughter.

It didn't even matter if the laughter happened to have nothing whatsoever to do with her at all. She had inadvertently developed the ability to identify everyone living in the castle by the way they laughed, and it was quite possibly the worst form of self-inflicted torture she could have ever invented.
Exactly as predicted, she heard the tinkling sound of the charms on Anahita's anklet, the peculiar shuffle of Damaris' calloused feet. The boy was growing into a young man, nearly the same age Jaran was when Beren returned to The Realm, but he still somehow managed to "lose" every pair of shoes and slippers she and Azelie tried to give him.
He deserves to be taught a lesson, the voice inside her seethed. Ungrateful street rat...

Zayra set her jaw and forced herself to focus on the way the edges of the chair felt under her fingers, the exact position of her feet and each of her toes within her gilded shoes.
The laughter rang out again, and she saw the end of a thick, dark braid whip around the corner.
Lazy self-serving wench, went the voice again. She has all this power and everybody's so impressed with her... but what can be done? She needs to be put in her place.

"No!" Zayra burst out of her chair, pacing the floor and shouting at the voices resounding through her head. "Stop it! Shut up! Go away!"

The voice persisted, its words overlapping with complaint after complaint. They're up to something... Sneaking around behind your back... They're scared of you... Give them something to be really frightened of! They don't care if anything good happens to you... No one wants to be kind... Tomorrow's just another day to them...
"Oh, there you are, I was wondering if you wanted--Dearest, what's wrong?"

Zayra inhaled a sharp breath and blinked away the tears beading in her eyes before they could join the ones already dripping down her cheeks. She turned to face her husband. Prince Beren didn't hesitate to wrap his arms around her. She felt her Gift surge forward, drawing the water out of his skin like a sponge absorbing water... And rather than pulling away, he always yielded willingly, allowing Zayra to choose her own stopping point. Jaran might have been worried at first that by doing so, Beren was enabling Zayra to drain him of all his energy--but in fact, his selflessness only strengthened her ability to exert control over her own Gift, to suppress the urge and to maintain contact without draining the other person at all.

Of course, that only happened when she wasn't so vulnerable, like she was now.
"The voices," she murmured hoarsely into his shoulder. "They just won't stop." And it sounds exactly like Troy in my head, she thought the admission she'd never speak aloud. To even think or say his name felt like bringing him back to life, inviting his influence back into the mortal plane--something she never wanted to inflict on the Realm ever again.

Beren rubbed her shoulders. "Just listen to my voice, telling you how amazing and strong and wonderful you are," he said softly, his breath tickling her ear.

"It's just... I can't help feeling that I'm missing something!" Zayra admitted. She looked up at him, admiring the thick, full beard that he'd managed to grow. You're missing something too, and it's standing right under your nose!

"Missing something?" Beren slid his hands down her arms and took her delicate fingers in his. "What could you possibly be missing? You're one of the most well-informed people in this whole castle, next to Queen Azelie--and she only knows twice as much as everyone else because she's telepathic." He kissed her forehead.

Zayra frowned and tried to forget the insinuation that he sounded patronizing. "There have been lots of wagons coming here from Wildhaven--they come in the gates with plenty of things in their wagons, and leave more or less empty--but what are they delivering? Do you know anything about that?"
Beren raised his eyebrows in thought and shrugged. "Maybe they've got presents for Azelie, seeing as it's the anniversary of her and Jaran's coronation soon. Why would that make you suspicious?"

Zayra huffed and pulled away from him. "You make it sound like I'm being petty, Dearest!"

"But something is still bothering you," Beren lunged after her. "And I still want to know what it is. I don't know why you're not telling me--"

"Oh, just leave me alone!" Zayra snapped. Who cared about birthdays, anyway? Everyone else in the castle seemed to know each other's birthdays. Beren had even bothered to learn when Jaran's birthday was so he could make up for all those years he was absent and unable to celebrate with his brother--would it kill him to treat his wife with the same attention?

She stepped out in the hallway, and saw Anahita heading down the hallway with a distracted expression on her face. Her steps wavered, and she looked up, saw Zayra, and her eyes bulged. She abandoned her current course in favor of retracing her steps to avoid walking past Zayra altogether.

Tomorrow's just another day to them... The thought returned, and this time, Zayra didn't silence it.

Bright green eyes watched as a trio of crows swooped down to peck at the bugs crawling through the grass. The redheaded gardener placed a hand on the ground, and she could feel the patter of so many insect legs upon the grass blades, feel the scrape of the crows' talons as they dug and feasted.
"Not on my watch!" she muttered, and reached out to the roots of a nearby rosebush.
Obliging green tubers twisted and snaked up toward the birds, driving them away in a chorus of angry squawks.

"So it's birds now, is it?" asked a cutting voice behind her.

Javira smirked as she turned to face her brother. "Not just any birds," she said. "Crows--that's the third murder I've seen in the last two days."

Kaidan snorted. "Ah, doesn't this remind you of the good old days, when we were a couple of brainwashed, vicious little power-mongers?"

Javira eyed the shadowy forms circling and squawking overhead--but as long as they didn't land, then they weren't her problem. "What? Sitting around talking about crows?"
Kaidan shook his head. "Not the crows," he answered. "I was referring to the murder bit."

Javira leveled him with an unamused glare. "That's what a collective of crows is called."
He shrugged. "I never tried to insinuate otherwise."
Javira huffed. "Listen, I have hedges to trim and arbors to decorate before tomorrow, so why don't you just tell me why you bothered to come all the way out here, or just leave!"

Kaidan released a long sigh, feeling the lingering sensation of untapped memories tingle on his fingertips. "Risyn's hiding something."

Javira rolled her eyes and gently rolled the rosebush roots back into their proper channels, closing over the furrows in the grass to erase all evidence of the altercation. "Tell me something I didn't already suspect." The intuition they still shared hummed between them. She glanced at her twin brother sharply. "But there's something you're not telling me--something to do with Aurelle."

Kaidan ran a hand through his loose, thick hair. In three years it had straightened considerably from his boyish, curly locks, but it still held much of its shape. "She had a vision or something, in her illusions. Something about a couple ships--or one in particular--coming into the Harbor."

Javira ceased her work and came to sit next to her brother. "Now it gets interesting! Did it have anything to do with that secret cove you've been trying to study?"

Kaidan's eyes narrowed. "Javira, you've been snooping!"

She stiffened self-righteously. "Have not! It isn't my fault you might have left your notes out in the open once or twice." She waved a hand and hurried on to change the topic. "And anyway, the ships could have been some kind of metaphor, right?"

Kaidan stroked his goatee. It felt good to have something to run his fingers over while he thought. As a bouns, it made him look more like a man, and less like a fresh-faced boy. "Except I don't think they were. Risyn recognized one of them, I'm sure of it!"

A teasing smile quirked Javira's lips. "Didn't he arrive in The Realm on a ship just after the Abnormals withdrew?"

Kaidan scuffed a hole in the dirt with the toe of his boot. "That still wouldn't explain the strange mix of feelings that I detected from him when he saw the ships from Aurelle's illusions. And just because he might have thought of the ship that brought him here when she was showing those ships, it doesn't necessarily mean they are one and the same." He kicked a piece of gravel and watched it skip away over the packed dirt in front of him. "He started rambling, he refused to say anything less than vague, and he did everything he could to avoid contact with me," he said. "That Mage is definitely hiding something."

Javira leaned on her brother's shoulder, toying with the creeping ivy over the statue behind him. "Then why come to me about it, dear brother? It's not like I have a Gift that can draw the memories out of people. Maybe something happened to him on that voyage that he'd rather forget."

Kaidan coughed and twiddled his fingers. "Maybe it just feels good to be able to talk to someone else about it, someone who understands me better than anyone else in the palace, and someone who isn't going to go blabbing to anyone else about the matter." He patted her on the shoulder. "You're my only family, and I am glad I have another person to talk to about things that are bothering me."

Javira picked up his hand and laced her fingers through his. "I'm here for you, Kaidan."
"Thanks, Jav." He let her sit up before he stood and straightened his jacket, brushing bits of gravel off his trousers. "Well, I should get back to the library. I've got some leads concerning Jade's overlord Juros and Justicia, the realm of Abnormals, and in fact I might have discovered some instances where it was believed that--"

"Kaidan!" Javira cut him off, her eyes fixed on something over his shoulder.
Kaidan tilted his head. "What is it?"

Javira stood silent and unblinking for several moments. When her face relaxed, she focused again on Kaidan and smiled. "Nothing," she said, and he took his leave.

As soon as he was out of sight, Javira advanced closer to the strange shadow near the side of the castle. She could hear something rustling, a frenzy of activity that wasn't normal for such a location, the small nook in the foundation of the whole castle--and when she was close enough to touch it, she saw what it was: a massive hole in the masonry, large enough for a person to crawl through. She picked up a rhododendron root to probe the shadows, wanting to see how deep the hole extended without getting trapped or lost in there herself. She made it only a few feet before several pairs of dark, beady eyes appeared in the darkness.

Crawk! rasped the occupant, and the air in front of Javira's face filled with talons and beaks and bodies and wings. Crows! At least ten of them, all frantically trying to leave the space at once. There was no telling what sort of ungodly mess they had made down there, nor how they had actually managed to get inside and form their own roost. Javira focused on using the nearby rhododendrons to seal up the passageway. It would be just the sort of vulnerability the Royal Couple didn't need, on the eve of such an auspicious celebration! Javira returned to the hedges, satisfied that there would be no more crows on the premises if she had any say about it.

Dark eyes watched from the cover of the forest at the edge of the garden. The altercation with the crows had halted her investigation into the anomalies she had detected, and so they could be reasonably assured that their secret was safe for the present time. If they could continue to operate without anyone in the castle knowing until exactly the right moment, then all would be well. At least, as far as they were concerned.

Denahlia flicked aside the message streaming across her desk. Aurelle wanted to know "if (Denahlia) had seen any ships come in that didn't quite belong to The Realm." As if! Denahlia crossed the room to the tall window overlooking the wharf.

"The question isn't if," she mused dryly to herself, "but which one?" 
The Harbor saw traffic from dozens of merchant freights, most of them qualifying for Aurelle's criteria of "not belonging to the Realm." Denahlia thought about responding with a query asking for more information, some distinguishing features or something more substantial to go on than "Risyn believes that the arrival of the ship spells danger for The Realm, directed in particular at The King or his brother..." Yet another affirmation of some kind of threat brewing. She couldn't afford trying to pass things off to Edri and the palace garrison. This was something that required skills that only she could provide.

"Visitor, Ma'am!" Hayden called to her, and Denahlia turned to receive the tall, graceful woman who entered the office.

"Erlis!" She wiped away the consternation directed at Aurelle and nodded courteously to the professional Healer. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Erlis put on a smile, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. Denahlia took her hand in greeting, and the subcutaneous implants pulled readings which streamed directly to a hidden file in her desktop. Later, she would be able to read the reports and gauge Erlis' health, mood, and overall well-being.
Right now, she would have to rely on what the woman was willing to tell her.
"I was just down visiting Velora yesterday, and I thought I'd make the return trip through the Harbor, to see how you are doing."

Denahlia smirked and ran her pale fingers through her cropped hair. "I'm just fine, thank you very much." Did she know anything about the supposed assassination attempt?
Erlis balked, her eyes flicking from Denahlia to her softly-beeping desktop and back again. "I like what you've done with the place," she murmured.

The Harbor Watch tapped the side of her leg with her fingertips, entering the code that would send the readings from her wrist implants to the receiver embedded at the base of her brain, which encoded it like a thought. Elevated mental activity, she deduced. Increased levels of hormones detected. Since when was Erlis feeling her maternal instincts? "Thanks, I've tried to do my best to fulfill my duties as Harbor Watch."
The two stood in silence for a brief moment, and then Denahlia turned to review some files on her desktop.

Erlis stood, watching her tap out some responses and snap her fingers to switch to holographic display when she needed more information.
Denahlia caught her staring and swiped the windows aside. "What?"
Erlis tilted her head, peering closely. "You... look different."

The former Hunter smirked. "You like the haircut? I decided a while ago that I wanted to try something different."
the Healer's lips twitched. "Among other things..." she responded vaguely.

Denahlia decided that Markus' antics had all but depleted the reserves of her patience. "Well, you're one to talk, Point-Ears!"

The pensive frown turned quickly to a scowl as Erlis let her long locks of smooth dark hair fall over her pointed earlobes, hiding them from view. She stood and went for the door. "This was a bad idea... I forgot how unhelpful you were--"

"No, wait!" Denahlia raised her hand, and the office responded with an increase in the level of artificial light, and an activation of several digital displays. Erlis hesitated, staring around her in bewilderment. Not even Jaran had conceived of this level of technological integration.

Denahlia composed herself with a long, deep breath. "Why did you come here, Erlis? It wasn't just a casual visit to compliment my haircut and tell me how much I've changed. What do you really want?"

Erlis sighed, and moved back to stand in front of the window, away from the glowing, pulsing wall. "I came to ask you," she began slowly. "Have you noticed anything strange going on lately?"

Denahlia frowned; did she suspect Denahlia of hiding something? "You mean, other than catching Aurelle beating up a few anti-Gifted toughs? Apparently she'd made a thing of it over the last year, and nobody tried to stop her."

Erlis frowned and tilted her head. "Oh, when she first started slipping down to the Harbor, we just assumed... I mean, I thought that, as the official Harbor Watch, you already knew what she was doing."

Denahlia set her jaw. "No, she was taking matters into her own hands while I was--" Denahlia caught herself. Erlis was one of those who didn't know about her unplanned absence, and the fewer people in the White Castle who were aware that she had left the Harbor largely unattended for the better part of a year, the sooner she could put it behind her. "While I was busy with other things," she amended her sentence.
Erlis raised an eyebrow, and she pressed her lips. "Oh," she answered flatly. "No... I meant... Strange as in dragon sighting kind of strange."

Denahlia tensed when she mentioned the dragon. Did something in Erlis' dragonish nature make her aware of Hadrian's presence in The Realm? Was Markus in more trouble than he let on? "Oh, well--not exactly..."

Erlis furrowed her brow. Denahlia seethed, remembering the indications of increased hormones, particularly those associated with maternal instincts--were Erlis and Hadrian connected somehow? At any rate, she hoped Markus wouldn't be around for very long. Just long enough to ensure the assassination wouldn't happen, but no longer. She hadn't realized what trouble he could be, and she didn't need that extra level of pressure in her position.
"Denahlia," she leaned forward. "It's important. You need to let me know the moment anybody hears of a dragon in the area. We're expecting one to--"

Denahlia leaned forward as well. "To what?" she demanded. "Who's expecting a dragon? What aren't you telling me, Erlis?"

Erlis sat up straight, folding her hands, just like a certain political leader she met back in... That Place. She coughed in a way Denahlia recognized as a signal that said You won't be getting anything useful out of me. "Just be careful."
Denahlia snorted. If I had a gold piece for every time I've heard that in the last two days... "Tell you what, Milady," she retorted. "I'll do you one better. I've got a warning, myself, for our friends in the White Castle: someone recently hired a black-market assassin, naming the Castle as the target."

Real alarm showed on Erlis' face. "Assassin? What's your source?"
Denahlia didn't flinch. "Reputable and confidential," she answered. "Pass the information on to whomever you have to. They deserve to know, if only to be on the alert for anything out of the ordinary."

Erlis ran her fingers along the folds of her silky dress. "I think everyone would be safer if you came up."
Denahlia brought her hands close together, watching the flicker of electricity between her palms. "I've got my work cut out for me here," she said. "I'd only be out-of-place in the palace."

"Not if you were attending a party," Erlis responded smoothly. Upon receiving Denahlia's interested gaze, she explained, "We're throwing a surprise birthday party for Zayra--it'll be the first one she actually remembers." She laid a hand on the desktop, but none of the displays responded to her touch the way they responded to Denahlia's. "Like it or not, you're one of us, since you helped take down Troy all those years ago, so you do deserve to be there."

Denahlia was still trying to comprehend the fact that everyone at the palace had apparently been planning a party, but this was the first she was hearing of it. She glowered over the desk, weighing her options and assessing her best avenue of response. "I suppose I can make an appearance," she allowed. "But only for reasons of security."

Erlis shrugged. "Whatever makes you feel better," she said.

Hayden appeared at her door, a fresh sheaf of docking access forms in his hands. He waited conspicuously outside the door.
Erlis stood. "I'll look for you tomorrow," she said.
"Trust me," Denahlia grunted as she left, "if I show up at the White Castle, you'll be the first one to know." She waved Hayden in when Erlis left. "Yes? What is it?"

"New ship just arrived," he said. "Not quite a delivery, but the captain says he's arranged to do business with a few different merchant guilds here in the harbor. He says it'll take a few days and so he's asked for accommodations."

Denahlia accepted the file and laid it on her desktop, where a series of scanners converted the file into digital information, backed up and verified from a database she'd built over the past year. 
Captain Cornelius Haggard, Status: Pirate.

Interesting. She initiated a flag on the file, and updated the security sensors posted all around the Harbor. "I'm allowing him access to lodgings and the marketplace," she instructed her Harbormaster. "But let the Harbor Patrol know that I'd like to receive regular reports as to what this man and the members of his crew are doing, where they go, who they interact with, and the like."
Hayden offered her a salute. "Aye, ma'am."

Once she was alone, Denahlia walked again to her window and looked out over the Harbor. Haggard's ship, the Brigadier's Ransom, sat among the merchant vessels and private schooners in the wharf. She watched the flag fluttering above the masthead: a black crow on a green field. Rather unusual... but time would tell if these newcomers posed a threat or not.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Reader's Review: "Song" by Jesse Teller

Synopsis from Amazon:

Magic and Mayhem. Deception and Lore.

This gritty dark fantasy ushers you into a dangerous world of tarnished heroes and magic-slinging fugitives.

Some of the darkest minds in Perilisc attacked Mending Keep, releasing all its prisoners.

Despite his strained relationship with the crown, Rayph Ivoryfist calls old friends to his aid in a subversive attempt to protect King Nardoc and thwart terrorist plots to ruin the Festival of Blossoms. But someone else is targeting Rayph, and even his fellow Manhunters might not be enough to save him.

Dive into the stunning exploits of this bold and daring crew! 

My Review:

The foreword starts with "So, what if there was a fantasy equivalent of the Avengers?"
The moment I read that, I was sold. I'm a Marvel movie fan, and I am absolutely a fan of twisting up the fantasy genre into new and unexpected things (see: the whole series of The Clan of Outcasts) and thanks to Mark Lawrence, I'm slowly developing a tolerance for gritty, gory, disturbing, occasionally raunchy, grimdark fantasy--and this one is no exception.

Unlike Lawrence, Teller doesn't quite seem to have the gift for prose or intellectual observations in his narrative... but the world-building is absolutely solid, and I found plenty of characters I could root for as I read their exploits in the pages, while others could go take a long walk off a short cliff, if you get my meaning! I'll admit, the dual point of view was a little disorienting at first. The tale is told from the perspective of two characters: Rayph Ivoryfist, the legendary warrior who first launches the group of fighters known as Manhunters; and Konnon Crillian, a ruthless mercenary who teams up with his brother to hunt down a job that will get him the money he needs to help his ailing child. Basic enough, right?

Get ready for all the twists and turns. First, the build-up is such that the beginning tends to feel a little slow, punctuated with scenes here and there that actually get your attention, tug your heartstrings, or set your imagination buzzing. A few times, I found the plot dwelling on one character for a long time, when I really would have preferred knowing what happened to the other character, or the narrative spent a lot of time on one character, by the time it switched perspectives, I would have to take a moment to "reorient" myself and remember where that other character last left off! That being said, once the characters arrived in the titular city of Song, and you knew they were both in the same area, and interacting with some of the same side characters--that's when things started to get really interesting, and I found it easier to just keep reading, and much much harder to stop!

Song is a fantastic start to a series in a world that has plenty of scope for expansion and all manner of sidequests! I'm giving this a *****5 STAR***** rating because I really feel like it was executed very well, and I enjoyed it--not loved, per se, but it was a great time! I know exactly which characters I want to see more of, I'm not sure what other twists Teller might have in store for these characters, but I'm definitely looking forward to them all!

Further Reading: (Grimdark Fantasy/Epic World-building/Deep Intrigue/Intense Peril)
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 
        -They Must Be Stopped 
The Red Dog Conspiracy--Patricia Loofbourrow
       -The Alcatraz Coup 
       -Jacq of Spades 
       -Queen of Diamonds 
       -Ace of Clubs 
The Grave Reports--R. R. Virdi
        -Grave Beginnings 
        -Grave Measures 
        -Grave Tidings (novella) 
        -Grave Dealings
Stories of Togas, Daggers And Magic--Assaph Mehr
       -Murder in Absentia 
Tales of the Fallen--Katika Schneider